Bombs away! Air power as panacea

When will we turn aside from a century of bombing and begin to invest in the conditions of peace?

Joe Guinan
2 October 2014

Flickr/Defence Images. Some rights reserved.

The first aerial bombardment in history, it so happens, was conducted by a Western power against Arab civilians, occurring at an oasis in the desert outside Tripoli on 1 November 1911. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of Italian unification the government of Giovanni Giolitti had set out to conquer the remnants of Ottoman North Africa, expecting an easy victory and the political benefits it would bring at home. But local Arab tribesmen unexpectedly joined forces with the Turks and nearly succeeded in driving the invading army into the sea. In an act of revenge, as Sven Lindqvist recounts in A History of Bombing, the Italians attacked the oases at Tagiura and Ain Zala, frequented by tribes that had been among the most effective against them in battle. It was during this assault that airman Giulio Cavotti reached out of his monoplane and dropped hand grenades on the nomads below, a tactic that – in the words of an Italian air force communiqué – ‘had a wonderful effect on the morale of the Arabs.’ Italy’s Libya campaign, expected to be over by Christmas, ended up stretching out for decades, by the end of which the Arab population had been reduced by nearly forty per cent, according to official statistics. ‘In the final stage,’ Lindqvist writes, ‘the Arabs were driven from their springs, out into the desert where the Italian air force could finish them off. For years afterward their mummified corpses were found along the paths leading to Egypt.’ (1)

Air power and imperialism were intertwined from the start. The Italians may have been the first adopters but the other European powers were not far behind. Although the air force played an insignificant part in deciding the outcome of the First World War, Britain and France soon found good use for their new planes in putting down anti-colonial uprisings and rebellions throughout their empires. The French bombed Syria, Transjordan and Morocco. In India, where the Pathans remained defiant in the face of the destruction of their villages, the British bombed their irrigation ditches and destroyed their water supply. ‘What are the rules for this kind of cricket?’ asked Sir John Maffrey upon his arrival as the new Chief Commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province. In Iraq RAF bombers, brought in to replace more than fifty army battalions at a fraction of the cost, went about their task with gusto, causing Churchill to object that accounts of women and children being driven into a lake and machine-gunned from the air were unsuitable for inclusion in official dispatches. In the third Afghan War in 1919, a young squadron chief named Arthur Harris acquired what was to become a lifelong taste for bombing through planning – and volunteering to participate in – aerial attacks on Kabul, Jalalabad and other cities. A few years later, Francisco Franco, then a young commander in the Spanish Legion, had a formative experience in witnessing the annihilation by air of the city of Chefchaouen in Spanish Morocco.

The rise of social democracy in Europe did little to change the equation. When Britain’s first Labour government took office in 1924, the new Colonial Secretary, J.H. Thomas, the railwaymen’s leader, introduced himself to his heads of department with the statement ‘I am here to see that there is no mucking about with the British Empire.’ (2) He was true to his word, sanctioning RAF bombing of recalcitrant tribes in Iraq, thereby initiating a pattern for future Labour governments to follow. (Thomas, having earlier betrayed the miners on ‘Black Friday’ in 1921 by abandoning the Triple Alliance, went on to side with the Conservative Government against the workers during the General Strike of 1926.)

Meanwhile, as technology advanced, bombing became ever more deadly for its non-European victims. Having pioneered the use of incendiary bombs against the thatched roofs of huts, Arthur Harris began experimenting with heavy bombing by using transport planes that could carry bigger payloads. ‘The Arab and Kurd,’ he announced, ‘now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they know that within forty-five minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.’ By the 1930s Harris was running into difficulties in British East Africa due to the queasiness of colonial administrators at his tactics; he complained of an ‘anti-bombing phobia.’ He was soon to have the larger canvas he needed for his work. Meanwhile, as the Spanish Civil War unfolded, Franco took his experiences with air power in North Africa and used them to good effect against the Basque village of Guernica in northern Spain.

Approximately 160 million people died in warfare in the course of the twentieth century. The advent of total war created a seesaw by which the proportion of civilian casualties went from around five per cent at the beginning of the century to around 90 per cent at the end. Remarkable advances in the technology of bombing played their part in tilting the balance. The Second World War was the tipping point.

After Nazi armies won a string of victories across Europe in 1940, overrunning Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France, air power was the only option left to an isolated Britain. Strategic thinking at Bomber Command evolved rapidly from plans for attacks on Germany’s military assets to targeting her industrial capacity, which in practice meant industrial workers. Winning the war by sapping the morale of the German population through bombing became the new idée fixe, a crude attempt at social engineering on a vast scale. As Mike Davis recalls, initial discussions of singling out the mansions of the Nazi political and industrial elite were vetoed by Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s chief scientific advisor, who worried that this might prompt the Luftwaffe to hit back at the country houses of the British ruling class. ‘The bombing must be directed essentially against working-class houses,’ he urged, reaching for the justification that the houses of the wealthy ‘have too much space around them, and so are bound to waste bombs.’ (3)

The stated aim was ‘to dehouse the German industrial worker.’ Less explicit was the belief that, when the Germans retaliated against British cities, it would cause resentment and build resolve on the Home Front for the long struggle ahead. (No-one, it seems, spotted the contradiction.) British bombers attacked Munich; in return, the Germans bombed Coventry. And so on. By 1942, Directive 22 to Bomber Command emphasized that ‘the aiming points [were] to be built-up areas, not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories.’ Arthur Harris was appointed Commander in Chief of Bomber Command. In the House of Commons, Richard Stokes, an independent-minded Labour MP, asked whether the air force was being instructed to participate in ‘area bombing’ rather than precision bombing of military and essential industrial targets. He was given the brush-off. (4) Harris was later to complain about being diverted from his task by pettifogging strategic considerations, like requests to bomb vital bridges or even the rail lines to Auschwitz; in his memoirs he claimed that he would have won the war on his own if only he had been allowed to focus on bombing residential areas.

Thousand-bomber raids were launched against Cologne and Hamburg. But Harris was fixated on destroying Berlin’s working-class neighbourhoods – ironically, the Red districts that had been most hostile to the Nazis. Frustrated by their continuing inability to create a satisfactory firestorm in Berlin, the British eventually sought a breakthrough solution in the inventive power of American industry. Under the supervision of German-Jewish architect Eric Mendelsohn, and using the combined resources of Standard Oil and the set designers of Hollywood, a replica of the slum districts of Berlin was built in the Utah desert, reproducing details right down to the typical furniture and linens favoured by the German proletariat. To ensure that the complex was completed on time, conscript labour was brought in from the Utah state prisons. Between May and September 1943, German Village (as it was known) was firebombed and reconstructed at least three times, demonstrating clearly the superiority of the new munition called napalm. It was, for Mike Davis, ‘like bombing Brecht.’ (5)

Churchill pledged to FDR that RAF raids on Germany could deliver 900,000 dead, a million injured, and 25 million homeless. The Americans were initially leery of their British cousins’ exterminism, but Roosevelt eventually came around, and the bombing of Dresden was deemed a huge success. Even more impressed was a young American commander named Curtis LeMay, a passionate advocate of bringing incendiary weapons to the war in the Pacific, in line with the thinking of America’s homegrown prophet of bombing, Billy Mitchell. Mitchell, as Lindqvist documents, had had his eye on the potential for firebombing Japan as far back as 1932: ‘These towns, built largely of wood and paper, form the greatest aerial targets the world has ever seen.’ LeMay was soon to get his way. In just over a week ‘nearly half of the destruction that the whole bombing war had caused in Germany was visited on Japan.’ (6) Osaka, Nagoya and Kobe burned. In Tokyo, the resulting inferno was christened the ‘red wind’ and caused the canals to boil. It was, as historian Michael Sherry put it in The Rise of American Air Power, the ‘triumph of technological fanaticism.’ (7) It also paved the way for the unnecessary use of the Atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, probably as a salutary warning to the Soviets and demonstration of unrivalled American power. (8) (‘I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought,’ Albert Einstein observed, ‘but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.’)

When the Allies agreed in 1945 to make war crimes and crimes against humanity punishable in international courts, the prosecutor’s final report exempted the bombing of cities as ‘a recognized part of modern warfare, as practiced by all nations.’ The pattern was set, and would play out again and again in future air campaigns. The United States dropped more ordnance during the carpet-bombing of Vietnam than had been used in the entirety of the Second World War. And yet, strangely enough, it failed to produce the desired effect. The morale of the Viet Cong was undimmed, and they went on to win.

Not that there were not other factors at play in the continued prevalence of the warfare state. The economic importance of war was far from negligible (9). Looking back at the performance of the U.S. economy over the course of the twentieth century, a strong case can be made for the consistent role of military spending as a macroeconomic stimulus rescuing American capitalism from crisis. While it did not prove possible to command political majorities for the levels of social spending necessary to produce the required economic boost, ‘defence’ spending was another matter entirely. The repeated intrusion of war and Cold War, and the resulting reorganisation of industry and increased military spending, served time and again to lift the whole economy out of stagnation. In this sense, too, ‘War,’ as Randolph Bourne insisted back in 1917, ‘is the health of the State.’ (10)

Military Keynesianism, however, isn’t what it used to be. The jobs aren’t there any more, as the armaments industry has shifted to high-tech, capital-intensive production. But at $1.5 million a pop for a Tomahawk missile, there are still profits to be made. The rentier can be kept satisfied, and political contributions can be maintained at a level sufficient to square away the legislators. And there is certainly no shortage of bombing opportunities. Last week, stock prices for military contractors Raytheon, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman reached all-time record highs given the tantalizing prospect of a long Western air war in Iraq and Syria.

