Monday, July 18, 2011

US Air Wars

The following essay was published in PeaceWorks. 

Bombing Iraq: United States Air Wars
“Beware men untouched”
James R. Bennett

Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war.
Shakespeare, ­Julius Caesar­
     Why is the White House-Pentagon-Congressional complex bombing Iraq?  Why is the public complicitly quiescent, or even cheering?  The larger question is: Why is the United States so violent?
       Recent killings of children, teachers, and parents by children have momentarily stunned a few leaders and a few citizens into questioning the causes of crimes in the United States.  Putting two million people in prison has provided an effortless (though extraordinarily expensive), thoughtless solution to crimes.  But now more people are asking: Why is there so much violence in the United States?  Why are laws so often broken violently?   Because of Guns?  Drugs?  Television and films?  Schools?  Parents? Overwork and stress?  The Bible?  Children themselves? 
     But are these the only questions?   By its actions around the world, what do the leaders of the United States teach its citizens?  What is their example for our children?  What behavior are Jack and Jill invited to imitate?
      Few people include, in their anxious questioning, the general acceptance—even the active promulgation--of mass slaughter from the air, in violation of international law, as the official war policy of the United States.  Its practice is now conventional, routine.  Children in the United States today play at war in a country committed remorselessly to massive maximum force.   And this violence violates international and domestic laws that prohibit the threat or use of weapons and practices that kill indiscriminately.  Treaties, compacts, and conventions signed by the President and ratified by the Congress become the law of the land (Article VI of the U. S. constitution) and bind all citizens, including the President, military commanders, and judges.  These agreements include the Hague convention IV of 1907, the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare of 1925, and the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War of 1949.  By its air wars the United States has repeatedly violated its own laws.
      Why a violent nation?  Why bomb and bomb Iraq month after month, year after year, killing not only combatants but women and children and their husbands and fathers?   Let us recall our history.  The history of U. S. commitment to illegal, indiscriminate bombing of civilians, dissembled, from World War II to the Gulf War and to this day, by claims of precision bombing, partly explains both questions.

     For most of my life I thought the 1937 Nazi Condor Legion’s bombing of the Spanish town, Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War, was the first

aerial bombing of an unwarned civilian target in wartime.  Probably Picasso’s
powerful painting of the incident, with its arms and legs and heads screaming against
the atrocity (I kept a print of it on my office wall), and my dislike of Nazis, blocked
awareness of earlier mass civilian bombings.  Guernica was a momentous testing
town for the Nazi blitzkrieg bombing of Rotterdam and Warsaw, and the bombings
of Coventry and London, and other cities.
     But it was not the first bombing of a non-military city.   Earlier, in 1932 in Cuba, General Gerardo Machado’s planes bombed the town of Gibara to crush a local uprising.  During the 1930s the practice of air bombardment spread widely—of Ethiopians by Italy, of Chinese by Japan, of Finns by the Soviet Union.  Lloyd George expressed the British imperial and racist position, after ensuring that the 1932 disarmament treaty would not impede the aerial bombardment of civilians: Britain “reserved the right to bomb niggers” (Chomsky, ­World Orders­ 6). And earlier still, German zeppelins bombed English cities during World War I.  Again, Britain led the way philosophically.  Any weapon which will speedily terminate disorders on the frontier is justified, including poison gas, argued Winston Churchill in 1919, who authorized its use in air war against Arabs (Omissi).  And already the United States supported air bombing, when Woodrow Wilson’s Marines “slaughtered the niggers in Haiti (Chomsky, ­Year­ 202).
From the beginning, some U.S. military officers supported aerial bombing of
cities.  Billy Mitchell and other officers discussed the bombing of Japanese cities as early as the 1920s.  But President Roosevelt in 1937 and 1938 had the State Department condemn Japanese bombing of civilians in China as “barbarous” violations of the “elementary principles” of modern morality.  Secretary of State Cordell Hull also arranged an informal embargo on the sale of aviation
equipment to nations using “airplanes for attack on civilian populations,” with the
Senate cooperating in its own “unqualified condemnation of the inhuman bombing of
civilian populations” (Sherry 59-60).  Likewise, the Nazi and Spanish Fascist
bombings (Franco’s bombing of Barcelona in 1938) were universally condemned in
the US.
     Strong arguments were adduced against bombing cities on the argument
that it was counterproductive, would not affect an enemy‘s warmaking powers, but in
fact would stiffen resistance (62-3).  Even Winston Churchill took this position for
awhile, contending that “air bombing of the noncombatant populations for the
purpose of slaughter” would be counterproductive on both moral and practical
grounds (64).  Generally during the 1930s, the distinction between combatant and noncombatant was officially maintained in both countries.
     Nevertheless, strategic air war was becoming Anglo-American policy.  According to Markusen and Kopf, the hardening of RAF policy followed Nazi bombing of
Rotterdam on May 14, 1940 (153).  “By the time of the London ‘blitz’ [1940-41]
countercity warfare was virtually taken for granted” (Barash 450).  The U.S. also began manufacturing high-altitude, long-range (B-17) bombers prior to entering the war in 1941.  By 1938 Roosevelt had discussed the advantages of long-range terror bombing, and he ordered a significant enlargement of the Air Force.  By 1941 he was convinced of the value of aerial bombing for winning wars.
     However, when the US entered the war against Germany, its official air policy was to strike at military targets—submarine pens, ballbearing plants, fighter aircraft factories.  The U.S. therefore bombed their targets during daylight.  In contrast, the RAF, like the Luftwaffe, bombed cities at night—imprecisely, to slaughter civilians, to terrorize, although this was denied by Bomber Command.
The RAF Bomber Command’s second Hamburg raid in 1943 ignited the war’s
first great firestorm (Sherry 153) by dropping thousands of incendiaries and high explosives.  The air heated to 800 degrees centigrade (1500 degrees F.), to bake and melt, explode and asphyxiate 40,000 people.  It transcended all human experience and imagination (153), and anticipated Tokyo and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The British had moved from rationalizing city bombing by claiming they were striking economic targets, to overt vengeance and reprisal, killing and rendering homeless as many Germans as possible (154).  The Imperial War Museum display of WWII strategic bombing states that “’between 300,000 and 600,000 German civilians died in the British bombing offensive’” (Garrett xi). (Many believe now that the terror bombings did not work, but only strengthened the grip of the Nazi state [155]).
      Evils often derive from good motives, or gradually, incrementally.  The U.S. bombings began as carpet bombing in front of advancing Allied ground forces. Then cities were bombed but against military targets, although precision bombing was never precise.   Eventually, the U. S. Army Air Force joined the RAF in terror/slaughter bombing of cities as cities. Many argued the bombings would end the war more quickly.
      Finally, the US joined Britain in indiscriminate “area” incendiary raids.  Darmstadt was incinerated in September 1944.  25,000 were killed in Berlin on Feb. 3, 1945.  And other cities.  The climax came at Dresden in February, 1945, when two British and one U.S. assaults created a firestorm visible to bomber crews 200 miles away.  The city, Germany’s cultural capital and only marginally a military target,  was clotted with refugees fleeing the Soviet armies.  Having been spared up until that time, it was completely unprepared.  Some 30,000 people died in the bombing (Sherry 260). 
     Despite the continued claims of precision bombing as the AAF’s mission, by the end of 1944, terror, not precision, bombing constituted three-fourths of U.S. raids.  Gradually, the distinction between precision and area bombing eroded until US commanders had no scruples against indiscriminate bombing.  By VE Day, U.S. bombing of Germany had claimed “between 800,000 and a million German lives” (Leahy).  So inured had the nation become to bloody destruction, it hardly noticed this new, horrendous addition to mass killing.
       In his book on the ethics of British bombing of German cities, Stephen
Garrett argues that after the spring of 1944 the assault on German civilians was “quite
without ethical justification.” Yet “about 80 percent of all the bomb tonnage dropped
on Germany by the Allied air forces came during the last ten months of the war”
(183).  Sir Arthur Harris, chief of Britain’s Bomber Command, sincerely believed
in the necessity of indiscriminate bombings.  But Garrett points out
the power of momentum.  By mid-1944 Bomber Command had over 1,000 heavy
bombers at its disposal and “frequently more aircrew…than there were planes to fly”
(184).  It was “unthinkable to allow this armada to even partially stand down” (185).

       In the meantime, in the Pacific, scruples were even less important.  While it took several years to jettison moral restraint over bombing European civilians, counter-city warfare was taken for granted against Japan in a clear reflection of racial prejudice.  As early as 1934 Secretary of State Cordell Hull warned Japan’s ambassador of his island’s vulnerability to air war, mentioning the recent flight of a U.S. plane from the U.S. to Japan.  U.S. anti-Japanese “fear, contempt, and aggression” permitted indiscriminate incendiary bombing without  agonizing over morality (Sherry 60, see Dower), although as usual a pretense was officially maintained of precision bombing of military targets. 

