When I read of the United States forces’ dropping of the second-largest non-nuclear explosive in their arsenal — the 21,000-pound GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) — in eastern Afghanistan, I am reminded of what John Paul Vann, the legendary Army officer and civilian adviser during the Vietnam War, said about the right way to fight guerrillas: “This is a political war, and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worse is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle — you know who you’re killing.” An Israeli general made a similar point to me after the defeat of the second intifada, saying, “Better to fight terror with an M-16 rather than an F-16.”
What they were saying, these veteran counterguerrilla fighters, is that war requires careful calibration in the application of violence, lest excessive firepower kill lots of innocents and drive more recruits into the enemy’s camp. That is precisely the problem that United States forces (and before them, the French) encountered in Vietnam and the Russians encountered in Afghanistan.
There is, to be sure, no evidence of any collateral damage from the use of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan. Preliminary reporting indicates that the bomb may have killed 36 Islamic State militants and collapsed some tunnel networks. These are results to be cheered. And if North Korea or Iran is intimidated by this staggering display of firepower, so much the better.