Britain has leaped on board in the customary role as deputy sheriff. Earlier this year, Ian Cobain and Ewen MacAskill wrote an article anticipating the fact that as a country we were approaching a ‘hugely symbolic’ milestone, ‘the end of a century or more of unbroken warfare by British forces.’ Britain has been engaged in military conflict every single year since at least 1914 – and perhaps, given imperial entanglements, stretching back even further to the creation of the British army in 1707. With the union jack about to be lowered in Afghanistan, the Guardian writers pointed out, a hundred years of war was about to come to an end. Fat chance. The Middle East, it would seem, is under-bombed. There is a bombing deficit. The problem is that we simply haven’t bombed enough.

The rise of the Islamic State is a grotesque recent development in a region that has had more than its share of horrors in the modern period. But let us be clear; when it comes to dealing in death they are amateurs as compared to the Western powers, which have been bombing the region for a century. (Nor have we been above a bit of beheading of our own from time to time; witness the infamous photograph of a Royal Marine Commando holding up the severed heads of communist insurgents in Malaya.) Doubtless, something must be done to prevent the spread of a grim medieval throwback. But why should that something be bombing, and by us? Why not support the Kurds? (Not those Kurds who, grown soft and fat as U.S. clients, have forgotten how to fight and been given a pasting, but the Kurds doing the real fighting, the ones from Turkey and Syria who are on our list of proscribed terrorist organisations because of their aspirations for autonomy and self-governance.) What about getting tough with supposed ‘allies’ like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who oppose the militants with one hand while offering succour and safe passage with the other? Why not call a regional peace conference, under United Nations auspices, in which all issues are on the table? Nobody in Washington or London appears to have the faintest idea what they are doing. Bombing symptoms does not help in getting at underlying causes.

But bombing is what we know. The other stuff is too hard. It means asking searching questions, like what happened to a region that, not so very long ago, was awash with left-wing political and intellectual ferment, from Afghanistan to Palestine, as anti-colonial national liberation struggles fused with labour and peasant movements and built alliances with radical student and feminist groups. It would mean asking what happened to that left, slaughtered by authoritarian regimes imposed or propped up by ‘us’ as a bulwark against communism in the region. It would mean remembering the tens of thousands of trade unionists, left-wing activists, students and others murdered or thrown into the prisons of Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, whose disappearance from the political scene at ‘our’ behest left the ideological void into which extreme radical Islamism has since stepped and flourished.

Too complicated, and too long ago. Far better to tell a story about Shia and Sunni, to forget and to acquiesce, to watch dead-eyed as Labour MPs, with too few honourable exceptions, fall back into line and assume their usual role as lobby fodder for foreign adventurism. Like the supply siders with tax cuts, bombing, for the liberal interventionists, is a panacea. So impoverished is the range of mainstream thinking on such matters that the choice is often presented as bombing or nothing. Never mind that, just a short while ago, we were being told that it was the other side in this conflict that we should be bombing. (‘Bomb both sides!’ comes the answering cry). ‘History teaches,’ wrote Gramsci, ‘but it has no pupils.’

And so we bomb. We have invested in bombs, and, armed with hammers, we go about in search of nails. What we have not invested in is a foreign policy establishment that is not wedded to the logic of great power politics, to cynical ‘realism,’ to a mercantilist attachment to the economic interests of ‘domestic’ corporations that long ago ceased thinking of themselves in national terms. We have not invested in understanding past mistakes – where is the Chilcot Inquiry report? – and learning from them in order to achieve different outcomes. We have not invested in understanding the conditions of peace. After a century of bombing, isn’t it about time that we did?

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(1) Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing (New York: New Press, 2001), pp. 1-33. This article draws heavily on accounts from Lindqvist’s extraordinary, disturbing book.

(2) R.H. Thomas quoted in Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (London: Merlin Press, 1972), p. 104.

(3) Mike Davis, ‘Berlin’s Skeleton in Utah’s Closet,’ in Dead Cities and Other Tales (New York: New Press, 2002), pp. 64-83.

(4) Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, p. 90.

(5) Mike Davis, Dead Cities, pp. 67-68.

(6) Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, p. 109.

(7) Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987)

(8) Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (New York: Knopf, 1995).

(9) Vernon W. Ruttan, Is War Necessary for Economic Growth? Military Procurement and Technology Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

(10) Randolph S. Bourne, War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays 1915-1919 ed. Carl Resek (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), p. 71.

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