This for Americans may not be the best time to reflect on bombing as a strategy, but here goes. Syria is being bombed by several disciplinarians, including the U.S. from time to time, but to what effect? Certainly 1 is to send refugees out in record numbers– among other factors. As background, here is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut (who knew a bit about bombing—and see/read Slaughterhouse Five); and it goes well beyond bombing as a questionable tactic:
“I think a lot of people teach savagery to their children to survive. They may need the savagery but it’s bad for the neighbors.”
And I offer this old paper/ article I wrote 10 years ago on reasons for bombing, especially by America, and especially in World War II. Those who stick it out and even Skim the article to the end shall be rewarded with a gift certificate to TARGET.
For true believers, such as Gen. Curtis LeMay, architect of bombing strategies for both the ending German and Japanese war strategies, it was all a logical if brutal solution:
“We were going after military targets. No point in slaughtering civilians for the mere sake of slaughter. Of course there is a pretty thin veneer in Japan, but the veneer was there. All you had to do was visit one of those targets after we’d roasted it, and see the ruins of a multitude of tiny houses, with a drill press sticking up through the wreckage of every home. The entire population got in the act and worked to make those airplanes or munitions of war…men, women, children. We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and children when we burned that town. Had to be done.”
“WHY WE BOMB” Frederick Shiels / Olson Project for OXFORD UNIVERSITY
ROUNDTABLE, LINCOLN COLLEGE, MARCH 2012
Following many years of intense interest in the subject of the United States’ impact on Third World countries, the events of the first three years of the 21st Century prompted me to start a systematic study of civilian deaths resulting from U.S. military actions in the 20th. These include wars, police actions, and other occupations. It might be asked: why not also study American deaths resulting from the aggression of others, such as the 9/11 attacks, Pearl Harbor, or the Lusitania sinking in 1915? This is work that needs to be done and has been done to a limited extent, and the roughly agreed-upon figure for such 20th C. fatalities stands somewhere around 4000— nearly 2000 deaths at Pearl Harbor (three fourths of the dead) were military.
Or why not study American military deaths caused by the political/ military hostility of Others? This, too, is a worthy scholarly mission , one that has been attempted, and the 20th C. death count for Americans, mainly in two World Wars and the Korean and Vietnam wars, hovers at around 500,000. The military deaths on the other sides of American wars is harder to calculate, for reasons that will become apparent. To take but one example, American battles in the two world wars and, to a lesser extent, Korea and Vietnam, were fought alongside allies. But a fair estimate for such deaths in these wars— and a very conservative estimate–would be around 4 million.– half in Germany and Japan, half in Korea and Vietnam.
For my study, civilian casualties on the other side is the preferred focus, because:
- Conservative estimates just for civilians in Japan, Germany, Korea and Vietnam would put the death toll at above 4 million,
- The killing of civilians of any sort in a military action would have been appalling to most Americans in the 1700s and 1800s with the exception of wars against American Indians,
- The killing of civilians in wars, declared or undeclared, is frowned upon in international law and the human rights literature regardless of which states are seen as having started the hostilities, and
- Americans, rightly or not, believe themselves to be” outside the curve of historical imperialism” and generally to display more sensitivity to human life and safety and welfare than, say, Germany, Russia, China or Japan, and perhaps, if one looks at Indochina and India, France and Britain.
The argument to this point is not that Americans or their government like killing foreign civilians or even that they tolerate it casually, but rather that the American government, with the tacit approval of its citizenry, has killed civilians, mostly from altitudes of greater than 10,000 feet, often with considerable planning, and intentionally, with the use of carefully designed weapons (and–less often– unintentionally).
So focusing for now on World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, we want to highlight several reasons given as justifications for treating non-military people as expendable in some measure and perhaps with some reluctance. Foreign civilians in these conflicts died in very large numbers, mostly from aerial bombs, which we will account for here, but also from chemical sprays, ground artillery fire, and as more or less innocent bystanders near the fields of battle.
One of the most horrific aspects of the World Trade Center and Pentagon killings of civilians was that they were so unexpected. No sense of danger attended the thousands of office workers heading into lower Manhattan and Arlington, Virginia on the morning of September 11, 2001. Many, though not all of the civilians in cities like Dresden, Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg, Leipzig, Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Nagasaki–to name a few–and Pyongyang and Hanoi and the numerous smaller towns and villages of North Korea and Vietnam did go through a prolonged awareness of danger, risk, and deprivation before meeting their ends. The loss of loved ones in firestorms and blast-collapsed structures was more or less anticipated as a possibility, sometimes over a period of years–say, 1943-45, 1950-53, or 1965-72.
The broad reasons for the killing of civilians in Germany, Japan, from bombs dropped over urban centers, might be summarized as follows:
(1) Germans and Japanese had the misfortune to live under governments, either unelected (Japan)or elected by a minority (Germany)that had launched aggressive wars in Europe and that had themselves taken millions of lives, military and civilian,
- The United States had committed several million men, mostly between the ages of 18 and 30, to extract or help allies extract several million German and Japanese military men from places like France, Scandinavia, the USSR, China, the Philippines and Korea. To shorten the war and reduce the cost in America lives, it might be necessary to sacrifice an unspecified number of civilian lives, mostly in about 80 German and Japanese cities (each). This unspecified number turned out to be about 900,000 each in Germany and Japan– these are the most conservative estimates and focus largely on the air raids during the 2-year period mid-1943 to 1945.
- A certain number of German and Japanese civilians, who perished and a similar number of those who were maimed for life, worked in factories, government offices and transportation networks vital to the Axis war effort. Also there were large numbers of doctors, postal employees, nurses, sanitation workers, firemen, and other civil personal who, while at the center of the war machine, were involved in keeping the war machine’s more active participants healthier, cleaner, safer and to be able to communicate better.
Before breaking this reasoning down, we might anticipate a powerful question from the reader or audiences.: why devote so much attention to the populace in warring states so clearly devoted to the mass killing of others and conquest by force? To answer that “two wrongs don’t make a right” would be to oversimplify in more than one way. But in any case, before moral judgments are made, any national American project involving tens of thousands of bomber crew members under orders from career officers and civilians to carry out acts that result in a loss of life roughly equaling the combined populations of Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco and St. Louis, or the entire state of Oregon OR Connecticut or Oklahoma, is surely deserving of careful study. Such investigations have been made– and some very good ones**– but mine is the only one that both focuses on civilian deaths and attempts to compare the way in which civilians died in at least seven different military conflicts.
Return to the central question of why we bomb civilians. A breakdown of reasons for the official sanction of carefully planned actions leading to large numbers of deaths and injuries can
proceed as follows:
- Following Sherman’s 1864 dictum that “war is all hell” and needs to be made as painful as possible, generations of strategists have used “Shorten The War” as a rationale for all sorts of war intensifying strategies. These have included: massive drafts to throw as many soldiers as possible against the enemy, development of terror weapons such as the machine gun, heavy naval vessels capable of devastating coastal shelling and, beginning in the 1930s, aircraft designed to drop explosives, or even deadly gas, onto masses of infantry, fortifications, and, finally, cities. In chilling words of Douhet, the Italian air-war theorist, depicting air attack:
First would come explosions, then fires, then deadly gases floating on the surface and preventing any approach to the stricken area. As the hours passed and night advanced, the fires would spread while the poison gas paralyzed all life. ** Schaffer 21, Douhet
Politicians and generals on all sides in World War II spoke longingly of shortening the war and no doubt they were sincere.* More recently, the creation of “smart” bombs and “shock and awe tactics,” especially for use against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, provide an updated strategy of using highly accurate and very noisy bombs to cow the enemy into a faster surrender, while taking world public opinion sensibilities into account.
Even before World War Two, a US Army Air Corps tactical manual regarded air attack as “a method of imposing will by terrorizing the whole population.” It was, as Schaffer puts it, vastly preferable to long wars of attrition like the First World War[cite p 27]
Proving that hammer blows against a foreign population can shorten a conflict has been more difficult. It has made intuitive sense to say that Germany and Japan might well have fought longer had they not lost so many cities and industrial cites to massive air attack. This is most dramatically illustrated in the hasty Japanese call for a cease fire after the second atomic bomb obliterated Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 and the little- known final devastating conventional bomb raid in Tokyo August 13th.
It has argued for example been argued, for example, that Hirohito’s speech coming shortly after the second atomic bomb, represented a consensus that the level of destruction had become intolerable:
[Surrender Speech by Japanese Emperor Hirohito, August 14, 1945 [five days after Nagasaki]
The surrender announcement, broadcast by radio, was the first time Japanese people had ever heard the voice of their leader.To our good and loyal subjects: After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today, we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure. We have ordered our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration.
Indeed, we declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to insure Japan’s self- preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement. But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone——the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of our servants of the State and the devoted service of our 100,000,000 people——the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.
Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. **
However there is also evidence that a little publicized final convention bombing raid on Tokyo, after Nagasaki on August 13, was decisive in bringing about surrender. On August 10, 1945, a day after Nagasaki, Japanese leaders still disagreed on the desirability of surrendering according to the Potsdam unconditional surrender terms. Hirohito ordered that the surrender be accepted, provided he be allowed to retain the throne. The Americans responded on August 11 that they recognized the Emperor but could not guarantee his position. All bombing was suspended pending a definitive Japanese response. When none was received, Gen. Arnold ordered the largest conventional raid of the war, with over 1000 planes, which took place on August 13th. The raid received little publicity and is little-mentioned in accounts of the war . The Emperor’s public statement of surrender (quoted above) followed the next day. It is not entirely clear whether further consideration of the implications of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the final Tokyo raid was decisive. Perhaps both together were. [See J. Smith and M. O’Connell, The Last Mission, Broadway Books, 2002]
- Save American lives– Although nobody likes a long war, Americans in particular have
placed a premium on speed and the use of machinery to shorten fighting time and perhaps transfer the human sacrifice (almost literally) that is war, from our side to theirs. High technology air and armed vehicle fighting tends to protect American– and other– combatants relative to the number of killed and injured on the other side, and the conflict shortened. It has been argued that not only American military lives would be saved and men transferred to the protection of high altitude aircraft and armored ground machines, but also, ultimately, many “enemy” lives–especially civilian–could be spared by the application of concentrated intense force.
- Make war more “merciful”- A shorter war with less loss of life would certainly be more humane, if it could be demonstrated that it could be achieved. The argument has been used, as with the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945 and with the Iraq wars of 1991 and 2003. Of course such arguments are very difficult to prove: the best one can normally do is make a strong case. In the August, 1945 case of Japan, a sort of acceleration of the Japanese willingness to consider surrender occurred, first privately and then quite openly, publicly, and quickly with the Emperor’s call to end the fighting after the Nagasaki bomb was dropped on 9 August. What might be easier to establish is that shortening wars through terror bombing can take place, that the loss of life might not be reduced overall, but may be transferred from U.S. forces to foreign civilians. The term “merciful” (Churchill’s term for the use of atomic weapons was “avert a vast, indefinite butchery”) in any universal sense seems inappropriate unless there is a way of demonstrating that more American military would have died in a drawn out land battle such as the Japanese “home island” invasion envisioned for the fall of 1945.
The moral and strategic implications of these first three arguments for bombing are not simple. Even if it appears that a war has been shortened because of city-busting tactics (e.g., Japan, summer, 1945) it is very hard to demonstrate that fewer civilians would have died if the war continued with more ground fighting and less aerial destruction. Merciful to the American soldier probably, but merciful in universal human terms, probably not. A World War Two with more intense aerial attacks on German and Japanese infrastructure outside of cities, or on concentration of German and Japanese military forces, say in Russia or the South Pacific islands, would have killed different civilians, but probably smaller numbers of civilians and certainly more uniformed military. Most would agree that reducing civilian deaths in favor of military would be desirable, except that many of the military were young draftees and a number of civilians were directly involved politically or economically with the war effort. There are some shades of gray here to be reckoned with. The classic account of the debate over the “necessity” of using atomic weapons is Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, updated 1996. **
- Easier to demonstrate is that bombing campaigns dramatically reduce the production and output of “enemy” economic systems in Germany and Japan, and certainly North Korea, though to a lesser extent . Bombing damaged the North Vietnamese economy as well, although in a more limited way because of its less centralized and capital intensive infrastructure. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey published September 30, 1945, goes into great detail about the gradual destruction of German and Japanese industries by U.S. (and in the case of Germany British) bombing sorties. Preferred targets were steel, machine tool, tank, aircraft, other munitions factories and oil refineries. There were many other target categories as well. During World War Two the kind of pinpoint bombing available in the 1980s and 1990s into the Twenty First Century was not an option. When the nearly 300,000 tons of bombs were dropped over the two Axis powers between 1943 and 1945, much of the targeting was industrial and infrastructure sites. However, as other parts of this essay relate, a significant minority of bombings took out largely residential areas and an additional percentage of bombings against the war related cites, especially urban took the lives of tens of thousands of civilians as “collateral damage.”
5.A more specific and quite interesting American argument about the assault on enemy populations is that bombing civilians –literally the “inhabitants of cities”– thins out the number of industrial workers and potential soldiers, “castrating” (in FDR’s memorable metaphor) the opposition and quite literally reducing the number of future war-makers. For Roosevelt it was weakening German society by reducing the number of war-prone Germans:
We either have to castrate the German people or you have got to treat them
in such a manner so they can’t just go on reproducing people who want to continue the way they have in the past…[Schaffer 88]
Ronald Schaffer goes on to cite Robert Dallek’s citation of Roosevelt’s comments to Secretary of War Henry Stimson that:
It is of the utmost importance that every person in Germany should realize that this time Germany is a defeated nation. I do not want them to starve to death, but, as an example, if they need food to keep body and soul together beyond what they have, they should be fed three times a day with soup from Army soup kitchens…The fact that they are a defeated nation , collectively and individually must be so impressed upon them that they will hesitate to start any new war. ** [in Dallek, Roosevelt, 472-473]
- Bombing cities is more simply an efficient way of destroying industry, infrastructure and human capital. The problem with this reasoning is that attacks on cities destroyed much that was not directly involved in industrial production, although perhaps demonstrably involved in war-making indirectly: residential neighborhoods in non-industrial areas, urban targets of limited industrial value (e.g., Dresden and Nagasaki) including also schools, churches, hospitals and small businesses. An important part of the literature on aerial bombardment examines these non-industrial targets and questions the need for their destruction much as military policy-makers debated the wisdom of such targeting during the wars under consideration here. ** [Michael Sherry’s and Ronald Schaffer’s books are especially good in short sections on non-industrial “psychological” urban targets and residential areas; also Werrell]
- An early and more specialized motive for the bombing of German, Japanese, and–later– Korea and Vietnamese cities, especially toward the beginning of those conflicts, was to demonstrate the physical vulnerability of the civilian population and urban centers that could affect both popular and leadership morale. It was believed that the post-Pearl Harbor air raid on Tokyo led by Gen. James Doolittle in April, 1942 achieved a stunning morale victory for the U.S., even though damage was quite modest by later standards. Early raids on Berlin (Nov. 1941) had been costly for the British but symbolically important. These raids were suspended during 1942 (until 1943) because of the heavy anti-air defenses around the city.
- A demonstration effect for non-enemy but rival powers– this is a curious but credible perspective that notes the desire of some generals directing attacks on eastern German cities to make a statement about U.S. air power to the Soviets occupying those regions in ever greater numbers as well as to the Germans themselves. Schaffer notes that the (British) Royal Air Force bomber command was especially convinced that striking the heart of Berlin would impress the Russians with the “effectiveness of Anglo-American air power.” Schaffer quotes Air Force General David Schlatter, writing in his diary just before the Yalta conference:
I feel that our air forces are the blue chips with which we will approach the post-war treaty table and that [Operation THUNDERCLAP] will add immeasurably to their strength, or rather to Russian knowledge of their strength.” **[D.M. Schlatter Daily Diary, Jan 28, 1945, file 168.7052-5, 44/10/41-45/07/11, Alfred F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, cited in Shaffer, p. 96]
- 9. Self-preservation for pilots-Another reason to bomb German, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese cities thoroughly was to take out industries and military installations that would endanger bombers and crews (!) Through construction or emplacement of anti-aircraft equipment: guns, fighter planes, etc. [specify which cities had such factories and installations].
- Terror bombing– related to many of the already mentioned reasons for air bombardment but worth focusing on as a special motive is the terror and morale-eroding effect of punishing air raids. This has been one of the most sensational and closely argued debates in the reconsideration of the value of city destruction, 1943-45, 1950-53, and 1965-72. In 1944 noted Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport sent out a survey, later forwarded to the Strategic Bombing Survey, asking “leading members of his profession” their views on the probable effects of bombing on German and Japanese morale. The responses reflected as much division on the question as their was in the upper ranks of the Air Force leadership.** [Schaffer, p. 90]
- Dehumanization– Related to and magnifying some of the effects of the rationale for bombing missions listed above, is the oft-commented on tendency of societies and their military forces to dehumanize the other side. This process starts with leaders: Hitler, the Kaiser, Tojo, Hirohito; extends to the enemy military forces: “Huns” “Storm Troopers” “cruel Japs” and finally, in an age of total war, to the Other Society itself. Amerindians become expendable, more modern foes need to be castrated, exterminated, etc. There is a great range of feelings within the societies: not all Germans had contempt for Jews and Slavs, too many did; not all Japanese had disregard for the lives of conquered Asians– too many did; not all Americans felt the large numbers of civilian deaths in Germany and Japan were acceptable, but many did.
There seems to be some correlation between the power and scope of “enemy conquest” and the degree to which the corresponding society is deemed evil and worthy of severe counter-blows. Racism and differentiated xenophobia, discussed below, certainly contribute to rationalizing mass counter-killing. But the success of Germany and Japan and the perceived direct threat they posed to the United States, made the massive onslaught against their cities in some ways easier than the less publicized air attacks on North Korea, and the much more criticized attacks on North Vietnam.
**This might be an opportune time for a short but needed digression from the flow of this presentation: [consider inserting this earlier in oral presentations]: by cataloguing the devastation inflicted by American bombing missions, we are not saying that the German, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese leadership and military were less than cruel or violent themselves. Atrocities abounded and excessive violence was not just “fallen into”, but carefully planned in some cases in substance if not in form and exact execution. And we are not saying that American allies do not share responsibility for helping get the U.S. involved and coordinating the attacks on enemy cities alongside the Washington leadership. The point is that the atrocities of enemies and shared brutality of Allies only partly absolves the U.S. from confronting fully the acts of collective destruction it has practiced.
- Racism and Differentiated Xenophobia– Fueling the “Anger and Revenge” motives for strikes against Japanese cities in particular was a long- standing American animus toward Asians (the “Mongol race”) and particularly the Japanese, who had never been colonized. A history of immigration restrictions, anti-Japanese laws in California, resentment in the 1930s as the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere became bigger and rougher, capped by the post Pearl Harbor internment of Japanese American civilians, raised the tolerance for total war against “the Japs.”
And when Allied prosecutors sitting in the gutted capital city of Japan in 1946 accused the country’s leaders of promoting the indiscriminate destruction of “men, women and children alike”, they still did so with little sense irony. Japan had merely reaped what it had sowed. ** Dower p. 41
This was compounded by newsreels of Japanese atrocities in China and the Philippines. The Bataan Death March would establish a public opinion climate against Japan that would give license to the fiercest air assault on any nation, including Germany, in the history of warfare before or since. It is essential to note, however, that the public opinion contempt for Asian culture and the differentness of its people predated the aggressive phase of Japanese expansion after 1931 and was reflected in US newspapers nearly 40 years before that time:
Some, like the Hearst newspapers, warned of a yellow peril led by Japan as early as the 1890s, and maintained an unwavering editorial policy of anti-Oriental polemics over the next half-century.**Dower, p. 157
In the war itself, the no surrender, no-prisoners policy of Japanese soldiers and officers in the island hopping campaigns of the Pacific reinforced the image of a people for whom life was cheap and sacrifice a given. One of many famous Japanese soldier/sailor poems reads:
Across the sea, corpses soaking in the water
Across the mountains heaped upon the grass
We shall die by the side of our lord
We shall never look back. ** [Dower 25}
Dower and other scholars have also noted that the Japanese entertained many of their own racial stereotypes of effete Westerners, including Americans, with their exaggerated noses and ears, reflected in cartoons and drawings and in the press generally.
The Pacific war has been characterized as “The War Without Mercy.” 1941-1945 was replete with surprise attacks, forced marches, torture of prisoners, island battles in which the dead outnumbered the square mileage of the island to a power of 10 or 20, aerial firebombing, and, ultimately, kamikaze and flame- throwers-in-caves attacks (Okinawa), capped off by two bombs 1000 times more powerful than any explosive ever dropped from an airplane.
The race-based analysis that the atomic bomb was used against the Japanese but would not have been against the Germans is debatable. The first A-bomb was tested in New Mexico on July 21, 1945. Had Germany still been in the war, the chances of a sizeable bomb being used against a German city would have been high. I know of no memorandum or scholarly writing that indicates that the Manhattan Project was designed for Japan only.
In addition to racial prejudice intertwining with other forms of resentment against Japan to fuel the deadly incendiary assault on its cities, there was an American public opinion history– by no means unique to this country– of what might be called differentiated xenophobia. As a relatively isolated power 3,000 miles from Europe and 8,000 from Asia, the Americans had contact over the years with foreign cultures mainly through immigrants coming into the U.S. and from foreign travel, mostly by the elite classes– at least until World War One. Although there was not the kind of distaste for foreign cultures found in, say Korea or Japan before 1870, Americans did share what might be called an Anglo-American disdain for non-white, but also in varying degrees, Latin based Cultures (American and European) and Slavic as well as Celtic cultures. This observation greatly oversimplifies, but does help explain a somewhat greater reluctance to participate in the city bombing of Germany than Japan and also the receptivity of Americans for assisting the British over the Germans. Political ideology and perceptions of who the aggressors were in the world wars thus accounts for a great deal.
- Anger and Revenge– When returning to the central question of “Why We Bomb,” we can differentiate between two genera of mid- Twentieth Century bombing: A. the use of bombs in later campaigns against North Korea and North Vietnam in which strategic and racial factors blended together to break the will of Asian communist nations that were upsetting the geo-political equilibrium sought by the United States and B. the earlier use of air attack against cities to cripple the populations of states engaged in costly wars of regional conquest, namely Germany and Japan.
North Korea had its urban landscape flattened because it tried to reunite all of Korea under its rule in 1950. No other country was involved in its real estate altering efforts. North Vietnam similarly attempted, ultimately successfully, to bring the South under its control in the late 1950s and 1960s, and the price of doing so was made higher by punitive U.S. air attacks.
In the case of Germany there was successful annexation of the Low Countries, Austria, western Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the rest of Eastern Norway, Denmark and France, with threats of conquest for Greece, Britain, and Russia by made-late 1941. The brutality of Hitler’s attacks on those societies, including civilians and particularly ethnic minorities like the Jews and gypsies and whole ethnic majorities like Slavs (the contrast between treatment of Germans and Slavs in Czechoslovakia was characteristic) is legendary: aerial bombardment of Dutch, Polish and British cities, concentration camps, execution of city officials wherever resistance was met and sometimes when it was not met. Japan’s equally unrestrained moves into China, Indochina, Malaya, the Philippines and much of the Western Pacific offended international human rights sensibilities (insofar as they were developed at the time) as well as the geopolitical status quo.
I would argue that in any war, from medieval conflicts to religious and Amerindian wars in the 16th and 17th centuries to more modern wars, strategy has been colored in varying degrees by revenge and anger for past mistakes and slights. When the townsfolk of Puritan Massachusetts torched Wampanoag villages in King Philip’s War, they did so at first tentatively and later vigorously in response to attacks on Deerfield, Springfield, and other settlements. More to the current point, when the German Luftwaffe leveled Rotterdam, and parts of Warsaw and London, it mirrored the Nazi leadership and some of the German body politic’s loathing of European neighbors that had A. humiliated the Germans after World War I (UK), B. stood between Germany and those foes (Netherlands, Belgium) and C. held substantial German populations under the rule of the Slavic kin of Russia and then the Soviet Union (Czechoslovakia, Poland). While conquests and economic motives drove part of Berlin’s war machine, the octane of the fuel that the machine was running on was heightened by feelings of settling a score, rationalized by perceived slights from London, the Hague, Brussels and the Slavic capitals to the East.
When Japan launched its assaults on China between 1931 and 1938 and then moved against Hawaii, the Philippines, Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, it was for far more than the establishment of Tokyo’s hegemony over and economic exploitation of those areas. The motives were, equally, contempt for Asian neighbors that had allowed themselves to be colonized and animus against the European and American hegemons defiling Asia. In a certain sense, when the bombs fell and shells flew and bayonets thrust, causing such agony in Shanghai, Nanking, Rangoon, and Manila, the collective contempt for lesser Asian peoples in the eyes of Japanese leaders and their soldiers was intensified by a national resentment of American, British and French slights—the U.S.’s pro-Russian mediation of the Russo-Japanese War was an early example– against the “People of the Rising Sun. “
Right after the December 7, 1941 attack, General Leonard Gerow of the Army Chief of Staff’s planning office, had noted: “Perhaps the best way to offset this initial defeat is to Burn Tokyo and Osaka.” [Cited in Sherry, p. 115, note on p. 384]
And as the war was moving toward a conclusion, top generals were mindful, in the wake of the first a-bomb attack, of how a score was being settled:
When General Leslie R. Groves , the director of the Manhattan Project, told [Gen. Henry] Arnold and General Marshall about the attack on Hiroshima, Marshall suggested that it would be a mistake to rejoice too much, since the explosion had undoubtedly caused a large number of Japanese casualties. Groves replied that he was not thinking as much about those casualties as about the men who had made the Bataan Death March. Afterwards, in the hallway outside Marshall’s office, Arnold slapped Groves on the back and exclaimed, ‘I’m glad you said that,–it’s just the way I feel.’” **[Schaffer, p. 154, also quoting Groves in Now It Can be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (New York, 1962) p. 324.
So it was, with different historical particulars, with the vast aerial counter-thrust against Germany and Japan. There was a need not simply to stop the Tokyo and Berlin juggernauts, but also to avenge the losses of innocents in the paths of the aggressors and to avenge the humiliation of London and Washington for the Blitz against London, Coventry, Liverpool, and the smashing into Pearl Harbor, Manila, and British Hong Kong, Rangoon, and Kuala Lumpur.
British pilots over Dresden and Hamburg were well aware that those targets that were contributing to the war effort that had leveled sections of London, Manchester, and Belfast and equally as acutely, had necessitated the enlistment of many thousands of British and, later, American soldiers who were dying because of German bellicosity. American pilots and bombing crews flew mass sorties that lit up Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka, and two dozen other Japanese cities of size with the knowledge that the targets below had spawned the soldiery that had laid waste to Chinese and Philippine cities and, far more centrally, brought hundreds of thousands of American farmers, businessmen, workers, and budding professionals overwhelmingly under 30 years of age into the path of harm and death in the Pacific.
