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 consol 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…
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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt