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Beyond the Rhetoric of Withdrawal: Our Unknown Air War Over Iraq

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August 23, 2007

A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower.

….

The American air war inside Iraq is perhaps the most significant – and underreported – aspect of the fight against the insurgency.

-– Seymour M. Hersh, “Up in the Air,” Nov. 29, 2005, New Yorker

There’s an air war over Iraq. It’s invisible (here). It’s deadly (there).

The Iraq air war may be the longest such war in history. In one way or another it has been undermining Iraq’s sovereignty, destroying its infrastructure, and killing and maiming Iraqis for some 16 years.

Despite global pressure to withdraw, Bush Inc. – and indeed the broader US power structure – has no intention of giving up Iraq. The potential oil bonanza is too huge. And Iran – with its oil bonanza – is next door.

That air war is intensifying. The US dropped five times as many bombs in Iraq during the first six months of 2007 as it did in the first half of 2006. 1

“When the troops are cut, we’ll still be bombing the hell out of the place.” 2

Terror from the Sky

The high tech mayhem of the First Gulf War and that of the 2003 “Shock and Awe” air attack got plenty of media play. Although bloody and intensely dramatic, these were fleeting episodes.

Since the beginning of the US occupation the media has largely ignored the airborne terror visited on Iraq. Besides “boots on the ground” stories, our corporate media feeds us a daily diet of horror. It features ghastly suicide bombings and the havoc of roadside explosive devices. It pumps us full of the atrocities others commit. The balance is wildly askew.

Because most US journalists in Iraq are embedded, they cover the war from the perspective of the US soldiers they accompany.

“Embeds” seldom accompany chopper or fixed-wing pilots and never accompany unmanned Predator drones – those robot planes that spew death with no risk to those guiding them from afar. So embeds can tell us little about such operations and their consequences.

As in most warfare in recent decades, most Iraq air war victims are civilians.

According to The Lancet medical journal study of Iraqi casualties, between March 2003 and June 2006 coalition air strikes caused over 78,000 violent deaths in Iraq. Coalition air strikes caused half of all violent deaths of Iraqi children under age 15. 3

The Pentagon cloaks its airborne missions and their ordnance in secrecy. We seldom hear of the terror the invader rains from the sky. We seldom hear about the civilian-shredding cluster bombs or – as in the leveling of Fallujah – the civilian-igniting white phosphorus. Nor do we hear about the toxic and radioactive depleted uranium shells.

A Shameful History

Seymour Hersh’s November 2005 New Yorker article, “Up in the Air,” led to a flurry of progressive Internet commentary trying (with little success) to wake us up. But it was Dr. Les Roberts and his colleagues’ two Lancet studies of Iraqi war casualties that revealed the scale of the air war. 4

This hecatomb isn’t unique in our history. From the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to Korea and South East Asia, to the first Gulf War and now to Iraq – the air war is the “signature” of US war making. 5

Such air war almost by definition is asymmetrical. In Iraq there’s no opposing air force and little or no anti-aircraft artillery. This pattern, this trend, shapes the world. It is the rogue elephant in our living room. Such is the denial, however, that we ignore its rampage.

The air war often targets residences or residential neighborhoods. From these areas the equally ruthless (though infinitely less armed and financed) resistance may or may not have staged an attack, and within them the resistance may or may not be seeking shelter.

Aerial bombardment is heinous and cowardly. Visiting wounded children in Baghdad hospitals in 2003 heightened my awareness of the air war. Those memories reinforce my resolve to live below taxable income: I don’t want to contribute a penny in federal taxes to the war machine – whether it kills and maims on land or from the air.

“Bring Them Home” Isn’t Enough

Recently some of us were doing weekly “outreach” – facing oncoming traffic with anti-war signs during rush hour at a busy Syracuse intersection. A passing driver, enraged at our perfidy, screamed that his son had been killed in Iraq.

I had no chance to explain to him our belief that the best way to support our troops is to bring them home. If the man’s son had never been sent to Iraq, he might well be alive today.

Since March 2003 US soldiers, many involuntarily, have been put through hell. Many US Americans have either empathy or some connection to one or more of those soldiers. So, “bring them home” is an apt message to put out there.

But that slogan is incomplete; it needs augmenting by other messages that raise consciousness and look beyond the eventual withdrawal of most US troops from Iraq. “Bring them home” must be accompanied by other messages that, among other things, expose the air war. Otherwise, when those soldiers seem out of harm’s way, people here may move on to other concerns – leaving the air war as robust and off the radar as ever.

“Bring them home” doesn’t address the criminality of the occupation nor the injustice done to the Iraqi people. It doesn’t begin to address reparations.

Nor does it acknowledge that as US forces downsize, many of the surviving soldiers won’t come home. Some will be kept in Iraq to train the Iraqi military to somehow suppress an extremely capable and committed resistance. Such “Iraqization” of the war recalls the feckless “Vietnamization” of an earlier era.

Reserve Cannon Fodder

With downsizing, many surviving soldiers will be deployed elsewhere in the Middle East. They may be out of harm’s way… temporarily. But they’ll be on stand-by: reserve cannon fodder in the perpetual resource war. Think Afghanistan… or Iran… or Pakistan….

Whether the soldiers are re-deployed in the region or rotate home, the phantom air war won’t go away. Given the current gaggle of candidates, this seems assured regardless of who next occupies the White House.

Here is not the place to review the candidates and their rhetoric. Suffice it to say that Hillary Clinton, a leader in the polls and supposedly part of the opposition, is a hawk.

Like other candidates, Hillary has ties to hawkish Israel. She also – in this most corporate-enriching war of all – has close corporate ties. Not to mention ties to Bill. Recall that it was Bill who presided over eight years of low intensity air war and genocidal sanctions on Iraq.

Enforcing the Empire

Apart from whether any of the candidates would end the war, consider the power structure’s frequently cited alternative strategy. It’s embodied in The Iraq Study Group Report. 6 Published last December, the Report sought to rectify neo-con excesses and strategic blunders.

The Report was compiled by beltway power brokers who fear the Iraq quagmire is breaking the US military machine. They fear the Empire will lose its enforcers.

The Report talks a good game: it calls on Mr. Bush to eventually withdraw most US ground forces. But the Report does not call for US troops to come home.

Rather the soldiers are to be re-deployed nearby. Equally ominous, the Report makes no call whatsoever for US forces to vacate Iraq skies. 7 The Report has gotten away with such an egregious lapse in part because few anti-war activists know it’s a problem. Locally and nationally we have yet to grapple with what the air war means for our work. We have yet to put it on the agenda.

Ed worked in Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness before, during and after “Shock and Awe.” Reach him at edkinane@verizon.net.

Sources

  1. Charles J. Hanley, “Air Force Quietly Building Iraq Presence,” July 14, 2007, Associated Press
  2. Sydney Schanberg, “The Unseen War in Iraq,” Jan. 24, 2006, Village Voice
  3. Nick Turse, “Our Shadowy Iraq Air War,” May 24, 2007, TomPaine.com
  4. Les Roberts, et al, “Mortality Before and After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: Cluster Sample Survey,” Oct. 29, 2004, The Lancet. Sequel: Les Roberts, et al, “Mortality After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross-Sectional Cluster Sample Survey,” Oct. 11, 2006, The Lancet.
  5. Tom Engelhardt, “The Missing Air War in Iraq,” Dec. 15, 2005, TomDispatch.com
  6. James A. Baker, III and Lee H. Hamilton et al, The Iraq Study Group Report: The Way Forward – A New Approach, 2006, Vintage
  7. See Ed Kinane, “Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs: A look at the Iraq Study Group Report,” Feb. 14, 2007 Uruknet.info; also reprinted at vcnv.org.