Go, unfriendly bombs!
One of the main critical comments in response to British politicians supporting bombing strikes in Syria was the conflation of bombing and war, as if Daesh was at war with the UK and that bombing was a way to defeat them. Clearly this is a misleading representation of the situation, but it is also perhaps a true reflection of broader changes in the political organisation of warfare in Western states.
During the Cold War, Western publics lived under the threat of ‘The Bomb’, an apocryphal Soviet nuclear intercontinental missile that would land on the liberal democratic cities to end the post-war dream. Nowadays things could hardly be more different. No longer hunkering down under the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War, the West sends bombs away with increasing regularity, especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 and the deployment of drones. The West – and especially America – sees the entire post-colonial world as potentially bombable and it has come to see bombing as a mainstream component in its international politics.
One can readily see the rise of the bombing regime through various trends. Since the end of the Cold War, American-led bombing has visited Sudan, Afghanistan, former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Bosnia. Also, there have been myriad technological advances: the drones that monitor borderland spaces and release Hellfire missiles; the new bombing capabilities to break open bunkers, generate shockwaves, to deploy ‘small’ nuclear warheads; the locking in of bombing missions to satellites and remote operatives in Langley Virginia. Consider also the decline in political discourses in which bombing is seen as in any way vexed: collateral damage is apparently minimised by ‘smartness’; remote imaging and intelligence are presented as the means to allow bombs to kill specific individuals. The kinds of media imagery from Vietnam’s carpet bombing or even the first Iraq war have largely disappeared from mainstream media sources. It seems that the United States can drop a bomb directly onto the head of any single person in the world should it so desire, and if this is not an actual fact it is certainly the explicit aspiration of the American government. President Obama has expanded a secretive drone-based bombing regime into a permanent global project.
Bombing has become too widespread a practice to be understood simply as a practice of war. It is also a kind of politics. It has transformed the core meaning of ‘war’, replacing the previously-held understanding that war is based in troop manoeuvres with air support and the occupation of territory. It has become a system of images: we can see the drone’s eye view or even the bomb’s eye view. It has generated a vision of the world – aerial, imperial, omnipotent – which is shared with Western publics and seems to generate some legitimising effects. We in the West can – if we chose to – enjoy the vicarious frisson of looking at distant terrain through crosshairs. It is both secretive and open: an abstract spectacle of violence absent the carnage that takes place on the ground, and afterwards. The aesthetics of the bombing age are simplistic, almost idiotic.
Bombing has also been the cornerstone of a novel and raised set of ambitions. Bombs, it is often asserted, are not merely a very effective way to destroy an enemy. They are also a means to empower identified allies; to re-balance the scales in an ongoing conflict. This was the argument in Libya and also now in Syria. Bombs can ‘neutralise’ individuals within terrorist organisations. They can destroy an identified building or military installation. In other words, they are seen as an increasingly sophisticated technology that creates facts on the ground rather than simply levelling it. Bombs have become creative: supposedly a means to change governments; to save peoples; to protect, bring peace.
Life under the bomb
The age of bombing also produces different ways of living. In the West, the first Iraq war generated a kind of popular spectatorship, seeped in the adulation of bomb-tech, given narrative overview by American military personnel and journalists. ‘And now ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to the luckiest man alive in Iraq…’ This kind of showy shock-and-awe callousness has perhaps been dampened by the public knowledge that the bombing of Iraq produced massive numbers of dead and such widespread devastation. Nevertheless, the broader episteme remains. Western publics watch the bombs on their way and largely hope or expect that they will reach their target and that the consequences will be favourable. If general attitudes resemble fatalism, many politicians revel in the celebration of bombing as a simple politics of retribution and justice. Bombing as war is a form of alienated violence, only broken by the death of co-nationals or political protest which is in itself largely ignored or maligned by the media. In this sense, the age of bombing is deeply anti-democratic.
The bombing regime creates a certain condition of life in the borderlands and war zones of the post-colonial world. There are peoples who live under the buzzing of drones. There is increasing vigilance of ‘dangerous’ populations, from satellite imagery and phone and internet monitoring. Surveillance is devised to estimate the intent of moving targets: ‘signature strikes’ that target groups of men moving rapidly, returning to a previous bomb site (supposedly to pick up injured ‘hostiles’), or a convoy of vehicles. This invigilation portrays all of humankind in certain zones of the world as potentially bombable and plays the odds.
Bombing regimes produce their incendiary environments. The sounds of explosions are terrifying and reach far across the surface; indeed the ground surface might shake as the bomb lands, and shockwaves might disorient or damage peoples bodies. The plumes rise into the sky. Some places are open and exposed; others are covered and relatively safe: a new psychogeography of the bomb. Nearby buildings are reconstructed, damaged, razed, or still-standing: the architecture of the bombing regime. Living in buildings means knowing your exits, the blitz lifestyle. Bombsites might strafe a road. Ordnance of burnt vehicles might lie in wait. The depleted uranium or little incendiary devices might continue to main and kill. The drones circle in the sky.
In his book Carbon Democracy Timothy Mitchell argues that we should not be technologically determinist about the rise of oil, as if the internal combustion engine creates its own history outside of human agency and politics. But, he argues, nor has history been indifferent to the rise of the carbon economy, especially as it transforms the possibilities of life and political collectivity, forms of accumulation and wealth. So it is with bombs. The technologies of war are increasingly based in bombing strategies, bomb design, and the auxiliary technologies that guide bombs to rise out of oceans, from remote airbases, from drones bombers, all integrated into internet communications and surveillance. They have produced political shifts in the meaning of war and the meaning of life. Far greater zones of the world are in the thrall of the bomb, either as a threat or a reality. And this is not just about America and whichever countries align with it on sorties. It is also about Kurds on the Turkish border, Palestinians in Gaza, Darfurians in Sudan, Syrians sheltering from bombs from their own or other governments.
It is a simplistic and ahistorical separation to imagine warfare as a suspension of politics – Churchill (who was a great and despicable enthusiast for bombing) and his ‘war-war, jaw-jaw’ distinction. Wars are always political, even if in uncomfortable ways. They produce their own social movements, political agendas, discontents, and hubris. Regimes who are defeated risk rebellion; wars concluded generate new political demands; victorious governments are emboldened or chastened. Some wars are for liberation. When ‘war’ becomes the equivalent of bombing strategy, it more closely approximates a narrower exercise in state power: there is no such thing as defeat when a state is bombing a distant territory, just a narrative with a politically-managed ending. American drone bombings are largely covert. The witnesses to bombing are remote and voiceless and bombs can be dropped in massive numbers without much public knowledge in a way that is very different to wars that involve large numbers of troops who will either be missed when killed or who will return. In this sense, bombing is a technique of war and a technique of governing. And, for those non-combatants under the reign/rain of bombs, there is not even the most minimal recourse to justice.