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William Astore: Predatory Dreams

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.


Just who is doing the killing?  That was the question that came up when the U.S. and sometime ally Pakistan got into a war of words over who was responsible for air strikes that killed up to nine people -- including two purported al-Qaeda senior commanders -- in Pakistan's restive tribal belt early last month.  While the strikes were reported as typical American assassinations by drone, three American officials assured the New York Times that they were likely "carried out by the Pakistani military and falsely attributed to the CIA to avoid criticism from the Pakistani public."

The Pakistanis denied that the strikes were theirs and the story created a minor stir without ever being resolved in the media.  Nonetheless, when it comes to Washington's drone wars, this little tiff, with its associated deaths, fits a longstanding pattern of lies, half-truths, and shadowy, hard-to-attribute killings.  In the early days of the CIA's drone war in Pakistan, when that country was run by military strongman Pervez Musharraf, for example, the general provided cover, claiming his armed forces were actually responsible for the CIA's robotic air war. "We thought it would be less damaging if we said we did it rather than the U.S.," one of his aides subsequently told London's Sunday Times.  Only later did the Pakistanis admit the truth. 

On the Arabian peninsula, the same pattern emerged.  After a 2009 U.S. air strike killed 12 civilians, the Yemeni government took responsibility for the carnage.  "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh told then-U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus, according to a classified document leaked by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

Similarly, the New York Times reported that in 2006, according to three current and former intelligence officials, an American drone fired missiles at a jungle camp in the Philippines in an attempt to kill an Indonesian terrorist named Umar Patek.  According to the Times, the strike -- which missed Patek but killed others -- was "reported at the time as a "Philippine military operation.'"  A Filipino military spokesman subsequently denied that the strike ever took place.  Last year, a reported U.S. drone strike in the Philippines was met with similar denials from a U.S. official.

Despite the murkiness of America's drone program and the many disclaimers, disavowals, and outright lies in which it&ssquo;s enwreathed, U.S. officials continue to tout robotic assassination as a cure-all for the country's ills abroad -- a precise, efficient, and above all clean brand of warfare.  In his latest offering, TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore takes on these modern myths by placing drones and the outsized claims made for them within the long, sordid history of air warfare.  Since the dawn of air power early in the last century, supporters have advanced fantasies that, again and again, have failed to pan out (while civilians died in often staggering numbers).  As armed drones become ever more ubiquitous, it's high time that Americans got real about the grim realities of air war, American-styleNick Turse

Drone Warfare is Neither Cheap, Nor Surgical, Nor Decisive
The Ever-Destructive Dreams of Air Power Enthusiasts
By William J. Astore

Today's unmanned aerial vehicles, most famously Predator and Reaper drones, have been celebrated as the culmination of the longtime dreams of airpower enthusiasts, offering the possibility of victory through quick, clean, and selective destruction.  Those drones, so the (very old) story goes, assure the U.S. military of command of the high ground, and so provide the royal road to a speedy and decisive triumph over helpless enemies below.

Fantasies about the certain success of air power in transforming, even ending, war as we know it arose with the plane itself.  But when it comes to killing people from the skies, again and again air power has proven neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive nor in itself triumphant.  Seductive and tenacious as the dreams of air supremacy continue to be, much as they automatically attach themselves to the latest machine to take to the skies, air power has not fundamentally softened the brutal face of war, nor has it made war less dirty or chaotic.

Indeed, by emboldening politicians to seek seemingly low-cost, Olympian solutions to complex human problems -- like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the sky to skewer puny mortals -- it has fostered fantasies of illimitable power emboldened by contempt for human life.  However, just like Zeus's obdurate and rebellious subjects, the mortals on the receiving end of death from on high have shown surprising strength in frustrating the designs of the air power gods, whether past or present. Yet the Olympian fantasy persists, a fact that requires explanation.

The Rise of Air Power

It did not take long after the Wright Brothers first put a machine in the air for a few exhilarating moments above the sandy beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903, for the militaries of industrialized countries to express interest in buying and testing airplanes.  Previously balloons had been used for reconnaissance, as in the Napoleonic wars and the U.S. Civil War, and so initially fledgling air branches focused on surveillance and intelligence-gathering.  As early as 1911, however, Italian aircraft began dropping small bombs from open-air cockpits on the enemy -- we might today call them "insurgents" -- in Libya.

World War I encouraged the development of specialized aircraft, most famously the dancing bi- and tri-winged fighter planes of the dashing "knights of the air," as well as the more ponderous, but for the future far more important, bombers.   By the close of World War I in 1918, each side had developed multi-engine bombers like the German Gotha, which superseded the more vulnerable zeppelins.  Their mission was to fly over the trenches where the opposing armies were stalemated and take the war to the enemy's homeland, striking fear in his heart and compelling him to surrender.  Fortunately for civilians a century ago, those bombers were too few in number, and their payloads too limited, to inflict widespread destruction, although German air attacks on England in 1917 did spread confusion and, in a few cases, panic.

Pondering the hecatombs of dead from trench warfare, air power enthusiasts of the 1920s and 1930s not surprisingly argued strongly, and sometimes insubordinately, for the decisive importance of bombing campaigns launched by independent air forces.  A leading enthusiast was Italy's Giulio Douhet.  In his 1921 work Il dominio dell'aria (Command of the Air), he argued that in future wars strategic bombing attacks by heavily armed "battle-planes" (bombers) would produce rapid and decisive victories.  Driven by a fascist-inspired logic of victory through preemptive attack, Douhet called for all-out air strikes to destroy the enemy's air force and its bases, followed by hammer blows against industry and civilians using high-explosive, incendiary, and poison-gas bombs.  Such blows, he predicted, would produce psychological uproar and social chaos ("shock and awe," in modern parlance), fatally weakening the enemy's will to resist.

As treacherous and immoral as his ideas may sound, Douhet's intent was to shorten wars and lessen casualties -- at least for his side.  Better to subdue the enemy by pressing hard on select pressure points (even if the "pressing" was via high explosives and poison gas, and the "points" included concentrations of innocent civilians), rather than forcing your own army to bog down in bloody, protracted land wars.

That air power was inherently offensive and uniquely efficacious in winning cheap victories was a conclusion that found a receptive audience in Great Britain and the United States.  In England, Hugh Trenchard, founding father of the Royal Air Force (RAF), embraced strategic bombing as the most direct way to degrade the enemy's will; he boldly asserted that "the moral effect of bombing stands undoubtedly to the material effect in a proportion of twenty to one."

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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, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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