Grasping ‘the Significance of the Weapon’

Never one to suffer subtlety gladly, or overpolish the written word, US President Donald J. Trump on January 3 ‘spoke’ to the world by tweet: an American flag, behind which, we soon learned, lay the body of Iranian General Qassam Suleimani (and seven other human beings), assassinated by drone in Baghdad in an act widely denounced as illegal under international and American law.

Domestically, such assassinations were explicitly prohibited by Republican President Gerald Ford in 1976; internationally, military commanders are legally-legitimate targets only in the context of declared armed conflict. The only exception, in either case, is self-defense to forestall an imminent attack, and neither the UN nor Congress was provided, before or after the murder, with evidence of any such need to ‘shoot first and ask questions later.’

The killing, indeed, could itself be interpreted as an act of war, and in the days following – until the accidental Iranian downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, with the loss of 176 lives, on January 8 – the region teetered on the brink of full-blooded escalation. And it was during this sensitive, touch-and-go interlude that Trump turned global stomachs anew by threatening, if American forces or civilians were hit, to attack non-military targets including “some at a very high level & important to Iran & Iranian culture.” “Those targets,” Trump added – referring to an apparent list of 52 sites, one for each of the Americans taken hostage in Tehran in 1980 – “WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

Somewhat confusingly, given the baldness of Trump’s ‘braggadocioussness,’ US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the Commander-on-Chief “didn’t say he’d go after a cultural site,” only for the Commander-in-Chief to then tell reporters:

They’re allowed to kill our people, and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.

The general response from US commentators (including the obligatory TV-parade of retired military leaders) was that it’s the American military that ‘doesn’t work that way’: that would never stoop so low. But while the Pentagon (Trump’s mystery list notwithstanding) may not select cultural targets, at least not for the stated aim of collective punishment, its demonstrably indiscriminate bombardment of cities in recent years – most murderously, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria  – respected neither heritage nor humanity, and inevitably devastated both. The rules of war also require occupying forces to protect cultural treasures, a duty spectacularly evaded by the US in Iraq after its (illegal) 2003 invasion, when the wholesale looting of Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, and numerous other sites, was greeted with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous two-word shrug:

Stuff happens!


According to retired General Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to US Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2001-2004, it was only after 9/11 that America fell from war-fighting grace. Rather than being “as we have been since 1945, the greatest supporter of international law and the rule of law in general across the globe,” Wilkerson told Democracy Now!:

America exists today to make war. How else do we explain 19 straight years of war and no end in sight? It’s part of who we are. It’s part of what the American Empire is. We are going to cheat and steal to do whatever it is we have to do to continue this war complex. That’s the truth of it. And that’s the agony of it.

However heartfelt, Wilkerson’s ‘big picture’ is breathtakingly ahistorical. “Violence,” as the Dakota Sioux scholar and activist Vine Deloria insisted, “is America’s sweetheart,” a ‘beloved’ befitting a white-supremacist settler-state whose ‘founding act’ – the cultural and physical genocide of indigenous peoples – bred the evils of slavery and its ongoing aftershocks. And internationally, from 1945-2001 (Wilkerson’s ‘golden age’) US forces committed massive war crimes in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq and elsewhere – to say nothing of the culture of authorized atrocity, on all sides, in World War II, culminating in the atomic bombings of Japan.

From that low-point on, most of the international community, most of the time, has striven to remove (to quote the UN Charter) “the scourge of war” from the hands of those made criminally strong by military might. When Trump ended his cultural-blackmail tweet by insisting the “USA wants no more threats!” he was indulging the standard fantasy of invulnerability at the core of so much militarism (and other forms of violence and abuse).

“Thou art the best o’ the cut-throats,” Macbeth tells the murderer of Banquo (doubtless killed ‘while plotting an imminent attack’). But when he learns of the inevitable ‘loose end’ — Banquo’s son, who has escaped:

Then comes my fit again. I had else been perfect,

Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,

As broad and general as the casing air.

But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in

To saucy doubts and fears.


Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to MacTrump’s threat by tweeting that having “committed grave breaches of int’l law in Friday’s cowardly assassinations,” the President “threatens again new breaches of JUS COGENS” (the rules of acceptable conduct in combat): “Targeting cultural sites is a WAR CRIME.” Zarif – and many others, including Jeh Johnson, President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security Secretary  – accused Trump of aims akin to the puritanical vandalism of the Taliban and ISIS, while Javed Azari-Jahromi, Iran’s Minister of Communications, ranked Trump, that “terrorist in a suit,” with Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan.

Such comparisons may seem obscene, as both Khan and Hitler razed many cities, killing many millions. (As the Nazi poet Hans Johst declared, in a quote understandably misattributed to Gestapo-boss Herman Goering , “when I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my gun!” But when Trump also threatens to obliterate entire nations (North Korea, Iran, even Afghanistan), we enter no new territory, but rather the chilling sterility of the nuclear ‘war room.’

And when, in April 1961, Bertrand Russell caused a metaphorical firestorm by describing US President John F. Kennedy and UK Prime Minister Harold MacMillan as “much more wicked than Hitler” — because of the actual, atomic firestorm they were able and willing to unleash – the philosopher was merely telling the bitterest truth of our time: that in basing ‘national security’ on the threat to kill millions of people (and poison the planet) in minutes, you forfeit all right to the title of ‘civilized.’ And that is so not only for all those nine states now possessing the Bomb – to read the dishonor roll: the US, UK, Russia, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea – but all those, including Canada, claiming the right to ‘shelter’ under that evil wing.


The moral indefensibility of nuclear weapons – not just their use and threatened use, but, as Pope Francis stressed recently in Nagasaki, their very possession – has taken center stage in the 21st century push for ‘Global Zero,’ culminating in the adoption by 122 states in July 2017 of the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, or ‘Ban Treaty’). As a milestone on that path, Austria in 2014 issued a ‘Humanitarian Pledge,’ soon signed by 126 other states, “emphasizing,” in its paradigm-shifting preamble:

…that the scope of the consequences of a nuclear weapon explosion, and risks associated, raise profound moral and ethical questions that go beyond debates about the legality of nuclear weapons.

It’s a twist of logic that, if followed, may yet save us: precisely because they transcend questions of law, nuclear weapons have to outlawed!

Doomsday Clock 2020

Doomsday Clock 2020: 100 seconds to midnight. (Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Like its evil twin threat, global warming, the Bomb menaces the existential basis of organized, civilized life on Earth – a vicious ‘pincer movement’ on the planet that recently prompted the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move its 74-year-old ‘Doomsday Clock’ closer to ‘midnight’ (100 seconds) than ever before. Unlike global warming, however, the Bomb is built – designed – to unmake its Maker, to destroy in a flash climate and culture, the human past and future. And in such an Age of Unreason – or what the Arms Control Association recently called “the dangerous illogic of nuclear deterrence” – discussion of cultural immunity from destruction in war can assume surreal, at once grotesque and quaint, proportions.

Exhibit A, perhaps, is the Pentagon’s heavy flirtation with the ‘neutron bomb,’ whose deployment in Europe in the late 1970s was prevented only by stubborn media exposure of, and mass protest against, its perverse purpose: minimizing ‘collateral damage’ in a blast, not to people, but structures! By way of confirming science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s contention that the officially-titled ‘Enhanced Radiation Weapon’ (ERW) only “seems desirable to those who worry about property and hold life cheap,” soon-to-be-President Ronald Reagan called it an “ideal” bomb that “could easily and economically alter the balance of power.”


Or perhaps Exhibit A should be Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, saved from atomic destruction only by US Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson’s fond memories of visiting (and, some historians claim, honeymooning in) the city. In Stimson’s words: “I struck [it] off the list” as it was a major “shrine of Japanese art and culture.” (Mercifully, for Kyoto, anyway, the neutron bomb had not yet been invented!) And so, as the BBC’s Mariko Oi wrote in 2015:

…instead of thousands of temples and shrines, it was the people of Nagasaki that evaporated in the blink of an eye.

Hiroshima Hiroshima Peace Memorial, also known as the Atomic Bomb Dome (“Genbaku Dome”). An exhibition hall, it was the only thing left standing in the area after the bomb.. (Photo by Kiyokun [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Hiroshima Hiroshima Peace Memorial, also known as the Atomic Bomb Dome (“Genbaku Dome”). An exhibition hall, it was the only thing left standing in the area after the bomb.. (Photo by Kiyokun, GFDL, from Wikimedia Commons

On 12 May 1945, the ‘Targeting Committee’ charged with recommending to Stimson and President Harry S. Truman which cities to destroy, listed Kyoto as #1 mainly because, as “an intellectual center,” the “people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapons as ‘the gadget’” (as the Bomb was cunningly termed).

Later that same, soberly-minuted meeting, while considering ‘Psychological Factors in Target Selection,’ this stupendously senseless reasoning was repeated:

Kyoto has the advantage of the people being more highly intelligent and hence better able to appreciate the significance…

Incredibly, a pre-eminent human question before us today – as the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approaches – remains how profoundly we grasp ‘the significance of the weapon,’ how intelligently we intend to counter the culture of demonic violence at the – fast-ticking – heart of the Bomb?

Before we ‘learn’ the hard way.

Sean Howard

Featured image: Trident II D5 nuclear missile Ronald Gutridge, US Navy


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.