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A hundred years of bombing the Arabs

14 June 2011

It all started just three years after the Wright Brothers’ first public demonstration of powered flight in Paris in 1908, and oddly enough the Libyans were the first to suffer. In 1911 the Libyan Arab tribes opposed an Italian attempt to annex what was then a lightly-administered Turkish possession.

On 26 October, 1911, pilot officer Giulio Gavotti dropped, by hand, four 2kg bombs from his biplane on the oases of Tagiura and Ain Zara near Tripoli.  The bombing was a reprisal for a counter-attack by Turkish troops and their Arab tribal allies that had nearly driven the Italian invaders into the sea. Tribal warriors from the oases had distinguished themselves in the battle, and being out of range of the bullets and bayonets used in the retaliatory butchering of non-combatants  in Tripoli, the air attack was a convenient substitute.    

According to the first communiqué of the air force it had “A wonderful effect on the morale of the Arabs”.

Of course the colonial land-grab was sold as a civilizing mission against violent untrustworthy natives. The futurist poet, Tommaso Marinetti, flying above the Tripoli bloodbath lauded the “insane sculptures that our bullets carve out of the masses of our enemies”. The war, he felt, was “hygienic” and “a moral education”.  The Italians conquered Libya but never pacified it despite a brutal campaign against the locals.

The French followed the Italian lead in 1912, sending six planes to a “police action” in their bit of Morocco. The pioneer aviators soon found that bombing was most effective against soft civilian targets – towns, bazaars, livestock and crops. In 1913 the Spanish began dropping shrapnel bombs on rebellious Moroccan villagers. Over the following years they graduated to poison gas.

1925 was a landmark year for the rapidly-evolving use of air power’s civilizing mission. The French bombed dozens of Syrian villages and even parts of Damascus and American mercenary fliers indiscriminately bombed the undefended town at Chechaouen, a Muslim holy town in Spanish Morocco, in revenge for a severe defeat suffered by a retreating Spanish army. The London Times reporter called it “the most cruel, the most wanton, and the most unjustifiable act of the whole war”, and reported that “absolutely defenceless women and children were massacred and many others were maimed and blinded”.

The British, struggling to suppress tribal opposition and nationalist movements in their sprawling empire, weren’t far behind the others. From 1915 on, the RAF bombed Pathan villages on India’s North-West Frontier (nowadays Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal areas, where  the US Air Force continues to use the same tactic). In May 1919 the RAF targeted the cities of Afghanistan, dropping six tons of bombs on Jalalabad and inflicting 600 casualties in a dawn to dusk raid on Dacca. Then, on Empire Day, they hit Kabul with a four-engine bomber raid.

Under Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the RAF took to “police bombing” Iraqi Arabs and Kurds with enthusiasm. The British dubbed this strategy “control without occupation”. Does it sound familiar? It should, because it’s exactly what the US air force has been doing for many years, using sea-launched cruise missiles and, lately, Hellfire missiles launched from high-altitude drones. While these modern munitions can hit a small house with pin-point accuracy, the computer-game warriors flying the drones from a lounge chair somewhere and the intelligence officers picking the targets don’t really know who’s in that house and so they massacre innocents with monotonous regularity. In theory it’s clean and “surgical”, in practice it’s pretty much the same outcome as before.

Control without occupation was first incarnation of a strategy that’s now being used in Libya. What was sold as merely the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect civilians against Gadaffi’s near-monopoly on Libyan air power, rapidly morphed into the coalition using their planes as ground-attack support for the Benghazi rebel groups as well as strategic bombing of infrastructure.

You can’t actually win a land war from the air and the western-sponsored Libyan rebel groups are weak and disorganised, militarily-speaking, so mission-creep has set in and control without occupation is rapidly drifting towards European boots on the ground. Already, supposedly “ex”-SAS soldiers have been photographed in Misrata and British politicians are even admitting that the anti-Gadaffi forces may fragment if they win,  so Libya will need European “peace keeping” troops there for many years.

The vast majority of Europeans, Americans and Australians are entirely ignorant of the long and bloody history of western intervention  in North Africa, Arabia and Western Asia and the media (especially the Murdoch empire) entertains them with a steady diet of anti-Islamic and racist prejudice. The West blunders along in a fog of historical amnesia – not a good formula for progress – and the folk on the receiving end never forget.