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Ordnance as Ordinance

The MOAB bomb and the Biblical Roots of Our Endless War

On Thursday, April 13, 2017, over an “abandoned” village in Afghanistan, near Achin and not far from the infamous Tora Bora tunnels where Osama Bin Laden was said to have eluded American and British assassination attempts, the United States military deployed for the first time its “most destructive non-nuclear weapon,” the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb. This weapon, known by its acronym MOAB — and the nickname derived therefrom, the “Mother of All Bombs” — was developed during the second Iraq War. Its name, however, seems an unmistakable echo of the first Iraq War, infamously described by Saddam Hussein as “the mother of all battles.”

In this light, both 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?

Perhaps it seems like I am making a mountain out of a molehill. “What difference does it make,” we might ask, “what the bomb is called? Ought we not care more about what it did? Whether it was effective? Knowing how many casualties were there and how much ‘collateral damage’ was done?” Certainly these pragmatics are important. And certainly, as Ali M. Latifi suggested in The New York Times, it matters that we “know nothing about the people it killed except they are supposed to be nameless, faceless, cave-dwelling Islamic State fighters.” Certainly knowing the effects the bomb had on those living in and near the blast radius matters.

But simply because effects matter does not mean names are irrelevant. What we call things matters, too. So for those not intimately familiar — and note: both “intimacy” and “familiarity” are crucial concepts here — with the details of the particular Bible-thumping going on here, let’s briefly review. Such a review, I believe, shows quite clearly how deep the “illocutionary force” behind the naming of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast really goes, and how profoundly it matters for the prospects of the unending war we seem have to been fighting my whole life, and how on earth it might ever be brought to an end.

To begin with the beginning, or almost the beginning. The Moabites are, in the Hebrew Bible, descendants of a man named Lot, the grandson of Abram’s father Terah. Still before Abram was marked by his covenant with the Lord (and so before he received the name Abraham) Lot set off with his uncle to settle a new territory for their growing family in the land of Canaan. The two made and left temporary homes as they journeyed, settling down and moving on in travels that mimicked the wanderings of what would become the people of Israel, including a time in Egypt. Over time, however, they came back into the land of Canaan. And there Abram presented his nephew with a choice: would he rather go north (to what would become Judah and Israel), in which case Abram would go south? Or would he prefer to go south (to what would become Moab)? Lot, noticing the physical fertility of the southern option, chose the latter, and, the text suggests, in choosing the more physically appealing option, set off a rather remarkable chain of events.

That chain of events includes two of the most infamous passages of the Tanakh, passages that relate to the (overcrowded) intersection of sex and violence: Lot’s hospitality to the angels of the Lord on the eve of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the incestuous relations among Lot and his daughters. For Lot comes to find himself and his family in the infamous city of Sodom. When two angels of the Lord appear to him at his gates conveying the message that he and his family must leave Sodom at once because the Lord is going to destroy the city and all its inhabitants as a judgment for their wickedness, Lot shows his good character by displaying hospitality and insisting that the strangers sleep the night in his home. For many commentators on this passage, this moment demonstrates that even before the time that the people of Israel adopted covenant-faithfulness (hesed) with the Lord, the mark of being a child of (God’s) Law is friendship unto strangers. It is immediately juxtaposed, however, with the abjection of the neighbor that runs through Biblical Judaism. For no sooner have these angelic strangers accepted Lot’s invitation than the men of Sodom arrive at Lot’s gates and demand that he gives them up so that the Sodomites may, well, sodomize them. Lot offers his daughters instead — more on this in a second — but the men refuse: as Sodomites, apparently, only male-on-male relations will do. Lot then refuses (because he finds male-male sexual relations abominable? because it would be abhorrent to betray his guests while his daughters are fair game? the text is not clear). Violence ensues, but the men are forced out by the angels, who do indeed stay the night. And in the morning, both guests and family abandon the city before the Lord judges Sodom.

