Monday, August 30, 2010

Cry Havoc: How the Iraq War Began

With President Obama about to announce the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, it is instructive to remember how all this began, seven years ago. It began with the bombing of Baghdad, a massive American bombing campaign against a civilian population of a country that had not made war on anyone, including the United States. It was one more escalation in the morally indefensible history of bombing, and it presaged everything that's happened since in that part of the world.

In the following piece, published in the San Francisco Chronicle several weeks before the bombing began, I refer to what was a new and little known phrase then, but which has since become a cliched description of this bombing campaign: Shock and Awe. It was supposed to break the will of whoever the Bush administration considered the enemy, but it did not.

I also quoted the famous lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Cry 'Havoc' and let slip the dogs of war." I focused on the "havoc" in this piece, but in other writing of the time I emphasized the rest of the quotation. The point of the metaphor of the dogs of war is not only that a pack of dogs are indiscriminately violent but that once loosed, they are very difficult to control or to stop. Once this war started it was clear to some of us at least, that it would go on for a long time. And it has, with immensely and deeply destructive consequences to the U.S. as well as to Iraq. It has eroded us morally, depleted us financially, destroyed thousands of people physically and psychologically, and distorted our politics. We don't seem to have learned much from it either. If for no other reason than the resources of all kinds it stole from facing up to the double challenges of the Climate Crisis, it has deeply wounded the future.

There are going to be attempts to rewrite its history, which will likely be evident in the coming hours and days. But in some measure, its history was written before it started, and some of us saw that, pleading for the dogs of war to be restrained, even as the bombing became inevitable. (The prediction recorded in this piece that the bombing would begin by March 15 was off by only four days. It began March 19.) The following piece concentrated on one element, the bombing, and its moral and historical context.

When Islamic armies were the most powerful in the world, conquerors of Asia Minor and North Africa, and poised at the gates of Europe in the 8th century, Abu Hanifa, founder of a school of law in the city of Baghdad, proposed that the killing, maiming and raping of civilian noncombatants in war be forbidden. It was one of the first attempts to codify some kind of moral and legal restraints on civilized societies engaged in the dangerously uncivilized practice of warfare.

If and when war comes to Iraq, it will likely feature the relentless and perhaps unprecedented bombing of Baghdad. According to CBS News and other sources, the United States is considering implementing a strategy called "Shock and Awe," developed in 1996. The plan could result in at least 300 Tomahawk cruise missiles raining down on Baghdad in just the first day of an aerial campaign - more than were used on all targets in the entire Gulf War. And the plan calls for an equal or greater number on the second day as well, up to 800 total, each capable of carrying 1,000 pounds of explosives. There was no estimate of how many days the bombing would continue.

Although missiles would likely focus on infrastructure including electricity and water supplies, an average of one missile striking a city of 5 million inhabitants every four minutes around the clock could kill and maim thousands of civilians.

"There will not be a safe place in Baghdad," according to an unnamed Pentagon official quoted by CBS. "The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before."

The prospect of war in Iraq is crowded with moral as well as political questions, with multiple possibilities for ethical outrages of stunning proportions. But the continuous bombing of a city of civilians would probably be the first that confronts the watching world.

In A History of Bombing (published by New Press in 2001, and forthcoming this spring in paperback), Sven Lindqvist follows three main threads: the technology and use of aerial bombing in history, the attempts to deal with the moral implications of its use against civilian populations (Abu Hanifa is one example he cites), and social attitudes toward bombing found in sources such as popular fiction.

The historical parallels to the current prospect as well as the ironies are disquieting. The impact of the "shock and awe" strategy is meant to be on hearts and minds: to destroy the enemy's will, and mental and psychological ability to resist. But bombing's ability to terrorize - the sudden explosive death from the sky without warning - was one of the first effects to be observed, noted in 13th century China. It has often been a prime strategy of bombing, according to Lindquist, used extensively by European colonial powers in Africa, India and Asia.

