Home News The myth of “humane” American warfare

The myth of “humane” American warfare

The US/”international community” campaign against Libya is partially based on the false premise that the US wages war in a significantly more humane and discriminate manner than most Third World military forces do. Much of this can be attributed to the media hype over “smart bombs” and similar assertions that more precise targeting has enabled the US to avoid the deaths of innocent civilians. This discourse cleverly obscures the fact that the US military and diplomatic establishment understands that pressuring civilians is a common tactic to force capitulation. Whether a war is fought against a sovereign nation-state or an armed insurgency, civilian populations living under the control of enemy forces are commonly viewed as either potential fighters or passive supporters of belligerency. The US, which often finds its military occupations and proxy forces confronted with popular opposition throughout the world, is no stranger to these views.

The inherent contradiction in all this was described by Ward Thomas in “Victory by Duress: Civilian Infrastructure as a Target in Air Campaigns“:

Recent trends in the use of air power by the United States have given rise to a striking paradox. Although better technology allows air campaigns to be more discriminating, and norms against directly targeting civilians remain strong, some Air Force thinking—including the ascendancy of “effects-based” targeting—evince a growing willingness to target civilian infrastructure in an attempt to undermine popular support for the war effort.

The most obvious example of this would be the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent UN sanctions regime against Iraq. During the initial conflict in 1991, the US military destroyed Iraq’s electric, industrial, and transit capabilities to the point that a UN fact-finding mission declared that:

Nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the particular form of devastation which has now befallen the country. The recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the economic infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology.

An article in the Washington Post at the time made it clear that the US fully intended to inflict suffering on Iraqi civilians. It quoted a senior Air Force officer justifying this by suggesting that Iraqi civilians bore some responsibility for Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait: “The definition of innocents gets to be a little bit unclear. They do live there, and ultimately the people have some control over what goes on in their country.”

It also made clear that the target selection was based on a comprehensive strategy. According to another officer involved in planning the air war:

The reason you take out electricity is because modern societies depend on it so heavily and therefore modern militaries depend on it so heavily. It’s a leveraged target set. People say, ‘You didn’t recognize that it was going to have an effect on water or sewage. Well, what were we trying to do with [United Nations-approved economic] sanctions–help out the Iraqi people? No. What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of the sanctions.

Col. John A. Warden III, a deputy director of strategy for the Air Force, declared that by taking out Iraq’s electricity, the US had “imposed a long-term problem on the leadership that it has to deal with sometime. […] If there are political objectives that the U.N. coalition has, it can say, ‘Saddam, when you agree to do these things, we will allow people to come in and fix your electricity.’ It gives us long-term leverage.”

As another planner put it: “Big picture, we wanted to let people know, ‘Get rid of this guy and we’ll be more than happy to assist in rebuilding. We’re not going to tolerate Saddam Hussein or his regime. Fix that, and we’ll fix your electricity.’”

report by Human Rights Watch examined credible claims that the bombing directly targeted food storage warehouses, water treatment plants, and agricultural facilities. It is hard to comprehend how any of these targets could be reasonably construed as “dual-use” or as needed for Iraqi military’s command and control functions.

Needless to say, the humanitarian condition this left Iraq in was dire.

The crippling of the electrical system multiplied geometrically the daily living horror of the people of Iraq. As a modern country, Iraq was reliant on electrical power for essential services such as water purification and distribution, sewage treatment, the operation of hospitals and medical laboratories, and agricultural production. Bomb damage, exacerbated by shortages attributable to the UN/US embargo, dropped electricity to three or four percent of its pre-war level; the water supply fell to five percent, oil production was negligible, the food distribution system was devastated, the sewage system collapsed, flooding houses with raw sewage, and gastroenteritis and extreme malnutrition were prevalent.Two months after the war ended, a public health team from Harvard University visited health facilities in several Iraqi cities. Based on their research, the group projected, conservatively, that “at least 170,000 children under five years of age will die in the coming year from the delayed effects” of the destruction of electrical power, fuel and transportation; “a large increase in deaths among the rest of the population is also likely. The immediate cause of death in most cases will be water-borne infectious disease in combination with severe malnutrition.” One member of both the Harvard group and a later research group which visited Iraq testified before Congress that “Children play in the raw sewage which is backed up in the streets … Two world renowned child psychologists stated that the children in Iraq were ‘the most traumatized children of war ever described’” (William Blum, Killing Hope, ch. 52)

It is further worth noting that the US anticipated the total collapse of Iraq’s water purification capabilities as a result of the UN sanctions regime. A January 1991 cable from the Defense Intelligence Agency was blunt in its assessment that:

Iraq depends on importing-specialized equipment–and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is heavily mineralized and frequently brackish to saline. With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent [UN] sanctions to import these vital commodities. Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease.

To make matters worse, high ranking US officials repeatedly declared that nothing short of Saddam Hussein being pushed out of power would result in the sanctions being lifted. Robert Gates, Obama’s current Secretary of Defense, said that “Iraqis will pay the price while he is in power” and that “all possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone.”

For more on the sanctions, read Joy Gordon’s Invisible War (Harvard University Press, 2010) or a 2002 article in Harper’s entitled “Cool War.”

The US would return to using these tactics in later conflicts, most notably in the 1999 NATO campaign against Serbia and during counter-insurgency operations following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

So, imagine my surprise when I read President Obama’s letter to Congress justifying the military actions against Libya and found the following passage:

The international community made clear that all attacks against civilians had to stop; Qadhafi had to stop his forces from advancing on Benghazi; pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misrata, and Zawiya; and establish water, electricity, and gas supplies to all areas. Finally, humanitarian assistance had to be allowed to reach the people of Libya. […] Qadhafi has forfeited his responsibility to protect his own citizens and created a serious need for immediate humanitarian assistance and protection, with any delay only putting more civilians at risk.

As it turns out there are even allegation that the Libyan regime is intentionally denying electricity in rebel-held cities (which the regime itself denies). Imagine that: condemnations of a regime for using tactics that the US perfected.

The strategy of destroying civilian infrastructure and blocking necessary imports (often cleverly labeled “dual-use”) can now be seen in Israel’s collective punishment of the Gaza Strip. Many similarities can be found there, including the implication that civilian populations must suffer the consequences of tolerating the presence of rogue forces. It goes without saying that the Israelis learned well from their number one ally.