But all is not well, of course. Lot’s wife cannot help but look back upon the destruction. What it is that motivates her glance (the desire to witness the terrible destruction? heartbreak at moving away? empathy for those who are caught up in the awful destruction? some combination of all these motivations?) is impossible to know because the text (Genesis 19:26) could not be more spare. Only six words long in Hebrew, it tells us only “from his rear, she looked (back)” and then “she stood there, salt.” Whatever her motivation, it is clear that the Bible needs us to know that she looked back. This is striking because we know little else of who she was — her name, her place of birth, when and where she married Lot; none of this is important. Yet we must know that she looked, and we must know that she did this “from behind him”; note, and this will be different from the way many who learned the verse in English might recall it, the crucial point is not that she looked behind (herself) but that “from behind Lot, she looked back.”

Whatever else it is doing, this double taboo of the “from behind” (the men of Sodom and the angels, Lot’s wife and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) taps into the very deepest vein of the life-world of the Hebrew Bible, a vein that runs to a heart within which rests the name Moab. Namely: the text seems to tell us that it is necessary to look back at the beginning, at the roots from which “we” came and from which we have descended. And at the same time it seems to demand the systematic dismantling and dispossession of the vast majority of the personages implicated in that genealogy — and thereby to justify an ongoing, often violent, dispossession of all those who are excluded from the covenant with the Lord (a dispossession enacted on behalf the reciprocal hesed that covenant entails).

The connection, if not yet clear, becomes so immediately if we recall that, after their resettlement and as a kind of retaliation against their father’s willingness to sacrifice their virginity to the men of Sodom, Lot’s daughters seduce/entrap their father; both become pregnant by him. The fruit of this second eruption of the sex/violence/hesed nexus are two sons: Moab, and Ben-Ammi. From Moab descend the Moabites; from Ben-Ammi, the Ammonites. These two peoples, living on the east bank of the Jordan River, will remain in a tortured antagonism with the (ancient, Biblical) people of Israel throughout the history recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Special prohibitions on intermarriage with them will be announced (and broken) apparently because of the special challenge they pose to covenant faithfulness.

This is the background against which we have to understand the decision to give the most destructive non-nuclear weapon ever made the name MOAB, a bomb create during a war against one Muslim-majority nation and deployed in another Muslim-majority nation. Attending to both of those decisions requires us to know the deep Biblical roots of moralizing animosity beneath this weapon and its deployment, and it also helps us to appreciate the acuity and lasting significance of Butler’s insight into the ordnance/ordinance matrix. Importantly, it helps us to extend Butler’s point as well. For, while she has seen and called our attention to the remarkable intertwinement of law and violence in Powell’s speech and the US military’s adventures in the Middle East and Central Asia, she does not overtly stress the political theological character of this. It is this feature of the ordnance-as-ordinance, the way in which it places itself in the tradition of the Israelites standing up for covenant faithfulness against the (other) inhabitants of the Jordan valley and its surroundings, that I hope to clarify here. To make it plain: Powell’s ordnance-as-ordinance and today’s Massive Ordnance Air Blast, yoke American interventions and the so-called war on terror (or war against Muslim extremism) explicitly to the political theological doctrine of hesed, covenant faithfulness. As Psalm 136:18 teaches: “And he killed mighty kings, for his hesed extends through all the world.”[2]

But we would be remiss in ending this political theological reflection here. For there is one further detail of particular interest in our investigation of the Biblical resonances of MOAB and the political theological character of US adventurism in the war on terror. We can see it by attending to one particular detail: that Moab and the Moabites are particularly intertwined with two of the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. And it is here that, in my estimation, we see why attending to the Biblical backdrop of “the mother of all bombs” not only helps us to see how very deep is the abyss of violence in which we find ourselves, but also why and where there is hope. For, if we listen closely, there is yet another resonance in the name of this ordnance/ordinance, one that I doubt was in the minds of its creators and its executors, but which ought to be on ours as we attend to the reverberations, both literal and figurative, of this particular explosion of violence-understood-as-law, of ordnance-as-ordinance. Alongside of what we learn from Genesis about Lot and his daughters; from Numbers about the conflicts with the Moabites and how their incorrigible idolatry was a constant temptation for the Israelites; from Deuteronomy about a hill in Moab as the site of Moses’s death and burial; and from the early prophets and the “historical” books about the intertwinement of the Tribe of Judah/House of David and the Moabites — aside from all this there is one remaining great Biblical source of knowledge about Moab and its people: the book of Ruth.

