Hot Air Power and Libya

This Aero L-39 Albatross once flew for Gadhafi's Libyan Air Foirce. The aircraft is long gone, thanks to western air power. Gadhafi isn't. Hmmm. (Photo by Tark Siala/Flickr)

[Editor’s Note: At first glance this would seem to be not our line of country, having little to do with food, water, pollution, energy or the like. On second thought, however, it has everything to do with the collapse of an imperial industrial power.]

Enthusiasm for war increases exponentially with distance from war, whether that distance be measured as time, space or knowledge. Similarly, the belief that war can be prosecuted rationally — “surgically” is a popular adverb these days — dies on contact with actual warfare. Yet somehow the US has been led for decades now by people who love war, seek every opportunity to launch it, and believe utterly that technology can do it surgically.

The case in point is Libya. In order to prevent the slaughter of innocent civilians (a prospect that seems to bother us not at all in countries that have less oil for the export market) our humanitarian hawks, joined by those of Britain and France (who get a far greater proportion of their oil from, and through, Libya) came up with the perfect, surgical act of war — a no-fly zone. Remove Gadhafi’s air force from the equation, the argument went, and you level the playing field and give the rebellion a chance to thrive.

The ignorance of actual warfare embodied in that policy is amazing.

[Editor’s Note II: The writer has served in the military but not in combat. However, he has spent much of his life researching, writing and editing books and national-magazine articles on military history, especially the American Civil War (author of two books, editor of several more, former editor of Civil War Magazine), the French and Indian War, and World War II. For a complete bibliography go to]

First of all, where is there evidence that a no-fly zone accomplished anything? North Vietnam was a no-fly zone for the entire course of the war we lost there. Iraq was a no-fly zone when Saddam Hussein conducted chemical genocide against the Kurds; the fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina were no-fly zones for nearly three years had little effect on the outcome of that conflict. So by what empirical process did someone say, “I know what we can do to fix Libya! A no-fly zone!”

Go deeper into the history of warfare and misgivings deepen about the effectiveness of air power, especially when wielded alone. Air power is, of course, a form of artillery, and at the risk of drawing actual fire from its enthusiasts I will say that my study of the Civil War, for example, shows me precious few examples where artillery was effective, let alone decisive (except when firing canister at close range into lines of battle). The largest and longest cannonade in the history of North America was unleashed by Confederate artillerists prior to the charge up Seminary Ridge on the third day at Gettysburg. The only Federal casualty of the bombardment, almost all of which sailed harmlessly over the ridgetop, was one orderly serving lunch to some officer in the rear area.

Even the vaunted assault of the 8th Air Force on the German homeland late in WWII — and this is said without any intention of limiting the honor due those intrepid fliers — turns out on close analysis to have had relatively (meaning, in comparison to the valor and sacrifice of the airmen who conducted it) little effect on the outcome of the war. It turns out that most bombed factories can be put back in business in a few days, and that the resolve of most people is hardened, not destroyed, by bombardment.

Consult the history of the war in the Pacific, and you see an endless succession of islands bombarded almost to sea level by overwhelming air and naval power, until nothing could possibly be alive there, after which it took the Marines long bloody months of close-quarters combat to actually take the islands from the Japanese troops who had hunkered down and survived just fine.

To someone grounded in such history, it was no surprise that the no-fly zone did not save the rebels in Libya. And it was even more dismaying then President Obama doubled down, sending in the drones, another weapon that only people remote from the realities and history of war could love. They were sent in because they are, you know, surgical, and do not risk the lives of our pilots. And how many innocent civilians have they killed accidentally in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with what effect on our alliances in the region?

Meanwhile Gadhafi has the money to pay and equip his trained soldiers to take and hold ground whether they are supported or opposed by air power. While the rebels — a mob of young men in pickup trucks, running around firing weapons endlessly into the air, do not have the first prerequisite of conducting combat, which is the ability to comprehend the battlefield and maneuver on it.

So we have established a no-fly zone and we have sent in the drones and this morning, 10 weeks after we started our intervention, CNN reports:

“In the wake of what rebels describe as the heaviest shelling yet by pro-government forces on the port of Misrata, much of the western Libyan city appeared to be a wasteland Wednesday morning.”

And so war proves once again to be like a bad marriage. You don’t remember how or why you got into it, you hate every minute of it, it’s ruining you financially, innocent people are suffering more than you are, and you can’t figure out how to get out of it.

And so the war lovers, those who know nothing about it, continue to start more of them, insisting that they will be short, painless, and surgical; that, in the immortal words of Donald Trump, “It’s so easy.”


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