The Dartmouth Observer
Monday, January 16, 2006
How Domestic Pressures Against the Iraq War Will Cause Mass Killing
War is a messy business in which civilians will die. However, modern technology has given soldiers a much greater control over the physical effect of the weapons of war. This control, with sufficient planning and supplies, greatly reduces the unintentional casualties of war (collateral damage) and allows modern industrialized nations to wage war while upholding the principle of distinction.
Notice that I mentioned planning and supplies, suggesting that a war waged either on the cheap, or without popular political backing, reduces the ability of soldiers to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and increases the amount of civilian deaths during times of war.
Political pressures on the Bush administration have caused it to 1) make a strong case for the war to keep some public support and 2) begin talk of "drawing down" troop levels in Iraq. These troops generally refer to infantry and armor divisions of the Army, who's main task right now is to kill insurgents, capture territory from hostile elites, remain in control of that territory, and provide welfare and infrastructure for the population. The infantry divisions are aided by air support; air power, based primarily on aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean, allows the armed forces to project military power more quickly in ways that limit American casualties and to provide intelligence on the movements of enemies.
As the troop levels reduce, Washington will project military power through its air war to the detriment of the lives of civilians. Seymour Hersh, writing for the New Yorker, suggests: "A key element of the draw down plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American air power. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units. The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn, the over-all level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what."
The basic problem is simple: the Administration needs to continue prosecuting the war vigorously while reducing troops. The Clinton and Nixon administration provide models for warfare with lower American casualties: Kosovo and Cambodia, both of which relied heavily on air power to do the dirty work. No one doubts the President's resolve to bring "freedom" to the Iraqis; Bush, however, must do something about the mounting casualties, the overstretched armies, and the perceived global overreach of his Administration. Hersh observes:
“We’re [the Administration] not planning to diminish the war,” Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me. Clawson’s views often mirror the thinking of the men and women around Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “We just want to change the mix of the forces doing the fighting—Iraqi infantry with American support and greater use of airpower. The rule now is to commit Iraqi forces into combat only in places where they are sure to win. The pace of commitment, and withdrawal, depends on their success in the battlefield.”
Moving to an air war further conflates political and military objectives in target selection. With Americans picking the targets, the politics of the situation demands selecting targets who seem to be insurgents and whose removal does not unduly cause civilian casualties or ruptures in relations with civilians leaders. If American ground forces become secondary to Iraqi forces, and the Iraqi military leaders are selecting the targets, these choices occur with the context of a highly contested civil war. "Air Force commanders, in particular, have deep-seated objections to the possibility that Iraqis eventually will be responsible for target selection. “Will the Iraqis call in air strikes in order to snuff rivals, or other warlords, or to snuff members of your own sect and blame someone else?” another senior military planner now on assignment in the Pentagon asked. “Will some Iraqis be targeting on behalf of Al Qaeda, or the insurgency, or the Iranians?”"
The shift to air warfare from ground warfare is even more frightening when considering how under-reported the air war is.
The American air war inside Iraq today is perhaps the most significant—and under-reported—aspect of the fight against the insurgency. The military authorities in Baghdad and Washington do not provide the press with a daily accounting of missions that Air Force, Navy, and Marine units fly or of the tonnage they drop, as was routinely done during the Vietnam War. One insight into the scope of the bombing in Iraq was supplied by the Marine Corps during the height of the siege of Falluja in the fall of 2004. “With a massive Marine air and ground offensive under way,” a Marine press release said, “Marine close air support continues to put high-tech steel on target. . . . Flying missions day and night for weeks, the fixed wing aircraft of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing are ensuring battlefield success on the front line.” Since the beginning of the war, the press release said, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing alone had dropped more than five hundred thousand tons of ordnance. “This number is likely to be much higher by the end of operations,” Major Mike Sexton said. In the battle for the city, more than seven hundred Americans were killed or wounded; U.S. officials did not release estimates of civilian dead, but press reports at the time told of women and children killed in the bombardments.
Michael Schwartz adds:
One of the true scandals of media coverage of the war in Iraq has been the simple fact that you -- relatively small numbers of you anyway -- had to visit Tomdispatch.com, or Juan Cole's invaluable Informed Comment blog, or Antiwar.com, or other Internet sites to find out anything about the fierce (if limited) ongoing air war in that country. The American media's record on coverage of the air campaign against the Iraqi insurgency since Baghdad was taken in early April 2003 has been dismal in the extreme. Our military has regularly loosed its planes in "targeted" attacks on guerrillas in Iraq's heavily populated urban areas (where much of the fighting has taken place), sometimes, as in largely Shiite Najaf and largely Sunni Falluja in 2004, destroying whole sections of major cities, in part from the air. Despite this, American reporters in Iraq have essentially refused to look up, or even to acknowledge the planes, predator drones, and low-flying helicopters passing daily overhead.
Air power, without a ground presence doing a Jenin-style door to door search, harms American efforts to win over the population and causes more civilian death. Reporter Dahr Jamial, in an article entitled "Living Under the Bombs" wrote:
One of the least reported aspects of the U.S. occupation of Iraq is the oftentimes indiscriminate use of air power by the American military. The Western mainstream media has generally failed to attend to the F-16 warplanes dropping their payloads of 500, 1,000, and 2,000-pound bombs on Iraqi cities -– or to the results of these attacks. While some of the bombs and missiles fall on resistance fighters, the majority of the casualties are civilian –- mothers, children, the elderly, and other unarmed civilians.
The sheer power of the bombs and the destruction left in their wake not only destroys homes, livelihoods, and neighborhoods, but also incentivizes mass refugee flows within the country from civilians fleeing war zones. Refugees are just accidents waiting to happen if the experiences in central African and Palestine have any merit. Dahar Jamil returns to the subject of the civilian cost of bombing in "An Increasingly Aerial Occupation". Hersh records the random and arbitrary nature of this terror:
The insurgency operates mainly in crowded urban areas, and Air Force warplanes rely on sophisticated, laser-guided bombs to avoid civilian casualties. These bombs home in on targets that must be “painted,” or illuminated, by laser beams directed by ground units. “The pilot doesn’t identify the target as seen in the pre-brief”—the instructions provided before takeoff—a former high-level intelligence official told me. “The guy with the laser is the targeteer. Not the pilot. Often you get a ‘hot-read’ ”—from a military unit on the ground—“and you drop your bombs with no communication with the guys on the ground. You don’t want to break radio silence. The people on the ground are calling in targets that the pilots can’t verify.” He added, “And we’re going to turn this process over to the Iraqis?”
Protesters against the war advance three main arguments in their opposition to the war: (a) too many Americans are dying, (b) too many Iraqis are dying, or (c) we've created a worse mess with intervention that is exacerbated by continued American presence. Drawing down the level of American troops and relying more on Iraqi security forces solves the first problem at the expense of the second. America's reliance on airpower, in this war and many of the wars it has fought in the past, is not a form of strength and superiority when unaccompanied by land forces; rather, it is a tacit concession that our grand strategy has exceeded our political will. The civilians in the war zone suffer as a result.