Cities: a matter of life and death

‘….we have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London.’ (Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary, addressing the House of Commons, 1943)

We prize our buildings. We fight to save buildings we love. There are preservation orders on old buildings, but likewise on the best examples of Brutalism. But further afield we lose whole cities. We bomb whole cities. Think of the souks of Aleppo. Or Raqqa: its obliteration a necessary price for ousting IS. And the Russian and Syrian bombardment of Idlib.

Had Obama brought the USA in against Assad, would old Damascus have survived assault?

I’ve been reading about a new American approach to command and control: ‘Joint All-domain Command and Control, or JADC2’, a network that links ‘every sensor and every shooter’ wherever they might be. It’s been tested with fighter jets, ground-based artillery, surface-to-air missiles and ‘hunter-killer’ drones. Is it re-assuring to know that it could ‘inform a commander that a building to be destroyed could first be emptied by an ability to activate its fire-alarm or sprinklers’? (The Economist)

My starting-point for this post was the fabric of cities, and by far the greater evil is the taking out of populations. But people and buildings and centuries of history are all intertwined. Fabric and culture are, in war, every bit as dispensable as populations. 

World War Two took obliteration to whole new levels. Coventry, and the London Blitz. Retaliation when it came was brutal, born it was argued of military necessity. Think of Dresden, and above all Hiroshima. Military necessity – or war crime?

Revenge also played a part. I’ve a been looking at newspaper cuttings, saved by my father, from World War 2. A headline from the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post of January 21st, 1943 struck me.

‘M.P.s CALL FOR THE BOMBING OF ROME. Anthony Eden addressed the House of Commons: ‘….we have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London. [Mussolini enthused about bombing London, but no Italian bombers got anywhere near London as far as I’m aware], and we should do so to the best of our ability, and as heavily as possible if the course of the war should render such action convenient and helpful.’

The report continues: ‘The House was full at the time and an enthusiastic cheer came from the crowded benches.’

From the Manchester Guardian of April 1st, 1944 – curious it is this date, but it was no April Fool. The press cutting was kept because Orde Wingate, leader of the British Forces in Burma, had been killed. Below and to the left of the Wingate report is the headline: ‘BITTEREST AIR FIGHT OF THE WAR. R.A.F.’s Three-Hour Battle in Great Attack on Nuremberg.’ 94 aircraft were reported as lost. Of about 1000 in total – that was the number of bombers involved in earlier attacks of Leipzig and Berlin.

How much of classical Rome would have survived? Would we have had a firestorm, as wiped out Dresden? As for Nuremberg, this was the old city of Albrecht Durer, and the Meistersingers.

It has always been thus. Carthage was taken off the map by the Romans after the Punic Wars. Was this genocide? Jerusalem was destroyed by first by Babylonian forces and then the Romans. There are too many examples.

In the last few months we’ve had Armenians fleeing cities ahead of Azerbaijani forces. Turkey and Russia, which could have intervened, chose not to.

Looking to the future, awareness is everything. I trust we never again have, in the West or anywhere, I trust anywhere, the imperatives, or the blood lust, which lead to destruction of whole cities and whole peoples. Never again the enthusiasm shown in the House of Commons for bombing Rome. Or indeed Dresden … but that wasn’t put before the Commons as far as I’m aware. Or Hiroshima before Congress. Democratic accountability is a casualty of wartime.

I’m avoiding retrospective judgements. The truth is powerful enough on its own. But could there not now be a new and universal commitment, encompassing Americans, Europeans, Chinese, and the wider Muslim world, to spare all centres of population?

Maybe in the age of JADC2 and drone warfare, which has its own horrors, military strategists might find this easier. Maybe.

Syria – Monday 30th November

There’s a vote coming up in the House of Commons on the subject of bombing Syria –  bombing IS, something very different from the vote on bombing Assad’s forces which was lost two year’s ago. (Bombing Assad would have been a disaster, but that’s another subject, for another time.)

What are the arguments? Should we bomb, should we join France, Russia, the USA? Would we making the same mistake as we did in 2003? How valid are comparisons?

The two situations are radically different. IS is a clear and present danger, terrorising, a very literal sense, destroying communities, espousing a brutal ideology, with no spiritual content in the way I’d understand the term. Inaction isn’t a strategy. Bombing cannot win a war, but it can contain, it can limit IS’s expansion beyond its current boundaries, and if sustained break its lines of communication and its oil-based ‘economy’. Removing IS from Raqqa and Mosul is another matter, and will indeed require ground forces, and there is real danger of loss of innocent life and widespread destruction. But concerns over Raqqa and Mosul shouldn’t mean that we don’t act now to restrict IS’s operations, and at the same time break its hold on the imaginations of potential recruits.

Our engagement with the Middle East arguably goes back to the Battle of Lepanto in the 16th century when we first began to turn the tide of Arab and Ottoman dominance. There followed centuries of Ottoman decline and growing British and French interest in the trade and politics of the Levant.  Our Western instinct, that we know better, our instinct to interfere, is deep-rooted. The second Iraq war in 2003, which I strongly opposed, was born of that instinct, and a radical misjudgement. But this isn’t to say that all engagement is wrong, and the situations in Iraq in 2003 and in Syria in 2015 are radically different.

I’m well-aware of the argument that the bombing to date has been ‘ineffective’. Though in what sense? True, IS haven’t been defeated. But how much further might have they have extended their reach had they been (with the exception of the Kurds) unimpeded, without any disruption to their supply lines?

The answer now cannot be to withdraw, or to fail to support allies (and that in itself is a powerful argument) who are very much engaged. I don’t doubt that bombing on a much extended scale, well directed, and with a much broader political support, can be effective.

I don’t buy into the argument, which has been picked up across political spectrum, that we should have a clear end-strategy, and not approve a strategy involving bombing IS without one. What we can guarantee is that whatever that end-strategy might be, it won’t be what happens in the end. We have to proceed  step by step, deal with immediate dangers, and move forward from each new position we achieve. There is common ground at this time between the French, Russians and to a degree the Americans, and we need to take full advantage of this – as of now.

We also need to recognise that Syria in the short and medium term will comprise several different authorities and spheres of influence. Assad will remain in control of Damascus and considerable territory along the Mediterranean, and to the north. The Free Syria Army will have, I would hope, its own sphere of influence, and Kurdish territory will be well-defined. I wouldn’t expect them to fight side-by-side but their action could nonetheless be coordinated if all the various parties involved, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, work toward that end.

We may have a dream of a Western-style democratic Syria, but it’s one we should put out of our minds for now. The aim has to be an end to violence and reestablishing political authority in whatever form proves most viable. Once that’s in place and security is guaranteed refugees can begin to return home. They have to be the first steps.

The aim for ten years time has be a Syria, or a Syrian territory, at peace, and that peace needs to be a guaranteed peace, ideally with UN involvement. The return of refugees will be well underway if not a complete, and the traditions of civilised life which were well-established, along with religious tolerance and educational opportunities, before 2011, will have a chance to reassert themselves again.