The human imagination is quicker off the mark than any six-gun, bomb, or JDAM missile. Long before humans made it into airplanes, whole cities were being destroyed from the air -- in an avalanche of popular fiction. By the late 19th century London had gone down in flames more than once and New York soon would follow; genocidal wars from the air were repeatedly imagined and described in which whole nations, whole races, were wiped out. In 1913, over three decades before the first atomic bomb was dropped, HG Wells had already imagined and named "atomic weapons" in The World Set Free, his novel about a 1950s atomic air war.
When it came to fantasies and fears of destruction we knew no bounds. As the scholar Stephen Weart has written in Nuclear Fear, A History of Images:
"Right from the start [the] new idea of atomic weapons was linked to an even more impressive idea: the end of the world. When [scientist Frederick] Soddy first told the public about atomic energy, in May 1903, he said that our planet is ‘a storehouse stuffed with explosives, inconceivably more powerful than any we know of, and possibly only awaiting a suitable detonator to cause the earth to revert to chaos.' This was an entirely new idea: that it might be technically possible for someone to destroy the world deliberately. Yet the idea slipped into the public mind with suspicious ease… For example, in 1903 the irrepressible Gustave Le Bon got into newspaper Sunday supplements in various countries by imagining a radioactive device that could ‘blow up the whole earth' at the touch of a button.'"
In fact, for almost half a century before 1945, such weapons were the property only of science fiction. Michael Sherry in his magisterial (if highly detailed) history, The Rise of American Air Power, offers this comment on the machine that delivered the first of those atomic devices of our imagination to a real city, "More than any other modern weapon, the bomber was imagined before it was invented." Should we be amazed or horrified, proud or ashamed to have so actively imagined a century or more of future horrors of our own making? The imagination worked so quickly, but at least as miraculous was how quickly the inventors and the scientists followed.
I doubt that any invention other than the airplane has so combined the wonder of creation, of the defiance of obvious human limits, and of destruction so intimately and for so long; so long, in fact -- at least to judge from the non-coverage of the air war the Bush administration has unleashed in "postwar" Iraq against heavily populated urban centers -- that we (or our reporters) have evidently simply become inured to the very idea of it. Now, it seems, the wonder and even the horror of air power is largely gone, but the inventions, the destruction, and the carnage remain.
The odd thing is this: No sooner had we human beings risen above the earth in powered flight -- think Icarus -- than we expressed the wonder of that event by dropping bombs from the planes that took us into the heavens. After that, it was just a straight line up (or do I mean down?) for the next near century.
Look at it this way: the Wright Brothers' "whopper flying machine" leaves the beach at Kitty Hawk for the first time on December 17, 1903. That initial flight lasts all of twelve seconds before the plane hits the sand 120 feet away. Later the same day, the plane flies 859 feet in 59 seconds before, on a final flight, it totals itself and is no more. Only five years later, the Wright brothers are demonstrating their new invention in the skies over Washington for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. By 1911, two years short of a decade after its invention, the plane is wedded to the bomb. According to Sven Lindqvist's (irritatingly organized but fascinating) labyrinth of a book, A History of Bombing, one Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti "leaned out of his delicate monoplane and dropped the bomb -- a Danish Haasen hand grenade -- on the North African oasis Tagiura, near Tripoli. Several moments later, he attacked the oasis Ain Zara. Four bombs in total, each weighing two kilos, were dropped during this first air attack."
On the "natives" in the colonies, naturally enough. What better place to test a new weapon? And that first attack, as perhaps befits our temperaments, was, Lindqvist tells us, for revenge, a kind of collective punishment called down upon Arabs who had successfully resisted the advanced rationality (and occupying spirit) of the Italian army. Given where we've ended up, it would be perfectly reasonable to consider this moment the beginning of modern history, even of modernism itself.
A generation, no more, from Kitty Hawk to 1,000-bomber raids over Germany. Another from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to "shock and awe" in Iraq. No more than a blink of history's unseeing eye. Between 1911 and the end of the last bloody century, villages, towns and cities across the Earth were destroyed in copious numbers in part or in full by bombs. Their names could make up a modern chant: Chechaouen, Guernica, Shanghai, London, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Damascus, Pyongyang, Haiphong, Grozny, Baghdad, and now Falluja among too many other places to name (and don't even get me started on the bomb-ravaged colonial countryside of our planet from Kenya to Malaya). Millions and millions of tons of bombs dropped; millions and millions of dead, mostly, of course, civilians.
