A Brief History of Air War

RAF Bombers in Iraq, 1920

Photograph of RAF Bombers in Iraq, 1920. Courtesy of Getty Images via the BBC.

By Chris Burrows

“Bombs from aeroplanes were thrown indiscriminately everywhere in Gujranwala, and on utterly innocent people. Bombs were dropped on the Khalsa boarding house. A student, Kishan Singh, describes the scene thus: ‘We heard the noise of aeroplanes at about 3 p. m. They remained hovering over the boarding house for about ten minutes. Suddenly a noise was heard and a shell came down, which struck our confectioner, Ganda Singh. A small piece of it injured the finger of my right hand, a boy fell down on account of the shock.’ While hurling bombs, the aeroplane was at the height of 200 feet, so that the officer would not miss the mark.”

The description comes from a 95 year old pamphlet, published in San Francisco by the Hindustan Gadar Party and written by Surendra Karr to document acts of brutality against Punjabis in 1919, the year of the infamous Amritsar massacre. The account of the RAF attack on Gujranwala (located in present-day Pakistan), if one modernizes the particulars seems like it could have come from a week ago. Almost a full century later the same plot of land is subject to the same type of attack. Imperial means of control have survived for so long because they work, and work magnificently if their goal is correctly surmised to be terror rather than stability. That assumption seems borne out by the facts.

Air war and bombing raids were perfected in the far-flung provinces of empire, in deserts full of expendables, before the same tactics were deployed over Dresden or London. It must have been strange for RAF pilots to defend their city against the German Blitz when their wartime Prime Minister had ordered them in 1920 to drop 97 tons of explosives and fire 183,861 bullets on the people of Iraq, killing 9,000 of them. As The Guardian has noted: “Squadron Leader Arthur Harris – the future hammer of Hamburg and Dresden, whose statue stands in Fleet Street in London today….more or less invented the heavy bomber as well as night ‘terror’ raids.” The article goes on to further note how even one of Britain’s greatest heroes endorsed the operation. Winston Churchill “was particularly keen on chemical weapons, suggesting they be used ‘against recalcitrant Arabs as an experiment’. He dismissed objections as ‘unreasonable’” Churchill is on record as stating that, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes _ [to] spread a lively terror.”

Methods employed in Pakistan in 1919 or Iraq in 1920 work just as well today for the same region. A month ago in fact, 7 Pakistanis were killed in a US drone strike. They were referred to as “suspected militants”. Perhaps their families disagreed. We will probably never know who they really were. Much like in 1919, children often find themselves the victims of “surgical strikes,” both in Pakistan and in Yemen. The full scale of each of these secret wars is examined brilliantly in Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars. It seems that the many modern governments have come to the same conclusion that Arthur Harris, veteran of the bombing and gassing of Iraq, did when he supervised his bombing campaign against Arabs in Palestine in the late 1930’s: “the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand, and sooner or later it will have to be applied”. Israel has no monopoly on this sentiment. Looking at recent history it is one that seems to be shared by many of today’s leaders. Terrorism is highly effective. Whether the explosion comes from the vest of a bomber or from thousands of feet in the air via remote control, the end result is the same. The message is that nowhere is safe, that at any moment death can come, and that victims are powerless to stop the violence without acquiescing to the perpetrators demands:

“- – – I see

The glutton death gorged with devouring lives;

Nothing but images of horror around me:

— all in blood, the ravish’d vestals raving.

The sacred fire put out; robb’d mothers’ shrieks.

Deafening the gods with clamors for their babes,

That sprawled aloft upon the soldiers’ spears;

The beard of age pluck’d up by barbarous hands,

While from their piteous words and horrid gashes,

The laboring life flowed faster than the blood.”

This is the verse which adorns the cover of Surendra Karr’s pamphlet. At the time it referred to Britain’s terror campaign against the people of India and the massacre at Amritsar. But it can just as well apply to Yemen, Iraq, Gaza, Sderot, or Afghanistan. From the musket to the computer-guided missile, power never changes. It seems modern leaders have learned well from the violence of imperial planners of the past, but seem to have forgotten one thing: that eventually the British lost India just as they lost every other colony in their possession. Colonial violence sows the seeds of its own demise. All empires eventually fall.

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