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The American Cult of Bombing

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Posted on Aug 21, 2014

Photo by Adrian Serghie

By William J. Astore, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

When you do something again and again, placing great faith in it, investing enormous amounts of money in it, only to see indifferent or even negative results, you wouldn’t be entirely surprised if a neutral observer questioned your sanity or asked you if you were part of some cult.  Yet few Americans question the sanity or cult-like behavior of American presidents as they continue to seek solutions to complex issues by bombing Iraq (as well as numerous other countries across the globe).

Poor Iraq. From Operation Desert Shield/Storm under George H.W. Bush to enforcing no-fly zones under Bill Clinton to Operation Iraqi Freedom under George W. Bush to the latest “humanitarian” bombing under Barack Obama, the one constant is American bombs bursting in Iraqi desert air.  Yet despite this bombing—or rather in part because of it—Iraq is a devastated and destabilized country, slowly falling apart at seams that have been unraveling under almost a quarter-century of steady, at times relentless, pounding.  “Shock and awe,” anyone?

Well, I confess to being shocked: that U.S. airpower assets, including strategic bombers like B-52s and B-1s, built during the Cold War to deter and, if necessary, attack that second planetary superpower, the Soviet Union, have routinely been used to attack countries that are essentially helpless to defend themselves from bombing.

In 1985, when I entered active duty as an Air Force lieutenant, if you had asked me which country the U.S. would “have” to bomb in four sustained aerial campaigns spanning three decades, among the last countries I would have suggested was Iraq.  Heck, back then we were still helping Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, sharing intelligence that aided his military in pinpointing (and using his chemical weapons against) Iranian troop concentrations.  The Reagan administration had sent future Bush secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld there to shake Saddam’s hand for a photo op.  We even overlooked Iraq’s “accidental” bombing in 1987 of a American naval vessel, the USS Stark, that resulted in the death of 37 American sailors, all in the name of containing Iran (and Shia revolutionary fervor).

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It’s said that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but Saddam didn’t remain a friend for long.  Emboldened by U.S. support in his war with Iran, he took Kuwait, only to initiate the first round of devastating U.S. air raids against his military during Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-1991.  As these and subsequent bombing campaigns damaged and debilitated Iraq, contributing to Saddam’s overthrow in 2003, the Shia majority in that country found common cause with Iran, strengthening one branch of militant Islam.  At the same time, the general destabilization of Iraq from a generation of air war and invasion has led to a Sunni revolt, the strengthening of an al-Qaeda-style movement, and the establishment of a “caliphate” across significant parts of Iraq (and Syria).

Now, given that less-than-stellar record, does anyone want to hazard a guess about the next American response to peoples and leaders our government doesn’t like in Iraq or the rest of the Middle East?  My money is on more bombing, which surely requires explanation.

Cranking Out Bombers

If one weapon captured the image of the former Soviet Union, it was the main battle tank.  From T-34s during World War II to T-72s near the end of the Cold War, the Russians cranked them out like sausages.  And if one weapon captured the image of the U.S., then and now, it has surely been the bomber, whether of the strategic or heavy variety (think B-52) or the tactical or fighter-bomber variety (think the F-105 in the Vietnam years, the F-15 “Strike Eagle” in Iraq, and for the future, the most expensive weapons system of all time, the F-35).  As the richer superpower, the U.S. cranked out high-tech bombers like so many high-priced sausages. 

“The bomber will always get through.”  That article of faith, first expressed in 1932 by Stanley Baldwin, thrice Prime Minister of Britain, was seized upon by U.S. airpower enthusiasts in the run-up to World War II.  Despite decidedly mixed and disappointing results ever since, bombing remains the go-to choice for American commanders-in-chief.

What we need in 2014 is a new expression that catches the essence of the cult of U.S. air power, something like: “The bomber will always get funded—and used.”

Let’s tackle the first half of that equation: the bomber will always get funded.  Skeptical?  What else captures the reality (as well as the folly) of dedicating more than $400 billion to the F-35 fighter-bomber program, a wildly over-budget and underperforming weapons system that may, in the end, cost the American taxpayer $1.5 trillion.  Yes, you read that right.   Or the persistence of U.S. plans to build yet another long-range “strike” bomber to augment and replace the B-1 and B-2 fleet?  It’s a “must-have,” according to the Air Force, if the U.S. is to maintain its “full-spectrum dominance” on Planet Earth.  Already pegged at an estimated price of $550 million per plane while still on the drawing boards, it’s just about guaranteed to replace the F-35 in the record books, when it comes to delays, cost overruns, and price.  And if you don’t think it’ll get funded, you don’t know recent history.


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