Sunday, February 03, 2008

Bush does a Guernica... and nobody notices

At 4:30 in the afternoon on April 26th, 1937, the first airplanes of the German Condor Legion arrived in the air over the Basque town of Guernica. For the next three hours they unleashed a ferocious aerial bombardment, dropping 45,000 kilograms of bombs on the unarmed civilian population of that town, reducing it to rubble. From PBS Online:
Those trying to escape were cut down by the strafing machine guns of fighter planes. "They kept just going back and forth, sometimes in a long line, sometimes in close formation. It was as if they were practicing new moves. They must have fired thousands of bullets." (eyewitness Juan Guezureya) The fires that engulfed the city burned for three days. Seventy percent of the town was destroyed. Sixteen hundred civilians - one third of the population - were killed or wounded.
Word is now emerging that the US military in Iraq may well have done exactly the same thing over a ten day period over the farming area of Arab Jabour, 16 kilometers south of Baghdad. There are no reports as to casualties, civilian or otherwise because there were no reporters anywhere in the vicinity of the bombing. Tom Engelhardt explains:
As far as we know, there were no reporters, Iraqi or Western, in Arab Jabour when the bombs fell and, Iraq being Iraq, no American reporters rushed there - in person or by satellite phone - to check out the damage. In Iraq and Afghanistan, when it comes to the mainstream media, bombing is generally only significant if it's of the roadside or suicide variety; if, that is, the "bombs" can be produced at approximately "the cost of a pizza", (as IEDs sometimes are), or if the vehicles delivering them are cars or simply fiendishly well-rigged human bodies. From the air, even 45,000 kilograms of bombs just doesn't have the ring of something that matters. Some of this, of course, comes from the Pentagon's success in creating a dismissive, sanitizing language in which to frame war from the air. "Collateral damage" stands in for the civilian dead - even though in much of modern war, the collateral damage could be considered the dead soldiers, not the ever-rising percentage of civilian casualties. And death is, of course, delivered "precisely" by "precision-guided" weaponry. All this makes air war seem sterile, even virginal. Army Colonel Terry Ferrell, for instance, described the air assaults in Arab Jabour in this disembodied way at a Baghdad news conference:
The purpose of these particular strikes was to shape the battlefield and take out known threats before our ground troops move in. Our aim was to neutralize any advantage the enemy could claim with the use of IEDs and other weapons.
Reports - often hard to assess for credibility - have nonetheless seeped out of the region indicating that there were civilian casualties, possibly significant numbers of them; that bridges and roads were "cut off" and undoubtedly damaged; that farms and farmlands were damaged or destroyed. According to Hamza Hendawi of the Associated Press, for instance, Iraqi and American troops were said to have advanced into Arab Jabour, already much damaged from years of fighting, through "smoldering citrus groves".
And there will be more of this to come. As the Bush administration starts to draw down its troops strength in Iraq, it will continue to maintain a similar level of power. In order to do that, expect the US to increase its air assault capability and to use it. The evidence is at Balad air base.
Radar traffic controllers at the base now commonly see "more than 550 aircraft operations in just one day". To the tune of billions of dollars, Balad's runways and other facilities have been, and continue to be, upgraded for years of further wear and tear. According to the military press, construction is to begin this month on a US$30 million "state-of-the-art battlefield command and control system [at Balad] that will integrate air traffic management throughout Iraq". [...] This gargantuan feat of construction is designed for the military long haul. As Josh White of the Washington Post reported recently in a relatively rare (and bland) summary piece on the use of air power in Iraq, there were five times as many US air strikes in 2007 as in 2006; and 2008 has, of course, started off with a literal bang from those 45,000 kilograms of explosives dropped southeast of Baghdad. That poundage assumedly includes the 18,000 kilograms of explosives, which got modest headlines for being delivered in a mere 10 minutes in the Arab Jabour area the previous week, but not the 7,200 kilograms of explosives that White reports being used north of Baghdad in approximately the same period; nor, evidently, another 6,800 kilograms of explosives dropped on Arab Jabour more recently.
The Bush administration is transforming Iraq from a ground war of grunts getting killed by IEDs to a techno-war of civilians being labeled "collateral damage". And the same military commanders who decry the behaviour of their opponents using Iraqi and Afghani civilians as human shields while they move among the general population will be doing something similar and perhaps much more repulsive in its sterility.
American military spokespeople and administration officials have, over the years, decried Iraqi and Afghan insurgents for "hiding" behind civilian populations - in essence, accusing them of both immorality and cowardice. When such spokespeople do admit to inflicting "collateral damage" on civilian populations, they regularly blame the guerrillas for making civilians into "shields". And all of this is regularly, dutifully reported in the US press. On the other hand, no one in our world considers drone warfare in a similar context, though armed UAVs like the Predators and the newer, even more heavily armed Reapers are generally "flown" by pilots stationed at computer consoles in places like Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas. It is from there that they release their missiles against "anti-Iraqi forces" or the Taliban, causing civilian deaths in both Iraq and Afghanistan.


To American reporters, this seems neither cowardly, nor in any way barbaric, just plain old normal. Those pilots are not said to be "hiding" in distant deserts or among the civilian gamblers of Caesar's Palace.
As Rez Dog points out, this is the cult of Air Power taking over in Iraq. The problem is that even in theatres where complete dominance of the air reigned, the high-priests of Air Power were unable to secure a single objective and were unable to reconcile the massive numbers of civilian deaths wrought by simply raining ordnance from the air.
[H]ere's the simple calculus that goes with all this: militarily, overstretched American forces simply cannot sustain the ground part of the "surge" for much longer. Most, if not all, of those 30,000 troops who surged into Iraq in the first half of 2007 will soon be coming home. But air power won't be. Air force personnel are already on short, rotating tours of duty in the region. In Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as ground troops were withdrawn, air power ramped up. This seems once again to be the pattern. There is every reason to believe that it represents the American future in Iraq.
At some point some expect somebody to utter the words "Bomb them back to the stone age".

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