More than twenty-five years and several wars ago, Harold Pinter wrote a poem titled ‘American Football (A Reflection on the Gulf War)’. Despite being the most eminent British playwright alive at the time, Pinter couldn’t find a single newspaper or magazine willing to publish it – the Guardian declined on the grounds of being ‘a family newspaper’ – so the poem remains obscure. It begins:
We blew the shit out of them.
We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.
Political discourse has evolved such that today Pinter could probably publish his forward-thinking poem in Teen Vogue. Otherwise, the situation is unchanged. In the United States, we remain captains of industry in the field of blowing the shit right back up their own asses and out their fucking ears, particularly in the Middle East, where my countrymen killed eighteen allied soldiers in Syria by strategic bombing one morning this past April and dropped a 21,000-pound ‘Mother of All Bombs’ in Afghanistan the same afternoon, not two weeks after a bombing campaign in Mosul inadvertently blew up 200 civilians who were then accused of impugning the character of the local military – by dying. (Another family newspaper, the New York Times, reported: ‘General Saadi said the special forces were unaware that the houses’ basements were filled with civilians. “After the bombing we were surprised by the civilian victims,” the general said, “and I think it was a trap by ISIS to stop the bombing operations and turn public opinion against us.” ’)
The Mosul strike was executed to take out a handful of rooftop snipers. We frequently bomb for less. The Air Force Times suggested that the Mother of All Bombs was dropped in retaliation for the death of a single American Staff Sergeant. ‘“There might have been a degree of payback here as well,” Roggio told Military Times. “There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, especially if you’re killing your enemy.” ’
In the months following the episode in Afghanistan, the United States expanded its drone program in the region, producing record-high civilian casualties, and funded Saudi-led coalition air strikes over Yemen that have killed thousands. But American leaders saved their rhetoric of vengeance for another target. As North Korea tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) over the summer, the US military prepared ‘revised military options’ for Donald Trump’s approval and sent B-1 bombers on show-of-force reprisal tours over the Korean peninsula, the last flyover taking place a day before Trump threatened ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’ from a golf club. In response, North Korea rattled its saber in the direction of Guam, and Trump declared schoolmarmishly that the country ‘had better get their act together, or they’re going to be in trouble like few nations ever have been in trouble in this world’. Evans Revere, a former American diplomat who has negotiated with North Korea, said that Trump seemed to be suggesting America might retaliate preemptively, against threats alone rather than hostile actions. If this proves true, he told the Economist, ‘there are going to be a lot of nuclear weapons flying through the air.’ As I write these words, the US military is considering its response to a new provocation: a ballistic missile shot over the Japanese island of Hokkaido and into the Pacific Ocean.
Revenge is the oldest plot. It is also the oldest move in the bombing playbook. The first aerial bombing, just three years after the Wright Brothers’ flight in Kitty Hawk, was framed as an act of retribution. Indigenous guerilla fighters from the oases of Tajoura and Aïn Zara had distinguished themselves too well in their battle against colonizing Italian forces at Tripoli, so a Genovese engineer named Giulio Gavotti decided on his own initiative to fly over the region and drop grenades out of his monoplane window onto the subjects below. ‘No one has ever tried such a thing,’ he wrote to his father beforehand, ‘and if I succeed I shall be happy to have been the first.’
Almost every aerial bombing campaign in the early years of manned flight targeted anti-colonial fighters in Africa and the Middle East. Every campaign killed civilians, either by indifference or design, while military leaders defended the attacks as acts of revenge, self-defense, or peacekeeping. The Spanish bombed Morocco, relying heavily on poison gas, which was forbidden even then by the Geneva Convention. The British bombed Pashtuns in India and revolutionaries in Egypt and Darfur. They bombed soldiers and civilians in Transjordan and Iraq. On the question of targeting civilians in Afghanistan, the British determined in 1923 that international law did not apply ‘against savage tribes who do not conform to codes of civilized warfare’. Because women were so little valued in Afghan culture, killing Afghan women could not justly be compared with equivalent European losses. From Tripoli to Hiroshima, it has always been the irrationality and intransigence of the bombed subjects that serve as justification for less discriminating methods of war.
A second axiom in the logic of bombing is the reclassification of civilians as combatants. Barack Obama’s policy of reflexively applying this label to any military-age male victim of a drone strike has a history almost as old as aerial warfare itself. A rebellion against French colonizers in Syria in 1925 led to extensive bombing campaigns – the first in the region – including the bombardment of Muslim neighborhoods of Damascus, which killed more than 1,000 civilians. The French denied that any laws of war had been broken, since the victims in question were ‘bandits’ and the bombing a police action. (‘Air policing’ had been invented by the Royal Air Force for use in Iraq.) Many law experts agreed, espousing the belief expressed several decades earlier by the Scottish jurist Sir James Lorimer, that ‘the right of undeveloped races, like the right of undeveloped individuals, is a right not to recognition as what they are not, but to guardianship – that is to guidance – in becoming that of which they are capable, in realizing their special ideals.’ From the first dropped ordnance, countries with the capacity to bomb have defined that power not as a weapon of war but as a security operation by a global police force: bringing law to the lawless.
This early history of bombing as policing is a revelation in the racial and class character of the bomb. In almost every pre-World War case, bombing has functioned as a weapon one class or race uses enthusiastically against another, and only rarely against its own – and then always accompanied by extravagant public performances of reluctance and remorse. Thousands of people died in airborne attacks in the three decades between the invention of the airplane and 1937, the year of Guernica. But only the Basque town became an international symbol of civilian casualty: both perpetrators and victims were European through and through.
It is true that those who bomb have occasionally admitted its use as a weapon of outright war, rather than a technology for preserving law and order, yet even the classic case – the European theater of World War II – depicts a world divided along lines of race and class, always into two irreducible and unequal groups: the bombers and the bombed. As described by the historian Thomas Hippler in Governing from the Skies, Allied Forces campaigns followed techniques perfected over four decades of ‘small scale’ colonial warfare, and as the war with Germany dragged on, arguments for punitive bombing took on racial and class overtones. ‘There are less than seventy million malignant Huns,’ Winston Churchill declared in April 1941, ‘some of whom are curable and others killable.’ A 1942 British memorandum further stated that the aim of bombing should be to target ‘the morale of the enemy civil population and, in particular, the industrial workers.’ Altogether, 500,000 people died in bombing efforts against Germany, only about 23,000 of whom were military or police personnel. The rest were prisoners of war, foreigners and German civilians. (The Luftwaffe also bombed military and civilian targets without much discrimination, but managed to kill only a tenth as many civilians as British and American forces.)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, 900,000 Japanese citizens perished in wartime air attacks, more than the country’s total number of combat deaths. When it came time to demonstrate a new kind of fire in August 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as the two most valuable of the small number of Japanese cities that had not yet been thoroughly destroyed.
Nobody denies any of this. Whatever the justifications, it is agreed the history of bombing contains many horrors. But most defenders of the bomb still draw a clear line between the sins of the past and contemporary ‘humanitarian interventions’, which aim to influence geopolitics from the air, and which often enjoy broad international approval. (Participation can even be compulsory. Article 45 of the Charter of the United Nations requires member nations to make air-force units available for ‘combined international enforcement action’.) Televised spectacles of US- and NATO-led operations, such as those which occurred over Tripoli in October 2011, exactly a century after Gavotti’s first bombing flight, present images not of indiscriminate civilian death, but of efficacy and value. Territory is gained. Despots deposed. Families liberated. The process no longer appears catastrophic, as with our colonial misadventures. On TV, at least, bombing has become incremental and controlled.
