“They Can Not Surrender To Aircraft”

Leamas saw. He saw the long road outside Rotterdam, the long straight road beside the dunes, and the stream of refugees moving along it; saw the little airplane miles away, the procession stop and look toward it; and the plane coming in, neatly over the dunes; saw the chaos, the meaningless hell, as the bombs hit the road.

—John Le Carre, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

As I mentioned here, the Wikileaks release of documents pertaining to Afghanistan held no surprises for those who have attentively followed Operation Enduring Fiefdom. Similarly, the more recent Wikileaks release of documents pertaining to Iraq holds no surprises for those who have attentively followed Operation Iraqi Fiefdom.

Still, Wikileaks is to be commended for making these documents public, and those who leaked them are to be commended for doing so. In the world to come, these last will deserve some sort of medal.

I find that what has struck me most, so far, is something that was not even in the Iraqi document dump itself, but instead a paragraph closing a New York Times piece regarding the release. To wit:

Civilians have borne the brunt of modern warfare, with 10 civilians dying for every soldier in wars fought since the mid-20th century, compared with 9 soldiers killed for every civilian in World War I, according to a 2001 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The trench warfare of World War I remains the zenith—or, more properly, the nadir—of militarized madness, in the sense that day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, men were ordered to run across open ground directly into machine-gun fire. This continued until a sufficient number of men in both the French and German armies walked away and went home: they simply would no longer put up with such mad shit.

But now we must confront the fact that WWI seems, in another sense, to have marked a sort of high-water mark of non-barbarism. Because at least most of the people who were killed in that war signed up to die in it. Nowadays, by a ratio of 10-1, those whose lives are snuffed out in war are innocents.

The title of this piece is taken from a document released by Wikileaks, in which an American Apache helicopter crew radios for instructions as to what it should do about two Iraqis who, after their mortar tube had been destroyed, attempted to surrender.

The response the crew received:


And so the helicopter crew took their lives.

Absolutely goddam right one “can not surrender to aircraft.” Usually you can’t even see the people who are up there, killing you, much less successfully surrender to them. And sloppy they are up there, throughout the entire history of their craft, killing and maiming far more innocents than actual combatants.

And that is why, except when used in close “tactical” air support for ground troops, where targets are clearly and cleanly defined as enemy troops—and ones who are not surrendering—aircraft are weapons of terror. Not of war.

As I noted here, there was a time when the then-powers of the world seriously considered writing aircraft right out of the “rules” of warfare. That was in the early 1930s, before aircraft had been used in any large-scale way to kill human beings.

It was the British who scuttled any agreement. As the wife of British “statesman” David Lloyd George recorded in her diary on March 9, 1934:

At Geneva other countries would have agreed not to use aeroplanes for bombing purposes, but we insisted on reserving the right, as D. puts it, to bomb niggers! Whereupon the whole thing fell through[.]

And so six years later the British themselves, in the fabled “Blitz,” became victims of mass aerial bombardment. The British later returned the favor, with interest, in such slaughters as the fire-bombing of Dresden, which took the lives of 25,000 civilians.

So too did we Americans ruthlessly employ aircraft on civilians during WWII, culminating in the needless incinerations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And a couple decades later attempted in Vietnam to “bomb it back to the Stone Age.” And finally watched, on September 11, 2001, as other peoples, that too many of us demean as of the Stone Age, used our own aircraft to extinguish the lives of some 3000 people. They, at least, were honorable enough to die with those they killed.

American terror from the air continues today even though we know it doesn’t work. We have known this since WWII. Doesn’t matter. As John Kenneth Galbraith said: “The great principle of American war strategy is: We have airplanes, therefore they must be effective.”

Galbraith was one of three men tasked by President Roosevelt to head the US government’s “strategic bombing survey” of the effect of Allied air power in WWII. What Galbraith and his fellows found was this:

The results were not in doubt. The bombing of Germany both by the British and ourselves had far less effect than was thought at the time. The German arms industry continued to expand its output until the autumn of 1944, in spite of the heaviest air attacks. Some of the best-publicized attacks, including those on German ball-bearing plants, practically grounded the Eighth Air Force for months. Its losses were heavy. At the end of the war, the Germans had ball bearings for export again. Our attacks on their air-frame plants were a total failure. In the months after the great spring raids of 1944, their production increased by big amounts.

The over-all conclusion was that wars were won by the slogging progress of the troops across France and into Germany, with a good deal of help from tactical air power: support for the actual movement of troops on the ground. It was an extended form of artillery. Strategic bombing was designed to destroy the industrial base of the enemy and the morale of its people. It did neither.

As it’s doing neither now. Johann Hari, writing last month in the Independent, notes of the current American air campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which uses unmanned drones to target “jihadis”:

True, the programme has certainly killed some real jihadis. But the evidence suggests it is creating far more jihadis than it kills—and is making an attack on you or me more likely with each bomb.

David Kilcullen is a counter-insurgency expert who worked for General Petraeus in Iraq and now advises the State Department. He has shown that two per cent of the people killed by the robot-planes in Pakistan are jihadis. The remaining 98 per cent are as innocent as the victims of 9/11. He says: “It’s not moral.” And it gets worse: “Every one of these dead non-com-batants represents an alienated family, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially as drone strikes have increased.”

Professor of Middle Eastern history Juan Cole puts it more bluntly: “When you bomb people and kill their family, it pisses them off. They form lifelong grudges . . . This is not rocket science. If they were not sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida before, after you bomb the shit out of them, they will be.”

Nobody of much weight or authority is going to listen much to Hari. I know, because I railed about the same thing, in the same way, last October, riffing off a piece by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker.

No, the drones will continue to fly, because, as I noted then:

This follows the pattern of Democratic presidents since Vietnam. Loath to have the body bags of Americans dumped on their doorstep, they search for seemingly more fastidious ways to wage war. So Jimmy Carter responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by delicately demurring to commit actual Americans, instead financing and arming Islamic zealots from around the world. And Bill Clinton intervened in Kosovo by sending not a single soldier, but solely by bombing Yugoslavia. As he gingerly seeks to withdraw troops from George II’s war in Iraq, and fend off a maddened hornet swarm of General Jack D. Rippers buzzing for Vietnam-era levels of troops in Afghanistan, Obama chooses to send waves of unmanned drones into the latter—and into an undeclared, but very real, war in Pakistan.

Of course, this method of war is only “fastidious” for Americans. It is anything but, for those on the ground, receiving the death doled out by drones.

Hari inaugurates his piece in this way:

Imagine if, an hour from now, a robot-plane swooped over your house and blasted it to pieces. The plane has no pilot. It is controlled with a joystick from 7,000 miles away, sent by the Pakistani military to kill you. It blows up all the houses in your street, and so barbecues your family and your neighbours until there is nothing left to bury but a few charred slops. Why? They refuse to comment. They don’t even admit the robot-planes belong to them. But they tell the Pakistani newspapers back home it is because one of you was planning to attack Pakistan. How do they know? Somebody told them. Who? You don’t know, and there are no appeals against the robot.

Now imagine it doesn’t end there: these attacks are happening every week somewhere in your country. They blow up funerals and family dinners and children. The number of robot-planes in the sky is increasing every week. You discover they are named “Predators”, or “Reapers”—after the Grim Reaper. No matter how much you plead, no matter how much you make it clear you are a peaceful civilian getting on with your life, it won’t stop. What do you do? If there was a group arguing that Pakistan was an evil nation that deserved to be violently attacked, would you now start to listen?

Here Hari is attempting to imbue his readers with empathy. You would think that might be an easy thing. But, in fact, in this instance, it is not. Americans—and, these days, though surely they should know better, Hari’s fellow Brits—simply can’t conceive of being struck in their homes violently, repeatedly, murderously from the air. They can’t reach into that place. And, in truth, they actively resist going there.

David O. Russell, director of Three Kings, worked to take his viewers there, and very nearly didn’t get his film made because of it. This film to my mind is the best American movie to come out of any of the American adventures in Iraq; we can know this to be true simply from the fact that from the very moment the film was greenlighted, the studio tried to kill it.

Russell’s budget was repeatedly cut, his shooting schedule trimmed; ceaselessly the studio tried to coerce him into dropping three key scenes: one depicting the effect of a bullet as it burrows into the interior of a human being; one where a seemingly bucolic interlude involving a cow explodes into sudden splattering gore, as the ruminant steps on a cluster bomb; one where a bomb is shown striking and killing an American mother and child as they stand, seemingly secure, in a typical American home.

The campaign continued even after the film was released: the studio rejected a searing documentary Russell sought to append to the DVD, on the grounds it was “too political.” The guy is even the victim of malicious vandalism over on wikipedia, where that notoriously gamed and unreliable site has allowed the director to be portrayed, in its Three Kings entry, as a complete monster . . . when, in truth, like all gifted directors, he is only half a monster.

I was reviewing films for my supper when Three Kings was released, and I remember that another critic in my newspaper chain absolutely hated the film. Hated it. Primarily for those very same scenes the studio wanted Russell to delete. This reviewer was particularly outraged over the very few (non-gory) seconds when a bomb takes the lives of the American mother and child in their secure American home. Which is depicted in the scene embedded below. Which is intense. So viewer take care.

This man, my fellow film critic, because I knew him, I knew had a newborn child of his own. He could not face, could not process, could not absorb, could not connect with, that brief moment when he was asked to be as one with an Iraqi man whose newborn child had been taken, by America, from him. Just. Couldn’t. Do. It.

This is the reality of how that man and I, how all of America, wage air-terror today:

From their cockpit at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the pilot and co-pilot are flying a pilotless Predator on a bombing mission over Afghanistan, 8,000 miles away. A forward air controller in another unmanned drone spots the target and the Predator bomber takes off under local control from Kandahar in Afghanistan. Minutes later, control of the bomber is handed over to satellite control in the cockpit at Creech.

Two hours later, the crew sees on the cockpit screen two suburban vehicles stop in front of the targeted mud-baked house. Half a dozen bearded men hurry into the dwelling that intelligence had spotted as a Taliban command post. Seconds later, the bombardier in Nevada squeezed the trigger and a 500-pound bomb flattened the Taliban dwelling with a direct hit.

Watching the action on identical screens are CIA operators at Langley, Va., who can call in last-minute course corrections.

Their eight-hour mission over, pilot and co-pilot climb into their vehicles and drive home. Thirty minutes later, they are playing with their children.

If, when that pilot and co-pilot returned home, they had to fear—truly had to fear—that in the night a similar drone strike might carry away the lives of their own children, then the US would no longer wage war in this way. That pilot and that co-pilot would be among the first to demand that such long-distance mechanized butchery be put to an end.

That pilot, and that co-pilot, today, secure in their seeming invulnerability, refer to the human beings who fruitlessly dash across their computer screens, as the missiles hone in to take their lives, as “squirters.”

If instead the human beings whose lives squirted away when the missiles struck, were their own children, they would use very different words indeed.

I remember that when I posted my “Squirters” piece to the Daily Derangement that at least one person, in that place that has since de-evolved into a Maelstrom Of The Mad—the lunatics there now equating Barack Obama with the Holocaust—had the lightbulb switched on, and later wrote to say that he had come to understand, through that piece, why so much of the world regards the US as a nation of cowards. So, and if only for that man, maybe my years submerged in that cesspool, were not in vain.

For cowardly is, indeed, from the air, how we fight.

The French knights had it right: when the English introduced the longbow, French knights despised it. They believed that if you were going to kill a man, you should do it while looking into his eyes. The British were perfectly happy to take advantage of this French notion, which they considered quaint, because it allowed them to gobble up huge sections of the European continent. Until the French too employed men who could kill from a distance.

That is the way it should be, still: if in war you’re going to take a man’s life—not a woman’s; women are sacred; as the motive force in life, they cannot by men be harmed—you need to do it close enough to look into his eyes, as you steal his final breath. All the rest is bullshit. Cowardice. Know what it is you do, and know it as you do it.

As a kind of bitter coda, there is this news from the Wall Street Journal, which gleefully reports that pretty soon anyone who can afford it can have their own drone—if not to kill, at least to kill privacy.

Personal drones aren’t yet plying U.S. flyways. But an arms race is building among people looking to track celebrities, unfaithful lovers or even wildlife.

