Aerial Surveying as Air Control: Geographical Knowledge in Mandate-Era Iraq

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Article published in The Funambulist 18 (July-August 2018) Cartography & Power. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Over two terrible days in late November and early December 1923, the British Royal Air Force dropped 25 tons of bombs and 8,600 incendiary bombs on Samawah, a small Iraqi city that lay mid-way between Baghdad and Basra. The firebombing of Samawah was one of the most notable examples of “exemplary punishment” dealt by the British who were infuriated by a tax revolt in the region. A cadre of military strategists from the Mesopotamia Campaign of World War I, who were now tasked with colonial governance in Iraq under the terms of the League of Nations Mandate, approached the challenges of a tight budget and the requirements of managing a large territory by intensifying their advocacy of “air control” — the doctrine of replacing extensive colonial administration with policing from the air. Throughout the Mandate era, the Royal Air Force conducted aerial patrols and bombed any community, large or small, that resisted British authority. As Priya Satia has put it, “what was permissible only in wartime in advanced countries turned out to be always permissible in Iraq” (“The Defense of Inhumanity: British Air Control and the British Idea of Arabia,” 2006). With indiscriminate targeting of noncombatants as well as combatants, the attacks from the air terrorized the population and destroyed communities, homes, industries and infrastructure. Comprehensive British air control of Iraq required the building of air bases and the development of geographical tools for effective navigation and targeting. The British could neither bomb nor strafe effectively without another key component of air control: accurately detailed maps made through aerial surveying.