I was thinking today about my old service branch’s core values. No — not “more fighters, more bombers, more missiles” or “put bombs on target” or “jet noise is the sound of freedom” or “show me the money!” or that old Strategic Air Command classic, “peace is our profession.” No — the core values all airmen are supposed to uphold — integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do, in that order, sometimes abbreviated as integrity, service, excellence. How’s the Air Force doing here?
Not well, I’m afraid. Think of “integrity,” which I think of as truth-telling. Over the last 20 years, and indeed over the life of the service, going back to 1947 and before, the Air Force has consistently overestimated the accuracy of its bombing and consistently underestimated the number of civilians and non-combatants killed by that bombing. And that’s putting it charitably. In reality, the Air Force has conspired to advance an image of airpower as surgical and precise when it clearly isn’t, and indeed never has been. My old service branch advances this image because it’s good for the Air Force. It’s really that simple. Such image-making, i.e. lying, may be good for the Air Force budget, but it isn’t good for integrity. Nor is it good for America or those unfortunates on the receiving end of U.S. munitions.
Turning to “service before self,” I think of a system that when I served often stressed and rewarded self before service. For example, the promotion system in the military was structured to reward the hard-chargers, the overachievers, Type-A personalities, the thrusters and the true believers. Perhaps this is true of most bureaucracies, but the emphasis on ticket-punching and hoop-jumping in the Air Force was conducive to a narrow form of achievement in which “service” played second fiddle, when it played at all. Another way of putting it is that a certain kind of personal selfishness is more than acceptable as long as it advances institutional goals and agendas — a quite narrow form of service, if one is again being charitable.
And now we come to “excellence in all we do,” which brings to mind all kinds of disasters, such as drone strikes that kill innocents, or wayward generals, or cheating nuclear missile crews, and so on. But I’d like to focus on recent procurement practices, such as the lamentable F-35 jet fighter, which was supposed to be a fairly low-cost, high-availability fighter but which even the Air Force Chief of Staff now compares to a Ferrari, i.e. super-expensive and often in the shop. From tankers that can’t refuel to fighter planes that can’t shoot straight to nuclear bombers and missiles that the country (and, for that matter, humanity) simply doesn’t need, the Air Force’s record of excellence is spotty indeed.
What are we to do with a service that is so unwilling or unable to live up to its core values? Well, as usual, accountability and punishment are out of the question. I guess we’ll just have to give the Air Force more money while hoping it’ll reform itself, because you know that strategy always works.
Extensive U.S. bombing overseas kills lots of innocent people: who knew?
So this blinding statement of the obvious popped up in my email today from the New York Times:
A five-year Times investigationfound that the U.S. air wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan led to thousands of civilian deaths.
Hidden Pentagon records show a pattern of failures in U.S. airstrikes — a sharp contrast to the American government’s image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs.
The military’s own confidential assessments of over 1,300 reports of civilian casualties since 2014, obtained by The Times, lays bare how the air war has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children. None of these failures resulted in a finding of wrongdoing. We are making these Pentagon records public.
Finally, at the end of 2021, the Times is willing to speak up against America’s murderous regimen of bombing overseas. I wrote about this myself at this site in 2016 and 2017, and I’m hardly the only person to have pointed this out. At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt has been reporting for years and years on wedding parties being wiped out by U.S. bombing missions based on “faulty intelligence.” The mainstream media have largely played down these atrocities until now, when the war in Afghanistan is finally (mostly) over, at least for the U.S.
As I wrote in 2013 for TomDispatch.com, airpower is neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive. Indeed, because it provides an illusion of effectiveness, and because America dominates the “high ground” of the air, all of this “precision” bombing serves to keep America in wars for far longer than is tenable on tactical grounds. Imagine how long the Iraq and Afghan wars would have lasted if America didn’t dominate the air, if the U.S. military had to rely exclusively on ground troops, and thus had suffered much higher casualties in ground combat. My guess is that these wars would have ended earlier, but “progress” could always be faked with all those statistics of bombs dropped and alleged “high value targets” eliminated.
I suppose it’s good to see the “liberal” New York Times cover this issue of murderous bombing after 20 years of the global war on terror. The question remains: why did it take them two decades to cover this issue in depth?
More notes on U.S. bombing and the Times report, courtesy of ReThink Round Up:
“Not a single file [from the military about the bombings] includes a finding of wrongdoing. An effort within the military to find lessons learned to prevent future civilian harm was suppressed. An analyst who captures strike imagery even told the Times that superior officers would often “tell the cameras to look somewhere else” because “they knew if they’d just hit a bad target.”
Responding to the report, a Pentagon spokesperson acknowledged that preventing civilian deaths is not just a “moral imperative” but a strategic issue because civilian casualties can fuel recruiting for extremist groups. [New York Times/ Azmat Khan]”
Again, to state the obvious here:
1. There’s no accountability in the system. Murderous mistakes are covered up and no one is held responsible (“tell the cameras to look somewhere else”).
2. The bombing attacks were counterproductive. Guess what? Killing innocents creates more “terrorists.” Who knew?
Murderous inaccuracy, making matters worse, with no accountability: WTF? So much for America’s “awesome” military, as Andrew Bacevich writes about today at TomDispatch.com.
One day, a village of roughly 1200 people in South Vietnam ceased to exist. The U.S. Air Force destroyed it, and the report read “Target 100% destroyed, body-count 1200 KBA (killed by air) confirmed.”
It wasn’t an “enemy” village. It was a village that had failed to pay its taxes to a South Vietnamese provincial commander, a lieutenant colonel and ostensibly a U.S. ally. He wanted the village destroyed to set an example to other recalcitrant villages, and the U.S. Air Force did what it does: It put bombs and napalm on target.
At Seventh Air Force headquarters, the brass knew this village’s “crime.” As a brigadier general said to then-Lieutenant Colonel James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth, “Damn, Cotton, don’t you know what’s going on? That village didn’t pay their taxes. That [South Vietnamese] lieutenant colonel … is teaching them a lesson.”
It’s a “lesson” that made Cotton Hildreth, who later became a major general, “really sick” and “very bitter” about his role as a combat pilot in the Vietnam War. Later, in an oral interview, he admitted “I don’t talk about this [the war] very much.” One can understand why.
At the time, Hildreth brought his concerns to General William Momyer, the Seventh Air Force Commander, but Momyer offered only platitudes, saying that Hildreth was “doing some good, somewhere,” by dropping bombs and napalm and other ordnance on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.
We know this story only because Cotton Hildreth was willing to share it after being retired from the Air Force for fifteen years. A few days before this village was obliterated, Hildreth and his wingman, flying A-1 Skyraiders, had been ordered to destroy the village with napalm. They refused to do so after making low and slow passes over the village, only to be greeted by children waving their arms in friendship. In “The Wingman and the Village,” Hugh Turley’s article about this in the Hyattsville Life & Times (July 2010), Hildreth admitted his wingman had dropped napalm away from the village first, and Hildreth then did the same. The wingman in question, old for a pilot at age 48 and a grandfather, had seen a woman running with two children from her hut. He’d made a snap decision to disobey orders.
As the wingman told Hildreth when they returned to base: “Sir, I have three small grandchildren at home, and I could never face them again if I had followed those orders.” The unnamed wingman was later reassigned to a non-combat role.
When Hildreth was asked later if he’d have destroyed the village if he’d been flying an F-105 “Thud,” which flew higher and much faster than the A-1 Skyraider, he admitted he likely would have, because “you don’t see the people.”
What can we learn from this story? This atrocity? That it’s very easy to kill when you never see the people being killed. That it’s easy to follow orders and much harder to disobey them. That the Air Force brass at headquarters knew they were complicit in mass murder but that it meant more to them to keep one South Vietnamese provincial commander happy than it meant to keep 1200 innocent people alive.
One day in a long and atrocious war, Cotton Hildreth and his wingman decided they’d put humanity first; that they wouldn’t destroy a defenseless village despite orders to do so. It didn’t matter. That village and those people were destroyed anyway a few days later. It was just another day in a war allegedly fought to contain communism but which instead led to uncontained barbarity by a so-called democratic alliance.
“We had to destroy the village to save it” is a catchphrase from that war that is of course a contradiction in terms. Destruction is destruction. Death is death. No one was saved. Small wonder that Hildreth was so sick, so bitter, and spoke so rarely of his experiences in Vietnam.
A Note on Sources:
Oral interview with retired U.S. Air Force Major General James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth on 9/19/96. Hildreth recounts his experience beginning at the 21-minute mark of the interview.
I first learned of Hildreth’s interview from David Martin, who wrote about it here in 2015, calling it the largest single known atrocity of the Vietnam War. Such atrocities were commonplace, given the wanton use of destructive power by the U.S. military in Vietnam. This is a theme developed by Nick Turse in his book, “Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” (2013)
Hugh Turley, “The Wingman and the Village,” in “Hugh’s News,” Hyattsville Life & Times, July 2010.
Hildreth’s story is consistent with what Bernard Fall saw in Vietnam, which I wrote about here.
Who was the last U.S. president with a reputation for peace?
By bombing Syria this week, Joe Biden has become yet another “wartime” president. Apparently Iranian-backed militias from Iraq operating inside Syria were the intended target of the bombs. Perhaps as many as 22 “militants” were killed in these attacks. Using language that would make Big Brother blush, the Biden administration claimed the attacks aimed “to de-escalate the overall situation in both Eastern Syria and Iraq.”
I’ve heard of precision bombing, but this is the first time I’ve heard of de-escalatory bombing. Naturally, Congress wasn’t consulted.
Along with this provocative and needless act of aggression, the Biden administration is currently weighing its options in Afghanistan. Three options seem to be on the table: withdrawing all U.S. troops and ending the war; prolonging the war indefinitely; and continued “negotiations” with modest increases of those troops. The last option is considered the sober sensible one by Beltway sages. Complete withdrawal after twenty years of turmoil and death is predictably seen as too risky, whereas a wholehearted commitment to generational war in Afghanistan, a la General Petraeus, is seen as politically unpopular, even if the end result of the sober sensible option is exactly that: more war fought in the (false) name of (eventual) peace.
So, under Joe Biden, we have bombing for de-escalation and more war for peace. Again, Biden deserves praise when he promised that nothing would fundamentally change under his administration.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle America’s cult of bombing overseas, most recently in the Middle East, Central Asia, and portions of Africa, and the darker facets of air power in general. Air power may not be “unthinkable” like nuclear war, but most Americans nevertheless choose not to think about it since the bombing, the destruction, the killing are happening elsewhere to people other than us. Indeed, occasionally America’s politicians talk about bombing as if it’s a joke (consider John McCain’s little ditty about bombing Iran, or Ted Cruz’s reference to carpet bombing ISIS and making the sand “glow”).
Treating air power and bombing so cavalierly is a big mistake. Much like mass shootings in the “homeland,” it’s become the background noise to our lives. But it’s a deadly reality to others — and since violence often begets more violence, it may very well prove a prescription for permanent war.
Ten Cautionary Tenets About Air Power
1. Just because U.S. warplanes and drones can strike almost anywhere on the globe with relative impunity doesn’t mean that they should. Given the history of air power since World War II, ease of access should never be mistaken for efficacious results.
2. Bombing alone will never be the key to victory. If that were true, the U.S. would have easily won in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq. American air power pulverized both North Korea and Vietnam (not to speak of neighboring Laos and Cambodia), yet the Korean War ended in a stalemate and the Vietnam War in defeat. (It tells you the world about such thinking that air power enthusiasts, reconsidering the Vietnam debacle, tend to argue the U.S. should have bombed even more — lots more.) Despite total air supremacy, the recent Iraq War was a disaster even as the Afghan War staggers on into its 18th catastrophic year.
3. No matter how much it’s advertised as “precise,” “discriminate,” and “measured,” bombing (or using missiles like the Tomahawk) rarely is. The deaths of innocents are guaranteed. Air power and those deaths are joined at the hip, while such killings only generate anger and blowback, thereby prolonging the wars they are meant to end.
Consider, for instance, the “decapitation” strikes launched against Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and his top officials in the opening moments of the Bush administration’s invasion of 2003. Despite the hype about that being the beginning of the most precise air campaign in all of history, 50 of those attacks, supposedly based on the best intelligence around, failed to take out Saddam or a single one of his targeted officials. They did, however, cause “dozens” of civilian deaths. Think of it as a monstrous repeat of the precision air attacks launched on Belgrade in 1999 against Slobodan Milosevic and his regime that hit the Chinese embassy instead, killing three journalists.
Here, then, is the question of the day: Why is it that, despite all the “precision” talk about it, air power so regularly proves at best a blunt instrument of destruction? As a start, intelligence is often faulty. Then bombs and missiles, even “smart” ones, do go astray. And even when U.S. forces actually kill high-value targets (HVTs), there are always more HVTs out there. A paradox emerges from almost 18 years of the war on terror: the imprecision of air power only leads to repetitious cycles of violence and, even when air strikes prove precise, there always turn out to be fresh targets, fresh terrorists, fresh insurgents to strike.
4. Using air power to send political messages about resolve or seriousness rarely works. If it did, the U.S. would have swept to victory in Vietnam. In Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, for instance, Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968), a graduated campaign of bombing, was meant to, but didn’t, convince the North Vietnamese to give up their goal of expelling the foreign invaders — us — from South Vietnam. Fast-forward to our era and consider recent signals sent to North Korea and Iran by the Trump administration via B-52 bomber deployments, among other military “messages.” There’s no evidence that either country modified its behavior significantly in the face of the menace of those baby-boomer-era airplanes.
5. Air power is enormously expensive. Spending on aircraft, helicopters, and their munitions accounted for roughly half the cost of the Vietnam War. Similarly, in the present moment, making operational and then maintaining Lockheed Martin’s boondoggle of a jet fighter, the F-35, is expected to cost at least $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. The new B-21 stealth bomber will cost more than $100 billion simply to buy. Naval air wings on aircraft carriers cost billions each year to maintain and operate. These days, when the sky’s the limit for the Pentagon budget, such costs may be (barely) tolerable. When the money finally begins to run out, however, the military will likely suffer a serious hangover from its wildly extravagant spending on air power.
6. Aerial surveillance (as with drones), while useful, can also be misleading. Command of the high ground is not synonymous with god-like “total situational awareness.” It can instead prove to be a kind of delusion, while war practiced in its spirit often becomes little more than an exercise in destruction. You simply can’t negotiate a truce or take prisoners or foster other options when you’re high above a potential battlefield and your main recourse is blowing up people and things.
7. Air power is inherently offensive. That means it’s more consistent with imperial power projection than with national defense. As such, it fuels imperial ventures, while fostering the kind of “global reach, global power” thinking that has in these years had Air Force generals in its grip.
8. Despite the fantasies of those sending out the planes, air power often lengthens wars rather than shortening them. Consider Vietnam again. In the early 1960s, the Air Force argued that it alone could resolve that conflict at the lowest cost (mainly in American bodies). With enough bombs, napalm, and defoliants, victory was a sure thing and U.S. ground troops a kind of afterthought. (Initially, they were sent in mainly to protect the airfields from which those planes took off.) But bombing solved nothing and then the Army and the Marines decided that, if the Air Force couldn’t win, they sure as hell could. The result was escalation and disaster that left in the dust the original vision of a war won quickly and on the cheap due to American air supremacy.
9. Air power, even of the shock-and-awe variety, loses its impact over time. The enemy, lacking it, nonetheless learns to adapt by developing countermeasures — both active (like missiles) and passive (like camouflage and dispersion), even as those being bombed become more resilient and resolute.
10. Pounding peasants from two miles up is not exactly an ideal way to occupy the moral high ground in war.
The Road to Perdition
If I had to reduce these tenets to a single maxim, it would be this: all the happy talk about the techno-wonders of modern air power obscures its darker facets, especially its ability to lock America into what are effectively one-way wars with dead-end results…
In reality, this country might do better to simply ground its many fighter planes, bombers, and drones. Paradoxically, instead of gaining the high ground, they are keeping us on a low road to perdition.
Last night, as I was watching the PBS News Hour, I snapped to attention as I heard a new euphemism for murdered innocents from bombing: “civilian casualty incidents.”
A PBS reporter used it, unthinkingly I believe, repeating bureaucratic jargon about all the innocents in Yemen smashed to bits or shredded by “dumb” bombs, cluster munitions, and even “smart” bombs that are really only as smart as the pilots launching them (and the often imperfect “actionable intelligence” gathered to sanction them).
The overall tone of the PBS report was reassuring. General Mattis appeared to comfort Americans that the Saudis are doing better with bombing accuracy, and that America’s role in helping the Saudis is limited to aerial refueling and intelligence gathering about what not to hit. Of course, the Saudis can’t bomb without fuel, so the U.S. could easily stop aerial massacres if we wanted to, but the Saudis are our allies and they buy weapons in massive quantities from us, so forget about any real criticism here.
I’ve written about Orwellian euphemisms for murderous death before: “collateral damage” is often the go-to term for aerial attacks gone murderously wrong. To repeat myself: George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms. Words about war matter. Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars. They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — nor is it merely a “civilian casualty incident” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.
What if innocent Americans were being killed? Would they be classified and covered as regrettable if inevitable “civilian casualty incidents”?
Perhaps there should be a “new rule” on the American military scene: When the B-52s are called out (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), it means America has well and truly lost.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, since April of this year, B-52s flying out of “Al Udeid airbase in Qatar … have conducted more than 325 strikes in almost 270 sorties, using over 1,300 weapons” against ISIS and now in Afghanistan, notes Paul Rogers at Open Democracy.
For those of you unfamiliar with B-52s, they are huge long-range bombers, originally deployed in the 1950s to carry nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. In the 1960s and early 1970s, they were called upon to carry conventional bomb loads during the Vietnam War. Their enormous bomb tonnages did not serve to win that war, however, nor has the subsequent use of B-52s in places like Iraq and Afghanistan served to win those wars. They have become a sort of stop-gap weapon system, their ordnance called upon to stem the tide of American military reversals even as their presence is supposed to demonstrate American resolve.
In a way, America’s B-52s are like the Imperial Star Destroyers of the “Star Wars” universe.
Big, lumbering ships that never seem to provide a winning edge vis-a-vis the smaller, “rebel” forces against which they’re deployed. But the empire, which never seems to learn, keeps using them, even as it seeks even bigger, “Death Star” weaponry with which to annihilate the resistance.
Of course, when Americans think about air power, they don’t think of “Star Wars” battles or B-52s on bombing runs. They think of audacious and cocky fighter pilots, like Tom Cruise’s “Maverick” in the highly popular movie, “Top Gun.” For me, the most telling scene in that movie is when the flashy, undisciplined, and self-centered Maverick puts his F-14 Tomcat jet into an irrecoverable flat spin. That wouldn’t be so bad, except Maverick has a backseater, “Goose,” who dies during the ejection. Maverick, of course, ejects safely and lives to fight another day.
Again, most people probably remember the cheesy ending to this movie where Cruise is shooting down MiG after MiG. But take another look at the flat spin scene. America, like Maverick and Goose’s jet, is dropping from the sky, spinning wildly and uncontrollably all the way. And while a few Mavericks may be lucky enough to get away unscathed, many Gooses in the process are going to end up dead.
Goose didn’t deserve to die in “Top Gun,” and neither do the many “gooses” around the world caught in the violent and all-too-real backwash of America’s jet-fueled wars.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, which you can read in its entirety here, I tackle the American infatuation with air power and bombing. Despite its enormous destructiveness and indecisive results in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the Iraq invasion of 2003, and in the ongoing War on Terror, U.S. leaders persist in bombing as a means to victory, even against dispersed organizations such as ISIS and the Taliban that offer few targets. As I put it in my article:
For all its promise of devastating power delivered against enemies with remarkable precision and quick victories at low cost (at least to Americans), air power has failed to deliver, not just in the ongoing war on terror but for decades before it. If anything, by providing an illusion of results, it has helped keep the United States in unwinnable wars, while inflicting a heavy toll on innocent victims on our distant battlefields. At the same time, the cult-like infatuation of American leaders, from the president on down, with the supposed ability of the U.S. military to deliver such results remains remarkably unchallenged in Washington.
Indeed, as Glenn Greenwald points out, Hillary Clinton’s presumptive Defense Secretary, Michele Flournoy, has already issued calls for more U.S. bombing and military interventions in the Middle East. Talk about doubling down on a losing strategy.
Yet “strategy” isn’t really the right word. Bombing is a method of war, not a strategy. And in this case the method truly is the madness, with the end being perpetual war.
When will the madness end? To be honest, I don’t see an end in the immediate future, so invested in bombing are America’s leaders and foreign “diplomats.”
Here’s the rest of my article for TomDispatch.com.
Yet despite this “asymmetric” advantage [America’s dominance of the air], despite all the bombing, missile strikes, and drone strikes, “progress” proved both “fragile” and endlessly “reversible” (to use words General David Petraeus applied to his “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan). In fact, 12,000 or so strikes after Washington’s air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq began in August 2014, we now know that intelligence estimates of its success had to be deliberately exaggerated by the military to support a conclusion that bombing and missile strikes were effective ways to do in the Islamic State.
So here we are, in 2016, 25 years after Desert Storm and nearly a decade after the Petraeus “surge” in Iraq that purportedly produced that missing mission accomplished moment for Washington — and U.S. air assets are again in action in Iraqi and now Syrian skies. They are, for instance, flying ground support missions for Iraqi forces as they attempt to retake Falluja, a city in al-Anbar Province that had already been “liberated” in 2004 at a high cost to U.S. ground troops and an even higher one to Iraqi civilians. Thoroughly devastated back then, Falluja has again found itself on the receiving end of American air power.
If and when Iraqi forces do retake the city, they may inherit little more than bodies and rubble, as they did in taking the city of Ramadi last December. About Ramadi, Patrick Cockburn noted last month that “more than 70% of its buildings are in ruins and the great majority of its 400,000 people are still displaced” (another way of saying, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”). American drones, meanwhile, continue to soar over foreign skies, assassinating various terrorist “kingpins” to little permanent effect.
Tell Me How This Ends
Here’s the “hot wash”: something’s gone terribly wrong with Washington’s soaring dreams of air power and what it can accomplish. And yet the urge to loose the planes only grows stronger among America’s political class.
Given the frustratingly indecisive results of U.S. air campaigns in these years, one might wonder why a self-professed smart guy like Ted Cruz, when still a presidential candidate, would have called for “carpet” bombing our way to victory over ISIS, and yet in these years he has been more the norm than the exception in his infatuation with air power. Everyone from Donald Trump to Barack Obama has looked to the air for the master key to victory. In 2014, even Petraeus, home from the wars, declared himself “all in” on more bombing as critical to victory (whatever that word might now mean) in Iraq. Only recently he also called for the loosing of American air power (yet again) in Afghanistan — not long after which President Obama did just that.
Even as air power keeps the U.S. military in the game, even as it shows results (terror leaders killed, weapons destroyed, oil shipments interdicted, and so on), even as it thrills politicians in Washington, that magical victory over the latest terror outfits remains elusive. That is, in part, because air power by definition never occupies ground. It can’t dig in. It can’t swim like Mao Zedong’s proverbial fish in the sea of “the people.” It can’t sustain persuasive force. Its force is always staccato and episodic.