Drones now are associated with the unmanned Predator craft the Central Intelligence Agency uses to fire Hellfire missiles at militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But the essential technology is increasingly available beyond military circles, and spreading fast. An unmanned aircraft that can fly a predetermined route costs a few hundred bucks to build and can be operated by iPhone.

“The military stuff is kind of passe,” [MIT professor Missy] Cummings said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist from MIT to tell you if we can do it for a soldier in the field, we can do it for anybody.” As a parent of a 3-year-old, she said, she could use the same technology to track her daughter on her way to school (she would need to plant an electronic bug in her lunch box or backpack). That would “bring a whole new meaning to a hover parent,” she said. Schools could even use drones for perimeter control.

But human nature being what it is, it won’t take long for the technology to be embraced for less noble ends. Could nosey neighbors use a drone to monitor who isn’t picking up after their dogs? “That’s possible,” said Henry Crumpton, a former top CIA counterterrorism official who is now chairman of a company that develops drones—including one that can take off vertically, fly through a window and hover silently over your breakfast table.

“The only thing you’re bounded by is your imagination—and the FAA in the United States,” he said.

[Raoul] Felder, [a New York] divorce lawyer, said clever attorneys will find ways to get around FAA restrictions, perhaps by claiming their drones are for personal use—a distinction that should steer clear of FAA rules.

“This thing would be totally legal. There’s no violation of anybody’s premises,” he said.

Ms. Cummings predicted it’s just a matter of time before drone technology and safety improvements make the gadgets a common part of the urban landscape.

Privacy issues could emerge if such drones become common. While the military has rules of engagement governing drone use, there is no similar set of rules to protect privacy for domestic use of drones.

“If everybody had enough money to buy one of these things, we could all be wandering around with little networks of vehicles flying over our heads spying on us,” Ms. Cummings said. “It really opens up a whole new Pandora’s Box of: What does it mean to have privacy?”

Can there possibly be a “positive spin” on this, even from a Pollyanna like me?

Well . . . presumably these mini-drones will require fossil fuels. And as there is currently only about 125 years worth of fossil fuels remaining on this planet, employing said fuels in personal drones will simply hasten the day when there will be no more such fuels available, for anybody, for anything. And by then, we will have to have learned how to live like decent human beings.

“I mean, in our world we pass so quickly out of the register of hate or love—like certain sounds a dog can’t hear. All that’s left in the end is a kind of nausea; you never want to cause suffering again.”

—John Le Carre, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold


13 Responses to ““They Can Not Surrender To Aircraft””

  1. 1 possum November 11, 2010 at 4:56 am

    One more powerful piece of writing. Many thanks.

    Civilians have always borne the brunt of warfare. From the time of the Crusades til today women and children often were harmed in ways we have trouble recognizing. In Vietnam we saw the results with many children missing limbs or eyes. The dead were out of sight and often not even counted by the powers that be.

    We humans have an unnatural predilection for harming one another. On our current course we will likely insure our extermination in the not so distant future.

    In the war of winning friends and influencing people we do a very poor job with the use of unmanned drones. Too few times do we Americans make any effort to put ourselves in the place of those civilians whose homes, friends, and family are destroyed. I cannot imagine an America not fighting back with every ounce of strength at our command if we were attacked.

    The trouble in current warfare is the imbalance of power. A superpower bombing a third world nation into oblivion is not warfare. That is directed cruelty to no real avail. The end result is an insured opposition and continued examples of terrorism which feed the endless cycle of ongoing destruction.

    The entire affair makes me sad beyond belief. It is discussions and writings like the ones presented here at Red that open a small window of sanity. For that vision I remain deeply grateful.

    • 2 bluenred November 12, 2010 at 7:28 am

      Those are wise words, possum. And thank you for the compliment.

      Seemingly small things can hearten me. I think I wrote somewhere about my friend Bob Mulholland, the Democratic Party activist, who was sent by the UN to Cambodia to help the people there through their first democratic election. While wandering around one day he came upon a man who was fashioning artificial limbs for the many people there who’ve been maimed by mines. Mulholland, a Vietnam veteran who was there seriously wounded, thought this man’s project so worthy that he went back to the hotel and began leaning on his fellows, and the people back at the UN itself, to support that man’s business financially. And so it came to pass. In Lurian Kabbala it is believed that only through the devotional acts of individual human beings can cosmic unity, shattered at the creation, be restored. Bob’s done his part. So have you.

