"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 May 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Stealth Food



It was a daily event, last year at just about exactly this time, to hear state-of-the-art aeroplanes described in terms generally reserved for the gods of dead religions. They reached out from the sky, all-seeing — and invulnerable to the sad hostility of ordinary human beings, who had the misfortune (which they somehow deserved) of being stuck to the earth — and touched death down into anyone they felt like killing. They destroyed tanks like toys, shattered bridges into piles of pick-up sticks, effortlessly hunted artillery and troop trucks with total, unerring success. Better yet, the violence was directed against violence, against the disorder of brutal authority; a limitless and moral power was setting things straight on earth, punishing the unjust and settling a shielding hand over people who were understood to be righteous because they were presumed to be helpless.

The stealth bombers flying missions against Belgrade even offered the nice death-chariot-from-beyond-the-morning-sky touch of conducting their attacks from a post in Montana at the cost of a half-million dollars per, repeatedly refueling in mid-air while two crews of pilots took turns napping; one pilot acknowledged, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, that it was an odd feeling to mow the lawn, fly to Serbia, bomb the hell out of the capital city, and fly home for pizza with his kids.



Except that some exceptional individual at the Pentagon had the good common sense to leak the Air Force's highly classified analysis of our success in attacking the infrastructure and apparatus of all that naughty Serb authority. And it turns out the clever scrawny kid can still make the big no-neck kid look foolish: "Artillery pieces were faked out of long black logs stuck on old truck wheels," Newsweek recently explained, describing the Air Force's conclusions. "A two-thirds scale SA-9 antiaircraft missile launcher was fabricated from the metal-lined paper used to make European milk cartons... Out of the 744 'confirmed' strikes by NATO pilots during the war, the Air Force investigators, who spent weeks combing Kosovo by helicopter and by foot, found evidence of just 58... 14 tanks, not 120; 18 armored personnel carriers, not 220; 20 artillery pieces, not 450." Imagine flying halfway around the world in a billion dollar airplane to unleash the most sophisticated precision-targeted bombs ever designed on a patchwork of milk carton liners.

Which is not to say that the anti-cardboard campaign was unsuccessful in defeating the Serbs, of course; it just means that they beat something different than what we all believed that they beat. What NATO beat wasn't Serbian power, wasn't the ability to resist militarily; what NATO destroyed was Serbian patience, the desire to resist among the besieged civilian population. Which is, in terms of achieving a goal, just as useful; it's just a whole lot less impressive. Slapdash bullying and the destruction of hundreds of Citroens may make you effective, but they don't make you powerful; the ability to deliver a devastating rabbit punch to unsuspecting strangers on street corners doesn't make you the heavyweight champion of the world. (Although it may make you his office manager.)

And it's not like any of this should come as a surprise; the pattern can be ordered from Butterick. After months of bomb-sight video from the air campaign that began Desert Storm, for example, the stories that took it all back tended to run at about 350 words, back around page 24 of the news section. Here's the Washington Post, for example, in April of 1992: "Two of the most celebrated weapons of the Persian Gulf War, the Air Force F-117A Stealth attack jet and the Navy Tomahawk cruise missile, struck considerably fewer of their targets than military officials have asserted publicly, according to the most recent classified analysis." Or the Los Angeles Times, two days later: "The Patriot missile, a star of the Persian Gulf War that since has been tarnished by criticism, may have destroyed only one of the 90 Scud missiles Iraq fired at Saudi Arabia and Israel, experts told Congress Tuesday."



Then, remarkably, a couple of years after reality managed to simmer up to the surface, the very people who reported it managed to forget the whole thing, and go back to blushing and aw-shucksing over how wonderful all that neat American military power was; a breathless Los Angeles Times headline on July 27, 1994, for a favorite example, promised a "High-Tech Revolution in Ways of War" and preceded a subhead suggesting that "Current means of fighting may soon be history." The lead paragraph might as well have been written by a teenage boy who just got the Pentagon to agree to go to the drive-in with him: "Remember the 1991 Persian Gulf War? Precision-guided bombs that were able to fly into a tiny chimney? F-117 Stealth fighters that could penetrate Iraqi airspace undetected? A satellite tracking system that helped pinpoint Iraqi positions?"

Remember the Patriot missiles that hit one out of ninety targets? Whether you hated the Gulf War or cheered it on with pom-poms and a megaphone, it was won — in the real world — with big Vietnam-era bombers that dumped massive loads of plain-old iron bombs on hungry, badly armed Iraqi conscripts huddled in holes in the desert for a long, numbing time, and then by long lines of Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles that plowed Iraqi soldiers under the sand as they rolled right through them. It becomes harder to believe in the notion of war as something stealthy and precise — sort of like the clean room of a computer chip manufacturer, neat and ordered and hushed — if you just remember the pictures of all those Iraqis caught running on the road back home.

The ability to believe something in spite of all known evidence is a familiar element of human life, and there's even a word for it. For the duration of the NATO air campaign against Serbia — as with the Gulf War — watching CNN took on an aspect of faith closer to something you experience in church than to something you experience wondering if that's really Wolf's own hair. And that's not an accident.



Because the very notion of power is itself a kind of god, a thing larger than you that you can't quite see but that somehow steers the mess of dailiness into the meaningful pattern of cultures and communities operating in ordered sets of time; if someone is running things, then events have meaning. In contemporary terms, what this means is that the United States — striking a wide-legged stance over the world and projecting an onanist faith in our status as a last superpower, being powerful by pointing repeatedly to our power — owes the world a virgin birth, pronto.

Or else we could just kill a whole bunch of actual tanks with all those hugely expensive tank-busting bombs, which would be equally impressive. What's more likely is that our next confrontation will be won the same way we won our last one: With attacks on power plants and civilians and parked cars and misplaced neutral embassies. It'll work. But we might as well save ourselves some cash on the thing; you can destroy those kinds of targets with cruise missiles and smart bombs, but it's a whole lot simpler to do the job with a rented truck and a big load of fertilizer.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers
picturesTerry Colon

Ambrose Beers