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A Secret History of Unmanned Bombing

Last week America’s drone war was brought back into sharp focus when President Obama admitted that a US drone strike in January killed two al Qaeda hostages, an American and an Italian. “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur,” Obama told the nation.

Writing in the New York Times, Peter Baker noted that the apology underscored “the perils of a largely invisible, long-distance war waged through video screens, joysticks and sometimes incomplete intelligence.” Jason Linkins and Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post put it more directly in their piece, “A Drone Program That Has Killed Hundreds Of Civilians Finally Killed Some That The White House Regrets.”

Two days before Obama’s press conference I was on a long drive, binging on podcasts, and found myself immersed in a kind of secret history of unmanned bombing. Two random podcasts came on almost back-to-back that were haunting in their description of the lengths humans will go to drop bombs on each other. The two stories are powerful in and of themselves, but were made all the more striking in light of Obama’s comments.

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Disarming The Wilderness

“The first bomb dropped from an airplane exploded in an oasis outside Tripoli on November 1, 1911. […] It was Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti who leaned out of his delicate monoplane and dropped the bomb — a Danish hand grenade — on the North African oasis Tagiura, near Tripoli. Several moments later, he attacked the oasis Ain Zara. Four bombs in total, each weighing two kilos, were dropped during this first attack.”

So begins A History of Bombing, by Sven Lindqvist. In this incredibly complicated and interwoven story (Lindqvist himself describes the book as a “labyrinth,” not designed to be read cover to cover but rather as more of a choose your own adventure) Lindqvist traces a history of bombing that cuts right through the human body – literally and figuratively. The book — which I first read in a post-colonial studies course — focuses on the physical, psychological, and historical impact bombing has had on the world, with special attention paid to nationalism, class, race and power.

However, of less concern to Lindqvist is the impact of this history of bombing on the land. A recent article in Orion Magazine prompted me to go back to my bookshelf and dig up my copy of Lindqvist’s book. In “The Forbidden Forest” Johnathan Olley profiles “a small band of démineurs from the Département du Déminage” in France. The démineurs are a team of bomb experts assembled after Wold War II to find, remove and destroy the detritus of two World Wars: thousands of tons of unexploded munitions. Olley reports that “The French Interior Ministry estimates that at least 12 million unexploded shells reside in the hills and forests that rise above Verdun.” Continue reading