“The Air Force … takes a long view: Many expect the Army to draw down its Iraq forces by 2009, but the Air Force is planning for a continued conflict in which it supports Iraqi troops.”

— Associated Press, July 14

Unless the American people and our elected representatives take a clear stand, the hoped-for withdrawal or redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq could create conditions similar to Richard Nixon’s secret plan for ending the Vietnam War. Ostensibly in support of Iraqi government forces, U.S. aircraft, supported by the latest in high-technology electronic gizmos, will continue to bomb, rocket and strafe Iraq indefinitely. This might lead to fewer American casualties, but it will not salvage military victory from the jaws of defeat. More important, unless the air war in Iraq is halted, the devastation and civilian death toll will not only continue, it will grow.

Air power, particularly when applied to unconventional warfare, is by its nature indiscriminate. Even where U.S. planes do not intentionally target noncombatants, they are likely to kill civilians. TomDispatch.com has collected reports on such incidents from the mainstream press, but they are likely only the tip of the iceberg. Of course insurgents and evildoing militias are not going to sit out in the middle of the desert with concentric circles painted on the top of their tents. They live, train and fight in Iraqi cities. So of course, even when U.S. forces actually know whom they’re bombing or firing at, there is inevitably “collateral damage.”

During the 1991 Gulf War, Americans were subjected to a public relations barrage of photos of precision-guided munitions homing in on their targets. Such “smart bombs” are undeniably effective against bridges, tanks and radar installations, but no weapon, no matter now brilliant, can reliably distinguish friend from foe in an environment like Iraq. Even in 1991, it turned out that smart weapons represented a small fraction of the ordnance fired and dropped by the U.S. and its allies.

Today, we don’t hear much about the exactitude of U.S. air strikes. But neither do we hear much about the U.S. use of cluster bombs. In Iraq, as in southern Lebanon, anywhere these bombs are dropped, the unexploded bomblets serve as landmines until they are cleared or explode under the feet of children and other civilians. Nick Turse reports, “Since the major combat phase of the war ended in April 2003, the U.S. military has dropped at least 59,787 pounds of air-delivered cluster bombs in Iraq.”

Nor do we see coverage of the routine missions of B-1 bombers, massive planes that can drop up to 24 tons per sortie on targets in Iraqi. The Associated Press reports there were 14 B-1 strikes one recent night in Iraq, and 18 the next. The B-1, like its predecessor the B-52, is a “platform” more suitable for carpet-bombing than urban combat.

While some air attacks have tactical objectives, America’s growing reliance on air power represents a shift to strategic warfare. Washington hopes to bomb our adversaries into submission or set an example of what happens when people dare to stand up to the greatest military power in human history.

I’m not sure how long it will take, but at some point I expect U.S. helicopters to extract American officials, contractors and collaborators from the Green Zone, just as they evacuated the Saigon embassy in 1975. Most Americans view the Vietnam War as a military defeat, but over the last three decades, it has been Vietnam, not the U.S., that has been struggling to overcome the legacy of that war. UNICEF reports that nearly as many Vietnamese (at least 42,000) have died from unexploded ordnance and landmines since 1975 as Americans who died during the conflict. Furthermore, Voice of America reports, “Vietnam claims about 3 million of its citizens suffer health problems stemming from [the defoliant] Agent Orange, which U.S. forces sprayed on Vietnamese jungles during the Vietnam War.”

The Bush administration and its supporters may see the continuing air war as a way to salvage something from the unsuccessful counterinsurgency effort on the ground. They will be sending a signal to adversaries in Iran, Somalia, Colombia and elsewhere that taking on the American juggernaut means death and destruction, not only in the short run, but as in Vietnam, for decades.

I believe, however, that observers in the rest of the world will draw other conclusions. They will recognize that the U.S. is not using its military might to export democracy and human rights, or even to promote free markets, but like most great military powers in history, to exercise control. They will become more determined to find new ways to challenge dominance by the U.S. government and allied corporate interests.

It is up to the American people, therefore: Will we allow the deadly, devastating, indiscriminate air war to continue in our name, even after redeployment reduces U.S. casualties? Or will we take action to stop the air war, too, to regain the respect and friendship of people throughout the world?

Lenny Siegel (lennysiegel @gmail.com) is director of the Pacific Studies Center in Mountain View, Calif., and a member of Mountain View Voices for Peace.