And from the Japanese and German cities of World War II to the devastated Korean peninsula of the early 1950s, from the ravaged southern Vietnamese countryside of the late 1960s to the "highway of death" on which much of a fleeing Iraqi army was destroyed in the first Gulf War of 1991, air power has been America's signature way of war.
Think of it this way: Imagine the history of the development of the plane and of bombing as, in shape, a giant, extremely top-heavy diamond. In 1903, one fragile plane flies 120 feet. In 1911, another only slightly less fragile plane, still seeming to defy some primordial law, drops a bomb. In 1945, vast air armadas take off to devastate chosen German and Japanese cities. On August 6, 1945, all the power of those armadas are compacted into the belly of the Enola Gay, a lone B-29, which drops its single bomb on Hiroshima, destroying the city and so many of its inhabitants. And then just imagine that the man who commanded the U.S. Army Air Forces, both the armadas and the Enola Gay, General Henry "Hap" Arnold (according Robin Neillands in The Bomber War, The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany), "had been taught to fly by none other than Orville Wright, one of the two men credited with inventing the first viable airplane." Barely more than a generation took us from those 120 feet at Kitty Hawk past thousand-plane bomber fleets to the Enola Gay and the destruction of one city from the air by one bomb. Imagine that.
Then imagine that both civilian plane flight and the killing of enormous numbers of civilians from the air (now subsumed in the term "collateral damage") have over that not-quite-century become completely normal parts of our lives. Too normal, it seems, to spend a lot of time thinking about or even writing fiction about. When we get on a plane today, what do we do --close the window shade and watch a movie on a tiny TV screen or, on certain flights, TV itself in real time as if we were still in our living rooms. So much for either shock or awe. Today, American planes regularly bomb the distant cities of Iraq and no one even seems to notice. No one, not even reporters on the spot, bothers to comment. No one writes a significant word about it. Should we be amazed or horrified, proud or ashamed?
"Hotels had crumbled into the street"
With that in mind, here's the thing in Iraq -- and I'm not sure you can even call it strange: American reporters can now be found embedded with tank or Bradley Fighting Vehicle units. ("Captain Paul Fowler sat on the curb next to a deserted gas station," writes Anne Barnard of the Boston Globe. "Behind him, smoke rose over Fallujah. His company of tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles had roamed the eastern third of the city [Falluja] for 13 days, shooting holes in every building that might pose a threat, leaving behind a landscape of half-collapsed houses and factories singed with soot. ‘'I really hate that it had to be destroyed. But that was the only way to root these guys out,' said Fowler, 33, the son of a Baptist preacher in North Carolina. ‘The only way to root them out is to destroy everything in your path.'") American reporters can climb aboard Surcs (Small Unit Riverine Craft), high-tech Swift Boat equivalents, as John Burns of the New York Times did recently, to "roar up the Euphrates on a dawn raid." They can follow U.S. patrols as they bust down Iraqi doors looking for insurgents. They can even describe the perilous, missile-avoiding "corkscrew" landings their planes make as they are first delivered to Baghdad International Airport and the IED and suicide car-bomber strewn roadway in from the airport. The only thing they evidently don't do once they get to Iraq -- and I base this solely on the reporting of the war that comes back to us -- is look up. The Iraqi air seems to be filled with all kinds of jets, fearsome AC-130 Spectre gunships, Hellfire-Missile-armed Predator drones, and ubiquitous Apache, Cobra, Lynx, and Puma helicopters that -- now that the highways are so perilous -- are the preferred method of military transport and that seem to hover endlessly over potential urban battlefields.
The Old City of Najaf that abuts the holy Shrine of Imam Ali was largely destroyed in August, partially from the air in the midst of bitter fighting between American troops and relatively lightly armed, ill-trained but tenacious young Shiite men loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. ("Few in the shrine could sleep through the ominous rumble of American AC-130 Specter gunships, capable of firing 1,800 bullets per minute. When the bombs fell closer than ever, hundreds rose to march and chant in the courtyard, saying they hoped their voices boosted the morale of the Mahdi Army.") In one of our last acts before a cease fire was declared, according to Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, we used "a 2,000-pound, laser-guided bomb to strike a hotel about 130 yards away from the shrine's southwest wall, in an area known to American commanders as ‘motel row…' [R]eports indicated the hotel was a redoubt for al-Sadr fighters… The official said the strike had been ‘100 per cent successful,' demolishing the hotel."
