The Perfect (Sine) Wave

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Looking idly at the front page of last Wednesday’s Washington Post Express as I rode the Metro to work, I received a shock. It showed a railroad station in Iraq, recently destroyed by an American air strike. So now we are bombing the railroad stations in a country we occupy? What comes next, bombing Iraq’s power plants and oil refineries? How about the Green Zone? If the Iraqi Parliament doesn’t pass the legislation we want it to, we can always lay a couple of JDAMs on it.

It turns out the bombed railroad station was no fluke. An AP story by Charles J. Hanley, dated June 5, reported that

U.S. warplanes have again stepped up attacks in Iraq, dropping bombs at more than twice the rate of a year ago…And it appears to be accomplished by a rise in Iraqi civilian casualties.

In the first 4 1/2 months of 2007, American aircraft dropped 237 bombs and missiles in support of ground forces in Iraq, already surpassing the 229 expended in all of 2006, according to Air Force figures obtained by The Associated Press.

Nothing could testify more powerfully to the failure of U.S. efforts on the ground in Iraq than a ramp-up in airstrikes. Calling in air is the last, desperate, and usually futile action of an army that is losing. If anyone still wonders whether the “surge” is working, the increase in air strikes offers a definitive answer: it isn’t.

Worse, the growing number of air strikes shows that, despite what the Marines have accomplished in Anbar province and General Petraeus’s best efforts, our high command remains as incapable as ever of grasping Fourth Generation war. To put it bluntly, there is no surer or faster way to lose in 4GW than by calling in airstrikes. It is a disaster on every level. Physically, it inevitably kills far more civilians than enemies, enraging the population against us and driving them into the arms of our opponents. Mentally, it tells the insurgents we are cowards who only dare fight them from 20,000 feet in the air. Morally, it turns us into Goliath, a monster every real man has to fight. So negative are the results of air strikes in this kind of war that there is only one possible good number of them: zero (unless we are employing the “Hama model,” which we are not).

What explains this military lunacy, beyond simple desperation? Part of the answer, I suspect, is Air Force generals. Jointness demands they get their share of command billets in Iraq, and with very few exceptions they are mere military technicians. They know how to put bombs on targets, but they know nothing else. So, they do what they know how to do, with no comprehension of the consequences.

In fact, the U.S. Air Force recently announced it is developing its own counter-insurgency doctrine, precisely because “some people” are suggesting air strikes are counterproductive in such conflicts. Well, yes, that is what anyone with any understanding of counter-insurgency would suggest. The Air Force, of course, cares not a whit about the realities of counter-insurgency. It cares only about protecting its bureaucratic turf, its myth of “winning through air power” and its high-performance fighter-bombers, which truly are its knights in shining armor, useful only for tournaments.

Once again, we see the U.S. military riding the perfect sine wave. It will seem as if it is beginning to get things right, only to ride the wave back down again into the depths of unknowing. It brings to mind one of my favorite Bob Newhart skits. Newhart is walking slowly behind a line of an infinite number of monkeys, seated at an infinite number of typewriters, trying to write the world’s great books. Bob pauses behind one of the monkeys. “Uh, Fred, come here a minute. I think this one’s got something. ‘To be or not to be, that is the…gzrbnklap.’ Forget about it, Fred.”

In this case, the gzrgnklap is airstrikes in 4GW, and the monkey is wearing Air Force blue.

William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.

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