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(DV) Rajiva: America's Downing Syndrome, or Why the Not-So-Secret Air War Stayed "Secret"







America's Downing Syndrome, or Why the Not-So-Secret
Air War Stayed “Secret”

by Lila Rajiva
July 22, 2005

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It's official now. The leaked Downing Street memos have confirmed that Lt. General Michael Moseley, who commanded allied air forces during the Iraq war, admitted in a briefing in 2003 that starting nine months before the invasion, British and American aircraft waged a secret air war against Iraq.

Britain's Liberal Democrats party has obtained Ministry of Defense figures showing that Britain and the United States dropped twice as many bombs in the second half of 2002 as in the whole of 2001, according to the Times of London. The escalated attacks began in May 2002, six months before the United Nations resolution that Prime Minister Tony Blair cited as the legal basis for war. (1)

Why anyone would eagerly claim paternity of a war that has so miscarried is of course a whole other question, but Moseley believes that it was those nine months of allied raids, of 21,736 sorties dropping 600 bombs, that "laid the foundation" for the Coalition victory. The raids took place under cover of patrolling the no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq and had the ostensible aim of protecting ethnic minorities in the region, but the rest of the leaked memos show pretty clearly that this is hogwash meant only for public consumption. The principals -- Bush, Blair, then Defense Secretary Hoon, Generals Boyce and Moseley -- knew all along that provocation not protection was the name of the game.

Still, reporters who have fallen all over this story in shrill angst should ask themselves where they were three years ago, or even two, when not only was this war-before-the-war wiped off our screens, but so was the air-campaign DURING the war.

A while back, an insightful article in Tom Dispatch, "Icarus (Armed with Vipers) Over Iraq," pungently noted the blank-out. (2) It quoted the BBC's Stuart Richie only a week into the air campaign during the war:

"[S]leep was virtually impossible -- troops moving in and out all night by helicopter and Hercules planes. Fighter planes also seemed to be on the go all through the night, this time on sorties to Mosul, I believe."

Tom Dispatch then asks why it is that, with the exception of an early NY Times piece about the difficulties faced by US airmen, not one newspaper or magazine article has had anything to say about those "all through the night" bombing campaigns. Nor have there been cumulative figures on daily, weekly, or monthly air strikes in Iraq, maps of the reach of the air war, photos of the aftermath of bombing raids, analysis of the strategy involved or estimates of its significance, its effects on the insurgency, and its limitations.

This was a secret war. But presumably, even embedded reporters are free to look up, unless they were specifically instructed not to. Did someone tell our Ernest Hemingways to ignore the hostile heavens and fixate on the earthly war? Sad to say, in a war as vetted, scripted, and rehearsed as this one, the possibility can’t be ruled out, which means that the so-called freedom of our press is no more than the freedom of eunuchs in a Turkish seraglio. Even so, inquiring minds might wonder why the air war, rather than ground combat, would be the target of such selective and thorough censorship. After all, if one were looking to create a telegenic, video game war, it would make sense to focus on the fireworks in the sky; spectacular, technologically masterful and most importantly, detached from any visible consequences. So why the blank-out?

Thomas F. Searle, a military defense analyst at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama who argues that air power's "counter-guerilla capabilities" need to be "aggressively developed," gives the game away:

"Airpower remains the single greatest asymmetrical advantage the United States has over its foes." (3)

Exactly. To a government intent on creating the collective illusion of the Iraq war as a defensive campaign against a belligerent dictator, what would be likely to undermine that illusion than the image of a bullyboy in the skies pounding a rag tag, almost-disarmed enemy?

That explains the official white out of the air war and the silence of the official media, but not the stunning indifference of the public.

Bush lied us into war? It's a nice slogan but rather self-deceiving. It seems more honest to say that most people didn't resist too much when they were being tutored in official mythology and that some even turned out to be rather apt pupils. The media might have kept the story of the pre-war war off the screen but anyone with his wits about him could have put together the story from those telltale tidbits that popped up from time to time from an otherwise comatose press.

Here's one far-from-complete list starting from as far back as over a decade:

1) Two NY Times editorials after the 1991 Gulf War, one of them titled "Don't Shoot Down Iraqi Aircraft," which cautioned that "shooting [Iraqi aircraft] down would put the United States in the position of breaking an accord it is pledged to uphold."

