Terror from the Skies

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In the aftermath of Israel's assault on Lebanon and continuing threats by the US against Iran, Beau Grosscup looks at the history and politics of aerial bombardments.

Shock and Awe! Shock and Awe! With this by now familiar, celebrated phrase, the Bush administration announced its intention to topple Saddam Hussein from power in March 2003. The Pentagon plan was to blast the so-called "axis of evil" nation with 3,000 bombs and missiles over 48 hours for the purpose of "shocking the Iraqi leadership" into quick submission. If, said Pentagon officials, Saddam didn't capitulate immediately "the political imperative to keep civilian casualties to a minimum will have to be put to one side... There will not be a safe place in Baghdad."

According to the architects of the plan, known in military circles as the "Theory of Rapid Dominance", the key objective was to have the same impact on the Iraqis' will using conventional weapons as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on Japan in the Second World War.

Rapid Dominance is the latest re-formulation of strategic bombing theory - a strategy conceived at the juncture of the end of the First World War and the dawning of the age of aviation. Its proponents, known as the Prophets (Guilio Douhet, Liddell Hart, Hugh Trenchard and Billy Mitchell), argued it was now possible and preferable to win wars through the sole use of air power.

For the Prophets and many of their fellow military strategists, the First World War had been a disaster, but not because millions of people died. Indeed at the time, large numbers of war casualties were seen as a measure of national greatness. Rather, it was because millions of the "warrior class" were forced to fight and die in the mud and blood of Europe in a "feminised" defensive posture known as trench warfare.

Military strategists always prefer to be on the offensive, not only because it is thought to be a winning strategy, but because it is the manly way to conduct war. But a winning offensive strategy requires a "decisive" weapon that can strike a knockout blow to the enemy. None of the First World War armies had such a weapon.

For the Prophets, the airplane was the desired decisive instrument. In the "civilised" world's hands, air power was the key to fighting and winning future wars efficiently, effectively and morally in the most "manly" fashion. Evidence of what this meant for the colonial "savages" came quick and often between the two world wars.

In 1920 reports of Iraqi women and children dying from British planes, dropping high explosive bombs around the clock disturbed even bombing enthusiast Winston Churchill. Air squadron leader Arthur Harris had no such qualms. In 1932, though massive British bombing of villages failed to subdue nationalist rebellions in Burma and north western India, the effect on civilians was appalling.

British soldiers who entered the devastated towns reported, "Pariah dogs are already at work eating the corpses of the babies and old women who have been killed." Likewise, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie protested against the Italian fascists' air war in which "soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes and fields were drenched with this never ending rain of death".

Class and race biases

Based on the Prophets' assertion that modern war had destroyed any distinction between the battlefront (the fighting space of the warrior class) and the home front (where non-combatants toiled in support of the war effort), they proposed that air power be used first and foremost on what Hart called the industrial enemy's "Achilles heel" - its civilian population.

In the crudest of terms, they proposed bombing the enemy's civilian population centres, or what would later be designated a nation's "vital centres", to incinerate the civilian population and force the survivors to flee to an as yet un-bombed city. The bombers would then devastate that city, creating a larger refugee population that, having made their way to the next city, would be blasted again. Eventually, and "by this means alone", asserted the Prophets, the civilians would lose their will to resist and force their government to surrender.

Strategic bombing theory is heavily dependent on gender, race and class-based "self and other" identity analysis. The assumption that civilians should be targeted stems from the Prophets' understanding that the non-combatant population is largely women and children, with a few infirm men thrown in. Together, as the "weaker other", they simply do not have the same will to resist the terror from the skies as does the manly warrior class.

The class and race biases became evident with the decision, as Trenchard purposed, to "precisely" bomb industrial working class homes and places of work while avoiding upper class residential areas. On the other hand, in addition to the "stiff upper-lip" character attributed to the aristocratic "self", partial or wholesale destruction of the nation's industrial capital would weigh heavily on the adversary's ruling class. Thus the more likely they are to negotiate a way out of their dilemma with those, though different in nationality, of their own class.

