This aerial onslaught is war at its most stupid
The images of US 'friendly fire' show how good bombers are at hurting, but how bad they are at winning
Wednesday February 7, 2007
Watching a person kill another is the purest horror. Watching it done from the air, from a sanitised distance, is less so. Distance launders the bloodletting and technology purifies it. War becomes another video game. The camera sees no broken bodies. If it sees a mistake it does not see the mistake that caused the mistake.
The video-recording of the attack by two American jets on a British column in Iraq in March 2003, which caused the death of Corporal Matty Hull, should be in any museum of war. We hear the pilots clearly hungry for targets and finding them. They question the identity of the column, which seems to have "friendly" markings, but ground control assures them it is not friendly. They attack, and crow as they score. Ground control calmly tells them they have made a mistake and to head for home. They curse, weep and cry: "We're in jail ... I'm going to be sick." They have killed their own.
Listening to the pilots converse during the attack is to enter a world of ghouls. Death is reduced to technical terms such as "terminal control". Everything is coordinates, visuals, beeps and shudders, as if the fog of Wellington's Waterloo were reincarnated in a static of overlapping call signs, coordinates, ground controllers and Awacs monitors. It appears so slapdash as to make mistake inevitable. The most costly military technology on earth seems to have advanced not an inch from the recording of the Soviet shooting down of a Korean airliner in 1983.
The same sequence of events must have occurred in countless sorties over the past decade in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are now dozens of recorded friendly-fire incidents, including the bombing of the BBC reporter John Simpson in Iraq and what appeared to be the deliberate killing of ITN's Terry Lloyd.
The killing of tens of thousands of civilians is not recorded, let alone analysed. Yet hardly a week passes without news from Iraq and Afghanistan of the destruction of villages and the massacring of wedding parties and car convoys supposedly composed of "guilty" people.
The pilots themselves evoke some sympathy: the recording conveys a wholly different emotion from the transcript. In the familiar phrase of soldiers in combat, they were doing their job. Their glee at finding a target is followed by their all-too-human horror at committing a "blue on blue". I also have sympathy with the reluctance of their commander to hand over tapes to the coroner, Andrew Walker. Soldiers risking their lives in battle are not driving formula one cars or skiing downhill. Their commanders must offer them some protection in the event of error. While pacifists (and the media) might like battles to be fought with real-time cameras fitted to every helmet, it is hard to believe this would add to fighting effectiveness. In split-second decisions on life and death, humans do not always behave nobly or rationally. If subject to the full glare of publicity, they will not take the risks required of armies in war.
In this case two factors override such sympathy. The first is that denying the very existence of evidence to any court is a lie. Tony Blair has already found to his cost that those who lie about the cause of a war are unlikely to be believed about its conduct. When they also lie about its conduct they sacrifice support from an already sceptical public. Professional soldiers know they may die in messy circumstances. That does not mean the circumstances need be concealed. The relatives of victims are owed the facts so as to give sincerity to whatever apology is appropriate.
A wider question is how cases such as this qualify the role of air power. As long as wars have been fought from on high, soldiers have pondered the ethics of killing from a safe height when the scope for mistake is so great. Technical advances in weaponry have made bombs more accurate, yet without much change in their capacity to sew unintended mayhem. This is because a bomb is only as good as its targeting. The missile that famously destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 worked perfectly: it was just programmed with dud intelligence. It is not the A-10 pilot who should "feel sick" at the death of Matty Hull, but the anonymous controller who affirmed: "You are well clear of friendlies."
When bombing from the air kills non-combatants, as it does to an appalling degree, there should at least be a military inquiry into why. This, if nothing else, vindicates the publicity given to the Hull case. Massacres committed by infantrymen are subject to courts martial. If soldiers enter a house by the front door and kill civilians inside, then they are hauled before world opinion and condemned. If a dropped bomb enters the same house through the roof and has the same effect, it is dismissed as collateral damage. In Iraq it is not even recorded.
That military strategy is so casual about bomb inaccuracy is largely due to the technological glamour attached to air forces as against ground troops. The latter are always worse equipped and worse protected. Air commanders have long oversold the efficacy of strategic bombing and ignore the degree to which, in counter-insurgency war, such bombardment can be wildly counter-productive. The destruction of non-military targets and the incidental killing of civilians is far more damaging to the cause of victory than friendly-fire casualties that attract so much publicity and inquiry.
The recent recourse of British troops in Afghanistan to aerial bombardment has, by general agreement, set back the cause of winning hearts and minds. A relative killed or a village destroyed only fertilises the desire for revenge. "One dead Pashtun recruits 10 Taliban," is not an idle boast. Close air support may win one day's battle, but only to necessitate another. Yet Nato forces in Afghanistan continue to bomb villages from the air.
Britain is now fighting two wars which it is patently losing. In such circumstances the killing of the enemy appears to be the only policy that delivers good news. In Iraq and Afghanistan kill rates have taken on the symbolic role they served in Vietnam. "We may not be winning but they are hurting," is the general's desperate cry. Yesterday we were shown how good bombers are at hurting, but how bad they are at winning. They are war at its most stupid.