News & Politics

Drop the Bomb: Why War Talk Is Cheap

Ultimately, bombs make war too easy. Leaders are less likely to engage in military aggression if going to war will cost the lives of their own people.
Why are so many Americans so willing to start a war against Iraq? It certainly isn't because Saddam Hussein presents any clear and present danger -- or any danger at all. The best excuse Bush has come up with so far for blasting more Muslims into bits of protoplasm is what he calls a "growing danger posed by Iraq's efforts to develop or acquire weapons of mass destruction."

Even if we take Bush at his word -- which he asks us to do, refusing to share any evidence -- the "danger" is hypothetical at best. Saddam Hussein hasn't attacked the U.S. or its allies in the 11 years since we pounded, partitioned and economically hobbled his country. But, Bush warns, Saddam might possess The Bomb someday. Perhaps he'll use it. Possibly against us. Perchance soon. Or not at all.

Sixty-three percent of American voters favor attacking Saddam, but that's because they assume that it will be a bombing war, not a ground invasion. Support for an Iraq attack drops dramatically if deposing Saddam should require the deaths of thousands of American troops. After all, people ask; why waste our soldiers if bombs will do the job?

Consider Afghanistan. As of mid-June U.S. forces in Operation Enduring Freedom had only lost 30 soldiers -- 16 of whom died in helicopter and other accidents. Casualties were also amazingly low during the first Gulf War -- only 148 troops were killed in combat.

In both conflicts enemy deaths were astronomical by comparison. At least 10,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters died in Afghanistan. We killed between 100,000 and 400,000 Iraqi troops in the Gulf War. This 600-to-1 death differential is explained by one word: bombs.

The advent of mass bombing, during World War II, revolutionized warfare. Production plants and other industrial targets hundreds of miles behind enemy lines suddenly became vulnerable to attack. But the primary purpose of bombing was to "demoralize" the enemy by targeting civilians and combatants alike.

The more bombs you drop, the fewer soldiers you lose. The 1975 fall of Saigon ended our century-long military winning streak, yet even this failed undertaking proved the efficacy of bombing: Just over 58,000 American troops died in Vietnam, 47,000 in combat. Compare this appalling-enough figure to conservative estimates of soldiers lost by our opponents: at least 1.1 million. Additionally U.S. forces killed some two to three million Vietnamese civilians. Although the U.S. deployed 3.1 million men in Vietnam, 98 percent came home alive. Bombs -- eight million tons of them, four times as many as used during all of World War II -- made the difference.

Whenever presidents want to flex American muscle, they bomb. This has been particularly true when leaders don't care to justify the use of military force to the public, as with Ronald Reagan's bombing of Libya and Bill Clinton's cruise missile attacks against Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998. Both strikes hit the wrong targets -- the latter taking out a pharmaceutical plant, the former Col. Khaddafi's young daughter -- but a potential PR debacle was avoided by the fact that American lives were neither risked nor lost. This is precisely why bombs should be banned.

Don't laugh -- war can be made more civilized. The horror of mustard-gas attacks in World War I led the international community to prohibit the use of chemical and biological weapons. Since then only a few countries have used them (including Iraq, when it was a U.S. ally). Land mines were a standard tool of warfare until the 1990s. The Soviet army and U.S.-backed guerrillas scattered an estimated five to 10 million anti-personnel mines across Afghanistan, devices that continue to maim and kill today.

That carnage, caused by relics of a war fought, won and lost years earlier, inspired the world to come together to ban anti-personnel mines once and for all. Sixty-four nations have ratified the 1999 International Treaty to Ban Landmines. Although the U.S. has refused to sign, it has nevertheless stopped placing mines in combat zones. International consensus is clear; civilized countries don't use mines.

Bombs have similar shortcomings; some fail to detonate upon impact. "Cluster bombs" dropped on Afghanistan by the U.S. will be killing hapless passersby for years to come, long after the fighting has ceased. But the real problem with bombs isn't the lives they take. It's the lives they save.

As I waited out a U.S. bombing raid last November in northern Afghanistan, I realized that "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher had caught hell for telling the truth -- only cowards push a button from thousands of miles away (or tens of thousands of feet up) to kill people who can't possibly fight back. This is especially true when superpowers like the U.S. use computer technology to fly beyond the range of Third World anti-aircraft batteries.

If the people of a nation feel a strong moral compulsion to attack another nation, if they truly believe in the righteousness of their cause, the least that they can do to demonstrate that resolve is to send their young men and women into harm's way to fight. Those who seek to take the lives of others ought to be willing to risk their own.

Bombs are tools of error as well as terror. In a conventional ground war, non-combatants can often flee in order to escape battles. They can become refugees. They can take cover until the fighting moves on. Innocents die, but infinitely fewer than in the holocaust that is unleashed by a carpet-bombing. Satellite intelligence and precision guidance systems can deliver a bomb to its target, but only an experienced soldier on the ground can tell if that bomb is hitting a war council or a wedding party. Bombs hit gas lines, blowing up entire blocks. Bombs kill whoever happens to be walking by at the time. Bombs are sloppy, random, murderous. Bombs are used by cowards.

Ultimately, bombs make war too easy. Leaders are less likely to engage in military aggression if going to war will cost the lives of their own people. The risk of large-scale loss is a big political gamble. By their nature, bombs make "enemy" lives cheap and "your" lives expensive. We see this phenomenon as Americans discuss attacking Iraq; sure, we're willing to kill thousands of Iraqis, but only if we lose very few Americans in the process. It's all too cold and painless.

Of course nations should use every available tool to protect the safety of their military personnel when they send them into battle. But bombs, like land mines and mustard gas, shouldn't be counted among the available tools.

Ted Rall's latest book is "To Afghanistan and Back," a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war.
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