The facts are somewhat less convincing. Limited operations by the modern US military achieve their intended political objectives just 6 per cent of the time, according to a comprehensive study of the thirty-six US ‘Discrete Military Operations’ (DMOs) that took place between 1991 and 2009. Admittedly, they achieve immediate military objectives about half the time, which is to say they destroy their targets with a 50 per cent success rate, and only sometimes strike down wedding parties with daisy cutters. (The United States has bombed at least eight wedding parties since 2001.) But political objectives, which include measurements of ‘punishment’, ‘deterrence’ and ‘coercion’, virtually always fail, which is why senior military officials have tended not to support the use of DMOs, whereas senior civilian officials, acting under the belief that they will produce a desired political outcome, continue to order and approve them. It doesn’t help that the high failure rates of DMOs are mediated by reassuring descriptors like ‘limited’ and ‘surgical’, about which Colin Powell – the retired four-star general, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State – had this to say: ‘As soon as they tell me it is limited, it means they do not care whether you achieve a result or not. As soon as they tell me ‘surgical’, I head for the bunker.’
More contemporary evidence for the 94 per cent failure rate of strategic bombing and other limited operations can be found on the ground in Libya, whose liberation began with 110 US and British Tomahawks and ended in a second civil war, engendering today’s failed state and ISIS foothold, and exacerbating multiple simultaneous migration crises. Obama called the lack of planning for a post-Gaddafi Libya the ‘worst mistake’ of his presidency.
So when Antony Blinken, the former Deputy Secretary of State under Obama, said that we needed ‘smart diplomacy’ in the wake of April’s missile attacks in Syria (which, he adds, Trump was right to order), presumably he means smarter than Blinken himself. Smarter, too, than the master of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger, the architect of so many blundered bombing campaigns in Vietnam and Cambodia. Concerning the latter, Kissinger has said he believes just 50,000 Cambodian civilians were killed in more than four years of ‘a massive bombing campaign’ that set ‘anything that flies on anything that moves’, and which dropped 1.5 times as many tons of destructive force as were ever dropped on Japan. Others have estimated the number of civilian deaths at about 150,000 – in a country the US has never been at war with, officially or otherwise. Survivors of the Khmer Rouge have told me that the brutal evacuations of 1975 were typically justified with claims that American bombers were coming to destroy evacuees’ villages and cities. That no strategic purpose could be served by such attacks was hardly a counterargument; during the Korean War, the US Air Force dropped so many bombs on that country they ran out of conventional targets and started bombing non-strategic bridges and dams – war crimes described plainly in official military dispatches.
In August, the nation with the greatest bombing power the world has ever known revisited the Korean peninsula in the form of Trump’s Old Testament threat of ‘fire and fury’. The US Secretary of Defense, James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, followed Trump’s lead, warning North Korea of the possibility of ‘the end of its regime and destruction of its people’ at American and allied hands. Before his confirmation early this year, national security experts testified before Congress that Mattis was a ‘stabilizing and moderating force’ who might check Trump’s spontaneous excesses. That does not appear to be the case for the 24 million people living in North Korea, to say nothing of their imperiled southern neighbors. Whereas Trump’s threat is characteristically vague, Mattis is explicit in promising genocide from above.
In his classic book-length essay A History of Bombing, the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist makes an argument that seems incontrovertible in light of the past century of modernized warmaking: ‘The laws of war protect enemies of the same race, class, and culture. The laws of war leave the foreign and the alien without protection.’ Aerial bombing is defined precisely by this asymmetry. We bomb from above, they bomb – if they bomb at all – from below: from street level, in attacks that take the form of illegal terror rather than protective police action. If they aspire to bomb from above, as, for example, North Korea does today, we are within our rights to stop them, even preemptively, by any means and at whatever cost to civilian life. Our method is always rational and objective; theirs is always madness and terror. They threaten war; we protect our interests through international air policing. Finally, we are never warmongers. We are so averse to war that our last four presidents have commanded our military, including its nuclear arsenal and the apocalyptic ‘football’ briefcase, from a position of perfect ignorance of the lived realities of combat. (The last president to experience war firsthand was George H.W. Bush, a Navy pilot whose plane was shot down during a bombing operation against the Japanese. He is preceded by Jimmy Carter, another Navy veteran, who in 2011 boasted that, alone in modern American history, his administration ‘never dropped a bomb.’)
