by John Kinsella
It is the air of atrocity.
An event as ordinary
As a President.
A plume of smoke, visible at a distance
In which people burn.
George Oppen (from Of Being Numerous, 1968)
When I was a boy, actually through to the age of sixteen, I was obsessed with explosives and rocketry. Looking back from this point in my life, as a pacifist of thirty-plus years, I am bemused why the physics of explosions so fascinated me then. It was ‘technical’ and not ‘political’, though I was also in those days interested in things ‘military’, especially in terms of technology, equipment, ordnance and their relationship to strategy and tactics. The Australian military could have made good use of me if I had not had a pacifist epiphany (eventually).
And when I read of Al Weimorts, the civilian engineer working for the US Air Force Research Laboratory who designed the GBU-43/B Massive OrdnanceAir Blast bomb used yesterday on a Taliban cave network in Afghanistan, a horror of disconnection falls on me in so many ways. Obviously, the sheer brutality of this largest non-nuclear explosive device ever deployed as an act of war is horror enough in itself. This device, that has a one-kilometre-plus blast radius, and that will inevitably cause non-targeted casualties (though in the aftermath this has been denied), is the inheritor of the Vietnam forest-clearing 15000-pound bombs, ‘daisy cutters’, used by the US airforce, and then the bunker-busting bombs used by the US in the first Iraq War. The glibly nicknamed MOAB (I won’t even begin to untangle the Biblical subtexts), was designed for use in the last Iraq war but not ‘called upon’.
Al Weimorts, who died of a brain tumour in 2005, and was even celebrated in a New York Times obituary, was also the designer of cluster bombs used in Vietnam. On his hands is the blood of those killed by his death devices. He was a ‘righteous’ murderer, in the same way the designer Kalashnikov was (even with his near-the-end epiphany), or, for that matter, Leonardo da Vinci.
Many of us are personally implicated in this in subtle and obvious ways — and that is for each of us to consider and work out. Personally, as a child and early teenager, the fascination I had for ‘explosions’ (more than their ‘application’) was intense, and was only moved on from when I underwent an ethical and political shift at seventeen, developing an awareness that my politics of action were tied to the place/s I was in. That ‘explosions’ were a contradiction of place, that all I loved and respected was undone not only physically but also conceptually by my experiments.
When I exploded a ‘device’ to observe for effect, or set off a rocket to see what kind of altitude it could achieve, I was indifferent to the effect it had on the immediate ecology. The same kind of view of place as a performative stage for individual desire is what allowed me in those days to shoot things and fetishise weapons (all of which I long ago renounced and still renounce). Now I see that when those kinds of seeings are directed through work and patriotism into the Al-Weimorts-take on the world (that man with his children and grandchildren, well-dressed even at work, neatly groomed in the pics), the gap between being in a place and destroying that place is wider than death.
Weimorts witnessed the one previous explosion of a prototype of the weapon in 2003 at a site in the US (we see a forest in the background which we imagine was vaporised), so he physically felt and saw what it did to place. A place set aside for the testing of weapons, a place that had lost cultural and ecological variables to ‘necessity’, a replacement of ontology of existence with temporariness (the site before explosion) and a new presence of emptiness (post-explosion). The explosion caused by that prototype resulted in a mushroom cloud that could be seen 32 kilometres away.
Now, many years after Weimorts’s death, the Trump administration has used Afghanistan as a site of demonstration to impose its new global order. The American command in Afghanistan is denying that the use of this weapon is connected with Trump administration posturing, saying it was purely an internal ‘on-the-ground’ military decision made because the terrain and target were ‘tough’ — but only the deluded would accept this bit of propaganda as fact. This was an act to show the world that the US is ‘permanent’ (at least the pro-Trump parts of it!) while the rest of us are ‘temporary’.
The US military used ‘daisy cutter’ bombs (at least one) early in the capitalist war in Afghanistan to vaporise entire deployments of Taliban, so a country was already made temporary before the new permanence of mass destruction. The non-nuclear is sold as a step down from total annihilation, but it’s also the calling-card of the total destruction that will come. The simulacrum of a nuclear weapon without the ‘fallout’. Just deletion and cascading effects on habitat (of humans, birds, animals, micro-organisms, those scarce plants in ‘desert’, and inhospitable — how can we even use this word? — place/s).
The desire to go nuclear, to merge the theory of general relativity, the escapism of wormholes, and the mediated ethics of Einstein (representative of human aspiration and ‘genius’), into a digestible paradox of being, of being under conditions of capitalist-state ‘liberties’. The ultimate home defence is to attack before they get to the door. In the same way the Geneva Convention underpins warfare by defining degrees of abuse, in the same way the RSPCA underwrites the slaughter industry as long as it operates within their definitions of non-cruelty, so the MOAB is the atomic bomb when you’re not having (allowed to have) an atom bomb. It is a lot less ‘powerful’ than an atomic weapon, but it makes a big impression and causes big damage.
Also, as a thermobaric weapon, the MOAB (it offends to use the acronym — they wish us to use it... this is the problem with all namings) sucks oxygen from the area around the detonation to feed the reaction, and in doing so evacuates space/place of even that marker of life. Through the caves and tunnels in the mountains it was targeted at, it deletes in manifest ways. There is more than a symbolic act in this.
The ultimate message: all living things, all places, are temporary before the might of US imperialism. Weimorts is the enabler of this imperialism, rewarded with the signs of the empire. Further, it’s not just a deletion of people (potentially on a massive scale), but also the deletion of the markers of culture and even the topography, geology and ecology of the place. This particular weapon is not a deep-penetration weapon, but is said to have ‘low to medium’ level below-ground impact with an absolute deletion of what’s on the surface in the blast range. Yet it does affect what’s below (thus its use against a broader cave system), so its implications are those of terraforming — rescaping the planet for eventual colonisation.
There is no gap between the cultural weapons of radical religious bomb-makers and the Al Weimorts of the United States. Both look to ‘defend’ by ‘attacking’ — conserving and extending their belief systems in the process — and also to remove the markers of the previous culturality and topography. It’s worth noting that the Russian military brags of having a ‘conventional’ bomb at least four times more ‘powerful’ than the MOAB, and the Americans themselves have a ‘bunker-buster’ that has a higher ‘conventional’ explosive yield. And with the ultimate deployment of ‘nukes’.
Nukes — that word that has almost become affectionate euphemism in a gaming age, as a kind of reflex action regarding power and inadequacy... Trump thinks of these endgames in the same way... because they are so real, they are made unreal... a taunt in the playground in which the taunters, the victims, and the playground, are all temporalities... slippages in time-space that have everything to do with going to sleep and nothing to do with waking. The temporary itself is forced through a wormhole of temporal fantasising — vast time-scales are drawn upon, the half-life of plutonium bandied about like military budgets. We live in this grotesque unreality where place is localised or internationalised by causational connection, and shared responsibility is somehow lost.
It was with disturbed interest that I read of an ‘end-state’ in military-political thinking today (I wrote this article on ‘Good Friday’ but am revising on the Saturday) — its glibness is horrifying (and I think likely also to the academic who deployed it) and in writing my Graphology Endgame poems it sadly has to come into play as a static in the background, or a different form of fallout. This from the ABC news website regarding the use of the MOAB, quoting Professor John Blaxland (of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University): “‘This is telegraphing to the opponents of the Government in Kabul that the United States … is now upping the ante, and is prepared to kill many people to achieve its political end-state,’ he said. That end-state, said Professor Blaxland, is for the Taliban to cave and for the US to be able to reduce its presence in Afghanistan.” So we have pursuits of end-state while playing humanity to an end-game. Grotesque.
As a young person obsessed with ordnance, an obsession I no longer have, I went through a variety of decision-making processes every time I made an explosion. My interest was specifically in the rapid uptake of oxygen in a reaction (the MOAB exploits this to the fullest) and literally the colours an ignition produced.
I was less interested in the stress placed on the container in which the ignition took place, though I almost died (along with two others) when a 3mm steel pipe went off ahead of time and sent shrapnel three feet underground, the explosion being heard 5kms away. That was my epiphany — because of coming close to losing life and causing the loss of life, but also because (a) the ‘controlled’ event did not behave as I’d expected (b) the ecology around the event changed so decisively that I finally understood that such events have long-lasting effects on topography and on culturality. They permanently change what we (especially as kids) might consider as temporary and continually available to change (our little ‘improvements’! or a change can happen because it was ‘nothing much to worry about’ to begin with) — that is, the change can have repercussions.
And such events do change surroundings — they damage flora and fauna, of course, but also a place’s psychology. They make it ‘feel’ vulnerable. They place it (and I choose the word carefully) on tenterhooks. What I was doing (in the name of ‘science’!) was wrong, and I turned against it, which given I was also deeply interested in things military back then, was surely a healthy thing. And as my politics and ethics evolved, my repugnance at such terraforming, such cultural impressings, has led me to metaphors as redemptive acts of place ecology.
Having said that, I think creative thinkers can hide behind the figurative while still being fully implicated in the damage being done. Metaphors can be violent as well as healing; but more than that, they can create a reality in which the performance of a screen-place, in which the creator’s morality is played off against the (bad) morality of the non-creative materialist. We surely have to be wary of this.
I am looking at a photo in the public domain, presumably supplied by the US airforce to the world at large, with the caption: ‘Al Weimorts (right), the creator of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, and Joseph Fellenz, lead model maker, look over the prototype before it was painted and tested.’ Rather than paste the photo in, I’ll tell you what I see. (‘Brown bear brown bear, what do you see?’, that classic of American literature my son grew up with, that prepares ways of seeing that loop our selves into a material reality, a linguistic and visual presence in place.)
