In the midst of Israelís bombing of Lebanon, Chris Mathews of MSNBCís Hardball, asked his guest, a defender of Israelís war strategy from the Democratic Party, ĎWhy is Israel bombing Lebanonís civilian infrastructureÖI donít get it.Ē That an obviously agitated Mathews, a very knowledgeable political pundit, even asked the question is indicative of how well the dirty little secret of nearly a century of strategic bombing, now euphemistically tagged "Shock and Awe" has been kept. As one of the family of "bombing nations," Israel, like the US, Russia, Britain, and to a lesser extent other industrial nations, has made air power its weapon of choice in prosecuting war. The strategy is to rain terror from the skies on civilians and the integrated infrastructure they depend on. The goal is to make civilian life so unbearable that they will force the political leadership to sue for peace. The assumption is that civilians, mostly women and children and working class "trash," lack the same will to resist as does the male warrior class. Thus, by "softening up" the civilian population via death and destruction from the air while avoiding loss of life among the militaryís "top guns," victory can be had quickly and "cleanly."
After a century of bombing, the efficacy of this strategy remains unproven. It violates a number of Geneva Conventions that proscribe the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. It is, as its architects acknowledged, a strategy of terrorism. In the post 9/11 climate, one would think that any strategy doing harm to civilians would be denounced as immoral, as conducting a war on terror with a war of terror. Yet, strategic bombing continues to be popular, even moral with military strategists and Western populations. This is primarily due to a labyrinth of rationalizations that has effectively soothed the conscience of the citizens of the bombing nations, allowing aerial bombing and those who propose/participate in it to dodge the terrorism label.
For decades a significant majority of Americans have accepted that aerial bombing, conducted with "smart" indeed "brilliant" precision hi-tech weapons is a "clean" way to prosecute war. For the bombing nationís warrior class, it is clean, especially when as in Iraq 1 and 2, Kosovo, Lebanon 1982/2006, Chechnya, and Afghanistan, the bombers enjoy complete command of the air. But the purposefully hidden reality is that strategic bombing is very dirty for those on the ground. Indeed, as Americans and Europeans are evacuated from Lebanon, this dirty secret is being exposed. Many have expressed severe criticism of Israeli bombing; particularly those who managed to escape the purposeful and intentional destruction of electrical grids, bridges, roads, airports, health facilities, shopping malls, and Beirutís neighborhoods. Yet from political and media venues the rationalizations continue, ringing familiar if not true for many. They start with the language of collateral damage, fog of war, mistakes, accidents, and "stuff" happens, to "its not our intent to kill civilians" or "the civilians were in the wrong place at the wrong time." They include claims that like all immoral enemies Hezbollah uses civilians as shields or Lebanonís civilians, as supporters of Hezbollah, deserve their fate. Behind all these rationales is acceptance that there is a meaningful distinction between bombing to kill civilians (terrorism) and bombing knowing you will kill civilians (war). But for those seeking intellectual honesty and particularly for those being bombed or about to be bombed, this is a distinction without meaning. In fact, if pilots under the direction of a man named Milosovic, Hitler, Castro, or the command of Hamas or Hezbollah were doing what Israeli pilots are doing, this distinction would be obsolete. Indeed, it would quickly be abandoned by those who now hold it so dear.
Israelís strategic bombing of Lebanon is state terrorism and as many Israeli political and military luminaries have openly admitted is consistent with longstanding Israeli policy. Among them is the highly decorated General Mordechai Gur, who said "we make no distinction between civilian and military targets." But Israel is not alone. Strategic bombing is a strategy of terrorism that a vast majority of Americans and a compliant media supported long before 9/11 in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, and Kosovo. It has become even more popular in the post 9/11 revenge bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq despite investigations indicating over hundreds of thousands of "other" civilians have died or been maimed directly or indirectly by the US militaryís "clean" bombing. It is also the central component of the US militaryís proposed exit strategy from Iraq. The idea is to make the now dirty war once again clean by removing American troops from harmís way and supporting Iraqi forces on the ground with bombs (terror) from the sky.
That US political leaders can still invoke the memory of nearly 3,000 9/11 terrorism victims for political gain while hundreds of thousands of "other" innocent civilians die out of sight from US aerial terrorism evidences the continued strength of the rationalization scheme and the place denial and the "fear factor" play in American politics. Most troubling it also gives credence to the power of the racist and jingoist sentiment that "if the victim isnít wrapped in an American flag" it doesnít matter. It is also what the Israel government and Bush Administration are counting on in LebanonÖ again.
Beau Grosscup, is a professor of International Relations at California State University-Chico and author of the forthcoming (September 2006), "Strategic Terror; The Politics and Ethics Of Aerial Bombardment." (Zed Books)