2) An August 29, 1999 report in a left-wing newspaper, Revolutionary Worker, which observed that: "Almost every day since last December, the United States and its close ally Britain have been relentlessly bombing Iraq and its people," have fired "more than 1,100 missiles at over 360 targets," and have already flown "about two-thirds as many missions in Iraq this year as NATO flew over Yugoslavia in around-the-clock bombings from March to June."

3) An April 9, 2000 Agence France Presse report that Iraq newspapers considered the air strikes "criminal" ("Iraq Slams Gulf Silence Over Civilian Deaths in US Raids").

4) A June 16, 2000 piece in The Washington Post by Edward Cody, "Under Iraqi Skies, a Canvas of Death," which vividly described the bombing of farmers and shepherds on May 17 as almost routine: "Without warning, according to several youths standing nearby, the device (the missile) came crashing down in an open field 200 yards from the dozen houses of Toq al-Ghazalat. A deafening explosion cracked across the silent land. Shrapnel flew in every direction. Four shepherds were wounded. And Omran, the others recalled, lay dead in the dirt, most of his head torn off, the white of his robe stained red. ‘He was only 13 years old, but he was a good boy,’ sobbed Omran's father, Harbi Jawair, 61."

5) A February 17, 2001 AP report on the first air strikes outside the NFZs since 1999. The report claimed that the strikes did not indicate a change in policy. These attacks, which targeted Baghdad, were Bush's first air attack orders.

6) A June 9, 2002 AP report on Russian criticism of the air strikes ("Russia Strongly Criticizes US-British Patrol of Iraq Zones," by Nicole Winfield).

7) A November 11, 2002 AP report describing warplanes roaring off US Navy aircraft carriers "day and night" as "previews of a potential American invasion." The targets are no longer the usual targets of the decade long patrols -- anti-aircraft and missile batteries -- but command bunkers, communications stations and radar directing the attacks, hard-to-repair facilities essential to Iraq's air defense.

8) A November 19, 2002 Reuters report that describes even the timorous Kofi Annan digging in his heels and contradicting the US interpretation of Resolution 1441 on Iraq ("Annan Says Iraqi No-Fly Zone Firing No Violation").

9) Another Reuters piece on December 2, 2002 detailing a letter to Annan by Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri that describes a coalition raid on Sunday as part of a "barbaric terrorist aggression" against Iraq ("Iraq Complains to UN Over Raid").

10) An AFP article on the same day voicing Moscow's condemnation of the same Sunday raid as unjustifiable and a hindrance of the UN inspector's work ("Moscow Condemns US-British Air Raid on Iraq").

11) A long piece by Richard Norton-Taylor in The Guardian on December 4, 2002, "Britain and US Step Up Bombing in Iraq," noting a 300% increase in bombs dropped in Southern Iraq since March and a 60% increase over the previous year. The article's diagnosis is that the escalation of hostility foreshadows open war.

12) A piece by Stephen Zunes in Foreign Policy in Focus on December 6, 2002, "The Abuse of the No-Fly Zones as an Excuse for War," calling the air raids a pretext for war. It points out that the United Nations never actually authorized the no-fly zones.

13) A piece by John Pilger in The Mirror on December 20, 2002 that counts 62 attacks by American F-16 aircraft and RAF Tornadoes between August and December 2002, all said to have been aimed at Iraqi air defenses, but falling mostly on populated areas ("The Secret War"). Pilger notes that under international law the attacks amount to acts of piracy, legally equivalent to the Luftwaffe bombing of Spain in the 1930s, and calls the unrelenting "secret war" since 1991 the longest Anglo-American campaign of aerial bombardment since World War Two.

14) An article by Robert Dreyfuss in the American Prospect, "Persian Gulf—or Tonkin Gulf?", which bluntly dubs the Anglo-British sky patrol "a case of might makes right" and calls Iraq's feeble attempts to protect her airspace perfectly justified under international law.) "The unilateral U.S. interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 1441," writes Dreyfuss, "is a pretext for launching the war that President George W. Bush wants."

These are all reports dating from 2001 and 2002, that is, more than half a year BEFORE the invasion of Iraq. And for the most part they are all accounts from well-known media outlets. Clearly, "we didn't know" simply doesn't work as an excuse. The Downing Street memos tell us nothing we haven't suspected in our marrow and our blood for a long time now.

Then what gives? Why the practiced chagrin, the howls of violated rectitude?

As far as our elites go, there is a two-word answer: cognitive dissonance. The Downing Street memos catch the ruling classes of Anglo-America in flagrante delicto and it doesn't square with the pillars-of-international-society look that they affect at other times. Hence the feigned double take, the curled lip, the sneaky scramble for cover.

But we the people have surely always known that our Dear Leaders are up to what all other Dear Leaders in all places and at all times are always up to. So what's in it for us that we've been willing to play along? Or, as Mike Davis, the author of City of Quartz, asks succinctly, "What is the contribution of strategic bombing to the American war of life?" (4)

Davis describes a work of public art in Reading, Pennsylvania, in which Mexican artist Marcos Ramirez lists without comment the following names and figures:

Ciudad de Mexico 3202 km 1847
Veracruz 3040km 1914
Hiroshima 11194 km 1945
Dresden 4837 km 1945
Hanoi 13206 km 1972
Ciudad de Panama 3497 km 1989
Kabul 10979 km 2001
Baghdad 9897 km 2003

The cities are all one-time targets of US bombing raids, the numbers express their distance from Reading, and their juxtaposition betrays the range of American domination of the globe and the centrality of bombing to the maintenance of American empire.

And how did the public react to this non-committal record of history? With righteous outrage: "Other countries do it too," or in the case of one group of patriots outraged by Ramirez's billboard, with brazenness, "We're Glad!" There was collective rage at "anti-Americans", "communists", and "feminazis".

The uncomfortable truth is that our silence over American air power is not simply the silence of ignorance, but the silence of complicity.

For, think about what it is that that silence glosses over. In the 20th century, air campaigns have dropped literally billions of bombs, killing -- besides enemy combatants -- at the very least more than two million foreign civilians, mostly Asian, including half a million Japanese in nuclear and non-nuclear incineration (during WWII); 100,000 or more Koreans (the Korean war); a million Indo-Chinese by carpet-bombing (the Vietnam War); numberless thousands of Germans and Europeans, some intentionally, some by accident (WWII); around 50,000 and probably many more Iraqis (the two Gulf wars); several thousand Afghans (post 9/11); several hundreds of Serbs (Yugoslavia); good numbers of Nicaraguans, Dominicans, Haitians, Guatemalans, Cubans, Panamanians, and Colombians (various police operations and coups), with some miscellaneous Libyans and Sudanese thrown in for good measure. (5) And these are simply the immediate victims of American bombing. There is also the aftermath of disease and violence to be reckoned with, the economic and environmental devastation, the incineration of forests and fields, the poisoning of livestock, of water and soil, the mutilation of the gene pool. That is what our ownership of the sky has meant for the world.

And what has it meant for us?

Do we somehow believe -- against the facts staring in our face -- that a war for oil means cheaper gas prices? That preventive bombing wins friends and influences people?

What is it that makes us still willing to buy into the myth of smart bombs and surgical strikes when with every war, civilian casualty rates keep rising? By one estimate, the number of civilians killed per bomb dropped may have been four times as high in Afghanistan as in Yugoslavia, even though 70% of the bombs used in Afghanistan were precision-guided versus only 30% in Yugoslavia. (6) During the 1991 Gulf War two American "smart" bombs, working perfectly, burrowed through 10 feet of hardened concrete into what the Pentagon swore was an Iraqi command and control center. But it was the Amiriyah bomb shelter, and 408 Iraqi civilians were incinerated in what many regard as the single most lethal instance of civilian casualties in conventional air war. But we still see what happened in the no-fly zones as "police" operations and ourselves as Wyatt Earp keeping law and order on the frontier. Why?

One answer lies in history. Airplanes, "like a host of other weapons invented or imagined in the nineteenth century" were celebrated because they were so destructive that writers like Jack London and Victor Hugo believed they would make war and armies vanish. (7)

In Europe in 1921, General Giulio Douhet asserted the basic principle of strategic bombing as an intensive and systematic offensive against a country’s infrastructure and, by corollary, its civilian population. His apocalyptic book, The Command of the Air (1921), and his prophecy of the future devastation of cities was also echoed in fiction like H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come (1929). If war was inevitable, then a short war was best, and the best way to have a short war was to use the deadliest weapons and finish off the matter as fast as possible.

The sheer carnage of air war was cloaked not only by such pious reasoning, but by the increasing sophistication of the technology and organization involved. God-like power seemed to grant god-like impunity and therefore god-like prerogatives. "Those who could take life could also give it and thereby triumph over their own mortality," writes one chronicler of air power as he traces how the "good guys" of World War II ended up taking the lead in establishing the norm that is now taken for granted -- that all civilians are fair game in war from the air. (8)

And how does the public conscience square with all this? Simple. The civilians who are fair game are not American civilians. The skies that are threatened are not American skies. It may take a village to raise a child, but given enough air power, we now know also that it only takes a child to raze a village. Our children, their villages. And in return for our invulnerability, we make cultural icons out of bomber pilots, turning a blind eye to their ravages abroad. While the grunt that kills and is killed on the scorched ground bears the burden of public backlash against any horrors of war making that might elude censorship, his mates in the clouds are untouchable. Atrocities are always only committed on earth. So a Lieutenant Calley is court-martialed over My Lai and a Charles Graner is imprisoned for Abu Ghraib, but the bombers who wreak havoc on a magnitude far grander not only walk free, but are feted by a society in which for many reasons the air force is substantially white and the officer corps even whiter.

But there’s more. Strategic bombing directed broadly against a country’s will or morale rather than military targets has nearly always been associated with civilian not military control. Pen pushers in think tanks and journals, couch-crusaders on Wall Street and Main Street are the most hysterical groupies for total war from the skies. (9) Remote from actual bloodletting, they're still the quickest to tote up grand calculations of its necessity in bringing about their favorite utopia. It was Lyndon Johnson, not the generals, who first ratcheted up the air war against North Vietnam to genocidal proportions.

And because the civilian leadership unlike the military is always indebted to public opinion for its existence, it’s ultimately public approval rather than military need that drives air war against civilians, which is why the corporate media obligingly does its bit to keep that approval going.

Media and government duplicity, widespread intoxication with technological wizardry, a deadly sense of impunity combined with a deadlier sense of omnipotence, cultural myth making, and socio-economic class are the causes of America’s fundamentally diseased relationship with air power and thus with the raw foundation of imperial might. It is the cognitive disease which periodically manifests itself in redundant "smoking-guns" and "exposes" about memos whose sole purpose apparently is to maintain our illusion of ourselves as eternal naifs duped by an endless procession of charlatans in government.

Clearly, it's not merely war propaganda so much as the public’s receptivity to war propaganda that's the problem. The addiction to war-as-Grand Theft Auto reveals an insatiable craving in the bowels of the military-industrial leviathan for physical violence. Air war feeds that craving while disarming us with its technical virtuosity and its remote-controlled, surreal impersonality.

Air war works because it displays naked aggression masked as defense, hard core furtively masquerading as family viewing in the American living room. It's the secret fix that lets us look like good guys but act like bad guys; it's the other face of the double-eagle, the predator behind the mask of the protector.

Air war is the white noise of a consumer society so narcotized that only violence makes us feel alive. If we no longer see it, hear it, or talk about it in the heart of empire, it's ultimately only because for more than fifty years now, we've never really done without it.

Lila Rajiva is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore, Maryland, and author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, September 2005). While her manuscript was completed in February, publication has been delayed for a variety of reasons not under her control until this Fall. She apologizes to the many readers who have ordered copies. She is working on a second book on propaganda and empire. She can be reached at: Copyright (c) 2005 by Lila Rajiva

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(1) "General admits to secret air war," Michael Smith, Sunday Times, June 26, 2005.

(2) "Icarus (Armed with Vipers) Over Iraq: The Miracle of a Single Haasen Hand Grenade," Tomgram, Dec. 5, 2004.

(3) "Making Air Power Effective Against Guerrillas," Thomas F. Searle, Air and Space Journal, Fall 2004.

(4)  "The Artist Who Asked About the Contribution of Strategic Bombing to the American Way of Life," Mike Davis, Culture Watch, Sept. 22, 2003.

(5) Davis, Ibid.

(6) "'Smarter' bombs still hit civilians: In every war since Iraq, the US used more 'smart' bombs. So why do civilian casualty rates keep rising?" Scott Peterson, The Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 22, 2002. Also, "A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting [revised]," Professor Marc W. Herold, Dept. of Economics and Women's Studies, University of New Hampshire.

(7) Michael Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (Yale University Press, 1989).

(8) Sherry, Ibid.

(9) Richard Betts, Soldiers, Statesmen, and the Cold War Crises (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1977).