Ninety-three years of bombing the Arabs
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
The explanations dont play well on Arab Street where theyre
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, theyll cite Guernica, the Basque town reduced
to rubble by aircraft of the German Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil
War. If theyre really up on their history, theyll know it
happened in 1937 and theyll mention Picassos famous painting
of the atrocity.
That answer is wrong, and symptomatic of a Euro-centric view of history
thats 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.
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 Indias 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 historys 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, theyd 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
On other occasions, bombing was used to punish recalcitrant impoverished
villagers for non-appearance when summoned to explain non-payment
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 didnt
count they were turbulent, rebelliousor
uncivilised tribesmen, bombing of whom was a normal, acceptable,
They didnt teach you this stuff at school or show it to you on TV
during phase one of the Iraq war, but dont imagine the Arabs and
Afghans dont remember.
Gavin Gatenby, 2004.
Sven Lindquist, A history of bombing, Granta 2002.
Lawrence James, Raj, The Making and Unmaking of British India,
Peter Sluglett, Britain in Iraq 1914-1932, London Ithica Press,
David Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force,
1919-1939, Manchester University Press.