Bombing civilians from the air is not yet a century old as a military strategy, and has never yet achieved its implicit aim of destroying a society’s will to resist. Yet the world has come to regard air power as the normal way of waging war, and not as the ineffective barbarity it really is.
Barbarism seems an obvious enough category. Ordinarily in our world, the barbarians are them. They act in ways that seem unimaginably primitive and brutal to us. They kidnap or capture someone, American or Iraqi, and cut off his head. Now, isn’t that the definition of barbaric? Who does that any more? The eighth century, or maybe the word “medieval” - anyway, some brutal past time - comes to mind immediately, and to the mass mind of our media even faster.
To jump a little closer to modernity, they strap grenades, plastic explosives, bombs of various ingenious sorts fashioned in home labs, with nails or other bits of sharp metal added to create instant shrapnel meant to rend human flesh, to maim and kill. Then they approach a target - an Israeli bus filled with civilians and perhaps some soldiers, a pizza parlour in Jerusalem, a foreigner on the streets of Kabul, a gathering of Shia or Sunni worshippers at or near a mosque in Iraq or Pakistan, or of unemployed potential police or army recruits in Ramadi or Baghdad, or of shoppers in an Iraqi market, and they blow themselves up. Or they arm backpacks or bags and step on to trains in London, Madrid, Mumbai, and set them off.
Or, to up the technology and modernity, they wire a car to explode, put a jihadist in the driver’s seat, and drive it into . . . this is now so common that you can pick your target. Or perhaps they audaciously hijack four just-fuelled jets filled with passengers and fly two of them into the World Trade Centre, one into the Pentagon and another into a field in Pennsylvania. This is, of course, the very definition of barbaric.
Now, let’s jump a step further into our age of technological destruction, becoming less face-to-face, more impersonal, without, in the end, changing things that much. They send rockets from southern Lebanon (or cruder ones from the Gaza Strip) against Israeli towns and cities. These rockets can only vaguely be aimed. Some can be brought into the general vicinity of an inhabited area; others, more advanced, into specific urban neighbourhoods many tens of miles away, and there they detonate, killing whoever is in the vicinity, which normally means civilians just living their lives; even, in one recent Hizbullah volley aimed at Nazareth, two Israeli Arab children. In this process, thousands of Israelis have been temporarily driven from their homes.
Rockets by the hundreds lofted into Israel by an armed, organised militia, meant to terrorise and harm civilian populations, are undoubtedly war crimes. Above all, they represent a kind of barbarism that, with the possible exception of some of those advanced Hizbullah rockets, feels primitive to us. Despite the explosives, cars and planes, which are all so basic to our modern way of life, such acts still seem redolent of ancient, less civilised times when people did especially cruel things to each other, face to face.
The religion of air power
That’s them. But what about us? On our planet most groups don’t consider themselves barbarians. None the less, we have mostly achieved non-barbaric status in an interesting way, by removing the most essential aspect of the American (and, right now, Israeli) way of war from the category of the barbaric. I’m talking about air power, about raining destruction down on the earth from the skies, and about the belief, so common, so long-lasting, so deep-seated, that bombing others, including civilian populations, is a strategic thing to do; that air power can, in relatively swift measure, break the will not just of the enemy, but of that enemy’s society; and that such a way of war is the royal path to victory.
This set of beliefs was common to airpower advocates even before modern air war had been tested, and repeated unsuccessful attempts to put these convictions into practice have never really shaken (not for long anyway) what is essentially a warmaking religion. The result has been the development of the most barbaric style of warfare imaginable, one that has seldom succeeded in breaking any society’s will, though it has destroyed innumerable bodies, lives, stretches of countryside, villages, towns and cities.
Even today we find Israeli military strategists saying things that could have been put in the mouths of their airpower-loving predecessors decades ago. Steven Erlanger of the New York Times recently quoted an unnamed senior Israeli commander: “He predicted that Israel would stick largely to air power for now. ‘A ground manoeuvre won’t solve the problem of the long-range missiles,’ he said. ‘The problem is the will to launch. We have to break the will of Hizbullah’ ” (1).
Don’t hold your breath is the first lesson history teaches about this assessment of the powers of air war; the second is that, a decade from now, some other senior commander in some other country will be saying the same thing, word for word.
When it comes to brutality, ancient times have had a bad rap. Nothing in history was more brutal than the 20th century style of war-making, than its two world wars with their air armadas, backed by the most advanced industrial systems on the planet. Powerful countries then bent every elbow, every brain, to support the destruction of human beings en masse, not to speak of the Holocaust (which was assembly-line warfare in another form), and the colonial and cold war campaigns in the third world from the 1940s on. These, in Korea and Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, substituted the local devastation of air power for a nuclear war between the superpowers which might have used the mightiest air weaponry of all to scour the earth.
It may be that the human capacity for brutality, for barbarism, hasn’t changed much since the eighth century, but the industrial revolution, especially the rise of the plane, opened up new landscapes to brutality, while the view from behind the gun-sight, then the bomb-sight, and finally the missile-sight, slowly widened until all of humanity was taken in. From the lofty, godlike vantage point of the strategic as well as the literal heavens, the military and the civilian began to blur on the ground. Soldiers and citizens, conscripts and refugees, became nothing but hordes of tiny ants, or merely the structures that housed them, or even just concepts, indistinguishable one from the other.
One plane, one bomb
As far as anyone knows, the first bomb was dropped by hand over the Italian colony of Libya. According to Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing, one Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti “leaned out of his delicate monoplane and dropped the bomb, a Danish Haasen hand grenade, on the North African oasis Tagiura, near Tripoli. Several moments later, he attacked the oasis Ain Zara. Four bombs in total, each weighing two kilos, were dropped during this first air attack” (2).
That was in 1911 and the damage was minimal. Only 34 years later vast armadas of B-17s and B-29s were taking off, up to 1,000 planes at a time, to bomb Germany and Japan. A single raid on Tokyo with incendiary bombs and napalm that began just after midnight on 10 March 1945 proved capable of incinerating at least 90,000 people, possibly many more, from such a height that the dead could not be seen though the stench of burning flesh carried up to the planes. The first US planes to arrive over the city, wrote historian Michael Sherry in The Rise of American Air Power, “carved out an X of flames across one of the world’s most densely packed residential districts; followers fed and broadened it for some three hours thereafter” (3).
What descended from the skies, as James Carroll puts it in his new book, House of War, was “1,665 tons of pure fire” (4), the most efficient and deliberate act of arson in history. “The firestorm obliterated 15 square miles, including residential and industrial areas. Fires raged for four days.” It was the bonfire of bonfires and not one US plane was shot down.
On 6 August 1945 all the power of that vast air armada was reduced back to a single plane, the Enola Gay, and a single bomb, Little Boy, dropped near a single bridge in a single city, Hiroshima, which in a single moment of a sort never before experienced on the planet did what it had taken 300 B-29s and many hours to do in Tokyo. In those two cities, as well as Dresden and other German and Japanese cities subjected to strategic bombing, the dead (perhaps 900,000 in Japan and 600,000 in Germany) were preponderantly civilian, far too distant to be seen by plane crews often dropping bomb loads in the dark of night.
So 1911: one plane, one bomb. 1945: one plane, one bomb, but at least 120,000 dead, possibly many more. Two bookmarks less than four decades apart in the first chapter of a history of the invention of a new kind of warfare, a new kind of barbarism that, by now, is the way we expect war to be waged, a way that no longer strikes us as barbaric at all.
The shock of the new
This wasn’t always the case. When military air power was in its infancy and silent films still ruled the movie theatres, the first air-war films presented pilots as knights of the heavens, engaging in courageous, chivalric, one-on-one combat in the skies. Beside the meat-grinder of trench warfare in the first world war the medieval seemed far less brutal, a time much preferable to those years in which young men died in their hundreds of thousands, anonymously, by machine guns, artillery, poison gas, all the lovely inventions of industrial civilisation; they were ground into the mud of no man’s land, often without managing to move their lines or the enemy’s more than a few hundred yards.
