Let's start with a few simple propositions.
First, the farther away you are from the ground, the clearer things
are likely to look, the more god-like you are likely to feel, the less human
those you attack are likely to be to you. How much more so, of course, if you,
the "pilot," are actually sitting at a console at an air base near Las
Vegas, identifying a "suspect" thousands of miles away via video monitor,
"following" that suspect into a house, and then letting loose a Hellfire missile
from a Predator drone cruising somewhere over Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia,
or the tribal
areas of Pakistan.
Second, however "precise" your weaponry, however "surgical" your strike,
however impressive the grainy snuff-film images you can put on television, war
from the air is, and will remain, a most imprecise and destructive form of battle.
Third, in human terms, distance does not enhance accuracy. The farther
away you are from a target, the more likely it is that you will have to guess
who or what it is, based on spotty, difficult to interpret or bad information,
not to speak of outright misinformation; whatever the theoretical accuracy of
your weaponry, you are far more likely to miscalculate, make mistakes, mistarget,
or target the misbegotten from the air.
Fourth, if you are conducting war this way and you are doing so in
heavily populated urban neighborhoods, as is now the case almost every day in
Iraq, then civilians will predictably die "by mistake" almost every day: the
child who happens to be on the street but just beyond camera range; the "terrorist
suspect" or insurgent who looks, at a distance, like he's planting a roadside
bomb, but is just scavenging; the neighbors who happen to be sitting down to
dinner in the apartment or house next to the one you decide to hit.
Fifth, since World War II, air power has been the American
way of war.
Sixth, since November 2001, the Bush administration has increasingly
relied on air power in its Global War on Terror to "take out" the enemy, which
has meant regular air strikes in cities and villages, and the no less regular,
if largely unrecorded, deaths of civilians.
Seventh, in Afghanistan
and especially in Iraq (as well as in the tribal areas along the Pakistani border),
the use of air power has been "surging." You can essentially no longer read
an account of a skirmish or battle in one of Iraq's cities in which air power
is not called in. This means (see propositions 1-4) a war of constant "mistakes,"
and of regularly mentioned "investigations" into the deaths of "militants" and
"insurgents" who, on the ground, seem to morph into children, women, and elderly
men being pulled from the rubble.
Eighth, force creates counterforce. The application of force, especially
from the air, is a reliable engine for the creation of enemies. It is a force
multiplier (and not just for U.S. forces either). Every time an air strike is
called in anywhere on the planet, anyone who orders it should automatically
assume that left in its wake will be grieving, angry husbands, wives, sisters,
brothers, relatives, friends people vowing revenge, a pool of potential
candidates filled with the anger of genuine injustice. From the point of view
of your actual enemies, you can't bomb, missile, and strafe often enough, because
when you do so, you are more or less guaranteed to create their newest recruits.
Ninth, U.S. air power has, in the last six and a half years, been an
effective force in a war for terror, not against it.
What does this mean in practice? It means something
simple and relentless; it means dead people you might not have chosen to kill,
but that you are responsible for killing nonetheless and even if you
don't know that, or are unwilling to acknowledge it, others do know and will
draw the logical conclusions.
What does this mean in practice? Consider just a typical collection of some
of the small reports on air strikes in Iraq that have slipped into our world,
barely noticed, in recent days:
Six U.S.-allied Sunni fighters from the "Awakening" movement were reportedly
killed in strikes by an
AH-64 Apache helicopter on two checkpoints in the city of Samarra on March 22.
("The U.S. military denied the checkpoint it attacked was manned by friendly
members of the so-called awakening councils and said those killed were behaving
suspiciously in an area recently struck by a roadside bomb. It said the incident
was under investigation. AP Television News footage of the aftermath showed
awakening council members loading bodies into a pickup.")
people in a single family were reportedly killed by U.S. helicopters in
the city of Baquba in northern Iraq on March 23rd. ("The US military forces
were not available to comment on the reports?")
Saddam Hussein's hometown, five civilians, including a judge, Munaf Mehdi, were
reportedly killed and ten wounded from strikes by "fixed-wing aircraft" in a
"battle with suspected al-Qaeda Sunni Arab militants" on March 26. ("Preliminary
assessment," according to the U.S. military, "indicates that despite coalition
forces' efforts to protect them, several civilians were injured or killed during
the ensuing gunbattle.")
According to the Iraqi police, a U.S. plane strafed
a house in the southern city of Basra, killing eight civilians, including two
women and a child on March 29th.
According to Iraqi police sources, five people, including
four policemen were killed and three wounded when U.S. helicopters struck
the city of Hilla in southern Iraq. According to another report, two
police cars were also destroyed and an ambulance fired upon.
A U.S. F/A-18 carried
out a "precision strike" against a house in Basra, reportedly killing at least
three civilians, two men and an elderly woman, while burying a father, mother,
and young boy in the rubble on April 3rd. ("'Coalition forces are unaware of
any civilians killed in the strike but are currently looking into the matter,'
the military said? Associated Press Television News showed cranes and rescue
workers searching for survivors in the concrete rubble from the two-story house
that was leveled in the Shiite militia stronghold of Qibla.")
In most of these cases, the facts remain in dispute (if anyone, other than
the U.S. military, even cares to dispute them); the numbers of dead may, in
the end, prove inaccurate; and the equivalent of he says/she says is unlikely
to be settled because, most of the time, no reporter will follow up or investigate.
Such cases generally follow a pattern: The U.S. military issues a brief battle
description in which so many militants/insurgents/terrorists have been taken
out from the air; local officials or witnesses claim that the dead were, in
part or whole, ordinary citizens; the U.S. military offers a denial that civilians
were killed; if the story doesn't die, the military announces that an investigation
is underway, which no one generally ever hears about again. Only on rare occasions,
in our world, do such incidents actually rise to the level of real news that
anyone attends to.
