"Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper." George Orwell
As fate would have it, on the day I began writing an article about bombs being called "smart," "precision," and "laser guided," the top story was the deadliest "friendly fire" incident (to date) in Operation Iraqi Freedom (sic). New York Times reporter David Rohde wrote: "An American airstrike mistakenly hit a convoy of American and Kurdish soldiers, senior Kurdish commanders and journalists today in northern Iraq, killing 18 Kurds and wounding more than 45 others in the worst such incident yet reported in the war in Iraq." Although witnesses saw the plane was circle the area "at least two or three times," a missile was fired at the SUVs and trucks that made up the convoy. The three white BBC vehicles had the letters 'TV' spelled out in tape on their hoods," said Rohde, "a step journalists often use to identify their cars from above."
What is euphemistically known as "friendly fire" or "collateral damage" is a mainstay of war. Mistakes, miscalculations, and overzealous soldiers can all result in incidents like the one described above. As war become more technologically advanced, civilian casualties did not decrease. On the contrary, the number of civilians killed during "modern" wars is far beyond worst-case scenarios. During WWII, for example, Allied bombing raids killed 672,000 Japanese civilians and 635,000 German civilians.
The United States spends more than one million dollars per minute on war and this expenditure is justified through a variety of spins, i.e. U.S. weapons are the most technologically advanced the world has ever seen. Like all spin, evidence to the contrary is not hard to find.
All throughout Operation Desert Storm, the Pentagon and an acquiescent media sold the American public on the accuracy and efficiency of U.S. weaponry. "Although influential media such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal kept promoting the illusion of a 'clean war,'" write media critics Martin A. Lee and Normon Solomon, "a different picture began to emerge after the U.S. stopped carpet-bombing Iraq. The pattern underscored what Napoleon meant when he said that it wasn't necessary to completely suppress the news; it was sufficient to delay the news until it no longer mattered." That delay lasted from February 1991 until July 1996 when the General Accounting Office released a study that found the claims made by the Pentagon and its principal weapons contractors concerning the pinpoint precision of the Stealth fighter jet, the Tomahawk land-attack missile, and laser-guided smart bombs "were overstated, misleading, inconsistent with the best available data, or unverifiable."
"The accounting office concluded," writes Tim Weiner in the New York Times, "that new, costly 'smart' weapons systems did not necessarily perform better than old-fashioned, cheaper 'dumb' ones." "When laser-guided bombs miss, it means that something got screwed up in the control mechanism, so they can go ten miles away; they can go anywhere," says Noam Chomsky. "No high-technology works for very long, certainly not under complicated conditions." This pattern held during the 78-day bombing campaign over Yugoslavia in 1999. During the assault, Defense Secretary William Cohen declared: "We severely crippled the (Serbian) military forces in Kosovo by destroying more than 50 percent of the artillery and one-third of the armored vehicles." One year later, a U.S. Air Force report revealed a different story (FN):
Original Claim Actual Number 120 tanks destroyed 14 220 armored personnel carriers destroyed 20 450 artillery pieces destroyed 20 744 confirmed strikes by NATO pilots 58
The report also found that Serbian military fooled U.S. technology with simple tactics like constructing fake artillery pieces out of black logs and old truck wheels. One vital bridge avoided destruction when a phony was constructed out of polyethylene sheeting 300 yards upriver. NATO pilots bombed the fake bridge several times. (FN). When confronted with this evidence, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon summed it up as such: "We obviously hit enough tanks and other targets to win."
Even when expensive, high-tech U.S. weapons are aimed at actual targets, they may fail due to inadequate testing. Jeffrey St. Clair, co-editor of Counterpunch, exposed one example of weapons testing in late 2002 when he wrote about a "recently leaked memo from Pentagon's top weapons inspector" warning that that the Navy is "deploying for battle 'an increasing number' of combat systems that may be seriously flawed."
Thomas Christie is director of operational testing and evaluation for the Department of Defense and author of the memo. "I am concerned about an apparent trend by the Navy to deploy an increasing number of combat systems into harm's way that have not demonstrated acceptable performance," he wrote.
"Christie cited the weapons systems used by the Navy's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter as being the most suspect," says St. Clair. Other over-hyped and under-tested weapons like the AWACS, Stealth fighters and bombers, and smart bombs used in the first Gulf War demonstrated what U.S. technology had to offer. "It turned out that these new systems didn't turn out to be very efficient or very smart," says St. Clair. "The stealth systems didn't work in cold weather or heavy winds. The smart bombs hardly lived up to their advanced billing or the daily Pentagon videos of missiles dropping into Iraqi smokestacks. In fact, post-war bombing assessments showed that the smart bombs hit their targets only about 30 percent of the time." The biggest bust of all may have been the much-vaunted Patriot Missile.
On January 22, 1991 ABC television reporter Sam Donaldson reported on an alleged Patriot Missile intercept. "A Scud missile is heading toward Dharan in eastern Saudi Arabia," Donaldson said as the screen showed a bright object rocketing across the sky. "And rising to intercept it, a U.S. Patriot missile." After a beat, Donaldson gleefully cheered, "Bullseye! No more Scud!" "But on the screen," says Jennifer Weeks, a defense analyst with the Congressional Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, "the Scud seems to continue right through an explosion on its path toward the ground."
The U.S. Army told Congress that Patriot missiles had intercepted forty-five of the forty-seven Scuds at which they were fired. "Desert Storm provided gripping images of Patriots arcing across the night skies over Israel and Saudi Arabia to intercept Iraqi Scuds, and U.S. officials quickly claimed that the Patriot (originally designed to shoot down airplanes and slow-flying cruise missiles) was effective against ballistic missiles," says Weeks. President George H.W. Bush visited the Raytheon plant in Andover, Massachusetts, where the Patriot is made. "Patriot is proof positive that missile defense works," the president declared...and the matter appeared to be settled.
Theodore A. Postol is professor of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The current National Missile Defense interceptor tries to identify warheads and decoys by 'looking at them' with infrared eyes," Postol wrote in a June 15, 2002 Boston Globe op-ed. "Because the missile defense is essentially using vision to tell which objects are decoys and which are bombs, this technique is no more effective than trying to find suitcase bombs at an airport by studying the shape and color of each suitcase."
In 2000, Postol wrote a letter to the White House, describing how "how the Missile Defense Agency had doctored results of National Missile Defense tests." In the Boston Globe, Postol explained, "After the first two tests in 1997 and 1998, the agency learned that decoys shaped like nuclear warheads - and even balloons with stripes on them - could not be distinguished from actual warheads. The agency responded by removing these decoys from all subsequent flight tests. In one of the flight tests, the agency claimed a success in telling warheads from decoys that was beyond expectations.
A 1992 report by a House of Representatives Operations of Government subcommittee concluded: "The Patriot missile system was not the spectacular success in the Persian Gulf War that the American public was led to believe. There is little evidence to prove that the Patriot hit more than a few Scud missiles launched by Iraq during the Gulf War, and there are some doubts about even these engagements. The public and the Congress were misled by definitive statements of success issued by administration and Raytheon representatives during and after the war."
Even Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, in January 2001 eventually admitted, "The Patriot didn't work."
In advertising campaigns not unlike those hawking SUVs or cell phones, American military technical superiority (and the related benefit to avoiding civilian casualties) is packaged, marketed, and sold to a willing nation. Fighter jets perform flyovers at sporting events. Hollywood deifies weapons of war. Politicians from all sides support "defense" spending. War toys sanitize the impact of such spending and desensitize children to the cause and effect of military action. In the end, however, human beings manufacture and utilize these weapons...and that should be remembered when the fighting begins.
Mickey Z. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .