David Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force, 1919-1939 (Manchester, 1990).

In the recent war with Iraq, US air superiority was crucial in minimizing the US (and other allied) casualties, preparing the ground for a swift advance by land forces. The Middle East, and particularly Iraq, has often been a principal hunting ground for the air forces of Western powers. The recent bombing of Iraq is a species of what David Omissi aptly terms the “frightfulness” with which the colonial powers in the first half of the twentieth century sought to retain their mastery over Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Between the two world wars, the Royal Air Force’s most important function was to police the British Empire. Just how this control was wrought is the subject of Omissi’s inquiry, which also provides a comparative perspective on the similar use of air power by France and Italy. The growth of the RAF into an independent arm of Great Britain’s military services was tied to its ability to help expand and retain control over colonial possessions and overcome obstacles posed by the terrain, climate and other environmental factors.

From its inception, air power was viewed as invaluable for instilling fear in the “natives.” Major (later General) Baden-Powell, more widely known as founder of the Boy Scouts, advised in 1909 that in “savage warfare” the “moral effect on an ignorant enemy” of using military aircraft “would be great, and a few bombs would cause serious panic.” The Italians resorted to widespread aerial bombing during their conquest of Libya in 1911-1912. Field Marshal Henry Wilson could speak with equanimity of air power as “an instrument of terrorism,” while Air Marshal Peirse readily held to the belief that his bombers, by making “a good example” of Palestinian Arabs, could “cow the country.” Between 1918 and 1945, British air power was thrown against tribes in the Northwest Frontier Province of India, the Nuers in Sudan, and Arabs in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere. George Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language” (1950), pointed to the ease with which such words as “pacification,” a euphemism for the bombardment from the air of defenseless villages and setting huts on fire with incendiary bullets, had entered the English language. Proponents of air war asserted that native peoples were capable of “adjust[ing] their life to air attack,” or that — to cite Lord Trenchard’s assessment of the Frontier tribes — they had “no objection to being killed.” The senior air staff officer in Iraq, in the late 1920s, justified the bombing of Iraqi villages with the observation that “either in this world or the next” the Iraqis would realize that the bombing had been done only for the good of their community. By contrast, air power was never employed in the British Isles, even though the possibility of subjecting striking workers, or the “damned Irish,” to air control was raised.

Air power was championed as a cheaper method of suppressing rebellious activity. In Iraq, British military expenditure fell from over 20 million pounds to less than 3.5 million in 1925. “By 1925,” Omissi writes, “it was clear that air control had successfully maintained British influence in Iraq without the heavy expenditure implied by an army garrison.”

Aircraft helped to expand the power of the colonial state to swamp lands, mountains and particularly deserts. The immunity which geography had provided to the Nuers in Sudan, the tribes of the Northwest Frontier Province and the Bedouin in Arabia was rudely and effectively shattered. The supposed invulnerability of the aeroplane was often contrasted with the vulnerability of ground troops.

The “magic” of air power could not hide the brute reality that from the air everyone was a target — children and adults, civilians and military personnel. As early as 1921 the Air Staff concluded that “it may be thought better…to preserve appearances by formulating milder rules and by still nominally confining bombardment to targets which are strictly military in character…to avoid emphasizing the truth that air warfare has made such restrictions obsolete and impossible.” Great Britain defended the bombing of entire tribal areas in the Northwest Frontier with the ingenuous argument that Pathan society recognized only collective responsibility. US Air Force targeters have similarly cited the Iraqi collective failure to topple Saddam Hussein to justify their latest application of the discourse of “frightfulness.”

How to cite this article:

Vinay Lal "Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control," Middle East Report 176 (May/June 1992).
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