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    Middle East
     Feb 1, 2008
Page 1 of 2
DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA
Bombs away over Iraq: Who cares?
By Tom Engelhardt

A January 21 Los Angeles Times Iraq piece by Ned Parker and Saif Rasheed led with an inter-tribal suicide bombing at a gathering in Fallujah in which members of the pro-American Anbar Awakening Council were killed. ("Asked why one member of his Albu Issa tribe would kill another, Aftan compared it to school shootings that happen in the United States.") Twenty-six paragraphs later, the story ended this way:
The US military also said in a statement that it had dropped 19,000 pounds [8,600 kilograms] 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.
And here's paragraph 22 of a 34-paragraph January 22 story by Stephen Farrell of the New York Times:
The threat from buried bombs was well known before the [Arab Jabour] operation. To help clear the ground, the military had dropped nearly 100,000 pounds of bombs to destroy weapons caches and IEDs [improvised explosive devices].
Farrell led his piece with news that an American soldier had died in Arab Jabour from an IED that blew up "an MRAP, the new Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected armored vehicle that the American military is counting on to reduce casualties from roadside bombs in Iraq".

Note that both pieces started with bombing news - in one case a suicide bombing that killed several Iraqis; in another a roadside bombing that killed an American soldier and wounded others. But the major bombing story of these past days - those 45,000 kilograms or so of explosives that US planes dropped in a small area south of Baghdad - simply dangled unexplained off the far end of the Los Angeles Times piece; while in the New York Times it was buried inside a single sentence.

Neither paper has (as far as I know) returned to the subject, though this is undoubtedly the most extensive use of air power in Iraq since the George W Bush administration's invasion of 2003 and probably represents a genuine shifting of American military strategy in that country. Despite a few humdrum wire service pieces, no place else in the mainstream has bothered to cover the story adequately either.

For those who know something about the history of air power, which, since World War II, has been lodged at the heart of the American way of war, that 45,000 figure might have rung a small bell.

On April 27, 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War (a prelude to World War II), planes of the German Condor Legion attacked the ancient Basque town of Guernica. They came in waves, first carpet bombing, then dropping thermite incendiaries. It was a market day and there may have been as many as 7,000-10,000 people, including refugees, in the town which was largely destroyed in the ensuing fire storm. More than 1,600 people may have died there (though some estimates are lower). The Germans reputedly dropped about 45,000 kilograms of explosives on the town. In the seven decades between those two 45,000 figures lies a sad history of our age.

Arab Jabour, the Sunni farming community about 16 kilometers south of the Iraqi capital that was the target of the latest 45,000-kilogram barrage, has recently been largely off-limits to American troops and their Iraqi allies. The American military now refers generically to all Sunni insurgents who resist them as "al-Qaeda", so in situations like this it's hard to tell exactly who has held this territory.

At Guernica, as in Arab Jabour 71 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, promptly rushed to the scene of destruction. Steer's first piece for the Times (also printed in the New York Times) was headlined "The tragedy of Guernica" and called the assault "unparalleled in military history". (Obviously, no such claims could be made for Arab Jabour today.) Steer made clear in his report that this had been an attack on a civilian population, essentially a terror bombing.

The self-evident barbarism of the event - the first massively publicized bombing of a civilian population - caused international horror. It was news across the planet. From it came perhaps the most famous painting of the last century, Pablo Picasso's Guernica, as well as innumerable novels, plays, poems and other works of art.

As Ian Patterson writes in his book, Guernica and Total War:
Many attacks since then, including the ones we have grown used to seeing in Iraq and the Middle East in recent years, have been on such a scale that Guernica's fate seems almost insignificant by comparison. But it's almost impossible to overestimate the outrage it caused in 1937 ... Accounts of the bombing were widely printed in the American press, and provoked a great deal of anger and indignation in most quarters ...
Those last two tag-on paragraphs in the Parker and Rasheed Los Angeles Times piece tell us much about the intervening 71 years, which included the German bombing of Rotterdam and the blitz of London as well as other English cities; the Japanese bombings of Shanghai and other Chinese cities; the Allied fire-bombing of German and Japanese cities; the US atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Cold War-era of mutually assured destruction in which two superpowers threatened to use the ultimate in airborne explosives to incinerate the planet; the massive, years-long US bombing campaigns against North Korea and later North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; the American air power "victories" of the first Gulf War and Afghanistan (2001); and the Bush administration's shock-and-awe, air-and-cruise-missile assault on Baghdad in March 2003. The latter, though meant to "decapitate" the regime of Saddam Hussein, killed not a single Iraqi governmental or Ba'ath party figure, only Iraqi civilians. In those seven decades, the death toll and damage caused by war - on the ground and from the air - has increasingly been delivered to civilian populations, while the United States has come to rely on its air force to impose its will in war.

Forty-five thousand kilograms of explosives delivered from the air is now, historically speaking, a relatively modest figure. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, 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 it was a figure that, as again last week, the military was proud to publicize without fear of international outrage or the possibility that "barbarism" might come to mind:
From Tuesday afternoon through early Wednesday the air wing flew 69 dedicated strike missions in Basra and in and around Baghdad, involving 27 F/A-18 Hornets and 12 Tomcats. They dropped nearly 100,000 pounds of ordnance, said Lieutenant Brook DeWalt, Kitty Hawk public affairs officer.
As far as we know, there were no reporters, Iraqi or Western, in Arab Jabour when the bombs fell and, Iraq being Iraq, no American reporters rushed there - in person or by satellite phone - to check out the damage. In Iraq and Afghanistan, when it comes to the mainstream media, bombing is generally only significant if it's of the roadside or suicide variety; if, that is, 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 45,000 kilograms of bombs just doesn't have the ring of something that matters.

Some of this, of course, comes from the Pentagon's success in creating a dismissive, sanitizing language in which to frame war from the air. "Collateral damage" stands in for the civilian dead - even though in much of modern war, the collateral damage could be considered the dead soldiers, not the ever-rising percentage of civilian casualties. And death is, of course, delivered "precisely" by "precision-guided" weaponry. All this makes air war seem sterile, even virginal. Army Colonel Terry Ferrell, for instance, described the air assaults in Arab Jabour in this disembodied way at a Baghdad news conference:
The purpose of these particular strikes was to shape the battlefield and take out known threats before our ground troops move in. Our aim was to neutralize any advantage the enemy could claim with the use of IEDs and other weapons.
Reports - often hard to assess for credibility - have nonetheless seeped out of the region indicating that there were civilian casualties, possibly significant numbers of them; that bridges and roads were "cut off" and undoubtedly damaged; that farms and farmlands were damaged or destroyed. According to Hamza Hendawi of the Associated Press, for instance, Iraqi and American troops were said to have advanced into Arab Jabour, already much damaged from years of fighting, 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 a "shock-and-awe" campaign in a tiny rural region was that American troops and allied Iraqi forces had been strangers to the area for a while, and that the air-delivered explosives were meant to damage local infrastructure - by exploding roadside bombs and destroying weapons caches or booby traps inside existing structures.

As that phrase "take out known threats before our ground troops move in" made clear, this was an attempt to minimize casualties among American (and allied Iraqi) troops by bringing massive amounts of firepower to bear 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 likely to be the American way of war in Iraq.

The ABCs of air war in Iraq
So let's focus, for a moment, on American air power in Iraq and gather together a little basic information you're otherwise not likely to find in one place. In these past years, the Pentagon has invested billions of dollars in building up an air-power infrastructure in and around Iraq. As a start, it constructed one of its largest foreign bases anywhere on the planet about 80 kilometers north of Baghdad. Balad Air Base has been described by Newsweek as a "15-square-mile mini-city of thousands of trailers and vehicle depots", whose air fields handle 27,500 takeoffs and landings every month.

Reputedly "second only to London's Heathrow Airport in traffic worldwide", it is said to handle congestion similar to that of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. With about 140,000 tons a year of cargo moving through it, the base is "the busiest aerial port" in the global domains of the Department of Defense.

It is also simply massive, housing about 40,000 military personnel, private contractors of various sorts, and Pentagon civilian employees. It has its own bus routes, fast-food

Continued 1 2 


The state of the (Iraqi) union (Jan 30, '08)

A bitter taste to Iraqi reality (Jan 29, '08)


1. US homes in on militants in Pakistan

2. A China base in Iran?

3. A failure of central banking

4. Indicators signal turn for the worse

5. US plays matchmaker to Pakistan, Israel

6. Shootout echoes across Pakistan

7. Race for sanctions on Iran speeds up

8. Straight to McCain's blind spot
9. Fed helpless in its own crisis

10. India smashes $1bn sports boundary

11. Taliban find fertile new ground

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Jan 30, 2008)

 
 



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