Libya and the birth of modern warfare

A key military centenary should explode the myth that Libya is a mess simply because Gaddafi is mad.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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As Western observers get their rocks off through ridiculing ‘mad dog’ Colonel Gaddafi, or if they’re feeling really edgy through pointing a finger of condemnation at Tony Blair for selling Gaddafi weapons, a key anniversary threatens to expose their lack of historical depth. This year is the centenary of a major development in modern Western warfare: the first-ever use of airplanes in a military capacity. And where did that occur? In Libya, in 1911, when Italy used planes as part of the Italo-Turkish War for imperial control of north Africa.

Western imperialists had been considering using planes for a couple of years. When French aviator Louis Blériot completed the first non-stop flight over a large body of water – flying over the English Channel in 1909 – European colonialists started eyeing the airplane as a potential defeater of colonial peoples and enforcer of colonial authority. Britain’s Major Robert Baden-Powell was interested in both the physical and psychological impact of air warfare on ‘ignorant’ peoples: in 1909 he called for the use of aircraft in ‘savage warfare’, arguing that ‘the moral effect on an ignorant enemy would be great and a few bombs would cause serious panics’. A British official based in West Africa said aircraft would be ‘invaluable against the hill tribes’ – imagine the ‘terror’ planes would provoke, he said (1).

But Italy beat the British colonialists to it. In the run-up to the First World War, as the Ottoman Empire was weakening and European powers were continuing their carve-up of Africa, Italy declared war on the Turks in Libya. Then two provinces, Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east, the territory we now know as Libya had been part of the Ottoman regency since the late sixteenth century. Yet Italy’s defeat of the Turks was swift. The Italo-Turkish War started in September 1911 and was over by October 1912, when the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne handed Libya to the Italians.

During the war, exactly 100 years ago, Italy became the first nation on Earth to use aircraft for military purposes. Its methods were crude – airplanes flew low over Turkish lines and then the pilot would throw two-kilogram grenades over the side of the plane on to the enemy below. Planes were also used to photograph enemy lines and to drop propaganda leaflets, notably encouraging Libya’s tribes, out of self-respect for their traditions, to reject Ottoman interference – not the first or the last time that invading colonialists attempted to exploit tribalism in Africa for their own political benefit (2). Italy’s use of aircraft in the Italo-Turkish War transformed warfare: the Italian Giulio Douhet subsequently wrote Rules for the Use of Airplanes in War, one of the first manuals on air warfare, and Italy set about building a plane that could actually carry and drop bombs, rather than relying on pilots to throw them overboard by hand (3).

Modern Western warfare, the use of airpower to cow, terrify or simply defeat an enemy, was born in Libya. The history of that country also speaks to some profound shifts in the fortunes of various Empires. Taking over from the Ottomans, the Italians ruled Libya from 1912 to 1943. But they faced fierce local resistance in the 1920s and 30s, during which time the new fascist rulers of Italy, under Mussolini, sought to crush their Arab and Turkish-supported opponents, once again through the use of air power – only this time they didn’t only drop bombs but released poisonous gasses, too (4). Following the defeat of Italian forces in north Africa during the Second World War, Libya was carved up between Britain and France from 1943 to 1951. Britain ruled Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, while France ruled Fezzan.

In 1951, Britain, with the newly formed United Nations, arranged for Libya to become a united, ostensibly independent kingdom, ruled by Britain’s favourite man on the ground and made-up monarch, King Idris. Idris had supported Britain during the Second World War, getting Cyrenaican nationalists to fight with the Allies against the Axis powers, and he was rewarded by being made king of Libya with the political and military backing of Britain. The British were keen to continue exerting influence in the north African theatre, but they recognised that, following the defeat of the Italians in Libya with the assistance of nationalist forces and following the experiences of the Second World War more broadly, this could not be done as explicitly as it might have been in the past. King Idris was in turn swept aside by Colonel Gaddafi’s officers’ coup in 1969, leading to Gaddafi’s brutal domination, for 42 years so far, of a country which had been divided, ruled, invaded, bombed from the air and had its tribal arrangements exploited for centuries, making it susceptible to strongman authoritarianism.

The most striking thing about the current discussion of Libya is the absence of historical span. Indeed, far from being historicised, understood through what used to be known as the ‘long view’, the Libyan crisis is psychologised instead. The current instability is simply down to the fact that Gaddafi is a nutter, apparently, or it all springs from Tony Blair’s wrongheaded decision to make amends with Gaddafi and to hawk weapons to his regime. In truth, Libya’s chaotic political state is also a product of decades of foreign intervention, of being conquered by various Empires, and of being used as a laboratory for new forms of ‘savage warfare’. All of that contributed to the creation of a tense, unpredictable, politically undeveloped nation. To call on Britain, Italy and the European Union to ‘do something’ in Libya now, as many are currently demanding, is probably the highest point of historical ignorance that it is possible to reach.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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