Is it always illegal and against our values to “tidal wave” or “carpet” bomb? Not necessarily

Last November an official Department of Defense press release heralded a massive bombing attack against Islamic State oil facilities that so devastated the entire area that it was described, in their words, as “a tidal wave that swept across these oil fields.”  More recently, a heavy bombing attack “flattened” an al Shabaab training camp in an operation that reportedly killed 150 fighters.  Neither the “tidal wave” bombing, nor the “flattening” bombing generated any reports of civilian casualties.

Yet weeks after presidential candidate Ted Cruz created a political ruckus by using “carpet bombing” in his campaign rhetoric, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who is now commanding the counter-ISIL campaign for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), allowed himself to be roped into the dispute when he responded to a reporter’s question about why the United States did not use “carpet bombing” in Iraq and Syria.  Without mentioning or distinguishing CENTCOM’s “tidal wave” bombing the previous November, his response indicated that he thought that carpet bombing was always illegal and always against our values.

Like so many things in the law, it is more complicated than people want to think.  Over on War on the Rocks I have an essay (“Getting The Law Right on Carpet Bombing and Civilian Casualties”) where I try to explain how the law works with respect to area bombing, whether it’s called “carpet bombing” or “tidal wave” bombing or whatever.

Specifically, does the law of armed conflict always bar “carpet bombing” of genocidal enemy combatants like ISIL?  Can we ever lawfully carpet bomb “where ISIS is” (as Cruz told CNN)?  Would such bombings ever be consistent with our values?  How robust of a legal and ethical air campaign can we have against an enemy who’s killing, raping and torturing thousands of civilians?  And now claiming responsibility for killing and maiming scores of civilians in Brussels?

If you would like to read my efforts to answer those questions and more, check out the essay found here.

Just for the record, I am a registered independent, and as a retired military officer I do not publicly endorse any candidate in the race.

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