President Obama’s campaign of aerial bombardment against ISIS in Iraq and Syria maintains a British colonial policy designed 100 years ago to avoid the consequences of putting large numbers of boots on the ground in what are now Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
As a British official in Iraq reported in April 1919, “No sooner has one area been subdued than another breaks out in revolt and has to be dealt with by aeroplane . . . all these tribal disturbances have been dealt with from the air . . . thus the Army has been saved from marching many weary miles over bad country and sustaining casualties.”
That Western air forces are still bombing the same countries based on the same rationale a century later is a staggering failure of politics, humanity and the rule of law.
The history of bombing Iraq is as old as the history of bombing itself. The first planes of the U.K.’s Royal Flying Corps arrived in Mesopotamia (Iraq) in 1916, as British forces fought the Turks in World War I. Originally used for reconnaissance, they were soon adapted to bombing, as on other fronts.
Despite its position on the frontier of the Ottoman and Persian Empires, Iraq was a peaceful place through most of the 18th and 19th centuries by comparison to the blood-soaked history of Europe and North America. But the bloody climax of Western militarism in the First World War soon engulfed it. After a humiliating defeat and surrender at Kut in 1915, British forces took Baghdad in 1917, and were granted a League of Nations mandate to govern Iraq, Jordan and Palestine in 1919.
Bombing soon became an integral feature of British rule. Secretary of War Winston Churchill drew up a plan to base squadrons of biplanes in well defended bases, from where they could attack rebellious tribes in the surrounding areas. ighty-three years later, Donald Rumsfeld would imitate Churchill’s plan, coining the term lily-pads for the U.S.’s Forward Operating Bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Air Marshall Hugh Trenchard sold British leaders on this new “no boots on the ground” technique of colonial policing, writing, ”if the Arabs have nothing to fight against on the ground and no loot or rifles to be obtained, and nobody to kill, but have to deal with airplanes that are out of their reach . . . there will be no risk of disasters or heavy casualties such as are always suffered by small infantry patrols in uncivilized countries.”
Trenchard’s “no boots on the ground” strategy was irresistible to British leaders for the same reasons that President Obama has embraced a doctrine of covert war based on bombing, drones, special forces and proxy wars. As the Washington Post noted in 2010: “For a Democratic president such as Obama, who is criticized from either side of the political spectrum for too much or too little aggression, the unacknowledged CIA drone attacks in Pakistan, along with unilateral U.S. raids in Somalia and joint operations in Yemen, provide politically useful tools.”
As the RAF assumed its role as the fiery arbiter of politics in Iraq, British officials soon began asking the tricky questions that have bedeviled Western policy ever since. Colonial officers complained that, although bombing was politically useful to officials in London, it was an ineffective substitute for addressing local grievances and resolving political problems in Iraq, leaving victims enraged and underlying problems unresolved. There was a popular “Quit Mesopotamia” movement in the U.K. and Labour MP George Lansbury spoke out against “this Hunnish and barbarous method of warfare against unarmed people.” But the U.K.’s first Labour government elected in 1924 applied the same political calculus as Obama, and the bombing continued.
The British originally planned to administer Iraq on the Indian model, with British political officers assigned to tribal leaders around the country, but the Iraqi rebellion in 1920-1 led them to revise their plans. Former Ottoman military officers had brought military expertise to a revolt launched by Shias and Persian mullahs that soon spread throughout Iraq. Like their American successors, the British adopted a “divide and rule” strategy to split Iraqi resistance. But, in contrast with the Americans, they co-opted the Sunnis instead of the Shiites and Kurds. They brought in Faisal, originally tapped to rule Syria, as King of Iraq, surrounded him with a ruling class of Sunni Arab ex-Ottoman officers, and deported the Persian mullahs to deprive the Shias of leadership.
The Ottomans had struggled to impose taxes on Iraq’s fiercely independent tribal society, but the British were determined to succeed where the Turks had failed. British fire-bombing quickly became a form of collective punishment for non-payment of taxes, even against tribes that showed no other signs of rebellion. Four squadrons of RAF bombers were stationed in Iraq, and tribes who failed to pay taxes were ruthlessly fire-bombed. A well-documented bombing campaign against Samawa in 1923-’24 burned at least 144 people to death.
One squadron was led by Arthur Harris, better known to history as Air Chief Marshall “Bomber” or “Butcher” Harris, and for fire-bombing on a far larger scale as the head of RAF Bomber Command in World War II. After a mission in Iraq in 1924, Harris reported, “The Arab and the Kurd now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage. They know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.”
Later, as a senior officer in Palestine during the 1936 revolt, Harris wrote that “one 250 lb or 500 lb bomb in each village that speaks out of turn” should take care of the Palestinian problem. Harris justified his war crimes in Iraq and Palestine by the same kind of racism that is drummed into American soldiers today, boasting that, “The only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand.”
During WWII, all sides studied the effects of bombing more seriously in a desperate quest for a winning strategy. The German bombing of the Basque city of Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War shocked a Western public who had largely ignored Britain’s air-launched massacres in Asia and Africa. Far from breaking the morale of its people, the bombing of Guernica had the opposite effect, bringing together previously divided Republican factions and unifying popular resistance. Both the Luftwaffe and more sympathetic analysts concluded that bombing was politically counterproductive.
The people of London were likewise united in resistance to German bombing in 1940, but this did not stop British leaders making wrong assumptions about the psychological effects of bombing German cities. The 1941 Butt Report led the U.K. to give up “precision” bombing in favor of mass carpet bombing after it found that only one bomb in three was striking within five miles of its target. After the first mass air raid on Hamburg, Bomber Harris wrote: ”The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive . . . should be unambiguously stated: the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany. . . . the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle-fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not byproducts of our attempts to hit factories.”
U.S. bombing since 1991 has been supported by a propaganda campaign based on the mythical properties of a new generation of “precision” weapons. The corporate media have collaborated with the Pentagon to fetishize U.S. weapons technology and persuade the public that American bombing is now so accurate that it can target enemy positions or “terrorists” without killing and maiming large numbers of civilians.
By 2003, as the U.S. and U.K prepared to launch a war that probably killed a million Iraqis, a deluded Christopher Hitchens claimed, “It can now be proposed as a practical matter that one is able to fight against a regime and not a people or a nation.” The cynical pretense that today’s bombing is qualitatively different or less destructive than Guernica, the Blitz in London or the devastation of German and Japanese cities in WWII is one of the core myths of modern Western propaganda.
This propaganda campaign was tested during the first Gulf War, beaming bomb-sight video of “precision” weapons destroying “targets” to TV screens around the world. My friend Anatole Turecki, who piloted Spitfires over London and Wellington bombers over Germany in WWII, was so angered by the U.S. propaganda campaign that he took the trouble to analyze the Pentagon’s bomb tonnage figures. He concluded that Iraq was being as indiscriminately carpet-bombed as Germany had been. He was proved correct when the Pentagon later revealed that only 7% of the bombs and missiles raining down on Iraq were in fact “precision” weapons. A UN report described the damage as “near apocalyptic,” and that it degraded what “had been a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society” to “a pre-industrial age nation.”
In March 2003, the Pentagon classified 68% of the 29,200 bombs and missiles it unleashed on Iraq as precision weapons, but even these weapons were far from 100% accurate. The U.S. Air Force defines accuracy for such weapons as striking within a 10-40 foot (3-13 meter) radius of a target, but they have blast radii up to hundreds of feet, based on the size and type of the weapon, building construction and other factors, so even “accurate” air strikes are deadly and dangerous to people hundreds of feet from their impact.
But Rob Hewson, the editor of the arms trade journal Jane’s Air Launched Weapons, estimated that only 75-80% of U.S. “precision” weapons in its “Shock & Awe” bombardment of Iraq performed with even those degrees of accuracy. With at least 4,000 precision weapons missing their targets and 9,000 that weren’t precision weapons in the first place, almost half of Shock & Awe was effectively conventional carpet-bombing. Western propaganda also disparaged the most thorough epidemiological surveys in Iraq, which suggest that about a million Iraqis have been killed and that U.S. bombing has been a leading cause of violent death and the single leading cause of violent death for children in Iraq.
In 1985, a tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica was hung at the entrance of the UN Security Council chamber, to remind diplomats of the horrors the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of military force was enacted to prevent. In February 2003, at the request of the United States, the tapestry of Guernica was covered with a blue curtain to spare Secretary of State Powell and Ambassador Negroponte the discomfort of trying to justify more Guernicas beneath a tapestry of Guernica. In 2009, the tapestry was removed.
This seems symbolic of the journey that U.S. foreign policy has traveled in that time. In 1986, soon after the tapestry of Guernica was hung at the Security Council, the International Court of Justice at the Hague ruled on the case of Nicaragua vs the United States of America. It found the United States guilty of aggression against Nicaragua and ordered the U.S. to pay reparations. The U.S. rejected the ICJ ruling, in violation of Article 94 of the UN Charter, and declared it would no longer recognize the compulsory jurisdiction of the court. As law professor Anthony D’Amato wrote in the American Journal of International Law: ” . . . law would collapse if defendants could only be sued when they agreed to be sued, and the proper measurement of that collapse would be . . . the necessary restructuring of a vast system of legal transactions and relations predicated on the availability of courts as a last resort. There would be talk of a return to the law of the jungle.”
This was clearly not just the effect but the intent of the U.S.’s rejection of ICJ compulsory jurisdiction. Since 1986, as the United States has committed increasingly systematic international crimes, it has ensured that its actions will be governed, not by the UN Charter, international law and the rulings of international courts, but by, and only by, the law of the jungle, as D’Amato suggested. The U.S. vetoed Nicaragua’s motion to enforce the ICJ judgment in the UN Security Council, and it stands defiantly ready to veto any resolution holding it accountable for any of its crimes.
Newly confident in the ability of the monopolistic U.S. media system to provide political cover for even the most serious international crimes, American leaders have made a deliberate choice to renounce the rule of law and embrace the law of the jungle. Americans and people everywhere are now living with the consequences of that decision.
A million victims of 95,000 U.S. air strikes and other war crimes have paid with their lives since 2001, while millions more suffer disability, disfigurement, pain, dislocation, disease, poverty and illiteracy. A hundred years of bombing has left countries in ruins and fragile societies torn apart by unprecedented fissures and violence. The diversity of ethnic and sectarian groups in the Middle East is a testament to a long history of tolerance that has been savagely ripped apart by a century of Western “regime change” and “divide and rule” strategies. At every turn, Western powers have recruited and unleashed repressive, anti-democratic forces to serve their own interests, only to justify further intervention and mass destruction when those forces escape external control and turn against the West. ISIS is only the latest case in point.
The roots of this crisis lie in illegitimate and barbaric Western policies, not in the desperate responses of victims in the regions affected. It is we Americans who hold the key to resolving the crisis. It is no defense to plead that our leaders are constrained by a corrupt “political reality” in Washington. We must insist that they meet their obligations to peace and the rule of law—that they stop bombing and start listening.
As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1950, “We can no longer afford to take that which is good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live.”
A journalist once asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization. He replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” It may be an idea whose time has come.
Nicolas J S Davies is the author of “Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.” Davies also wrote the chapter on “Obama At War” for the book, “Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.”