I see two men and the ‘homemade’ bomb before it becomes the industrial weapon (apparently, to this point, only fourteen have been manufactured); they look serious and yet ‘mature’. The ‘model-maker’ — such a ‘play’ title — and the designer, both exhibiting confidence and gravitas, there’s a most serious production. And yet almost casual, too — we can whip this up in the back shed because that’s US know-how and culturisation. This place of making can replace all places. And more than that is not worth noting. It is what it is — from someone who played weapons inspector in Iraq, a seeker for weapons of mass destruction, a weapon of mass destruction ‘half in love with easeful death’. The weapon looks solid, well constructed, permanent. Its moment of destruction is an eternal marker of human endeavour — the post-it note on place, dropped from high altitude (‘air supremacy’) from the back of a cargo plane (an MC-130) and ‘guided in’ with GPS, from here to there. The ironies implode in direct proportion to the explosion. Oh, and the men touching the unpainted weapon: lovingly, cautiously, and confidently. All of this, in the theatre of the photograph. And never forget the early days of the war: Halliburton, Bush, gas. Lest we forget.
These horrific doings in the unravelling of the narrative of human presence on the planet — its unravelling by the few who have the power, also of all our narratives in our inability to prevent them, and in some cases, complicity — are a denial of the essence of place in the human condition. By disarranging place, we deny place. Such massive violence against life and presence, against the markers of belonging, is showing our temporariness while claiming an imperial permanence in which power and enslavement to death are projected through time and space. All our stories of implication are relevant to attempts to reassert Eros over Thanatos, to reconfigure the spatial and temporal variables of our shared existence. We need to analyse the play, the actions, the events, and the narratives of our own lives from earliest memory and see how they have participated in or diverged from the deathstory of global and local militarism.
On occasions, I have turned to Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster (trans. Ann Smock; University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1995) for ‘pithy’ summations of horror. But it too often fails me. Regarding Eros and Thanatos he says, and I can see this, ‘There is not the death drive; the throes of death are thefts from unity, lost multitudes.’ (p.46) But as part of his essay, Blanchot also cites Mallarmé: ‘There is no explosion except a book.’ (p. 7). This is under a separate ‘bullet’ and sits alone: it is a critique, of course, of its own absurdity, but it is also given reflective space. It is true, and yet absurd. Under the MOAB blast, in the caves of the violent and sadistic and deathcultish enemy, there are gestures of the human. Snuffed collectively. And insects and birds move above. And creatures we ignore. Snuffed. The English teacher, Mallarmé, has to shake our foundations linguistically to make such a declaration simultaneously float, and attach. All our personal stories validating our presence, the presence of our families, our people. As entwined (or not) in place, the land/s.
And yet, the MOAB is still made and many people are proud of its making. It’s what you’d expect. The schools that made the engineer. The jobs. The belief systems. Family (liking it or not). Community. Circumstance. Notions of enemies. The fallout is devastating. We register the explosion on a seismograph. And yet, there is no spike in measurements of radioactive fallout. That almost ‘largest’ non-nuclear device.
But then Blanchot follows with his next — or his publisher’s next — bullet point: ‘The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience — it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes. What does not mean that the disaster, as the force of writing, is excluded from it, is beyond the pale of writing or extratextual’ (p. 7). Yes, because all writing has been vaporised. Even those who in their caves see literature as corruption, even their hands for writing and typing have been vaporised. The page is gone. No new pages replace. Does the translator of Blanchot, does Blanchot himself know what ‘beyond the pale’ does in this context? Probably. And if so, what of beyond writing beyond fragments beyond disaster? The disaster has been deleted. This post-disaster acceptance. These acts we perform after hearing the news, as we all do. These copyings and rewritings of our own narratives.
Just a few ‘paragraphs’ before he mentions the Bishop Faustus, Saint Augustine in his Confessions writes (roughly, in the Penguin books R.S. Pine-Coffin English translation, 1961): ‘Clearly the wicked do not know that you are everywhere. But you are not bound within the limits of any place. You alone are always present, even to those who set themselves apart from you.’ (p. 92). I treat this in a secular light on Good Friday, the most sacred Christian time. I copy this onto this ‘page’ in the long hemispheric of a secular patriotism that allows such barbarity as the MOAB to even exist. Make no mistake that such massive deployments of violence require spiritual sanction: even the most brutal states will make use of any ‘permission’ and validation they can acquire. The wicked do know ‘God’ is everywhere, and that God is unbound by the limits of place. And the same for the temporal.
But this idea that place is a human limitation over-ridden or over-come or incorporated by God is a very earthly desire: the desire to be larger, and controlling of place. And what better way to do that than delete place. To replace ‘place’ with the constructs of military-capitalism, fill in the holes with the machinery of ‘liberty’. The metaphors of othered history that we pick over for evidence of material and non-material existence are the permissions we collect for our actions, collectively and individually. We could all stand up and refuse! If that happened, the war machine would stop, and the God so many want to believe in would be respected in all place(s), not in acts of hubristic and horrific deletion.
Graphology Endgame 63
We wish to extract
from what we can’t see?
Oxygen from surroundings
to facilitate an explosion
spirit from emptiness
to fill those voids
A love — no, no, a need —
for gravity wheedling us out.
Or a question of limits,