Bombing Encyclopedia of the World

Bombing from the air re-wrote the geography of war, blurring and blasting the boundaries between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ spaces.  But it also required a knowledge of geography.  In the Second World War the targeting cycle could extend over several weeks or even months as target folders were compiled, complete with aerial photographs, target maps and intelligence reports, but after the war the United States was determined to accelerate the process. When the US Air Force was separated from the US Army it quickly established its own Directorate of Targets, which was made responsible for the compilation of what was eventually called the ‘Bombing Encyclopedia of the World’.

Work started in January 1946 on potential targets in the Soviet Union and in six months IBM cards were punched for 5,594 targets.  In April 1949 a rare press report noted that the volume of work had ‘doubled since last summer’ and that the Air Force was requesting more funds to hire additional intelligence officers and civilian analysts.  The database was extended to Soviet satellites and Korea, but in 1952 the National Security Council was told that while ‘basic target research’ was progressing favourably ‘the Bombing Encyclopedia must be greatly expanded to meet current goals.’

The database soon became global, and by 1960 it contained 80,000 entries. Machine processing was still in its infancy, however, and the project was bedevilled by serious problems of information management that were still unresolved by the time American forces were deployed in Vietnam.  As the number of targets steadily increased, so it became ever more difficult to integrate data from multiple sources.  Standardisation was eventually achieved through the Consolidated Target Intelligence File (shown below; the image is imperfect because it is a composite).  Outten Clinard explained that the form was divided into five sections:

I.    Codes for machine processing and hand processing.
II.  Information identifying and locating the target.
III. Information on the category of the target and its individual characteristics within the category.
IV.  References to graphic coverage on the target.
V.   Sources.

The CTIF shown here is for a fictitious (industrial) target, but Clinard explained its structure thus:

Much of the information is entered on the form uncoded and may be read directly, for example the target’s name (02), location (06), elevation in tens of feet (20), roof cover in thousands of square feet (23), and output in thousands of pounds (57).  Some of it is entered in a simple code for which the IBM 705 is keyed. On the form shown, in the country block (08) “UR” represents the USSR; under command interest (28) the figure 2 in the E block indicates that the target has been nominated by the U.S. European Command; and under category requirements (68) the letters C and F indicate that additional information is needed on capacity/output and labor force, respectively.

The CTIF was more than a resource for planning particular missions.  Stored on magnetic tapes, the data-stream of CTIFs  was also ‘susceptible of rapid and complex manipulation in electronic data-processing machines’.  In 1959, when Clinard published his (then classified) essay in Studies in Intelligence,  the targeting effort was primarily directed towards Strategic Air Command  and the prospect of long-range nuclear strikes against the Soviet Union.  For this reason, the bombing database was used to calibrate (for example) a Damage and Contamination Model:

‘This is a large and complex program, involving 58,000 targets and geographic “cells” and 700,000 to 900,000 computations. With requisite inputs from a war plan, that is, a pattern of ground zeros, weapon types, etc., this program is capable of calculating the probabilities of blast damage to some 9,000 targets, the radiation dose and contamination pattern from the weapons which were ground burst, and the fatalities and other casualties in 40,000 geographic “cells.” It will also give damage and casualty summaries by categories and by regions.’

One of the analysts responsible for ‘nominating’ targets for inclusion in the Encyclopedia was Henry Nash, who described how, ‘in order for a nominated target to win its way into the Bombing Encyclopedia … a Significant Summary Statement was prepared which briefly (roughly 50 words or less) described each target and its strategic importance.’  Years later, as a professor of political science in a liberal arts college in Virginia, Nash wondered ‘What enabled us calmly to plan to incinerate vast numbers of unknown human beings without any sense of moral revulsion?’  This was what he called the ‘bureaucratization of homicide’ I referred to in an earlier post: the compartmentalization of tasks, the collective reinforcement through membership in committees or task forces, and the reward and recognition conferred by ‘special’ security clearances.  Nash also reflected on the powers of abstraction. A preoccupation with ‘the numbers game’ – ‘The strong technological and quantitative orientation of these tasks [clearly shown in the paragraphs above] held the attention of analysts and the relationship of weapons to human life was an incidental consideration’ – was reinforced by carefully sanitized language:

‘As America’s involvement in the Vietnam War grew deeper, the Defense vocabulary expanded and displayed an even greater imaginative and anaesthetizing flair. Targets for attack were given the picturesque name of “strategic hamlets.” Bombing raids became “surgical strikes” and the forced movement and impounding of Vietnamese citizens were part of America’s “pacification program” – terms suggesting images of the hospital operating room or a Quaker meeting.’