      In Nov. 1944 Tokyo as a city was bombed for the first
time since Doolittle’s raid.  In Dec. 1944 Gen. Curtis LeMay bombed Hankow,
China, a Japanese operation center.  Five of Formosa’s eleven principal cities were
destroyed in the spring of 1945.  Nagoya, Japan was torched on Jan. 3, 1945. 
      A climax was reached on March 9-10 when Gen. LeMay burned up 100,000 people in 1800 degrees F., a million people were wounded or made homeless, and sixteen square miles of the city burned out, in “the great Tokyo Air raid.” As in Europe, munitions were specifically designed to create firestorms—the big M-47 napalm bomb and the M-69 magnesium clusters--, and bombing patterns were employed to trap civilians within a ring of fire (Barash 450).  It was like “a flaming dew that skittered along the roofs” or like “flaming hair” (Sherry 275-76).  Sherry calls these bombings the “triumph of technological fanaticism.” 
     According to Stephen Ambrose, “From the beginning, the Japanese-
American war in the Pacific was waged with a barbarism and race hatred that was
staggering in scope, savage almost beyond belief, and catastrophic in consequence.”   
John Dower amply demonstrates their mutual xenophobia. 
      In opposition, Lewis Mumford called the saturation bombings of civilian targets the “unconditional moral surrender to Hitler,” and David Lilienthal warned, “The fences are gone.  And it was we, the civilized, who have pushed standardless conduct to its ultimate” (Barash 450).  But their voices were rare.  Recently, Eric Markusen and David Kopf have compared the Nazi Holocaust and the U.S./British strategic bombing of cities as examples of how governments will resort to genocidal killing if it is perceived to be essential to national security.  Mass killing is not mass murder when patriotic.
      The utter brutal immorality of total war by air was, of course, persistently denied and covered up by continued official asseveration of precision bombing (Sherry288).  Thus morally numbed by unceasing, deceptive propaganda of patriotic hatred, several years of incremental “area” slaughters,  and the ferocious battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the next step seemed natural or inevitable to most Americans, and consistent with successful vengeance.  The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima August 6, and Nagasaki August 9, 1945. 
      As Markusen and Kopf suggest, the post-war reliance on nuclear weapons reflects a mindset similar to that which justified strategic bombing of cities.  Moral and tactical objections were raised, particularly by Navy officers, but soon the Navy accepted the air-atomic strategy of carrier planes and submarines (Schaffer 192-8).  And by 1948 the Strategic Air Command had selected urban targets in the U.S.S.R for nuclear bombing “with the primary objective of annihilating population” (191).  “Massive retaliation was [WWII] area bombing vastly multiplied””(213).  But concepts of precision bombing from WWII continued influential too, though again the precision was more in the claims than the performance. 
      And so air war continued: mass bombings of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia (more bomb tonnage then during World War II); the air attacks on the capitals of Libya (killing Gaddafi’s child) and Panama (a working class district destroyed); the invasion of Grenada; and the sustained helicopter terrorizing of the peasantry of El Salvador.  The bombing of Vietnam was unimaginably, horrendously atrocious (Clodfelter, Coryell, Gerassi, Knoll and McFadden, Korn, Levinson, Melman, Rosenberg, Russell).  During the Nixon/Kissinger administration alone (from 1969 to the end of the war in 1973), the U.S. dropped four million tons of bombs (the equivalent of over 250 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs) at a cost of $50 billion. The secret Christmas 1972 bombing of North Vietnam was, in the words of Anthony Lewis, “the most destructive single episode of international violence in recent history”: for eleven days U.S. B-52s bombed Hanoi and Haiphong over 2,000 times, for political not military purpose (to persuade ­South­ Vietnam to accept a truce).    
       Secretly and against international law, U.S. B-52s dropped over 75,000 tons of bombs (about six Hiroshima-size atomic bombs) on one area of neutral Laos from 1964 to 1969, seeking to annihilate the population through what Branfman labels “automated war.” Again in secrecy and illegally, the B-52s dropped 40,000 tons (about three Hiroshimas) in a little more than one year (1969-70) on Cambodia. 
      Ronald Schaffer observes with breathtaking understatement: “Among postwar civilian strategic thinkers and weapons designers there tended to be, as in World War II, mental detachment from the objects of attack and unwillingness or inability to focus on moral questions” (214).  The U.S. will bomb illegally anything its leaders of the moment determine to be a “national security” target—from turning a large area of Laotian villages into a moonscape to attempting to assassinate Libya’s leader (Zinn) to incinerating 1500 Iraqi civilians in an air raid shelter.
      The Al Amariyah shelter bombing was not an isolated atrocity.  During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. dropped 88,000 tons of bombs and over 300 tons of radioactive depleted uranium weapons on Iraq.  Hundreds of thousands of people—including at 150,000 civilians—were killed in the war.  And this state-sponsored terrorism against the population has continued for ten years through sanctions and bombings, causing the deaths of over two million people. 
      Why has the U. S. bombed Iraq for a decade?  That’s what the U.S. government does, and we are accustomed to it.   Blood and destruction are so in use.

