Mass Destruction

Now that the drums of war are beating MOAB, ‘the mother of all bombs’, has been rolled out to complement the raw power of an opening rain of missiles, MOAB pushes towards the limits of any conventional sense of a bomb. It weighs in at nine tonnes or so and it’s its shattering blast is audible at 20 kilometres. Given that part of its role is to break down the will to resist, the mushroom cloud which follows its detonation is a special bonus.

MOAB: the acronym resonates with words and images from the tradition of the Hebrews — with Job, with Sheol, with the beginning and the end of the world. While MOAB is a monster within the family of conventional bombs it is said to be only the equivalent of a small nuclear bomb. That is to say the equal of a tactical nuclear weapon, one to be directed towards a particular target rather than an entire city or region.

Why then should one interrogate this comparison?

Cast your mind back to the fire-bombing of Dresden. As two of my colleagues have remarked, it was as if conventional weapons and their effects had crept to the edge of the nuclear age. For those who endorse this perception, the movement from conventional to nuclear weapons could be seen as a mere progression in the powers of mass killing and destruction. Yet, while that is plausible to a degree it is a false comparison. It opens a way to the return of nuclear devastation by rationalising tactical nuclear weapons, as mere equivalents to big conventional bombs. But once that door is opened, who is to say what powers of devastation may pass through at the behest of fundamentalists of more than one variety?

* * *

In the course of the drawn-out campaign to convince a sceptical citizenry that the assault upon Iraq could be justified, weapons of mass destruction and their devastating potential in the hands of terrorists were an early focus of attention. By association, rather than by explicit argument, they were linked to the destruction of the Twin Towers, to the anxieties associated with the great loss of life and the now clearcut vulnerability to terrorist attack of densely populated centres of civilian life.

All of this did nothing to clarify just what a weapon of mass destruction is. No one stood up to declare that the use of aircraft as piloted missiles did not fit the description. Only a few remembered that in the closing stages of the war in the Pacific the Japanese had used aircraft as piloted missiles against enemy fighting ships. Even fewer pointed out that the great loss of life in the assault on the Twin Towers had nothing to do with a weapon of mass destruction.

In practice the actual points of concentration, in the efforts to verify the types of weaponry Iraq has at its disposal, are a clear guide to what the category ‘weapons of mass destruction’ includes. No one is particularly concerned with the Iraqi holdings in passenger aircraft which might be deployed as missiles. Holdings of biological and chemical weapons and any remaining means for the production of nuclear weapons are the main areas being monitored.

Unlike the shells, the bombs, the small arms, the artillery and the armoured vehicles of conventional warfare, biological, chemical and nuclear weapons have no exclusive connection with fighting fronts which have dominated the representation of conventional war. Throughout modernity such fronts have been clearly tied to the conflicts associated with national borders and the armed personnel who defend them. By contrast, weapons of mass destruction may be small and portable. They can readily cross borders. If they are to be controlled they call for a parallel form of border-crossing authority grounded in a collectivity as distinct from any single national state.

The basic feature of weapons of mass destruction is that they are grounded in technologies which fundamentally reconstitute the conditions of human existence. Take for instance nuclear technology: it reconstitutes the given elements of the physical world. On the one hand, it allows nuclear power by way of controlled fission. On the other hand, it produced the devastating blast which destroyed Hiroshima and its people. In parallel with this nuclear example there stands the power to intervene in living matter, to cure diseases which have long been scourges of humankind or to create new epidemics to which there is no immunity, or worse, selective immunity.

The prevailing uncertainty about how ‘weapons of mass destruction’ are to be defined is well illustrated by the frequent claim that the destruction of the city of Dresden in the cataclysmic firestorm which incinerated half a million people was an equivalent to the devastation of Hiroshima. Dresden was a closely settled city which, in particular circumstances, was ‘ready to burn’. In that sense the setting for the firestorm can be compared with a natural disaster: with a bushfire or even with the great fire that destroyed London in 1666. The Dresden disaster was triggered by conventional incendiary devices but the Hiroshima bomb had the power to wreak destruction all on its own. It was independent of context: any city would have suffered much the same fate. The comparison between Hiroshima and Dresden cannot be encompassed by pointing to the hundreds of thousands of victims. The nuclear blast at Hiroshima was beyond human scale. It released the elemental qualities of the physical world in a way which is incompatible with what we take to be the conditions of being human. In retrospect it may be seen as marking a discontinuity: a crime which, in its overall significance, as distinct from the number of lives destroyed, bears comparison with the Holocaust.

In some contrast to the power to reconstitute elements both of the physical world and of living matter, humankind has evolved, relatively speaking, in given circumstances. It is adapted, even if never fully so, to the world as it is. Chernobyl, and for that matter, the Bhopal disaster — which destroyed as many lives as the fall of the Twin Towers — illustrate the point. Weapons of mass destruction are the dark side of high-tech generally. The failure to identify their distinctive character is based on a confusion wherein the reconstitution of the basic elements of the given world of nature is simply seen as continuous with the Enlightenment project of mastering that world.

When the first atomic weapon devastated Hiroshima, Harry S. Truman, the then US president justified its use by pointing, no doubt correctly, to the number of US soldiers whose lives would have been lost in an invasion. It is clearer, in retrospect, that he was confusing the conduct of a particular war with the potential of a nuclear bomb to affect the fate of humanity as a whole. In particular, he was treating the atomic weapon as if it were a bigger and more effective bomb. Clearly there was a limited sense in which that was true but to concentrate on that is to obscure its larger significance.

Throughout the nuclear stand-off of the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction allowed the shared concern for a future for humankind, along with the future for one’s own people, to hold in check the competing aspirations of different ideologies. Nonetheless this did not lead to any widespread public understanding that weapons of mass destruction began to cross a threshold. They ushered in a period wherein the means of war overwhelmed any political ends it could achieve. War was ceasing to be an extension of politics ‘by other means’. It was a step in the direction of rendering the planet unfit for human habitation.

Paradoxically, this ‘insight’, which is obvious enough in the light of cool consideration, could be more readily appreciated when the superpowers actually confronted each other. It was they who developed or elaborated the whole range of weapons of mass destruction. The failure to fully appreciate their significance meant that their possible tie to political agendas was suppressed but not rejected. This has allowed them to once again become politically active in a way which Mutual Assured Destruction foreclosed.

Now that confrontation between two superpowers has been replaced by the determination of governing circles within the USA to direct the way into the future, a new relation is emerging within both domestic and world politics. The control, or if necessary, the subjugation of nations which might, clandestinely or otherwise, gain access to weapons of mass destruction has become a central focus. Complementing that, a universal and protracted war is in prospect. It is to be directed against terrorists who turn the weapons that the US itself has been so active in developing, against it. In response the US refuses to forswear actually using them itself in future assaults.

The collateral social and political consequences for civil society of such a protracted war have, in the main, been brushed aside. Above all they include a movement towards the same totalitarian invasion of the rights and privacies of civil society as ‘rogue states’ are held to exemplify. The signs of that process are obvious. The willingness to make war against the overwhelming opposition of the populations they purport to represent is the core example. Dramatically evident as this unresponsiveness is, in both the United Kingdom and Australia, universal surveillance, detention without representation or a fair trial are part of the same shift. To most people a far more shocking example is the transportation of two children, aged 7 and 9 years, to the USA to provide ‘psychological leverage’ in the interrogation of their father.

The widespread understanding that in the wind-up to a war in Iraq governments have lied to their constituents about the objectives of this particular war by no means implies respect for the Iraqi regime. Most people accept the possibility that Iraq, under its present government, could contribute to secret attacks against opposed states. But they are fully aware that this is a minor issue within a broader geopolitical agenda: the determination to control Iraq’s oil resources. Yet it seldom extends to recognition that within Wolfowitz’s geopolitical agenda control of the Middle East more generally is a material condition for guaranteeing the dominance of the US for the immediate future.

For the present, resistance is restricted to opposition to the war. That often proceeds by way of mass demonstration partly because of the diffuse disenchantment with the democratic process and with the way the mainstream political parties are unready to acknowledge the underlying issues. Were they prepared to do so, many of those who are now alienated might move back to supporting the neo-liberal agenda which finds its reactionary expression in foreign policy. Be that as it may, neither this particular war, nor the future wars it may spawn, can directly disclose the contradiction which lies at the heart of current US aspirations. These are totally dependent on a single-minded commitment to the high-tech way into the future and with that to the role of neoliberal capital in reconstructing relations of political power to the broader mass of people. For the present the resistance to that more encompassing trajectory is scarcely articulate. So far as it does exist it is best expressed in the Green sensibility which, while it has served as a focus for opposition to the impending war, is restricted to ‘sustainability’ as the main frame for economic reconstruction.

If a more specific and determined expression of that sensibility were to press opposition to the policies of the World Trade Organisation and to press for radical redistribution of the world’s resources several consequences would follow. One would be a direct clash with US perspectives. It might effectively gather support around worldwide boycotts of icons of the global reach of the USA: McDonalds, Coke, Microsoft. A complementary process might be to re-launch protectionist policies with respect to particular industries, especially foodstuffs, which contribute to a sense of cultural integrity. This however is no more than to take a fleeting glance at the issues which an elaboration of an alternative way into the future might embrace. For that to develop, the pre-condition is a more developed appreciation of the perils associated with the US way. The war against Iraq has begun to awaken a profound sense of opposition. It is as if having taken the public, who are their constituents, for granted, governments have forgotten that they now face an electorate whose members are not only better informed and determined to make up their own minds but are also intuitively aware that even before September 11 the world had changed. September 11 was the result of failing to interpret that change.

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Geoff Sharp

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