OxBlog

Saturday, July 29, 2006

# Posted 11:40 AM by Taylor Owen  

STRATEGIC COSTS OF CIVILIAN CASUALTIES: I am currently working on a series of articles, popular and academic, on the US bombing of Cambodia. We have been using some remarkable new data that quite dramatically alters the history of this period - particularly regarding the versions outlined by Kissinger, Nixon and Shawcross, and the link between the bombing and the rise of the Khmer Rouge insurgency movement. Part of the project has involved going through many of the Nixon tapes. Here is a clip from one of our articles, describing a revealing conversations between Kissinger and Nixon and then Kissinger and Alexander Haig:
Telling Kissinger on December 9 of his frustration that the US Air Force was being “unimaginative,” Nixon demanded more bombing, deeper into the country: “They have got to go in there and I mean really go in . . . I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?

Kissinger, aware of the military assessments concluding that the air strikes were like “poking a beehive with a stick,” responded hesitantly: “The problem is Mr President, the Air Force is designed to fight an air battle against the Soviet Union. They are not designed for this war . . . in fact, they are not designed for any war we are likely to have to fight.

Five minutes after his phone conversation with Nixon, Kissinger called General Alexander Haig to relay the new orders. “He [Nixon] wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?” The response from Haig is barely audible, but it sounds like laughing.

Today a continued use of airpower in combating insurgencies raises this same dilemma: perhaps even more than civilian casualties of ground operations, “collateral damage” from U.S. aerial bombing still appears to enrage and radicalise enough of the survivors for insurgencies to find the recruits and supporters they require. If 'shock and awe' worked against the regular Iraqi army, does it also nourish the anti-US insurgency? Whatever the moral meaning of inflicting predictable civilian casualties, do the political repercussions of air strikes against an insurgency outweigh their military benefits?
While the munitions are radically different, Kissinger may still be right about the use of airpower against a heterogeneous insurgency. Further, I think the question of the strategic costs of civilian casualties in this context is under studied. Much of the debate is, I believe, wrongly centred on the morality of the deaths and whether they are ‘justified’ in international law. This is an important question, undoubtedly, but one that is devoid of the potential strategic costs of the casualties. I would argue that a very small number of civilian casualties, regardless of the ‘justice’ of the attack or the efforts to limit collateral damgage, can have a grossly disproportionate strategic cost when fighting an insurgency. Those whose family’s are killed will rarely be convinced by our rationalizations, nuances, claims of moral difference etc. More likely they will become, at the least, tacit supporters of the insurgency being fought. When fighting a group that requires this very civilian support, this becomes a serious strategic concern.

I would be interested in readers’ opinions, or recommendations for reading, on the strategic costs of civilian deaths. Again, putting aside the morality or justice of the strikes themselves, are we underestimating the damage done by civilian casualties in asymmetric warfare?

FYI - this is a map (of hundreds we have made) of the bombing of Cambodia. Each point represents one target and usually many sorties (of which there were over 200,000). When the first article is published, (soon), I will discuss the findings of the spatio-historical analysis.

(17) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
Excellent! Looking forward to the outcome of your work.
 
The U.S. strategy in Iraq employed just enough conventional troops and firepower to incite an insurgency, and too little to decisively end the conflict, as the U.S. did in a few years, on many fronts, in World War II.

But large numbers of Iraqis would likely have died anyway, even if the U.S. military had not pulled the triggers itself. The U.S. strategy in Iraq has attempted to compress several decades of Iraqi political development into a few years, enforced with modern U.S. military technology. The alternative, aside from leaving Saddam in power, was a bloody civil war (something that still may happen!).

We recently summarized our long-standing critique of the U.S. strategy in Iraq, and our recommendation for how it should have been done, with this post on our blog,

Now we're getting somewhere - Part 2.

The Iraq experience has re-taught the U.S. how not to handle similiar situations in the future. But don't think that more lives will be spared in the future as a result.

Just as many civilians are likely to die in similar such fractured political circumstances. They will do so from the barrel of a militiaman's AK-47, and out of the view of the BBC's cameras.

Westhawk
 
Are there domestic political pressures for counterproductive tactics, including measures that predictably harm civilians, even when they're shown to be counterproductive. In particular, democratic pressures? Could Nixon have acted as he did for reasons including a domestic political calculus? Tocqueville predicted that democracies would wage war more aggressively than the aristocratic societies they succeeded. Could a populist indifference to or even impulse to inflict civilian casualties tend to turn all wars into total wars of peoples?
 
Westhawk:
Are you kidding me? 100 civilians killed a day, a government that can't even bring it's capital city to heel, and it _isn't_ a bloody civil war? What do you want, armies of blue and gray marching in neat lines in set piece battles?
 
I recommend Peter Rodman's examiniation of William Shawcross' position on this matter in the 1981 (I think it was July) issue of the American Spectator. Shawcross replied and then Rodman responded to the reply. It is quite a feast.
 
Timothy, the sectarian violence in Iraq is bad, but it could be far, far worse if was truly organized. Imagine Iraq if the government divided and its sectarian leaders both openly organized their followers and called in foreign support. Think of Spain in 1937.

Many civil wars in the 20th century killed 5-10% of the population before they ended.

Westhawk
 
Well - I don't know that I entirely agree. We bombed the living hell out of Afghanistan, for example, and that turned out rather well. So I don't think it's possible to make a broad generalization about the utility of air power - a lot depends on how it's directed and used. Even in Iraq, the raids have often exhibited literally pinprick accuracy. The real problem lies elsewhere.

I think the insurgency in Iraq arose from a combination of factors - and I think Tom Ricks' recent WaPo piece on the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq is probably a better indicator of its source. Remember, there was a relatively big gap between the airpower-intensive phase of initial-entry ground war and the real insurgency. The Army did a pretty not-bad job of identifying and hunting down the former regime types, only to see a different insurgency led by different people spring up in its place.

That being said, I think you can certainly make a case that airpower indiscriminately applied is ultimately counterproductive. You might peek into Paul Fussell's "Wartime" - I remember him having a few condemning words for the bombing campaigns, which he thought "stiffened the defenders' resolve to fight on by allowing them to cast themselves in the role of hero-victims." There may be something worthwhile in his endnotes.

The Nixon stuff's priceless, btw - thanks for sharing. What a thankless job Kissinger had, serving as a buffer between Tricky Dick and reality!
 
As a strategic question, I can't imagine taking great pains to avoid civilian casualties would make a bit of difference - since Israel and the US do, and it doesn't. Hitler said if Jews didn't exist, he'd have to invent them. Mohammed Dura didn't exist, so the Palestinians invented him. Stories of GIs violating the modesty of Arab women with their x-ray glasses will circulate through the Arab world for decades. Mein Kampf is a bestseller there. Muslims in several countries dispute Arab involvement in 9/11. In a region full of people so detached from reality, I think it's madness to hope their impression of us will be governed by what we do.

So, strategically? Bomb them, or don't, they'll hate us either way. At least if we bomb there will be fewer of them.

The moral question, of course, leads to a different answer.
 
You might want to get in touch with Alex Downes at Duke, he's doing interesting work in the area, although he's looking at states, not insurgencies.
 
When Stalin butchered the Polish Army's officer corps nobody was there with a camera. When the VC disembowled a village headman in front of his village, nobody was there with a camera. It's the same with bombing civilians. We never saw pictures on TV of Saddam gassing the Kurds. But we are now watching Lebanese parents holding their dead children in their arms... So when you posit the question, does massive air bombardment work, you should, to make it fair, ask as well, with or without cameras on the collateral damage? It is very difficult for a self-governing nation to win any war when its own media, as well as the rest of the world's media, is working for the other side.
 
exguru:

WRT the VC disembowling a village headman:

Before the liberals found out how the villes were co-opted, they called it grassroots support for the forces of liberation. After they found out, they called it grassroots support for the forces of liberation.

You presume, I think, that having the film of the disembowling on television would have affected the anti-war types. Nope. They knew. But it was in the service of the other side, so they didn't--and in the current circumstances, don't--care.
 
The Washington Post and the New York Times both report on 07/28/06 that Arab public opinion across the Middle East region is turning against Israel's offensive on Hezbollah. At the start of the crisis, several countries (including Saudi Arabia) criticized Hezbollah for starting the conflict, but now in the face of a growing humanitarian crisis facing Lebanese civilians, popular protests are forcing Arab states to change their statements. Even Al-Qaeda is getting in on the act by releasing a video statement urging resistance against Israel and support for Hezbollah and Lebanon as a whole. This is significant because Al-Qaeda is a Sunni extremist-terrorist organization, while Hezbollah and a majority of Lebanese civilians are Shiite.

This is the danger of Israel's protracted bombing campaign: Muslims across the Middle East uniting against them, despite their other religious differences. The is part of the strategic consequnece of Israel targeting Hebollah in civilian areas of Lebanon. This consequence of shifting public opinion will not determine the outcome of a specific battle, but it is a longer-term political consequence that will change the overall strategic outlook of the war. For a different perspective on strategic calcuations, see this post on classical Chinese warfare as applied to Iraq.

I have wondered if this conflict represents a clash of civiliations as Samuel Huntington conceives it. I do not think so, as I argue here.
 
I've always been skeptical of claims of excessively high civilian casualties in this bombing campaign. Eastern Cambodia is not densely populated, and we did not engage in "area bombing" as was practiced in earlier wars. (I worked in the 7th Air Force command post for a couple of months in mid-1972.) Bombing German cities in WW-2 left about 650,000 dead. It doesn't seem likely that anywhere near that number of Cambodians could have been killed in the US bombing campaign. To forestall a comment I will stipulate that B-52 strikes could be categorized as a form of "area bombing," as each mission targeted a 1x3 km box. However, I don't believe these boxes encompassed villages of any size. (Of course bombs sometimes miss, but Arc Light strikes usually hit the box they targeted; the question was whether anything of value was actually in the box.)
 
Steve, I know it well. We are in fact writing a response to their back and forth given the surprising info in the new database. We can actually challenge much of the established narrative of the campaign and thus, both Shawcross and Rodman's arguments are based on significant false information. I will share it when complete.
Anon 11:04 and Cori and Rennypolis, thanks for the tips.
Ralph, I would love to discuss this more with you. One of the things we are doing is mapping the villages that are under each of the arc light boxes in the database. We are also matching these maps with villager testimony of these specific bombing events. The result is a relatively reliable account of hundreds of populated villages being directly hit. I will share these once published.
 
In the "FWIW" category, the rules of engagement for fixed-wing gunships operating along the soutnern extremities of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Cambodia in 1972 permitted shooting at truck traffic on the roads, but did not allow engaging anything within villages. So the NVA drivers made high-speed dashes from ville to ville, pausing in safe havens 5-10 km apart. With this in mind, it would surprise me if many villes were inside Arc Light boxes.
 
Nike Air Max. They're perfect for conventions and meet ups with other fans.
 
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