Sen. Ted Cruz wants to “carpet bomb” ISIS and find out whether “sand can glow in the dark.” When pressed, however, Cruz said  he would not bomb Raqqah, the ISIS capital, home to many civilians. He later explained:

You use airpower directed — and you have embedded special forces to direction [sic] the air power. But the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.

Cruz’s statements are problematic in three ways:

  1. Carpet-bombing ISIS while leaving civilians unharmed is contradictory.
  2. His hyperbolic rhetoric and “aggressive posturing” suggest an attitude toward the use of force at odds both with international law and with what the Department of Defense teaches its professional military.
  3. Cruz’s mention of “carpet bombing” makes him appear both strategically and tactically out of touch with how the U.S. military actually fights wars these days.

You can’t “carpet bomb” and also protect civilians

At their most basic level, Cruz’s comments on the campaign trail and his comments during the Republican debate are confused. “Carpet bombing,” also known as “area bombing” or “saturation bombing,” by its very nature implies indiscriminate attacks against a geographical area that could be composed of both military and civilian populations and targets. That is specifically prohibited by the First Geneva Protocol of 1997 in Article 51, paragraphs 4 and 5.

This amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions expands the definition of international conflicts, extends the protection of the Conventions to civilian and medical personnel, and further specifies that civilians are to be protected from the hostilities. The United States has signed this protocol but the Senate has not ratified it. The relevant sections to this discussion are worth stating in full:

  1. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:

a) those which are not directed at a specific military objective

b) those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or

c) those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.

  1. Among others, the following types of attacks are to be considered indiscriminate:

a) an attack by bombardment by any methods or means which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects; and

b) an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of live, injury to civilian, damage or civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

These prohibitions come out of the Just War tradition. The Just War tradition has been around since St. Augustine and has evolved over time. Its moral principles are designed to help political leaders deliberate about when using armed force is justified. Once hostilities begin, the Just War tradition requires combatants to abide by the principles of proportionality and discrimination (or distinction).

Proportionality requires that the use of force be proportional to the desired military objective. Discrimination/distinction requires that only military objectives may be directly targeted.

Cruz’s clarification that he wasn’t out to “level a city,” suggests that he’s at least sensitive to laws of war that protect civilians and cities from direct attacks.  However, his stated desire to “carpet bomb,” taken on its own, would lead one to think otherwise.

Hyper-aggressive rhetoric undermines our military’s careful training

But there’s a deeper problem with this language. Careless use of hyperbolic rhetoric is harmful when used about a highly complex moral problem.

The Department of Defense goes to great lengths to educate its military members on the ethics and rules of warfare. Enlisted members and officers are instructed in LOAC (the Laws of Armed Conflict). Careful rules of engagement (ROEs) are issued on the battlefield, shaping the U.S. military’s tactical and strategic thinking.

Indeed, the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force all require ongoing professional military education throughout each service member’s career, and send a select group of officers to war colleges. There, both American and international officers spend a considerable amount of time evaluating the ethical and practical issues of using overwhelming force. They also study the dangers of trying to solve complex problems by military means alone.

While an appeal to “carpet bombing” may be an emotionally satisfying response to the ongoing frustrations of a “war on terror,” it is neither morally acceptable nor even practically reasonable.

Modern warfare no longer includes “carpet bombing”

An emotional appeal to “carpet bombing” ISIS to see if “the sand glows” reveals an outdated view of military tactics and strategy. Conventional warfare in the 21st century is culturally, socially, ethically  and technologically complex. Irregular warfare, such as our current “war on terror,” is even more so.

Bombing ISIS is challenging because the organization isn’t concentrated in any one place. Conventional thinking about warfare does not transfer well to fighting terrorists. The Air Force doesn’t even teach “carpet bombing” as a modern strategy any more. Rather, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military leaders ask service members to be “innovative and agile thinkers” in order to be effective in our newly complex wars.

Our Constitution puts civilians in control of the military. Members of the military accept this when they take their oaths of office. To be commander in chief of the armed forces, our candidates should show at least basic knowledge of the ethical and practical complexities of modern warfare.

Deonna D. Neal, PhD, is an associate professor of leadership and ethics at Air University, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and a former U.S. Air Force officer.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense  or the U.S. government.