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You Can’t Destroy a State from the Air


Matt Duss takes on James Fly in this week’s installment of Foreign Entanglements:

Yeah, good luck with that. Telling that Fly can’t offer any examples of successful regime change through the air, or really very much in terms of what a target set would look like. Excerpt time, wielding James Scott in the service of whacking strategic bombing!

Theories of strategic bombing, conditioned by the belief that the fog of war can be pierced, represent the essence of high modernist thinking. They posit an essentially intelligible target population or organization, and propose a relatively programmatic series of steps for influencing and reorganizing that population. The most sophisticated theories of strategic bombing delineate the social, economic, and organizational impact of the destruction of particular targets. Destroy this police station and criminality will ensue. Destroy worker’s homes and industrial production will slow. Destroy this factory and the German economy will collapse for lack of ball bearings. Destroy this communication facility and Saddam Hussein will lose control over his military and security services. Sufficiently damage North Vietnamese industry, and Hanoi will conclude that further war is too expensive. All of these theories presuppose a social system that is both highly legible and highly susceptible to outside influence.

However, the state can only see certain things. Many social structures and human relationships are essentially invisible to the state, beyond the ability of bureaucracies to catalogue and organize. In active and passive ways, these structures resist high modernist efforts in such areas as urban planning, agricultural reform, and social revolution. Experience in the twentieth century, not just in the case of strategic bombing but across the universe of state activity, has demonstrated that states tend to have a vastly over-optimistic sense of both the legibility and malleability of social institutions. In this context, it is hardly surprising that strategic bombing campaigns have failed in particularly destructive ways. Even strategic bombing campaigns that do not depend on deep insight into a target population do demand a very sophisticated understanding of how the enemy thinks about costs and benefits. Strategic bombing campaigns fail because they cannot meet the huge informational demands for success. The campaigns run up against concrete limitations on the reach of the state, and the ability of nations to force the world into their preferred shape.

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