Memo to Ted Cruz: Carpet Bombing Is, By Definition, a Human Rights Atrocity

The cavalierness with which “carpet-bombing” has been discussed by the Republican candidate ignores the horrific human cost of such actions.

Branko Marcetic March 11, 2016

Dresden, Germany during World War II.

In the game of mur­der­ous one-upman­ship that has been the con­test for the GOP nom­i­na­tion, one candidate’s promise has stuck out as par­tic­u­lar­ly unhinged from real­i­ty: Ted Cruz’s promise to car­pet bomb ISIS.

Not long ago, a video of ISIS burning a prisoner alive in a cage was met with howls of outrage and calls to action. Perhaps politicians and the public wouldn’t be so eager to support mass bombing if they knew what they were advocating was even worse than what they were trying to prevent.

Cruz first made his pledge to car­pet bomb [ISIS] into obliv­ion” in ear­ly Decem­ber, adding: I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” He went on to repeat this promise in two more debates, bizarrely defin­ing car­pet bomb­ing as a tar­get­ed attack on ene­my troops rather than indis­crim­i­nate bomb­ing of civil­ian areas. For his trou­bles, he was round­ly mocked by mem­bers of the mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment for not under­stand­ing the mean­ing of the term he was so enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly endorsing.

But he shouldn’t just take it from retired mem­bers of the mil­i­tary. If Cruz needs a refresh­er, there are for­tu­nate­ly plen­ty of sur­vivors’ accounts of the hor­ror wrought by car­pet bomb­ing at the ground lev­el that can fill him in. (A word of warn­ing: the fol­low­ing pas­sages are not for the squeamish.)

Take the British car­pet bomb­ing of Ger­many. By the end of the war, the British air force had dropped near­ly 1 mil­lion tons of explo­sives on Ger­man cities, most infa­mous­ly Dres­den and Hamburg.

Dres­den was 54 per­cent destroyed by the bomb­ing, killing tens of thou­sands. Its anni­hi­la­tion lat­er led Kurt Von­negut to pen his anti-war clas­sic, Slaugh­ter­house Five. This is what that destruc­tion looked like from the van­tage point of the city’s res­i­dents, as described by Dresden’s chief of firefighting:

The build­ings along the streets, shat­tered under the hail of bombs and seared by fires from the incen­di­aries, had col­lapsed and blocked the exit routes, con­sign­ing thou­sands to death in the inferno. …

The indi­vid­ual fire cen­ters com­bine, the heat­ed atmos­phere shoots up like a huge chim­ney, suck­ing the rush­ing air up from the ground to cre­ate a hur­ri­cane, which in turn fans the small­er fires and draws them into itself. The effect of the pil­lar of hot air pro­duced by such a huge blaze over a burn­ing city would be felt by those in air­craft up to thir­teen thou­sand above ground level.

Anoth­er sur­vivor, a 15-year old school­girl at the time, described equal­ly hell­ish sights:

Dres­den was to burn for sev­en nights and days. The heat reached over 1,000 degrees Fahren­heit. In the cen­ter, there was no escape. The town was a mass of flames. Peo­ple, burn­ing like torch­es, jumped into the Elbe on this cold Feb­ru­ary night. Screams and cries for help were heard every­where. The embank­ment was cov­ered with bod­ies or pieces of flesh.

Worse than Dres­den was Ham­burg, 75 per­cent of which was bombed to rub­ble, killing between 60,000 and 100,000. One sur­vivor, 19 years old at the time, described peo­ple lit­er­al­ly get­ting stuck, quick­sand-like, in molten roads:

the asphalt had melt­ed. There were peo­ple on the road­way, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed on to the road­way with­out think­ing. Their feet had got stuck and then they had put out their hands to try to get out again. They were on their hands and knees screaming.

Those who were lucky enough to sur­vive had not escaped unscathed: At mid­day — it nev­er got light — a man came and pulled some of us sur­vivors out of the crater. He was an elder­ly man who also had a burnt face. When he pulled me out by the hands, my skin stuck to him in shreds.”

Anoth­er account makes trag­i­cal­ly real the indis­crim­i­nate nature of the bombing:

Four-storey-high blocks of flats were like glow­ing mounds of stone right down to the base­ment. …Women and chil­dren were so charred as to be unrec­og­niz­able; those that had died through lack of oxy­gen were half charred and rec­og­niz­able. Their brains tum­bled from their burst tem­ples and their insides from the soft parts under the ribs. How ter­ri­bly must these peo­ple have died. The small­est chil­dren lay like fried eels on the pavement.

One can lit­er­al­ly spend hours and hours read­ing count­less descrip­tions by sur­vivors of peo­ple with blis­ters the sizes of fists” on their faces and black­ened bod­ies that had shrunk to as lit­tle as 60 cen­time­ters (about 23 inch­es) long.

His­to­ri­an Max Hast­ings notes that under such bomb­ing, not even air-raid shel­ters were safe: Many thou­sands of peo­ple asphyx­i­at­ed in their sub­ter­ranean gloom. …Some­times burst boil­ers or water mains drowned or cooked under­ground fugi­tives.” As the 15-year old Dres­den sur­vivor put it, describ­ing the fear of sit­ting an over­crowd­ed bomb shel­ter and hear­ing bombs drop­ping out­side: We died a thou­sand times. Hell could not be worse.”

As min­is­ter of muni­tions in 1917, Win­ston Churchill had opposed bomb­ing civil­ian areas 30 years ear­li­er, as he believed ter­ror­iz­ing” the Ger­man peo­ple would have seen the com­bat­ive spir­it of the peo­ple roused” and nev­er lead to sur­ren­der. In 1940 he changed his mind, believ­ing only the Air Force could win the war.

Hitler, for his part, agreed with the Churchill of 1917. He wel­comed the ter­ror­iza­tion of the Ger­man peo­ple by bomb, say­ing it actu­al­ly works in our favor, because it is cre­at­ing a body of peo­ple with noth­ing to lose — peo­ple who will there­fore fight on with utter fanati­cism.” They’re words the likes of Cruz, who believe bomb­ing ter­ror­ists out of exis­tence is the only solu­tion to extrem­ism, might do well to remember.

World War II was by no means the last time car­pet bomb­ing was uti­lized as a strat­e­gy by the U.S. mil­i­tary. Dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s, the Unit­ed States dropped more than 7 mil­lion tons of bombs on Viet­nam, Cam­bo­dia and Laos. Recall that the Allies dropped only 2 mil­lion tons worth of bombs dur­ing the whole of World War II.

For­mer Viet Cong offi­cial Trung Nhu Tang described the expe­ri­ence as:

an expe­ri­ence of undi­lut­ed psy­cho­log­i­cal ter­ror, into which we were plunged, day in, day out, for years on end. From a kilo­me­ter away, the son­ic roar of the B‑52 explo­sions tore eardrums, leav­ing many of the jun­gle dwellers per­ma­nent­ly deaf. From a kilo­me­ter, the shock waves knocked their vic­tims sense­less. Any hit with­in a half kilo­me­ter would col­lapse the walls of an unre­in­forced bunker, bury­ing alive the peo­ple cow­er­ing inside. Seen up close, the bomb craters were gigan­tic — thir­ty feet across and near­ly as deep.

The accounts were sim­i­lar in Cam­bo­dia, which was on the receiv­ing end of 2.75 mil­lion tons of bombs. One man, a peas­ant who joined the Khmer Rouge, recalled the experience:

The bombs came tum­bling down in a big clump… right onto [the vil­lage], and that time vil­lagers were killed in amaz­ing num­bers. …The bombs fell in the vil­lage, set­ting fire to people’s hous­es and killing them… some­times they didn’t even have the time to get out of their houses.

…it engulfed the forests, engulfed the forests with bombs, with devastation.

Anoth­er Khmer Rouge mem­ber explained the psy­cho­log­i­cal effect of the bomb­ing on the Cam­bo­di­an people: 

The ordi­nary peo­ple were ter­ri­fied by the bomb­ing and the shelling, nev­er hav­ing expe­ri­enced war, and some­times they lit­er­al­ly shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. …some peo­ple became shell-shocked, just like their brains were com­plete­ly dis­ori­ent­ed. Even though the shelling had stopped, they couldn’t hold down a meal. Their minds just froze up and would wan­der around mute and not talk for three or four days.

The bomb­ing lat­er served as the cen­ter­piece for the geno­ci­dal Khmer Rouge’s recruit­ment strategy.

Or take the 1990 Gulf War, cit­ed by Cruz as an exam­ple of the kind of car­pet bomb­ing he would car­ry out. Con­trary to Fox News Host Chris Wallace’s protes­ta­tion that we did pre­ci­sion strik­ing” against Iraq, 70 per­cent of the 88,500 tons of explo­sives dropped in the war were in pop­u­lat­ed areas.

The Los Ange­les Times in 1991 described it as a hell­ish night­mare of fires and smoke so dense that the wit­ness­es say the sun hasn’t been clear­ly vis­i­ble for sev­er­al days at a time.” Accord­ing to Paul Roberts, a for­mer war cor­re­spon­dent in Vietnam:

I expe­ri­enced bomb­ing in Cam­bo­dia, but it was noth­ing like that. …There were three waves every night. After 20 min­utes of this car­pet bomb­ing there would be a silence and you would hear a scream­ing of chil­dren and peo­ple. [The sur­vivors] were walk­ing round like zombies.

In one inci­dent, U.S. bombs struck a bomb shel­ter in Bagh­dad, killing hun­dreds of civil­ians. Though the news­cast of the bomb­ing was cen­sored to save the U.S. pub­lic from the upset­ting real­i­ty of their military’s actions, one Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review reporter saw the unedit­ed footage:

Near­ly all the bod­ies were charred into black­ness; in some cas­es the heat had been so great that entire limbs were burned off. Among the corpses were those of at least six babies and 10 chil­dren, most of them so severe­ly burned that their gen­der could not be deter­mined. Res­cue work­ers col­lapsed in grief, drop­ping corpses; some res­cuers vom­it­ed from the stench of the still-smol­der­ing bodies.

What is the point of pre­sent­ing this litany of hor­rors? As many point­ed out at the time, because ISIS reside in pop­u­lat­ed areas, any attempt to car­pet bomb the orga­ni­za­tion would inevitably result in scenes of grue­some suf­fer­ing like this.

But per­haps more impor­tant­ly, we should acknowl­edge the real­i­ty of what mil­i­tary actions like aer­i­al bomb­ing actu­al­ly look like. Both the Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats have pledged to use air pow­er in the fight against ISIS, but so often, phras­es like air pow­er,” air strikes,” bomb­ing” and even car­pet bomb­ing” — not to men­tion ster­ile terms like sur­gi­cal strikes” — san­i­tize the nature of such oper­a­tions by either abstract­ing them or cloud­ing them in mis­lead­ing language.

It’s one thing to talk about car­pet bomb­ing,” but quite anoth­er to talk about peo­ple sink­ing into molten pave­ment and chil­dren los­ing skin and limbs. Not long ago, a video of ISIS burn­ing a pris­on­er alive in a cage was met with howls of out­rage and calls to action. Per­haps politi­cians and the pub­lic wouldn’t be so eager to sup­port mass bomb­ing if they knew what they were advo­cat­ing was even worse than what they were try­ing to prevent.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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