Here are a few simple propositions on the matter of air war.
First, the farther away you are from the ground, the clearer things are likely to look, the more god-like you are likely to feel, the less human those you attack are likely to be to you. How much more so, of course, if you, the "pilot," are actually sitting at a consol at an air base near Las Vegas, identifying a "suspect" thousands of miles away via video monitor, "following" that suspect into a house, and then letting loose a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone cruising somewhere over Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Second, however "precise" your weaponry, however "surgical" your strike, however impressive the grainy snuff-film images you can put on television, war from the air is, and will remain, a most imprecise and destructive form of battle.
Third, in human terms, distance does not enhance accuracy. The farther away you are from a target, the more likely it is that you will have to guess who or what it is, based on spotty, difficult to interpret, or bad information, or even outright misinformation; whatever the theoretical accuracy of your weaponry, you are far more likely to miscalculate, make mistakes, mistarget, or target the misbegotten from the air.
Fourth, if you are conducting war this way and you are doing so in heavily populated urban neighborhoods, as is now the case almost every day in Iraq, then civilians will predictably die "by mistake" almost every day: the child who happens to be on the street just beyond camera range; the "terrorist suspect" or "insurgent" who looks, at a distance, like he’s planting a roadside bomb, but is just scavenging; the neighbors who happen to be sitting down to dinner in the house next to the one you decide to hit.
Fifth, since World War II, air power has been the American way of war.
Sixth, since November 2001, the Bush administration has increasingly relied on air power in its Global War on Terror to "take out" the enemy, which has meant regular air strikes in cities and villages, and the no less regular, if largely unrecorded, deaths of civilians.
Seventh, in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq (as well as in the tribal areas along the Pakistani border), the use of air power has been "surging." You can essentially no longer read an account of a skirmish or battle in one of Iraq’s cities in which air power is not called in. This means (see propositions 1-4) a war of constant "mistakes," and of regularly mentioned "investigations" into the deaths of "militants" and "insurgents" who, on the ground, seem to morph into children, women, and elderly men being pulled from the rubble.
Eighth, force creates counterforce. The application of force, especially from the air, is a reliable engine for the creation of enemies. It is a force multiplier (and not just for U.S. forces either). Every time an air strike is called in anywhere on the planet, anyone who orders it should automatically assume that left in its wake will be grieving, angry husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, relatives, friends — people vowing revenge, a pool of potential candidates filled with the anger of genuine injustice. From the point of view of your actual enemies, you can’t bomb, missile, and strafe often enough, because when you do so, you are more or less guaranteed to create their newest recruits.
Ninth, U.S. air power has, in the last six and a half years, been an effective force in a war for terror, not against it.
What does this mean in practice? It means something simple and relentless; it means dead people you might not have chosen to kill, but that you are responsible for killing nonetheless — and even if you don’t know — or are unwilling to acknowledge — that, others do know and will draw the logical conclusions..
Let’s remember that, after 9/11, when horror and death arrived quite literally out of the blue, Americans, from the President on down, spent months in mourning, performing rites of remembrance, and swearing revenge. Do we not imagine that others, even when the spotlight isn’t on them, react similarly? Do we not think that they, too, are capable of swearing revenge and acting accordingly?
The deaths of civilians are not some sideline result of the (air) War on Terror; they lie at its heart. If your care is safety–a subject brought up repeatedly by Senators who wanted to know from U.S. commander General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker this week whether we were now "safer"–then, the answer is: This does not make you safer.
[A longer version of this piece appeared at Tom Engelhardt’s website Tomdispatch.com]