OMNI AIR WAR NEWSLETTER #2 COMPILED BY DICK BENNETT FOR A CULTURE OF PEACE, AUGUST 4, 2011
Here is the link to all OMNI newsletters:
Contents of #1
Dick’s Essay on US Violence and Air War
Contents of #2
Bombing Civilians in 20th Century
Bombing German and Japanese Cities WWII
Air War Against
21st Century: Drones
Tanaka, Juki and Marilyn Young. Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth Century History. New P, 2009. Rev. The Catholic Worker (August-Sept. 2010). Scholarly support to our moral outrage from historical, legal, political, and cultural experts.
“Bombing Civilians: An American Tradition” By Marilyn B. Young
Ms. Young is a professor of history at
Airpower embodies American technology at its most dashing. At regular intervals, the air force and allied technocrats claim that innovations in air technology herald an entirely new age of warfare. