Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, September 14, 2007

Aerial Bombardment in the Racist Contemporary

by Vijay Prashad (November 2001)

Everything is predictable. The aerial sorties, the helicopter operations, the Special Forces raids, the encouragement of a local ally (here the Northern Alliance). What was also predictable was the inevitable "errant cluster bomb" and the "collateral damage".

Reports came in almost immediately from sources that the US tends to consider "unconfirmed" (such as Iranian television) that "errant bombs" landed in civilian areas and took civilian lives. We heard of the bombs on a UN mine-removal office in Kabul, we heard of the two strikes on Herat, and we heard about the bombing of the CNN (Communist News Networks, according to some Republicans!) offices in Kandahar as well as the Al-Jazeera network office. The New York Times reported (John F Burns, "Errant Cluster Bomb Leaves Danger Behind, UN Says", 25 October 2001) "the Pentagon has said errors were unavoidable in a bombing campaign of the intensity of that being conducted in Afghanistan". The United Nations, whose credibility is stretched to the limit once again, reports that "residential areas and some villages" have become targets of "errant cluster bombs" because "Taliban troops have moved into those areas". There is little concern that however smart we think the bombs can be, "errors" in the world of aerial bombardment are inevitable.

To say that the civilian deaths from aerial bombardment are unintentional is sophistry, because if there is a probability that the bombs will hit civilian targets, then ipso facto the civilian deaths are not unintentional. This is tantamount to saying that a drunk driver who did not intend to kill someone in an "accident" should be set free for good motives; US law prosecutes drunk drivers regardless of whether they have been in an accident, because it recognizes that drunk driving is an inevitable accident. The same must be said of aerial bombardment. It always already intends to kill civilians, despite the best intentions of the military planners.

Early laws on warfare recognized the question of "intention" as sophistry, but even here there was a desire to accommodate flagrant acts of military violence. It began well in 1899 and then went downhill by 1907. Hague II (Laws and Customs of War on Land, 29 July 1899; and ratified by the US Senate on 14 March 1902) was farsighted in its insistence (article XXIII) that military combat should prohibit "arms, projectiles, or material of a nature to cause superfluous injury". By Hague IV (18 October 1907, and ratified by the US Senate the next year) the last phrase was amended to read, "to cause unnecessary suffering". Necessary suffering, I suspect, was permissible.

But all this was before the present history of bombing, as recounted so wonderfully by Sven Lindquist in his new book (New Press, 2001). For the first act of aerial bombardment only took place on 26 October 1911 when the Italian air force bombed Tripoli in their war against Turkish North Africa. As a reaction to the violent turn of air warfare and the fear that it would be turned against each other, the powers committed to end aerial bombardment, but the treaty they penned did not come into effect. That rather farsighted treaty (Draft Rules on Aerial Warfare, February 1923) pointedly noted (in article XXII) that "aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, of destroying or damaging private property not of military character, or of injuring non-combatants is prohibited", and furthermore (according to article XXIV) any belligerent state that did bomb civilian targets had to compensate them.

The very next year Squadron Leader Arthur "Bomber" Harris of the Royal Air Force ruthlessly bombed the Kurds and Iraqis. In March of 1924, Harris reported the following to his superiors (the text of which was added to the RAF's August 1924 "Notes on the Method of Employment of Air Arm in Iraq", a report to Parliament, thereafter expunged from the record): "Where the Arab and Kurd had just begun to realise that if they could stand a little noise they could stand bombing, they now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within forty-five minutes a full-sized village (vide attached photos of Kushan-Al-Ajaza) 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 time the next major convention against aerial bombing was drafted, all the major powers joined in the immorality of bombardment. The Spanish in Morocco, over the city of Chechaouen; the French in Syria (the bombardment of Damascus' neighborhoods on 18 October 1925); the United States in Central America (the bombardment of revolutionary Nicaraguan farmers in the 1920s); and finally, those who started it, the Italians in Ethiopia in 1935-36. But race is at the heart of "international" revulsion at aerial bombing. As Lindquist puts it, "the truth about Chechaouen required no cover-up. Bombing natives was considered quite natural. The Italians did it in Libya, the French did it in Morocco, and the British did it throughout the Middle East, in India, and East Africa, while the South Africans did it in Southwest Africa. Will any ambassador ever ask for forgiveness for that? Of all these bombed cities and villages, only Guernica [in Spain, bombed by the Fascists in 1937] went down in history. Because Guernica lies in Europe. In Guernica, we were the ones who died."

On the eve of World War II, on 30 September 1938, the League of Nations produced a unanimous resolution entitled "Protection of Civilian Populations Against Bombing from the Air in Case of War". The League declared, "intentional bombing of civilian populations is illegal" mainly because "on numerous occasions public opinion has expressed through the most authoritative channels its horror of the bombing of civilian populations". The key word here is "intentional" and the League did not go over the philosophical conundrums posed by the word, as they perhaps should have to prevent the sophistry of "collateral damage" and "errant cluster bombs". On the first day of World War II (1 September 1939), US President Franklin D Roosevelt wrote a note to the governments of France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom, begging them to desist from aerial bombardment. The note bears quotation in full: "The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population during the course of the hostilities which have raged in various quarters of the earth during the past few years, which has resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenseless men, women, and children, has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity. If resort is had to this form of inhuman barbarism during the period of the tragic conflagration with which the world is now confronted, hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities which have now broken out, will lose their lives. I am therefore addressing this urgent appeal to every government which may be engaged in hostilities publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities, upon the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents. I request an immediate reply."

The immediate reply was on 20 June 1940 when the Royal Air Force began the bombardment of Germany (and declared that industrial centers and the workers' homes beside them are legitimate targets), and when the Nazi regime began the Blitz against the British on 6 September. Munich, Coventry, London, Hamburg, and then finally Dresden - this was the barbarism of aerial bombardment within Europe. On 27 July 1943, the RAF killed 50,000 people in Hamburg. Reflecting on this barbarity, nuclear physicist Freeman Dyson who was then a clerk for Arthur "Bomber" Harris wrote that the Nazis "had sat in their offices, writing memoranda and calculating how to murder people efficiently, just like me. The main difference was that they were sent to jail or hanged as war criminals, while I went free." Eighty percent of all the bombs in World War II fell in the last ten months of the war during which the British, for instance, decided to bomb residential areas with the argument that this would foreshorten the war. The US borrowed this logic at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but only after the USAF firebombed Tokyo on 8 May (General Curtis LeMay who directed the operations, said "we knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids when we burned that town. Had to be done"). On 13 February 1945, the RAF killed 100,000 in Dresden; on 6 August 1945, the USAF killed 100,000 instantly in Hiroshima (another 100,000 died over the course of the next year). Two days later, the Soviets, the British, the French and the US signed the Nuremberg principles - an act of utter hypocrisy. A "war crime" (article VI) is specifically defined by these principles as the "wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity". No action was taken against the signatories, now the guardians of the new world order.

Not even against the French army in Madagascar, where the French massacred by bombardment 89,000 to 100,000 people in 1948 in the anti-colonial wars. Nor was there to be any action against the US air force for its acts in Korea (1950-53): A senior officer in General MacArthur's command hoped that a harsh US attack would "give these yellow bastards what is coming to them". The racist hatred of the Asians took the form of ruthless destruction, such as aerial raids on the northern part of the peninsula to destroy irrigation dams that provided water for three-quarters of the north's food production. "The subsequent flash flood waters wiped out [supply routes, etc]", the US air force noted in an official report. "The Westerner can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of [rice] has for the Asian - starvation and slow death". From Korea to Vietnam, to the carpet bombardment of Cambodia (the list is endless from here on, and Lindquist covers some of the ground for us). The US dropped four times the amount of firepower on Vietnam than was used in the entire Second World War, a tonnage equivalent to six hundred and forty Hiroshimas - some of this includes the 373,000 tons of napalm that seared the Vietnamese landscape and made the construction of socialism in that land so much harder.

In 1964, US President Lyndon Johnson built on the fabricated Tonkin Gulf incident to demand that the military be allowed to employ "all necessary measures" in the war. Since then we have moved to depleted uranium, to talk of tactical nuclear missiles, and the routine use of napalm and cruise missiles. On 19 December 1968, the UN's "Resolution on Human Rights" affirmed the International Red Cross's 1965 Vienna statement that combatants cannot adopt "unlimited" means to injure the enemy, that "it is prohibited to launch attacks against the civilian populations" and (here we are on weak territory that dilutes the problem of the "intentional") "that the distinction must be made at all times between persons taking part in the hostilities and members of the civilian population to the effect that the latter be spared as much as possible". As much as possible - not entirely, not totally. There will be casualties - this is the realism, the pragmatism of the racist contemporary - where we accept as given that a few of the dehumanized other will succumb to the pedagogy of the bomb despite our best, most civilized intentions.

In 1996 the International Court of Justice, bombarded with three million signatures on an anti-nuclear petition, among other incentives, voted "unanimously, that threat or use of nuclear weapons is illegal" when it violates various UN statutes, but three justices (from Sierra Leone, Guyana and Sri Lanka) wanted to go further and ban nuclear weapons under any circumstances. They knew that bombs such as these are used basically against those of color, those who are already subhuman to Europe and the United States, seen to require the rod for discipline, seen to be a civilization apart. Lindquist documents the genocidal fantasies of Europe and the United States against the colored Other, from Charles Dilke's 1869 Greater Britain (which calls for the "gradual extinction of the inferior races" as a "blessing of mankind" and does so as airplanes drop "a rain of awful death to every breathing thing [in China], a rain that exterminates the hopeless race") to Jack London's 1910 The Unparalled Invasion (which calls for an aerial bombardment of the Chinese by fragile glass tubes that carry every possible biological weapon - and those that flee are felled by the powers at their borders, the land is disinfected and then whites move into a cleansed China). "The dream of solving all the problems of the world through mass destruction from the air was already in place", Lindquist writes, "before the first bomb was dropped".

There is talk of tactical nuclear devices, and the US has probably already used depleted uranium shells. The Pakistani government sealed its borders and refugees are being sent back to desolation. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees, Mary Robinson, calls for an end to the bombardment so that food can be sent into Afghanistan, real food not the measly food drops orchestrated for propaganda by the US State Department. None of this is to be heeded, as the campaign continues, as bombs fall, as "errant cluster bombs" land on civilian targets who are now "collateral damage". The Taliban bomb without concern for human life, Hikmatyar (a great CIA asset) once killed 25,000 people by indiscriminate rocket fire into Kabul, and now the US bombs "with precision" from the air to shift rubble from one valley to the next, to devastate the productive capacity of Afghanistan and leave it as easy pickings for the next marauder who wants a strategic post on the Great Silk Road. There are those who die "unintentionally" and then there will be those who will starve because we have decapitated the capacity of the country. Where is the Geneva Convention when we need it? Our grief is not a cry for war.


Vijay Prashad Associate Professor and Director, International Studies Program 214 McCook, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut 06106. 860-297-2518.

Bill Totten


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