Yes, Let’s Carpet Bomb ISIS

Let’s talk about carpet bombing, Dresden, and obscure Syrian city called Raqqa, the de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate. Ted Cruz has taken a lot of scorn from Democrat politicians, the press, and pundits on the left and right for his recommendation that we “carpet bomb” ISIS. Today, carpet bombing is generally considered liberals and elites of all stripes as an atavistic type of warfare from the past, like tossing diseased corpses over battlements (the type of horrible thing Christians did during the Crusades a millennium ago, as President Obama likes to remind) and illegal to boot. But neither proposition is true, nor is Cruz’s proposal necessarily a bad one. There are sound strategic and moral reasons for carpet bombing ISIS, and substantial legal justification for doing so under the laws of war.    

First of all, let’s define “carpet bombing.”  It simply means to systematically bomb a target area in order to destroy it. It doesn’t necessarily mean bombing a city, nor does it mean that the bombing is indiscriminate. A concentration of enemy troops in an open area where there is little of or chance of causing damage to noncombatants or noncombatant structures is a perfectly and unarguably legitimate target for such bombing. Only 25 years ago, coalition forces effectively carpet bombed the Iraqi army out of the Kuwaiti desert with huge concentrations of “dumb bombs” without raising any serious moral or legal concerns.  

Matters become more complex in when targeted troops are not concentrated in areas as desolate and identifiable as the open desert, but that still doesn’t render area bombing illegal or obsolescent. In a recent article at the "War on the Rocks" website, a former deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force explains in detail the legal grounding for carpet bombing. In summary, the tactic does not violate any international statute to which this nation is a party. The 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 does prohibit area bombings of military targets in built-up civilian areas, but the United States is not a party to the Protocol Additional (nor is Israel.) So long as there are legitimate military targets in the area, and reasonable discrimination is utilized in targeting to limit civilian casualties the tactic does not violate the laws of war. Nor ought the U.S. armed forces worry about the newly popular concept of “proportionality.” As I argued in an article for the Strategic Studies Institute this obscure law of war concept is without actual merit, and only gained attention when it was trotted out during the 2006 Lebanon War as a way to castigate Israel. It has since been used as a cudgel for critics of Western military action in general. 

Unfortunately, both the United States and Israel over the years have acted as if they are bound by the Protocols Additional, not only with respect to area bombing, but as with other controversial matters relating to combat against irregular forces in general. For example, the FM 27-10 (the Army field manual on the Law of Land Warfare) acknowledges the proportionality rule, even though it is only expressly mentioned as a binding law of war concept in the Protocol Additional. This unnecessary acquiesce to a statute to which we are not bound may give the impression that it’s provisions do restrict us, and allows critics of the American and/or Israeli militaries to claim that the Protocols Additional have become a part of “customary” international law, even if some states are not a party to the agreement.  

It’s quite likely that a notional President Cruz (with his substantial legal acumen) would not be afraid to openly acknowledge and remind that the United States was not bound by the Protocol Additional. Were he to order such a carpet bombing of ISIS he would actually be on firm legal ground, and he has the lawyerly chops to defend it. 

But what about the ethical connotations associated with carpet bombing, especially in a built-up area where civilian casualties would be a certainty? To deal address this issue, let’s look at what many regard as the ultimate example of an immoral area attack -- the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. Since Kurt Vonnegut wrote his clever novel Slaughterhouse Five (partially set in Dresden where Vonnegut was being held as a POW) that episode is seen by many (especially on the left) as an example of beyond the pale area bombing in which upwards of 30,000 civilians died. Dresden was a beautiful city (the Florence of the Elbe) and seemed to hold little military significance. The attack has been variously condemned as a bloodthirsty reprisal for the German bombing of Coventry in 1940, or a purely gratuitous attack on the one remaining major German city that had not yet been heavily bombed. 

But the truth is different. By February 1945 Dresden had become a Nazi sanctuary city, and a vital road and rail center through which the Nazis funneled troops and supplies to Eastern Front which by then was uncomfortably close. By the standards of 1945 aerial bombing taking out the Dresden rail yards (in the center of the city) meant taking out the center of the city itself. (It also ought to be pointed out, contra Vonnegut, that the actual "carpet bombing" was carried out by RAF Bomber Command aircraft. The concurrent U.S. 8th Air Force marshaling yard strike was an attempt at a precision raid.) The bombing was not completely indiscriminate for the time, nor gratuitous -- only the Alt Stadt on the south side of the Elbe was destroyed, while the Neu Stadt on the other side of the bridges was left mostly unscathed. That’s not to say the bombing was not unfortunate or terrible. When I first visited Dresden as a teenager in 1975 (it was my father’s hometown) there were still massive piles of rubble dotting the cityscape, though covered over with a layer of green grass, moss and trees. There was nothing left of his old neighborhood except ugly Communist block housing. (Nowadays, by the way, Dresden is beautiful once again.)

Morally, despite the loss of life, the bombing of Dresden was justified. The Nazi regime was odious enough to warrant the cost in civilian life, since every day the regime survived many thousands of innocent civilians and allied soldiers died. The same is true of the ISIS sanctuary of Raqqa where civilians are trapped under a murderous regime, where endless pinprick aerial bombings still frighten, and from which the organization dispatches killers to terrorize Western cities. “Carpet bombing” the Raqqa sanctuary need not be as inaccurate as the Dresden bombing (modern technology being what it is) but it is not moral to hesitate to act against ISIS’s evil because some civilians would perish in a substantially more robust bombing campaign.

Even more than that, such an attack would send a powerful political, psychological and military message that reluctant war of hand-wringing ethical uncertainties has given way to one of determination and moral clarity. It is something that President Obama will never do, nor would Hillary Clinton. That Ted Cruz has proposed such a thing is not to be mocked but actually welcomed. Carpet bombing ISIS would be a militarily sound and morally justifiable thing to do.   

Let’s talk about carpet bombing, Dresden, and obscure Syrian city called Raqqa, the de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate. Ted Cruz has taken a lot of scorn from Democrat politicians, the press, and pundits on the left and right for his recommendation that we “carpet bomb” ISIS. Today, carpet bombing is generally considered liberals and elites of all stripes as an atavistic type of warfare from the past, like tossing diseased corpses over battlements (the type of horrible thing Christians did during the Crusades a millennium ago, as President Obama likes to remind) and illegal to boot. But neither proposition is true, nor is Cruz’s proposal necessarily a bad one. There are sound strategic and moral reasons for carpet bombing ISIS, and substantial legal justification for doing so under the laws of war.    

First of all, let’s define “carpet bombing.”  It simply means to systematically bomb a target area in order to destroy it. It doesn’t necessarily mean bombing a city, nor does it mean that the bombing is indiscriminate. A concentration of enemy troops in an open area where there is little of or chance of causing damage to noncombatants or noncombatant structures is a perfectly and unarguably legitimate target for such bombing. Only 25 years ago, coalition forces effectively carpet bombed the Iraqi army out of the Kuwaiti desert with huge concentrations of “dumb bombs” without raising any serious moral or legal concerns.  

Matters become more complex in when targeted troops are not concentrated in areas as desolate and identifiable as the open desert, but that still doesn’t render area bombing illegal or obsolescent. In a recent article at the "War on the Rocks" website, a former deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force explains in detail the legal grounding for carpet bombing. In summary, the tactic does not violate any international statute to which this nation is a party. The 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 does prohibit area bombings of military targets in built-up civilian areas, but the United States is not a party to the Protocol Additional (nor is Israel.) So long as there are legitimate military targets in the area, and reasonable discrimination is utilized in targeting to limit civilian casualties the tactic does not violate the laws of war. Nor ought the U.S. armed forces worry about the newly popular concept of “proportionality.” As I argued in an article for the Strategic Studies Institute this obscure law of war concept is without actual merit, and only gained attention when it was trotted out during the 2006 Lebanon War as a way to castigate Israel. It has since been used as a cudgel for critics of Western military action in general. 

Unfortunately, both the United States and Israel over the years have acted as if they are bound by the Protocols Additional, not only with respect to area bombing, but as with other controversial matters relating to combat against irregular forces in general. For example, the FM 27-10 (the Army field manual on the Law of Land Warfare) acknowledges the proportionality rule, even though it is only expressly mentioned as a binding law of war concept in the Protocol Additional. This unnecessary acquiesce to a statute to which we are not bound may give the impression that it’s provisions do restrict us, and allows critics of the American and/or Israeli militaries to claim that the Protocols Additional have become a part of “customary” international law, even if some states are not a party to the agreement.  

It’s quite likely that a notional President Cruz (with his substantial legal acumen) would not be afraid to openly acknowledge and remind that the United States was not bound by the Protocol Additional. Were he to order such a carpet bombing of ISIS he would actually be on firm legal ground, and he has the lawyerly chops to defend it. 

But what about the ethical connotations associated with carpet bombing, especially in a built-up area where civilian casualties would be a certainty? To deal address this issue, let’s look at what many regard as the ultimate example of an immoral area attack -- the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. Since Kurt Vonnegut wrote his clever novel Slaughterhouse Five (partially set in Dresden where Vonnegut was being held as a POW) that episode is seen by many (especially on the left) as an example of beyond the pale area bombing in which upwards of 30,000 civilians died. Dresden was a beautiful city (the Florence of the Elbe) and seemed to hold little military significance. The attack has been variously condemned as a bloodthirsty reprisal for the German bombing of Coventry in 1940, or a purely gratuitous attack on the one remaining major German city that had not yet been heavily bombed. 

But the truth is different. By February 1945 Dresden had become a Nazi sanctuary city, and a vital road and rail center through which the Nazis funneled troops and supplies to Eastern Front which by then was uncomfortably close. By the standards of 1945 aerial bombing taking out the Dresden rail yards (in the center of the city) meant taking out the center of the city itself. (It also ought to be pointed out, contra Vonnegut, that the actual "carpet bombing" was carried out by RAF Bomber Command aircraft. The concurrent U.S. 8th Air Force marshaling yard strike was an attempt at a precision raid.) The bombing was not completely indiscriminate for the time, nor gratuitous -- only the Alt Stadt on the south side of the Elbe was destroyed, while the Neu Stadt on the other side of the bridges was left mostly unscathed. That’s not to say the bombing was not unfortunate or terrible. When I first visited Dresden as a teenager in 1975 (it was my father’s hometown) there were still massive piles of rubble dotting the cityscape, though covered over with a layer of green grass, moss and trees. There was nothing left of his old neighborhood except ugly Communist block housing. (Nowadays, by the way, Dresden is beautiful once again.)

Morally, despite the loss of life, the bombing of Dresden was justified. The Nazi regime was odious enough to warrant the cost in civilian life, since every day the regime survived many thousands of innocent civilians and allied soldiers died. The same is true of the ISIS sanctuary of Raqqa where civilians are trapped under a murderous regime, where endless pinprick aerial bombings still frighten, and from which the organization dispatches killers to terrorize Western cities. “Carpet bombing” the Raqqa sanctuary need not be as inaccurate as the Dresden bombing (modern technology being what it is) but it is not moral to hesitate to act against ISIS’s evil because some civilians would perish in a substantially more robust bombing campaign.

Even more than that, such an attack would send a powerful political, psychological and military message that reluctant war of hand-wringing ethical uncertainties has given way to one of determination and moral clarity. It is something that President Obama will never do, nor would Hillary Clinton. That Ted Cruz has proposed such a thing is not to be mocked but actually welcomed. Carpet bombing ISIS would be a militarily sound and morally justifiable thing to do.