Parasites or pioneers?

On the "polemical excesses" of the blogosphere

The recent experiences of my colleague Mehdi Hasan rather bear out this passage from Michael Massing's very interesting piece about blogging and the future of print journalism in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books:

The polemical excesses for which the blogosphere is known remain real. In And Then There's This, an impressionistic account of the viral culture on the Internet, Bill Wasik describes how "the network of political blogs, through a feedback loop among bloggers and readers," has produced a machine that supplies the reader with "prefiltered information" supporting his or her own views. ... With so many voices clamoring for attention, moreover, a premium is put on the sexy and sensational. Headlines are exaggerated so as to secure clicks and boost traffic. ... [Consequently], the Internet remains a hothouse for rumors, distortions, and fabrications.

But before aggrieved bloggers conclude that Massing, like the rest of what the members of the "online community" call the "mainstream media", is fearful of his job, it's worth pointing out that he recognises the enormous journalistic and democratic potential of the Web:

For all these problems, the Web is currently home to all kinds of intriguing experiments. YouTube recently introduced a Reporters' Center offering tips from established reporters on how to cover international news. The Huffington Post has set up an investigative fund to support journalistic research. The Boston-based GlobalPost has arranged with dozens of independent reporters around the world to find outlets for their work. Sites like Minn Post in Minneapolis and Voice of San Diego are testing whether metro reporting can be done on the Internet. Among the more notable recent developments are the sharply edited book section at The Daily Beast; the brisk video-debate unit Bloggingheads.tv; and the conservative blogging collective NewMajority.com, set up by David Frum after he broke with National Review. Taken together, such initiatives suggest a fundamental change taking place in the world of news.

And Massing makes an extremely acute distinction between the kind of blogging, often perpetrated behind the cloak of anonymity (as was the case with Mehdi Hasan's grotesque monstering by someone calling themselves "Channel Four Insider"), that is parasitic on print journalism, and what you might call blogging by experts. He mentions Juan Cole here, who, as it happens, is currently writing a piece for the New Statesman:

The blogosphere, by contrast, has proven especially attractive to those who, despite having specialized knowledge about a subject, have little access to the nation's Op-Ed pages. The model here is Juan Cole, a Mideast scholar at the University of Michigan whose blog, Informed Comment, has over the years offered a more acute analysis of developments inside Iraq -- and now Iran -- than most of the reporters stationed in those countries. Today, one can find similar commentators on almost any subject. For a physician's personal take on America's health care problems, one can turn to KevinMD, written by Kevin Pho, a primary care doctor in Nashua, New Hampshire. For a fresh perspective on education, there's joannejacobs .com, by a former Knight-Ridder columnist; and on drug policy, there's The Reality-Based Community, by UCLA professor Mark Kleiman.

 

 

 

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times