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Ninety-three years of bombing the Arabs

By GAVIN GATENBY

20 August 2004

In Iraq, few days pass without the US Air Force bombing civilian targets. In a high-profile atrocity in May, a bunch of trigger-happy fly-boys shot up a village wedding in western Iraq, killing 45 guests including many children, and a Baghdad singer loved by millions, but these things happen almost daily in towns like Najaf, Samarra and Fallujah, and in other places too far from public gaze to warrant media attention.

The explanation – on the increasingly rare occasions that one is given – is always that these are precision strikes against “terrorists” (newspeak for resistance fighters), but the injured that reach the hospitals and the bodies that turn up in the town morgues are largely women and children.

The explanations don’t play well on Arab Street where they’re received as confirmation of the persistent anti-Arab bias of the West – a view that is essentially correct.

Before you scoff, try this general knowledge test on a few well-read, politically literate friends: Ask them to name the first town in the world where civilians were indiscriminately bombed from the air.

More likely than not, they’ll cite Guernica, the Basque town reduced to rubble by aircraft of the German Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War. If they’re really up on their history, they’ll know it happened in 1937 and they’ll mention Picasso’s famous painting of the atrocity.

That answer is wrong, and symptomatic of a Euro-centric view of history that’s led western politicians to gravely underestimate the nationalist feeling and visceral distrust of the West that now has the US-led coalition bogged down in Iraq.

In fact the Guernica answer is wrong by a quarter of a century. It was the Italians, hell-bent on acquiring an African empire, who got the ball rolling. In 1911 the Libyan Arab tribes opposed an Italian invasion. Their civilians were the first to be bombed from the air, when the infant Italian air force bombed the oases of Tagiura and Ain Zara in a reprisal attack. The French followed in 1912, sending six planes to a “police action” in their bit of Morocco.

Pilots soon discovered that far from being a discriminating technique, aerial bombing was most effective against soft civilian targets – towns, bazaars, livestock and crops. In 1913 the Spanish began dropping shrapnel-type bombs on rebellious Moroccan villagers. Over the following years they graduated to poison gas.

The British, struggling to suppress nationalist movements in their vast empire, soon got in on the act. From 1915 onwards, the Royal Air Force bombed Pathan villages on India’s North-West Frontier. In May 1919 they attacked the cities of Afghanistan, dropping six tons of bombs on Jalalabad and inflicting 600 casualties in a dawn to dusk raid on Dacca. Then, on Empire Day, they hit Kabul with history’s first four-engine bomber raid. The British Government even offered poison gas bombs to their Indian Viceroy. Fortunately, he declined the offer.

Bombing the natives saved the RAF when post-WWI austerity measures looked like killing it off. The fly-boys proposed an experiment: if they could bomb a Somali tribal leader dubbed “The Mad Mullah” into submission at a fraction of the cost of a ground expedition, they’d survive. The aerial assault worked, and a delighted Winston Churchill told the RAF to take on rebellious Iraq, over which Britain had assumed a League of Nations mandate.

They called it “control without occupation”, and, under Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the RAF took to “police bombing” Iraqi Arabs and Kurds with enterprise and enthusiasm. By 1922 the RAF was deploying high-explosive and phosphorous bombs, an early form of napalm, anti-personnel shrapnel, “crows feet” shrapnel designed to kill and maim livestock and incendiaries to set alight thatch rooves. They even used bombs with time-delay fuses to prevent tribesmen from tending their crops under cover of darkness but when they stooped to machine-gunning women and children who had taken refuge in a lake, even the bellicose Churchill protested.

On other occasions, bombing was used to punish recalcitrant impoverished villagers for “non-appearance when summoned to explain non-payment of taxes”.

In 1924, in a draft report to parliament (complete with photos of what had been Kushan-al-Ajaza) Harris boasted that the RAF could wipe out an Iraqi village and a third of its inhabitants in 45 minutes.

1925 was a landmark year. The French bombed dozens of Syrian villages and even parts of Damascus, but probably the worst pre-Guernica incident occurred at Chechaouen, a Muslim holy town in Spanish Morocco. There, American mercenary fliers of the French Flying Corp indiscriminately bombed the undefended town in revenge for a severe defeat suffered by the retreating Spanish army. The London Times reporter called it “the most cruel, the most wanton, and the most unjustifiable act of the whole war”, and reported that “absolutely defenceless women and children were massacred and many others were maimed and blinded”.

Thus it went on, until the Second World War, and afterwards, through the eight years of the French war in Algeria, the Israeli repression of the Palestinians and the bombing of Iraq during the 12 years of post-Gulf War sanctions. The technology has “improved”, but the political intention, and the outcome, in terms of dead civilians, remains the same.

So why do most of us think of Guernica was the first indiscriminate air attack on civilians? Well, the Basques were on the north side of the Mediterranean, and were thus European, whereas, in Western public opinion and international law, people outside the pale of European civilisation just didn’t count – they were “turbulent”, “rebellious”or “uncivilised” tribesmen, bombing of whom was a normal, acceptable, policing technique.

They didn’t teach you this stuff at school or show it to you on TV during phase one of the Iraq war, but don’t imagine the Arabs and Afghans don’t remember.

© Gavin Gatenby, 2004.

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References:

Sven Lindquist, A history of bombing, Granta 2002.
Lawrence James, Raj, The Making and Unmaking of British India, TSP 1998.
Peter Sluglett, Britain in Iraq 1914-1932, London Ithica Press, 1976.
David Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, Manchester University Press.