  What can we do?  We must face the truth about U.S. aggression and tell others every way we can, to counteract the jingoistic and politically self-serving exaltation of U.S. virtue as contrasted to so-called “terrorist” enemies (Blum, Chomsky, Herman, Jacobs).  Frank Wetta and Stephen Curley in their book on U.S. war films declare: “Americans are a warlike people, their nation born, sustained, and expanded in conflict.  War is not an aberration but a fundamental element in the country’s history.”  They quote General Patton in the film Patton­:  “’Americans, traditionally, love to fight.  All real Americans love the sting

of battle’” (xv). 
       We must expose the hypocrisy which enables the violence.  While passing judgment on Iraq’s use of poison gas against comparatively few of its Kurdish population, our leaders suppress the history of U.S. chemical warfare against Vietnam, when the U.S. sprayed perhaps as much as eighteen million gallons of chemicals over the forests and the people of Vietnam (Colhoun). 
        We must not be deluded into thinking a “Christian” nation means a peaceful nation (Daleiden, Haught, Pagels, Planer, Swomley).

      We must hold our government to the principles of international

law—of Geneva, the Hague, Nuremberg (Barash 414)—and to the jurisdiction of the
World Court and the International War Crimes Tribunal.
We must listen to tribunals that have denounced U.S. war crimes on
the basis of international law (Coryell, Knoll, Melman,Russell). 
We must not make heroes out of pilots who bomb noncombatants indiscriminately and then deny it happened through a code and language of warrior masculinity (Rosenberg).
Anthony Lewis summarizes much of what we must do: “Beware obsession.  Beware secrecy.  Beware concentrated power.”  Particularly (my italics): “Beware men untouched by concern for the moral consequences of their acts,” for they will make even mothers unable to see, hear, or feel dreadful slaughter. 
Shakespeare has Macbeth express his emptiness, which is also that of the advocates of air wars against civilians, so far are they morally lost in killing without remorse in total war:
...I am in blood
Stepp’ in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
While we bewail our violent nation, and desperately seek some scapegoat or other surface remedy, our preparation for ever more air wars reduces us to the level of all mass murderers.  What else can our children think?  What else can they do?

Works Cited

Arnove, Anthony, ed.  Iraq Under Siege.
Barash, David.  ­Introduction to Peace Studies­.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1991.
Bhatia, Bela, Jean Dreze, and Kathy Kelly, eds.  War and Peace in the Gulf. 
Blum, William.  Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II.  Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1995.
___.  Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower.  Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 2000.

Branfman, Fred.  ­Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air  War. 

            New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Chomsky, Noam.  ­World Orders Old and New­.  New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
____.­  Year 501: The Conquest Continues­. Boston:South End/Verso, 1993.

Colhoun, Jack.  “Gulf War Revives Myths About Vietnam.”  ­Guardian­

(Feb. 27, 1991) 10-11.

Coryell, Schofield.  “The War Crimes Tribunal: Let the People

Judge.”  ­Minority of One­ 9.7-8 (July-August 1967) 14-15.
Daleiden, Joseph.  ­The Final Superstition­.  Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1994.

Dower, John.  ­War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific

War­.  New York: Pantheon, 1986.
Garrett, Stephen.  Ethics and Airpower in World War II.  New York: St. Martin’s,

Haught, James.  ­Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious 

Murder and Madness­.  Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1990.
Jacobs, Andy.  The 1600 Killers.  Alistair, 1999.

Knoll, Erwin, and Judith McFadden.  War Crimes­ and the American

Conscience­.  Orlando, FL: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1970.

Leahy, Michael.  “Murky Truths of War Not So Easy to Find.”  Arkansas Democrat-
Gazette (August 13, 1995) 2J.

Lewis, Anthony.  “The Bombing Ghost of Christmas Past.”  New YorkTimes
News Service, 1976.

Markusen, Eric, and David Kopf.  ­The Holocaust and Strategic

Bombing: Genocide and Total War in the Twentieth Century­.
Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995.
Melman, Seymour, et al.  ­In the Name of America­.  New York:
Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, 1968.

Mumford, Lewis.  ­The Pentagon of Power­.  San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace

Jovanovich, 1970.

Omissi, David.  ­Air Power and Colonial Control­.  Manchester, Eng.: Manchester UP; New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.
Pagels, Elaine.  ­The Origin of Satan­.  New York: Random House, 1995.
Planer, Felix.  “Religion and Cruelty.”  ­Superstition­.  Rev. ed. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1988.

Rosenberg, Stanley.  “The Threshold of Thrill: Life Stories in

the Skies over Southeast Asia.”  ­Gendering War Talk­.  Ed.
         Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993.
Russell, Bertrand.  ­War Crimes in Vietnam­.  New York: Monthly Review P,

Shaffer, Ronald.  Wings of Judgment.  New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Sherry, Michael.  ­The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of

Armageddon­.  New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1987.

Swomley, John.  U.S.A.’s Culture of Violence.”  ­Human Quest­

(Sept.-Oct. 1995) 6-7.

Wetta, Frank, and Stephen Curley.  ­Celluloid Wars: A Guide to

Film and the American Experience of War­.  Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.

Suggested Further Reading

Aron, Raymond.  The Century of Total War.  Boston: Beacon: 1955.

­The Air War and Political Developments in El Salvador­.  Congres

sional Hearing, Western Hemisphere Affairs, May 14, 1986.

Barnet, Richard.  ­The Rockets’ Red Glare: When America Goes to

War, The Presidents & the People­. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Brightman, Carol, and Michael Uhl.  “Bombing for the Hell of It.”
­Nation­ 260.23 (June 12, 1995) 822-26.

Chomsky, Noam.  ­Deterring Democracy­. New York: Verso, 1991 (updated Vin

tage, 1992).
____.  ­Turning the Tide­.  Boston: South End, 1985.

Clodfelter, M.  ­The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of

North Vietnam­.  New York: Free Press, 1989.
Cockburn, Alexander.  “Bombs and the Baroque.”  Nation (September 30, 1996) 9-

Doctorow, E.L.  “Mythologizing the Bomb.”  ­Nation­ 261.5 (August

14/21, 1995).
Gerassi, John.  ­North Vietnam: A Documentary­. New York: Bobbs-Merrill,
Griffin, Susan.  A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War.  New York:
Doubleday, 1992.
Guttmann, Allen.  “’Mechanized Doom.’”  Ernest Hemingway.  Ed. Carlos Baker. 
New York: Scribner, 1985.
Harvey, Frank.  Air War: Vietnam.  New York: Bantam, 1967.
Hochhuth, Rolf.  Soldiers; an Obituary for Geneva.  Tr. Robt. MacDonald.  New
York: Grove, 1968.

Irving, D.  ­The Destruction of Dresden  Orlando, FL: Holt, Rinehart & Win

ston, 1963.
Kennett, Lee.  A History of Strategic Bombing.  New York:Scribner’s,1983.
Korn, Peter.  “The Persisting Poison: Agent Orange in Vietnam.”
­Nation­ 252.13 (April 8, 1991) 440-42.

Levinson, J. L.  ­Alpha Strike Vietnam: The Navy’s Air War, 1964

to 1973­.  Novato, CA: Presidio, 1989.
  O’Neill, William.  A Democracy at War: America’s Fight at Home & Abroad in World               War II.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.
  Paris, Michael.  ­From the Wright Brothers to “Top Gun”­.  Manchester, Eng.:     Manchester UP, 1995.
Reports. European War­.  U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.  Washington, 1945-.  Also
series on Pacific War.

Veale, F.J.P.  ­Advance to Barbarism: How the Reversion to Barba

rism in Warfare and War-trials Menaces Our Future.­  Nashville, TN: Nelson,
Voices in the Wilderness. 
1460 Carmen Ave., Chicago,IL 60640
(Kathy Kelly and delegations to Iraq).
Vonnegut, Kurt.  Slaughterhouse-five; or The Children’s Crusade.  New York:
Delacorte, 1969.
Warner, Rex.  The Aerodrome: A Love Story (1941).  Boston:
Little, Brown, 1966.
Zinn, Howard. “Terrorism over Tripoli.” ­Failure to Quit­.  Monroe, ME: Common
Courage, 1993.

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