Mors Ab Alto

Tom Englehardt: Carnage from the Air and the Washington Consensus

...Beyond all else, there is the American attitude towards air power itself -- and, beyond that, toward modern war when fought on the planetary "peripheries" (even if those peripheries turn out to be the oil heartlands of our world). From World War II, through Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, our air wars have always visited death and destruction on civilians. In a future in which it is highly unlikely that American troops will ever fight Russians or Chinese or the soldiers of any other major power in set-piece battles, imperial war is likely to continue to take place in heavily populated civilian areas against guerrillas and insurgents of various sorts. Don't take my word for it. The Pentagon thinks so too and is engaged in extensive planning for such future wars -- involving weapons that leave its soldiers "at a distance" in the burgeoning urban slums of our planet.

So perhaps a modicum of honesty is in order. Iraq and Afghanistan are already charnel houses, zones of butchery for the innocent. In both lands, it's possible to make a simple prediction: As bad as things already are, if present trends continue, if the "Korea model" becomes the model, it's going to get worse. We have yet to see anything like the full release of American air power in Afghanistan, no less in Iraq, but don't count it out.

We in the U.S. recognize butchery when we see it -- the atrocity of the car bomb, the chlorine-gas truck bomb, the beheading. These acts are obviously barbaric in nature. But our favored way of war -- war from a distance -- has, for us, been pre-cleansed of barbarism. Or rather its essential barbarism has been turned into a set of "errant incidents," of "accidents," of "mistakes" repeatedly made over more than six decades. Air power is, in the military itself, little short of a religion of force, impermeable to reason, to history, to examples of what it does (and what it is incapable of doing). It is in our interest not to see air war as a -- possibly the -- modern form of barbarism.

Ours is, of course, a callous and dishonest way of thinking about war from the air (undoubtedly because it is the form of barbarism, unlike the car bomb or the beheading, that benefits us). It is time to be more honest. It is time for reporters to take the words "incident," "mistake," "accident," "inadvertent," "errant," and "collateral damage" out of their reportorial vocabularies when it comes to air power. At the level of policy, civilian deaths from the air should be seen as "advertent." They are not mistakes or they wouldn't happen so repeatedly. They are the very givens of this kind of warfare.

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