From Guernica to Iraq

From Guernica to Iraq

There’s an escalating air war in Iraq; why don’t American media consider it serious news?


A January 21 Los Angeles Times article on Iraq that led with an intertribal suicide bombing in Falluja ended twenty-six paragraphs later this way:

“The U.S. military also said in a statement that it had dropped 19,000 pounds of explosives on the farmland of Arab Jabour south of Baghdad. The strikes targeted buried bombs and weapons caches.

“In the last 10 days, the military has dropped nearly 100,000 pounds of explosives on the area, which has been a gateway for Sunni militants into Baghdad.”

Similarly, in a New York Times article that led with news of an American death from a roadside bomb was this sentence (stashed in its twenty-second paragraph):

“To help clear the ground, the military had dropped nearly 100,000 pounds of bombs to destroy weapons caches and I.E.D.’s.”

Both pieces started with “bombing” news, but the major bombing story of these past weeks–those 100,000 pounds of explosives that US planes dropped in a small area south of Baghdad–was simply an afterthought, though this is undoubtedly the most extensive use of air power in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003.

For those who know something about the history of air power, that 100,000 figure might have rung a small bell.

On April 26, 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, the planes of the German Condor Legion destroyed the ancient Basque town of Guernica. More than 1,600 people may have died there as the Germans reputedly dropped about fifty tons, or 100,000 pounds, of explosives.

At Guernica, as in Arab Jabour seventy-one years later, no reporters were present when the explosives rained down. In the Spanish situation, however, four reporters in the nearby city of Bilbao, including George Steer of the Times of London, rushed to the scene of destruction. Steer’s first piece was headlined The Tragedy of Guernica and called the assault “unparalleled in military history.” As Steer made clear in his report, this had been an attack on a civilian population, a terror bombing. The self-evident barbarism of the event–the first massively publicized bombing of civilians–caused international horror. From it came perhaps the most famous painting of the last century, Picasso’s Guernica, as well as innumerable novels, plays, poems and other works of art.

Those last tag-on paragraphs in the LA Times piece tell us much about the intervening seventy-one years, which included the German bombing of Rotterdam and the blitz of London; the Japanese bombings of Chinese cities; the Allied firebombing of German cities; the American firebombing of Japanese cities; the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the cold war era of mutually assured destruction (MAD); massive US bombing campaigns against North Korea, North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; American air power “victories” during the Gulf War and in Afghanistan; and the Bush Administration’s “shock and awe” assault on Iraq in March 2003. In those seven decades, the death toll and damage caused by war have increasingly been delivered to civilian populations.

One hundred thousand pounds of explosives is now a relatively modest figure. During the invasion of Iraq, a single air wing from the USS Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier stationed in the Persian Gulf, did that sort of damage in less than a day and, as again in January, the military was proud to publicize that fact without fear of international outrage.

Based on news reports, there is no evidence that American reporters rushed to Arab Jabour to check out the damage. In Iraq and Afghanistan, when it comes to the mainstream media, bombing is generally significant only if the bombs can be produced at approximately “the cost of a pizza” (as IEDs sometimes are), or if the vehicles delivering them are cars or simply fiendishly well-rigged human bodies. From the air, even 100,000 pounds of bombs just doesn’t seem to matter.

Some of this comes from the Pentagon’s success in creating a dismissive, sanitizing language in which to frame air power. “Collateral damage” stands in for the civilian dead–even though in modern warfare, collateral damage could be considered dead soldiers, not the ever-rising percentage of civilian casualties. And death, of course, is delivered “precisely” by “precision-guided” weaponry. All this makes air war seem sterile, even virginal.

Reports have nonetheless seeped out of the region indicating that there were civilian casualties, possibly a significant number of them; that bridges and roads were “cut off,” farms and farmlands damaged. According to Hamza Hendawi of the Associated Press, Iraqi and American troops were said to have advanced into Arab Jabour through “smoldering citrus groves.”