Because most accounts of bombing campaigns stress strategy, logistics, and statistical results: square mileage of flattened buildings, targets destroyed, civilians killed and injured, there is often not a clear way to gauge the extent to which the anger of leaders and the desire for revenge may shape these campaigns and their execution. The historian is forced to rely on anecdotal evidence: accounts of generals and politicians, memoirs of pilots and bombing crew-members, and– to a very limited extent– memoranda and journalistic pieces composed by players in the drama– in World War II men like Eisenhower, Arnold, Spaatz, Kuter, and even Roosevelt and Stimson. As with all of our motivation categories for the bombing of civilian areas, it would be valuable to have these sorts of recollections to leaven “the official record”. It would also be enlightening to compare these with memoirs of British, German and Japanese bombardiers. Anger does not always bottle and age well, however, and there is no guarantee the recollections would translate what went through the minds of theater commanders, mission weary pilots and worried White House and Pentagon occupants.
CONCLUSION: AND WAS IT WORTH IT?
Here we seek to pull together the strands of motivation to engage in what must surely rank as one of the most weighty and morally debatable human endeavors in history: the destruction of several dozen cities and 4 million or so civilian lives as part of the effort to subdue four adversaries: Germany Japan, Korea and Vietnam between 1942 and 1972. The distinguished British military historian, Gen. J.F.C. Fuller, in his The Second World War, writing of the July 1943 raid on Hamburg in particular, as part of a general discussion of the bombing of German cities said:
Eyewitnesses described how the holocaust was so terrible that the air was sucked into it from outside of the perimeter of the fire. Many were suffocated or shriveled up by the intense heat. Others were drowned on throwing themselves into the canals that ran through the city. Days later, when the nearby cellars were opened, thousands were found to have perished as if cooked in an oven….These appalling slaughterings, which would have disgraced Attila, were justified on the plea of military necessity– only military objectives were attacked. In Britain, there were vindicated by the Archbishop of York, because they would shorten the war and save many thousands of lives. **[Fuller, 238]
It is widely agreed that the cost of city-blitzing was extremely high. The debate rests on whether the strategic and national humanitarian objectives achieved (save American lives) were met (by the cost extended to others) and the surprisingly difficult and closely related question, for many, of whether the cost was too high. This inward debate played itself out early within the minds of the bomber crews themselves and those who advised them:
Airmen especially criticized the long and dangerous raids on Berlin. Typical complaints in a June 1944 survey were that the city is not a military target and bombed mainly for “headlines.” and “I don’t believe in spite bombing.” Almost three quarters of veteran flyers stated they occasionally or “quite often” had undergone missions “not worth the cost.” **[Crane, 38] and
One man was only able to keep his sanity by following his chaplain’s advice to “keep it impersonal and not to focus on what happened on the ground “He rationalized that he was doing his best to hit military targets, helping shorten the war and save lives in the long run. Yet he was still troubled throughout his tour by recurrent thoughts of an incident in which he had almost hit the city’s amphitheater with an errant bomb. [ibid.]
These perspectives, it must be emphasized, still represent a small sampling, a “minority report” of doubts set against an orthodox consensus that many of the life-saving, war-ending goals were met. Our thirteen ways of accounting for city-bombing can be collapsed into four broad areas: A. “Taking lives to save other lives” B. “Help defeat the enemy by psychological and physical means” C. “The results of anger, revenge, sometimes aggravated by racism and xenophobia, and
- “Collateral damage”: that is, civilian lives lost in spite of an attempt to avoid taking them while aiming at other targets. For true believers, such as Gen. Curtis LeMay, architect of bombing strategies for both the ending German and Japanese war strategies, B & C melted together seamlessly:
We were going after military targets. No point in slaughtering civilians for the mere sake of slaughter. Of course there is a pretty thin veneer in Japan, but the veneer was there. All you had to do was visit one of those targets after we’d roasted it, and see the ruins of a multitude of tiny houses, with a drill press sticking up through the wreckage of every home. The entire population got in the act and worked to make those airplanes or munitions of war…men, women, children. We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and children when we burned that town. Had to be done. [LeMay with McKinlay Kantor, Mission with LeMay, Garden City, Doubleday, 1965, p. 384]
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Crane, Conrad. Bombing, Cities, and Civilians, U. Kansas Press, 1993
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Fuller, J.F.C. . The Second World War, 1939-1945: Duell, Sloan and Pearce (NY), 1954
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