Issue 272 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review

Stop the war

Bombs away

Andy Newman explains the strategic importance of Britain to the US war machine

America's weapons of mass destruction
America's weapons of mass destruction

In 1999 I was working in a small engineering factory about six miles east of RAF Fairford, and we used to watch the American B-52s flying overhead on their way to Serbia. It was chilling to know that three hours later they would be raining death from the skies. I later spoke to a Serbian refugee whose district had been bombed by these same planes. I wrote down at the time what she said: 'There were no shelters. When the bombing started I used to get my child to go to the cellar, but it would have given no protection. He just cried all the time and you cannot say it will be alright because that is a lie. The worst thing is that you start hoping it will be your neighbour's house that is bombed, not yours; people you know and you start hoping that they are killed and not you.'

Of all the explosives dropped during the bombing of Serbia fully 48 percent were from RAF Fairford, about ten miles north of Swindon. It is often said that Britain's military contribution to any US war is largely symbolic. However, Britain does actually play one important military role for the US--providing airstrips for the USAF heavy bomber fleet.

The USAF has 85 B-52 StratoFortresses, 72 B-1B Lancers, and 21 B-2 Stealth bombers. During Desert Storm, B-52s dropped 40 percent of all ordnance. Outside of the United States these heavy bombers can fly from Guam in the Pacific, Fairford in the UK and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean--they are too big to fly from aircraft carriers. To use either Fairford or Diego Garcia the USAF needs the express permission of the British government.

These forward bases outside the US give the USAF heavy bomber coverage of most of the world's populated surface, and with one refuelling they can bomb anywhere on the planet. Although midair refuelling extends the range it only does so within the limits of crew endurance, and if the US is forced to make lengthy flights across the Atlantic or from Guam this effectively halves the strength of the US heavy bomber fleet.

It is commonplace to ascribe the use of US air power and a seeming unwillingness to use ground troops as simply a consequence of the Vietnam syndrome, because the US public will not accept casualties. This is partly true, but it is also a misreading of the degree to which military organisations have their own culture and traditions, particularly where those traditions have been successful in the past. Strategic bombing and destruction of civilian populations has been a key component of US military planning since the 1920s.

The originator of the tactic of mass civilian bombing was not the fascist Condor legion that destroyed Guernica in 1937, but an American, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, who argued in the 1920s that bomber aircraft could be used to destroy 'cities where the people live, areas where their food and supplies are produced and the transport lines that carry these supplies from place to place...the hostile main army in the field is a false objective and the real objectives are the vital centres.'

The greatest historical victory for the US armed forces was their subjugation of the Japanese Empire in the Second World War. Although they had been bombing the Japanese mainland since the Doolittle raid in 1942, mass terror bombing began in earnest on 9 and 10 March 1945 when a fire raid on Tokyo killed 100,000 and made a further 100,000 homeless. The later use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki has caused the earlier raids to be forgotten outside Japan, but during the spring and summer of 1945 General LeMay's fleet of B-29s sought to systematically destroy every Japanese city with incendiary bombs. The explicit aim of these bombing raids was to force Japan to surrender without committing US troops to a ground attack--and in purely military terms they were successful. Therefore the US military strategy in Iraq, Serbia and Afghanistan does have elements of continuity with the pre-Vietnam era.

In George Orwell's satire Nineteen Eighty-Four, the world was at permanent war, but the propaganda machine changed the enemy without the population noticing. As the focus of war drifts seamlessly from Osama Bin Laden to Saddam Hussein this is prophetic. Also prophetic is Britain's role as Airstrip One, the unsinkable aircraft carrier. This is the role that RAF Fairford now plays. However, in one vital respect Orwell was wrong. In Nineteen Eighty-Four rebellion was impossible because of thought control. But New Labour has spectacularly failed to sell this war. What is interesting is that when Fairford was upgraded to support B-2 Stealth bombers it was chosen in favour of alternatives such as Moron and Zaragoza, because the US feared it would face local opposition in Spain.

Recently the British peace movement has seen a number of campaigns, such as the peace camps at Faslane, Menwith Hill and Aldermaston that involve relatively small numbers of very dedicated activists. Some campaigners also advocate trespass and sabotage of military equipment by a few people acting in secret. Their courage and sheer tenacity is undeniable, but only through a mass popular campaign that harnesses the millions who demonstrated in London last month and who feel revulsion about the idea of any attack on Iraq can we succeed.

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