Beyond the Rhetoric of Withdrawal: Our Unknown Air War Over Iraq

A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. . . . The American air war inside Iraq is perhaps the most significant – and underreported – aspect of the fight against the insurgency.

— Seymour M. Hersh, “Up in the Air,” New Yorker, Nov. 29, 2005

There’s an air war over Iraq. It’s invisible (here). It’s deadly (there).

The Iraq air war may be the longest such war in history. In one way or another it has been undermining Iraq’s sovereignty, destroying its infrastructure, and killing and maiming Iraqis for some 16 years.

Despite global pressure to withdraw, Bush Inc. – and indeed the broader US power structure – has no intention of giving up Iraq. The potential oil bonanza is too huge. And Iran – with its oil bonanza – is next door.

That air war is intensifying. The US dropped five times as many bombs in Iraq during the first six months of 2007 as it did in the first half of 2006.Charles J. Hanley, “Air Force Quietly Building Iraq Presence,” July 14, 2007, Associated Press

“When the troops are cut, we’ll still be bombing the hell out of the place.”Sydney Schanberg, “The Unseen War in Iraq,” Village Voice, Jan. 24, 2006.

Terror from the Sky

The high tech mayhem of the First Gulf War and that of the 2003 “Shock and Awe” air attack got plenty of media play. Although bloody and intensely dramatic, these were fleeting episodes.

Since the beginning of the US occupation the media has largely ignored the airborne terror visited on Iraq. Besides “boots on the ground” stories, our corporate media feeds us a daily diet of horror. It features ghastly suicide bombings and the havoc of roadside explosive devices. It pumps us full of the atrocities others commit. The balance is wildly askew.

Because most US journalists in Iraq are embedded, they cover the war from the perspective of the US soldiers they accompany.

“Embeds” seldom accompany chopper or fixed-wing pilots and never accompany unmanned Predator drones — those robot planes that spew death with no risk to those guiding them from afar. So embeds can tell us little about such operations and their consequences.

As in most warfare in recent decades, most Iraq air war victims are civilians.

According to The Lancet medical journal study of Iraqi casualties, between March 2003 and June 2006 coalition air strikes caused over 78,000 violent deaths in Iraq. Coalition air strikes caused half of all violent deaths of Iraqi children under age 15.Nick Turse, “Our Shadowy Iraq Air War,”, May 24, 2007.

The Pentagon cloaks its airborne missions and their ordnance in secrecy. We seldom hear of the terror the invader rains from the sky. We seldom hear about the civilian-shredding cluster bombs or — as in the leveling of Fallujah — the civilian-igniting white phosphorus. Nor do we hear about the toxic and radioactive depleted uranium shells.

A Shameful History

Seymour Hersh’s November 2005 New Yorker article, “Up in the Air,” led to a flurry of progressive Internet commentary trying (with little success) to wake us up. But it was Dr. Les Roberts and his colleagues’ two Lancet studies of Iraqi war casualties that revealed the scale of the air war.Les Roberts, et al, “Mortality Before and After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: Cluster Sample Survey,” Oct. 29, 2004, The Lancet. Sequel: Les Roberts, et al, “Mortality After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross-Sectional Cluster Sample Survey,” The Lancet, Oct. 11, 2006.

This hecatomb isn’t unique in our history. From the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to Korea and South East Asia, to the first Gulf War and now to Iraq — the air war is the “signature” of US war making.Tom Engelhardt, “The Missing Air War in Iraq,”, Dec. 15, 2005.

Such air war almost by definition is asymmetrical. In Iraq there’s no opposing air force and little or no anti-aircraft artillery. This pattern, this trend, shapes the world. It is the rogue elephant in our living room. Such is the denial, however, that we ignore its rampage.

The air war often targets residences or residential neighborhoods. From these areas the equally ruthless (though infinitely less armed and financed) resistance may or may not have staged an attack, and within them the resistance may or may not be seeking shelter.

