From the destroyed Japanese and German cities of World War II to the devastated Korean peninsula of the early 1950s, from the ravaged South Vietnamese countryside of the late 1960s to the “highway of death” on which much of a fleeing Iraqi army was destroyed in the first Gulf War of 1991, air power has been America’s signature way of war. Once, it was also a major part of Hollywood’s version of war-making on the “silver screen.” More recently, however, air war has largely disappeared from consciousness. It simply hasn’t been part of war, as Americans see, read about, or imagine it, on-screen or off. This is strange.
It’s true that, with the exception of a small number of helicopters downed by rocket-propelled grenades, the present air war in Iraq has been fought without (American) casualties; it’s also been fought largely without publicity and almost completely without reporters. It’s true as well that there are certain obvious disadvantages to covering an air war rather than a ground war. You can’t follow in the wake of a plane heading at supersonic speeds for a target many miles away; and it’s harder to “embed” reporters in the backseat of a jet, no less an unmanned predator drone, than in a Humvee. This was true even during the Vietnam War, although reporters there regularly hitched rides on military helicopters to bases and hotspots around the country. As a result, despite our memory of a single iconic photo of a napalmed Vietnamese girl running screaming down a highway (and she had been seared by a South Vietnamese plane), the fierce American air campaign in South Vietnam was seldom given the attention it deserved. I know of only a single exception to this: In 1967, the young Jonathan Schell managed to talk himself into the backseats of Cessna O-1 forward air control planes flying “visual reconnaissance” over a heavily populated coastal strip of Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province and in his New Yorker series and subsequent book, The Military Half, he provided as vivid and devastating an account as exists of the destruction of the Vietnamese countryside from the air and ground.
It’s worth remembering that the U.S. began its war of choice in Iraq with a massive (and massively promoted) “shock and awe” air and cruise missile attack on Baghdad. The administration was then proud of our one-sided ability to inflict massive, targeted damage on that country’s capital and happy to have it televised. But ever since, the air war and its urban destruction have been kept in the shadows, which might be considered, if not evidence of the military equivalent of shame, then at least, of an “out of sight/out of mind” mentality. Whether by design or not, the U.S. military seems to have kept reporters off air bases and aircraft carriers (after, at least, that first burst of air assault was over). And with the exception of a few helicopter rides over Iraq granted to favored reporters and pundits, usually with their favored generals, reporters simply have not been up in the sky, nor have they — for reasons I find hard to fathom — bothered to look up for the rest of us. As 2004 ended, one TV journalist wrote me:
“My own experience of Iraq is that while we’re all constantly aware of the air power, we’re rarely nearby when it’s deployed offensively. Perhaps that explains why we don’t see it. One does ‘hear’ the airpower all the time though. Fighters and helicopters used to protect convoys; helis shipping people back and forth to bases, or hunting in packs across towns; AWACS high up. I’ve even watched drones making patterns in the sky. So why don’t we film it?”
It’s a question that still hasn’t been answered — or even asked in public.
Yet our air power has been loosed powerfully on heavily populated cities and towns in a country we’ve occupied. This has been done, in part, because American generals have not wanted to send American troops — any more than absolutely necessary — into embattled cityscapes in an ongoing guerrilla war in which they might take heavy casualties (which, in turn, would be likely to cause support for the war to drop at home even more precipitously than it has). Still, it remains amazing to me that Seymour Hersh’s recent important report in the New Yorker, Up in the Air, is the first significant mainstream account since the invasion of Iraq to take up the uses of air power in that country. The piece certainly caused a stir here, becoming part of the suddenly quickening tempo of debate about American withdrawal; but, as readers may have noticed, the air war itself has received no more attention since its publication two weeks ago than previously, which is essentially none. As I wrote back in August 2004, “You might think that the widespread, increasingly commonplace bombing of civilian areas in cities would be a story the media might want to cover in something more than the odd paragraph deep into pieces on other subjects.” You might think so, but based on recent history, don’t hold your breath.
As a result, strangely enough, it has largely been left to writers and reporters not in Iraq to look up and give Americans a sense of what’s going on in the skies — as Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist who until recently covered the war from Baghdad and is now back in this country, has done.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.]