Donald Trump’s recent strikes on Syria were launched on the centenary anniversary of America’s entry into WWI. Whether this coincidence was accidental or planned – and in the absurdist theater of contemporary Washington politics, who can say with certainty? – the ghosts of the Great War are lingering this week.
The First World War was revolutionary in the history of warfare for two major technological developments, noteworthy for their efficacy in the delivery of death: chemical warfare and aerial bombardment. Though trialled in earlier conflicts, they were applied to that global war on a scale hitherto unimaginable.
These two techniques of war were squared off this week in Syria. What is remarkable is the differing moral economies they inspire today. Whereas the usage of chemical weapons is met with universal moral outrage, inspiring talk of “red lines” not to be crossed and unambiguous condemnation, aerial bombardment invites a more slippery morality.
In the contemporary spectatorship of war, we tend to view the carnage wreaked by aerial firepower from afar, with the requisite spatial and ethical distance to evaluate the effects coldly. Distance allows the application of a more calculative, dispassionate reasoning. The casualties are no longer disfigured children, but rather statistical figures: unfortunate “collateral damage”, regrettable side-effects of our will imposed on others.
The distancing effect is maintained and policed by the selective reproduction of images for public consumption. Since Vietnam, if not earlier, the camera has trained our field of vision to keep its distance. The Iraq Wars I & II were, for the viewers back home, essentially fireworks displays, colourful explosions in the desert and over the Tigris.
The rise in the appeal of remote-controlled warfare has intersected with another imperative of warfare in Western democracies: the desire to limit casualties on our side; to avoid the deployment of “troops on the ground”. Moral disquiet concerning civilian victims in the theatres of war can be contained more easily than the fury when “our” sons and daughters perish.
The aerial view has its own history in Syria over the past hundred years. These past few days, I have found myself returning to the ghosts of Joseph Kessel. Kessel was a French journalist who toured Syria in 1925 as the Great Syrian Revolt, the armed uprising against French colonial rule, was raging across the country.
In his book In Syria, a piece of embedded journalism avant la lettre, Kessel describes flying from Damascus to Daraa as a passenger alongside an air force pilot. On the way, the airplane makes a detour over Suwayda, then the epicenter of the revolt. As they pass over the rebellious city, Kessel, an ex-WWI pilot, is called upon to pull the lever, dropping a load of bombs as the pilot gives him the signal. The plane then changes direction and flies to safety in Daraa. Moments later, they are drinking beer in a bar as the sun sets. In Kessel’s account, we have no idea what transpires on the ground at the moment of impact. Are the targets hit? Are there any casualties? What are the consequences?
These very questions ought to be attending America’s escalating involvement in Syria today. For all the suggestion that Trump’s air strikes were a new development, they are but the latest instalment in the mission begun in September 2014, when President Obama ordered strikes against ISIS targets in the east of the country.
These bombing campaigns have ramped up since President Trump took office, with little scrutiny from Congress. The organisation Airwars, which monitors civilian casualties caused by airstrikes in the Middle East, estimates that approximately 1,000 non-combatants were killed by US bombing raids in Iraq and Syria during the month of March alone. Airwars estimates that US strikes have killed more than 2,500 civilians since 2014.
This is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed by air strikes from their own government.
But these deaths have failed to reach us. Like Kessel, we are still anaesthetised by the aerial view.
The next few weeks are going to be critical in determining the next phase of the Syrian conflagration. The US must decide if it is to push for a political solution, however difficult and complicated the negotiations, or whether it will be drawn into an expanded military conflict, the scale of which could conceivably rival the Great War 100 years ago.
If we have learnt anything from the history of aerial bombardment over the last century, it should be of its indiscriminate nature as a tactic of warfare, and its capacity to unleash forces beyond the control of the aggressor.
Let us hope and pray that those in Washington will resist the seductions of aerial firepower.
* Stephen Pascoe was an editor of Arena Journal no. 43, Making Modernity From the Mashriq to the Maghreb and is a PhD candidate in History at the University of California, Irvine. His dissertation examines the history of French imperialism in early twentieth-century Syria.