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The Middle East and the Barbarism of War from the Air

Aerial warfare has always been essentially directed against civilians

| Fri Jul. 28, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

Barbarism seems an obvious enough category. Ordinarily in our world, the barbarians are them. They act in ways that seem unimaginably primitive and brutal to us. For instance, they kidnap or capture someone, American or Iraqi, and cut off his head. Now, isn't that the definition of barbaric? Who does that anymore? The eighth century, or maybe the word "medieval" -? anyway, some brutal past time -- comes to mind immediately, and to the mass mind of our media even faster.

Similarly, to jump a little closer to modernity, they strap grenades, plastic explosives, bombs of various ingenious sorts fashioned in home labs, with nails or other bits of sharp metal added in to create instant shrapnel meant to rend human flesh, to maim and kill. Then they approach a target -- an Israeli bus filled with civilians and perhaps some soldiers, a pizza parlor in Jerusalem, a gathering of Shiite or Sunni worshippers at or near a mosque in Iraq or Pakistan, or of unemployed potential police or army recruits in Ramadi or Baghdad, or of shoppers in an Iraqi market somewhere in that country, or perhaps a foreigner on the streets of Kabul and they blow themselves up. Or they arm backpacks or bags and step onto trains in London, Madrid, Mumbai, and set them off.

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Or, to up the technology and modernity a bit, they wire a car to explode, put a jihadist in the driver's seat, and drive it into -- well, this is now common enough that you can pick your target. Or perhaps they audaciously hijack four just-fuelled jets filled with passengers and run two of them into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and another into a field in Pennsylvania. This is, of course, the very definition of barbaric.

Now, let's jump a step further into our age of technological destruction, becoming less face-to-face, more impersonal, without, in the end, changing things that much. They send rockets from southern Lebanon (or even cruder ones from the Gaza Strip) against Israeli towns and cities. These rockets can only vaguely be aimed. Some can be brought into the general vicinity of an inhabited area; others, more advanced, into specific urban neighborhoods many tens of miles away -- and then they detonate, killing whoever is in the vicinity, which normally means civilians just living their lives, even, in one recent Hezbollah volley aimed at Nazareth, two Israeli Arab children. In this process, thousands of Israelis have been temporarily driven from their homes.

In the case of rockets by the hundreds lofted into Israel by an armed, organized militia, meant to terrorize and harm civilian populations, these are undoubtedly war crimes. Above all, they represent a kind of barbarism that -- with the possible exception of some of those advanced Hezbollah rockets -- feels primitive to us. Despite the explosives, cars, planes, all so basic to our modern way of life, such acts still seem redolent of ancient, less civilized times when people did especially cruel things to each other face to face.

The Religion of Air Power

That's them. But what about us? On our we/they planet, most groups don't consider themselves barbarians. Nonetheless, we have largely achieved non-barbaric status in an interesting way -- by removing the most essential aspect of the American (and, right now, Israeli) way of war from the category of the barbaric. I'm talking, of course, about air power, about raining destruction down on the earth from the skies, and about the belief -- so common, so long-lasting, so deep-seated -- that bombing others, including civilian populations, is a "strategic" thing to do; that air power can, in relatively swift measure, break the "will" not just of the enemy, but of that enemy's society; and that such a way of war is the royal path to victory.

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