There may be an Iraq
Coalition Casualty Count website and an Iraq
Body Count website, but there is no Afghan version of the same, nor is there
a global body count to consult on such War on Terror civilian deaths from the
air. Usually, when such events recur, there aren't even names to put with the
dead bodies and the reports themselves drop almost instantaneously beneath the
waves (of news) without ever really catching our attention. Even if you believe
that ours is the only world that really matters, that we are the only people
whose lives have real value, that doesn't mean such deaths won't matter to you
in the long run.
After all, what we don't know, or don't care to know, others care greatly
about. Who forgets when a loved one is suddenly killed in such a manner? Even
if we aren't counting bodies in the air-war subsection of the President's Global
War on Terror, others are. Those whom we think of, if at all, as "collateral
damage" know just what's happened to them and to their neighbors. And they have
undoubtedly drawn the obvious conclusions.
Our 'Strike Weapons' and Theirs
Here's the sorry reality: Such occurrences in
Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the "arc" of territory that the Bush administration
has, in a mere few years, helped set aflame
are the norm. Our "mistakes," that is, are legion and, in the process of making
them, our planes, drones, and helicopters have killed villagers by the score,
attacked a convoy
of friendly Afghan "elders," and blown
away wedding parties.
For us, "incidents" like these pass by in an instant, but not for those who
are on the receiving end.
The attacks of 9/11 are usually not placed in such a context. We consider
ourselves special, even unique, for having experienced them. But think of them
another way: One day, out of the blue, death arrives from the air. It arrives
in a moment of ultimate terror. It kills innocent civilians who were simply
living their lives.
This happened to us once in a manner so spectacular, so devastating
as to make global headlines. But small-scale versions of this happen regularly
to people in that "arc of instability" and, if there were to be a global
body count organization for such events, it would long ago have toted up a death
toll that reached past that of September 11, 2001.
Let's remember that, after 9/11, Americans, from the President on down, spent
months, if not years in mourning, performing rites of remembrance, and swearing
revenge against those who had done this to us. Do we not imagine that others,
even when the spotlight isn't on them, react similarly? Do we not think that
they, too, are capable of swearing revenge and acting accordingly?
The above list of incidents covers just a couple of weeks in one embattled
country and just the moments that made it into minor news reports that
I happened to stumble across. But if you read reports from Iraq carefully these
days, few describing U.S. military operations in that country seem to lack at
least a sentence or two on air operations on what is really a little
noticed "air surge" over that country's cities and especially the heavily populated
slum "suburb" of eastern Baghdad, Sadr City (once known as Saddam City) largely
controlled by Muqtada
al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. With perhaps two and a half million inhabitants,
if it were a separate city, it would be the country's second largest.
Here, for instance, are a few lines from a recent Los Angeles Times
by Tina Susman on escalating fighting in Baghdad: "American helicopters fired
at least four Hellfire missiles and an Air Force jet dropped a bomb on a suspected
militia target? A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Steven Stover,
rejected Iraqi allegations that U.S. airstrikes and gunfire have killed mainly
civilians. 'There might be some civilians that are getting caught, but for the
most part, we're killing the bad guys.' 'We're very precise,' he said, adding
that many airstrikes had been called off when it was not possible to get a 'clean
hit' that would avoid hitting noncombatants." Or this from Sameer N. Yacoub
of the Associated
Press: "The U.S. military said one of its drones launched a Hellfire missile
during the night at two gunmen shooting at government forces in a different
part of Sadr City." Or this:
"Three US airstrikes in northeastern Baghdad have killed 12 suspected gunmen
and wounded 15 civilians, Iraqi police and US military say."
Each of these came out while this piece was being written, as did this: According
to the AP, air strikes in a remote province of Afghanistan aimed at a warlord
allied with the Taliban may have killed numerous civilians. ("Other provincial
leaders said many civilians were killed in the hours-long clash, which included
airstrikes in the remote villages of Shok and Kendal? U.S. officials and the
Afghan Defense Ministry have denied that any civilians were killed.")
Whatever happened in these latest air attacks, the deaths of civilians are
not some sideline result of the War on Terror; they lie at its heart. If your
care is safety a subject brought up repeatedly by Senators who wanted
to know from U.S. commander General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker
this week whether the surge had made "us" safer then, the answer is:
This does not make you safer.
And yet, don't expect this counterproductive way of war to end any time soon.
After all, the Air Force already has underway its "2018
bomber," due for delivery the same year that, according
to the chief American trainer of Iraqi forces, Lt. Gen. James Dubic, the
Iraqi army will theoretically be able to guard the country's frontiers effectively.
And don't forget the
2018 bomber's successor, "a true ?next generation' long-range strike weapon"
that "may be a traditional bomber or an exotic 'system of systems,' with features
such as hypersonic speed." Maybe by then, the Iraqis will actually be successfully
defending their borders.
Until then, think of the U.S. air war for terror as a Catch 2,200 every
application of force from the air resulting in the creation of a counterforce
on the ground, another kind of "strike weapon" for the future, while those collateral
bodies pile ever higher. Perhaps, by 2018 or 2035, worldbodycount.com will be
[Note: The invaluable website Antiwar.com
was especially invaluable this time around when it came to tracking news accounts
of recent U.S. air attacks. Please note, though, that the dates given in the
piece for the attacks are approximate. All I had were the datelines on news
stories, which may not reflect the actual day of each attack.]
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt