Tomgram: Dahr Jamail on the Missing Air War in Iraq

From the destroyed Japanese and German cities of World War II to the devastated Korean peninsula of the early 1950s, from the ravaged South Vietnamese countryside of the late 1960s to the “highway of death” on which much of a fleeing Iraqi army was destroyed in the first Gulf War of 1991, air power has been America’s signature way of war. Once, it was also a major part of Hollywood’s version of war-making on the “silver screen.” More recently, however, air war has largely disappeared from consciousness. It simply hasn’t been part of war, as Americans see, read about, or imagine it, on-screen or off. This is strange.

It’s true that, with the exception of a small number of helicopters downed by rocket-propelled grenades, the present air war in Iraq has been fought without (American) casualties; it’s also been fought largely without publicity and almost completely without reporters. It’s true as well that there are certain obvious disadvantages to covering an air war rather than a ground war. You can’t follow in the wake of a plane heading at supersonic speeds for a target many miles away; and it’s harder to “embed” reporters in the backseat of a jet, no less an unmanned predator drone, than in a Humvee. This was true even during the Vietnam War, although reporters there regularly hitched rides on military helicopters to bases and hotspots around the country. As a result, despite our memory of a single iconic photo of a napalmed Vietnamese girl running screaming down a highway (and she had been seared by a South Vietnamese plane), the fierce American air campaign in South Vietnam was seldom given the attention it deserved. I know of only a single exception to this: In 1967, the young Jonathan Schell managed to talk himself into the backseats of Cessna O-1 forward air control planes flying “visual reconnaissance” over a heavily populated coastal strip of Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province and in his New Yorker series and subsequent book, The Military Half, he provided as vivid and devastating an account as exists of the destruction of the Vietnamese countryside from the air and ground.

It’s worth remembering that the U.S. began its war of choice in Iraq with a massive (and massively promoted) “shock and awe” air and cruise missile attack on Baghdad. The administration was then proud of our one-sided ability to inflict massive, targeted damage on that country’s capital and happy to have it televised. But ever since, the air war and its urban destruction have been kept in the shadows, which might be considered, if not evidence of the military equivalent of shame, then at least, of an “out of sight/out of mind” mentality. Whether by design or not, the U.S. military seems to have kept reporters off air bases and aircraft carriers (after, at least, that first burst of air assault was over). And with the exception of a few helicopter rides over Iraq granted to favored reporters and pundits, usually with their favored generals, reporters simply have not been up in the sky, nor have they — for reasons I find hard to fathom — bothered to look up for the rest of us (as Dahr Jamail indicates in the piece that follows). As 2004 ended, one TV journalist wrote me:

“My own experience of Iraq is that while we’re all constantly aware of the air power, we’re rarely nearby when it’s deployed offensively. Perhaps that explains why we don’t see it. One does ‘hear’ the airpower all the time though. Fighters and helicopters used to protect convoys; helis shipping people back and forth to bases, or hunting in packs across towns; AWACS high up. I’ve even watched drones making patterns in the sky. So why don’t we film it?”

It’s a question that still hasn’t been answered — or even asked in public.

Yet our air power has been loosed powerfully on heavily populated cities and towns in a country we’ve occupied. This has been done, in part, because American generals have not wanted to send American troops — any more than absolutely necessary — into embattled cityscapes in an ongoing guerrilla war in which they might take heavy casualties (which, in turn, would be likely to cause support for the war to drop at home even more precipitously than it has). Still, it remains amazing to me that Seymour Hersh’s recent important report in the New Yorker, Up in the Air, is the first significant mainstream account since the invasion of Iraq to take up the uses of air power in that country. The piece certainly caused a stir here, becoming part of the suddenly quickening tempo of debate about American withdrawal; but, as readers may have noticed, the air war itself has received no more attention since its publication two weeks ago than previously, which is essentially none. As I wrote back in August 2004, “You might think that the widespread, increasingly commonplace bombing of civilian areas in cities would be a story the media might want to cover in something more than the odd paragraph deep into pieces on other subjects.” You might think so, but based on recent history, don’t hold your breath.

As a result, strangely enough, it has largely been left to writers and reporters not in Iraq to look up and give Americans a sense of what’s going on in the skies — as Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist who until recently covered the war from Baghdad and is now back in this country, does below. Tom

An Increasingly Aerial Occupation

By Dahr Jamail

The American media continues to ignore the increasingly devastating air war being waged in Iraq against an ever more belligerent Iraqi resistance — and, as usual, Iraqi civilians continue to bear the largely unreported brunt of the bombing.
When the air war shows up at all in our press, it is never as a campaign, but as scattered bare-bones reports of individual attacks on specific targets, almost invariably based on military announcements. A typical example was reported by Reuters on December 4th: “Two U.S. Air Force F-16 jets dropped laser-guided bombs” which, according to a military spokesperson, killed two “insurgents” after they attacked an army patrol near Balad, 37 miles west of Baghdad. On the same day, Reuters reported that “a woman and two children” were “wounded when U.S. forces conducted an air strike, bombing two houses in Baiji, 180 km (112 miles) north of Baghdad.”

And even this minimalist version of the American air war rarely makes it into large media outlets in the U.S.

Ignoring the Obvious

Author and media critic Norman Solomon asked the following question recently: “According to the LexisNexis media database, how often has the phrase ‘air war’ appeared in the New York Times this year with reference to the current U.S. military effort in Iraq? As of early December, the answer is: Zero.” Solomon went on to point out that the phrase “air war” had not appeared in either the Washington Post or Time magazine even a single time this year.

Curiously enough, U.S. Central Command Air Force (CENTAF) reports are more detailed than anything we normally can read in our papers. On December 6, for example, CENTAF admitted to 46 air missions over Iraq flown on the previous day — in order to provide “support to coalition troops, infrastructure protection, reconstruction activities and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist activities.”

Albeit usually broadly (and vaguely) described, and seldom taking possible civilian casualties into account, these daily tabulations by the Air Force often flesh out bare-bones reports with a little extra detail on the nature of the air war. On that December 6th, for instance, the report added that “Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, an MQ-1 Predator and Navy F/A-18 Hornets provided close-air support to coalition troops in contact with anti-Iraqi forces near Balad and Ramadi.”

Not surprisingly, given their source, such reports glide over or underemphasize potentially damaging information like the fact that bombing runs of this sort are regularly conducted in heavily-inhabited areas of Iraq’s cities and towns where the resistance may also be strongly embedded. Oblique statements like the following are the best you are likely to get from the military: “Coalition aircraft also supported Iraqi and coalition ground forces operations focused on creating a secure environment for upcoming December parliamentary elections.”

As a result, aside from reportage by one of the rare western independent journalists left in Iraq or the many Arab journalists largely ignored in the U.S., the American air assault on Iraq remains devastatingly ill-covered by larger outlets here. This remains true, even as, militarily, air power begins to move center stage at a moment when large-scale withdrawals of American ground troops are clearly being considered by the Bush administration.

I have worked as an independent reporter in Baghdad for over eight months during the U.S. occupation of Iraq thus far and I can confirm that a day never passed in the capital city when the low rumblings of an Apache helicopter or the supersonic thundering roar of an F-16 fighter jet didn’t cause me to look up for the source of the noise. Many a night I would be awakened by the low, whumping blades of U.S. helicopters scouring the rooftops of the capital city — flying at almost building height to avoid rocket-propelled grenades from resistance fighters. I would oftentimes wonder where they were coming from, as well as where they were going.

It is impossible, really, to miss the overt signs of the ongoing air war in Iraq when you are there, which makes the lack of coverage all the more startling. At night, while standing on the roof of my hotel in Baghdad during the November 2004 assault on Fallujah, a city some 40-odd miles away, I could see on the horizon the distant flashes of U.S. bombs that were searing that embattled city.

I often wondered how the scores of journalists in Baghdad working for major American papers and TV networks could continue to ignore the daily air campaign the U.S. military was waging right over their heads or within eyesight. Along with countless eyewitness interviews I did on the damage caused from the air, this is what prompted me to write Living Under the Bombs for Tomdispatch some ten months ago. But it has only been thanks to the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, a journalist who has never even been to Iraq, that the important subject of the air campaign there has finally been brought to public awareness on a wider scale. In a recent interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman about his latest piece in that magazine, aptly titled, Up in the Air: Where is the Iraq War Headed Next? he commented, “Clearly there’s all sorts of anecdotal reason to believe that the bombing has gone up exponentially, certainly in the last four or five months in the Sunni Triangle, the four provinces around Baghdad.” But he also pointed that, when it comes to the American air campaign, “There’s no statistics… We don’t know what’s going on with the air war.”

However, we have at least an idea.

Vietnamizing Iraq

The statistics we can glean from CENTAF indicate a massive rise in the number of U.S. air missions in Iraq for the month of November as compared to most previous months. Excluding weekends — for some reason the Air Force does not make the number of sorties they fly in Iraq and Afghanistan on Fridays and Saturdays known to the public — 996 November sorties were flown in Iraq according to CENTAF.

The size of this figure naturally begs the question, where are such missions being flown and what is their size and nature? And it’s important to note as well that “air war” does not simply mean U.S. Air Force. Carrier-based Navy and Marine aircraft flew over 21,000 hours of missions and dropped over 26 tons of ordnance in Fallujah alone during the November 2004 siege of that city.

In his recent article and interview, Hersh rightly reflects the concern of American military men that, in any proposed draw-down plan for American forces, Iraqi security forces are likely to be given some responsibility for Air Force targeting operations. After all, they’ll be the ones left on the ground. It’s an idea, he reports, that is “driving the Air Force crazy,” because they fear it may involve them in a future revenge war of ethnic and religious groups in Iraq.

Even Pentagon figures indicate that 10-15% of laser-guided munitions don’t land where intended, but having those munitions land (or not land) where “the Iranians” intend doesn’t please U.S. officials. Senior intelligence personnel complained to Hersh that “Iran will be targeting our bombers.”

Ironically, President Nixon’s Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird recently wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine arguing that his “withdrawal” policy of “Vietnamization” during that war, actually worked. (It involved withdrawing American troops while fiercely increasing the American air war in what was then South Vietnam and surrounding countries.) So, argues Laird, would “Iraqification.”

“The truth about Vietnam that revisionist historians conveniently forget is that the United States had not lost when we withdrew in 1973. I believed then and still believe today that given enough outside resources, South Vietnam was capable of defending itself, just as I believe Iraq can do the same now.”

Though Laird’s rewriting of the history of the last years of the Vietnam War (and his own dismally failed policies) may be striking at this moment, he is clearly hardly alone in holding onto the idea that a “withdrawal” that would involve ever more bombs dropped and missiles fired from American aircraft is now the way to go. In a classic case of history repeating itself (as tragedy but also possibly farce), the Bush administration appears to be seriously considering an “Iraqification” policy of its own.

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski used to work in the Pentagon and for the National Security Agency before retiring in 2003. Well known as a Pentagon whistleblower for speaking out about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s corrupt Office of Special Plans in which so much of the pre-war “intelligence” for Iraq was cherry-picked and passed on, Kwiatkowski has been consistently critical of the Bush Administration.

Kwiatowski believes the administrations’ new policy of substituting air power for troops harkens back to the failure of Vietnam. “Let me see if I have this right,” she says in an interview with Tomdispatch.

“We have a foul-mouthed Texan in the White House, facing a domestically unpopular war that he never expected to have to fight. In order to stop a persistent anti-American insurgency in a faraway country, this President will now escalate the use of air power, striking deep into the heart of insurgency strongholds and destroying the will of those that support the insurgency.

“This sounds like a replay of Rolling Thunder, March 1965. The Pentagon, led by the last remnant of those who were supposed to have directly experienced the danger of politicized wars managed out of the White House and the sheer uselessness of air power to win hearts and minds, must indeed be out of its collective mind to support a strategic shift like this.”

It is important to note that, as in Vietnam, troop morale in Iraq now seems to be plummeting. According to the Army’s own figures, in a study conducted last summer with all units in Iraq, 56% of them reported either “low” or “very low” morale. Keep in mind that towards the end of the war in Vietnam, the Army was in a state of ongoing revolt and incipient collapse. By the time direct U.S. involvement ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, the sort of mixed morale statistics seen in our military in Iraq last summer would have been an impossible dream.

Getting large numbers of troops out while intensifying the air war might seem then like a reasonable formula for solving certain of this administration’s problems without abandoning its basic Iraq policies, but this will undoubtedly prove a perilous undertaking in its own right, as Hersh recently pointed out: “A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn, the over-all level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what.”

One can easily imagine the potential for disaster at a future moment when Shia and Kurdish militia members in Iraqi army uniforms would be calling down air-strikes on Sunni neighborhoods, settling old scores as civilian casualties went through the roof.

Current Trends

But visions of a frightful future in Iraq should not be overshadowed by the devastation already caused by present levels of American air power loosed, in particular, on heavily populated urban areas of that country.

CENTAF reports, for example, that on November 14th of this year, “Air Force F-15 Eagles, MQ-1 Predators unmanned aerial vehicles and Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft flew air strikes against anti-Iraqi forces in the vicinity of Karabilah. The F-15s dropped precision-guided bombs and the Predators fired Hellfire missiles successfully against insurgent positions.” The tactic of using massively powerful 500 and 1,000 pound bombs in urban areas to target small pockets of resistance fighters has, in fact, long been employed in Iraq. No intensification of the air war is necessary to make it a commonplace.

The report from November 14th adds, “Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons flew air strikes against anti-Iraqi forces near Balad. The F-16s successfully dropped a precision-guided bomb on a building used by insurgents. F-16s and a Predator also flew air strikes against anti-Iraqi forces in the vicinity of Karabilah. The Predator successfully fired a Hellfire missile against insurgent positions.”

The vagueness of certain aspects of such reports from CENTAF is troubling, however. The reasons for bombing raids are usually given in generic formulas like this typical one found in official statements released on November 24th and 27th: “Coalition aircraft also supported Iraqi and coalition ground forces operations to create a secure environment for upcoming December parliamentary elections.” Such formulations, of course, tell us, as they are meant to, next to nothing about what may actually be happening — and as the air war is virtually never covered by American reporters in Iraq, these and other versions of the official language of air power are never seriously considered, questioned, explored, or compared to events on the ground.

Another common mission, as stated on the 17th, 22nd and several other days in November (and used again in CENTAF’s December statements) has been the equally vague: “included support to coalition troops, infrastructure protection, reconstruction activities, and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist activities.”

One of the busier days for the U.S. Air Force in Iraq recently was the last day of November, when 59 sorties were flown. CENTAF reported that “F-15 Eagles successfully dropped precision-guided munitions against an insurgents’ weapons bunker near Baghdad. F-16 Fighting Falcons, an MQ-1 Predator and Navy F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats provided close-air support to coalition troops in contact with anti-Iraqi forces near Al Hawijah, Al Mahmudiyah and Fallujah.” In addition, Royal Australian Air Force were also flying surveillance and reconnaissance missions that day, as the British Air Force often does on other days.


A broad overview of the types of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft the U.S. military is employing in Iraq gives an idea of the scope of the air war currently underway and the sort of destructive power available on an everyday basis. It can also offer hints of what we might expect in an air-power intensified draw-down future.

While this is in no way an inclusive list, fixed-wing aircraft include the F-14D Tomcat and F/A 18 fighter jets which are being used by the Navy and Marines. The F-18 fires the laser-guided, 630 pound Maverick Missile (at a cost of $141,442 per shot, by the way). In addition, both the F-14 and F/A 18 fire a 20mm hydraulically operated gatling gun which emits between 4,000 and 6,000 rounds per minute at a range of “several thousand yards.”

The Air Force is using F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon fighter jets, along with AF MQ-1 Predator drones which are armed with Hellfire missiles. AV-8 Harrier fighter jets have also been used in Iraq as have AC-130 gunships, especially in urban battles like the fighting for Fallujah last year. These planes are capable of circling targets for long periods while raining thousands of rounds of ammunition per minute down from above. Then there is the A-10 Warthog military jet which is used as ground support, as it is capable of firing 4,200 armor piercing 30mm rounds per minute.

At this point, bombs used commonly range in explosive power from 250-2,000 pounds, with cluster bombs, the MK-77 500 pound fire bomb (napalm) and the infamous White Phosphorous also having been employed at various moments. The Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bomb, ranging from 250-2,000 pounds, was used extensively during the most recent military operation against Fallujah. The 2,000 pound variety, for example, has the capacity to blast a crater in a concrete street 70 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep. This size of bomb has a blast radius of 110 feet within which a human being will die, while fragmentation from the bomb casing can achieve velocities up to 9,000 feet per second and reach areas over 3,000 feet away from the detonation site.

The U.S. military is also using a wide variety of helicopters offensively in Iraq. These include the Apache, Kiowa, Black Hawk, Cobra, Pave Low, Chinook, and Iroquois.

Most of the available data — and it’s minimal — about how all this airpower is being used in Iraq comes from the Air Force. One of their news reports from June, 2005, for example, typically reported a single incident in which air power was brought to bear: “Coalition aircraft dropped seven precision-guided bombs while providing close-air support to coalition troops in the western Al Anbar province of Iraq on June 11. Anti-Iraqi forces had taken refuge in buildings in an attempt to shield themselves from coalition attack. An estimated 40 insurgents were killed.”

Brig. Gen. Allen G. Peck, deputy combined forces air component commander, added “Our job was to provide close-air support and intel to coalition troops in direct contact with anti-Iraqi forces. Airpower support extends well beyond dropping munitions. Our top priority is providing close-air support and reconnaissance to our Soldiers, Marines and coalition forces in contact with enemy forces on the ground.”

The Air Force claims that “nearly 70 percent of all munitions used by the air component since the start of the operation have been precision-guided,” and “every possible precaution is taken to protect innocent Iraqi civilians, friendly coalition forces, facilities and infrastructure.” However, a serious study of violence to civilians in Iraq by a British medical journal, the Lancet, released in October, 2004, estimated that 85% of all violent deaths in Iraq are generated by coalition forces and claimed that many of these are due to U.S. air strikes. While no significant scientific inquiry has been carried out in Iraq recently, Iraqi medical personnel, working in areas where U.S. military operations continue, report to me that they feel the “vast majority” of civilian deaths are the result of actions by the occupation forces.

Given the U.S. air power already being applied largely in Iraq’s cities and towns, the prospect of increasing it is chilling indeed. As to how this might benefit the embattled Bush administration, we return to Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski

“Shifting the mechanism of the destruction of Iraq from soldiers and Marines to distant and safer air power would be successful in several ways. It would reduce the negative publicity value of maimed American soldiers and Marines, would bring a portion of our troops home and give the Army a necessary operational break. It would increase Air Force and Naval budgets, and line defense contractor pockets. By the time we figure out that it isn’t working to make oil more secure or to allow Iraqis to rebuild a stable country, the Army will have recovered and can be redeployed in force.”

But if current trends continue, the end of the U.S. occupation in Iraq may more closely resemble the ending in Vietnam — a view Kwiatkowski agrees with. The political climate at home may force a decrease in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, but the compensatory upswing in air power meant to offset this will be inevitable and will inevitably lead to unexpected problems. Why? Because the Bush administration will still be committed to permanently hanging onto a crucial group of four or five mega-military bases (into which billions of construction and communications dollars have already been poured) along with a massive embassy, directing political and military “traffic” from the heart of Baghdad’s Green Zone — and that means an unending occupation of Iraq, something that, air power or no, can only mean endless strife.