The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

Simon Jenkins on bombing/indiscriminate weaponry

The brilliant Simon Jenkins writes of bombing and indiscrimate weaponry in
today's London Times (attached).  To quantify the essay's relevance to Iraq,
there's this: "A Human Rights Watch report says that of an estimated 24 to
30 million bomblets dropped during the Gulf War, between 1.2 and 1.5 million
did not explode, leading to 1,220 Kuwaiti and 400 Iraqi civilian deaths."

By the way, Jenkins was among those appalled by Sandhurst historian John
Keegan's remark in yesterday's Telegraph, "air power and international
morality now march in step."  God help us.

Drew Hamre
Golden Valley, MN USA


The Times of London
January 17 2001 

Bombs that turn our leaders into butchers 
by Simon Jenkins
Still the war continues, killing and maiming hundreds. Every other day,
someone treads on a bomb, plays with it or hits it with a hoe or a fishing
line. Instantly the years roll back and blood and guts are everywhere. There
are far too many bombs ever to be cleared. When they are discovered and made
safe, their relics are built into fences, roofs and table legs, or act as
baths, water troughs and even keyrings. The rest form a landscape of fear
from which the enemy will never be driven, a killing field that will never
see peace. 

With the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War bombing campaign, and the second
anniversary of the Yugoslav one looming, I last week visited the greatest
bomb-site in history. It is the forgotten Plain of Jars, surely the world's
most unobtrusive battlefield. For nine years, from 1964 to 1973, the tiny
nation of Laos was bombed more ferociously than anywhere before or since.
The bombing failed. Laos was not "bombed back to the Stone Age", as promised
by US generals. It was merely bombed into communism. Communist it remains to
this day. 

The beautiful plain, in reality a long valley flanked by high karst
mountains, is still a morass of craters, each containing unknown horrors.
Its settlements were more blasted than the Somme, more flattened than
Dresden. The 500-year-old provincial capital of Xiang Khouang saw its
temples reduced to dustclouds by B52s, described afterwards as "looking like
Hiroshima". Nobody knows how many people died. The only memorial I saw was
to the 320 villagers of Tham Piu, forced from their homes into a cave, where
a direct hit from a T28 rocket incinerated them. When the regimes of
South-East Asia are told to hand over their "war criminals", they ask in
sincere naivety: "Will Americans be there too?" I am not much given to
battlefield tourism. I have never been a soldier, and find the silent
detritus of war impossible to relate to history's grand logic. We are told
that central Laos has always been contested land, and that Hmong tribesmen
used as mercenaries by the Americans were always foes of the Vietnamese. If
half their menfolk died and two thirds became refugees to keep Laos "safe
from communism", such are the cruelties of history. Laos was proof only that
the weak get hurt when the strong go to war. 

The Laos war was kept secret for six years, as the CIA and its special air
force units supported local troops against the communist Pathet Lao and
Vietcong. Though devoid of legal or moral justification, it was an efficient
war. Commanders freed of bureaucracy and political scrutiny fought well.
Strike aircraft were effective in close support of the Hmong ground troops.
Laos was probably the last war in which airmen took greater risks than
ground troops, notably the forward fire control Cessna pilots. Christopher
Robbins's account of their war, The Ravens, is one of the best battlefield
books I know. 

Robbins's book is a textbook on what air superiority can achieve, and what
it cannot. Its villain is the US Air Force, whose incompetence in South-East
Asia was of Crimean dimensions. By the time Nixon and Kissinger sent the Air
Force's "strategic" B52s to the Plain of Jars in 1970 - against the pleading
of local commanders - the Vietnam War was lost. But punitive bombing exacted
a terrible revenge on Laos, as on Cambodia to the south. Laos suffered a
monsoon of destruction, with a peak of 500 sorties a day. The B52s used
napalm, defoliants and weapons which, on any definition, were "chemical".
They bombed the plain's neolithic jars, like bombing Stonehenge. At night
they hosed anything that moved with cannon. Yet the enemy calmly went on
building roads and moving troops and supplies. The bombs were ineffective. 

America is still "in denial" over Laos, where its chief concern is to search
for the bodies of missing American pilots. It cares less for the Laotian
bodies still to come. There are estimated to be some nine million unexploded
bombs and bomblets (or "bombies" the size of tennis balls) littering the
country. They constitute a gigantic, unmapped minefield. The BLU and CBU
canister weapons contained hundreds of delayed action bomblets, each with
timers and 250 ball bearings. They were and are wholly unreliable, a quarter
to a third not exploding as intended. Today's mutilated victims fill the
hospitals and beg in the streets. A quarter of the casualties are small

No remotely civilised state should use such weapons. Britain uses them. The
RAF dropped them on Iraq in 1991 and on Yugoslavia in 1999. I have no doubt
they are being dropped on Iraq this very day. They are no more accurate or
sophisticated than those used in Laos 30 years ago, more than a quarter
reportedly failing to explode in Yugoslavia. Indeed rules requiring pilots
to fly above missile range make them even more dangerous. No modern air
force would dare risk a Cessna for precision fire control, as in Laos.
Missed targets are not "accidents". They are the calculable risk of using
specific weapons from specific heights on specific targets. A Cessna Raven
would have prevented the disastrous bombing of the Kosovan refugee column or
the Serbian commuter train. 

Cluster bombs are disproportionately horrific weapons. Dud cluster bombs are
random landmines. The British Government supposedly signed the 1997 Landmine
Convention and its Mines Advisory Group is even active in the Plain of Jars.
The International Development Secretary, Clare Short, likes to be
photographed in "Diana-style" mine-clearing garb. Yet Ms Short sat in the
Cabinet that approved the cluster bombing of Yugoslavia, including the
daylight massacre in Nis marketplace. I recall her on Any Questions? as a
vociferous champion of the bombing. The estimated 14,000 unexploded bombs
with which her Government "seeded" the (mostly Kosovan) landscape are far
more dangerous than landmines. Minefields are usually mapped and may blow
off a leg. A bombie may lurk anywhere and its makers promise death over
1,000 square metres. How Ms Short finds bombies acceptable and mines not is
a mystery. 

Laos is a land of grim lessons for the bombing lobby. It showed the worth of
close air support in the heat of battle. But this required pilots brave
enough to engage the enemy with precision at close quarters. The politics of
virtual war make this no longer an option. Pilots must fly high and safe.
Smart missiles may nowadays compensate for the "lack of eyeball", but they
require static targets, and the RAF is too poor to afford many Tomahawks.
Three quarters of its Yugoslavia bombs were "dumb" and their accuracy is now
accepted as poor to dreadful. The military case for Nato's bombing strategy
has been reduced in most debates to: "Well, we won in the end". 

The contribution of bombing to the conflicts in Iraq and Yugoslavia has been
heralded as a new era of risk-free, airborne coercion. So said The Economist
last week. The historian John Keegan claimed in yesterday's Daily Telegraph
that "air power, technology and international morality now march in step",
making the global triumph of democracy unstoppable. This is surely mad.
Strategic bombing did not oust the Iraqis from Kuwait or the Serbs from
Kosovo. This needed an actual or threatened ground assault. So-called
strategic bombing of non-military targets in Serbia and Iraq did nothing to
topple their respective regimes. Slobodan Milosevic went only when voted
from power and deserted by his army. Saddam Hussein is still there. Close
air support has a role in any war. But the photogenic nature of strategic
bombing makes it no more effective today than it was in Europe in 1945 or
South-East Asia in 1970. 

The bombing of Laos ranks among the most obscene acts of war. It was wanton
destruction, power without restraint divorced from the purpose of battle,
which is to take and hold territory. Laos, thank God, is recovering. But
each week the echoes of that power still explode across its landscape, as
they do across the plains of Iraq and Yugoslavia. Like medieval armies
salting fields and poisoning wells, modern air forces leave behind them
weapons which they know will sprout death for decades to come. I am told
that not a single Cabinet minister protested against their use. 
This is a discussion list run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq
For removal from list, email
Full details of CASI's various lists can be found on the CASI website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]