Carpet-Bombing: Wall-to-Wall Folly

'Death from Above' has shown little success as a long-term strategy against terrorists


Credit: nordique / photo on flickr

After the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, Americans are simultaneously eager to smash the Islamic State and wary of another major ground war in the Middle East. Some presidential candidates have found the perfect way to satisfy both impulses: turning large swaths of Iraq and Syria into a smoking heap of debris and body parts. 

Donald Trump has said, "I would bomb the s— out of them." Ted Cruz has vowed, "We will utterly destroy them. We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion." 

They haven't gotten to the point reached by John McCain in 2007, when he sang a few bars of what he called "that old Beach Boys song 'Bomb Iran.'" But Cruz shares McCain's capacity for amusement. "I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out," he promised an audience in Iowa. 

Neither candidate is likely to pay a political price for embracing wanton destruction. Massive, merciless aerial bombardment sounds good to voters because it's simple, low-risk and spectacular on TV. 

Nothing could be better than annihilating vicious enemies at minimal risk. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found 73 percent of Americans favor expanded airstrikes on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. 

But it's a solution that won't solve. The first flaw is that even the most ferocious use of air power can't "completely destroy ISIS" as Cruz imagines. The second is that it stands to multiply our enemies and magnify the dangers we face. And that's leaving out the matter that Trump and Cruz ignore, which is the death and injury inflicted on innocents. 

Conventional bombing of German and Japanese cities failed to end World War II. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped millions of tons of bombs, killing upward of 100,000 civilians, but the enemy survived and prevailed. In his 1996 book, Bombing to Win, University of Chicago defense scholar Robert Pape said the clear lesson of history is that "strategic bombing doesn't work." 

The goal in past wars has been to force a government to capitulate by inflicting unbearable pain on its people or causing them to revolt. That's a non sequitur in this case because there is no government to be coerced or toppled. 

The Obama administration has been using air power against the Islamic State for more than a year. During that period, the U.S. military has delivered more than 20,000 missiles and bombs on the enemy—which is a lot, considering that ISIS is estimated to have as few as 20,000 fighters. 

Cruz says we carried out far more airstrikes against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. But then, we were fighting an established state with a 1 million-man army and a vast multitude of military assets. This war is more akin to going after the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. 

Newsweek reported then that the Bush administration had abandoned plans for an air campaign in Afghanistan because it couldn't find enough worthwhile targets—not because George W. Bush was too timid. As he put it, "I'm not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt." 

In Tuesday's debate, Cruz was asked whether he would carpet-bomb Raqqa, the Syrian city of 220,000 people that is the de facto capital of the Islamic State. He replied, "You would carpet-bomb where ISIS is, not a city but the location of the troops." 

It was a non-answer. Does Cruz mean the enemy may lodge itself with impunity in urban neighborhoods? Or does he mean he would obliterate civilian areas if fighters are present there? 

The latter has risks beyond being a likely war crime. Pape, who heads the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, told me that after the 2004 U.S. seizure of Fallujah, which caused hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee the city, al-Qaida in Iraq reaped so many new recruits that it quadrupled in size. 

Such experiences caused Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to wonder, "Are we creating more terrorists than we're killing?" Civilian casualties from American drone strikes—which are far more precise than what Trump and Cruz propose—have been numerous enough to alienate most Pakistanis and inspire some to commit terrorism. 

President Richard Nixon, who greatly expanded aerial bombing in Vietnam, publicly boasted that his strategy was effective. He was lying. In 1973, he wrote a memo to his national security adviser that summarized his honest assessment of the net result: "zilch."

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Carpet bombing ISIS is like getting cancer and giving chemo to your neighbors. It’s just stupid. Yes ISIS is a threat, but mostly to their own people and if they won’t embrace human rights and freedom then no point in trying to defend them. They’re not even asking for help. Bombing ISIS will make the situation worse and will just attract more people to their cause. The people who promote bombing ISIS simply don’t understand human nature, or they actively want a war. Many people do and the Arabs want war even more, especially as gas prices fall. They are getting desperate.

    1. Correctomundo. You can’t force people to embrace freedom. If they won’t want to fight ISIS on their own, we can’t make them do it.

      Just walk away, leave them alone, leave the entire mideast alone, especially Saudi Arabia, and all their excuses for hating US interference will fade away within a few months, a year or two at most. If Europe and Russia want to keep it up, that’s their business.

      And if ISIS wants to brag they drove the US out, more power to them, no skin off my back.

      1. “all their excuses for hating US interference will fade away” – LOL no they will always find excuses to hate us including every video that mentions the name “Mohammed” and a million other things. I’m under no delusions otherwise. They will constantly try to draw us back in under various pretexts and I’m not talking about ISIS I’m talking about the Arab governments that fund them. The key is that we just need to manage it. Much like drugs – which are also powerful and dangerous – but they key is to understand them and learn to live with them. Islam as a religion must be debunked, but not all Muslims are devout followers.

        1. Haters will always hate. But their fire will be gone, their primary recruiting aid vanished, and it will be a lot easier to go back to their previous national pastimes, Sunni vs Shiite. After all, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, they are all so far from reality that they are not a threat. But someone so close and yet still wrong is far more likely to tempt your sons and daughters and neighbors.

          1. Shoot the fucker.

          2. ” their primary recruiting aid vanished”


      2. S&WC; R
        I’d be happy to try that method. we would also have to tell our allies that if they do anything in these countries we will not beck them up through treaties and if after say a four year period if there are any terrorist activities in the U.S. then we will carpet bomb them out of existence.

  2. ISIS isn’t a government. It only taxes and regulates the territories it controls. It’s not like there’s an ISIS Medicare which would be a sign of a real government.

    Yes, we shouldn’t bomb ISIS; we should follow Barry’s hyper-dimensional chess plan which is to… bomb ISIS.

  3. carpet bombing in WWII worked it can work again, as long as you follow through with ground troops and a 50 year occupation. Note you will have to carpet bomb all of those mid-east nations and maybe even more.

  4. Strategic bombing is stupid, tactical not so much. In WW2 most bombs fell a mile from the target. Today we can put them through a window. Taking out the water, power, bridges and oil infrastructure would definitely hurt. That being said, I think we should bring home the troops and close all overseas bases and let Turkey and Europe deal with it.

    1. Strategic bombing can be a cover for tactical bombing.

    2. Yes, a full international military withdrawal wouldn’t create a massive power vacuum or anything.

  5. Carpet bombing a folly can cover up a lot of it. Sometimes enough.

  6. Contra Chapman’s lies, air support has been vital to the few advances made by anti-ISIS forces from Ramadi to Singal to Kobane.

    1. It’s been keeping them pinned down, but at what cost?

      1. Wars are won on the ground, foot by foot, inch by inch.

      2. compared to what? The cost of lives if we put troops on the ground?

  7. Depends on the targets, how applied, etc, etc, etc.
    Some points in the article are semi-fab, such as, Japan was on the verge of surrender do to the firebombings, prior to its nuking, and that they were about the most predisposed of all peoples, ever, to utterly refuse surrender….

    But, whatever….
    I don’t suppose the article will likely effect any needed tactics of the future, even if it does make a few people feel warm, fuzzy, and indignant.

    This is not a defense of stupid [stuff] politicians said. Using B2s instead of B52s is the closest they’re likely to come to keeping any campaign promise, anyway.

  8. This disingenuous article from the surrender monkey wing of libertarianism is so full of wrong it boggles the mind.

    Aerial bombardment in the Vietnam War didn’t solve the problem because they didn’t do enough of it nor in the correct places. Probably because, oh, there was a nuclear armed state propping up our enemy, unlike now.

    You know what? Just atom bomb that giant meteorite in Mecca and the whole problem will solve itself.

    1. Not sure if trolling…

    2. Johnson and McNamara micro managed the war to such an extent we could never have an effective result.

  9. SO many people have yet to recognize that Comrade Obama is working AGAINST America,not for it.

    “Obama vows he will defeat ‘terrorism'”;
    many forget that to Comrade Obama and his Choom Gang,AMERICA is the terrorist,and that’s who they’re working to defeat.

    once is accidental,twice is coincidence,three times is enemy action.”

    And we’re WAY past three times.

    Wake up,people. Connect the dots.

    I suppose it never occurred to Mr. Chapman that Comrade Obama is the one who has to approve all strikes,and that he might require that so as to be able to minimize their effects,not to wage effective war on ISIS. Same as he minimizes the US legal effects on muslim terrorists in the US.

  10. Why do you think so many refugees (including terrorists) are fleeing? They know the bombs are coming. Let’s happily oblige them so China knows what new goodies we have in store for them if they step out of line.

  11. Awesome information in the post

    HCN Dayton News

  12. “carpet bombing” these days is pretty much a misnomer as most are smart bombs. Even though linebacker II in Dec ’72 was called “carpet bombing” it was far from that, otherwise there would be no Hanoi. As for the effectiveness of that particular excursion of Nixon’s, one only needs ask any of the POW’s from the Hilton that are alive today if it was effective.
    ISIS, different deal. Need the best intel to be effective.

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