New information reveals that Cambodia was bombed far more heavily than previously believed
· Mapping by Taylor Owen
US policy in Iraq may yet undergo a similar shift. Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker in December 2005 that a key element of any drawdown of American troops will be their replacement with air power. “We just want to change the mix of the forces doing the fighting — Iraqi infantry with American support and greater use of air power,” said Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Critics argue that a shift to air power will cause even greater numbers of civilian casualties, which in turn will benefit the insurgency in Iraq. Andrew Brookes, the former director of air-power studies at the Royal Air Force’s advanced staff college, told Hersh, “Don’t believe that air power is a solution to the problems inside Iraq at all. Replacing boots on the ground with air power didn’t work in Vietnam, did it?”
It’s true that air strikes are generally more accurate now than they were during the war in Indochina, so in theory,at least, unidentified targets should be hit less frequently and civilian casualties should be lower. Nonetheless, civilian deaths have been the norm during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, as they were during the bombing of Lebanon by Israeli forces over the summer. As in Cambodia, insurgencies are the likely beneficiaries. To cite one example, on January 13 of this year an aerial strike by a US Predator drone on a village in a border area of Pakistan killed eighteen civilians, including five women and five children. The deaths undermined the positive sentiments created by the billions of dollars in aid that had flowed into that part of Pakistan after the massive earthquake months earlier. The question remains: is bombing worth the strategic risk?
If the Cambodian experience teaches us anything, it is that miscalculation of the consequences of civilian casualties stems partly from a failure to understand how insurgencies thrive. The motives that lead locals to help such movements don’t fit into strategic rationales like the ones set forth by Kissinger and Nixon. Those whose lives have been ruined don’t care about the geopolitics behind bomb attacks; they tend to blame the attackers. The failure of the American campaign in Cambodia lay not only in the civilian death toll during the unprecedented bombing, but also in its aftermath, when the Khmer Rouge regime rose up from the bomb craters, with tragic results. The dynamics in Iraq could be similar.
Taylor Owen is a doctoral candidate and Trudeau Scholar at the University of Oxford. In 2004, he was a visiting fellow in the Yale Genocide Studies Program.
Ben Kiernan is a professor of history at Yale University and the author of How Pol Pot Came to Power and The Pol Pot Regime.
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