Today, November 17, 41 days into Israel’s continuous bombardment of the Gaza Strip, the UK Parliament voted against a motion calling for an ceasefire.
The bombing continues, and one question stands out: Why 1,200 people killed by guerillas matter more to Western governments than 12,000 – and counting – killed by bombs from the sky. Why one is a barbaric crime, and the other a civilised military action.
There are many correct answers to that. One of them is the history of bombing.
In a single line: From its beginnings, over a hundred years ago, aerial bombing was a technology meant for colonial powers to use exclusively against colonised, usually indigenous people.
For a hundred years, the West’s monopoly over that most lethal violence has conditioned how we see the victims of bombs – if we see them at all.
The use of aeroplanes to drop lethal explosives is nearly as old as powered flight itself. The technology was primitive when the First World War broke out in Europe, and never became a decisive military factor in the war. Afterwards, though, its potential was obvious: the danger and the power of it.
Sven Lindqvist, in his inventive book-essay A History of Bombing, describes what followed in the inter-war years. European governments:
1. Prepared treaties to never bomb each other’s cities.
2. Decided to use colonial targets as sites to test, refine and advance the technology of bombing from the air,
3. Began creating air forces primarily for ‘aerial policing’: which often meant bombing tribal villages prone to political unrest.
Britain, to take one example, was a victorious nation in 1919, but cash-strapped and shaken, with its hold on empire slipping. One cabinet minister, named Winston Churchill, came to hold three portfolios at the same time: for The Colonies, Air and War. With Hugh Trenchard, Britain’s first chief of air staff, Churchill conceived a military doctrine – also a budgetary argument – for “aerial policing” in the far reaches of the empire.
Air power, they realised, could relieve the empire of costly army garrisons. As young men and soldiers, both Churchill and Trenchard had served in the “policing” of colonial frontiers on the ground, in Waziristan and West Africa respectively. Churchill’s first book, With the Malakand Field Force, described the arduous work of exacting collective punishment on Pashtuns. Regiments advanced, dynamiting buildings, felling orchards and filling up wells with rocks and gravel (tactics still favoured by Israeli settlers and the IDF against Palestinian villages in the West Bank).
Alternatively, Churchill wrote, they “destroyed all the villages” in the valley: “The whole valley was filled with the smoke, which curled upwards in dense and numerous columns, and hung like a cloud over the scene of destruction.”
The comparative efficiency of achieving this from the air, with bombing raids, was obvious.
In 1920, the Royal Air Force carried out the world’s first systematic bombing campaign against Somalis. Thereafter, the first societies in to experience bombing were in Iraq, North and East Africa, and the North-West Frontier of India.
Arthur Harris, later a legend of British bomber command, said this early in his career: “The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage. They know that within 45 minutes, a full-sized village can be practically wiped out, and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.”
There’s an eerie continuity between those places and the ones still being bombed on Western order a century later. While writing my own book Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, in 2013, I researched the bombing raids on two Pashtun villages, Ahmed Khel and Datta Khel, in 1941. Looking up their names online, I learned that those exact villages were still being punished by Predator drones in 2013.
The Western ethics of aerial bombing, wrote Sven Lindqvist, made this very clear: ‘The laws of war protect enemies of the same race, class, and culture. The laws of war leave the foreign and the alien without protection.”
In the 1940s, once World War II broke out in Europe, these rules could not hold. And there was hell to pay.
The bombing of Guernica in 1937, by German and Italian air forces, was a herald that civilian bombardment would be turned against Europeans themselves.
This always happens, and is the central insight of Lindqvist’s writings: technologies of control meant for colonial peripheries come home to roost in the metropole.
Still, the years of World War II were an exception. In the post-war world, bombing resumed on the same racial, colonial lines and geographies, right through the US wars on Iraq and Afghanistan in this century.
Today, two countries push this colonial perversity into newer and deadlier expressions: the United States and Israel. Since October, reports say Israel has dropped more than 25,000 tonnes of explosives on the Gaza Strip. That is equivalent to two nuclear bombs. The Gaza Strip has an area about one quarter the size of Delhi.
Every deflection and defence of Israel’s leadership – they’re not trying to hit civilians, Hamas is at fault for placing its fighters among civilians – is old news, straight from a hundred-year-old textbook for colonial collective punishment.
Meanwhile Israeli commanders have been saying it out loud, from day one: “The emphasis is on damage, not on accuracy.”
For a hundred years, our moral imagination of war has been shaped by colonizing states which have the ability to bomb from the air, and want to use it: Against tribes on their own native land. Against people with barely any defences. Against civilians. The perpetrators of this mass killing are always coded as civilized. The victims are always at best invisible, at worst sub-human.
What’s also been conditioned is our visual imagination. For weeks, most images from Gaza only showed explosions from a distance, collapsing buildings, smoking ruins. When we do see the victims – children buried alive under masonry, or people carrying the destroyed bodies of their friends, looking for help – we’re trained to not see them as fully human.
On October 26, weeks into the bombardment of Gaza, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of a “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce”. One hundred and twenty countries votes in favour and 14 voted against. India was among the 45 that abstained. It was a measure of the real international demand for Israel to stop bombing. But the West’s double standards have been unmoving, with hugely damaging effects on what survives of international law and cooperation.
Even as you read this, more people in Gaza are being buried alive by bombs, and Western leaders will not utter the word ‘ceasefire’.
One reason for that: with the exception of a few years in the 1940s, the people being bombed from the air were rarely European. And except for one day in 2001, they were never American.
But the people dropping the bombs usually were.
Raghu Karnad is Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers, New York Public Library, 2022-23.