Omnia » What are we bombing? The lessons we do not learn from History

What are we bombing? The lessons we do not learn from History

Catalina Miranda Aguirre


"A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress". (Benjamin, 1968)

The Angel of History is, perhaps, the most descriptive metaphor through which one of the greatest thinkers who survived the Great War defies the traditional idea of "war as an extension of politics". As explained above, this celestial creature is fighting against the idea of progress to recover the lives that will never be; but he fails. However, this metaphor remains in force: suffering the consequences of extremist projects that can be remembered through History, art and infrastructure of cities such as Berlin, it is not senseless to make a comparison between the human behaviour during the two World Wars and new conflicts arising in the heart of the Middle East. These conflicts, despite the geographical distance, are having devastating consequences on our own "civilization". That is why, juxtaposing these experiences reveals the pattern of our fallacies and misplaced analogies. Thus, this article argues that fighting a war against an enemy that we barely understand, and using traditional "hard power" strategies to tackle its diffuse and non-tangible nature will intensify the catastrophe.

On April 27 1978, the Saur Revolution established a communist regime (marked by the execution of Mohammed Daud and the afghan royalty) ending with the Republic of Afghanistan. From then on, the rising confrontation based on the uncertainty and bipolarity of the Cold War would define the political approaches within this country. The importance of the analysis of this historic event resides in the comprehension of the dangerous consequences of acting impulsively following a short term "solution" justified in the realistic action-reaction concept of national interest.

As in many countries during the Cold War, each superpower strengthened its convenient "party", and Afghanistan was not an exception. On the one hand, the Soviet Union began to intervene through political means within the afghan communist party . Fearing the failure of this project, the Soviet Union decided to militarily intervene on the midnight of December 24, 1979. By the beginning of the following year, the Soviets already controlled the most important cities and the governmental institutions. One of the most remarkable issues of this case is the long term effects that could be summarized in the exacerbation of the already existing historical and ethnical segmentation and violence in this country. (Pardo de Santayana y Gómez de Olea & Faramiñán Gilbert, 2009)


On the other hand was the United States. Already articulated by the Truman Doctrine, justified by the “Domino Effect” logic, and reiterated in Reagan’s administration’s policies, the US naturally supported Mujahedeen (lit. Muslim warriors) through Operation Cyclone. Today, it is well known that the military training of this guerrilla was provided and funded by the CIA. This insurgent force that once helped the USA to fight against the expansion of the communism, has evolved into Al-Qaeda's terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 tragedy.

This very brief compilation allows us to deduce the following observations: the first one is that western civilization cultivated its own enemy by strengthening a subversive group that gradually radicalized its speeches and actions. Even worse, there were signals of this radicalization and the coalition led by western powers simply left when the time came. This fact leads us into the second reflection: our leaders committed the unforgivable mistake of solving one problem by means of supporting someone without properly understating its historical and cultural background. Thus, ignoring their real objectives.  

On March 20 2003, another military coalition, this time led by the US, invaded Iraq arguing that the alleged WMD capabilities of Saddam Hussein’s regime were a threat to the international peace and security.

There are plenty of hypotheses regarding the motivations behind the invasion of Iraq. Nevertheless, what is vital in this analysis are both the impact within the Iraqi society as well as the conclusion of what started 12 years ago. In Mark Steel’s words (The Independent columnist):  "it appears our politicians have decided the lesson of the past 12 years of bombing a series of countries – leaving each in turn in even worse chaos than before, and with growing support for jihadist psychopaths – is that we need to randomly bomb one more. It will all turn out all right" (Steel, 2015). Following this argument, it is important to study the evolution of the revisionist groups within Iraq considering two stages of the foreign intervention. Before doing this, it is imperative to clarify that despite the repression of the Hussein government (especially against the Kurdish population), there was a relatively stable political cohesion that was completely destroyed by the intervention, which ignored the idiosyncrasies and complexities of the political processes in Iraq. Furthermore, with the execution of Saddam Hussein, the country entered into a vicious cycle of anarchy and violence which keeps growing bigger and is exacerbated by the presence of foreign actors.

The first stage spanned from 2003 to 2011, the year in which Obama's administration withdrew the US troops from Iraq. According to an Huffington Post’s article, based on different academic studies published in the United States, by 2013 more than half a million civilians lost their lives as a direct consequence of this intervention which had as a main objective the protection of international peace and security (Sheridan, 2013). The results were entirely the opposite; instead of stabilizing the region, “bombing in the name of peace” abruptly disintegrated the political apparatus, developing a completely disorganized and fragmented country. To conclude, what started as the promotion of universal values turned into the loss of half a million civilians’ lives and a war-torn society in which no sustainable model of development could be imagined.

By the end of 2011, the last 500 United States' units abandoned Iraq leaving behind a fully operational military infrastructure and a weak institutional order. Furthermore, "the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Arab-dominated government and the ascension to power of the majority Shiite Arab population fueled deep Sunni resentment that continues today" ( Blanchar & Humud, 2015). Once again, it is possible to see how incapable we are to really comprehend that old wise person named History. To be precise, while one of the main reasons of the emergence of Salafism in Afghanistan was the invasion and posthumous abandonment of the Soviet Union, the Iraqi case follows a similar pattern: an external power violently interferes with the status quo of an unknown culture, cultivating an environment suitable to incubate radicalism and fundamentalism. Then, the unsustainability of continuing the military campaign leaves no choice than to leave the conflict zone.

At the first sight, it seems like this new intervention (taking place in Syria) is an extended version of the Bush "war on terror". What is wrong about this fact is that this coalition is using force to defeat an enemy that is not tangible because the real danger is in the idea. The conflict we are facing today is neither traditional, centralized nor territorial. Therefore, it is vital to understand that fighting ISIS is not the same as fighting a conventional army structure. Instead, by using conventional strategies, we are giving them the perfect excuse to increase and justify their radical speeches that, at the end, will exacerbate the conflict.

The assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 along with some members of his family by a drone strike in Yemen is a clear example of the failure of traditional approaches to this particular conflict. Normally, “removing of the battleground” one of the most dangerous Al-Qaeda’s ideological leader could be perceived as a huge success. However, even if he is not physically present anymore, Anwar al-Awlaki has become a symbol of resistance and inspiration thus, a martyr used as a tool to spread fundamentalist propaganda around the world.

Additionally, there is an unacceptable percentage of "collateral damage", which main consequence is the deaths of hundreds of innocent people as well as the forced displacement of entire communities within Syria and Iraq. These core issues, not only affect the individual well-being, but also erode the familiar structures and collapse the immigration systems of states such as Jordan, Turkey, and the European Union.

It is important to keep in mind the statistics of this war: according to CENTCOM and Aljazeera, approximately 250 civilians have died as an immediate consequence of the US-led coalition air strikes, plus 400 civilians in the Russian military operations in Syria (5 times more than the people who were violently murdered in the Paris Attacks). Those deaths, justifiable in terms of “collateral damages”, were lives that would never have the opportunity “to be”. Having said that, today’s Western politicians are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: heroes of the world and enemies of themselves.


Blanchar, C., & Humud, C. (2015). The “Islamic State” and U.S. Polic. The “Islamic State” and U.S. Policy.
Benjamin, W. (1968). Theses of the Philosophy of History. En W. Benjamin, Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.
Guéhenno, J.-M. (2015, November 24). The dangers of a European war on terror. Politico. Retrieved from here
Milne, S. (2015, June 3). Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq. The Guardian. Retrieved from here
Pardo de Santayana y Gómez de Olea, J., & Faramiñán Gilbert, J. M. (2009). El Conflicto de Afganistán. Ministerio de Defensa de España e Instituto de Estudios Internacionales y Europeos de la Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. Retrieved from here
Rifai, D. A. (2015, November 25). US coalition strikes in Syria 'killed 250 civilians'. Aljazeera. Retrieved from here
Rivas Moreno, J. (2015, Noviembre 18). La intervención de la URSS en el mundo árabe propició la aparición del yihadismo. EL Mundo. Retrieved from here
Sheridan, K. (2013, October 15). Iraq Death Toll Reaches 500,000 Since Start Of U.S.-Led Invasion, New Study Says. The World Post. Retrieved from here
Steel, M. (2015, November 19). Lessons learned from Iraq? If at first you don’t succeed, keep bombing. The Independent. Retrieved from here

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Volumen 2 - Nº 12 Febrero 2016

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