Saturday, July 29, 2006

The religion of air power

I've finished reading Grayling's Among the Dead Cities and will probably write something about it in a day or so, but until then Tom Engelhardt's essay "Air War, Barbarity, and the Middle East" is worth reading.

Engelhardt argues that air war has always been barbaric (in that civilians disproportionately take the brunt of it) yet has never been an effective means of breaking the will of an enemy.

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.
It's a long essay that addresses the history of air war and puts the current air wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon into the context of a tactic that historically when used "to 'surgically' separate a movement and its supporters from the air" ends up having the opposite effect.

I wouldn't say that air war is the most barbaric form of war imaginable (images of an army of Joss Whedon's Reavers come to mind, for instance), but it certainly has contributed to some of the most horrific killings of civilians in human history.

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