The US cult of bombing

A huge part of the world has been covered by an American air curtain, from Syria to Yemen in the Middle East, Libya to Somalia in Africa, and Afghanistan to Pakistan in South Asia. Its stated goal is to fight terrorism. Its main method was to keep watching and bombing and then bomb some more. Its political benefit is that it reduces the number of US “boots on the ground” and American deaths in the never-ending “war on terror,” as well as any public outcry about Washington’s many wars. It’s good for the economy because it gives weapons makers a lot of high-profit businesses. The president can now declare a national security emergency whenever he wants and sell warplanes and weapons to dictators he likes in the Middle East (no congressional approval required). For many people in other countries, it means a steady diet of “Made in USA” bombs and missiles going off everywhere.

Think of all of this as a worldwide bombing cult. Less and less, America’s wars are being fought on the ground and more and more from the air. This makes it harder to think about how to end them. The question is: What makes this happen?

Air power has become an abstraction for many people who make decisions in the United States. Since World War II, Americans haven’t been attacked like this, except on September 11, 2001, when four commercial planes were taken over and used as weapons. Air power is almost always a one-way street on the battlefields where the United States fights in the Greater Middle East and North Africa. There are no big air defenses or air forces from the enemy. The skies belong only to the US Air Force and other allied air forces. This means that “war” in the usual sense is no longer happening. So it’s no surprise that policymakers and military leaders in Washington see it as our strong suit, our asymmetrical advantage, and a way to get even with real and imagined bad guys.

Bombs away!

Strangely, you could say that the number of bombs and missiles has replaced the number of people killed as a measure of (false) progress in the 21st century. Using information from the US military, the Council on Foreign Relations estimated that the US dropped at least 26,172 bombs in seven countries in 2016. Most of those bombs were dropped in Iraq and Syria. In 2017, the US and its allies dropped more than 20,000 bombs on Raqqa, the “capital” of the Islamic State (ISIS). These bombs turned Raqqa into a pile of rubble. Amnesty International says that the bombing of Raqqa and the following artillery fire killed more than 1,600 civilians.

Also, since Donald Trump became president, even though he said he would get the US out of its never-ending wars, US bombing against Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan has increased. It has led to more civilian deaths, and sometimes “friendly” Afghan forces are killed when mistaken for the enemy. Under Trump, there have been more air strikes from Somalia to Yemen. Still, civilian deaths from US bombings continue to be underreported in the US media and downplayed by the Trump administration.

Even though US air campaigns today are deadly, they are nothing compared to the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, which killed more than 100,000 civilians, or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year, which killed about 250,000 people, or the deaths of at least 600,000 German civilians during World War II, or civilians in the Vietnam War. Estimates vary, but the number of people killed in Southeast Asia by conventional high-explosive bombs, napalm, and the long-term effects of cluster bombs and defoliants like Agent Orange may have been more than 1 million. Today’s air strikes are more limited than those in the past, and they may be more accurate, but you should never, even figuratively, compare a 500-pound bomb to a surgeon’s scalpel. When the word “surgical” is used to describe bombing in this day and age of lasers, GPS, and other precision-guidance technologies, it only hides the fact that all of these American-made bombs and missiles are killing real people.

America’s belief that being able to rain hellfire from the sky is a good way to win wars is a fantasy of our time. The US may have controlled the air in Korea in the early 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s, and Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria more recently, but this hasn’t led to long-term success. In Afghanistan, weapons like the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB), the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the US military’s arsenal, have been praised as “game changers” even though they don’t change anything. (In fact, the Taliban and the branch of the Islamic State in Afghanistan are only getting stronger.) As is often the case when it comes to US air power, this destruction doesn’t lead to victory or closure; it just leads to more destruction


Such results go against what I learned about the purpose of air power when I was in the US Air Force. (I quit my job in 2005.) The most important things I learned about air power, which are still taught today, have to do with being decisive. They say that air power, which they call “flexible and versatile,” will work well with other military operations by “synergizing” with them. When bombing is “concentrated,” “persistent,” and “executed” correctly (which means not micromanaged by politicians who don’t know what they’re doing), air power should be a key part of winning the war in the end. As we used to say, it’s all about getting bombs to the right place. The end of the story and of the thought.

Given that the official USAF tenets are boring and pointless, that the history of air power in the 21st century has been all over the place, and that I’ve taught history and strategy in and out of the military, I’d like to offer my own tenets about air power. These are the ones I didn’t learn in the USAF, but our leaders might think about them before their next “decisive” air campaign.

Ten important things to remember about air power
1. Just because US warplanes and drones can strike almost anywhere on the planet without much risk, that doesn’t mean they should. Given the history of air power since World War II, it is important to never confuse ease of use with effectiveness.

2. Bombing by itself will never be enough to win. If that were true, it would have been easy for the US to win in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Both North Korea and Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia, were destroyed by American air power. However, the Korean War ended in a stalemate, and the Vietnam War was lost. (It says a lot about this way of thinking that people who like air power tend to say that the US should have bombed even more in Vietnam—a lot more.) Even though we had control of the air, the recent war in Iraq was a disaster, and the war in Afghanistan is now in its 18th terrible year.

3. No matter how much bombing or using missiles like the Tomahawk are said to be “precise,” “selective,” and “measured,” they rarely are. There will be deaths of innocent people. Air power and these deaths go hand in hand, but killings like these only cause anger and backlash, which makes the wars they are meant to end last longer.

Take, for example, the “decapitation” strikes that were used against Saddam Hussein and his top officials at the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration. Even though there was a lot of talk about that being the start of the most accurate air campaign in history, 50 of the attacks, which were supposed to be based on the best information available, failed to kill Saddam or any of his officials. They did kill “dozens” of civilians, though. Think of it as a horrible repeat of the 1999 air strikes against Slobodan Milosevic and his regime that were meant for Belgrade but instead hit the Chinese Embassy and killed three journalists.

So, here’s the question of the day: Why is it that, despite all the talk of “precision,” air power is so often at best a blunt tool of destruction? First of all, intelligence isn’t always right. Then bombs and missiles, even “smart” ones, go off course. And even when US forces kill high-value targets (HVTs), there are always more HVTs. After almost 18 years of the “war on terror,” a paradox has become clear: the lack of accuracy of air power only leads to repeated cycles of violence, and even when air strikes are accurate, there are always new targets, terrorists, and insurgents to hit.

4. Using air power to show how serious or determined a government is rarely works. If it had, the US would have won Vietnam with little trouble. During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, for example, Operation Rolling Thunder was a bombing campaign to convince the North Vietnamese to stop trying to get us Americans out of South Vietnam. However, it didn’t work. Think about how the Trump administration has recently sent signals to North Korea and Iran, including the deployment of B-52 bombers and other military “messages.” There is no evidence that either country changed its behaviour much because of the threat posed by those aeroplanes from the baby boomer era.

5. Air power costs a lot of money. About half of the money spent on the Vietnam War went to buying planes, helicopters, and weapons. In the same way, making the F-35, a useless jet fighter made by Lockheed Martin, work and then keep it running is expected to cost at least US$1.45 trillion over its lifetime. The cost to buy the new B-21 stealth bomber will be more than $100 billion. Each year, it costs billions to keep and run the naval air wings on aircraft carriers. When the Pentagon’s budget can go as high as the sky, these costs may be (barely) tolerable. When the money finally runs out, though, the military will likely have a very bad hangover because of how much it spent on air power.

6. Surveillance from the air, like with drones, can be helpful, but it can also be wrong. Having control of the high ground is not the same as having “total situational awareness” like God. Instead, it can be a kind of delusion, and war that is fought in its spirit is often not much more than a way to destroy things. When you’re high above a possible battlefield and your only option is to blow people and things up, you can’t negotiate a peace deal, take prisoners, or work on other options.

7. The nature of air power is to attack. That means it has more to do with expanding imperial power than protecting the country. As a result, it supports imperial projects and encourages the “global reach, global power” way of thinking that Air Force generals have been caught up in for years.

8. Despite what the people who send out the planes think, air power often makes wars last longer, not shorter. Think again about Vietnam. In the early 1960s, the US Air Force said it could only end the war for the least amount of money (mainly in American bodies). With enough bombs, napalm, and defoliants, it was clear that the US would win, and the troops on the ground were almost an afterthought. (Initially, they were mostly sent to protect the airports where the planes took off.) But bombing didn’t help, so the army and marines decided that if the air force couldn’t win, neither could they. The result was that things got worse and the original plan of winning the war quickly and cheaply because the US had the best air force was thrown out the window.

9. Even “shock and awe” air power loses its effectiveness over time. Even though the enemy doesn’t have it, it learns to adapt by making both active (like missiles) and passive (like camouflage and dispersion) countermeasures, even as the people being bombed get stronger and more determined.

10. Hitting peasants with bombs from 3 km away isn’t the best way to show that you’re on the right side of a war.

The path to disaster
If I had to boil these ideas down to one rule, it would be this: all the happy talk about the technological wonders of modern air power hides its darker sides, especially its ability to lock the U.S. into essentially one-way wars with no way out.

Because of this, precision warfare is a real contradiction. War is not exact. It’s gross, bloody, and kills people. The Global Positioning System guides bombs and missiles doesn’t change the fact that war is unpredictable, horrible, and often lasts longer than its original causes and goals. In addition, Washington’s enemies in the “war on terror” have learned to use air power in a Darwinian way and have the advantage of fighting on their land.

Who hasn’t heard the old riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Here’s how it could be used in 21st-century air power: If American bombs kill foreign children and no US news outlets report it, will anyone be sad? Far too often, the answer in the US is “no,” so our wars keep going and keep destroying the world.

In reality, this country might be better off if it kept all its fighter planes, bombers, and drones on the ground. Strangely, they keep us on the low road to hell instead of gaining the upper hand.

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