“In a war that’s being fought for the benefit of the Iraqi (read Libyan) people, you can’t afford to kill any of them. But you can’t drop bombs and not kill people. There’s a real dichotomy in all of this.”—Rob Hewson, Editor of Jane’s Air Launched Weapons, April 1, 2003.
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Larry Korb told the BBC Saturday that Libya has about 50 air defense sites and that most of them are located in populated areas. If U.S. planes dropped only two “precision-guided” bombs on each of them, the chances are that at least 20 of those bombs would miss their targets and hit something or somebody else.
This is based on bombing expert Rob Hewson’s analysis of the performance of U.S. precision weapons in Iraq in March 2003, when 20–25% of 19,000 U.S. precision weapons missed their targets. Another 10,000 U.S. bombs and missiles were not “precision” weapons in the first place, so that about half of the total 29,000 bombs and missiles in the “Shock and Awe” campaign were completely indiscriminate. The blast radius of the smallest U.S. bomb, the Mk. 82 500 lb. bomb, can be as much as 300 feet, making the explosion of even a single small bomb in a populated area a horrific nightmare for the people on the ground.
We all share the impulse to try and help people who are fighting for their freedom from a horrible dictator like Muammar Gaddafi. But, before we support actions that will only escalate the violence, we need to understand a few things. First of all, as Rob Hewson, the editor of one of the world’s leading arms trade journals said, “You can’t drop bombs and not kill people.” Unlike the paid propagandists whom US infotainment networks trot out as military experts no matter how often they’re wrong, Hewson gave the AP this accurate and prescient expert assessment in 2003: “Us Precision Weapons Not Foolproof.”
Second, Western commentators have stressed the vote by the Arab League to support a “no fly zone,” but they have been silent on the African Union’s rejection of that idea. The AU instead ordered a committee of five countries (South Africa, Uganda, Mauritania, Congo and Mali) to form a delegation to go to Libya to seek a political settlement. Since there is a strong tribal and political element to the conflict between the forces in the West and East of Libya, and Gaddafi has had good relations with the AU, this was a good alternative to a bombing campaign, but that chance may now be lost.
Third, as Larry Korb told the BBC, “it will be very difficult for us to do this if it goes beyond a no-fly zone.” And yet the US, the UK and France have secured a UNSC resolution that is deliberately open-ended to permit almost unlimited escalations in the bombing campaign.
As Hewson said in 2003, “There’s a real dichotomy in all this.” Even with the best motivation, to save the lives of one group of civilians and courageous rebels, the method our leaders have chosen will at the very least be a death sentence for another group of civilians in government-held areas, and our “precision” weapons will not conduct Gaddafi loyalty tests before they explode.
The inherently indiscriminate nature of powerful modern weapons is one of the central features of current U.S. war policy. The fact that drone pilots in Nevada and pilots on aircraft carriers can kill people on the ground without the loss of American lives is precisely what makes these policies so politically appealing. While 86% of the people killed in World War One were actual combatants, 90% of the people killed in modern wars are innocent civilians. In Iraq and Gaza, the asymmetry in casualties between the occupiers and the occupied has been more like 100 to 1.
But painless war is a dangerous chimera with serious long-term consequences for all of us, as more and more people seek revenge for “painless” air strikes and Special Forces raids and assassinations in country after country. Shielding the US (and Israel) from any form of international legal accountability leaves our victims no other recourse than what we condemn as terrorism, as Ben Ferencz, the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, pointed out when he spoke at an event with me and David Swanson in February: Ben Ferencz in Boca Raton.
The result, as the Washington Post reported in June, is that U.S. Special Forces are now conducting operations in an incredible 75 countries. That’s 15 more than when Mr. Obama took office: U.S. ‘secret war’ expands globally as Special Operations forces take larger role.
And now we’re bombing Libya too. An American general once said, “If the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And so we’re hammering away, making more enemies, building more weapons, killing more people and blowing up more stuff all over the world, and pouring more money into our bottomless military budget than at any time since 1945. When will we ever learn?
Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.