The American way of bombing?

At Open Democracy, Derek Gregory writes: The problems with remote-controlled warfare are legion. The human operator ‘is terribly remote from the consequences of his actions; he is likely to be sitting in an air-conditioned trailer, hundreds of miles from the area of battle.’ He evaluates ‘target signatures’ captured by various sensor systems that ‘no more represent human beings than the tokens in a board-type war game.’

The rise of this new ‘American way of bombing’, as it’s been called, has two particularly serious consequences. First, ‘through its isolation of the military actor from his target, automated warfare diminishes the inhibitions that could formerly be expected on the individual level in the exercise of warfare’. In short, killing is made casual. Secondly, once the risk of combat is transferred to the target, it becomes much easier for the state to go to war. Domestic audiences are disengaged from the violence waged in their name: ‘Remote-controlled warfare reduces the need for the public to confront the consequences of military action abroad.’

All familiar stuff, you might think, except that these warnings were not prompted by the appearance of Predators and Reapers in the skies over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen. They appeared in Harper’s Magazine in June 1972, the condensed results of a study of the US air war in Indochina by a group of scholar-activists at Cornell University. As they suggest, crucial elements of today’s ‘drone wars’ were assembled during the US bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. There were three of them: drones, real-time visual reconnaissance, and the electronic battlefield.

The US fought multiple air wars in Indochina. The air strikes against North Vietnam involved what is now called deliberate targeting, in which targets are identified and assigned to aircrews before take off. To the US military the first series of attacks from 1965 to 1968 (code-named ‘Rolling Thunder’) was an interdiction campaign to close lines of communication and choke off the supply of men and materials from the North to the insurgency in the South. To President Johnson and his civilian advisers, however, its purpose was to open up a different line of communication: bombing was a way of ‘sending a message’ to Hanoi, designed to coerce the North through a ‘diplomatic orchestration of signals and incentives, of carrots and sticks, of the velvet glove of diplomacy backed by the mailed fist of air power.’ From either perspective the campaign had to be carefully controlled and calibrated, but the air intelligence was of variable quality. Starting in October 1964 the US Air Force sought to improve the situation by using reconnaissance drones, which were launched from C-130A transport aircraft on programmed flight paths over target areas in North Vietnam (and Laos) and then recovered off Da Nang.

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