The Middle East and the Barbarism
of War from the Air
Aerial warfare has always been
essentially directed against civilians
by Tom Engelhardt
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
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.