The Fear Superbomb

'Mother of all bombs', says the UK Sun, next to a picture of America's new 'fearsome superbomb', which will apparently 'help destroy Saddam Hussein's evil regime' (1).

The MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) is a 30-foot long bomb, made up of nine-and-a-half tonnes of high explosives, which apparently unleashes a 10,000-foot mushroom cloud when it blows up. 'This is not small', said a deadpan defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday, after the US Air Force tested the bomb at Eglin Airbase in Florida (2).

The superbomb may be the world's 'most powerful non-nuclear bomb'. But it also shows the gap between America's military might and its deeper political uncertainty. US officials are trying to fill the moral vacuum exposed by the planned attack on Iraq with a very big weapon -- a case of 'when all else fails, get your bombs out'.

The US Air Force made a public spectacle of the MOAB test explosion. Where weapons testing in the past was generally shrouded in secrecy, the explosion of the superbomb in Florida was accompanied by a press release, official statements and even video footage.

One of the aims seems to be to make a virtual impact in Iraq. Apparently, US officials plan to have the video coverage of the test explosion 'beamed to Iraqi troops to terrify them into surrender' (3). The US Air Force has taken to dropping bombs in 'safe military zones' in sunny Florida in an attempt to make an impact in the enemy camp of Iraq. That's enough to make the US military's increasing reliance on unmanned drones to do their bombing in Afghanistan and elsewhere look like the height of military engagement.

Some are comparing MOAB to the atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, arguing that this new superbomb might put a stop to the Iraqi crisis just as the atom bombs brought an end to the Second World War. Leaving aside the fact that you can't compare the Second World War to the West's self-induced crisis in the failed state of Iraq, the contrasts between the role of MOAB today and the role played by the A-bomb nearly 60 years ago are striking.

Of course, for those on the receiving end, the choice between being MOABed or A-bombed is no choice at all. Whichever weapon of mass destruction America decides to use in its foreign ventures, the end result is devastation. That the new 'superbomb' is a 'non-nuclear weapon' but with the 'power of a small nuclear explosion' is a detail that will be lost on those who feel its heat. But the current discussion about MOAB and Iraq captures something of America's current cautiousness on the international stage.

The atom bombs were hugely devastating, laying to waste two Japanese cities and killing at least 200,000 people. But the atomic bombing of Japan was about more than reaping blind destruction, even though it did that very well. With the Second World War coming to a close, and a new world order emerging, the devastation visited on Japan was about displaying America's military, economic and political power to the world, embodying the USA's aim to assume dominance over the postwar globe.

As the Japanese Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki succinctly described it: 'The A-Bomb attacks were needed not so much against Japan - already on the brink of surrender and no longer capable of mounting an effective counter-offensive - as to establish clearly America's postwar international position and strategic supremacy in the anticipated Cold War setting.'

The new superbomb seems to be all about making a military impact, and little else - a demonstration of America's brute force and ability to instil fear. Military officials talk up the psychological and military impact that the superbomb will have. 'A primary reason to utilise this kind of weapon is psychological', says one Pentagon official. 'The intent is to paralyse and terrorise Iraqi troops, to stop them in their tracks.' (4)

For some US officials, one of the benefits of the superbomb is that, upon impact, it looks like a nuclear attack without actually being one. 'It sends up a mushroom cloud so vast that enemy soldiers who see it from many miles away will think America has done the unthinkable', says a Pentagon official (5). In 1945 America did the unthinkable in order to impose its political power on the postwar world; now America wants to project an image of the unthinkable in order to traumatize Iraqi troops.

There also appears to be a different attitude to civilian casualties within today's uncertain administration. The atom bombs of 1945 were specifically targeted at civilian populations. Hirsohima and Nagasaki were picked because they were cities with huge numbers of civilians, and the bombs were dropped, without warning, at times of the day that would ensure the largest number of civilian fatalities.

Today, officials claim that the superbomb will be kept away from civilian areas. According to a Pentagon official: 'It will be used for shock value alone and dropped well away from cities where it could inflict civilian casualties.' (6) Shock value? Listening to US officials, you could be forgiven for thinking they were launching a piece of performance art in Iraq, rather than a war.

Of course, the fewer civilian casualties there are in Iraq, the better. But the USA's concern about civilian casualties today is not driven by a newfound respect for innocent life. Consider the Afghan campaign, where large numbers of civilians were killed by American bombs, including civilians at at least three wedding parties. Indeed, in Afghanistan it was military disengagement and uncertainty - the fact that America fought its war largely from the air without going in on the ground to sound out allies and gather intelligence - that led to some of the more lethal bombing raids.

Rather, US concern about civilian casualties is more about how such issues play in today's supposedly humanitarian era. At a time when wars are justified in the language of human rights, when foreign interventions have to care as well as kill, civilian casualties don't look good. For US officials, being seen to avoid civilian casualties is more about PR than principle.

None of America's uncertainty means that US forces will not ship their superbomb from Florida to Iraq and reap destruction with it. But the apparent choice of the superbomb reveals much about the planned attack on Iraq. It seems that some US officials would rather drop superbombs on Iraq from on high and hope the crisis just goes away, rather than have to think about it for very much longer.

(1) 'Mother of all bombs…', Sun, 12 March 2003
(2) Air Force tests MOAB monster bomb, United Press International, 11 March 2003
(3) 'Mother of all bombs…', Sun, 12 March 2003
(4) 'Mother of all bombs…', Sun, 12 March 2003
(5) 'Mother of all bombs…', Sun, 12 March 2003
(6) 'Mother of all bombs…', Sun, 12 March 2003


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