Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Air Power as Police Power

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Air Power as Police Power

Article excerpt

Walt Disney's political credentials are well known: using scab labour to produce Dumbo, retelling the history of colonialism through the myth of Pocahontas, appearing at the House Un-American Activities Committee informing on 'security threats', being the only Hollywood celebrity to receive Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and being himself received by Mussolini. Less well known amidst this political posturing and ideological work is a cartoon film released by his company in 1943 called Victory Through Air Power. Based on a book of the same title written by Major Alexander P De Seversky published a year before and selling in the hundreds of thousands through the Book-of-the-Month Club, the film opens with an old newsreel clip of leading air power theorist Billy Mitchell outlining the doctrine of strategic bombing, which was by then all the rage. Following the dedication of the film to Mitchell, the film then covers the history of aeroplanes, moving quickly to their use in battle and superiority to warships, and to the bombing of the Japanese octopus ("think of Japan as a great octopus", Seversky had suggested in his book). The imperial tentacles of the Japanese octopus throttle various parts of the globe, but the film ends with Japan being bombed into ruins ("we have no alternative but to attack the tentacles one by one", Seversky had added) and climaxes with the bombers transforming into one of the symbols of sovereignty and American state power, the eagle, which then claws the Japanese octopus to death. At the climax of the battle 'America the Beautiful' can be heard and the film ends with 'Victory Though Air Power' running across the screen in large letters. The meaning of the film was abundantly clear: air power means that "the job of annihilation ... can be carried out more efficiently", for "when the skies over a nation are captured, everything below lies at the mercy of the enemy's air weapons" (1942, pages 104; 335; 352).

Disney's film was unavailable for decades, yet in 2004 it was repackaged as part of a twoset edition of propaganda films made by the company, of which Victory Through Air Power constituted the whole of the second disc along with some bonus material. It was a remarkably timely year to issue a sixty-year-old propaganda film on air power, because by 2004 Iraq had become the centre of attention in what was a decidedly air-centric war on terror. When the 'war on terror' was officially started on 7 October 2001, it quickly became clear that this was to be a bombing war. During the first week alone B1 and B52 bombers dropped on Afghanistan some five hundred GPS-guided bombs, a thousand Mk-82 'dumb bombs' (that is, unguided bombs), and fifty 'combined effects munitions' (CEMs, or 'cluster bombs', weapons which release hundreds of submunitions over a wide area). Over a thousand more cluster bombs were used by the end of 2001, by which point fuel-air explosives (FAEs: 'thermobaric' bombs producing an overpressure of 427 pounds per square inch and a temperature of 2500 to 3000[degrees]C, generating an impact that has been compared to the effect of a tactical nuclear weapon, but without the radiation) were also being used along with 15 000-lb BLU-82 slurry bombs, known as 'daisy cutters', roughly the size of a small car, and dropped from the back of a cargo plane from high altitude carrying over 12 000 pounds of a chemical 'slurry' formed of ammonium nitrate, aluminium powder, and polystyrene. In Iraq, in the first month alone some 1500 cluster bombs were dropped on the country, and over the following three months a further 10 000 were dropped by the US and just over 2000 by the UK. (1) This air war continued in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, and anyone who reads the newspapers will also be aware of the proliferation of the use of drones, an issue to which I will return. The war on terror is nothing if not a war from the air.

We live in a world made by air power (Swift, 2010). Looking back over just the last half century we see the use of aircraft in Vietnam by the US and by the French before them, the bombing used by the British in Malaya, Aden, and Oman, by Portugal in Angola and Mozambique during the 1960s, by the French in Algeria, by white Rhodesia against Black resistance in the 1970s, by South Africa against the South West African Peoples Organization in the 1970s, across Latin America, by the Somoza regime in its attempt to crush the Sandinistas, to say nothing of the Soviets in Afghanistan, or Israel's extensive and systematic use of air power against the Palestinians. …

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