Since first articulated, strategic bombing theory has gone through various re-formulations. Yet its theoretical centrepiece remains. After nearly a century of terror from the skies in Europe, Africa and Asia, strategic bombing's efficacy remains unproven (with the exception of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War). Indeed, in every case bombing has proven to stiffen the backbone and productivity of the enemy civilians but at a high cost.

For example, during the Korean War, William O Douglas, chief justice of the US Supreme Court, detailed the bombing effect on civilian life: "I have seen the war-battered cities of Europe, but I had not seen devastation until I had seen Korea. Cities like Seoul are badly mangled - but a host of towns and villages, like Chonwon on the base of the Iron Triangle, are completely obliterated. Bridges, railroads, dams are blasted... Misery, disease, pain and suffering, starvation - these are all compounded beyond comprehension."

To the bombing enthusiasts, the century of failure is largely due to "political restraints" imposed on their bombing schemes. Thus, they argue, the "theory" has never been allowed to succeed. Despite failures, the political and military benefits of fighting the alleged "clean and precise" high-tech "robo-war" from the clouds have convinced "the bombing nations" to keep on trying - at the cost of millions of civilian lives.

Since the advent of the "age of terrorism" (early 1970s to the present) it has become "politically incorrect" to be associated with terrorism. In order to dodge the terrorism label, the focus of aerial bombardment has allegedly shifted from directly targeting civilian populations to wreaking havoc through "precision" bombing of civilian infrastructure.

In the 1990-91 Gulf War most of the targets were civilian facilities. The US intentionally bombed and destroyed commercial and business districts, schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, shelters, residential areas, historical sites, private vehicles and civilian government offices. The purpose of the infrastructure attacks is to destroy life and property, and generally to terrorise the civilian population, yet "minimise" civilian casualties.

In practice this is a distinction without meaning. With the high population density of the modern urban setting, targeting civilian "life" and not civilians is impossible. For example, Dr Beth Daponte, analyst for the US Census Bureau, reported that around 3,500 civilians died directly from the US bombing of Iraq in 1991. In addition, because of the intentional and direct attacks on Iraq's economic infrastructure, she calculated there were 111,000 indirect or "excess deaths" in 1991 due to disruptions in Iraqi society and economy.

Since the bombers never define the concepts "precision" or "minimal", both become wonderfully elastic to be applied for political convenience and moral cover. With so-called "dual-use targets" (infrastructure with both military and civilian uses) the definition of what a military target is becomes politically malleable as well. Thus Basra, Iraq's second largest city, was, according to British Brigadier General Richard Neal, "a military town in the true sense... the infrastructure, military infrastructure is closely interwoven within the city of Basra itself".

Finally, the contemporary bombing nations have argued that bombing to kill civilians is terrorism, while bombing knowing you are going to kill civilians is war and thus unavoidable. Obviously, if the other's bombers were doing what US, Russian and Israeli bombers have done in Iraq, Chechnya and Lebanon, those who now hold this distinction so dear would drop it in a flash.

Today what the US and Britain have done and are doing in Iraq (100,000 Iraqi civilians dead as of October 2004, 79 percent from bombing and thousands more among the 655,000 dead as of October 2006), Afghanistan (more than 5,000 dead civilians in the first ten weeks of post-9/11 bombing) and Israel's wreckage of Lebanon in July 2006, are the most recent cases of strategic bombing. They follow on Russia's total destruction of Chechnya's economy with hundreds of thousands dead.

As in past wars, the current "bombing nations" are trying to prove that raining death and destruction from thousands of feet on the civilian life of "others" is the "cleanest", most moral and effective way to conduct and win modern warfare.

As long as they are able to dominate the terrorism discourse, to demean, devalue and objectify their death and destruction of "other" civilians with terms like "collateral damage" or "regrettable attrited by-products of the war on terror" while reserving the moral high ground for themselves, they will continue to rely on terror from the sky.

Indeed, President George Bush now openly threatens Iran and Syria with the same fate that has befallen Iraq and Afghanistan. The Prophets of strategic bombing and their contemporary top guns couldn't be prouder.


Beau Grosscup is professor of international relations at California State University and the author of Strategic Terror: The Politics and Ethics of Aerial Bombardment published by Zed Books, £15.99