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Why Americans Love Bombardment

Has justice through retribution become the new American virtue?

September 11, 2013

B-2 stealth bomber. (Credit: U.S. Air Force)

On July 12-21, 1784, a Western coalition battle fleet “unleashed hell” on the city of Algiers, the heart of a tenacious Islamic emirate. Led by a Spanish fleet (and financed by the Papacy), the expedition included squadrons from the kingdoms of Portugal, Naples and the Order of Malta.

After 20,000 bombs and cannon shot, much of Algiers and its forts lay ruined, with the Barbary fleet destroyed. The Dey signed a treaty with Spain that held off piracy for a generation.

Bombardment is theater

As soon as princes had big enough cannon (by the mid-15th century), they started orchestrating them in great shows of smoke and fire.

For 500 years, since the Mehmet’s cannonade of Constantinople in 1453, these grand operas have been staged with the same hopes that Spain’s coalition attack brought to Algiers. Bombardments from the sea matured in the 18th century, when cannon could be massed on sailing battleships.

But today such shows are exclusively American theater. To understand why the world shivers a little when they are performed, and why this theater still works, requires revisiting earlier historical venues.

The key question is this: When America bombards, how is that different from other celebrated cannonades in other times and places?

The Ottoman Sultans Mehmet II made cannonade theater and Suleiman amplified the opera at Rhodes (1480, 1522) and Malta (1565) and Heraklion (or Candia, 1667-1669). But it was the Sun King himself, France Louis XIV, who made bombardment the god’s theater of war, by making sieges of fortified cities the centerpiece of national strategy.

Each siege was a grand orchestration designed for onlookers as much as enemy. It was also a grand occasion for the French court and its foreign guests. Each and every one of Louis’ military gambits was a glorious happening as much as a combat operation.

By the 19th century, bombardment moved to the margins of world events, but it took center stage again as European imperialism gathered steam (literally and figuratively).

Victorian sea power was not much about naval battles as it was about naval cannonade – and that means the bombardment of cities. Even 200 years ago, as at Algiers, the ships-of-the-line could present from 30 to 60 cannon on broadside for firing at one time, as massed smoothbore cannon, which could intimidate great cities and whole populations — that is, if they were in-range of battleship guns.

Hence, the shelling of Algiers (1784, 1816), St. Jean d’Acre (1840), the Taku forts (1859-60), Veracruz (1838, 1847, 1863), Shimonoseki (1864) and Alexandria (1882). They were all core intimidations of vulnerable places — vulnerable that is, in their undeveloped state, to European imperialism.

These bombardments always had fig leaf cover — to stop Mediterranean piracy, stop Muhammad Ali from toppling the Ottoman Empire, make Mexico pay its debts, or just defend “national interests.” But at their core, they were highly opportunistic events and calculatedly instrumental.

These bombardments were all initiated either to extend European influence and control or, falling short of that, to open a wedge for invasion and occupation. In other words, this was “realism” in its purest form — in this case, serving European interests.

A nation of realists?

But here is the catch: Unlike the Europe of yesteryear, today’s America is not a land of realists. I realize this assertion must disappoint many in Washington, that Imperial City.

But even sober-minded and anti-imperial journalists like Henry Allen write in the Washington Post that Americans “fight for virtue.” Hence, it is passion, not reason, that rules.

The new American virtue is more about righteous punishment — in short, retributive justice.

Hence, America’s opera of bombardment is not only different from the raison d’état of Mehmet II or Louis XIV: It represents a different species.

Old monarchs orchestrated the grand theater of pyrotechnic transcendence to ratify their imperial authority, while Victorian parliamentary potentates, from Prime Minister to Monsieur le Président, their parliamentary dominance.

When they sent big gun squadrons out to bombard a seaside city, it was all about extracting concessions or forcing submission. America, cloaked in righteousness but with the same intentions, sends air weapons out to bring about real and media mayhem — to punish.

Moreover, America is the doyen and sole proprietor now of the bombardment-of-nations franchise: Both as world-theater and its own testament to justice.

Still, in our collective minds, we Americans still have a sense of fulfilling God’s charge. We say we are still his chosen agent to redeem humanity. Even President Obama, who has done much to cut America down to size, cannot escape the beckoning halo of this rhetoric.

As he reminds, punishment delivers a virtuous message: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”  Those were the words he used in his September 10, 2013 address to the nation on the Syria issue.

It was not always so for us Americans. Retributive justice as an official component of America’s divine agency did not even exist until the Civil War. It was at that time when the federal cause against the Secessionist states was in desperate need of enthusiasm. And so a powerful paradigm of punishment for Confederate evil was framed.

God as a bomber

Once embedded in our collective American ethos, however, this paradigm easily resurfaced in World War II – through the doctrine of strategic bombardment.

Initially, U.S. airpower doctrine carefully focused on the precision bombing of enemy industry, energy and strategic transport (aka railroads).

But by the end of World War II, the original restraints tying our hands had all been severed, freeing us to go after the whole of the enemy people. That we did later, in Germany – and most zealously against Japan, with undisguised ardor.

Punishment of enemy society became anointed mission thereafter, whether there was international sanction (Korea) or not (Vietnam).

And this was a bipartisan venture: Democrats do it as often as Republicans. Hence, a Democrat president will initiate a Syrian bombardment-opera that mirrors his predecessor Democrat’s air campaign, not so many years ago, against Serbia.

Bombardment of nations has become America’s modus operandi — its signature international enterprise and wholly owned world franchise.

More critically, it has replaced original, more compassionate framings of American virtue. Bombing nations has in some cases (especially after 9-11) actually come to stand in our minds for liberation itself. It is intended not only as the punishment of evil, but also as its very purification.

This scheme emerged powerfully at the end of World War II, where newsreel images of leveled German cities became our testament of Nazi evil expunged from the face of the earth.

Crucially, however, the most powerful appeal of retributive justice is in its seductive tie to America’s divine agency. If we are the righteous arm of God, then ultimately we must not depend on the courage and moral fortitude of others — because evil is at last, our business.

As U.S. Secretary of State Kerry declared: “Assad has now joined Hitler and Hussein.” We cannot stand by as evil stalks the earth.

Many on the left will moan over this exceptional exercise of the bombardment-franchise — but then, that is exactly the point, according to the underlying script.

We are Americans, and Americans are by definition, exceptional, because we are chosen. No one else: Not ancien monarchs and sultans, not Victorian prime ministers and les présidents, can go forth among humanity today and lay waste to the wicked. Only we Americans are entitled to do so, declaring all the while the unimpeachable righteousness of what we do.

Ironically, it is in this context of dispensation that the much talked about “realist” vision comes into play. Think about it: The very exercise of such strength, unopposed, is in itself absolute and unquestionable ratification of American primacy.

Thus, a realist might argue that strategic bombardment is the essence of “world leadership” or “hegemony” or stainless “credibility:” A living testament that we are not in fact in decline — as you can see with your own eyes.

Hence, there is a supremely practical and self-interested side to virtuous, strategic bombardment.

The trick, of course, is pulling it off. Remember Operation El Dorado Canyon, the air raid on Libya in 1986, or Operation Desert Fox, the bombardment of Iraq in 1998, or the cruise missile strike on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant (also in 1998)?

Strikes for retributive justice usually have more elusive metrics of achievement than antique bombardments to stop piracy.

Even those racked up a spotty historical record. That Spanish-coalition bombardment of Algiers, that succeeded so well in 1784? It was preceded the year before by a botched Spanish cannonade that failed utterly, like so many strikes against the Barbary emirs — and so many of our own.

Is the lure of virtuous retribution so seductive to Americans that we cannot resist its call?

More on this topic


When America bombards, how is that different from other celebrated cannonades in other times and places?

America is now the doyen and sole proprietor of the bombardment-of-nations franchise.

Bombardment of nations has become America’s signature international enterprise and world franchise.

From Korea to Iraq and now Syria, punishment of enemy society has become America’s anointed mission.

Only we Americans are entitled to bomb, claiming the unimpeachable righteousness of what we do.

The U.S. scheme of justice through retribution first surfaced in the Civil War.