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Why We Should Start Using New Terms to Describe U.S. Air Power

To put it simply, it’s time for Americans to take the "war" out of "air war."

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The Valor of Pilots

Let’s begin with this: to be a “Top Gun” in the U.S. military today is to be in staggeringly less danger than any American who gets into a car and heads just about anywhere, given this country’s annual toll of about 34,000 fatal car crashes.  In addition, there is far less difference than you might imagine between piloting a drone aircraft from a base thousands of miles away and being inside the cockpit of a fighter jet. 

Articles are now regularly written about drone aircraft “piloted” by teams sitting at consoles in places like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.  Meanwhile, their planes are loosing Hellfire missiles thousands of miles away in Afghanistan (or, in the case of CIA “pilots,” in the Pakistani tribal borderlands).  Such news accounts often focus on the eerie safety of those pilots in “wartime” and their strange detachment from the actual dangers of war -- as, for instance, in the sign those leaving Creech pass that warns them to "drive carefully" as this is “the most dangerous part of your day."  

When it comes to pilots in planes flying over Afghanistan, we imagine something quite different -- and yet we shouldn’t.  Based on the record, those pilots might as well be in Nevada, since there is no enemy that can touch them.  They are inviolate unless their own machines betray them and, with the rarest of imaginable exceptions, will remain so.

Nor does anyone here consider it an irony that the worst charge lodged by U.S. military spokespeople against their guerrilla enemies, whose recruits obviously can’t take to the skies, is that they use “human shields” as a defense.  This transgression against “the law of war” is typical of any outgunned guerrilla force which, in Mao Zedong’s dictum, sees immense benefit in “swimming” in a “sea” of civilians.  (If they didn’t do so and fought like members of a regular army, they would, of course, be slaughtered.) 

This is considered, however implicitly, a sign of ultimate cowardice.  On the other hand, while a drone pilot cannot (yet) get a combat award citation for “valor,” a jet fighter pilot can and no one -- here at least -- sees anything strange or cowardly about a form of warfare which guarantees the American side quite literal, godlike invulnerability.

War by its nature is often asymmetrical, as in Libya today, and sometimes hideously one-sided.  The retreat that turns into a rout that turns into a slaughter is a relative commonplace of battle.  But it cannot be war, as anyone has ever understood the word, if one side is never in danger.  And yet that is American air war as it has developed since World War II. 

It’s a long path from knightly aerial jousting to air war as... well, what?  We have no language for it, because accurate labels would prove deflating, pejorative, and exceedingly uncomfortable.  You would perhaps need to speak of cadets at the Air Force Academy being prepared for “air slaughter” or “air assassination,” depending on the circumstances. 

From those cadets to Secretary of Defense Gates to reporters covering our wars, no one here is likely to accept the taking of “war” out of air war.  And because of that, it is -- conveniently -- almost impossible for Americans to imagine how American-style war must seem to those in the lands where we fight. 

Apologies All Around

Consider for a moment one form of war-related naming where our language changes all the time.  That’s the naming of our new generations of weaponry.  In the case of those drones, the two main ones in U.S. battle zones at the moment are the Predator (as in the sci-fi film) and the Reaper (as in Grim).  In both cases, the names imply an urge for slaughter and a sense of superiority verging on immortality.

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