U.S. Bombing:
The Myth of Surgical Bombing in the Gulf War

by Paul Walker

I first want to thank Ramsey Clark and the National Coalition for having the courage to undertake an event of this nature. I hope as we continue to dig for the truth in this war, the inquiry will be repeated and repeated and repeated hundreds of times over, not only in the United States but around the globe.

Let me try to give you a brief account of the weapons and the war as a military analyst like myself is trying to discover. I must say first that our research at the Institute for Peace and International Security in Cambridge has been going on for several months at this point, ever since the war began and to a certain extent before it began. And there still is a large amount of stonewalling in Washington. Much of the information is unavailable. Much of the information takes an inordinate amount of time to come out. Much of it given out by the various services is in fact contradictory.

The first images of the 42-day Mideast war mesmerized most viewers - nighttime television pictures of targeted Iraqi bunkers and buildings, many in downtown Baghdad, being surgically destroyed by precision-guided bombs dropped by stealthy aircraft. The crosshairs of an aircraft high-tech laser targeting system lined up on the rooftop of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, moments later a laser-seeking 2,000 pound bomb blew the building apart. Then the cameras would turn to U.S. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the anti-Iraq coalition, who described the attack "on his counterparts headquarters" with a wry, amused smile - you'll all remember this from the first night as I do. Hundreds of military news reporters in the Saudi briefing room laughed with nervous interest as if viewing Nintendo games, although thousands of individuals were killed, possibly, by that weapon. High-tech warfare had, indeed, come of age.

Back in Washington, General Colin Powell, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that he was "rather pleased that we appear to have achieved tactical surprise" against Iraqi forces in a sudden early morning first strike on January 17, 1991. Coalition forces undertook, in short, thousands of aircraft sorties and missile strikes in the first days of war. A select number of the successful ones with laser-guided bombs were portrayed daily back home on Cable News Network, Nightline, and other regular news programs.

Some 50 of the new F- 117A batwing stealth fighter bombers were flown in early attacks, apparently achieving better success in Baghdad than they had one year earlier when they missed their targets in Panama City. Over 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from ships and submarines for the first time in combat, also reportedly achieving successful "surgical strikes" on high-value Baghdad targets, including the Ministry of Defense and Saddam Hussein's presidential palace. American technological prowess was again displayed graphically several days later when Patriot air-defense missiles successfully intercepted attacking Iraqi missiles launched against Saudi Arabia and Israel.

These and other images of war, perhaps more than anything else, I believe, created an illusion of remote, bloodless, pushbutton battle in which only military targets were assumed destroyed. Pentagon officials stressed throughout their daily briefings that Coalition war planners were taking great pains to marry the right weapon with the right target in order to minimize "collateral damage," that is, injury to innocent civilians in Iraq and Kuwait, particularly in populated areas such as Baghdad and Kuwait City.

Halfway through the war, one journalist described the conflict as a "robo war" in which "the raids are intense, unremitting, and conducted with the world's most advanced non-nuclear weaponry but are unlikely to cause the sort of general destruction being anticipated by commentators." A Wall Street Journal article proclaimed, "Despite public perceptions, the recent history of high-tech conventional warfare has been to steadily reduce general destruction."

Despite all these public proclamations about limited casualties from so-called surgical and precision strikes there would appear to be much greater destruction and much higher numbers of dead and injured in Iraq and Kuwait. Early first-hand accounts provided glimpses of the possibilities of more than surgical damage to Iraqi targets. From my discussions with Ramsey Clark, this is certainly the case. For example, Captain Steven Tait, pilot of an F-16 jet fighter which escorted the first wave of bomber aircraft and who was the first American to shoot down an Iraqi plane, described his bird's eye view of Baghdad after the first hour of allied bombardment: "Flames rising up from the city, some neighborhoods lit up like a huge Christmas tree. The entire city was just sparkling at us."

The sheer amount of explosive tonnage dropped over Iraq and Kuwai also, I think, tends to undermine any assumption of surgical strikes. Air Force General McPeak, Air Force commanding general, proudly proclaiming, "Probably the first time in history that a field army has been defeated by air power," estimated that some 88,500 tons of bombs have been dropped in over 109,000 sorties flown by a total of 2,800 fixed-wing aircraft. Of these flights somewhat over half were actual bombing raids while the remainder involved refueling, bomber escort, surveillance, and so forth. Of the actual bombing missions, about 20,000 sorties were flown against a select list of 300 strategic targets in Iraq and Kuwait; about 5,000 were flown against SCUD missile launchers, and some 30,000 to 50,000 against Iraqi forces in southern Iraq and Kuwait. In all, more than 3,000 bombs (including sea-launched cruise missiles) were dropped on metropolitan Baghdad. The total number of bombs dropped by allied forces in the war comes to about 250,000. Of these only 22,000 were the so-called "smart bombs" or guided bombs. About 10,000 of these guided bombs were laser-guided and about 10,000 were guided anti-tank bombs. The remaining 2,000 were radiation guided bombs directed at communication and radar installations.

The most complete survey of all the different bombs, missiles, shells, and weapons so far appears in Appendix A of On Impact: Modern Warfare and the Environment, a report prepared by William Arkin, Damian Durrant, and Marianne Cherni for Greenpeace. This report was prepared for the "Fifth Geneva Convention on the Protection of the Environment in the Time of Armed Conflict" (London, June 3, 1991). The authors infer the total weapons used from the 1991 fiscal year supplemental budget request to Congress which lists weapons required to replenish U.S. stockpiles. The numbers are revealing and staggering. In part, they include:

The conventional unguided bomb (so-called "dumb bomb") was the most commonly used weapon in the massacre. These come in four types: the Mk 82 (500 lbs), Mk 83 (1,000 lbs), Mk 84 (2,000 lbs), and the M117 (750 lbs). In all some 150,000 to 170,000 of these bombs were dropped during the war.

The U.S. arsenal contains eight kinds of guided bombs:

As if explosive bombs were not enough, the U.S. used massive amounts of fire bombs and napalm, although U.S. officials denied using napalm against Iraqi troops, only on oil filled trenches (this raises the question of who set all the oil wells on fire in Kuwait and southern Iraq). These trenches, of course, in many cases surrounded bunkers where Iraqi soldiers were hiding. Perhaps the most horrifying of all bombs was the Fuel Air Explosives (FAE) which were used to destroy minefields and bunkers in Iraq and Kuwait. These firebombs were directly used against Iraqi soldiers, although military spokesmen and press reports have consistently tried to downplay their role.[3] Perhaps this is only because press reports were too descriptive before the war when the Pentagon was leaking stories about possible Iraqi use of FAEs, along with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons - none of which ever appeared on the Iraqi side. The FAE is composed of an ethelene oxide fuel which forms an aerosol cloud or mist on impact. The cloud is then detonated, forming very high overpressures and a blast or shock wave that destroys anything within an area of about 50,000 square feet (for a 2,000 pound bomb). The U.S. also used "daisy cutters" or the BLU-82, a 15,000 pound bomb containing GSX Gelled slurry explosives. This, too, is a concussion type bomb which military spokesmen and the U.S. press said was used to detonate pressure sensitive mines. The mines, of course, surrounded Iraqi troop deployments and the concussive force of the bomb would surely also rupture internal organs or ear-drums of Iraqi soldiers pinned down in their bunkers. This is not even to mention incineration and asphyxiation, as the fire storm of the bomb sucks all of the oxygen out of the area. President Bush continually warned about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but it is clear that U.S. forces alone used weapons of mass destruction against Iraqi troops in both Iraq and Kuwait.

Among other controversial weapons are cluster bombs and anti-personnel bombs which contain a large number of small bomblets inside a large casing. Upon impact the little bombs are dispersed over a wide area and then explode. Using cluster bombs, a single B-52 can deliver more than 8,000 bomblets in a single mission. A total of about 60,000 to 80,000 cluster bombs were dropped.[4]

What all of this means to anyone who thinks about the numbers is simply that the bombing was not a series of surgical strikes but rather an old fashioned mass destruction. On March 15, 1991, the Air Force released information stating that 93.6% of the tonnage dropped were traditional unguided bombs. So we have something like 82,000 tons of bombs that were non-precision guided and only 7,000 tons of guided bombs. This is not surgical warfare in any accurate sense of the term and more importantly in the sense that was commonly understood by the American public. Bombs were, moreover, not the only source of explosives rained down upon Iraq. Artillery shells from battleships and rocket launchers amounted to an additional 20,000 to 30,000 tons of explosives.

While the F-117 Stealth fighter captured the fascination of the news media, massive B-52s carried out the bulk of the work. Flying out of bases in Diego Garcia, Spain, United Kingdom, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other places, B-52s dropped about thirty percent of the total tonnage of bombs. B-52s were used from the first night of the war to the last. Flying at 40,000 feet and releasing 40 - 60 bombs of 500 or 750 pounds each, their only function is to carpet bomb entire areas. General McPeak told Defense Week, "The targets we are going after are widespread. They are brigades, and divisions and battalions on the battlefield. It's a rather low density target. So to spread the bombs - carpet bombing is not my favorite expression - is proportionate to the target. Now is it a terrible thing? Yes. Does it kill people? Yes."[5] B-52s were used against chemical and industrial storage areas, air fields, troop encampments, storage sites, and they were apparently used against large populated areas in Basra.

Language used by military spokesman General Richard Neal during the war made it sound as if Basra had been declared a "free fire zone" - to use a term from the Vietnam war for areas which were declared to be entirely military in nature and thus susceptible to complete bombing. On February 11, 1991, Neal told members of the press that "Basra is a military town in the true sense.... The infrastructure, military infrastructure, is closely interwoven within the city of Basra itself"[6] He went on to say that there were no civilians left in Basra, only military targets. Before the war, Basra was a city of 800,000 people, Iraq's second largest. Eyewitness accounts Suggest that there was no pretense at a surgical war in this city. On February 5, 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the air war had brought "a hellish nightime of fires and smoke so dense that witnesses say the sun hasn't been clearly visible for several days at a time . . . [that the bombing is] leveling some entire city blocks . . . [and that there are] bomb craters the size of football fields and an untold number of casualties."[7] Press reports immediately following the cease-fire tried to suggest that the massive destruction of Basra was caused by Iraqi forces suppressing the Shiite rebellion or was simply left over from the Iran-Iraq war. This would not be the first time the press and the U.S. government covered up the extent of its war destruction - the case of Panama comes immediately to mind

The use of B-52s and carpet bombing violates Article 51 of Geneva Protocol I which prohibits area bombing. Any bombardment that treats a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located within a city as a single military objective is prohibited. Basra and most of southern Iraq and Kuwait where Iraqi forces were deployed were treated by U.S. military planners as a single area or to use McPeak's phrase "a low density target." The same is true for General Norman Schwarzkopf's order at the start of the ground war "not to let anybody or anything out of Kuwait City."[8] The result of this order was the massive destruction that came to be known as the "Highway of Death." In addition to retreating soldiers, many of whom had affixed white flags to their tanks which were clearly visible to U.S. pilots,[9] thousands of civilians, especially Palestinians, were killed as they tried to escape from Kuwait City. An Army officer on the scene told reporters that the "U.S. Air Force had been given the word to work over that entire area [roads leading north from Kuwait City] to find anything that was moving and take it out.''[10]

By now it should be clear to anyone that claims of a surgical or a precise war are no more than the kind of excuses which the guilty always give to deflect blame elsewhere. The destruction of Iraq was near total and it was criminal. The fact that Baghdad was not carpet bombed by B-52s does not mean that the civilian population was not attacked and killed. On top of the massive bombing, we have now a new kind of war: bomb now, die later. The precision bombs which did manage to hit their targets destroyed precisely the life-sustaining economic infrastructure without which Iraqis would soon die from disease and malnutrition. George Bush's remark on February 6, 1991, that the air strikes have "been fantastically accurate" can only mean that the destruction of the civilian economic infrastructure was, indeed, the desired target and that the U.S. either made no distinction between military and civilian targets or defined the military area in such a broad manner as to include much civilian property. In both cases, it is a war crime.

Finally, comments about the surgical nature of the war tend to neglect the outright massacre which occurred in southern Iraq and Kuwait. The only way to describe what happened there would be a killing frenzy. No accurate numbers of people killed in these areas exist but with the massive bombing of bunkers, especially by FAEs, it is likely that most of the Iraqi soldiers were killed by the saturation bombing. This number could go as high as several hundred thousand. These soldiers were defenseless from air attacks and cut off from communication with leaders in Baghdad. They were simply isolated by the U.S.-led coalition, brutally killed, and then bulldozed into some forty-nine mass graves. That is what General Colin Powell said in November with regard to the Iraqi army: "First you cut it off, then you kill it." There is nothing surgical about that.


  1. Williarn M. Arkin, Darnian Durrant, and Marianne Cherni , On Impact: Modern Warfare and the Environment - A Case Study of the Gulf War (Washington, DC: Greenpeace, May 1991), p. 160, fn 377.
  2. John D. Morrocco and David Fulghum , "USAF Developed a 4,700-lb. Bomb in Crash Program to Attack Iraqi Military Leaders in Hardened Bunkers," Aviation Week eS Space Technology, May 6, 1991: 85.
  3. John Morrocco , "Looming Budget Cuts Threaten Future of Key HighTech Weapons," Aviation Week & Space Technology, April 22, 1991: 66-67. Eric Schmitt, "Why Iraqi Battle Threat Fizzled: Allied Strengths and Enemy Weaknesses," New York Times, March 4,1991: A9. Barbara Starr, "FAEs Used to Clear Mines," Jane's Defense Weekly, February 23, 1991: 247.
  4. Arkin, Durrant, and Cherni , On Impact, Appendix A.
  5. Tony Capaccio , "McPeak: Unclear If Air War has Sapped Iraqi Will," Defense Week, February 4, 1991.
  6. Washington Post , February 2, 1991: A14.
  7. Mark Fineman , "Smoke Blots Out Sun in Bomb-Blasted Basra," Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1991.
  8. Bill Gannon "Pool Report with the Tiger Brigade Outside Kuwait City," Newark Star-Ledger, February 27, 1991.
  9. Rowan Scarborough , "Pool Report Aboard the USS Blue Ridge," Washington Times, February 27, 1991.
  10. Michael Kelly, "Highway to Hell," New Republic, April 1991: 12.
Paul Walker is the director of the Institute for Peace and International Security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His report was given at the New York Commission hearing, May 11, 1991 and at the Boston ommission hearing on June 8, 1991.

WWW URL: http://deoxy.org/wc-myth.htm
Copyright © 1992 by The Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal