Bill Moyers Journal / PBS – 2009-02-01 22:45:23
(January 30, 2009) — Once armies began using hot air balloons for surveillance in warfare, it quickly occurred to them to drop “grenades and other harmful objects” on the enemy, observes Yuki Tanaka in her introduction to BOMBING CIVILIANS: A TWENTIETH-CENTURY HISTORY, co-edited with Marilyn Young. Tanaka continues, “The use of airplanes in the early twentieth century led to a drastic change in war strategy: the wide expansion of war zones to include indiscriminate attacks on civilians.”
In 1921, Italian tactician Giulio Douhet advanced a theory of air power that remains influential to this day: air power can win a war without ground forces by bombing an enemy’s heartland. By bringing the war to civilians behind the frontlines, reasoned Douhet, they will cease to support the war effort, both materially and mentally. Without the support of the heartland, their army will be forced to surrender.
Bombing civilians may be distasteful, proponents allow, but it saves more lives in the long run by shortening wars. Since then, nations have employed so-called “strategic bombing” in all the major wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Operating under this paradigm, historians and defense experts portray U.S. Presidents as having to make the tough decision to allow civilian casualties in pursuit of peace — from the fire bombing of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Barack Obama’s recent decision to launch Predator drone strikes in Pakistan. But the problem, as Pierre Sprey and Marilyn Young tell Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL, is that the paradigm is fundamentally flawed. Sprey, a long-time defense industry consultant, recently co-wrote a paper arguing that strategic bombing is an unsound airpower tactic. Sprey argues on the JOURNAL that not only has strategic bombing never hastened the end of a war, it often costs more in lives and money. And, in the case of Afghanistan, Sprey believes bombing helps Taliban interests. Noting that missiles fired by Predator drones are accurate to within thirty feet, Sprey says:
Does it kill the person it’s intended to kill? Not often. And when it does, it usually kills a bunch of other people around. And that, of course, raises the problem that the Predator and the missiles become a recruiting tool for the opposition and — beyond a shadow of a doubt — recruit more opposition than we get rid of by killing the one person at the table that we wanted to kill.
Historian Marilyn Young concurs, and argues that bombing, even when successful, does not win hearts and minds, “I will not be grateful to you for harming someone I don’t like in the course of which you kill my kid.”
First Strikes: Bombing Civilians
Bill Moyers Journal / PBS
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Pierre Sprey says: “Does it kill the person it’s intended to kill? Not often. And when it does, it usually kills a bunch of other people around. And that, of course, raises the problem that the Predator and the missiles become a recruiting tool for the opposition and — beyond a shadow of a doubt — recruit more opposition than we get rid of by killing the one person at the table that we wanted to kill.”
NEW YORK (January 30, 2009) — Bill Moyers sits down with historian Marilyn Young, author of the forthcoming “Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-century History” and former Pentagon official Pierre Sprey, who developed military planes and helped found the military reform movement.
BILL MOYERS: Marilyn, what did you think last weekend when four days into the Obama administration we read those reports of the strikes in Pakistan?
MARILYN YOUNG: My heart sank. It absolutely sank. It had been very high. I had been, like I think the rest of the country, feeling immensely encouraged and inspired by this new administration and by the energy and vigor with which he began. And then comes this piece of old stuff on approach to a complicated question that in comes in the form of a bomb and a bomb in the most dangerous of all places. And, yeah, my heart sank, literally.
BILL MOYERS: Our military, Pierre, says it’s sure that it’s striking militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And that they’re not targeting civilians. Can they be sure? From your experience, can they be sure?
PIERRE SPREY: I’m sure that their purpose is to strike militants. I have no doubt of that whatsoever. But with the weapons they use and with the extremely flawed intelligence they have.
MARILYN YOUNG: Yes.
PIERRE SPREY: I’d be astonished if one in five people they kill or wound is in fact, a militant.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean “flawed intelligence”?
PIERRE SPREY: You can’t tell with a camera or an infrared sensor or something whether somebody’s a Taliban. In the end, you’re relying on either, you know, some form of intercepted communications, which doesn’t point at a person. It just, you know, points at a radio or a cell phone or something like that. Or, most likely, you’re relying on some Afghani of unknown veracity and unknown motivation and who may, may very well be trying to settle a blood feud rather than give you good information.
BILL MOYERS: I don’t understand that because George W. Bush defined this as a war on terror. And I think Obama must be using the same invocation, you know?
PIERRE SPREY: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: This is all part of the war on terror. He said it in his inaugural address.
PIERRE SPREY: Yes, he said that. I was appalled. You talk about our hearts sinking.
PIERRE SPREY: 9/11 was not an act of war.
BILL MOYERS: What was it?
PIERRE SPREY: It was a criminal act. It was a simple.
MARILYN YOUNG: Right.
PIERRE SPREY: Criminal act by a bunch of lunatic fanatic violent people who needed to be tracked down and apprehended and tried exactly as you would with any other lunatic violent person, like we do with our own domestic terrorists, like the guy who bombed the Oklahoma federal building.
BILL MOYERS: Federal building. Right.
PIERRE SPREY: You know? Exactly the same thing we did to him is what we should have launched on a huge basis, of course, on a huge international police basis and not called it.
MARILYN YOUNG: And there would have been totally international support.
PIERRE SPREY: It’s not a war.
MARILYN YOUNG: Right.
PIERRE SPREY: We, by calling it a war, we have glorified al Qaeda. We have glorified the cause of violent radical Islam. All that tiny minority have become heroes. And we made them heroes. We made their propaganda. We made their case for them.
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