Dropping Bombs on Syria to Combat Islamist Extremism. Have We Learned Nothing?
Henry Wismayer

We’re fighting fire with gasoline

Hunting down terrorists on the ground makes more sense than bombing them. There’s no way you can fire a missile and kill just one person in a Syrian slum. Sure, we’ve sanitized the whole grim business, using terms like “surgical strike.” That makes us feel less guilty for the carnage we cause. Orwellian emollients (“collateral damage”) help, too.

Fact is, that ordnance doesn’t work quite as cleanly as we’d like to think. It shreds flesh, shatters bone and splatters blood and viscera all over the place. And it maims the men, women and children it doesn’t kill.

We don’t see that, but survivors in the immediate vicinity do. And this makes them so mad that they want to kill us. What we’re doing is sowing dragon’s teeth and creating more terrorists. Those fanatics are rage machines, and they nurse grudges forever.

Our leaders must meet public demand for retribution. Air wars resemble video games. Voters expect televised aerial bombardments like fireworks displays. So politicians stage them. Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and François Hollande showed us footage of air strikes. Now it’s David Cameron’s turn. It’s theater. It does more harm than good, but the show must go on.

Making enemy civilians suffer has been part of military doctrine since the Civil War. William Tecumseh Sherman believed Confederate civilians should “feel the hard hand of war.” He didn’t mean the Union army should shoot noncombatants, but he left smoking ruins behind him on his march through Georgia. Contemporary accounts describe a swath of burned farmhouses, destitute families, slaughtered cattle and hogs. Not to mention stolen horses, geese and chickens.

Did it hasten the end of the war? Not much. That said, Sherman had strong admirers among European military intellectuals. It’s no coincidence that Sherman’s biographer was the influential British strategist B.H. Liddell Hart.

In the First World War, British and German aviators dropped bombs on each others’ cities. They did this on a far larger scale in World War II. The Luftwaffe flattened London and Coventry. Then the RAF and U.S. Army Air Force pounded Dresden to rubble. Harry Truman ended that war by dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later, Lyndon Johnson tried to break North Vietnam’s will by bombing Hanoi into the Stone Age.

We’re lucky the Germans, Japanese and Vietnamese don’t hate us for killing civilians. It’s different in the tribal world of the Middle East. There, blood feuds can span hundreds of years. It’s insane, messing with hotheads who pass down hatreds like heirlooms through generations. Bombing civilian targets is a good way to earn their enmity for millennia.

One wishes we could walk away and leave the madmen alone. But we’ve predicated our societies on a plentiful supply of cheap petroleum. So until we find other energy sources (and Big Oil lobbyists resist that idea), we’re stuck. Mired in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.