“Questions to Ask in the Dead of Night”

Another provocative article by Tom Engelhardt.  If ever forced to choose between reading the daily paper (any paper) and TomDispatch, I recommend choosing the latter.  I can add nothing to this, except a wish that all Americans think deeply about this.  Links to additional material are at the end.

Killing Civilians — How Safe Do You Actually Want to Be?
By Tom Engelhardt, posted at TomDispatch, 23 April 2009

Almost like clockwork, the reports float up to us from thousands of miles away, as if from another universe. Every couple of days they seem to arrive from Afghan villages that few Americans will ever see without weapon in hand. Every few days, they appear from a world almost beyond our imagining, and always they concern death — so many lives snuffed out so regularly for more than seven years now. Unfortunately, those news stories are so unimportant in our world that they seldom make it onto, no less off of, the inside pages of our papers. They’re so repetitive that, once you’ve started reading them, you could write them in your sleep from thousands of miles away.

Like obituaries, they follow a simple pattern. Often the news initially arrives buried in summary war reports based on U.S. military (or NATO) announcements of small triumphs — so many “insurgents,” or “terrorists,” or “foreign militants,” or “anti-Afghan forces” killed in an air strike or a raid on a house or a village. And these days, often remarkably quickly, even in the same piece, come the challenges. Some local official or provincial governor or police chief in the area hit insists that those dead “terrorists” or “militants” were actually so many women, children, old men, innocent civilians, members of a wedding party or a funeral.

In response — no less part of this formula — have been the denials issued by American military officials or coalition spokespeople that those killed were anything but insurgents, and the assurances of the accuracy of the intelligence information on which the strike or raid was based. In these years, American spokespeople have generally retreated from their initial claims only step by begrudging step, while doggedly waiting for any hubbub over the killings to die down. If that didn’t happen, an “investigation” would be launched (the investigators being, of course, members of the same military that had done the killing) and then prolonged, clearly in hopes that the investigation would outlast coverage of the “incident” and both would be forgotten in a flood of other events.

Forgotten? It’s true that we forget these killings easily — often we don’t notice them in the first place — since they don’t seem to impinge on our lives. Perhaps that’s one of the benefits of fighting a war on the periphery of empire, halfway across the planet in the backlands of some impoverished country.

One problem, though: the forgetting doesn’t work so well in those backlands. When your child, wife or husband, mother or father is killed, you don’t forget.

Only this week, our media was filled with ceremonies and remembrances centered around the tenth anniversary of the slaughter at Columbine High School. Twelve kids and a teacher blown away in a mad rampage. Who has forgotten? On the other side of the planet, there are weekly Columbines.

Similarly, every December 7th, we Americans still remember the dead of Pearl Harbor, almost seven decades in the past. We still have ceremonies for, and mourn, the dead of September 11, 2001. We haven’t forgotten. We’re not likely to forget. Why, when death rains down on our distant battlefields, should they?

Admittedly, there’s been a change in the assertion/repeated denial/investigation pattern instituted by American forces. Now, assertion and denial are sometimes followed relatively quickly by acknowledgement, apology, and payment. Now, when the irrefutable meets the unchallengeable, American spokespeople tend to own up to it. Yep, we killed them. Yep, they were women and kids. Nope, they had, as far as we know, nothing to do with terrorism. Yep, it was our fault and we’ll pony up for our mistake.

This new tactic is a response to rising Afghan outrage over the repeated killing of civilians in U.S. raids and air strikes. But like the denials and the investigations, this, too, is intended to make everything go away, while our war itself — those missiles loosed, those doors kicked down in the middle of the night — just goes on.

Once again, evidently, everyone is supposed to forget (or perhaps simply forgive). It’s war, after all. People die. Mistakes are made. As for those dead civilians, New York Timesreporter Jane Perlez recently quoteda former Pakistani general on the hundreds of tribespeople killed in the Pakistani borderlands in air strikes by CIA-run drones: they are, he said, “likely hosting Qaeda militants and cannot be deemed entirely innocent.”

Exactly. Who in our world is “entirely innocent” anyway?

Apologies Not Accepted

A UN survey tallied up2,118 civilians killed in Afghanistan in 2008, a significant rise over the previous year’s figure, of which 828 were ascribed to American, NATO, and Afghan Army actions rather than to suicide bombers or Taliban guerrillas. (Given the difficulty of counting the dead in wartime, any figures like these are likely to be undercounts.) There are, in other words, constant “incidents” to choose from.

