‘Accidents of War’:The Time Has Come for an Honest Discussion of Air Power
by Tom Engelhardt
"The first news stories about the most notorious massacre of the Vietnam War were picked up the morning after from an Army publicity release. These proved fairly typical for the war. On its front page, the New York Times labeled the operation in and around a village called My Lai 4 (or “Pinkville,” as it was known to U.S. forces in the area) a significant success. “American troops caught a North Vietnamese force in a pincer movement on the central coastal plain yesterday, killing 128 enemy soldiers in day-long fighting.” United Press International termed what happened there an “impressive victory,” and added a bit of patriotic color: “The Vietcong broke and ran for their hide-out tunnels. Six-and-a-half hours later, ‘Pink Village’ had become ‘Red, White and Blue Village.”
All these dispatches from the “front” were, of course, military fairy tales. (There were no reporters in the vicinity.) It took over a year for a former GI named Ronald Ridenhour, who had heard about the bloody massacre from participants, and a young former AP reporter named Seymour Hersh working in Washington for a news service no one had ever heard of, to break the story, revealing that “red, white, and blue village” had just been red village — the red of Vietnamese peasant blood. Over 400 elderly men, women, children, and babies had been slaughtered there by Charlie Company of Task Force Barker in a nearly day-long rampage......
We in the U.S. recognize butchery when we see it — the atrocity of the car bomb, the chlorine-gas truck bomb, the beheading. These acts are obviously barbaric in nature. But our favored way of war — war from a distance — has, for us, been pre-cleansed of barbarism. Or rather its essential barbarism has been turned into a set of “errant incidents,” of “accidents,” of “mistakes” repeatedly made over more than six decades. Air power is, in the military itself, little short of a religion of force, impermeable to reason, to history, to examples of what it does (and what it is incapable of doing). It is in our interest not to see air war as a — possibly the — modern form of barbarism.
Ours is, of course, a callous and dishonest way of thinking about war from the air (undoubtedly because it is the form of barbarism, unlike the car bomb or the beheading, that benefits us). It is time to be more honest. It is time for reporters to take the words “incident,” “mistake,” “accident,” “inadvertent,” “errant,” and “collateral damage” out of their reportorial vocabularies when it comes to air power. At the level of policy, civilian deaths from the air should be seen as “advertent.” They are not mistakes or they wouldn’t happen so repeatedly. They are the very givens of this kind of warfare.
This is, or should be, obvious. If we want to “withdraw” from Iraq (or Afghanistan) via the Gates Plan, we should at least be clear about what that is likely to mean — the slaughter of large numbers of civilians “including women and children.” And it will not be due to a series of mistakes or incidents; it will not be errant or inadvertent. It will be policy itself. It will be the Washington — and in the end the American — consensus."