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Come friendly bombs, and fall on . . . the Chinese embassy

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Just as the term 'military intelligence' has long been considered an oxymoron, so now is the phrase precision bombing. Len Deighton had a good take on it in his novel Bomber, when he had an raf pilot at a briefing ask why the target was the middle of a residential area. The pilot is told that there is a Gestapo headquarters and a poison gas factory there. In wartime such statements, however implausible, cannot be questioned. Thus, as his blood-thirsty scientific adviser Professor Lindemann bluntly advised Winston Churchill, 'One tonne of bombs dropped on a built-up area turns 100-200 people out of house and home.'

Deighton's novel is set in 1943, at the mid-point of the Second World War, but nearly 60 years later, not much about bombing has changed. All the built-up areas in and around Serbia are still full of buildings, and for every piece of easy-peasy bridge demolition shown on the Nine O'Clock News, we can be sure that a dozen old load-bearing structures have been reduced to rubble, and as many reinforced concrete ones blown into skeletons. All of them, were we present at a Nato briefing and able to ask the question, would probably be said to be next to ethnic- cleansing centres, or belong to Slobodan Milosevic's brother-in-law.

The truth is that, 1943 or 1999, bombing is about destroying buildings, and buildings are where people tend to be. Lindemann was right about the object being to turn them out of house and home.

Without forces on the ground, bombing doesn't even count as a strategic weapon until it starts taking out buildings at faster than replacement rate. And even then the attrition is slow; for example, considering housing alone, if the uk and Yugoslavian roles were suddenly to be reversed in the present conflict, our housing would have to be 'degraded' at a rate of more than 150,000 units a year - nearly 3000 a week - before such destruction would have to be stemmed by one means or another.

For us in the uk, that moment has never yet arrived. During the First World War we received a derisory 196 tonnes of ordnance by air from Germany, which caused a mere £1.5 million of damage to property of all kinds. In the Second World War, bombing demolished only 126,000 houses in the four years between the fall of France and the Normandy landings. By the end of the war, the final tally was 200,000 houses destroyed, only just over 800 a week.

In Germany the bomb damage was much worse. Some 2.3 million dwellings were made uninhabitable through bombing in five years - a rate of nearly 10,000 a week - while one third of pre-war land area was lost, and there was an influx of 13 million refugees. But the housing deficit was stabilised by 1959.

Only in Japan, where the explosion of a single atomic bomb destroyed 62,000 of the city of Hiroshima's 90,000 buildings in a fraction of a second, could it truly be said that the aerial bombardment succeeded in unleashing an unsustainable level of destruction. One week after Hiroshima, Japan surrendered.

All this is common knowledge. It should be possible for any sentient human being - not necessarily a lecturer in precision bombing at Nato headquarters in Brussels, or a veteran of the mutually assured destruction doctrine of the Cold War - to understand that it is only by proceeding to such monstrous and annihilatory extremes that air warfare can ever achieve the political aims of Nato. Short of that, in trying to destroy what remains of the Yugoslav Federation, Nato is merely succeeding in smashing its past; and with that, everything old and outworn will go.

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