Recently, for instance, there was an attack by a CIA drone in the Pakistani borderlands that Pakistani sources claim may have killed up to eight civilians; or there were the six civilians, including a three-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy, killedby an American air strike that leveled three houses in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. Sixteen more Afghans, including children as young as one, were wounded in that air attack, based on “multiple intelligence sources” in which, the U.S. military initially claimed, only “enemy fighters” died. (As a recent study of the death-dealing weapons of the Iraq War, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicates, air strikes are notoriously good at taking out civilians. Eighty-five percent of the deaths from air strikes in Iraq were, the study estimated, women and children and, of all methods, including suicide and car bombs, air power “killed the most civilians per event.”)

But let’s consider here just one recent incident that went almost uncovered in the U.S. media. According to an Agence France Presse account, in a raid in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, the U.S. military first reported a small success: four “armed militants” killed.

It took next to no time, however, for those four militants to morph into the family of an Afghan National Army artillery commander named Awal Khan. As it happened, Khan himself was on duty in another province at the time. According to the report, the tally of the slain, some of whom may have gone to the roof of their house to defend themselves against armed men they evidently believed to be robbers or bandits, included: Awal Khan’s “schoolteacher wife, a 17-year-old daughter named Nadia, a 15-year-old son, Aimal, and his brother, who worked for a government department. Another daughter was wounded. After the shooting, the pregnant wife of Khan’s cousin, who lived next door, went outside her home and was shot five times in the abdomen…”

She survived, but her fetus, “hit by bullets,” didn’t. Khan’s wife worked at a school supported by the international aid organization CARE, which issued a statement strongly condemning the raid and demanding “that international military forces operating in Afghanistan [be] held accountable for their actions and avoid all attacks on innocent civilians in the country.”

In accordance with its new policy, the U.S. issued an apology:

“Further inquiries into the Coalition and ANSF operation in Khost earlier today suggest that the people killed and wounded were not enemy combatants as previously reported… Coalition and Afghan forces do not believe that this family was involved with militant activities and that they were defending their home against an unknown threat… ‘We deeply regret the tragic loss of life in this precious family. Words alone cannot begin to express our regret and sympathy and we will ensure the surviving family members are properly cared for,’ said Brig. Gen. Michael A. Ryan, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.”

A U.S. military spokesman added, “There will undoubtedly be some financial assistance and other types of assistance [to the survivors].”

The grieving husband, father, and brother said, “I want the coalition leaders to expose those behind this and punish them.” He added that “the Afghan government should resign if it could not protect its people.” (Don’t hold your breath on either count.) And Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as he has done many times during past incidents, repeatedly demanded an explanation for the deaths and asked that such raids and air strikes be drastically curtailed.

What Your Safety Is Worth

All of this was little more than a shadow play against which the ongoing war continues to be relentlessly prosecuted. In Afghanistan (and increasingly in Pakistan), civilian deaths are inseparable from this war. Though they may be referred to as “collateral damage,” increasingly in all wars, and certainly in counterinsurgency campaigns involving air power, the killing of civilians lies at the heart of the matter, while the killing of soldiers might be thought of as the collateral activity.

Pretending that these “mistakes” will cease or be ameliorated as long as the war is being prosecuted is little short of folly. After all, “mistake” after “mistake” continues to be made. That first Afghan wedding party was obliterated in late December 2001 when an American air strike killed up to 110 Afghan revelers with only two survivors. The fifth one on record was blown awaylast year. And count on it, there will be a sixth.


Maybe it’s time to suck it up and put less value on the idea of absolute American safety, since in many ways the Bush administration definition of our safety and security, which did not go into retirement with George and Dick, is now in the process of breaking us. Looked at reasonably, even if Dick Cheney and his minions prevented another 9/11 (and there’s no evidence he did), in doing so look what he brought down around our ears. What a bad bargain it’s been — and all in the name of our safety, and ours alone.

Ask yourself these questions in the dead of night: Do we really want stories like Awal Khan’s to float up out of the villages of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and who knows where else for the next seven years? Or the next 30 for that matter? Does that seem reasonable? Does that seem right? Is your supposed safety worth that?

[Note of thanks: Jason Ditz of the invaluable website Antiwar.comhas, in almost daily reports, been covering the issue of civilian casualties in the Af-Pak War, among other matters, like a blanket. I’ve leaned on his work heavily and thank him for it. I also continue to rely, as ever, on that eagle-eyed newshound and analyst Juan Cole at his Informed Comment website.]

About the author

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire(Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. To catch a recent audio interview in which he discusses the CIA’s drone war over Pakistan, click here.

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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about the war in Afghanistan:

  1. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008
  2. Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
  3. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008
  4. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  5. We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
  6. Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
  7. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  8. Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
  9. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  10. America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I, 9 February 2009

28 thoughts on ““Questions to Ask in the Dead of Night””

  1. A powerful essay, because it expresses the moral issue of war in the concrete and personal, rather than the abstract and tactical where it’s usually written about. War in our time, or as conducted by us, seems to be primarily about intimidation, “shock and awe”, the display of power, rather than specific concrete objectives. It’s point is to sap the will, as well as destroy the resources, of anyone who might oppose us. Hence this wise and shocking observation:

    “Though they may be referred to as “collateral damage,” increasingly in all wars, and certainly in counterinsurgency campaigns involving air power, the killing of civilians lies at the heart of the matter, while the killing of soldiers might be thought of as the collateral activity.”

    The start of this tendency was the fire-bombing of Dresden, then Japan, and then the use of the atom bomb on Japan. All of these had no military purpose beyond the intimidation of the civilian population. This tendency is not uniquely American, though we are guilty of the worst instances of it, and it is not aimed entirely at enemy populations. The possession of irrationally large nuclear arsenals, and dazzling technology like unmanned drones and satellite surveillance, which can deliver death from afar, must also be meant to intimidate the domestic population.

  2. Sorry this is a little over limit.

    The military should change the ROE for these drone attacks–they should have done so years ago.

    Brief history: Air power was conceived in part as an answer to the slaughter in the trenches of WWI. The idea reached its extreme expression in WWII with Dresden and the atomic attacks on Japan — that it was more moral to destroy the enemy’s means and will quickly than dragging out the slaughter and suffering for years and years, e.g., the horrendous casualties of the Western Front. Of course, WWII wasn’t “quick” by any means. The idea of civilians as targets was further legitimized in the minds of some by the nuclear MAD policy of holding each others populations hostage.

    Since the Korean and Vietnam wars, close air support procedures demand that someone on the ground or in a low/slow aircraft (a FAC) identify the target, normally soldiers; but this was to protect friendly troops. But dispersed soldiers cannot typically be identified from the air. The image of someone running or shooting a rifle can be interpreted a number of ways. Attacks far from the front (usually against big stuff like truck compounds or munitions depots) did not require a FAC.

    So this has now degenerated into drone operators attacking humans without any real positive ID of whether they are enemy soldiers or not.

    BOTTOM LINE: Until Obama, Gates or CENTCOM orders a change to the Rules of Engagement to stop this misuse of air power, the U.S. will continue to destroy innocent peoples’ lives and anger its ostensible supporters. Why there isn’t a groundswell from the operators is a mystery to me. The only explanation that makes sense is that they don’t believe they are doing as much harm as they actually are — perhaps dismissed as enemy propaganda.

  3. Arms Merchant: I watched a You-tube video tape three years ago — leaked no doubt and quickly withdrawn from public circulation — that showed night-time aerial surveillance of two trucks on a desert highway in Iraq. The trucks showed up as 1/2″ luminous shapes mmoving along a greyish highway, and when they stopped two ant-like human figures emerged and moved quickly into the desert where they huddled around something indiscernible and then moved back to the trucks. The visual scene was accompanied by two American voices on a soundtrack who were discussing whether these little shapes were enemy personnel and were hiding weapons in the darkness. The voices were distant, casual and only routinely interested, as if they had been interrupted in eating their hamburger and fries. Eventually, one said “ok, go ahead” and almost instantly a flash consumed one of the trucks and the ant-figure next to it. The other ant scurried to hide under the other truck, and then that truck too disappeared in a flash.

    This was for me like the image of the Vietnamese girl fleeing naked down a highway, except worse, because the humanity of the victims was barely registered.

  4. I’m not sure I get the authors connection between killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan with our safety. The author seems to be implying that the civilian casualty count is endangering us without actually saying it. Saying it may open him up to being questioned on what cultural analysis he did or didn’t do to come to that conclusion, so it seems convenient that he left that part out. Funny, I didn’t know there were Japanese and Germans on those planes on 9-11.

    Why would anyone in their right mind give up the safety of their own country? How are you going to get re-elected to office when the American public knows you purposely made that decision?

    How is the Bush-Cheney definition of security “breaking us”? Perhaps the author would have a better, more realistic idea of the Middle East if he would read someone other than Juan Cole? Ask yourself in the dead of night, do you really want another 9-11?

  5. Poor old Tom seems to have missed the last US election. It is President Obama’s policy now, and dear Tom had best get himself dim well used to it. Mr. Obama is doing the killing now, and if he is somehow considered too weak to accept responsibility, perhaps someone else should be sitting in that seat?

  6. Major Scarlet: The point of Tom’s essay is that using the excuse of “we don’t want another 9-11” to justify slaughter of innocents and torture of enemy combatants will lead us precisely to another 9-11. BTW, 9-11 could have been avoided if our “leaders” listened to the FBI. They didn’t.

    Count Duff: did you miss the “retirement” sentence in the conclusion of the article?

  7. how will it lead to another 9-11? the japanese and germans didn’t bomb us after wwii. what makes you think that is correct logic?
    Fabius Maximus replies: First, there is no evidence that we can subdue Iraq and/or Afghanistan as we did Germany and Japan. The post-WWII era gives many examples of States (both western and otherwise) attempting to do so — at vast cost, often with no limits on the violence used — and failing. Second, experts (from memory, at least one NIE) have warned that our Middle East wars are on net helping recuitment in Islamic fundamentalist movements. To that extent they increase the odds of another 9-11, not diminish them.

  8. Why there isn’t a groundswell from the operators is a mystery to me. The only explanation that makes sense is that they don’t believe they are doing as much harm as they actually are — perhaps dismissed as enemy propaganda.

    Surely you jest. There is little enough emotional or moral engagement when a pilot drops bombs on people far below him; how much less there must be of either on the part of a distant “operator” who dispenses death via video screen. It’s no more than a game for him. The “operator” racks up some points, then goes home from his boring job to have dinner with the wife and kids. Perhaps his friends and relatives say that he’s a very “nice” and “caring” man. But whatever he is, he is not a soldier, for a soldier risks his own life whenever he kills. A soldier also carries with him an indelible and intimate knowledge of what he has done, for his engagement with the act of killing is the closest and most personal imaginable.

    But the “operator” is unlikely to carry about him a sense of responsibility, so why should he ask questions about the rightness of his orders? He will have no memories that cause him to wake screaming in the dark.
    In another, better, age, we would have said also that he has no honor. We would have called such killing “cowardly”. The fact that our culture has lost the moral grounding that renders such judgments possible does not make them less true, nor does it diminish their impact on the “moral plane” of war.

  9. Reynadine,
    I’m an artillery officer. Am I any less of a soldier? I pull a lanyard or press a button and anywhere from 10km-250km i can kill people. we hurlers of stone and metal have a tradition that goes back thousands of years and have changed the course of history. that is an awfully subjective opinion on what a soldier is.

  10. “The start of this tendency was the fire-bombing of Dresden..”

    Small point but I think a) it really started in Iraq/Kurdistan under Churchill and b) they developed the phosphorus-assisted firebombing techniques in Hamburg and elsewhere, Dresden being almost the last, and certainly the biggest.

    From a simple Google search on ‘Churchill bombing Iraq‘:

    I read also long ago that much more then chemicals alone were used but the point is the same, namely that concerted attacks on civilian populations who were in no position to offer resistance was adopted as a form of military policy. It is somewhat barbaric and certainly not ‘fair play’ but really is just a continuation of timeless tactics which involve military forces laying waste to or otherwise terrorising civilian populations. Vikings are rumoured to have been rather good at that sort of thing, for example.

  11. “how will it lead to another 9-11? the japanese and germans didn’t bomb us after wwii. what makes you think that is correct logic?”

    How can you compare WWII to 9-11? The modes of attack were totally and utterly different. Which is the point … WWII = 2GW, 9-11 = 4GW. I would similarly question your “logic.”

    How do I think it will lead to another attack? We are facing a 4GW enemy – non state “players” who use tactics/strategies designed to minimize use of brute force. By killing innocents we are losing the “moral” component of the war, garnering hatred and resentment towards our country and culture.

    A good example of this dynamic is Israel. They fight and fight, but are unable to rid themselves of the problem of terrorism. And I suspect that they never will. Their recent foray into Gaza is a classic example of 2GW combatants (Israelis) against 4GW combatants (terrorists).

  12. Excuse my un-pc-ness, but as long as our women have the vote, the equation will remain: 1000 dead Afghan babies equal less than one American baby, even if the American one is 23 years old and working in a tower in Manhattan. Mothers don’t do math well when their babies lives are in the equation.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Do you have any evidence for this assertion?

  13. Senecal writes “The start of this tendency was the firebombing of Dresden”

    Looking this up in Wikipedia , 7 times more bombs were dropped on Berlin , and sooner ,than Dresden. Incendiary bombs ( eg magnesium , petrol ) were used by the Germans , eg Coventry ( pop 320,000) 8/4/41 , where a firestorm also occured with 750 deaths , ; Dresden ( normal pop 640,000) 14/2/45 ,40,000 deaths . Dresden was a city full of troops heading for the Russian Front , and refugees ; there were many wooden houses ; shelters and firefighting capacity were not the best . War crime ? Intelligence ?

    Allied bombers were so accurate that some on the Dresden mission , managed to hit Prague . Of course it did win the War , since we now live with EU Lebensraum in the opposite direction to that planned by Hitler .

  14. Two points here. First, we weren’t bombing Afghanistan civilians prior to 9/11 but that didn’t stop a small group of muslims from flying planes into US buildings.

    Two, the solution to this is to have the Afghan Air Force take over the job. The media fixation and propoganda value drops drastically when they do the bombing. Just like how we don’t hear of targeting mistakes by Iraqi security forces on civilians.

  15. anna, I never heard of a firestorm in Coventry nor the Germans doing any firestorm-generating type stuff. If you have a reference I would appreciate one but the nr. of deaths really says it all. Real firestorms vaporise more than a few hundreds almost by definition.

    The Dresden figures are grossly doctored. Although that has now become a matter of opinion given post-war controversies of all sorts. More than 40,000 were identified, I believe. Countless others were literally vaporized leaving only smudges on pavements, some of which had almost turned to glass. Corpses were found high up in tall trees such was the vortex effect created by the firestorm technique.

    We used ‘instant firestorms’ in Iraq in 91. We now have ordinance which, when exploded, creates such intense inflammation that all oxygen within a square mile area is immediately consumed, meaning that any breathing creatures – such as us – in that area immediately die from their lungs being sucked out of their chests!
    Fabius Maximus replies: She cited Wikipedia, which draws on the extensive body of information on this subject. the number of deaths is irrelevant, as firebombing can be done on any scale.

    Firebombing is a bombing technique designed to damage a target, generally an urban area, through the use of fire, caused by incendiary devices, rather than from the blast effect of large bombs.

    … Early in World War II many British cities were firebombed. Two particularly notable raids were the Coventry Blitz on 14 November 1940, and the blitz on London on the night of 29 December/30 December 1940, which was the most destructive raid on London during the war with much of the destruction caused by fires started by incendiary bombs. During the Coventry Blitz the Germans pioneered several innovations which were to influence all future strategic bomber raids during the war.[2] These were: The use of pathfinder aircraft with electronic aids to navigate, to mark the targets before the main bomber raid; The use of high explosive bombs and air-mines (blockbuster bombs) coupled with thousands of incendiary bombs intended to set the city ablaze. The first wave of follow-up bombers dropped high explosive bombs, the intent of which was knock out the utilities (the water supply, electricity network and gas mains), and to crater the road – making it difficult for the fire engines to reach fires started by the follow-up waves of bombers. The follow-up waves dropped a combination of high explosive and incendiary bombs. There were two types of incendiary bombs: those made with magnesium and iron powders, and those made of petroleum. The high-explosive bombs and the larger air-mines were not only designed to hamper the Coventry fire brigade, they were also intended to damage roofs, making it easier for the incendiary bombs to fall into buildings and ignite them.

  16. Fabius,
    Whether we subdue Iraq or Afghanistan isn’t the issue (and btw there is no evidence that we won’t subdue Iraq and Afghanistan). We’ve had problems here for decades. While I can agree that the killing of civilians isn’t winning us any friends, keep in mind that where the Taliban goes people are in worse shape because of the crimes they commit (they have skinned people while they are alive). The vast majority of Afghans are happy the Taliban aren’t in charge anymore and seek our help for protection against them. To make a sweeping accusation such as this is to confuse correlation with causation. The problem is much deeper than bombing=hatred for the US. That is simply a western liberal mirror-imagining this problem.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is a pretty amazing statement — ” there is no evidence that we won’t subdue Iraq and Afghanistan”. The entire post-WWII history is a series of counter-examples about the difficulty of foreigners failing to subdue other nations. There is a large literature explaining why this is so.

  17. Afghanistan Cancels Public Celebration of Holiday“, Washington Post, 29 April 2009

    Dear Fabius readers.. read the link I provided and ask yourself “who do the Afghans think their enemy is?” After reading article by Tom, you might think the US is seen as the enemy. In my opinion, we aren’t. Most Afghans appreciate that we liberated them from the Taliban and AQ and as Tom has already spoken very clearly of, they remember the rule of the Taliban as a brutal part of their history. The US is currently the largest part of their economy. We pay their bills and provide jobs.

    At the end of the day, the Afghans remember how brutal the Taliban are. They don’t want to go back to that. For that matter, the Iraqis don’t want to go back to the days of Saddam. The Afghans know that if we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will take back over because their current government won’t be able to stop them. This is a very complex situation that neither of these articles can properly capture however Tom’s article doesn’t even address what the fears, hopes, and motivations of the Afghanis might be. He simply substitutes his own for theirs. This isn’t about what you wishes and hopes. This is about reality. The reality is that the majority of Afghans (and Iraqis) don’t want us to leave for fear of what might happen when we do.

    Yes, there may be a tipping point some time in the future. In Korea and Germany, the younger generation fears the US while the older generation appreciates us. That isn’t the case in Afghanistan and Iraq. Let’s give it some time to see what happens before we start jumping to conclusions about what the future holds.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Please cite some evidence for your speculation. It assumes Afghanistan is a unitary entity. It’s not. It might not even be a nation in any meaningful sense. To talk about a collection of tribes (to over-generalize) in the midst for a multi-generational war as “Afghans” is absurd.

  18. FM: again, this is obviously a side point but ‘firebombing’ is not the same as creating a ‘firestorm’. The Coventry raid was in retaliation for many raids on civilian targets in Germany for many months long before any were dropped on England because Germany was trying to negotiate a treaty. I believe the ratio of ordinance dropped was something like 10 – 1 with the number of civilian casualties from bombing way higher. This has nothing to do with taking sides etc., simply that as far as I know, only we practiced ‘firestorm’ attacks on civilian populations. We burned over a million Japanese to death this way before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though reading most WW II accounts in English one rarely sees this, and something in the region of 900,000 German civilians – not counting Dresden whose figures are now low balled due to political correctness.
    Fabius Maximus replies: A firestorm is the result of a firebombing attack, if conducted with sufficient intensity under the right circumstance. Enough of this.

  19. FM.. I’m well aware of the troubles we had in Germany but the example you give proves my point. Germany was eventually subdued.

    What solid evidence do you have that we won’t subdue them? Any “evidence” at this point is conjecture. Everyone had “evidence” before the Afghanistan campaign that we were going to lose in Afghanistan because everyone else has. We didn’t. It is far to early to be calling a win, loss, or draw on this.

    Also, I’m on record previously as saying that Afghanistan is a complex problem and it is vastly more troublesome, culturally speaking, than Iraq is. As for the incredible statement, this is from internal analysis done by the only people that can (or are willing) to do it.. the US military. It’s unclassified but because I’m currently deployed, I’m not going to take a chance on losing my security clearance by posting it. The security Nazi’s already love me dearly. Take it FWIW.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Let’s play the tape.

    (1) In comment #7 I said: “First, there is no evidence that we can subdue Iraq and/or Afghanistan as we did Germany and Japan.”

    You reply here “the example you give proves my point. Germany was eventually subdued.”

    To compare Iraq or Afghanistan with post-WWII Germany is bizarre. Germany had 10 million dead, its cities devastated, and long-term military occupation. If we could unleash such violence on a nation we occupy in order to subdue, that might work. But that is not politically possible, and might have horrific geopolitical consequences.

    (2) I said: The post-WWII era gives many examples of States (both western and otherwise) attempting to do so — at vast cost, often with no limits on the violence used — and failing.”

    You reply here “What solid evidence do you have that we won’t subdue them?”

    That’s a joke, I assume — challenging me to prove a negative (as in “prove there are no magic dragons”). I cite the post-WWII record of almost uniform failure of foreign occupations. If you think our occupations are a special case, then you can explain why.

  20. FM re “A firestorm is the result of a firebombing attack”: you are simply wrong, just as it is wrong to describe the attack on Coventry as resulting in a ‘firestorm’ even if incendiaries were used. Firestorms are/were deliberately engendered due to how the ordinance is delivered, usually in several coordinated waves though nowadays this is unnecessary due to new types of large-scale incendiary ordinance. Admit you are wrong and move on. As you say: Enough of this!

    A good article discussing issues involving rules of combat discussing the issue: ‘What priority should be given to the duty to minimize casualties among the combatants of the state when they are engaged in combat…against terror?’ From NYRB by Avishai Margalit, Michael Walzer: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22664
    Fabius Maximus replies: I know from experience that you can keep up this nonsense no matter how much evidence I cite. Any more comments on this will be deleted as off-topic nonsense.

  21. What kind of soldier is Major Scarlet? I’ll let him judge himself. I will point out that the indiscriminate delivery of ordnance from a safe distance is a characteristic of modern war; the ancient artilleryman was a bit closer to the action than his modern counterpart. I don’t believe that the capability of destruction at a distance is, of itself, evil. I do think that it should be employed with discernment. When raining down death blindly becomes a standard tactic of war—as it has become for us in “Af-Pak”—then it begins to acquire a bit of a moral stink, don’t you think? It’s the blindness, the heedlessness, I’m objecting to. The fact that the “operator” is perfectly safe only adds to the odium. And it’s not just evil; it’s bad strategy, also. Bad strategy that will land us in a heap of trouble.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Indescrimate use of firepower is a fast way to lose 4GW. A very macho way to lose. Martin van Creveld discusses this in chapter 6 of “The Changing Face of War” (2006). Here are a few posts on the subject.
    * Winning hearts and mind with artillery fire, 26 May 2008
    * Another example of winning hearts & minds with artillery, 29 May 2008
    * Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW“, 8 July 2008

  22. If you visit UK , you can visit the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral still , and read people’s testimony yourself .

  23. Major Scarlet

    Losing has a moral stink. You have a bizarre metric that you apply to warfare and I don’t think you know the first thing about strategic warfighting. At the end of the day, you are entitled to your opinion.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Winning battles can have a moral stink that leads to strategic defeat. Which is why the “moral high ground” is often decisive in 4GW. What might become the classic, even definitive, example is Israel. For more on this see The Fate of Israel, 26 July 2006.

  24. Major Scarlet

    Re.. the bizarre Germany comparison… was Afghanistan a shining beacon of capitalism when we invaded? no.. it was a destroyed country occupied by an extreme sect and terrorist organization. Both Germany and Afghanistan were devastated already when we invaded. This isn’t even part of the issue so i won’t debate it further.

    It isn’t about unleashing violence.. it is about providing security for the population. Right now, we don’t have enough boots on the ground and the ones we do have there are in the wrong places. the people aren’t secure enough from terrorist to feel like they can help us, unlike here in Iraq. what little police force they have is corrupt and inept, again unlike here in Iraq (yes there is corruption, i’m a police trainer, but the force is still effective). We are failing at COIN in Afghanistan. 7 years in to this war, we still can’t train enough Pashtun speakers to help in Afghanistan. With the DOD and State combined, I think we train somewhere between 50-75 per year (just 12 at State). Perhaps the “surge” will help.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This nonsense has zip to do with defnese of the US, nor is it connected to any well-thought out grand strategy. I have no objection should you raise a force of volunteers and financing for your do-gooding. Just leave the rest of us — who believe that daft — out of it.

    Your opening sentence makes no sense to me, and is totally unconnected to the previous discussion about subduing German vs. subduing Iraq and Afghanistan. I doubt that the US is a “shining beacon of capitalism”, nor is that in any way relevant to our Middle East wars.

  25. While it is true that airstrikes and the resulting civilian casualties are damaging for the strong party, they must be weighed against other damaging factors, such as, occupation of enemy territory and casualties to your own forces. The stronger your occupation of the territory the less airstrikes are needed. But how much damage does occupation cause?

    My experience in Israel is a bit different than that described by Tom.
    1. An Israeli strike is usually followed by a Palestinian claim of civilian casualties.
    2. The dry delivery of an official statement on who was targeted is followed by an emotional Palestinian claiming civilian casualties and atrocities performed by the IDF.
    3. The IDF needing to base its claims on something resembling facts, says it’ll investigate and get back to the reporters.
    4. By the time the results of the investigation are ready, the story has died, and hardly any of the people who heard the Palestinian claims will hear about them. If they do they will seem official dry and biased results published by an organization that is investigating itself.

    The civilian casualties exist, and they are very damaging to the strong side, I’m not trying to claim otherwise. What I’m trying to say is that the week side knows this and as part of its strategy it’ll exaggerate them, and use the difficulties inherent in the distinction between civilians and combatants in an irregular force to claim combatants as civilians. Real casualties aren’t even necessary, invented ones will get a story going in the media and claims by the military that these are false will sound ridiculous for long enough to do the damage.

    I don’t know how to post links here, look for the Genin Massacre, Claims of a collapsed building in Canna in Lebanon 2006 or the shelling of a UN school during the latest Gaza operation. A search for the word “Palliwood” will also get you somewhere.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You describe the core of 4GW, in which the moral highground becomes decisive. This makes the calculus of firepower more complex, as it can be tactically effective but strategically fatal (strategy almost always trumps tactics, as the Germans discovered in WWI and WWII).

    The other dimension of this is the “power of weakness” (the ability of insurgents to defeat stronger foreign occupiers, using their weakness as an advantage. On one hand we have common sense, which says that a weak opponent will be crushed by a sufficiently strong and cold opponent. This is well expressed in Harry Turtledove’s short story “The Last Article” (1988): if the NAZI’s had won WWII, how successful would Gandhi have been against them?

    On the other side is Martin van Creveld. In Chapter 6 of his mega-brilliant “The Changing Face of War” suggests that even the NAZI’s would have found rising violent opposition in their occupied nations, which might have forced them out over time. I will not attempt to summarize this here; I strongly recommend reading the book.

    Isreal might become the classic, even definitive, example of 4GW. For more on this see The Fate of Israel, 26 July 2006.

    From Wikipedia entry for Pallywood: “a portmanteau of ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Hollywood’, is a coinage that has been used by a number of bloggers, news analysts, and pro-Israel media watchdog advocates to describe what they regard as media manipulation, distortion and outright fraud by the Palestinians and other Arabs … designed to win the public relations war against Israel.

  26. Hi FM –

    I’ve read the changing face of war, the first half is a bit dull, but there are some very enlightening observations in the second half.

    Can you inform me as to how links can be added to posts, it will help me add citations to what I”m trying to say.

    I think in the case of Israel 4GW will work to cause Israel’s withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. It has already withdrawn from South Lebanon and Gaza. If not for the 2006 war in Lebanon and Palestinian insistence on raining rockets on the western Negev, Olmerts government would have at least made a serious attempt to withdraw from most of the West Bank.

    This can be achieved because the Israeli public can be persuaded that the occupation is unjust and not worth the trouble. However as opposed to the foreign powers involved in the middle east and elsewhere, Israel can’t just pack up an leave. No amount of terrorizing will convince Israelis that Jews don’t have the right to self determination at all. and the 4th of June 67 borders are widely accepted as legitimate.

    It is possible to drive the US out of Vietnam or Iraq, but would it be possible to drive the US out of the US?

    Much of the support the Palestinians enjoy around the world is based on opposition to the occupation and lack of Palestinian self determination to match that of Israel. Once some kind of Palestinian state will be established, support for a continuing struggle against Israel will wind down.

  27. Major Scarlet

    FM: “This nonsense has zip to do with defnese of the US, nor is it connected to any well-thought out grand strategy. I have no objection should you raise a force of volunteers and financing for your do-gooding. Just leave the rest of us — who believe that daft — out of it.

    what are you calling nonsense? what is a well-thought out strategy to you? leaving a nest full of terrorist to plot and scheme against us? ignoring it like clinton? cruise missile diplomacy? i’m not a fan of the bush family new world order types or the james baker “realist” type of grand strategy. neither work in the end.
    Fabius Maximus replies: As has been pointed out at length, the current war in Afghanistan – Pakistan is largely a “tribal” conflict, due to the Brit’s deliberate construction of those borders to devide the region so as to create weak states. There is zip evidence that the Pastun leaders find their first adventure with al Qaeda enjoyable, leading as it did to their defeat. If they did try a repeat (probably as likely as Japan again conquor the “southern resource area”), is it unlikely that we will repeat our mistake and allow operation of al Qaeda training camps.

    The core of Al Qaeda (not counting their independent franchises) was defeated, reduced to a shadow of its peak strength, thru aggressive police and intelligence work. There is no evidence that our twin ME wars have done anything but strengthen it. Should the re-gain the strength to mount large-scale terrorist operations, it will not using large camps as before, as we are watching for that. And the world’s nations know we will not tolerate that.

    As for our absurd grand strategy, that drives these wars, it hardly bears examination. For more about this see America takes another step towards the “Long War”. For more about this see section 6, grand strategy, on the FM reference page Military and strategic theory.

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