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The politics of “carpet-bombing,” the ignorance of history, and the usefulness of modern air power

Seemingly all the US presidential candidates, in both parties, agree that “something more” should be done about Daesh or ISIS. Most of them, especially the Republican candidates, seem to think that doing more involves more unrestrained bombing (it is unclear if any of them recognize the similarity to demands for unrestrained bombing of Vietnam). Senator Ted Cruz rendered a particularly vivid version when he called for “carpet bombing” ISIS until the sand glowed, first in a speech on 5 December, and then again during the debate on CNN on 15 December. On 12 November Donald Trump opined that we should “bomb the shit” out of them. I privately hoped that some future debate moderator might challenge this sort of meaningless rhetoric.

At first, my hopes were raised. CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer challenged Mr. Cruz, asking whether his call for carpet bombing would mean “leveling the ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria where there are hundreds of thousands of civilians?” After some rhetorical dodging and a bit of misplaced historical comparison, to his credit, Mr. Cruz clarified: “You would carpet bomb where ISIS is — not a city, but the location of the troops. You use air power directed — and you have embedded special forces to direction the air power. But the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.” We will return to the problems with this clarification in a moment, but as a historian I was disappointed in the next day’s “Debate Fact Check” in the Washington Post. The fact-checkers rightly pointed out that carpet-bombing is not much used these days, but they also claimed that it had essentially gone out with the advent of precision-guided munitions (“smart bombs”) that debuted in the 1991 Gulf War. Thus even the fact checkers missed the real point and mucked up the history.

This isn’t just historical nitpicking. This matters. When frighteningly viable presidential candidates talk about making the sand glow, responsible voters need to take note. When otherwise responsible media outlets can’t get their facts straight while fact-checking, those voters are poorly served by the fourth estate. These kinds of fallacies, mis-rememberings, and outright failures to understand either the history or the current nature of violence applied from the air matter, because that is how America applies its hard power these days. Yes, we have a variety of other means, and we do use them, but political rhetoric and very often the first recourse of the commander-in-chief is to strike from the air. So let’s review.

Avro Lancasters carpet bomb a road junction near Villers Bocage, Normandy, France, 30 June 1944. Imperial War Museum Collections. Collection No.: 4700-19; Reference Number: CL 344. Royal Air Force. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Avro Lancasters carpet bomb a road junction near Villers Bocage, Normandy, France, 30 June 1944. Imperial War Museum Collections. Collection No.: 4700-19; Reference Number: CL 344. Royal Air Force. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

American planners for the bombing campaign in Europe during World War II hoped to bomb industrial targets with great precision and thereby degrade or even destroy German war fighting capacity. They quickly discovered that weather, German air defenses, and technological shortcomings in the bomb sights and navigation systems meant that those raids were far from precise. Achieving results, against either industrial plant or troops deployed to opposed the Normandy landings, meant essentially bombing areas. Waves of planes dropped bombs in dense patterns over wide areas, hoping that enough of them would hit something of importance–thus “carpet-bombing.” There was no other real choice. The lack of precision combined with the massive numbers of bombs led not only to the indiscriminate destruction of German cities, but also the killing of tens of thousands of French civilians, and occasionally fratricide when the bombers released too soon over friendly troops. Similar use of bombers against area targets occurred at times in Korea, Vietnam, and during the 1991 Gulf War. This is where the Washington Post errs. Something like 92 to 94% of the weapons dropped in 1991 were old-fashioned “dumb” bombs. Media coverage at the time emphasized the use of seemingly new precision-guided munitions (generally laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles, actually first used in the early 1970s), but dumb bombs dominated. Furthermore, at times the United States “carpet-bombed” Iraqi troops in defensive positions along the Kuwait-Saudi Arabia border. Survivors attested to those attacks being particularly terrifying, as had their North Vietnamese predecessors.

In 1991, however, those Iraqi troops were literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by empty desert, and relatively easy to see from the air. There was virtually no possibility of collateral damage from the carpet-bombing raids (some collateral damage did occur from mis-directed raids in more urban areas, but no carpet-bombing took place in Iraqi cities). This difference is what really matters in critiquing Mr. Cruz’s comments. He ignores several key realities about modern air power. One is that precision bombing of the kind we are currently doing in Iraq and Syria is much more effective than any form of area bombing. During World War II, it took some 50,000 sorties over German oil refineries to cut their oil production by 60%. In 1991, using precision weapons, the United States reduced Iraqi oil production to near zero after ten days of attacks and only 500 sorties. Another reality, however, is that precision munitions aren’t cheap. In 1991, although comprising only roughly 8% of the munitions, precision weapons accounted for 84% of the cost of the air campaign. Some of our precision munitions are now cheaper, but that has not kept us from beginning to expend them faster than we are making them, as recently reported by the Air Force Chief of Staff. Finally, Mr. Cruz’s effort to clarify that we would not bomb Daesh in the cities, but only their troops, ignores the reality that Daesh is perfectly aware of their vulnerability in the open, and now rarely if ever masses troops outside of cities. Urban fighting is not just the current reality in Syria and Iraq, it is the wave of the future (a reality also recognized in emerging US Army doctrine). Urban environments, surrounded by civilians, provide the best protection for insurgent or terrorist forces from US air power. There is no sand to make glow, only civilian populations. The same civilian population we hope to persuade of American democratic values.

Featured image: Exploding bomb. (c) MADIA via iStock.

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