WHEN I FIRST LAID eyes on a B-52 bomber in the mid-'50s, I was struck by the motto of the Strategic Air Command emblazoned on the fuselage: ''Peace is our profession.'' Such words on a fearsome warplane were a consolation, and I wanted to believe them. Even as a boy, though, I was instinctively attuned to the moral complexity of bombing, and I wasn't that surprised when, during Vietnam, that motto was revealed to be a big lie. The profession of those planes was to wreck havoc, period.
Last week, B-52s were sent into action over Afghanistan, a first exercise in ''carpet bombing.'' The unleashing of this crude ghost plane, which drops imprecise ordnance from 40,000 feet, is a chilling harbinger. Whatever the broad justifications of the US-led war against terrorism, the way in which that war centers on an increasingly brutal bombing campaign cries out to be reconsidered.
What are the purposes and effects of bombing? That straightforward question has hardly ever been answered truthfully by our government. The air war in Afghanistan is being conducted behind a veil of secrecy - but a veil of secrecy shielding Americans, not the Afghans on whom the bombs explode. Our government insists that civilians are not being targeted and that Taliban claims of large numbers of civilian casualties are propaganda.
But however much we long to be consoled by a distinction between military and civilian targets (''carpet bombing'' notwithstanding), the history of bombing suggests that that distinction itself is a lie. ''A History of Bombing'' is the title of a book by the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist, and his findings are instructive.
One of the first countries to be bombed from the air, ironically, was Afghanistan during Britain's imperial adventurism in 1919. After World War I, the British air staff declared that it would impose civilian-protecting limits on bombing, but an internal memo defined that declaration as having been made ''to preserve appearances'' because ''the truth [is] that air warfare has made such restriction obsolete and impossible.''
Thus the dilemma presented itself at the very onset of the age of bombing. In 1940, the British definition of a ''military target'' was extended to include industrial centers and the homes of industrial workers - which meant city centers could be hit. American strategists resisted such blatant targeting of civilians for a time, but by the end of World War II, the United States blithely engaged in mass fire-bombing of entire Japanese cities, especially Tokyo.
Even then, lip service was paid to the consoling distinction between military and civilian, as if still being observed. It is stunning to recall, with Lindqvist, that when Harry Truman announced to the world that America had used the atomic bomb, he defined its target as having been ''an important Japanese army base.''
The atomic bomb was dropped on the ''base,'' he said, because ''we wished in the first attack to avoid as much as possible the killing of civilians.'' At least 95 percent of the 100,000 killed immediately at that ''base,'' also known as Hiroshima, were civilians, as Truman surely knew. But he also knew the importance of ''preserving appearances.''
The US lies about bombing in Vietnam, where dead civilians were routinely added to the military body count, are well known. After the revelations of the immorality of that war, Americans had a right to assume that ''carpet bombing'' by B-52s was a thing of the past. During the Gulf War, with the advent of ''smart'' bombs and laser-guided missiles, ''ethical'' bombing that spared civilians seemed to have arrived, but those claims, too, turned out to be false. And the B-52 operated there as well.
The NATO air war against Serbia in 1999, despite great claims for its ''humanitarian'' purpose, was distinguished by strategy that kept bombers flying high enough to protect pilots but too high to protect civilians on the ground. History suggests that war managers have never told the truth about the real purposes and effects of their bombing campaigns.
And now? Last week the moral bankruptcy of bombing was on display when Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld refused to rule out American use of nuclear weapons in this war. We should be clear what this means: The United States is prepared, under some circumstance, to cross the nuclear threshold into the realm of massive civilian death - what, to protect civilian life?
How does the motto ''Peace is our profession'' translate into Arabic? These contradictions suggest that a kind of moral blindness has accompanied the phenomenon of bombing from the start. Indeed, moral blindness is necessary for it, blocking our view, for example, of the way US bombing, at very least, is creating conditions of humanitarian catastrophe this winter.
I believe that bin Laden is counting on such blindness and that with our bombing, we have not disappointed him.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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