April 10, 2008—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.")
Fifteen 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...")
In Tikrit, 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 globalbodycount.com 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.
Here's the sorry reality: Such occurances 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 piece 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, globalbodycount.com will be operative.
[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
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This story was published on April 10, 2008.