Bombing is especially terrifying when used on the helpless. At first it was shelling from ships far offshore (which is how the United States bombed Nicaragua in 1854), then bombs dropped from airplanes. Bombing was a cost-effective way of keeping subjugated populations in line. Baghdad was a British target more than once in the 1920s.

As airplanes, bombs and cities all got bigger, moralists and diplomats negotiating the international rules of war and definitions of war crimes struggled to keep up. Several prohibitions against air warfare and the bombing of cities were proposed, and some were signed, except by the major powers capable of the bombing. Well into the 20th century, bombing was considered not so bad if the victims were of "inferior races." Some authors wrote glowingly of bombing as a way to civilize the world by permanently subjugating or even wiping out these races.

European bombing gradually got closer and closer to home, until the German military on behalf of Franco tested new kinds of bombs by dropping them on cities in Spain. Japan bombed civilian cities in China. Then in the 1940s, bombing of even the capital cities of combatant nations - Berlin, London, Tokyo - became a normal instrument of warfare, finally leading to the annihilation of the undefended cities of Hamburg and Dresden by British saturation firebombing, and of Hiroshima and much of Nagasaki by the U.S. atomic bomb.
By that time, terror was not the only result of bombing. Fifty thousand civilians were killed in a single night in Hamburg, most of them women, children and elderly. Twice that number died in Dresden. Two atom bombs did fill Japan with shock and awe, and killed several hundred thousand civilians in the process.

There are various strategic arguments for bombing campaigns that dovetail with apparent moral concerns, usually involving shortening a war's duration or substituting for ground assaults, thus saving lives, especially the lives of the side doing the bombing.

When facing the possibility that this war would unleash chemical, biological or nuclear weapons that have been largely absent from warfare for decades due to international taboos of one kind or another, it may seem quixotic to argue that bombing of civilian populations should be regarded as an evil in itself, and beyond the pale for nations that desire any sort of international relations. But it seems morally obtuse that there is a stronger taboo against assassinating a declared enemy's head of a state than against slaughtering babies in their beds. Surely bombing should be a last resort, not the first.

For even if the historical parallels are coincidental and not disturbing echoes of residual racism and empire-building, the bombing of Baghdad to begin this war would have a terrorizing effect on more than its residents. In Shakespeare's time, there was another word for the terror, the shock and awe that accompany a war without moral limits. The word was "havoc," as in the famous quotation from Julius Caesar, "Cry 'Havoc', and let slip the dogs of war."

The bombing and havoc may already be starting by the time you read these words, although according to Los Angeles Times reporter Doyle McManus on the Washington Week in Review, "You can pretty well mark on your calendar March 15. " It's the date formerly known as the Ides of March.
February 2003

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Paging Doctor Strangelove

The following piece is from 2003, also published in the San Francisco Chronicle Insight section. In a sense it follows from the previous piece posted here, although that was actually written later. It arose from a sense that using nuclear weapons was again becoming legitimized, particularly by the GW Bush administration, but also by fading memory of what nuclear weapons actually are. What they are not is just bigger bombs, with bigger, more cinematic explosions.

But President Obama has turned that particular tide, at least in terms of official U.S. policy. New nuclear weapons programs have been stopped, and steps have been taken to reduce U.S. weapons and reliance on them. More significantly in light of this piece is President Obama's efforts to institute new international agreements. He negotiated and signed a new START treaty with Russia, and began implementing the U.S. part of the agreement, even lacking Senate confirmation. He convened a meeting of 47 nations that resulted in agreements designed to decrease proliferation and accidental nuclear explosions. His plans include reviving a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. These efforts were prominent reasons for his Nobel Peace prize. They also clearly and consciously honor the courageous and ground-breaking efforts of President Kennedy in proposing and successfully completing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and gaining public support to insure its ratification in the Senate.
Still, the tepid reception to Obama's efforts in the U.S., the failure of the Senate to ratify START, and the lack of understanding of either the reality of nuclear weapons or the importance of JFK's achievements, suggest that the fears expressed in the following piece still have substance.

