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Sunday, 13 March 2011

Bombing Civilians: Our Lessons for Gaddafi

I have just finished reading Bombing Civilians: a twentieth-century history, edited by Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young (The New Press, NY 2009). Like most academic anthologies, it is good only in parts: unlike good journalism, academic writing is often flabby and repetitive. But I learnt some new things from it.

For example, I did not know that the UK's Royal Air Force developed its civilian bombing techniques in Iraq in the 1920s and 1930s, nor that this is where Arthur "Bomber" Harris - the architect of RAF raids on Hamburg and Dresden - developed his enthusiasm and his skills. Here is an extract from one of his 1924 reports:

"They [ the Arabs and the Kurds] now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage: they now know that within 45 minutes a full sized village, vide attached photos of Kushan-Al-Ajaza, can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape, and little chance of retaliation or loot such as an infantry column would afford them in producing a similar result" [ quoted from Tanaka and Young, page 21]

These views were not immediately endorsed either by all politicians or all members of the RAF: Air Commodore Lionel Charlton, senior air staff officer in Baghdad, voiced disquiet. He drew attention to the inaccuracy of the bombs being used, the faulty intelligence that led to them being dropped in the wrong places, and the horrific injuries to civilians which resulted. As a result, he was recalled to London, his salary halved and, in 1928, forced to resign from the RAF. (op. cit, pp 23 - 24)

But politicians saw aerial bombing, openly described as a terror technique, as a way to reduce military casualties almost to zero - they had killed a whole generation of young men in World War One, and killing uncivilised tribes people would play better with electorates.

Over the next eighty years, the UK and then the US perfected the technology and techniques of bombing civilians from a a great height - first Germany, then Japan, then Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and most recently Iraq and Afghanistan. The technology has achieved such perfection that Colin Powell could talk of "shock and awe" - a phrase which simply substituted for the older word "terror".

If Colonel Gaddafi now uses aerial attacks to quash a popular revolt, he will be following in the footsteps of the British in 1920s Iraq. And he will be using forces trained and equipped by the UK and several other countries now holding up their hands. His terror will be real, their horror unfortunately not.


Added 24 July 2018: This Blog post is developed in the chapter "War and Terror" of my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

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