nettime's_roving_reporter on Sun, 30 May 1999 22:33:47 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Boston Globe: Bombs Are Killing More Civilians Than Expected


   Bombs killing more civilians than expected
   By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff, 05/30/99
   Despite NATO's efforts to keep its war against Slobodan
   Milosevic as surgically ''clean'' as possible, the bombing of
   Yugoslavia has killed, ton for ton, as many civilians as other air
   campaigns of the past quarter-century.
   In more than two months, NATO has dropped about 15,000 bombs,
   releasing about 13,000 tons of explosive power. Remarkably, only a few
   dozen of these weapons have gone astray or hit the wrong target. Yet
   Serbian sources have reported, and NATO officials do not deny, that
   those errant bombs have killed 1,200 civilians - or roughly one
   civilian for every 10 tons dropped.
   The ratio is remarkably similar to that of major bombing campaigns in
   the Vietnam War. In the 1964-67 Operation Rolling Thunder, 650,000
   tons of bombs unintentionally killed 52,000 North Vietnamese
   civilians. In the Christmas 1972 bombing around Hanoi and Haiphong
   Harbor, 20,000 tons killed 1,600.
   By this measure, the rate of civilian casualties was lower during the
   1991 air war against Iraq, when 100,000 tons of bombs - more than
   seven times as many as have been dropped so far in Yugoslavia - killed
   about 2,500 civilians, twice as many as killed in Yugolavia.
   The weapons dropped on Yugoslavia are more accurate than those of past
   wars. But that very fact has emboldened commanders to drop more of
   them on targets that require accuracy - for example, a particular
   building on a downtown street. And since, as Pentagon spokesmen note,
   some of even these bombs are bound to miss, more civilians die than
   anyone had predicted.
   ''It's like engineers building bridges,'' said Eliot Cohen, a
   professor at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced
   International Studies and chief author of the US Air Force's
   five-volume post-war study of the Iraqi air campaign.
   ''Technology is so much better now, you'd think there wouldn't be any
   failures at all,'' he continued. ''So why do they happen? Because,
   with the new technology, engineers will go closer and closer to the
   tolerances of what the materials will handle. They're pushed to their
   limits - and so, something goes wrong.''
   Robert Pape, professor at Dartmouth College and the author of
   ''Bombing to Win,'' a book about strategic bombing through the
   century, makes a similar point: ''It doesn't take much, in the way of
   bombs missing their targets, to produce a lot of dead bodies.''
   In this respect, the comparisons of deaths per ton in previous wars is
   somewhat misleading. In the earlier wars, relatively few bombs - in
   the case of Iraq, only about 5 percent - were dropped on the centers
   of cities. In the current war, on the other hand, well over half the
   bombs have been aimed at targets in the middle of Belgrade and other
   In other words, if NATO were hitting Belgrade's targets with the
   weapons of Vietnam or Desert Storm, the level of casualties would be
   far, far higher.
   Furthermore, by any measure, the bombing campaigns of recent times
   have wreaked far less wanton death and destruction than those of the
   more distant past.
   In World War II, which heralded the age of air power in a big way,
   there was scant concern about civilian casualties - partly because
   this was a ''total war,'' and partly because nothing much could be
   done about it, anyway.
   At the start of the war, the British Royal Air Force tried to bomb the
   ''vital nerve centers'' of the German economy, but that meant flying
   in daylight in order to see the targets. German fighter pilots and
   anti-aircraft gunners shot the British bombers out of the sky.
   Within short order, the British started flying at night. This was
   before radar, so they could barely find the right city, much less
   specific factories.
   So the strategists made a virtue of necessity and declared that the
   main target of the attack was the ''morale'' of the German people. The
   theory was that, once morale waned, the regime would crumble or the
   people would overthrow its leaders.
   ''Morale bombing'' killed nearly 300,000 German civilians and wounded
   another 780,000. One-fifth of all German homes were destroyed. Sir
   Arthur Harris, the RAF bomber commander, denied charges that he was
   engaging in ''indiscriminate bombing.'' Rather, Harris responded, he
   was ''de-housing'' German workers.
   Official US studies after the War concluded that this destruction had
   no effect on the German war effort and, if anything, stiffened German
   The US Army Air Force stuck with a doctrine of ''precision bombing''
   against Germany, mainly against large industrial facilities that were
   easy to see - power stations, oil refineries, railyards - but with
   mixed results.
   In Operation Thunderclap, in February 1945, B-17 bombers tried to
   destroy Nazi government buildings in Berlin. And some of them did, but
   the bombs fell all around the center of the city, destroying other
   things and people, too. Besides, most of the government ministries had
   been emptied out (a problem with going after ministry buildings in
   Iraq and Serbia, too).
   In the war against Japan, ''precision bombing'' failed to hit much of
   anything. So the US air commander, General Curtis E. LeMay, reverted
   to the British strategy of bombing cities, not specific targets - and
   mainly with firebombs, to spread the damage.
   A single attack over Tokyo, on March 9, 1945, involving a convoy of
   334 B-29 bombers, burned up 16 square miles of territory, killing
   83,793 Japanese civilians, wounding 40,918, and leveling 267,171
   That month, US air raids poured a similar rain of destruction on 33
   cities across Japan.
   LeMay said in a 1981 interview that he picked his targets out of the
   World Almanac, looking at a list of Japan's largest cities and how
   many square miles they comprised. Square miles were all his bombers
   could hit. In the spring of 1945, he calculated the war would be over
   by September - when, he reasoned, he would run out of square miles to
   burn. (As it turned out, the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and
   Nagasaki, and Emperor Hirohito's fear that more were on the way, ended
   it a few weeks sooner.)
   The Korean War was the last time US commanders deliberately bombed
   whole cities, and then just briefly. In 1950, at the start of the war,
   B-29s carpet-bombed five North Korean cities. The results have never
   been known in the West - except that it did not stop the North from
   waging war.
   Korea also saw the first use, in any number, of ''guided'' bombs,
   which had been introduced at the end of World War II. A crewman would
   sit in the bomb bay, with binoculars and a joystick, guiding the bomb
   toward its target by radio signals or, later, radar.
   The problem was that the pilot had to fly in a straight and level line
   for 30 seconds, while the bomb ''locked on'' to its target. During
   that time, the plane was an easy target for antiaircraft gunners.
   Attrition was horrendous. The Air Force soon abandoned the effort.
   The Vietnam War saw the debut of guided air-to-ground missiles that
   were guided to their targets by a crewman watching it on a TV screen.
   However, according to Pierre M. Sprey, a former Pentagon official who
   conducted an official study of guided missiles, the TV screens had
   poor resolution, smoke or fog rendered them useless, and a pilot still
   had to fly straight and level for 15 seconds - very risky in an age of
   not only antiaircraft guns but surface-to-air missiles, which the
   North Vietnamese had acquired in great quantity from their Soviet
   Nearly 20 years passed before ''smart bombs,'' as they have been
   nicknamed, came of age. In Operation Desert Storm, laser-guided bombs
   hit the smallest of targets - narrow bridges, an airplane on a runway
   - and, in one celebrated case, darted straight down the chimney of a
   ministry headquarters, blowing the building to smithereens.
   US Air Force studies after the war revealed the successes had not been
   as universal as the widely broadcast film clips suggested. Still, the
   new technology allowed commanders to bomb more targets inside cities,
   while doing less damage to the surrounding areas.
   However, the studies also revealed that bombing Baghdad had little
   effect on the war. It was, instead, the bombing of Iraq's tanks and
   soldiers in the deserts of Kuwait that shattered resistance to the US
   ground invasion that followed.
   The bombing of Belgrade and other Yugoslav cities seems to be having
   little effect on the fields of Kosovo as well. Nor is that its point.
   John A. Warden, the air-war theorist who devised much of Desert
   Storm's strategy, wrote, ''One does not conduct an attack against
   industry or infrastructure because of the effect it might ... have on
   field forces,'' but rather for ''its direct effect on national
   leaders'' and how continuing the war will affect ''their own
   In other words, with bombing Serbia's power plants, oil refineries, TV
   towers, and other essentials of modern life, NATO has gone back to
   bombing the ''morale'' of the enemy people.
   This story ran on page A33 of the Boston Globe on 05/30/99.
    Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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