October 2003
Last fall, the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis was accompanied by media stories and symposiums. This fall, the 40th anniversary of the most significant outcome of that crisis, the first nuclear arms treaty signed by the superpowers, has come and gone in silence.

It has been not quite 40 years since the release of Stanley Kubrick's classic film, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. One conclusion that might be drawn by the widespread indifference to the anniversary of the limited nuclear test ban treaty of 1963 is that we've all learned to stop worrying. We may not love the bomb, but perhaps we're not so frightened of it anymore.

The specter of nuclear war dominated politics, culture and insinuated itself into daily life for decades after Hiroshima. But in recent years it seems to have lost its potency. Although the stories are tucked in back pages or hardly reported at all, the dangers continue to slowly grow.

Israel modified U.S.-made cruise missiles to carry nuclear warheads on submarines, to counter suspected advances in Iran's long-range missiles and the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear arms. This new element of an atomic arms race in the highly volatile Middle East joins the continuing threat of North Korea to make and even export nuclear weapons, and the continuing danger of two known nuclear powers, Pakistan and India, facing off over disputed territory at their borders.

Few North American news outlets even noted a recently revealed Russian plan to consider using nuclear weapons to fight terrorism, although the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki noticed it, and sent protests to the Russian government. But the U.S. could hardly object, since the Bush administration just pushed through the Senate its plan to develop low-yield nuclear bombs for battlefield use.

A chief reason for today's indifference probably is the belief that the fall of the Soviet Union meant that thermonuclear holocaust is no longer a real possibility. But a recent Rand study asserts that due to disorganization in Russia as well as other factors, the threat of a devastating nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia caused by accident or miscalculation has not lessened but increased.

Another reason could be that there hasn't been a visible nuclear bomb detonation in many years, and no atom bomb has been used against an enemy since World War II, resulting in a diminished appreciation for their power. But continued proliferation of weapons in a world where hostility is increasingly open, violent and unrestrained may change that, to our certain horror.

It could also be that because the size and power of conventional weapons has grown (and some are radioactive), while new nuclear weapons seem smaller and more precise, there doesn't seem to be as much difference.

But as California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said recently, "The administration is saying we can make nuclear weapons less deadly, and acceptable to use. Neither is true." According to an article in New Scientist magazine, the United States is exploring an entirely new class of gamma-ray nuclear weapons, which are thousands of times more powerful than chemical weapons and (the article stated) "could trigger the next arms race."

That is the greatest danger, as Feinstein noted: a new nuclear arms race. Which is precisely why it is so important to remember the nuclear test ban treaty four decades ago. It did more than ban the ever-larger nuclear explosions pouring radioactive poison into the atmosphere shared by the whole Earth. It broke the momentum of the arms race, which seemed to be out of human control, propelled by its own deadly logic of inexorably increasing force and counterforce. The Cuban Missile Crisis had sobered the U.S. and Soviet leaders into seriously negotiating a treaty.

What made a crucial difference was President John F. Kennedy's eloquent and persistent attack on the irrational logic of the arms race, and his insistence that humanity begin preparing for peace with the same courage and diligence as it prepares for war.

To those who think peace is unrealistic in a world of conflict, Kennedy countered, in a speech at American University, that this view means "that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view." Then he used the phrase that more than any other sums up the Kennedy faith: "Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man."

He advocated an attainable peace "based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions. ... Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. ... For peace is a process, a way of solving problems."

In its most quoted phrases (spoken more recently, without attribution, by a fictional Russian president in Tom Clancy's film The Sum of All Fears) Kennedy said: "For in the final analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal." How different these words are than any we have heard recently.

"What kind of peace do I mean?" Kennedy asked. "Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war ..."I am talking about genuine peace, not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women; not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time."

The test ban treaty was negotiated in the midst of the suspicions and fears of the Cold War, just as today's world is permeated with suspicions and fears of terrorism. We desperately need to remember this first step toward peace. The threat of nuclear weapons, of becoming captives of an arms race and a psychology of war, belongs not just to history.