MOAB and the moral economy of bombing

In Reach from the Sky, my Tanner Lectures which I’m presently preparing for publication, I sketched what I called a ‘moral economy of bombing’:

It’s the last of these claims that concerns me here: bombing represented as ‘law-full’.  In the lectures I discussed the legal armature of aerial violence – referring to the combined bomber offensive against Germany in the Second World War Air Chief Marshall Arthur Harris famously insisted that ‘In this matter of the use of aircraft in war there is, it so happens, no international law at all’, a claim that was, I suppose, literally true in so far as it applied to the specific application of air power; I tried to show what has (and has not) changed since then, not least through the development of international humanitarian law and the juridification of later modern war – and the insistence that air power is an effective means of imposing a legal order on the nominally ‘lawless’ (a claim registered through colonial ‘air policing’ and continued in the US and Pakistan air strikes on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan: see ‘Dirty Dancing’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

In the ghastly light of the Trump administration’s decision last month to drop (for the first time in combat) what the US Air Force calls ‘the Mother Of All Bombs‘ (MOAB), the GBU-43/B,  on an IS ‘tunnel complex’ in eastern Afghanistan, Michael Weinman has written an excellent essay for Public Seminar on ‘Ordnance as ordinance‘ that elaborates the second part of my claim about bombing being ‘law-full’:

[B]oth the decision to name this weapon MOAB and the decision to deploy it in Afghanistan is tightly linked with what Judith Butler called a “new military convention” begun by Colin Powell when he described the deployment of “smart bombs” during the first Iraq War as “the delivery of ordnance.” In “Contingent Foundations,” Butler noted that Powell “figures an act of violence as an act of law” by substituting “ordnance” (munitions, agents of destructive violence) for “ordinance” (a law or decree). Powell’s speech act, apparently delivered in an unscripted moment during a press conference in January 1991, is an important instance of the “illocutionary force” of language that Butler explores throughout the work she did in the late 1990s and early 2000s — her most impressive and important work in my view. This aerial bombardment of Iraqi installations with technologically advanced munitions, viewable in real time on network and cable TV for the first time, was itself a phenomenon. But it was the declaration that such a display in itself was an act of law enforcement that truly brought us into a new era. An era in which, thanks to Powell and the Bush (41) administration, the alignment of violence and law against a regime that violates international law figures state violence, even where it might be in contradiction of international agreements, as the very agent of law and legitimation. Watching the media response to the recent deployment of MOAB in Afghanistan, it is clear we still haven’t learned Butler’s lesson.

The deeper resonance of reading this particular ordnance as a form of ordinance requires that we attend to a different resonance of its chosen acronym, MOAB. Not the “Mother of All Bombs” nomenclature, which bespeaks its terrifying awesomeness — in the literal sense of the term “awesome,” connoting utter sublimity. That is part of the story too, but it is not the heart of it. Rather, continuing Butler’s pursuit of the line of thought by which Saddam (Hussein) was recast as (the Biblical) Sodom,[1] we must turn instead to the Biblical Moab, patriarch of the Moabites. Crucially, we must bear in mind that, within the Hebrew Bible, this people, whose lands lay across the Dead Sea, is cast as a hostile neighboring people — indeed, the Moabites are depicted as the neighboring tribe most inherently in conflict with the people of Israel. Viewed in this light, there is continuing power in Powell’s fantasy that the deliverance of ordnance is the way “we” publicly declare the ordinance that those who defy international law will be vanquished by the synthesis of law and force executed by the United States military as the leader the coalition of the willing. This vision remains the reigning principle behind the self-image of the United States as an actor on the international scene. And this is so because, deeply steeped in an “Old Testament morality” (a morality wherein the enemies of the United States are figured as the ancient enemies of the people of Israel), this vision justifies a view of America as the model exemplar of a “Judeo-Christian” civilization. A civilization that is — as it ever was — waging a war, engaging in a “clash of civilizations.” Of course we would name our most deadly non-nuclear weapon “Moab” (or M.O.A.B., if you like): what other name than that of the oldest and deepest “frenemy” of Israel could the United States military have possibly dreamt up?

There is more that could be said, I think, especially if one stays with Butler and thinks of this episode as a speech-act.  After all – and repeating a line that was repeated endlessly during the Rolling Thunder campaign against North Vietnam – MOAB was originally developed in 2002 for the ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign that heralded the US-led  invasion of Iraq, and the Pentagon claimed that deploying the MOAB was an act of communication (really): it sent ‘a very clear message’ to IS that it would be ‘annihilated‘.  (The message-in-a-bomb line shouldn’t be confused with the terse messages that ground crews have scrawled on bombs in war after war after war, and I suppose it is less grotesque than the description of bombing Syria as a form of ‘after-dinner entertainment‘ for the US President – which sends an even more terrifying message to anyone with a shred of decency or understanding).

If the bombing in Afghanistan did send a message to IS – and to state actors elsewhere in the world – it also sent a message to innocent others in the vicinity of the blast:

“There is no doubt that Isis are brutal and that they have committed atrocities against our people. But I don’t see why the bomb was dropped,” said the mayor of Achin, Naweed Shinwari. “It terrorised our people. My relatives thought the end of the world had come. Every day fighter jets, helicopters and drones are in the area.”

In that vein, and to return to the colonial genealogy I mentioned at the start, the use of the global South as a laboratory for weapons testing and demonstration has a long history, as Scott Beauchamp‘s report here documents:

…the most interesting commentary probably came from former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, who tweeted that “This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as a testing grounds for new and dangerous weapons.”

He’s got a point. There is a dark history of Western military powers testing novel weapons and strategies on technologically overmatched non-Western (and non-white) populations. It’s a legacy that mixes the brutal arrogance of colonialism with the technological promise of an easy fix. There are of course numerous examples of this cruel dynamic at play in the centuries leading up to the 20th — conquistadors with dogs and swords, gunpowder in general — but the disparity that currently exists between the material advantages of Western countries and the technological capability of enemies abroad continues to be exploited in ways that conform to a recognizable pattern.

PS Much as I’ve enjoyed Michael’s essay, I think Stephen Fry also had a point.