To Lindqvist’s Law I can only add that a century of near-perpetual bombing has further telescoped the distance between the generals’ command for destruction and the act itself, an alienation from the material experience of killing that approaches perfection in the drone strike: the human actor all but vanished. This tendency toward distance was already present in Gavotti’s account:
‘I saw two encampments close to a white building, the first with about two hundred men, the second with some fifty. Just before reaching them I took the bomb in my right hand; I removed the safety pin with my teeth and let the bomb fall from the aircraft. I managed to follow it for a few seconds with my eyes before it disappeared. Soon after, I saw a dark cloud rise from the centre of the smaller camp. I had aimed at the larger one but I was lucky. I was spot on.’
From Gavotti to drones, the logic of bombing requires that distance from the enemy be maximized. (In Hippler’s book, the potential bombed subjects must be additionally transformed from an empowered ‘people’ into a homogenous, disorganized ‘populace’.) Only proximity can defeat such logic. The waning years of the Cold War saw a number of popular cultural efforts to set the West closer to its enemies as a deterrent to nuclear apocalypse. As often as not, these efforts relied on the language of erotic or familial love. A typical example is ‘Russians,’ the 1985 single from Sting’s first solo album; its chorus: ‘Believe me when I say to you / I hope the Russians love their children too.’ The kitschy antithesis of Pinter’s acid ventriloquism, the song sounds dated and embarrassing today – ‘We share the same biology / regardless of ideology’ – yet its main inquiry remains instructive. Do the Russians love their children? We are reluctant to ascribe the capacity of love to potential bombing targets, just as we are reluctant to bomb those who love. In Sting’s account, that capacity, presumed in ourselves (‘I hope the Russians love their children too’), is hoped for in our worthy imperial adversaries but not extended to more foreign-seeming targets, not even by the songwriter himself. In a 2010 interview, Sting recalled that ‘Russians’ was inspired by watching Soviet television via a stolen satellite signal, and the care he was surprised to see being lavished on their children’s programming. ‘I regret our current enemies haven’t got the same ethics,’ he added. The inability to love, like intransigence and irrationality, marks the alien who, according to Lindqvist’s Law, receives no lawful protections.
Before, during, and after the Cold War, we have never stopped bombing the enemies who ‘haven’t got the same ethics,’ the people who don’t love us, who may not even love their own children. Love, far from a deterrent to bombing, is its prerequisite. To love is to have the right to bomb. Those who cannot love, who are a priori combatants – the aliens – must be bombed. You might even say we bomb because we love. As usual, a long-submerged truth of empire is unwittingly rendered as spoken truth by Trump himself: ‘I’m good at war. I’ve had a lot of wars of my own. I’m really good at war. I love war, in a certain way, but only when we win.’
The third axiom of the logic of bombing states that aerial warfare is love in a certain way, the erotic love between a subject and his distant, foreign object. The mute exotic speck upon the earth. A winnable love.
Pinter’s poem, ‘American Football’, ends:
We did it.
Now I want you to come over here
and kiss me on the mouth.
The war poem is also a love poem, one that lands in the present by way of a long, eerie parabola. Its prophecies include Trump’s pussy-grabbing lechery and his campaign promise to ‘bomb the shit out of ISIS’. It even heralds, in its opening interjection, the typographical mark that most resembles a falling bomb, and that happens to be the president’s favorite: the exclamation point, which has sometimes been called the screamer, gasper, or slammer, and which old typesetting manuals called the bang.