From Syria to Yemen in the Middle East, Libya to Somalia in Africa, Afghanistan to Pakistan in South Asia, an American aerial curtain has descended across a huge swath of the planet. Its stated purpose: combatting terrorism. Its primary method: constant surveillance and bombing. Its political benefit: minimizing the number of U.S. “boots on the ground” and American casualties in the never-ending war on terror, as well as public outcry. Its economic benefit: plenty of business for weapons makers for whom the president can now declare a national security emergency whenever he likes and so sell their warplanes and munitions to preferred dictatorships in the Middle East (no congressional approval required). Its reality for various foreign peoples: a steady diet of “Made in USA” bombs and missiles.
America’s wars are increasingly waged from the air, a reality that makes the prospect of ending them ever more daunting.
For many of America’s decision-makers, air power has clearly become something of an abstraction. On Washington’s battlefields across the Middle East and northern Africa, air power is always almost literally a one-way affair. There are no enemy air forces or significant air defenses. The skies are the exclusive property of the U.S. Air Force and allied air forces, which means that we’re no longer talking about “war” in the normal sense. No wonder Washington policymakers and military officials see it as our strong suit, our way of settling scores with evildoers, real and imagined.
Using data from the U.S. military, the Council on Foreign Relations estimated the U.S. dropped at least 26,172 bombs in seven countries in 2016, the bulk of them in Iraq and Syria. Against ISIS’ claimed capital of Raqqa alone, the U.S. and its allies dropped more than 20,000 bombs in 2017, reducing that city to literal rubble. Combined with artillery fire, the bombing of Raqqa killed more than 1,600 civilians, according to Amnesty International.
U.S. air campaigns today, deadly as they are, pale in comparison to past ones like the Tokyo firebombing of 1945, which killed more than 100,000 civilians; the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year (roughly 250,000); the death toll against German civilians in World War II (at least 600,000); or civilians in the Vietnam War (possibly above 1 million). Today’s airstrikes are more limited than in those past campaigns and may be more accurate, but never confuse a 500-pound bomb with a surgeon’s scalpel.
When “surgical” is applied, it only obscures the very real human carnage. The deaths of innocents are guaranteed. Precision warfare is truly an oxymoron. War isn’t precise. It’s nasty, bloody and murderous.
This country’s propensity for believing its ability to rain hellfire from the sky provides a winning methodology for its wars has proven to be a fantasy of our age. Destruction leads neither to victory, nor closure of any sort; only to more destruction.