Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What is a bomb?

There's letters seal'd, and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd—
They bear the mandate, they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petard, an't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon.

Hamlet Act 3, scene 4, 202–209

A petard was a bomb, in this case one that blows up prematurely and does in the one who is placing it.  It was a little bomb, used to breach gates in Late Medieval warfare, and its name, petard, comes from the French which means, believe it or not, "fart."  You know how that French food is.  Perhaps that line about "your aunties" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail had some real tactical significance after all.  At least they had body metaphors back in the day, instead of the lifeless abstraction of war language we use today.

What is a bomb?  Well, it is a thing that explodes, that is, it burns at such a high velocity that it creates a locally destructive shock wave, in addition to (here is that bloodless language) a "secondary missile hazard" (shrapnel).  It is a device for the delivery of an explosive for the purpose of destroying people or equipment or property ("targets").  Since the more primitive methods of making and delivering bombs in the time represented in Hamlet, bombs have undergone a series of modifications in the explosives themselves, and in the devices required for their delivery to the "targets" (not villages or people, or cities).  Two atomic bombs destroyed two entire cities at the end of World War II; and their delivery systems were manifold:  the package itself, in addition to aircraft, navigations systems, maps, and so on.  There are "smart" bombs that can be carried along the contours of the earth by guided rockets, launched from a giant naval ship, then directed onto a "target" by a handful of dirty guys hiding near the target aiming a laser target designation device at it.  Unthinkable hydrogen bombs can be fired out of the atmosphere on missiles and re-enter on the other side of the planet to deliver the explosive to the designated "target."  An individual solider is outfitted with a small bomb called a hand grenade, which he can throw at people and things (but throw it well, because the "bursting radius" of the explosive is lethal at five meters, and it sends "secondary missiles" a lot further than that.  Hand grenades have some of the same problems as Hamlet's unhappy engineer encountered.  Cluster bombs (called "cluster munitions" to make them sound more clinical and abstract) have one big bomb that explodes and sends forth many little bombs, some that detonate right away, and some that explode later when people move through the area and disturb them.  There are missiles fired from helicopters and tanks that carry bombs to "targets."  Most of us these days, when we hear the verb "bomb," as in "bombing," tend to think of aircraft that are dropping bombs that explode when they hit the ground.  In fact, some of them do explode on impact, and some are designed to explode slightly above ground in order to "maximize target impact," that is, to kill more people and destroy more things.

So this is a blog by a Christian, for Christians (or anyone else who is interested); and I am bringing up the question, "What is a bomb?," because when we talk about bombing these days, it is with regard to the American President's decision to "expand the bombing of ISIS targets" in portions of what's left of Iraq and Syria.  There is some magical thinking involved with "bombing" that suggests exploding bombs remotely, that is, far enough away from the "targets" to avoid being effectively shot at ("engaged") by them, can "degrade and defeat" the designated enemy-of-the-year.  I want to suggest that Christians begin thinking about what bombs are, how they actually work, and the ways they are actually used; because real bombs used in the real world always involve something that military bureaucrats and journalistic boosters call "collateral damage," that is, killing people who are not the intended "targets," like non-combatants.  Christians who haven't chugged down the American militarist Kool-Aid are generally concerned about this, including those who accept and subscribe to the oxymoronic notion of "just war."  But I want to take the challenge a couple of steps further here, addressing those "just warriors" along with my more pacifistic kin.  In fact, my pacifistic sisters and brothers may be more guilty than just warriors of not appreciating the technical, tactical, social, and political dynamics of war; because we have already -- appropriately in my view -- made up our minds, made up our minds not to participate in wars, and not to support (in those ways where refusal of support is even possible) wars.  We may be excluding ourselves from a number of public conversations about war, and in particular the war the United States and its political subordinates are in the process of expanding, because we have settled the question on Christological grounds.  We may not avail ourselves of those interpretive tools that make sense of warmaking, and of this war, in ways that, while not stopping the war, can reliably predict some of its outcomes as well as unpack the motives and likely courses of action of various actors on the world stage.

This new war, for example, can be opposed on the same moral grounds we oppose other wars; but it can also be shown to be stupid, even on its own terms, in the same ways that the last adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan was stupid.

I believe Christians ought to engage in these conversations, knowledgeably . . . even more knowledgeably than many non-Christians . . . at the same time that I believe Christians have no business seeking the kinds of power that can make war, or even the kind of power to coerce our neighbors through the legislation of morality.  Persuasion is what we have; and yet we are called in Matthew 5:37 to eschew the kind of manipulative "persuasion" that is so common in the world . . . appeals to fear, anger, and sentimentality that either conceal inconvenient realities or try to foreclose the conversation with appeals to patriotism, respectability, masculinity, and other idols.

So, what is a bomb?

I remember during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, and during the first heady days of that invasion, when the press was engaged in a kind of bomb-worship.  CNN would display highly sophisticated computer graphics of ships and airplanes that deliver bombs.  The graphics would tip and turn the images of these war machines, with a great deal of ooohing and aaahing about the technology, about speeds, ranges, guidance systems, and "target effects."  The subtext was a kind of self-congratulatory nationalism.  Look how smart we are!  We are technical wizards, invincible!  We are the Americans, so goddamit you'd better not mess with us!  See our giant penis!  See our "power projection"!

There was a kind of mass masturbatory moment among the nation's males, led by the males on television, as those first explosions rocked the night in Baghdad.  There was actually a condom that was marketed around this moment called "Shock and Awe."  Well, there it is:  bombs and boys!

Anyone who's seen kids with fireworks has seen the easy fascination with the bomb.  Bombs are dramatic.  Explosions are fun!  Most of us also knew those boys who grew dissatisfied with the mere explosion of a firecracker or an M-80.  They had to attach the firecracker to a frog, or the M-80 to a cat, because they were growing more and more interested in "target effect."  Perhaps some of them are now working at Northrup-Grumman, Boeing, or Lockheed-Martin, developing the latest in cluster munitions and laser-guided weapons.

What "target effect" conceals, of course, is that there are generally people on the receiving end of bombs.  When a bomb is used, all its technical specifications disappear in a nanosecond, as the bomb actualizes itself in that ultra-high-velocity burn and the attendant shock wave.  For you and me, the explosion happens in an instant.  Such is our perception of time.  A loud noise with a fiery flash, followed by that impressive afterword . . . the rising dust cloud and the rain of debris.  If you are close enough, there is no sound, no flash.  You are over in that instant.  If you are not quite that close, you fight for your breath; your ears ring (and you are otherwise deaf); you may feel light-headed from trauma and blood loss . . . in a few minutes, the pain will begin to mount.  If the damage to your hearing is not too great, you will hear the screaming, which might be your own, or your neighbor's, or your parent's, or your child's.  If you have not been blinded (many are, permanently, as well as crippled permanently), you may begin to see through the dust.  Nothing around you is recognizable.  It has been transformed.  Least recognizable of all are corpses, twisted, crushed, monochromatic with dust.  Is that my husband, my mother?  Is that my comrade in arms?  Is that my leg?  Was that a head?

One thing you can count on with bombs . . . if you "deliver" them accurately, they will make big changes very fast.  A bomb can erase a hundred years of history faster than you can say, "Bomb."

Now one thing you've probably heard is that "smart bombs" are more "surgical."  Smart bombs remove the tumor, so to speak, without killing the patient.  That's what you are supposed to think when you hear the word "surgical" in military parlance.  This was a "surgical strike."  When I was a soldier with 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment - Delta, the Army's "counter-terrorist" unit, we practiced "surgical" operations all the time.  These were mostly hostage rescue scenarios, where a few men with sub-machine guns and pistols enter into a crisis site where there are "good guys" (hostages) and "bad guys" (hostage takers); and through countless hours of marksmanship practice prior to any operation, the teams of rescuers would enter the site (often with very small-scale and specialized explosives), and oh-so-precisely shoot the "bad guys" without accidentally shooting or blowing up the "good guys."  This actual mission hardly ever happens, because it is seldom that cut-and-dried, so our actual combat missions were . . . well, not so surgical.  But if one were to approach this "surgical" standard, it is far easier with men (boots on the ground) than with aerial bombs, because men (these units are still exclusively male) can actually see the people they are supposed to discriminate between (good guy versus bad guy), whereas the operators of supersonic aircraft are looking at some kind of computer display as they rip through the sky faster than the speed of sound.  They have no idea if the people they think are on the target are actually the people there.  They have to trust in "intelligence," usually at least a day old, often much older, even though people can leave and enter a place in a matter of seconds.  Think of this when you hear some enthralled newscaster talking to some puffed up ex-General on TV about how this or that "smart" weapon is "surgical," and how it prevents "collateral damage."

So, hopefully we are approaching some kind of appreciation for the basics on bombs.  They are very different for the users and the "targets," and they are not in any sense surgical.  The "Shock and Awe" opening act of the 2003 Iraq invasion was conceived by Donald Rumsfeld and his sycophants as a cluster of "surgical strikes," based on "timely intelligence," that would "decapitate" the Iraqi government, paving the way with bombs to a "cakewalk" that would last approximately three weeks, and resulting in an Iraqi government that would establish a constitutional republic on the model of the United States, sign oil leases, and permit the establishment of permanent US military bases for the post-Cold War redisposition of America's international military force.

So much for bomb surgery.  Magical thinking on crack.  The result, which was no more or less predictable than Obama's bombing campaign against ISIS, was . . . well, ISIS, among other things.  What was predictable, and is predictable again now, is that bombing, surgical and otherwise, will not accomplish what is claimed for it, i.e., the degradation and defeat of the enemy de jour.  This is where the war's propagandists are depending on that magical thinking on our part.  If we can just surgically bomb the right targets and get the Kurds (or anyone else) to coordinate their tactical efforts on the ground with US air superiority, then ISIS can be routed, and all will be right again with the world.  (A little secret, y'all -- military Generals are generally speaking not very bright, and people listen to them at their peril.)

The effective coordination of air-ground combatants is immensely complicated and difficult when done by members of the same armed forces, for example, US ground forces and US air assets.  At least in this case, the armed forces have something called "unity of command."  It's a Clausewitzian principle of war, meaning there has to be one honcho in charge, to which each component of a given force is accountable.  When there are two or more separate chains of command, the difficulty and complexity increase by orders of magnitude, and complexity quickly flips into utter unpredictability.  Chaos Theory 101.

When the enemy de jour is faced with this situation, and actually has unity of command, the enemy de jour has a tremendous tactical advantage.  Every new development increases the confusion of the dis-unified force; and the unified force is in a position to compel the dis-unified force to react to the unified force's decisions faster than the dis-unified force can make its own decisions.  This is called "moving inside the enemy's decision cycle," and it is usually disastrous for the dis-unifed force.  The shorthand for this is the OODA-loop.  Observe, orient, decide, act . . . the action creates new circumstances, which one observes (starting the cycle anew), orients, decides, acts, etc. etc. etc.  A dis-unified force can never orient quickly enough to make appropriate decisions before the unified force has acted.  This is a complete loss of "the initiative."

So what does this mean, in terms of a bombing campaign, that is?  First of all, it means that there are two eventual options for Obama and Company in their new adventure.  First option, bomb until this loss of initiative becomes obvious and get the hell out before it becomes any worse.  This is a smart option, if a little late, but it will generally be foreclosed by masculinity, which mandates that "we" (the national penis-wielder) never "cut and run."  Countless examples of this exact kind of lunacy litter history; but this gender thing is so powerful that men (and a couple of women trying to make it on men's terms) will keep committing this mistake, bringing us to option two:  unify the chain of command between air and ground.

If you are unifying the chain of command between ground and air, and the ground has one command while the air has the other . . . and if you (let's say, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States of America) now command the air forces, but you do not command the ground forces, then you will be obliged to do one of two things:  surrender control of the air forces to the allied ground force commander (assuming there is only one), or insert ground forces of your own.  Dear reader, do you see where this goes?  This is precisely why every military adventure from Vietnam to Iraq has been a disaster that began with that inevitable something that pundits misleadingly call "mission creep."  It is not an incremental process involving "a little here, a little there," but the inevitable outcome of (a) the delusion that "we" can prevail with partial involvement, leaving the locals to do the grunt work, (b) the enemy de jour being smart enough to exercise the tactical agility summarized by the OODA-loop, (c) the "discovery" of the error of (a) through the loss of initiative and political calamity, and (d) the inability of politicians to escape the stupidity of military masculinity.

I suppose this adds another dimension to the question, "What is a bomb?", by showing what bombing (gerund) is not . . . a tactical panacea, a risk-free strategy.  Asymmetric Warfare 101.

For the record, there are already US troops being reintroduced in Iraq.  They are Special Forces advisers, that same species that was introduced into Vietnam in 1957.  They are there to see if they can coordinate between ground and air forces, but those green berets they wear do not possess any magic that can overcome that little "unity of command" problem.  That will be overcome by using special operations troops themselves as ground forces, secretly and minimally at first, then more openly and broadly (we will even have movies made about them), but at the end of the day, these will be inadequate to overcome ISIS; and the conventional ground forces will be the only option to "cut and run."

The worst of it is, even the combined air and ground forces under a unified command will not be able to prevail for all the same reasons they have failed in Iraq and Afghanistan before (another, separate analysis).  This does not even address the moral issue, that is, that Obama's drone bombing campaign has killed thousands, including children; or that this new bombing campaign is going to have plenty of "collateral damage."  It is a mathematical certainty.  There is no "just bomb" for the "just war."

When you hear about bombs, and about bombing, and about how American technology in the air can deliver those "surgical" bombs to magically degrade and defeat ISIS, remember those things that we are encouraged to forget about even the most recent history.  Obama is making the same mistakes as Bush.  Masculinity in American politics, unfortunately, will now assure that he follows through to the bitter end.

And some of us are called delusional because we are pacifists.

Lord, have mercy.


  1. Very well stated. This cycle must be broken. It will in time but I shudder to think of all the loss in the meantime. Thanks for bringing a little sanity to the discussion.

  2. Incredible as it seems, we're all witness to the real 1984. (coupla decades late...but still 'right on time') Lord, have mercy, indeed.

  3. As far as making a difference, which battles do you pick (discussions, that is)? I have no interest in discussing the stupidity and profit margins of this war (and all the others) & engaging with people who are programmed to say prayers for the state, shoot, and praise the god of Mammon while the Titanic sinks.

    Speaking for myself, as far as the concrete evidence of what bombs do, the final nail in the coffin was, for me, the pix of the DU babies in Iraq back in '03. The gift that keeps on giving...DU munitions.

    I can publicly oppose it in other ways (and be prepared to pay the cost). I realize that a lot of humans are more complex than this, but it seems here in these not-so-United States, things are getting pretty damn simple, and the diversions are getting more complex..

    As a Christian, are you "in this world, but not of it?"

    Luckily, there ARE people to engage with & exchange ideas and survival strategies. You just have to live it as best you can, I guess. I think there will be more as the economy gradually collapses here. And that ain't gonna be pretty, Yakky Doodle. The system Uber Alles---it must sustain itself.

    Right on, Stan...

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