Book Review: Strategic Terror (2006)

The politics and ethics of aerial bombardment
by Beau Grosscup
Review by Brian Wright

Originally posted in July 2012.

As many Americans, I’ve tended until recently to put out of my mind the actual effects of aerial bombardment on, you know, people, especially when the bombs are dropped by the American military or its allies over there. It’s just too easy to attend to other matters, to focus on our brave boys doing all the work, flying the planes, risking being shot down, and so on. How many times have the media shown the aftermath, on the ground, of an aerial bombing?

Once I became ready to face the harsh reality, it took a microsecond to grasp that being bombed from aircraft, in the city or the country, is probably the most horrific holy hell any living being can go through. Your screaming children writhing from shards of glass, people crushed or buried alive by falling concrete and steel, appendages torn off in an instant, then with the incendiaries like napalm—esp. napalm-B[1] coming along in the Vietnam Warcrime era—people’s lives ending in a slow, excruciating fireball of goo. [Speaking of Vietnam and antipersonnel weapons, millions of the ingeniously sadistic CBU (cluster bomb unit) 24s were dropped from US aircraft (mostly via B-52s and B-57s from undetectable altitudes).[2][3]


Professor Grosscup starts by giving us the early history of aerial bombing, at the point where the flying technology and bombardiering technology were coming together… essentially the WW1 era. The author notes four major theoreticians, whom he calls the Prophets: Giulio Drouhet (Italy), Hugh Trenchard and Sir Basil Liddell Hart (England), and William ‘Billy’ Mitchell (United States). As every other political figure or military mind, the Prophets were horrified by World War I, the so-called Great War; they saw the millions of men killed in trenches as a feminine, defensive war, where nothing was glorified and offensive attack was suicidal. Strategic bombing became the savior of the affirmative role of manly martial prowess in stoking the Western patriarchies.

The advocacy of strategic bombing began by explicitly acknowledging the need and/or the desirability of inflicting death and destruction (terror) on civilians. Early in the 20th century, conventions at the Hague announced strictures against harming noncombatants in war, so long as they were European noncombatants. The poor colonials were a different story, and all the major ‘civilized’ nations conducted vigorous bombing campaigns on people in their colonies between WW1 and WW2. The Brits were the worst:

In 1919, under the command of the future and controversial air power chief Arthur Harris, the British bombed the Afghanistan cities of Jalalabad and Kabul. In the same year, they employed Trenchard’s RAF to quash the Egyptian demand for independence. In addition to the bombing of Somaliland, in 1920 British planes struck the Iranian town of Enzeli and civilian populations in Transjordan. Also in 1920, the British began using bombers in innovative ways to enforce their new imperial strategy of ‘control without occupation’ in Iraq. The practice of bombing entire areas was inaugurated for what were labeled ‘pacification’ purposes. [Nonstop] aerial attacks on entire villages were used to soften up civilians before the arrival of the tax collector… [the passage goes on to describe English aerial atrocities against the Hottentots of SW Africa in 1922, 1925, 1930, 1932 and massive bombing of ‘rebellious’ villages in Burma and northwest India in 1932.] Spain, France, and Italy also bombarded colonial peoples in the interwar years. — Page 55

Today the air terrorists do not care whether their targets are colonials or other ‘civilized’ nationals. The wanton destruction of civilians by Western powers continues with moral sanction by the imperial Western governments.

Question of Terror

The author continues to describe how strategic bombing has dominated the thinking of Western militarists and empire junkies through all the armed conflicts into Iraq II. In the beginning they advocated it as terror:

“Wars could be won, they proposed, almost from the dawn of the age of aviation, provided air power was used for strategic ‘terror’ bombing of civilians. This advocacy of terrorism, which became the core of strategic bombing doctrine, was made without hesitation or apology. Since then, the moral and political climate has shifted….” — Page 12

Now terror is something done by ‘the other.’ And the Western powers are in an awkward position, because terror means harming innocent civilians.

“It is civilian innocence that provokes the moral issue, if not qualms, when noncombatants are targeted in war. In classical and contemporary terms, it is at the core of what is deemed to be the immorality of terrorism.” — Page 48

The powers can’t deny they’re targeting civilians and therefore they cannot deny they are engaging in terrorism, just as the powers said they were doing back in the early part of the previous century. But it’s all right, simply fly the F15s over the football stadium, sing the Star Spangled Banner, and march the Marines through the town square waving the Flag and flashing the Cross. The people won’t call you on it. But once in a great while an American will come to terms. Here’s Randy Floyd from the 1974 film on Vietnam, Hearts and Minds:

During the missions, after the missions, the result of what I was doing, the result of this game, and this exercise of my technical expertise, never really dawned on me. That reality of the screams or the people blown away, or their homeland being destroyed, just was not a part of what I thought about. We as Americans have never experienced that, we’ve never experienced any kind of devastation. When I was there, I never saw a child that got burned by napalm. I didn’t drop napalm but I dropped things just as bad. I dropped CBUs, which can’t destroy anything, it’s meant for people, it’s an anti-personnel weapon. We used to drop canister upon canister of these things with two hundred tumbling little balls in there about this big around with about 600 pellets in each ball that would blow out as soon as it hit the ground and shred people to pieces. They couldn’t be gotten out in many cases. People would suffer; they would live, but they would suffer, often they would die afterwards. This would cause people to have to take care of them…. I look at my children now. And I don’t know what would happen, what I would think about-if someone napalmed them.

Someday soon we can only hope consciousness will trump war. A great and informative book that will have you questioning government authority and searching your soul.

[1] Napalm-B was developed and manufactured by Dow Chemical 1965-1969 mainly for use in the Vietnam Warcrime. Faced with protests at the time, management decided “its first obligation was the government.”

[2] “… called the Pineapple, many thousands of tons of the CBU-24 cluster bombs [the book asserts 285 million bombs, but I can’t find the cited reference]—each containing 665 ‘bomblets,’ each bomblet containing thousands of pieces of shrapnel and flammable agents, designed to saturate an km-square area. These cluster munitions were designed to demoralize the enemy by maiming rather than killing their victims, thus overwhelming enemy health services…. Like landmines, many went undetected for years only to explode when disturbed. Three decades after the war, the bright yellow ‘toys’ are still terrorizing the children and parents of Indochina.” — Page 89

[3] “Claiming to minimize civilian casualties, the US Air Force box-bombed rural Indochina. James Gibson, in The Perfect War, describes the basic carpet-bombing technique thus: ‘They often first dropped explosive bombs in order to “open up the structures,” then napalm to burn out the contents, and finally CBU-24s to kill the people who came running to help those who were burning.'” — Page 89 [Please refer to my review of Hearts and Minds and the comments of Randy Floyd to get the full impact of the monstrous inhumanity and the denial.]

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