War from Above, War from Below

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 2nd, 2012

It seems that there are really two flavors of war these days. One is what we might call "war from above," which involves getting quite literally above the people you're trying to make war on, and dropping nasty things on them that blow them up. The other is what we might call "war from below," in which involves blowing up people from an eye-level vantage point, and usually with somewhat more mundane weapons, like cars stuffed with homemade explosives. Two of my favorite "history of war" books dwell on each end of this extreme.

On the grand subject of "war from above," Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing (New York: New Press, 2001), is fairly unknown amongst bomb scholars, in my experience, but immensely interesting. It's an unusual book to say the least. The structure is something like a long, discursive timeline, with each entry numbered. You can read it front-to-back, which is fine enough, or, alternatively, the author offers up selective entry paths that lead to the development of different themes. It's sort of a mixture of Choose Your Own Adventure with non-fiction history. While I am generally not a huge fan of "experimental" works of history, this one actually works for me. I picked it up on a whim at a used bookstore awhile back, and was surprised at how much I found it both interesting and compelling.

Lindqvist's major argument, and the narratives he chooses to explore explicates this both implicitly and explicitly at times, is that there is something particularly unpleasant about dropping bombs on people from the air. The distance granted by the technology of aerial warfare leads, he shows, towards a particular callousness in how war is waged. (This jibes nicely with the analysis of the role of technological distance on human capacity for killing offered up in Dave Grossman's On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which is another book I've enjoyed.) The freedom of action, and freedom of indiscretion of targets, granted by distance from the consequences has led, again and again, to a normalization of butchery from above. When we hear of individual soldiers causing tens of thousands of deaths in war (such as the case of the Japanese invasion of China during World War II), there is something particularly nauseating about it — it stinks of war crimes. When we talk instead of bombing civilian cities (whatever the long-term strategic goals), we are inclined to give it more of a pass. Lindqvist makes it quite clear that from the very beginning, the aerial bomb has been a tool of mass killing, if not genocide. (H.G. Wells, the much-heralded prophet of modern warfare, had a number of stories in which aerial gassing was used as a way of destroying "savage" races.)

Lindqvist takes this thread up through nuclear warfare and the possibilities it enabled for megadeaths. If the book were being revised today, it no doubt would carry some discussion of drone warfare, which seems to be opening up entirely new avenues for distancing between kills, even while the number killed per strike is considerably lower than plane bombings. It seems entirely within Lindqvist's argument to note that the U.S. government currently views the assassination of even American citizens (abroad) with a drone to be something different than the assassination with, say, a sniper's bullet. When a drone does something, it is a "military strike." When a covert agent does something, it's something different. Lindqvist would have us dwell on the way in which the technology appears to make up the difference.

But "war from above" is only half of the story. The "war from below" has been growing as well, primarily in the hands of those who lack the technological resources as the "war from above" crowd. The book I have in mind here is Mike Davis's Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (New York: Verso, 2007). Davis is a sociologist/historian/"urban theorist" best known for his really quite amazing book on the geography and history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz (1990). In Buda's Wagon he discusses in some detail the evolution of car or truck bombs in modern warfare. It seems like a rather specific topic, but what Davis has in mind is a discussion of way in which techniques of insurgence spread geographically from group-to-group, and why the car/truck bomb represents a unique shift in the nature of war. The car bomb, Davis argues, is a mundane, everyday object which can be  transformed into a weapon of enormous potency by relatively "low-tech" means. Their danger is present in their ubiquity (there are cars everywhere) and their low "entrance fee" for weaponization.

For Davis, the car bomb represents the era of the War on Terror, where we are taught to fear the banal, the everyday, the ordinary. "See something, say something," the subway signs demand of us, and show pictures of otherwise normal looking backpacks and trash heaps — banal objects transformed into deadly threats by their unattendedness and historical context. This "democratization" of war, moving from the provenance of big-technological states (see the aforementioned "war from above") into the hands of everyday extremists, is the big shift behind the car bomb.

It also helps that the car bomb has a pretty riveting history, from the bombing of Wall Street in 1920, through the radical Zionist resistance against British occupation in Palestine (from whom the Palestinians borrowed many tactics in their own resistances), through the Tamil Tigers, through the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut with a garbage truck packed with explosives, through Oklahoma City, through 9/11, and finally to the IEDs used in Iraq, the story is pretty fascinating, horrifying, riveting. Davis does much to discuss both the mechanics of the car bombing — who first uses ANFO, who first uses C4, who first uses suicide attacks, etc. — as well as the moral politics of it.

A debatably useful way of thinking about relative progression of these two forms of war. Scales highly debatable. "Destruction" is probably not the right word for what I'm trying to represent here.

What I like in thinking about these two books together is the way they both exemplify these extreme forms of technological war. I imagine them as perpendicular lines extending outwards, away from each other, both ratcheting up their potentials for destruction as they increase in sophistication. For the most part these trends are orthogonal to each other — advances in "above" warfare do not necessarily translate into advances in "below" warfare. On the whole, "above" warfare has a much steeper curve in terms of its ability to cause massive destruction — the military-industrial-complexes of the world simply have a strong advantage when it comes to cooking up megadeaths.

But the really scary stuff happens though when there is horizontal transfer between these two curves. 9/11 was one of them: an extremely sophisticated form of technology, the passenger jet (itself a derivative of "war from above" military interests in heavy aircraft), is co-opted into a weapon of "war from below." The worst possible extreme of this that I can imagine is if the ultimate "war from above" weapon, the nuclear bomb, was transferred and transformed into a "war from below" weapon, the "loose nuke."

This kind of transfer worries me much more than the innovations created wholly by people on the "below" side of the field. A clever terrorist, working in isolation, can surely come up with some nasty scenarios. But nothing seems worse than when those from "below" get their hands on the death-dealing tools made by those from "above." There's a potential, I think, to lose sight of the fact that the weapons we make are likely to get turned on us eventually.

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6 Responses to “War from Above, War from Below”

  1. kevin says:

    very thought provoking analysis…..

  2. […] It’s the natural next question to ask, and a grim one. The history of car bombing, on which I posted a few weeks ago, is instructive in this case. Once a novel and disruptive form of “underground” warfare […]

  3. […] it comes to being interested in weapons of mass destruction. (Heck, I find conventional weapons pretty important, […]

  4. JB says:

    One of the ‘justifications’ for why actions such as Libya, as well as drone attacks in various nations do not require the Office of the Presidency to obtain concurrence from Congress has been predicated upon the ‘enemies’ inability to effectively strike back. That is, since we have no ‘Boots on the Ground’ and are relying upon our airplanes, drones, missiles and bombs, it isn’t actually war under The War Powers Act.

    If one steps back and looks at the overall logic, it is the culmination of ‘Might Makes Right’. That is, if one possesses near absolute immunity to wage war, it then no longer becomes war.

  5. […] War from Above, War from Below (1/2/2012) […]

  6. […] Human beings, especially children, have a tremendous capacity for normalizing the horrific, if it is presented to them as “normal,” if they live it as “normal.” We’ve gone, over the space of six plus decades, from teaching our children that they will be atom bombed by the Soviet Union, to teaching them that they will be shot by unstable loners. What was a war from above became a war from below. […]