It was not just a big bomb, it was the biggest bomb. It was also a very long bomb, over thirty feet, which is very long for a bomb, perhaps even the longest. It had heft, at eleven tons—a weight so formidable that it had to be transported by a cargo plane and guided to the ground by a small parachute. Built for Iraq, it was destined for the craggy hills of Afghanistan. On April 13, 2017, it was launched, falling from the sky and penetrating the caves and caverns of Achin in the north-east. It was a momentous collision, erupting in a massive mushroom cloud.
Or so we believe. Most Americans would never actually see this mom bomb that was lobbed in their name over a country they have been bombing for sixteen years. With the sort of glib sleight of hand that permits America’s perpetual war, the initial video that was released to American cable news networks was from “a previous test of the bomb.” It was neat and clean and entirely palatable: a bomb falling out of a plane with its own little parachute onto an uninhabited desert below. The actual video of the attack came the next day, a “cockpit view” of the bombing, seen through the concentric circles of a target. If the first video of the attack used a stand-in, this one used a trick, its visuals appearing far more like the graphics on a video game console than the very real bombing of an actual country inhabited by living and feeling people.
If the first video of the attack used a stand-in, the second one used a trick.
Most will never know or see more. A mere two weeks after the “mother of all bombs” was dropped, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced that the United States would not be undertaking any damage assessments on the bombing, citing lessons learned from the Vietnam War as a reason. “We stay away from damage assessment in terms of the number of enemy killed,” he said. “It is continuing our same philosophy that we do not get into that, plus, frankly, digging into tunnels to count dead bodies is not a good use of our troops’ time.” Mattis’s statement, an alarming admission of a policy of bomb-it-and-forget-it, received almost no attention in American media. The pundits that had romanced the bomb in those first hours reached their climax soon after, their fickle attentions fizzling with the news cycle.
There will be a cost to the American media’s inability to get beyond a frenzied and Pavlovian flag-rallying each time a new attack is launched on this or that country. The first level of injury is the most obvious given the media’s purported role as a purveyor of fact: the deeper, more noxious truths that the powerful would rather not tell. The Trump administration is rife with these untold tales and in the months since the election, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others (goaded perhaps by the castigations heaped upon them by Trump himself) have bolstered their investigative budgets and vigilantly pushed to uncover them. Sadly this zeal for getting to the bottom of things does not extend to the coverage of American warfare in the age of Trump.
The purported terror experts, whose careers were launched by 9/11 and propelled by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reappeared on American television screens in a fast second following the dropping of the “mother of all bombs.” Many were lightheaded from the launching of missile attacks against the Syrian regime the weekend before and the massive bombing now threw them into a frenzy of flattery. The fact that the objective of the strike was unclear, and that a refusal to assess damage is tantamount to caring only that a bombing occurs rather than what or whom it kills, did not give pause to anyone. The mistruths of the past—that bombs are the ultimate antidote to terrorism and that military intervention is the basis for birthing peace—were sipped and swallowed once more.
A refusal to assess damage is tantamount to caring only that a bombing occurs rather than what or whom it kills.
The romance of the American media with American wars is an enduring one. The immediate aftermath of 9/11 saw newspapers clamoring to praise the benevolence and necessity of the war on Afghanistan, bolstering the Bush administration’s line that it was at heart a nation-building effort that would eliminate the Taliban and liberate Afghan women. The Bush administration’s rendition and torture of prisoners, which also began that same fall of 2001, was not reported on until June 2006. And what was true of Afghanistan was also true of Iraq. The small armies of embedded journalists that descended into Iraq, along with the Coalition Provisional Authority, were giddy at their own gallantry as they embedded themselves with soldiers and focused more on highlighting their team’s heroism than on journalism. In November of 2001, the New York Times and Frontline reported that an Iraqi general had witnessed military training of Arab fighters. But that was a small lie compared to the one about weapons of mass destruction, which notably fell not simply from Bush administration’s lips but pushed also on page one of the New York Times.
While this limp submission to war-craving patriotism over truth-telling was injurious then, it is likely to be even more lethal under the Trump administration. The reason is simple and already visible in the aftermath of the Syria strikes and the bombing in Afghanistan. For all of the media’s skepticism toward the Trump administration’s domestic ineptitude and fast flowing fictions, it does not have a similar skeptical orientation to the wars and bombings ordered by the same administration. The consequence is a distinct shift in media tone and tenor when Trump is tweeting about taxes to when he orders military strikes on other countries. Bombing, the adulation-seeking Trump may already have realized, is an easily available shortcut to adoration, near unquestioned acceptance. This will be the second, larger cost: teaching the president that if he wants to be loved and lauded, and indeed no one does as much as Donald Trump, all he has to do is take a big bomb and drop it.