But how could there not be civilian casualties and property damage? After all, the official explanation for this small-scale version of “shock and awe” was to “take out known threats before our ground troops move in”; that is, to minimize US casualties by using massive firepower in a situation in which local information was guaranteed to be sketchy at best. Given such a scenario, civilians will always suffer. And this, increasingly, is the American way of war in Iraq.

Last year enormous media attention was focused on the President’s “surge” plan for Iraq, those 30,000 additional ground troops. What went almost unnoticed was the air surge that accompanied it. The Pentagon has invested billions of dollars in building up an air-power infrastructure in and around Iraq, including constructing one of its largest foreign bases anywhere on the planet, north of Baghdad. Balad Air Base has been described by Newsweek as a “15-square-mile mini-city” with air traffic “second only to London’s Heathrow Airport.” With about 140,000 tons a year of cargo moving through it, the base is “the busiest aerial port” in the Pentagon’s global domain, housing about 40,000 military personnel, private contractors and Pentagon civilian employees. It has its own bus routes, fast-food restaurants, sidewalks and two PXs that are the size of Kmarts.

Radar traffic controllers at the base now commonly see more than 550 aircraft operations a day. And the base is still being upgraded to sustain years of further wear and tear, while a $30 million “state-of-the-art battlefield command and control system” is being built there. National Public Radio’s defense correspondent Guy Raz called the base “one giant construction project.”

At the same time, air power has been surging in Iraq. There were five times as many US airstrikes in 2007 as in 2006; and 2008 has started off with a literal bang from those 100,000 pounds of explosives dropped south of Baghdad, not to speak of 16,500 pounds of explosives reportedly dropped north of the Iraqi capital and possibly another 14,500 pounds on Arab Jabour more recently. (And that doesn’t include unreleased figures for the Marine Corps.)

So here’s the simple calculus: overstretched US forces simply cannot sustain the ground part of the surge much longer. Most, if not all, of the troops who surged into Iraq will soon be coming home. But air power won’t be. In the Vietnam War, as ground troops were withdrawn, air power ramped up. There is every reason to believe that this will be the US future in Iraq as well.

Unfortunately, the air war is not visible to most Americans, largely because mainstream US reporters, who have covered every other form of warfare in Iraq, simply refuse to look up. Only one reporter, as far as I know, has even gone up in a plane–David Cloud of the New York Times, who flew in a B-1 on a mission over Afghanistan. Among others, Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post traveled to Balad Air Base and did a superb report on it in 2006. But few reporters have bothered to hang out with American pilots. Nor have the results of bombing, missile-firing or strafing been much recorded in our press. The air war is still largely relegated to passing mentions of air raids, based on Pentagon press releases.

Given the importance of air power to American military history since 1941, this is something of a mystery. A Marine patrol rampaging through an Iraqi village can, indeed, be news; but American bombs or missiles turning part of a city into rubble or helicopter gunships riddling a neighborhood is, at best, tag-on, below-the-fold material.

The predictably devastating results of pilots “bombarding” a major Iraqi city, if reported at all, will be treated as the normal “collateral damage” of war as we know it. In our world, what was once the barbarism of air war, its genuine horror, has been transformed into humdrum ordinariness (if, of course, you don’t happen to be an Iraqi or an Afghan), as unremarkable, and as American, as apple pie, and nothing worth writing to Mom and the kids about.

Maybe, sooner or later, American mainstream journalists in Iraq (and editors back in the United States) will look up, notice those increasing contrails in the skies, register those “precision” bombs and missiles landing, and consider whether it really is a ho-hum, no-news period when the Air Force looses 100,000 pounds of explosives on a farming district on the edge of Baghdad. Maybe artists will once again begin pouring their outrage over the very nature of air war into works of art, at least one of which could become iconic and travel the world reminding us just what, almost five years later, the “liberation” of Iraq has really meant for Iraqis.

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