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The Zeus complex: against air war

An innovative study of aerial bombardment brings history, state power, civilians and human rights into a single frame.

Flickr/Defence Images. Some rights reserved.The assault on Aleppo by Bashar al-Assad’s forces continues, with appalling consequences. It may even now be reaching a climax, aided by the Russian air attacks that are proving even less discriminate than the much larger number of coalition airstrikes across Syria and Iraq. 

The overall intensity of aerial bombardment in the two countries combined is formidable. Airwars calculates that in the two and a half years of the air war against ISIS, there have been 16,587 airstrikes, with 60,079 bombs and missiles dropped and 1,915 civilians killed.

CENTCOM separately reported, as of the end of September 2016 and before the start of the Mosul operation, that airstrikes had hit 31,900 targets, including vehicles, buildings, staging areas, firing positions and oil installations. The number of ISIS paramilitaries and supporters killed appears now to be close to 50,000, given that a figure of “approaching 45,000” was published in August.

The extent of the actions, using both armed-drones and strike-aircraft, is scarcely reported in the western media, and the more recent air war in Libya is almost entirely ignored. What reporting there has been tends to emphasise the impact of air and drone strikes. But artillery bombardment is also significant, and not just by Iraqi or Syrian forces. The United States and France are both involved, especially in the fighting on the approaches to Mosul. 

What is happening in all three countries is an enhancement of what is now called "remote warfare". It does include the use of special forces and private military companies, but most of the “fighting” is done from the air, with minimal consequences for the combatants from the coalition states. Accurate figures are difficult to come by, but by aggregating reports from diverse sources it would appear that less than twenty military personnel have been killed among the western coalition forces, a marked contrast with the probably 50,000 losses on the ISIS side.

This move to remote war is a core feature of the changing approaches of powerful states to “wars in far-off places” – waged by pursuing their interests and maintaining control. This may be relatively recent at the current level of intensity, but it is also helpful to put it in a much wider perspective of an historical trend in war: aerial bombardment, especially of the civilian population.  

A valuable book which really does seek to do just this is Peter Nias’s The Zeus Complex: a manifesto against aerial bombardment of civilians, recently published and available here at the remarkably low price for a substantial book of just £5 ($6.30). It is genuinely helpful reading at any time, but especially so given what is happening in the Middle East. 

As Nias explains, he is taking a very different approach to most books about the impact of war on civilians:

“There have been some writings on civilian ‘collateral damage’ in aerial bombardments and a lot, but mostly separately, on human rights in such onslaughts. However, very few have tried to link the two, and even less have been looking forward to what may be done in the future. This volume is an attempt to help reduce civilian bombing by increasing such ‘rights of humans’, and by making suggestions accordingly, mainly for the long term. We are talking decades. There are no easy answers and no panaceas here.”

He does indeed try to link the two, but it is the way in which he goes about it that is both informative and thoughtful. For a start, he takes us on an exploration through history, including a thorough examination of the growth of aerial warfare from the 1914-19 war, through the destruction of cities in the 1937-45 war and on to the nuclear age. In doing so he takes in multiple perspectives and differing cultural attitudes, which are illuminated by his extensive scholarship and sense of historical perspective.

Nias goes on to look at the very recent past, including so-called smart bombardment with precision-guided missiles and bombs. It is this element that makes the book such an unusual combination of historical perspective with contemporary relevance.

From 2001 to around 2009, aerial bombardment was used extensively in the so-called “war on terror”. But this also involved many tens of thousands of western boots on the ground, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. As that element turned out to be so ineffective if not counterproductive, there was a steady transition to "remote war", especially from the air, as the effective way forward. Yet, as work by the Remote Control Project and others are showing, that is hardly producing the success that was anticipated.

At same stage, and hopefully soon, we will rise above the traditional control paradigm and look for very different responses to security challenges. If such approaches do evolve then they will need to recognise the accelerating role of aerial bombardment. It is in this context that The Zeus Complex may well have a place in helping set the scene for genuinely new thinking.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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