Filkins later described the post-truce moment this way: "[The rebels] stood in a scene of devastation. Hotels had crumbled into the street. Cars were blackened and twisted where they had been hit. Goats and donkeys lay dead on the sidewalks. Pilgrims from out of town and locals coming from home walked the streets agape, shaking their heads, stunned by the devastation before them."
Similarly, much of the city of Falluja has just been devastated in fighting in which American fire power of every sort was called in. The razing of that city began with weeks of "targeted" air attacks on what were termed insurgent "safe havens." Falluja is now a wasteland and, while fantasies about its reconstruction abound, the fighting only continues. (At least 20 U.S. troops have died there, to almost no press attention, since the city was declared secure and the operation deemed a "success.") Falluja remains cordoned off; up to 250,000 Fallujan refugees are still unable to return; and American military strategists, who over the months since the first failed Marine attempt to take the city in April planned its eventual destruction, are now evidently planning to "ask" the "head of every household" (read: males) "to wear an identification badge" once back in the city.
But if the Old City of Najaf (evidently still largely unreconstructed) and the whole city of Falluja are now memorials to American fire power and an American willingness to call down retribution from the skies, air power has been used far more widely across much of heavily populated urban Iraq without any press comment whatsoever, on or off editorial pages. Let me offer just a few examples from many to give a sense of the range of Iraqi cities hit from the air in recent months:
Baqubah: "Some 30 insurgents were stationed in buildings near the stadium in eastern Baqubah, apparently to obstruct US forces from reaching downtown. Rather than clear the buildings -- two vacant schools and a swimming pool -- Colonel Pittard decided to demolish them with four 500-lb. bombs" (the Christian Science Monitor, July 21)
Tall Afar: "Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, also known as the Stryker Brigade, launched a fierce attack on Tall Afar on Thursday… The fighting, which included three airstrikes involving AC-130 gunships and F-16 fighter jets, killed 67 insurgents, according to the U.S. military." (the Washington Post, Sept. 12)
Sadr City, Baghdad: "Hospital officials in Sadr City, a vast slum in northeast Baghdad that is overwhelmingly hostile to the American occupation, said one person had been killed in an overnight airstrike by the Americans. For weeks, the military has been deploying an AC-130 gunship and fighter jets over the area to try to rout the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the firebrand Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr." (the New York Times, Oct. 6)
Kut: "A U.S. helicopter struck Sadr's office in Kut, killing two people..." (the Washington Post, April 9)
Samarra: "By U.S. military estimates, about 125 rebels were killed and more than 80 captured. Most of the deaths occurred early Friday in the first hours of the strike, when U.S. helicopter gunships blasted suspected rebel positions with rocket fire." (the Los Angeles Times, October 4 [scroll down])
Mosul: "A semblance of calm has returned to Mosul after U.S. forces carried out air strikes on insurgents, but residents say Iraq's third largest city remains tense and Iraqi police are nowhere to be seen. U.S. war planes struck rebel areas in the southwest of the city late on Thursday after two days of widespread violence in which groups of insurgents rampaged, burning police stations, stealing weapons and tipping the city towards chaos." (Reuters, Nov. 12)
Karbala: "American AC-130 gunships and tanks battled militiamen near shrines in this Shiite holy city Friday." (the Associated Press, May 21)
Falluja: "Highly accurate, 500-pound bombs called JDAMs -- Joint Direct Attack Munition -- were dropped on suspected insurgent hideouts overnight in the southern sector of the city, military sources said. The U.S. Air Force also used AC-130 Spectre gunships, armed with 105 mm cannons and 40 mm guns, to blast remaining insurgent pockets." (CNN, Nov. 16)
Hiyt: "...near the town of Hiyt...[a]ir strikes were called in on the mosque position. The mosque is partially damaged and is currently on fire…" (Aljazeera, Oct. 12)
Baghdad Airport (and elsewhere): "US forces struck at targets near Baghdad airport on Friday evening while attack helicopters and F-16 fighter jets carried out raids elsewhere in Iraq in operations against resistance fighters... Earlier, a US helicopter gunship killed seven people allegedly preparing to launch rocket attacks on an American military base in Iraq." (Aljazeera, Nov. 16)
Towns south of Baghdad: "More than 5000 men supported by Cobra helicopters, F-18 hornets and F-16s, will launch raids in and around the so-called Triangle of Death south of Baghdad." (the Scotsman, Nov. 24)
This far-from-exhaustive list is taken from the summary press reports on the war that appear almost daily. Normally, only a few lines, as above, are devoted to the air war against urban areas which is, by the nature of the situation, a war of terror. Such anodyne reports represent the bare minimum the military offers journalists in Iraq on the subject. I have yet to see any cumulative figures on air strikes in Iraq per day, week, or month, maps of the reach of the air war, or more than a few photos of its results; nor, in fact, have I found a single article of any significance on the air war in Iraq itself, discussing military strategy or even the problems Air Force strategists or pilots feel they face, no less what it's like for civilians (or rebels) in most of Iraq's major cities to experience such periodic attacks, or what kinds of casualties result (or who the casualties actually are), or what, if any, may be the limitations on the use of air power, or what its effects on the insurgency seem to be, or, in fact, anything on any aspect of the regular bombing, missiling, or strafing of city neighborhoods.