      • 3 possum November 14, 2010 at 3:34 pm

        There is so much to be done. Any part I may have played in the past is small compared to the responsibility for ongoing efforts that drive my life day by day. If each and every one of us took the time to do one simple task aimed at improving life on our planet and repeat the effort each day just imagine the good that could result.

        Small changes over the course of time produce ripples of change that become the tsunami we need today. It is that belief in ripples that drives me these days and has driven me for a long time. It is communities both online and on the streets that supply the arena for ongoing change.

        Thank you for keeping this community alive and for allowing those of us outside your immediate realm to participate. Together we are stronger. Together we may continue to hope for real change one day.

        • 4 bluenred November 15, 2010 at 7:19 am

          Ripples is a good way of putting it.

          Thank you for being such a faithful visitor to this little pond. Chris Isaak sings: “a lot of flowers in this world/are never seen.” You help prevent me from thinking the same about this place. : /

          • 5 possum November 15, 2010 at 5:28 pm

            My only regret about your little piece of cyberspace is my taking so very long to find my way here. I continue to be grateful for the haven of sanity that reigns here. Keep up the good work and I will visit when time allows.

  2. 7 Julia Rain (the deviant daughter) April 25, 2013 at 4:58 pm


    That makes me want to cry. I understand the human need to detach and deny in order to stay sane, but…I have to agree that I want nothing to do with anyone who employs people who would use such a world to describe a living being.

    I think I’d like to see that Three Kings movie. I Googled it though and there were more than one under that title. What year did it come out?

    • 8 bluenred April 25, 2013 at 6:56 pm

      When you enter serial-killer world, that’s how they train you to regard humans beings: as squirters. So that’s what you do.

      Look for the one with George Clooney and Ice Cube, directed by David O. Russell, released in 1999.

      • 9 Julia Rain (the deviant daughter) April 25, 2013 at 8:55 pm

        I want our country to support a multi-billion dollar industry that trains you to be MORE empathetic. Where do I find that country?

        Will do. Thanks.

        Also, those picture I showed you of the moth eggs? Those were on my camera phone. I didn’t have the proper cable thingy to transfer them onto a computer. When the screen of that phone died and I had to get a new one, I lost the pictures. That was in the Olden Days before I had a “phone” that could automatically upload any picture I take to my Facebook in a minute and a half. Which is good. No more lost pictures. (I commented about that here because WordPress wouldn’t let me reply on the original conversation. Guess it thought I was being too much of a blabber-mouth.) 🙂

        • 10 bluenred April 26, 2013 at 11:00 am

          You may be able to find that country in Bhutan.

          Something’s gone wrong with wordpress. I will have to talk to them.

          • 11 Julia Rain (the deviant daughter) April 28, 2013 at 8:23 pm

            I’m glad such a country exists and I hope it continues to. I want to visit.

            • 12 bluenred April 28, 2013 at 8:43 pm

              Bhutan is interesting. They’ll let people visit. But they don’t much want you to live there. Unless you become one of them.

              They are not at all interested in behaving like the majoritarian peoples currently on the planet.

              —They do not have a military.

              —In their constitution they guarantee that a minimum of 60% of the country shall remain forever heavily forested.

              —They are committed to 100% organic farming.

              —They do not, in opposition to every other nation on the planet, have a Gross National Product. Because they believe it is error to measure “success” through “money.” Which is all that GNP does. Instead, they decided to devise a way to measure progress through GNH—Gross National Happiness. To wit: how happy are people? Regardless of such transient unimportant nonsense like “money.”

              These people, they are the future.

              All the rest of the planet: of the past. Just digging through the dirt. Some sort of sad dead-end de-evolving homo erectus. Already gone.

              The Bhutan impulse, though: yes: what it is. Already Happened.

              • 13 Julia Rain (the deviant daughter) May 2, 2013 at 6:37 pm

                They are the future. Absolutely. I understand why they are wary of the outside world, but ti is very noble of them to try to help the outside world to be more like them.

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When I Worked

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