Thursday, January 31, 2008

Reading: Englehardt: When 100,000 lbs of bombs on a town still counted as news

Actually, unless you're well into your 70s, you could be forgiven for not remembering such a time. Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch reviews two articles on bombing last week in Iraq, one in the Los Angeles Times and the other in the New York Times:

Note that both pieces started with bombing news -- in one case a suicide bombing that killed several Iraqis; in another a roadside bombing that killed an American soldier and wounded others. But the major bombing story of these last days -- those 100,000 pounds of explosives that U.S. planes dropped in a small area south of Baghdad -- simply dangled unexplained off the far end of the Los Angeles Times piece; while, in the New York Times, it was buried inside a single sentence.

Neither paper has (as far as I know) returned to the subject, though this is undoubtedly the most extensive use of air power in Iraq since the Bush administration's invasion of 2003 and probably represents a genuine shifting of American military strategy in that country. Despite, a few humdrum wire service pieces, no place else in the mainstream has bothered to cover the story adequately either.

One hundred thousand pounds of explosives is pretty hard to imagine, sitting peacefully stateside. It can't be that easy to imagine even from the planes that made the drop from a safe altitude.

But it's not impossible to imagine:

On April 27, 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War (a prelude to World War II), the planes of the German Condor Legion attacked the ancient Basque town of Guernica. They came in waves, first carpet bombing, then dropping thermite incendiaries. It was a market day and there may have been as many as 7,000-10,000 people, including refugees, in the town which was largely destroyed in the ensuing fire storm. More than 1,600 people may have died there (though some estimates are lower). The Germans reputedly dropped about 50 tons or 100,000 pounds of explosives on the town. In the seven decades between those two 100,000 figures lies a sad history of our age. […]

At Guernica, as in Arab Jabour 71 years later, no reporters were present when the explosives rained down. In the Spanish situation, however, four reporters in the nearby city of Bilbao, including George Steer of the Times of London, promptly rushed to the scene of destruction. Steer's first piece for the Times (also printed in the New York Times) was headlined "The Tragedy of Guernica" and called the assault "unparalleled in military history." (Obviously, no such claims could be made for Arab Jabour today.) Steer made clear in his report that this had been an attack on a civilian population, essentially a terror bombing.

The self-evident barbarism of the event -- the first massively publicized bombing of a civilian population -- caused international horror. It was news across the planet. From it came perhaps the most famous painting of the last century, Picasso's Guernica, as well as innumerable novels, plays, poems, and other works of art.

Alas, our world has gone numb to this kind of act. No international horror, no news flashing across the planet, no landmark reporting, no unforgettable commemorative art for Arab Jabour.

As far as we know, there were no reporters, Iraqi or Western, in Arab Jabour when the bombs fell and, Iraq being Iraq, no American reporters rushed there -- in person or by satellite phone -- to check out the damage. In Iraq and Afghanistan, when it comes to the mainstream media, bombing is generally only significant if it's of the roadside or suicide variety; if, that is, the "bombs" can be produced at approximately "the cost of a pizza," (as IEDs sometimes are), or if the vehicles delivering them are cars or simply fiendishly well-rigged human bodies. From the air, even 100,000 pounds of bombs just doesn't have the ring of something that matters.

And there we are. Roadside and suicide bombs are news; carpet-bombing a town no longer rates more than a mention.

With each passing day, the war in Iraq is increasingly becoming an air war against ground targets, whether military or civilian. Any possible drawdown of American ground troops from the region will almost certainly be offset by more and more aerial bombing--something little understood or noted by most Americans. (This also goes a long way toward explaining this "signing statement" by Bush, earlier this week.)

Read the whole piece by Englehardt. It's going on the Readings list on the sidebar.

(Detail from "Guernica" via the Australian National University.)

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