In briefest terms, the book of Ruth relates the narrative of an Israelite, Naomi, who, having fled Bethlehem during a famine, comes to settle in Moab. Her husband soon dies, and ten years later, her sons — who have taken Moabite wives — die as well. The narrative develops from the moment of her decision to return to Bethlehem, without her daughters-in-law who she intends will stay behind in Moab. One daughter-in-law, quite strikingly, refuses and insists on leaving behind her homeland and people in order to be with a woman who is not her blood relative. As deeply affecting as this narrative is, the story Ruth tells is not just a tale of how a Moabite widow decides to join her Israelite mother-in-law’s family after the death of her husband. It is not just about conversion and its trials. More than this, and very controversially, it is a story about international relations and the possibility of radically new ethical and political formations. For the story of Ruth’s allegiance to Naomi — as powerful a story as I have ever heard — is really about one simple idea, expressed in just four words (Ruth 1:16): “your people [will be] my people; your God, my God.”

In these four words, Ruth tells us, Ruth’s promise to Naomi takes on the fullness of the covenant the Lord has made with Israel. Despite all the textual evidence against Moabites that can be produced from the Hebrew Bible, in Ruth we have a daughter of Moab who binds herself to the covenant community. And this from a widow, a woman who is no longer married to a son of Israel, but who nevertheless will be a full member of the House of Israel. Even more, Ruth aligns herself with this new body-politic via a mutual promise with an Israelite woman who is not her blood relative. (Yes, she will marry a male member of Naomi’s family, Boaz, which is what makes this plausible from a Rabbinical perspective. Still.)

To conclude, we return to our question: what is the “ordinance” that the ordnance named MOAB wants to deliver. It seems clear to me that those who gave this weapon this name were definitely thinking Biblically enough to suggest that MOAB is meant to deliver the message that the angels of the Lord delivered to the men of Sodom: change your ways or be destroyed to the very dust from which I made you. All the talk about the weapon’s terrible beauty and sublimity the past two weeks makes this clear. I doubt that they were thinking about it, but we know that ancient Israel’s entanglement with Moab was always much more complicated than that. If I persuade, then we shall remember there is another way: Ruth’s.

“Our” people may never be “their” people; “our” God may never be “their” God. But if Ruth, daughter of Moab, could join the people of Israel, live in Bethlehem, and begin the line from which the king who united Israel and Judah was born, then surely there is some other way to “look back from behind” MOAB toward a different engagement with our neighbors in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Finding an end to the endless war and the “clash of civilizations” narrative demands that we do just that. For, I would argue, if there is to be an alternative to the “political theological” and to the ordnance-as-ordinance matrix, there is nowhere whence it shall come other than in a new expression of what is means for “The Lord’s hesed to reign forever.” One that doesn’t join Psalm 136:17-24[3] in celebrating the Lord who rains violence upon even the mightiest of kings, but rather joins the immediately following thought found in Psalm 136:25. For it is there, in the next verse, the next thought, that the Lord celebrated not as king of violence, but as the one who “gave bread to all flesh, because his hesed extends through all the world.”[4]

Let others continue to fantasize about an utterly secular politics; there has never been such a thing, and I don’t believe there ever will be. If we dream of peace we must, with Ruth and with Noami, do it from within the framework of your people and my people, your God and my God.

Footnotes:

[1] “Precisely in this recent war we saw ‘the Arab’ figured as the abjected other as well as the site of homophobic fantasy made clear in the abundance of bad jokes grounded in the linguistic sliding from Saddam to Sodom.” (“Contingent Foundations,” in Feminists Theorize the Political, p. 12.)

[2] ויהרג מלכים אדירים כי לעולם חסדו. (We must understand “the world” as “all of time and space,” not “the planet earth” or “the world today” or some such.)

[3] It’s actually verses 17-24 all in all that make and extend this claim.

[4] נתן לחם לכל בשר כי לעולם חסדו.

Michael Weinman

  • E. Robert Smith

    Michael: In my synagogue, a Messianic synagogue of Jews and gentles, I have been talking up the idea of looking at the Tanakh in the context of the civil-social in contrast to a personal interpretation and application. Your analysis through this article is an amazing example of just that. Thank you. E. Robert Smith

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