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.
This set of beliefs was common to air-power advocates even before modern air war had been tested, and repeated unsuccessful attempts to put these convictions into practice have never really shaken -- not for long anyway ? what is essentially a war-making religion. The result has been the development of the most barbaric style of warfare imaginable, one that has seldom succeeded in breaking any societal will, though it has destroyed innumerable bodies, lives, stretches of countryside, villages, towns, and cities.
Even today, we find Israeli military strategists saying things that could have been put in the mouths of their air-power-loving predecessors endless decades ago. The New York Times' Steven Erlanger, for instance, recently quoted an unnamed "senior Israeli commander" this way: "He predicted that Israel would stick largely to air power for now? ?A ground maneuver won't solve the problem of the long-range missiles,' he said. ?The problem is the will to launch. We have to break the will of Hezbollah?'" Don't hold your breath is the first lesson history teaches on this particular assessment of the powers of air war; the second is that, a decade from now, some other "senior commander" in some other country will be saying the same thing, word for word.
When it comes to brutality, the fact is that ancient times have gotten a bad rap. Nothing in history was more brutal than the last century's style of war-making -- than those two world wars with their air armadas, backed by the most advanced industrial systems on the planet. Powerful countries then bent every elbow, every brain, to support the destruction of other human beings en masse, not to speak of the Holocaust (which was assembly-line warfare in another form), and the various colonial and Cold War campaigns that went on in the Third World from the 1940s on; which, in places like Korea and Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, substituted the devastation of air power locally for a war between the two superpowers which might have employed the mightiest air weaponry of all to scour the Earth.
It may be that the human capacity for brutality, for barbarism, hasn't changed much since the eighth century, but the industrial revolution -- and in particular the rise of the airplane -- opened up new landscapes to brutality; while the view from behind the gun-sight, then the bomb-sight, and finally the missile-sight slowly widened until all of humanity was taken in. From the lofty, godlike vantage point of the strategic as well as the literal heavens, the military and the civilian began to blur on the ground. Soldiers and citizens, conscripts and refugees alike, became nothing but tiny, indistinguishable hordes of ants, or nothing at all but the structures that housed them, or even just concepts, indistinguishable one from the other.
One Plane, One Bomb
As far as anyone knows, the first bomb was dropped by hand over the Italian colony of Libya. According to Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing, one Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti "leaned out of his delicate monoplane and dropped the bomb -- a Danish Haasen hand grenade -- on the North African oasis Tagiura, near Tripoli. Several moments later, he attacked the oasis Ain Zara. Four bombs in total, each weighing two kilos, were dropped during this first air attack."
That was 1911 and the damage was minimal. Only thirty-four years later, vast armadas of B-17s and B-29s were taking off, up to a thousand planes at a time, to bomb Germany and Japan. In the case of Tokyo -- then constructed almost totally out of highly flammable materials -- a single raid carrying incendiary bombs and napalm that began just after midnight on March 10, 1945 proved capable of incinerating or killing at least 90,000 people, possibly many more, from such a height that the dead could not be seen (though the stench of burning flesh carried up to the planes). The first American planes to arrive over the city, wrote historian Michael Sherry in his book, The Rise of American Air Power, "carved out an X of flames across one of the world's most densely packed residential districts; followers fed and broadened it for some three hours thereafter."
What descended from the skies, as James Carroll puts it in his new book, House of War, was "1,665 tons of pure fire? the most efficient and deliberate act of arson in history. The consequent firestorm obliterated fifteen square miles, which included both residential and industrial areas. Fires raged for four days." It was the bonfire of bonfires and not a single American plane was shot down.
On August 6, 1945, all the power of that vast air armada was again reduced to a single plane, the Enola Gay, and a single bomb, "Little Boy," dropped near a single bridge in a single city, Hiroshima, which in a single moment of a sort never before experienced on the planet did what it had taken 300 B-29s and many hours to do to Tokyo. In those two cities -- as well as Dresden and other German and Japanese cities subjected to "strategic bombing" -- the dead (perhaps 900,000 in Japan and 600,000 in Germany) were invariably preponderantly civilian, and far too distant to be seen by plane crews often dropping their bomb loads in the dark of night, giving the scene below the look of Hell on Earth.
So 1911: one plane, one bomb. 1945: one plane, one bomb -- but this time at least 120,000 dead, possibly many more. Two bookmarks less than four decades apart on the first chapter of a history of the invention of a new kind of warfare, a new kind of barbarism that, by now, is the way we expect war to be made, a way that no longer strikes us as barbaric at all. This wasn't always the case.
The Shock of the New
When military air power was in its infancy and silent films still ruled the movie theaters, the first air-war films presented pilots as knights of the heavens, engaging in courageous, chivalric, one-on-one combat in the skies. As that image reflects, in the wake of the meat-grinder of trench warfare in World War I, the medieval actually seemed far less brutal, a time much preferable to those years in which young men had died by their hundreds of thousands, anonymously, from machine guns, artillery, poison gas, all the lovely inventions of industrial civilization, ground into the mud of no-man's-land, often without managing to move their lines or the enemy's more than a few hundred yards.
The image of chivalric knights in planes jousting in the skies slowly disappeared from American screens, as after the 1950s would, by and large, air power itself even as the war film went on (and on and on). It can last be found perhaps in the film Top Gun; in old Peanuts comics in which Snoopy remains forever the Red Baron; and, of course, post-Star Wars, in the fantasy realm of outer space where Jedi Knights took up lethal sky-jousting in the late 1970s, X-wing fighter to X-wing fighter, and in zillions of video games to follow. In the meantime, the one-way air slaughter in South Vietnam would be largely left out of the burst of Vietnam films that would start hitting the screen from the late 1970s on.
In the real, off-screen world, that courtly medieval image of air power disappeared fast indeed. As World War II came ever closer and it became more apparent what air power was best at -- what would now be called "collateral damage" -- the shock set in. When civilians were first purposely targeted and bombed in the industrializing world rather than in colonies like Iraq, the act was initially widely condemned as inhuman by a startled world.
People were horrified when, during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Hitler's Condor Legion and planes from fascist Italy repeatedly bombed the Basque town of Guernica, engulfing most of its buildings in a firestorm that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians. If you want to get a sense of the power of that act to shock then, view Picasso's famous painting of protest done almost immediately in response. (When Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the UN in February 2003 to deliver his now infamous speech explaining what we supposedly knew about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, UN officials -- possibly at the request of the Bush administration -- covered over a tapestry of the painting that happened to be positioned where Powell would have to pass on his way to deliver his speech and where press comments would be offered afterwards.)
Later in 1937, as the Japanese began their campaign to conquer China, they bombed a number of Chinese cities. A single shot of a Chinese baby wailing amid the ruins, published in Life magazine, was enough to horrify Americans (even though the actual photo may have been doctored). Air power was then seen as nothing but a new kind of barbarism. According to historian Sherry, "In 1937 and 1938, [President Roosevelt] had the State Department condemn Japanese bombing of civilians in China as ?barbarous' violations of the ?elementary principles' of modern morality." Meanwhile, observers checking out what effect the bombing of civilians had on the "will" of society offered nothing but bad news to the strategists of air power. As Sherry writes:
"In the Saturday Evening Post, an American army officer observed that bombing had proven ?disappointing to the theorists of peacetime.' When Franco's rebels bombed Madrid, ?Did the Madrilenos sue for peace? No, they shook futile fists at the murderers in the sky and muttered, ?Swine.' His conclusion: ?Terrorism from the air has been tried and found wanting. Bombing, far from softening the civil will, hardens it.'"
Already similar things are being written about the Lebanese, though, in our media, terms like "barbarism" and "terrorism" are unlikely to be applied to Israel's war from the heavens. New York Times correspondent Sabrina Tavernise, for instance, reported the following from the site of a destroyed apartment building in the bomb-shocked southern Lebanese port of Tyre:
"Whatever the target, the result was an emotional outpouring in support of Hezbollah. Standing near a cluster of dangling electrical wires, a group of men began to chant. ?By our blood and our soul, we'll fight for you, Nasrallah!' they said, referring to Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. In a foggy double image, another small group chanted the same thing, as if answering, on the other side of the smoke."
World War II began with the German bombing of Warsaw. On September 9, 1939, according to Carroll, President Roosevelt "beseeched the war leaders on both sides to ?under no circumstances undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations of unfortified cities.'" Then came, the terror-bombing of Rotterdam and Hitler's Blitz against England in which tens of thousands of British civilians died and many more were displaced, each event proving but another systemic shock to what was left of global opinion, another unimaginable act by the planet's reigning barbarians.
British civilians, of course, still retain a deserved reputation for the stiff-upper-lip-style bravery with which they comported themselves in the face of a merciless German air offensive against their cities that knew no bounds. No wills were broken there, nor would they be in Russia (where, in 1942, perhaps 40,000 were killed in German air attacks on the city of Stalingrad alone) -- any more than they would be in Germany by the far more massive Allied air offensive against the German population.
All of this, of course, came before it was clear that the United States could design and churn out planes faster, in greater numbers, and with more fire power than any country on the planet and then wield air power far more massively and brutally than anyone had previously been capable of doing. That was before the U.S. and Britain decided to fight fire with fire by blitz- and terror-bombing Germany and Japan. (The U.S. moved more slowly and awkwardly than the British from "precision bombing" against targets like factories producing military equipment or oil-storage depots -- campaigns that largely failed -- to "area bombing" that was simply meant to annihilate vast numbers of civilians and destroy cities. But move American strategists did.) That was before Dresden and Hiroshima; before Pyongyang, along with much of the Korean peninsula, was reduced to rubble from the air in the Korean War; before the Plaine des Jarres was bombed back to the Stone Age in Laos in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before the B-52s were sent against the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong in the terror-bombing of Christmas 1972 to wring concessions out of the North Vietnamese at the peace table in Paris; before the first President Bush ended the first Gulf War with a "turkey shoot" on the "highway of death" as Saddam Hussein's largely conscript military fled Kuwait City in whatever vehicles were at hand; before we bombed the rubble in Afghanistan into further rubble in 2001, and before we shock-and awed Baghdad in 2003.
Taking the Sting Out of Air War
Somewhere in this process, a new language to describe air war began to develop -- after, in the Vietnam era, the first "smart bombs" and "precision-guided weapons" came on line. From then on, air attacks would, for instance, be termed "surgical" and civilian casualties dismissed as but "collateral damage." All of this helped removed the sting of barbarity from the form of war we had chosen to make our own (unless, of course, you happened to be one of those "collateral" people under those "surgical" strikes). Just consider, for a moment, that, with the advent of the first Gulf War, air power -- as it was being applied -- essentially became entertainment, a Disney-style, son-et-lumière spectacular over Baghdad to be watched in real time on television by a population of non-combatants from thousands of miles away.
With that same war, the Pentagon started calling press briefings and screening nose-cone photography, essentially little Iraqi snuff films, in which you actually looked through the precision-guided bomb or missile-sights yourself, found your target, and followed that missile or smart bomb right down to its explosive impact. If you were lucky, the Pentagon even let you check out the after-mission damage assessments. These films were so nifty, so like the high-tech video-game experience just then coming into being, that they were used by the Pentagon as reputation enhancers. From then on, Pentagon officials not only described their air weaponry as "surgical" in its abilities, but showed you the "surgery" (just as the Israelis have been doing with their footage of "precision" attacks in Lebanon). What you didn't see, of course, was the "collateral damage" which, when the Iraqis put it on-screen, was promptly dismissed as so much propaganda.
And yet this new form of air war had managed to move far indeed from the image of the knightly joust, from the sense, in fact, of battle at all. In those years, except over the far north of Korea during the Korean War or over North Vietnam and some parts of South Vietnam, American pilots, unless in helicopters, went into action (as Israeli ones do today) knowing that the dangers to them were usually minimal -- or, as over that Iraqi highway of death nonexistent. War from the air was in the process of becoming a one-way street of destruction.
At an extreme, with the arrival of fleets of Hellfire-missile-armed unmanned Predator drones over Iraq, the "warrior" would suddenly find himself seven thousand miles away at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, delivering "precision" strikes that almost always, somehow, managed to kill collaterally. In such cases, war and screen war have indeed merged.
This kind of war has the allure, from a military point of view, of ever less casualties on one end in return for ever more on the other. It must also instill a feeling of bloodless, godlike control over those enemy "ants" (until, of course, things begin to go wrong, as they always do) as well as a sense that the world can truly be "remade" from the air, by remote control, and at a great remove. This has to be a powerful, even a transporting fantasy for strategists, however regularly it may be denied by history.
Despite the cleansed language of air war, and no matter how good the targeting intelligence or smart the bomb (neither of which can be counted on), civilians who make the mistake of simply being alive and going about their daily business die in profusion whenever war descends from the heavens. This is the deepest reality of war today.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon? [Fill in the Blank]
In fact, the process of removing air power from the ranks of the barbaric, of making it, if not glorious (as in those visually startling moments when Baghdad was shock-and-awed), then completely humdrum, and so of no note whatsoever, has been remarkably successful in our world. In fact, we have loosed our air power regularly on the countryside of Afghanistan, and especially on rebellious urban areas of Iraq in "targeted" and "precise" attacks on insurgent concentrations and "al-Qaeda safe houses" (as well as in more wholesale assaults on the old city of Najaf and on the city of Fallujah) largely without comment or criticism. In the process, significant parts of two cities in a country we occupied and supposedly "liberated," were reduced to rubble and everywhere, civilians, not to speak of whole wedding parties, were blown away without our media paying much attention at all.
Our various air campaigns -- our signature way of war -- have hardly been noticed, and almost never focused on, by the large numbers of journalists embedded with U.S. forces or in one way or another on-the-ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Remember, we're talking here about the dropping of up to 2,000 pound bombs regularly, over years, often in urban areas. Just imagine, if you live in a reasonably densely populated area, what it might mean collaterally to have such bombs or missiles hit your block or neighborhood, no matter how "accurate" their aim.
Until Seymour Hersh wrote a piece from Washington last November for the New Yorker, entitled "Up in the Air," our reporters had, with rare exceptions, simply refused to look up; and despite a flurry of attention then, to this day, our continuing air campaigns are largely ignored. Yet here is an Air Force summary of just a single, nondescript day of operations in Iraq, one of hundreds and hundreds of such days, some far more intense, since we invaded that country: "In total, coalition aircraft flew 46 close-air support missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom. These missions included support to coalition troops, infrastructure protection, reconstruction activities and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist activities."
And here's the summary of the same day in Afghanistan: "In total, coalition aircraft flew 32 close-air support missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. These missions included support to coalition and Afghan troops, reconstruction activities and route patrols." Note that, in Afghanistan, as the situation has worsened militarily and politically, the old Vietnam-era B-52s, the carpet-bombers of that war, have been called back into action, again without significant attention here.
Now, with the fervent backing of the Bush administration, another country is being "remade" from the air -- in this case, Lebanon. With the highest-tech American precision-guided and bunker-busting bombs, the Israelis have been launching air strike after strike, thousands of them, in that country. They have hit an international airport, the nation's largest milk factories; a major food factory; aid convoys; Red Cross ambulances; a UN observer post; a power plant; apartment complexes; villages because they house or support the enemy; branches of banks because they might facilitate Hezbollah finances; the telecommunications system because of the messages that might pass along it; highways because they might transport weapons to the enemy; bridges because they might be crossed by those transporting weapons; a lighthouse in Beirut harbor for reasons unknown; trucks because they might be transporting those weapons (though they might also be transporting vegetables); families who just happen to be jammed into cars or minivans fleeing at the urging of the attackers who have turned at least 20% of all Lebanese (and probably many more) into refugees, while creating a "landscape of death" (in the phrase of the superb Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid) in the southern part of the country. In this process, civilian casualties have mounted steadily -- assumedly far beyond the figure of just over 400 now regularly being cited in our press, because Lebanon has no way to search the rubble of its bombed buildings for the dead; nor, right now, the time and ability to do an accurate count of those who died more or less in the open.
And yet, of course, the "will" of the enemy is not broken and, among Israel's leaders and its citizens, frustration mounts; so threats of more and worse are made and worse weapons are brought into play; and wider targeting fields are opened up; and what might faintly pass for "precision bombing" is increasingly abandoned for the equivalent of "area bombing." And the full support system -- which is simply society -- for the movement in question becomes the "will" that must be broken; and in this process, what we call "collateral damage" is moved, by the essential barbaric logic of air power, front and center, directly into the crosshairs.
Already Israeli Prime Minister Olmert is "vowing" to use the "most severe measures" to end Hezbollah rocket attacks -- and in the context of the present air assault that is a frightening threat. All this because, as in Iraq, as elsewhere, air power has once again run up against another kind of power, a fierce people power (quite capable of its own barbarities) that, over the decades, the bomb and missile has proved frustratingly incapable of dismantling or wiping out. Already, as the Guardian's Ian Black points out, "The original objective of ?breaking Hizbullah' has been quietly watered down to ?weakening Hizbullah.'"
In such a war, with such an enemy, the normal statistics of military victory may add up only to defeat, a further frustration that only tends to ratchet the destruction higher over time. Adam Shatz put this well recently in the Nation when he wrote:
"[Hezbollah leader] Nasrallah is under no illusions that his small guerrilla movement can defeat the Israeli Army. But he can lose militarily and still score a political victory, particularly if the Israelis continue visiting suffering on Lebanon, whose government, as they well know, is powerless to control Hezbollah. Nasrallah, whom the Israelis attempted to assassinate on July 19 with a twenty-three-ton bomb attack on an alleged Hezbollah bunker, is doubtless aware that he may share the fate of his predecessor, Abbas Musawi, who was killed in an Israeli helicopter gunship attack in 1992. But Hezbollah outlived Musawi and grew exponentially, thanks in part to its followers' passion for martyrdom. To some, Nasrallah's raid may look like a death wish. But it is almost impossible to defeat someone who has no fear of death."
As the Israelis are rediscovering -- though, by now, you'd think that military planners with half a brain wouldn't have to destroy a country to do so -- that it is impossible to "surgically" separate a movement and its supporters from the air. When you try, you invariably do the opposite; fusing them ever more closely, while creating an even larger, ever angrier base for the movement whose essence is, in any case, never literal geography, never simply a set of villages or bunkers or military supplies to be taken and destroyed.
Someday someone will take up the grim study of the cleansing language of air power. Every air war, it seems, now has its new words meant to take the sting out of its essential barbarism. In the case of the Israeli air assault on Lebanon, the term -- old in the military world but never before so widely adopted in such a commonplace way -- is "degrading," not as at Abu Ghraib, but as in "to impair in physical structure or function." It was once a technical military term; in this round of air war, however, it is being used to cover a range of sins.
Try Googling the term. It turns out to be almost literally everywhere. It can be found in just about any article on Israel's air war, used in this fashion: "CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante reports that around the world the U.S.' opposition to a cease-fire is viewed as the U.S. giving Israel a ?green-light' to degrade the military capability of Hezbollah." Or in a lead in a New York Times piece this way: "The outlines of an American-Israeli consensus began to emerge Tuesday in which Israel would continue to bombard Lebanon for about another week to degrade Hezbollah's capabilities, officials of the two countries said." Or more generally, as in a Washington Post piece, in this fashion: "In the administration's view, the new conflict is not just a crisis to be managed. It is also an opportunity to seriously degrade a big threat in the region, just as Bush believes he is doing in Iraq." Or as Henry A. Crumpton, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, wielded it: "It's not just about the missiles and launchers? [I]t's about the roads and transport, the ability to command and control. All that is being degraded. But it's going to take a long time. I don't believe this is going to be over in the next couple of days." Or as an Israeli general at a Washington think tank told the Washington Times: "Israel has taken it upon itself to degrade Hezbollah's military capabilities."
Sometimes degradation of this sort can be quantified: "A senior Israeli official said Friday that the attacks to date had degraded Hezbollah's military strength by roughly half, but that the campaign could go on for two more weeks or longer." More often, it's a useful term exactly because it's wonderfully vague, quite resistant to quantification, the very opposite of "precision" in its ambiguity, and capable of taking some of the sting out of what is actually happening. It turns the barbarity of air war into something close to a natural process -- of, perhaps, erosion, of wearing down over time.
As air wars go, the one in Lebanon may seem strikingly directed against the civilian infrastructure and against society; in that, however, it is historically anything but unique. It might even be said that war from the air, since first launched in Europe's colonies early in the last century, has always been essentially directed against civilians. As in World War II, air power -- no matter its stated targets -- almost invariably turns out to be worst for civilians and, in the end, to be aimed at society itself. In that way, its damage is anything but "collateral," never truly "surgical," and never in its overall effect "precise." Even when it doesn't start that way, the frustration of not working as planned, of not breaking the "will," invariably leads, as with the Israelis, to ever wider, ever fiercer versions of the same, which, if allowed to proceed to their logical conclusion, will bring down not society's will, but society itself.
For the Lebanese prime minister what Israel has been doing to his country may be "barbaric destruction"; but, in our world, air power has long been robbed of its barbarism (suicide air missions excepted). For us, air war involves dumb hits by smart bombs, collateral damage, and surgery that may do in the patient, but it's not barbaric. For that you need to personally cut off a head.
[Note on Other Websites: For keeping me up-to-date on the present crisis in the Middle East, I would especially like to thank (and recommend to readers): Juan Cole's Informed Comment website (his recent essays there have been inspired); Antiwar.com, which provides an incredible range of Middle Eastern coverage that no one could collect on his or her own; the War in Context whose editor has an especially good eye for the telling article (and a sharp tongue for the absurdities of our moment); and Truthout and Common Dreams on which I rely regularly for so many things.]
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, is now out in paperback.
Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt
This article appeared first at Tomdispatch.com.