The United States is said to have the most powerful military in the world. The nation’s combat assets are intimidating, both in technology and manpower. The weaponry at America’s disposal is terrifying in its intensity and scope, automated and vicious. If there was ever a nation best equipped for war in the history of the world, this is it.
But there is one asset that enables the United States’ military ambitions far more than the ungodly unmerciful firepower at its disposal: the American media.
This was on full display in the wake of President Donald Trump’s tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian airbase and its munitions (one which ultimately proved so ineffective that planes from that base were flying bombing raids within hours of the American attack), which—according to the governor of the Homs province—killed seven civilians and injured another nine. On MSNBC, Brian Williams described footage of the strike as “beautiful” over and over, rhapsodizing over this unconstitutional military action as though he were John Keats and his bright star just happened to be a projectile bearing deadly explosives. He was even kind enough to quote from Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” (“I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons”) with all the unhinged passion of a drunk at a party, explaining why his favorite song is so damn moving. In an interview with President Trump on Fox Business, in which the executive wrote an ode to his dessert and forgot which country he bombed while eating it, anchor Maria Bartiromo giggled as Trump explained his decision to rain death on a sovereign nation without congressional approval. On CNN, noted plagiarist Fareed Zakaria announced that Donald Trump “just became president,” failing to explain why we’ve had to put up with a megalomaniac’s executive orders since January if this is truly the case. The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill appeared on CNN later to suggest that Zakaria might have sex with the cruise missile strike were it possible, and I’m inclined to agree.
This is not unusual behavior, though it is especially shocking as pundits try to carve out a so-called Trump Doctrine by which to contextualize this strike, given that our Commander in Chief has shown he wouldn’t be able to think five steps ahead with Google Maps in his hand. In truth, the media has long played a role in justifying American war-making, valorizing and romanticizing it. One need only look back on the newsreels of American G.I.s fighting on the Eastern and Western Fronts, propaganda spread far and wide to blind Americans to the gory, brutal, ugly nature of violent conflict, supposing a narrative of legislative and military heroism as the alternative.
The best example of this tendency would probably be the war in Iraq, which was almost unilaterally lauded, and presented as a conflict of unerring moral necessity. Most famously, Judith Miller wrote numerous stories for the New York Times, all of which were proven false, that became integral parts of the cyclical justification machine for the invasion. Up until her severance from the paper, she claimed, in the face of definitive evidence to the contrary, that she was “fucking right.”
While the media was famously critical of the Vietnam War in the wake of the Tet Offensive, that disastrous operation itself was reported as a success. It wasn’t until footage of the war’s unbridled carnage and buffoonish mismanagement became overly apparent that the narrative was forced to adjust with the gravity of truth. Similarly, although the War on Terror ultimately fell under harsh media criticism, its onset saw a recitation of the jingoism that bloomed from the agony of September 11th: a refusal to suggest that the casus belli being set forth by the administration might be faulty, disingenuous, or misguided.
This is all the more frightening when one examines Donald Trump, who is famously sensitive to public opinion. One need only look at his need to push false estimates about the size of his inauguration crowd or his victory in the election to understand the lengths the man will go to to shape his narrative. With the deluge of losses he’s suffered in the past months, from the open refutation of his wiretapping claims to the public scrutiny over his potential ties to Russia, it’s not unheard of that he might seize on the praise given in response to the Syria strike and run with it, understanding that brazen military action is often painted as executive heroism in the media sphere.
It’s likely he already has.
This Thursday, the United States dropped a MOAB—Massive Ordinance Air Blast, colloquially called the Mother of all Bombs—in the Achin District of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province with the aim to take out supposed ISIS tunnels in the area. The MOAB, which is being used for the first time, is the largest non-nuclear bomb in the American arsenal. It measures in at 30 feet long and contains the equivalent of 11 tons of TNT. Developed during the Iraq War and, up until now, employed mainly as a piece of suggestive psychological warfare, the MOAB is the pinnacle of America’s non-nuclear arsenal. It’s a horrific piece of death-making machinery.
Though it is, as of now, unclear whether Trump himself gave the order to deploy the bomb, it’s hard not to see the strike as the logical next step in Trump’s warcraft as egocraft. The connection between these two things has been obvious for months, since it was reported that Trump was convinced to conduct his disastrous raid in Yemen by advisors who told him that President Obama wouldn’t have done it. In the wake of that failure and its explicit labeling as such, Trump was able to use his Syrian strike as a way to boost his profile as a powerful, decisive executive. The use of the MOAB is best understood as a continuation of this: an attention seeker who has found which buttons he needs to press to achieve the rise he desires.
This is petrifying. It implies that we are in the throes of an administration willing to commit violence on a global scale, sacrificing strategic objectives for 1) potential but shifty moral convictions and 2) personal praise. It’s the logical endpoint of comparing war-making to dick measuring.
Luckily for President Trump, the American media has proven itself to be the best fluffer in the business.