The image of chivalric knights in planes jousting in the skies slowly disappeared from American screens - as after the 1950s, by and large, did air power itself, although the war film went on and on. It can most recently be seen in the film Top Gun; in Peanuts strips in which Snoopy remains forever the Red Baron’s foe; post-Star Wars, in the fantasy realms of outer space where Jedi Knights took up lethal sky-jousting in the late 1970s; and in zillions of video games thereafter. Although the one-way air slaughter in South Vietnam was mostly left out of the Vietnam films that hit the screen from the late 1970s.
In the off-screen world, that courtly medieval image of air power disappeared fast. As the second world war came ever closer and it became more apparent what air power was best at, which was what would now be called collateral damage, the shock set in. When civilians were first purposely targeted and bombed in the industrialising world rather than in colonies such as Iraq, the act was widely condemned as inhuman by a startled world.
People were horrified when, during the Spanish civil war in 1937, Hitler’s Condor Legion and planes from fascist Italy repeatedly bombed the Basque town of Guernica, destroying most of its buildings and killing many civilians. If you want to get a sense of the power of that act to shock then, see Picasso’s famous painting of protest done almost immediately after. (When US Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the UN in February 2003 to deliver his speech explaining what we supposedly knew about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, UN officials, possibly at the request of the Bush administration, covered over a tapestry of the painting positioned where Powell would have to pass.)
In 1937, as the Japanese began their campaign to conquer China, they bombed a number of cities. A single shot of a Chinese baby wailing amid the ruins, published in Life magazine, was enough to horrify Americans (although the photo may have been doctored).
Air power was seen as a new kind of barbarism. According to Sherry: “In 1937 and 1938 President Roosevelt had the State Department condemn Japanese bombing of civilians in China as barbarous violations of the ‘elementary principles of modern morality’.” Observers checking the effect that the bombing of civilians had on the will of society offered nothing but bad news to the strategists of air power. Sherry again: “In the Saturday Evening Post, an American army officer observed that bombing had proven ‘disappointing to the theorists of peacetime’. When Franco’s rebels bombed Madrid, did the Madrileños sue for peace? No, they shook futile fists at the murderers in the sky and muttered: Swine. His conclusion: ‘Terrorism from the air has been tried and found wanting. Bombing, far from softening the civil will, hardens it’.”
Similar things are already being written about the Lebanese, though, in our media, terms like barbarism and terrorism are unlikely to be applied to Israel’s war from the heavens. New York Times correspondent Sabrina Tavernise reported from the site of a destroyed apartment building in the bomb-shocked Lebanese port of Tyre: “Whatever the target, the result was an emotional outpouring in support of Hizbullah. Standing near a cluster of dangling electrical wires, a group of men began to chant. ‘By our blood and our soul, we’ll fight for you, Nasrallah!’ they said, referring to Hizbullah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. In a foggy double image, another small group chanted the same thing, as if answering, on the other side of the smoke” (5).
As air wars go, the one in Lebanon may seem strikingly directed against the civilian infrastructure and against society; in that, however, it is historically anything but unique. It might even be said that war from the air, since first launched in Europe’s colonies early in the last century, has always been essentially directed against civilians. As in the second world war, air power, no matter its stated targets, almost invariably turns out to be worst for civilians and, in the end, to be aimed at society itself.
In that way, its damage is anything but collateral, never truly surgical, and never in its overall effect precise. Even when it doesn’t start that way, the frustration of not working as planned, of not breaking the will, invariably leads, as with the Israelis, to ever wider, ever fiercer versions of the same, which, if allowed to proceed to their logical conclusion, will bring down not society’s will, but society itself.
For the Lebanese prime minister what Israel has been doing to his country may be “barbaric destruction” but, in our world, air power has long been robbed of its barbarism (suicide missions excepted). For us, air war involves dumb hits by smart bombs, collateral damage, and surgery that may kill the patient, but it’s not barbaric. For that you need personally to cut off a head.
Tom Engelhardt runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com and is the author of a history of US triumphalism in the cold war, ‘The End of Victory Culture’ (University of Massachusetts Press, 1998). This article first appeared in a longer version on the Tomdispatch website
(1) New York Times, 23 July 2006.
(2) A History of Bombing, The New Press, New York, 2001.
(3) Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon, Yale University Press, 1989 (paperback reprint).
(4) House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2006.
(5) New York Times, 27 July 2006.