Much of this will be familiar to analysts of bombing today.  The Bombing Encyclopedia has been re-named the Basic Encyclopedia, the targeting process has been refined and the kill-chain has been ‘lawyered up’, but the process still relies on the rapid-fire production, analysis and dissemination of a vast database and on computer modelling of damage and blast effects.  Today, the target folders are computer files but as the example below shows, the BE number is still the key (top left):

Yet there are significant changes.  The BE number refers to an ‘object target’ and its fixed, physical location, and this remains important for active (and fortunately non-nuclear) bombing missions against conventional targets.  But in the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism wars conducted by the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere the target is often an individual – sometimes identified, if the person appears on a list of ‘High Value Targets’, but sometimes unknown and un-named – and almost always mobile.  And for named targets, even the CIA requires more than fifty words for inclusion on its hit list (though the dossiers submitted to its lawyers for approval are reportedly only 2-5 pages).

Still, when I was working on ‘Doors into Nowhere’ (see DOWNLOADS tab) I remember encountering elin o’Hara slavick‘s luminous work for the first time, and her remark that she had originally intended to call her series of paintings ‘Everywhere the United States has bombed’ but that, as she learned more about covert action and mis-information, she realised that was an impossible project.  How ironic, then, that behind her critical inclinations there should have been a global database that made all those bombings possible…

But the irony doesn’t end there.  For it turns out that slavick’s project was, until recently, no less difficult for the US Air Force: if not exactly mission impossible then at least mission improbable.

The other side of the Bombing Encyclopedia, verso to its recto, would indeed be a global database recording ‘everywhere the United States has bombed’, but  the data are widely scattered and unsystematic: millions of records, some on paper, some on punchcards and magnetic tape, and more recent ones in various digital forms.  Six years ago Lt Colonel Jenns Robertson started to transcribe, standardise and integrate the available records of individual strike missions from World War I down to the present, incorporating RFC/RAF data for the two World Wars.  The result, announced this week in an article by Bryan Bender in the Boston Globe, is THOR: Theater History of Operations Reports (how the military loves its acronyms).  Robertson started the project in his spare time, working at night and at weekends, but he’s now been assigned to work on it full time at the Air Force Research Institute at Maxwell Air Force Base.  His extraordinary database – which he admits is still incomplete and, in places, in need of scrubbing – can be searched in six main ways listed as follows:

  • When – date, time over target, flying hours, etc.
  • Who – campaign, country, service, unit, call-sign
  • How – aircraft, take-off location, mission type
  • What – weapons used
  • Where – location of target, BE #, release height, speed
  • Why – effects, JTAC reports, Bomb Damage Assessment

The visualizations from the project, displayed and interrogated using GIS, are often stunning – more on this in a later post – and they are designed to answer both historical strategic questions about the conduct of particular campaigns and also contemporary forensic ones about the locations of unexploded ordnance or the remains of missing aircrew killed in action.  I’m hoping that I’ll be able to access the database for my Killing Space project [see DOWNLOADS tab], which focuses on three bombing campaigns: the combined bomber offensive against Germany in World War II, the air wars over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and the ‘drone wars’ over Afghanistan/Pakistan and elsewhere.  But Bender’s description of the visualizations loops back to where I began:

‘The result: a compilation that, at the click of a mouse and a few keystrokes, reveals for the first time the sheer magnitude of destruction inflicted by the US and its allies from the air in the last century…. When plotted on a satellite map, the bombs — from the biplanes of the nascent US Air Service over France in World War I to pilotless drones targeting suspected terrorists in the war in Afghanistan — blanket many thousands of square miles from Europe to Africa, the Middle East and Asia.’

UPDATE:  I returned to the Bombing Encyclopedia here.