'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Air War: Past, Present and Future 

The air war in Iraq is slowly, but inexorably, entering mainstream media discourse. On December 24, 2005, the Washington Post published an article acknowledging that US forces have been using air strikes in western Iraq to attack resistance fighters in civilian neighborhoods. Predictably, the Post observed that, "The accounts of U.S. Marines and Iraqi civilians of airstrikes often diverge sharply." It then implicitly validated the Marine perspective by quoting US commanders at length about the technological wonders of "precision-guided munitions", especially in regard to their alleged ability to reduce, if not eliminate, civilian casualties.

Unfortunately, it appears that that this wonderous technology is incapable of eliminating the persistent element of human error, and the catastrophic consequences associated with it. On January 3rd, the New York Times reported:

United States warplanes killed nine members of an Iraqi family, including women and young children, during a bombing strike Monday night that obliterated a home near the northern industrial city of Bayji, Iraqi officials said today.

American officials said the warplanes were targeting insurgents who had been observed planting a roadside bomb and who then fled to the building that was destroyed.

The attack enraged Iraqi officials in Bayji, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, who said the airstrike was unjustified and destroyed an innocent family.

A preliminary investigation indicated the blast killed the wife of the home's owner, his daughter-in-law and seven children and grandchildren, including one son who worked for the police, said Maj. Muthanna al-Qaisi, a spokesman for the governor of the Salahaddin province. Three more family members were wounded, he said.

"The owner of the house is a very simple man," said Major al-Qaisi. "The American forces did not provide us with any justification for the attack and the governor requires an investigation concerning this attack.

There was just one problem: the wrong house was bombed.

An error, a mistake, but then again, perhaps not. The Brussels Tribunal has numerous, harrowing Iraqi eyewitness accounts of the war in western Iraq, with this description of the bombing of Al-Qaim in October 2005 as just one example:

Modhhir Najim Abdulla, a security officer in the hospital took us to his uncle’s bombed house where 17 women, children, and civilians were killed. The house of Arkan was just heaps of concrete blocks; the roof was flattened to the ground. There were 5 families living there. Not one of them was a stranger or a fighter.

“I just want to know why, I want a justification” Modhhir began, “the bombing began on Nov 5, loud speakers were saying stay at home, do not move out, and we did. 15 minutes later the bombing began. They did not announce evacuation. We had no chance to leave”. On Nov 7, we heard that our uncle’s house was bombed. We could not go to check; we went to the nearest American troops and told them. They accompanied us, and this is what we found,

Modhhir was not crying, but his voice was full of rage. His sister (Najla’) who was the wife of his cousin too, was pregnant in her 9th month. She was supposed to have cesarean operation because she was a week late for her due time. “I can not describe her and her baby when we removed the bodies”. Another cousin’s baby was only 25 days. A third child’s body was not found until 2 days later. Modhhir brought the family’s IDs, death certificates, and photos.

In an excellent article posted yesterday over at Tom Dispatch, Michael Schwartz explains the amoral intentions behind of the use of air power in Iraq:

We can gain some perspective on this military strategy by imagining similar rules of engagement for an American police force in some large city. Imagine, for example, a team of criminals in that city fleeing into a nearby apartment building after gunning down a policeman. It would be unthinkable for the police to simply call in airships to demolish the structure, killing any people -- helpless hostages, neighbors, or even friends of the perpetrators -- who were with or near them. In fact, the rules of engagement for the police, even in such a situation of extreme provocation, call for them to "hold their fire" -- if necessary allowing the perpetrators to escape -- if there is a risk of injuring civilians. And this is a reasonable rule... because we value the lives of innocent American citizens over our determination to capture a criminal, even a cop killer.

But in Iraqi cities, our values and priorities are quite differently arranged. The contrast derives from three important principles under which the Iraq war is being fought: that the war should be conducted to absolutely minimize the risk to American troops; that guerrilla fighters should not be allowed to escape if there is any way to capture or kill them; and that Iraqi civilians should not be allowed to harbor or encourage the resistance fighters.

Referencing the January 2nd "mistake" in Bayji, Schwartz observes:

Rather than allow the perpetrators to take refuge in a nearby home and then quietly slip away, the U.S. command decided to take out the house, even though they had no guarantee that it was uninhabited (and every reason to believe the opposite). The paramount goal was to kill or capture the suspected guerrilla fighters, and if this involved the death or injury of multiple Iraqi civilians, the trade-off was clearly considered worth it. That is, annihilating a family of 12 or 14 Iraqis could be justified, if there was a reasonable probability of killing or capturing three individuals who might have been setting a roadside bomb.

Though Bush administration officials and top U.S. military officers often, for propaganda purposes, refer to local residents as innocent victims of insurgent intimidation and terrorism, their disregard for the lives of civilians trapped inside such buildings is symptomatic of a very different belief: that most Sunni Iraqis willingly harbor the guerrillas and support their attacks -- that they are not unwilling shields for the guerrillas, but are actively shielding them. Moreover, this protection of the guerrillas is seen as a critical obstacle to our military success, requiring drastic punitive action.

As one American officer explained to New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins, the willingness to sacrifice local civilians is part of a larger strategy in which U.S. military power is used to "punish not only the guerrillas, but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating." A Marine calling-in to a radio talk show recently stated the argument more precisely: "You know why those people get killed? It's because they're letting insurgents hide in their house."

Note that Schwartz's commentary is based upon the repudiated initial military statement that three Iraqis involved in planting an explosive device nearby had been monitored entering the Bayji home. Now, the military states that it is "investigating" why the wrong house was hit. At best, we have a classic illustration of the fallibility of purported "precision-guided munitions", contrary to the romanticized Christmas Eve description of such technology in the Post. At worst, the military did bomb the selected target, based upon the probability, rather than the certainty, of the presence of the guerrillas. As Schwartz said, "annihilating a family of 12 or 14 Iraqis could be justified, if there was a reasonable probability of killing or capturing three individuals who might have been setting a roadside bomb."

Accordingly, having declared war on the Sunnis, armed and unarmed, it is not surprising to discover that "U.S. Airstrikes Could Intensify". One can only forlornly hope that the internal resistance within the Navy and the Air Force during the latter stages of the Vietnam War reemerges in Iraq:

The GI movement spread from the army and the marine corps to the air force and navy, as these services assumed the principal burden of continuing the American war effort. By 1972 resistance accelerated to such a degree that B-52 crews refused to fly; sabotage and internal rebellion crippled the navy's aircraft carriers. . . With each new wave of bombing during the Nixon administration, protests and demonstrations erupted at bases throughout the world. The rising tide of antiwar resistance ultimately began to disrupt bombing operations and reached even the predominantly white officer-pilots. Morale among airmen and crew members at the combat bases in Thailand and Guam steadily dropped in 1972. In December of that year, two pilots stationed in Thailand, Captains Dwight D. Evans and Michael Heck, refused to fly any more combat missions. 20 In the spring of 1973, four B-52 crewmen stationed at Guam joined in a federal lawsuit filed by Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman to challenge the constitutionality of continued bombing. Shortly thereafter, the Pentagon cut back on bombing missions and Congress finally severed funding, thereby starting to terminate America's longest war.

Of course, we live in different times, but it is still probably true that the war in Iraq, like the war in Vietnam, will continue until people refuse to enlist and soldiers refuse to fight it. So, the antiwar movement, such as it is, is well-advised to continue to focus upon these two outcomes, no matter how difficult.

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