Carpet Bombing History in America

by Ian Buruma Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945. 09.01.2016

"........some 30% of Republican voters (and 41% of Trump supporters) favored bombing Agrabah, the central (and fictional) location of the Disney film Aladdin."

NEW YORK – Ted Cruz, one of the Republican candidates for the US presidency, recently said that his solution to the turmoil in the Middle East would be to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State (ISIS) and see if “sand can glow in the dark.” Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, promised to “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” A third candidate, Chris Christie, has threatened war with Russia.

With such rhetoric from their candidates, it is no wonder that, according to a recent poll, some 30% of Republican voters (and 41% of Trump supporters) favored bombing Agrabah, the central (and fictional) location of the Disney film Aladdin. The place sounded Arabic, and that was enough.

One way to read such bellicose rhetoric is to assume that those who indulge in it must be bloodthirsty monsters. A more charitable view is that they suffer from an appalling lack of historical memory and moral imagination. None has any personal experience of war. And they clearly find it impossible to comprehend the consequences of what they are saying.

And yet even a cursory acquaintance with fairly recent history is enough to know that “bombing the shit” out of people does little to win wars. It didn’t work in Vietnam, and it is unlikely to work in Syria or Iraq. Even the Nazis were not defeated by carpet bombing. As postwar studies undertaken by the US and British air forces demonstrated, Russian tanks did more to bring down the Wehrmacht than did aerial bombing of German cities.

This raises the question, suitable for the beginning of a new year, of whether history really can teach us many lessons. After all, nothing is ever exactly the same as what went before.

It is probably true that we cannot expect history to tell us what to do in any given crisis. But, given that some patterns of human behavior recur, knowledge about the past can help us understand our own times better. The problem is that politicians (and commentators) often pick the wrong examples to bolster their ideological positions.

For example, because few people apparently can think back further than World War II, examples from the 1930s and 1940s are the most commonly abused. Whenever we are encouraged to oppose a dictator, the specter of Adolf Hitler is invoked, and the ghosts of 1938 are resurrected to counter skepticism about hasty “preemptive” war. Those who had doubts about George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq were “appeasers,” akin to Neville Chamberlain.

Our almost exclusive focus on Nazis and WWII blinds us to other – and possibly more instructive – historical parallels. The terrible wars in the Middle East today, pitting revolutionary religious sects and tribal chiefs against ruthless dictatorships backed by one great power or another, have much more in common with the Thirty Years War that devastated much of Germany and central Europe from 1618 to 1648.

For three decades, marauding armies murdered, plundered, and tortured their way through villages and towns. Many who weren’t killed died of starvation or disease, spread by vast numbers of armed men.

Like today’s wars, the Thirty Years War is often assumed to have been an essentially religious conflict, but between Catholics and Protestants. In fact, again like the current violence in which the Arab world is embroiled, it was much more complicated. Mercenary soldiers, Protestant or Catholic, switched sides whenever it suited them, while the Vatican backed the Protestant German princes, Catholic France backed the Protestant Dutch Republic, and many other alliances were forged across sectarian lines.

In reality, the Thirty Years War was a struggle for European hegemony between the Bourbon and Habsburg monarchies. As long as one was not strong enough to dominate the other, the war continued, causing horrendous suffering among innocent peasants and city dwellers. And just like in the Middle East today, other major powers – France, Denmark, and Sweden, among others – took part, backing one side or the other, hoping to gain advantage for themselves.

The similarity to the wars in Syria and Iraq is striking. ISIS is a brutal Sunni rebellion against Shia rulers. The US opposes it, but so do Iran, a Shia power, and Saudi Arabia, which is run by Sunni despots. The main axis of conflict in the Middle East is not religious or sectarian, but geopolitical: the struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both have backers among the major powers, and both deliberately whip up religious fanatics; but theological differences are not the key to understanding the escalation of violence.

What is to be learned from all this? Some might argue that only a thorough religious reformation will bring about long-term peace in the Middle East. But, though reformation of Islam might be desirable in itself, it will not bring an end to the war at hand.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is not fighting for a particular sect of Islam (the Alawites in his case), but for his survival. ISIS is not battling for Sunni orthodoxy, but for a revolutionary caliphate. The struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not religious, but political.

There were moments during the Thirty Years War when a political settlement might have been possible. But the will to take advantage of such opportunities was lacking; one party or another still sought greater advantage by fighting on (or encouraging others to do so).

It would be a tragedy if similar opportunities were missed today. Settlements demand compromise. Enemies will have to talk to one another. Braggadocio about carpet bombing, and accusations of appeasement against those who try to negotiate, will only prolong the agony, if not cause an even greater catastrophe. And that will affect almost all of us.

Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
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