January 06, 2009

Precision Bombing? Nonsense

After the American Century

Once again, official spokesmen are chanting a technological hymn. The words have been much the same for more than half a century. A serious, well-groomed person wearing nice clothing, who seems like a good middle-class person, tells us that the military must defend its civilian population. But not to worry, s/he continues, because with the fabulous new accurate weapons being used, the bombing is precise. Sometimes they say "surgically precise."

This is nonsense. The religion of accuracy was preached in Vietnam and again in every war since then, and in every case many more civilians die than enemy soldiers. In fact, the twentieth century was a disaster for civilians in warfare. During World War I civilians accounted for one out of every seven deaths. But then weapons got far more powerful (and accurate of course), and in World War II civilians accounted for two out of every three deaths - 67%. With each subsequent conflict the proportion rises further. In Iraq it appears that more than 90% of the dead are civilians.

I certainly hope that the weapons do not get any more accurate and precise, or we will no doubt reach that perfect state where the bombs always go where they are intended to go, and 100% of those killed are bystanders. We have almost reached this point now.

Some will read this column as a criticism of Israel, for invading the Gaza Strip, and for the "accurate attack" on a target which turned out to be a UN school. But my point is that all the world's powerful military establishments use these "accuracy" arguments. It is a comforting thought that shooting the bad guys resembles a video arcade game, and there is a nice euphemism for civilian deaths - "collateral damage."

Extremists on both sides are happy when the missiles start to fly and the heavy artillery wheels into place. Neither side can bomb its way to peace. But the arts of peace are more difficult and less glamorous in this action-film fantasy world than the martial art of war. Indeed, the New York Times recently reported that the US military is now using arcade games as a recruiting technique. The nice thing about video games is there is no blood on the floor, no matter how many precision shots are squeezed off.