Wild Justice: Against the War? Be There!

Written by Alexander Cockburn on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


Against the War? Be There!

We’re witnessing the largest outcry in history against an imminent war with the imminent aggressors–the U.S. and UK–so frightened of the outcry that they have been trying to curb the demonstrations in New York and London. The one in New York is scheduled for Feb. 15, with the gathering point as of this writing at noon at 49th St. and 1st Ave. On Monday, a federal court ruled in favor of the NYPD, denying next Saturday’s demonstrators the right to march past the United Nations. Desmond Tutu told the march’s organizers in United For Peace and Justice that the ban reminded him of the day of apartheid in South Africa. For updates, check the UFPJ website or listen to WBAI radio. The UFPJ website also has information about the various feeder marches that will meet earlier and proceed to the main march.

Folks, this one is truly important. Everyone out there will count in what may be our last chance to prevent the war on Iraq. And it will be a remarkable moment, a worldwide demonstration for peace, perhaps the largest worldwide protest in history. Or at least in modern times. Another major demonstration in this country is planned for San Francisco, but the date has shifted to Feb. 16.

There are demos around the world–more than 315 cities–on all continents! There’s even a demonstration scheduled outside of the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. As for New York, the buzz is, this is going to be a major amount of people. Nobody is giving out numbers except to say it will build on the success of the Jan. 18 demonstration that the Washington Post called the largest antiwar demo since the Vietnam period. The London Daily Mirror several weeks ago forecast that there will be ten million turning out worldwide for all these protests.

The Gothamites on the streets Saturday will include plenty who watched in horror as the World Trade Center fell. Survivors and survivors’ kin are playing a prominent role. The antiwar sentiment continues to build here even as the Big Apple is a prime target for further damage. Whatever the stresses and strains within the movement about ANSWER, United for Peace and Justice is organizing this one. Leslie Cagan and other longtime hands are involved. Several hundred volunteers made a huge literature outreach last weekend. There’s lots of labor involvement, youth, war veterans.

After Sept. 11, there were pledges about ensuring better cooperation between federal authorities and the NYPD. That seems to be just what Bush and Bloomberg have had in mind. In the negotiations between the city and UFPJ, after an initial offer of a march permit (not for the route desired by UFPJ) the march offer was taken off the table altogether and now a federal judge has upheld that decision. The pressure on the NYPD may not have been so subtle. The Bush/Ashcroft operation sent federal prosecutors to the court hearing and the feds filed an amicus brief.

Another unsettling aspect is how the city has been using pens–metal enclosures–to chop up demonstrations, even relatively small ones. This tactic has made it very difficult to find friends, to feel that the assembled crowd has a collective presence. Rather, it often feels as though the police want to cage up people to demoralize and control. Here in the U.S., we are unlikely to wake up one morning to find a coup. Instead, we get the shredding of civil liberties in fits and starts, until one fine day we wake up to find it’s all gone.

The word "new"–as in "new U.S. doctrine" or "new imperial role"–has no place in any discussion of the latest Western plans for Iraq, any more than does the silly phrase "Revolution in Military Affairs." The Pentagon is leaking plans for its impending missile barrage of Baghdad and other ancient settlements in the cradle of civilization. It was once called "terror bombing," but now is dignified with the label of "a new strategy" known as "Shock and Awe."

The "strategy," so news stories excitedly disclose, was "conceived at the National Defense University in Washington, in which between 300 and 400 cruise missiles would fall on Iraq each day for two consecutive days, designed as in 1991 to destroy infrastructure such as water and power supplies. The barrage will supposedly involve more than twice the number of missiles launched during the entire 40 days of the 1991 Gulf War. "There will not be a safe place in Baghdad," a Pentagon official told CBS News. "The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before."

The self-styled architect of Shock and Awe, Harlan Ullman of The Defense Group Inc., claims his plan will rely on precision-guided weapons. He talks of a "simultaneous effect–rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima–not taking days or weeks but minutes."

When he relayed the "shock and awe" scenario to the audience of CBS Evening News, Dan Rather said solemnly that, "We assure you this report contains no information that the Defense Department thinks could help the Iraqi military." But the Iraqis had no reason to chafe at Rather’s patriotic discretion. They know what happened in 1991, which itself was a replication of Western bombing strategies in Iraq stretching back as far as 1920 when the Royal Air Force ventured into the "shock and awe" business in the earliest moment of Iraq’s existence as a mandate of the League of Nations after WWI.

As with Palestine and Transjordan, the newly conceived entity of Iraq, created by the imperious drafting pencils of Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence, was under British supervision. As the Turks were evicted, there was brave talk of an independent Iraq. But soon came the familiar vista of colonial supervisors and occupying troops from British garrisons in India. Though Iraq was, as it is today, an essay in enforced multiculturalism, a British stupidity soon wrought the near miracle of the unified revolt of 1920.

At a cost of some 8,000 Iraqi lives, the revolt was finally suppressed. But the British government reeled at the expense of rushing large numbers of troops to the scene. The bill exceeded the entire cost of financing the Arab rising against the Ottomans in WWI.

At this point, the Royal Air Force, desperately seeking rationales for independent existence, stepped forward and offered itself as a thrifty guarantor of the "security" of Iraq. Air Marshall Hugh Trenchard promised that the RAF would cheaply police the former Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia. The RAF took over its new duties in 1922. Only four years old as an independent arm of the British military, the RAF had already formulated a prototype of "shock and awe." Here’s what Wing Commander J.A. Chamier wrote in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute in 1921, under the boastful title, "The Use of Air Power for Replacing Military Garrisons":

"To establish a tradition, therefore, which will prove effective, if only a threat of what is to follow afterwards is displayed, the Air Force must, if called upon to administer punishment, do it with all its might and in the proper manner. One objective must be selected–preferably the most inaccessible village of the most prominent tribe which it is desired to punish. All available aircraft must be collected… The attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle… This sounds brutal, I know, but it must be made brutal to start with. The threat alone in the future will prove efficacious if the lesson is once properly learnt."

Citing Chamier’s prescriptions in a highly informative and witty essay on "The Myth of Air Control" in Aerospace Power Journal (winter, 2000) the military historian James Corum cites the RAF’s Notes on the Method of Employment of the Air Arm in Iraq as proudly pointing out that "within 45 minutes a full-sized village… can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five planes which offer them no real target and no opportunity for glory or avarice."

But just as Tony Blair today faces dissent in the ranks of the British Labor Party, so, too, did dissent ascend from the same ranks three-quarters of a century ago. Displaying far more moral fiber than his remote political descendant in the Foreign Office, the repellent Jack Straw, Colonial Secretary James Thomas wrote to the high commissioner in Iraq stating flatly that reports of heavy civilian casualties in Iraq, a consequence of the RAF’s raids, "will not be easily explained or defended in Parliament by me." The RAF fine-tuned its PR about collateral damage. Henceforth there would be early warnings of "shock and awe" forays, leaving time for the villagers to run away. Then the bombs would rain down, though not, so the RAF insisted, with the aim of actually destroying the village, but merely of disrupting daily life.

Out in the field, such niceties were swiftly discarded. Corum quotes an RAF flight commander based in India’s Northwest Frontier in the 1930s as recalling the fairly constant action against tribes in that part of the empire: "If they went on being troublesome, we would warn them that we would bomb an assembly of people. An assembly was normally defined as ten people… Indeed, in my case I can remember actually finding nine people and saying ‘That’s within ten per cent and that’s good enough,’ so I blew them up."

This was before the days when oil became the prime objective of Western plunder, but time-honored methods of imperial extortion from subject peoples required the collection of taxes, and the RAF was placed in charge of Levies and Collections, bombing to extort money. Nothing has changed, the "tax" in its modern guise being recapture and control of Iraq’s oil. (Corum notes that though "the French, under their air-control doctrine, regularly bombed tribes and villages, no evidence exists that they ever bombed the natives as a means of revenue enforcement, as did the British in Iraq. This difference in air-control doctrines between the French and British may indicate deep cultural differences between the two nations. A likely explanation is that the French are culturally more tolerant of and sympathetic to tax evasion than are the British.")

Naturally enough, the RAF was at great pains to suppress in its reports and histories of campaigns in Iraq the role of the army, thus giving the entirely false impression that air power alone could maintain imperial control. But, in fact, RAF bombing accuracy in the inter-war period was mostly awful and there were all the usual unfortunate mistakes, familiar today to those following U.S. bombing mishaps in Afghanistan.

Bombing remote Kurd villages was one thing, but dropping bombs on Palestinian villages was quite another. The outbreak of the Arab revolt in Palestine from 1936 to 1939 elicited eager suggestions from RAF commanders, such as Air Commodore Arthur Harris, commanding officer of the RAF in Palestine and later chief of Bomber Command in WWII–and hence one of the major war criminals of the twentieth century. Harris offered his recipe to halt Arab unrest: Drop "one 250-pound or 500-pound bomb in each village that speaks out of turn… The only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand, and sooner or later it will have to be applied." The British army saw this as folly, and certain to make a bad situation worse. Harris’ advice was rejected, and the world had to wait until later years to see Israeli bombers dropping U.S.-supplied explosives on Palestinian villages and camps.

In the years after the Second World War, the U.S. Air Force prowled eagerly through the RAF’s mendacious accounts of its prewar triumphs in Iraq. Corum reports that among these enthusiasts, Col. Raymond Sleeper, a member of the Air War College faculty, developed Project Control, an air-control doctrine to deal with the Soviet Union. In an article in Air University Review in 1983, Lt. Col. David Dean, USAF, issued a fervent but misleading testimonial of the RAF’s experience with air control. Dean saw air control as a cheap and effective way of policing the empire. The air-power theorist Carl Builder discussed British air control in an Airpower Journal article in 1995, arguing that it provided an excellent model for the kind of "constabulary missions" in support of the United Nations or "peace operations."

But as Corum concludes, "the idealized air-control system described by U.S. Air Force writers never really existed… Basically, one could barely justify air control as a doctrine 80 years ago, and people who advocate an updated version of such doctrine for current U.S. Air Force operations have misread history."

So much for "new strategies" and "revolutions in military affairs." The punitive expedition pressed by Bush and his circle remains squarely within the tradition of similar punitive expeditions launched, with aerial bombardments, nearly 80 years ago over the same terrain.

..