On Second Thought, Let’s Not Bomb Iraq
Air power won’t help
Why not just go all the way? Why not let the terrorists, such as they are, take over Iraq—and then bomb the Hell out of it? Franz Gayl’s argument has the virtues of clarity and simplicity and counts on air power—America’s “asymmetric advantage”—to keep the war far from our shores.
There’s only one problem. None of Gayl’s argument makes a lick of strategic sense.
The idea that all civilians directly support the state, and therefore can legally be targeted in bombing campaigns, has been roundly rejected by all civilized nations since World War II.
This rejection is based on the very old idea that warfare should, when possible, discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.
And if it isn’t enough for you that the argument is wrong, it’s also stupid.
This distinction between civilized and uncivilized warfare may seem naïve or trivial in light of the atrocities performed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Iraq recently, but the reason we understand these actions as atrocities, rather than the normal way of business, is that we’ve renounced such methods.
Incinerating schools full of innocent children—as would invariably result from the sort of campaign Gayl advocates—would more likely embolden our enemies than demoralize them.
Combined with the fact that Gayl is literally asking that we allow ISIS to establish a state structure in order to facilitate the indiscriminate killing, through air power, of large numbers of Muslims, this effectively means that the strategy he calls for would serve as a theater of terror and butchery.
That we generally reject such tactics is why we can operate in the open … and they can’t.
And speaking of naïve, Gayl’s suggestion that we ought to rely on air power to bring our enemies to their knees comes from a deep ignorance of the history of air warfare.
Learning from history
Despite a bombing campaign far in excess of the scale of any likely attacks on Gayl’s caliphate, Nazi Germany continued to fight until enemies occupied its capitol and nearly all its territory. Japan continued to fight until its navy had ceased to exist and its army collapsed under the treads of Russian tanks.
Victory came when the leaders of those countries resigned themselves to the fact of imminent, catastrophic military defeat at the hands of vastly superior air, land and naval forces.
Indeed, little evidence indicates that morale declined to any consequential degree in either Germany or Japan. While the bombings did some damage to German industry, they may have strengthened the hands of the German and Japanese governments, which had the resources and organization to relieve the suffering.
Other social groups, including those that had resisted fascist and military rule, couldn’t compete. An extensive World War II-style bombing campaign would be a virtual recipe for the destruction of every group in Iraq that might resist ISIS and might very well tighten the group’s grip on the country.
Moreover, ISIS forces thus far have shown only minimal requirement for the traditional infrastructure of a state. They have developed considerable expertise at integrating with—and concealing within—civilian populations. They are perfectly positioned to avoid the worst effects of a strategic air campaign, leaving Iraqi civilians to suffer.
This editorial takes no position regarding the wisdom or legality of an American air campaign against ISIS. But if the president and Congress decide to deploy air power in support of the Iraqi government, they should appreciate that the best use of American air power would come in support of Iraqi army forces in the field—with the goal of defeating ISIS on the battlefield.
Drones and recon planes, with assistance from Iraqi army forces on the ground, could identify ISIS staging areas and operational units. Ground troops would engage, forcing the ISIS fighters into the open where air power could locate and destroy them.
Rinse. Repeat. Air power wins wars in the same manner ground power does—by identifying, fixing and destroying the enemy. This is hard work, but experience in Europe, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya demonstrates that it’s the most effective way to use aerial force.
War is boring. More specifically, war, like politics, is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. Thinking of air power as a tool to simplify war and avoid its difficult complications is, tragically, a characteristic of the American strategic set, but there’s no reason we should continue to indulge it.
The best thing that can be said of the bombing of Dresden and the Tokyo fire raid in World War II is that the men who undertook them felt they had no other option but to bomb, and no better tool than the destruction of heavily populated civilian areas.
They were wrong, but they were sincerely wrong. We have no such excuse.