The fires of hell

Boys like things that go “boom!” but it’s a far cry from the fireworks of July 4th to the destructive force of America’s most popular battlefield weapon, the Hellfire missile. Launched by helicopter, ship-based platforms, land-based installations and fixed-wing aircraft, the Hellfire is a $50,000 laser-homing missile and the most popular munition of the U.S. military and allied weapons customers.

Deployed worldwide for use in the U.S. led “war on terror” the Hellfire is sheer terror itself, effectively obliterating bodies using thermobaric bomb technology. First developed (but not used) by the Germans during World War II, thermobaric munitions employ dispersed clouds of vaporized explosives which when ignited combine with atmospheric oxygen to release 100 percent of the explosive power of the fuel, producing a 5,000 degree fireball and massive shockwave followed by an equally powerful vacuum field. Bodies in close proximity to the explosion are incinerated, blown to bits and imploded; people some distance from the explosion are not incinerated, but the shockwave and vacuum implosion are invariably fatal.

Thermobaric bombs like the Hellfire missile have been condemned by human rights organizations. People who survive the fireball suffer collapsed lungs, punctured eardrums and massive internal trauma from the shockwave and vacuum effects, which though ultimately fatal may leave innocent victims suffering painfully until death. Part of the allure of these weapons is the longer duration and large size of the fireball generated by vaporized fuel. In addition, once targeted and launched the Hellfire missile requires no ongoing human guidance.

The Hellfire is popular because it kills people so efficiently.

The annual Defense Department budget of over $650 billion includes billions of dollars spent on military weapon design, development and testing, but little is said about the weapons themselves and why they are specifically designed the way they are. Herein lies what psychologist-author Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil;” Adolph Eichmann’s bureaucratic role in expediting genocide and Nazi use of the language of science, commerce and industry to mask the inhuman reality of organized killing. Accordingly, Hellfire specifications discuss blast-wave dynamics, range, speed, guidance, launch options and so forth, but it’s really all about systematically and efficiently raining fiery death down upon others from a distance. Yet ask a pilot to use his hands to dump gasoline on an innocent family and incinerate them in person and he would refuse.

At the museum at Dachau outside of Munich, Germany, I read the letters of correspondence to concentration camp officials from the manufacturer of the ovens used to cremate camp inmates. The material covers the topics of incineration temperature, projected productivity statistics, fuel consumption, installation specifications and so forth. Completely businesslike in tone, it never alludes to the role of the ovens in the overall mass-extermination plan. It’s all presented in the language of commerce — effectiveness, efficiency and reliability — much as the Hellfire designer-contractor details the workings and advantages of its deadly product. Such antiseptic language may free participants from psychological responsibility for being part of an international multi-billion-dollar death machine, but does not erase their moral complicity.

Before being found guilty of murder and being hanged for his role in Nazi genocide, Adolph Eichmann claimed he was completely innocent, just doing his job and never directly killed anyone. Under similar circumstances, I’m certain the CEO of Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the Hellfire missile, would say the same.

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