Aerial bombardment is heinous and cowardly. Visiting wounded children in Baghdad hospitals in 2003 heightened my awareness of the air war. Those memories reinforce my resolve to live below taxable income: I don’t want to contribute a penny in federal taxes to the war machine – whether it kills and maims on land or from the air.

“Bring Them Home” Isn’t Enough

Recently some of us were doing weekly “outreach” — facing oncoming traffic with anti-war signs during rush hour at a busy Syracuse intersection. A passing driver, enraged at our perfidy, screamed that his son had been killed in Iraq.

I had no chance to explain to him our belief that the best way to support our troops is to bring them home. If the man’s son had never been sent to Iraq, he might well be alive today.

Since March 2003 US soldiers, many involuntarily, have been put through hell. Many US Americans have either empathy or some connection to one or more of those soldiers. So, “bring them home” is an apt message to put out there.

But that slogan is incomplete; it needs augmenting by other messages that raise consciousness and look beyond the eventual withdrawal of most US troops from Iraq. “Bring them home” must be accompanied by other messages that, among other things, expose the air war. Otherwise, when those soldiers seem out of harm’s way, people here may move on to other concerns – leaving the air war as robust and off the radar as ever.

“Bring them home” doesn’t address the criminality of the occupation nor the injustice done to the Iraqi people. It doesn’t begin to address reparations.

Nor does it acknowledge that as US forces downsize, many of the surviving soldiers won’t come home. Some will be kept in Iraq to train the Iraqi military to somehow suppress an extremely capable and committed resistance. Such “Iraqization” of the war recalls the feckless “Vietnamization” of an earlier era.

Reserve Cannon Fodder

With downsizing, many surviving soldiers will be deployed elsewhere in the Middle East. They may be out of harm’s way… temporarily. But they’ll be on stand-by: reserve cannon fodder in the perpetual resource war. Think Afghanistan… or Iran… or Pakistan….

Whether the soldiers are re-deployed in the region or rotate home, the phantom air war won’t go away. Given the current gaggle of candidates, this seems assured regardless of who next occupies the White House.

Here is not the place to review the candidates and their rhetoric. Suffice it to say that Hillary Clinton, a leader in the polls and supposedly part of the opposition, is a hawk.

Like other candidates, Hillary has ties to hawkish Israel. She also — in this most corporate-enriching war of all — has close corporate ties. Not to mention ties to Bill. Recall that it was Bill who presided over eight years of low intensity air war and genocidal sanctions on Iraq.

Enforcing the Empire

Apart from whether any of the candidates would end the war, consider the power structure’s frequently cited alternative strategy. It’s embodied in The Iraq Study Group Report.James A. Baker, III and Lee H. Hamilton et al, The Iraq Study Group Report: The Way Forward – A New Approach (Vintage, 2006). Published last December, the Report sought to rectify neo-con excesses and strategic blunders.

The Report was compiled by beltway power brokers who fear the Iraq quagmire is breaking the US military machine. They fear the Empire will lose its enforcers.

The Report talks a good game: it calls on Mr. Bush to eventually withdraw most US ground forces. But the Report does not call for US troops to come home.

Rather the soldiers are to be redeployed nearby. Equally ominous, the Report makes no call whatsoever for US forces to vacate Iraq skies.See Ed Kinane, “Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs: A look at the Iraq Study Group Report,”, Feb. 14, 2007; also reprinted at The Report has gotten away with such an egregious lapse in part because few anti-war activists know it’s a problem. Locally and nationally we have yet to grapple with what the air war means for our work. We have yet to put it on the agenda.

Ed served 14 months in federal prisons for his civil resistance against the SOA. More recently he has been one of the “Hancock 2,” the “Hancock 15,” the “Hancock 33,” and the “Hancock 38.” Reach him at: Read other articles by Ed.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. ashley said on August 25th, 2007 at 6:01pm #

    Ed wrote: “Despite global pressure to withdraw, Bush Inc. – and indeed the broader US power structure – has no intention of giving up Iraq. The potential oil bonanza is too huge. And Iran – with its oil bonanza – is next door.”

    I think this misses the main point, Smedley Butler’s point that ‘war is a racket’. Ongoing bombing is good for business. Strategic control of oil delivery corridors is somewhat important – though obviously it was far better before this war than after. But never to be underestimated is the need of the defense industry to have somewhere to have its ordnance disbursed so that new orders are forthcoming. Without war, they go out of business.

    Not only is it good for business, but also political hegemony of the unseen oligarchical operatives running the show. A wartime administration operates with far greater leeway in terms of dominating propaganda which it is unpatriotic – if not outright treason – to challenge and also undermining any system of checks and balances built into the governance structure.

    America, for example, is a democracy in name only and only those in deep denial can believe otherwise – for that is all it is, a belief. Like the belief that we are always the good guys, no matter how many bombs we drop on innocent civilians, no matter how many lies we tell about regimes we have decided to undermine. The history is clear, from the Mexican wars, the Great Wars in Europe, the Vietnamese war and so on: we undermine treaties, tell huge lies about those we intend to exploit, and then exploit them.

    The issue is not about bringing the troops home. The issue is about taking the country back. One way to do this is to vote for Ron Paul. Ideally he gets out of the Republican Party and there is a huge groundswell for independent party politics that carries Ron into the White House. This is highly unlikely. But just think: if it doesn’t happen, nothing will change, the oligarchs will continue in power, and the bombing will continue from one country to another until finally we bit off more than we can chew and are bombed ourselves.

    What goes around comes around. The Bottom Line is that even citizens who are against the war do not feel personally responsible for the bombs being dropped on innocent children. ‘They’ are doing this, we think. No, it is WE who are doing this by allowing it to happen in our names with our tax dollars.

    If nothing else, everyone working in the defense industry in the US could simply walk out!

  2. Michael Kenny said on August 26th, 2007 at 8:21am #

    The point to bear in mind is that the air war got the US precisely nowhere. It was still necessary to invade and that in fact just made matters worse. If the US wants to waste its money and wreck its economy by bombing Iraq, so what? The world now knows that the US can’t win!

  3. ed kinane said on August 26th, 2007 at 8:26am #

    re the reasons for war i think our analyses are complementary — one doesn’t trump the other.
    as smedley, says, “war is a raquet.” and that’s true of most any war most anywhere.
    but we have to ask why bush inc. chose to invade iraq (with its vast supply of oil) and why it is threatening to invade iran (with its vast supplies of oil and gas) instead of, say, some non-oil bearing country. or why the bushies chose not to invade their business ally saudi arabia (with its vast supply of oil) in the wake of 9/11 — given that most of the 9/11 hijackers seem to have been saudis.

  4. Deadbeat said on August 26th, 2007 at 12:32pm #

    It’s not about “winning” it is about the destruction and crippling of the Iraqi infrastructure and economy — keeping Iraq in the “stone age”. Similar infrastructure destruction was wrought in Lebanon as well.
    The invasion of Iraq was necessary to oust Saddam. Oil was needed to “fund the invasion” but oil is not the primary goal of Iraq and Iran. The primary goal, especially sought by “neo-conservatives” is the destruction and disruption of their societies in order to maintain hegemony in the region — especially if that hegemony benefits Israel.

    To ashley,
    Who is the “we” in “getting the country back”. For most people “we” never had the country in the first place. “We” won’t get anything if “we” do not build solidarity. To do that the issue of racism (especially Zionism as it is practiced in the U.S.) and classism must be dealt with. Why should the unprivileged “we” believe and trust the privileged “we” who will immediate jettison them at first chance. Clearly Ron Paul falls into the “privileged” we who supported a man who created the condition that has lead to the greatest concentration of power for the privileged few.