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Lying to Ourselves About the Air War


Most US citizens have never been subjected to an air raid. They have never heard the roar of planes flying high above them while an air raid siren wails, its whine competing with the planes’ roar and piercing the audio centers of the brain making sequential thought difficult if not impossible. Nor have they heard the sound of bombs—canisters filled with high explosives and fire—whistling as they fall through the air toward their targets on the ground. Nor have most US citizens ever sat in a bomb shelter wondering if their homes will survive the aerial assault they are hoping to survive themselves. The fear one feels is unmistakable. Indeed, it is probably quite similar to the fear a combatant feels in the heat of battle. There is no certainty as to one’s survival until the bombs have stopped falling and the siren’s all clear signal sounds. Even then, the possibility of unexploded ordnance remaining on the ground makes that certainty less than guaranteed.

The first week after my tenth birthday I spent every night in a makeshift bomb shelter in my backyard. This was not because of a childhood game of war, but because my family was stationed at a US air station in Peshawar, Pakistan while the Indian and Pakistani militaries battled over the disputed territory of Kashmir. The air station was never the target of either of the warring militaries, yet its location close to the city of Peshawar and the airport the US Air Force shared with its Pakistani counterpart placed the fenced-in outpost at risk. The bomb shelter itself was nothing more than a twenty-feet long U-shaped trench about five feet deep and four feet wide. This hole was covered with one-inch thick plywood which was then covered with dirt removed during the digging. US servicemen had dug similar trenches in every other backyard on the base, with neighbors instructed to share the shelters. In addition, they had painted every window in every building black so no light would seep into the dark Pakistani nights and provide a potential target to uncertain Indian Air Force bombardiers.

Having been well-versed in the imperial mythology of 1960s USA, I believed with utmost certainty that no nation would dare attack the little air station I lived on. However, this knowledge did not mean my family spent those nights in the bomb shelter without fear. Although our parents did their best to hide it from us children, we understood that an errant bomb or a stray piece of shrapnel from the antiaircraft guns spewing fire not five miles away could hit our home or the trench we were hiding in. So, even though I was trying to put on a brave front for my younger siblings, my daily ration of adrenaline was more than spent by the time the bombs stopped falling and the air raid all clear siren sounded every morning just before dawn. Needless to say, not only did I get very little sleep that week, I also joined in my father’s prayers more than usual.

Air warfare is the preferred method of warfare for powerful nations. It would be the preferred method for less powerful forces as well if they could afford the machinery required. Indeed, if the national liberation forces in Vietnam had the wherewithal, it is fair to assume they would have utilized military aircraft. The same can be said for Palestinian freedom fighters and numerous other such forces. Even among those militaries that possess this weaponry, there is a stark contrast between those who are well-armed and every other force. One need look no further than the United States and Israeli Air Forces to see the difference a top notch air force can make in any military confrontation, especially those that are poorly matched to begin with (Israel vs Gaza, US vs. Iraq, to name two obvious examples.) At the same time, a war fought from the air has its military limitations. One major limitation is that air power can only destroy territory, it cannot hold it. Also, if the bombing is strategic in nature, its intention, as developed over the years since the inception of the concept by Italian general Giulio Douhet, is to demoralize the enemy by terrorizing the civilian population. History provides numerous clues that this terrorization does not weaken a population’s resolve, but strengthens it. If the bombing is tactical in nature, then its intention is to provide air support for forces on the ground. However, as numerous incidents in Washington’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven, the tactical approach can lead to “mistakes” resulting in civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian facilities. I remain skeptical that these “mistakes” are errors, but are in reality part of the strategy and represent a nexus where both strategic and tactical approaches combine.

As the US air campaign against various forces (Islamic State, Al Qaeda, etc.) located in Syria and Iraq widens, the number of civilian casualties will increase. Pentagon spokespeople and their civilian counterparts will express regret while the generals intensify their war, thereby insuring even more civilian casualties. These facts are not stated to diminish the alleged threat the forces being attacked represent. However, they are being presented because growing numbers of civilian casualties will only validate the claims IS and others make that Washington does not care about civilians, especially Muslim ones. From my understanding of US history and the nature of the US’s use of air warfare, those claims come across not just as reasonable but factually verifiable. From World War Two to the second war on Iraq, the US military has used its airpower to kill, maim, and just plain terrorize the civilian populations of those peoples it considered the enemy. The casualty figures from these wars support this claim, as do the thousands of photos and miles of film and video footage taken by those chronicling the conflicts.

I began this piece with the observation that a relatively small number of US citizens had ever been involved in any way in an air raid. Perhaps this is why their response to assaults on faraway peoples by US air power is so dispassionate. After all, the media perpetuates the Pentagon myth that these attacks are surgical and virtually antiseptic in nature; that only bad guys and their buildings get destroyed. The population accepts these lies, thereby purging their consciences of any guilt. The pretense continues.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at:

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