Its suasion, such as it is, comes from killing at a distance. But its bombs and missiles, no matter how “smart,” often miss their intended targets. Intelligence and technology regularly prove themselves imperfect or worse, which means that the deaths of innocents are inevitable. This ensures new recruits for the very organizations the planes are intent on defeating and new cycles of revenge and violence amid the increasing vistas of rubble below. Even when the bombs are on target, as happens often enough, and a terrorist leader or “lieutenant” is eliminated, what then? You kill a dozen more? As Petraeus said in a different context: tell me how this ends.
Recalling the Warbirds
From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, dropping bombs and firing missiles has been the presidentially favored way of “doing something” against an enemy. Air power is, in a sense, the easiest thing for a president to resort to and, in our world, has the added allure of the high-tech. It looks good back home. Not only does the president not risk the lives of American troops, he rarely risks retaliation of any kind.
Whether our presidents know it or not, however, air power always comes with hidden costs, starting with the increasingly commonplace blowback of retaliatory terrorist strikes on “soft” targets (meaning people) in cities like Paris or Madrid or London. Strikes that target senior members of enemy armies or terrorist organizations often miss, simply stoking yet more of the sorts of violent behavior we are trying to eradicate with our own version of violence. When they don’t miss and the leadership of terror groups is hit, as Andrew Cockburn has shown, the result is often the emergence of even more radical and brutal leaders and the further spread of such movements. In addition, U.S. air power, especially the White House-run drone assassination program, is leading the way globally when it comes to degrading the sovereignty of national borders. (Witness the latest drone strike against the head of the Taliban in violation of Pakistani airspace.) Right now, Washington couldn’t care less about this, but it is pioneering a future that, once taken up by other powers, may look far less palatable to American politicians.
Despite the sorry results delivered by air power over the last 65 years, the U.S. military continues to invest heavily in it — not only in drones but also in ultra-expensive fighters and bombers like the disappointing F-35 (projected total cost: $1.4 trillion) and the Air Force’s latest, already redundant long-range strike bomber (initial acquisition cost: $80 billion and rising). Dismissing the frustratingly mixed and often destabilizing results that come from air strikes, disregarding the jaw-dropping prices of the latest fighters and bombers, America’s leaders continue to clamor for yet more warplanes and yet more bombing.
And isn’t there a paradox, if not a problem, in the very idea of winning a war on terror through what is in essence terror bombing? Though it’s not something that, for obvious reasons, is much discussed in this country, given the historical record it’s hard to deny that bombing is terror. After all, that’s why early aviators like Douhet and Mitchell embraced it. They believed it would be so terrifyingly effective that future wars would be radically shortened to the advantage of those willing and able to bomb.
As it turned out, what air power provided was not victory, but carnage, terror, rubble — and resistance.
Americans should have a visceral understanding of why populations under our bombs and missiles resist. They should know what it means to be attacked from the air, how it pisses you off, how it generates solidarity, how it leads to new resolve and vows of vengeance. Forget Pearl Harbor, where my uncle, then in the Army, dodged Japanese bombs on December 7, 1941. Think about 9/11. On that awful day in 2001, Homeland USA was “bombed” by hijacked jet liners transformed into guided missiles. Our skies became deadly. A technology indelibly associated with American inventiveness and prowess was turned against us. Colossally shocked, America vowed vengeance.
Are our enemies any less resolutely human than we are? Like us, they’re not permanently swayed by bombing. They vow vengeance when friends, family members, associates of every sort are targeted. When American “smart” bombs obliterate wedding parties and other gatherings overseas, do we think the friends and loved ones of the dead shrug and say, “That’s war”? Here’s a hint: we didn’t.
Having largely overcome the trauma of 9/11, Americans today look to the sky with hope. We watch the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds with a sense of awe, wonder, and pride. Warplanes soar over our sports stadiums. The sky is ourhigh ground. We see evidence of America’s power and ingenuity there. Yet people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere often pray for clouds and bad weather; for them, clear skies are associated with American-made death from above.
It’s time we allow other peoples to look skyward with that same sense of safety and hope as we normally do. It’s time to recall the warbirds. They haven’t provided solutions. Indeed, the terror, destruction, and resentments they continue to spread are part of the problem.
I watched last night’s Republican Presidential Debate from New Hampshire. And then I slept poorly. John Kasich and a subdued Ben Carson excepted, all of the candidates were determined to frighten me and mine. As they shouted and gesticulated, I wrote down some of their words and some of the thoughts and feelings they generated. It went something like this:
We’re in danger! Obama’s gutting our military! Muslims are shouting “death to America”! China! America is weak! We must build a HUGE WALL to keep out illegals! Abortion is murder! Take their oil! Chopping heads! Dying in the street! Waterboarding isn’t torture, which doesn’t matter, because we need more torture! Respect the police! People need to fear us again! We don’t win — we need to win again! Iranian and North Korean nukes! America must get back in the game and be strong! Tough! Win!
Well, you get the picture. The prize for most obscene statement of the night (among a wealth of obscene statements) was Ted Cruz’s claim that America’s possession of overwhelming airpower — its ability to carpet bomb enemies into oblivion — is a blessing. A blessing — I’m assuming he meant from God, not the Dark One, but who knows?
My wife’s impression? She said the candidates reminded her of low-blow fighters, or teenage boys in high school.
It’s simple, really: If you want more bombing, more killing, more war, more torture, more police, more walls, and lower taxes on corporations (yes — that came up too), vote Republican in November.
My nightmare scenario: this is exactly the vision Marco Rubio had in mind when he repeatedly called America “the single greatest nation in the history of the world.”
I’ve written several articles about the United States and creeping militarism (see here and here, for example). This should be obvious, but I’ll say it again: Calling attention to the militarization of American society is pro-democracy, not anti-military. Indeed, back in the citizen-soldier era of my father, being “gung ho” for the military wasn’t even applauded within the military!
As one veteran wrote to me:
When I was in the military, being “gung ho” was not considered a compliment by most of my friends… Of course we were not professional military types, just taking our turns to do our duty. We remembered the American soldier epitomized by Bill Mauldin as “Willie” and “Joe” who fought successfully against the German Army and the Japanese fanatics…The popular war movies of WWII after the war usually pitted the austere, indoctrinated Nazis fighting to demonstrate the Nazi superiority against the average American citizen soldier. Remember the movie “Battleground”? Today the images of our Army uncomfortably remind me of the way the German superman was portrayed that we overcame.
[There is a] disjunction between the cult of military hero-worship in American society and American ignorance of veterans’ problems. I am continually disgusted with those who are pimping off the mystique [surrounding our troops] who don’t deserve any special regard for their military service. And a final but important point: many combat vets, knowing full well the realities of combat and its effects on combatants, do not want to be thanked at all [by the public].
America’s militarism both feeds and draws support from our endless wars. The war on terror has been ongoing since 2001. So too the war in Afghanistan. Iraq keeps getting more chaotic. Miscalculation in Syria could lead to World War III.
Speaking of future wars, just look at the rhetoric of our more popular political candidates for president, to include Donald “bomb those suckers” Trump and Ted “carpet bomb” Cruz. Chickenhawk politicians are nothing but opportunists. They may be leading the war charge, but they know they’re backed by a society in thrall to military spectacle (as represented, for example, by pom-pom shaking cheerleaders in skimpy camouflage outfits).
Unstinting praise of America’s “warriors” and “heroes” is reinforced by feel-good corporate/military advertising. Recall Budweiser’s “welcome home” party for an Army lieutenant that aired during the Super Bowl a couple of years back. Or red-white-and-blue Budweiser cans to “honor” the troops on July 4th. “Saluting” the troops with colorful beer cans – really?
Signs of militarism USA are everywhere. Police forces with MRAPs and similar tank-like vehicles. Colleges and universities jostling for “defense” funding (even bucolic campuses want those war bucks). Popular games that glorify military mayhem, such as the “Call of Duty” video games. Even mundane items like camouflage headsets for NFL coaches.