Here is a response by the Marine Commander in Falluja, Lieutenant General John Sattler, to a question at a November 18th briefing by a New York Times reporter on the fighting in Falluja:
"GEN. SATTLER: Yeah. Approximately four days ago we were averaging somewhere along 50 precision -- and I stress the word "precision" -- about 50 precision airstrikes a day… Today we had three air strikes -- three precision-guided munition air strikes today."
That's about the size of what we know. To the extent that we know anything about the loosing of air power on heavily populated urban areas, we only know what an uninquisitive press has been told by the military and stenographically recorded, which means we know remarkably little. Here, however, is the impression of the BBC's Stuart Richie, just a week ago on our air campaign in northern Iraq:
"I found an empty camp bed, but sleep was virtually impossible -- troops moving in and out all night by helicopter and Hercules planes. Fighter planes also seemed to be on the go all through the night, this time on sorties to Mosul, I believe."
Fighter planes "on the go all through the night"? Is this not worth a single newspaper or magazine article?
Icarus (Armed with Vipers) Over Iraq
Given the history of twentieth century war, which is, in many ways, simply the history of bombing cities, should our "war reporters" not have been prepared for this? Shouldn't anyone have been thinking about the destruction of cities when it's been such a commonplace? Shouldn't major papers have insisted on embedding reporters in Air Force units (if not on the planes themselves)? Shouldn't reporters have visited our air bases and talked to pilots? Does no one remember the magnitude of the air war in Vietnam (or Laos or Cambodia), no less any other major war experience of our lifetimes?
A glance at the history of American war tells us air power is as American as apple pie and that Americans were dreaming of cities destroyed from the air long before anyone had the ability to do so. As H. Bruce Franklin tells us in his book War Stars, The Superweapon and the American Imagination, as early as 1881, a former naval officer, Park Benjamin wrote a short story called "The End of New York" that caused a sensation. In it the city was left in ruins by a Spanish naval bombardment. By 1921, air-power visionary Billy Mitchell was already flying mock sorties over New York and other East coast cities, "pulverizing" them in "raids" sensationalized in the press, to publicize the need for an independent air force. ("The sun rose today on a city whose tallest tower lay scattered in crumbled bits…" began the New York Herald after Mitchell's "raid" on New York City, a line that should still send small shudders through us all and remind us how much the sensational of the previous century has become the accepted of our world.)
It would seem hard to forget that the "invasion" of Iraq began from the air -- as much a demonstration of power meant for viewers around the world as for Saddam Hussein and his followers. Who could forget those cameras strategically placed on the balconies of Baghdad hotels for the shock-and-awe son-et-lumičre show -- dramatic explosions in the night (with everything but a score to go with it). Does no one remember Air Force claims that air power alone could win wars? In all the articles now being written about our overextended ground forces, does no one want to write about how the military is trying to fill the urban gap with air power?
Is there some secret I'm missing here? Not a single article anywhere in the American press, no less on a front page. (About the closest you can get is an exceedingly modest September Associated Press piece by Robert Burns entitled, Air power gains more prominent role in Iraq counterinsurgency efforts.) Doesn't anyone find it strange that, back in 1995, our papers -- from their front pages to their editorial and op-ed pages -- were convulsed by a single contested air-war exhibit being mounted at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the bombing of Hiroshima? A historical argument about the use of air power half a century ago merited such treatment, but the actual -- and potentially hardly less controversial -- use of air power against the cities of Iraq doesn't merit a peep?
I can find but a single press example of an American reporter in the air in this post-war war. Over a year ago, on November 17, 2003, the New York Times' Dexter Filkins wrote Over Baghdad: Wary Targets, Yet Confident ("It is not a good time to be a helicopter pilot in the skies over Iraq"), focusing on the dangers to American pilots in the Iraqi skies. From a passage like the following, one can sense much about the year between then and now in Iraq -- something of a corkscrew downward like that landing at Baghdad International: "[Lt. Col. James Schrote, who commands a fleet of 16 Black Hawks here], a veteran of the ill-fated American venture in Somalia 10 years ago, said the city he flies over today has much to recommend it over the Somali capital, Mogadishu, then without a government and broken up by feuding warlords. ‘Baghdad is much more civilized than that,' he said."
That, as far as I can tell, is it. Now, it's true that any air war is harder to report on than a ground war, especially if reporters aren't allowed in planes or on helicopters (as they are on the river boats and in the Bradleys, for instance). But hardly impossible. Most reporters in Baghdad, after all, have at least been witnesses to air attacks in the capital itself. In one case, an American helicopter even missiled a crowd in a Baghdad street only a few hundred yards from the heavily fortified American heartland, the capital's Green Zone, killing a reporter for al Arabiya satellite network while he was reporting in footage seen only briefly on American TV but repeatedly around in the world.
Life under the helicopters is a story that might be written. At the very least, the subject could be investigated. Airmen could be interviewed. Victims could be found. The literature could be read because, as it happens, Air Force people are thinking carefully about the uses of air power in the Iraqi counterinsurgency war, even if reporters aren't. Journalists could, for instance, read Thomas F. Searle's piece on Making Air Power Effective Against Guerrillas. (If I can find it, they can.) Searle is a military defense analyst with the Airpower Research Institute at Maxwell AF Base in Alabama and he concludes:
"Airpower remains the single greatest asymmetrical advantage the United States has over its foes. However, by focusing on the demands of major combat and ignoring counterguerrilla warfare, we Airmen have marginalized ourselves in the global war on terrorism. To make airpower truly effective against guerrillas in that war, we cannot wait for the joint force commander or the ground component commander to tell us what to do. Rather, we must aggressively develop and employ airpower's counterguerrilla capabilities."
Journalists in Iraq could report on the new airborne weaponry being deployed and tried out there. After all, like other recent American battlefields, Iraq has also doubled as a laboratory for the corporate development and testing of ever more advanced weaponry. A piece, for instance, could be done on the newly armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), the Hunter, being deployed alongside the Predator in Iraq. (The people who name these things have certainly seen too many scifi movies.) In a piece in Defense Daily, a "trade" publication (Ann Roosevelt, "Army Prepares For Armed UAV Operations," November 3), we read:
"The Army in Iraq is poised to start operations using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) armed with a precision weapon, Northrop Grumman's [NOC] Viper Strike munition, a service official said… The Army is arming the Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI)- Northrop Grumman [NOC] Hunter UAV, under an approximately $4 million Quick Reaction Capability contract with Northrop Grumman that will be completed in December, John Miller, Northrop Grumman director of Viper Strike, told Defense Daily… The Hunter can carry two Viper Strike missiles. The Hunter UAV has been used in Iraq "since day one," [Lt. Col. Jeff] Gabbert [program manager Medium Altitude Endurance] said. The precise Viper Strike munition is important because, "it has very low collateral damage, so it's going to be able to be employed in places where you might not use 500-pound bombs or might not use a Hellfire munition, [but] you'll be able to use the Viper Strike munition."
Of course, it would be a reportorial coup if any reporter were to go up in a plane or helicopter and survey the urban damage in Iraq, as Jonathan Schell did from the back seat of a small forward air controller's plane during the Vietnam War. (From this he wrote a report for the New Yorker magazine, "The Military Half," which remains unparalleled in its graphic descriptions of the destruction of the Vietnamese countryside and which can be found collected in his book, The Real War.)
But that's a lot to hope for these days. The complete absence of coverage, however, is a little harder to explain. Along with the vast permanent military base facilities the U.S. has been building in Iraq to the tune of billions of dollars -- hey, we're capable of constructing, if not reconstructing, quite effectively in Iraq when it really matters -- the loosing of air power on Iraq's cities is the great missing story of the postwar war. Is there no reporter out there willing to cover it? Is the repeated bombing, strafing, and missiling of heavily populated civilian urban centers and the partial or total destruction of cities such a humdrum event, after the last century of destruction and threatened destruction, that no one thinks it worth the bother to attend to? Is the Bush administration really to be given another remarkable free ride?
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture among other books.
[Thanks for research help to Nick Turse.]
© 2004 Tom Engelhardt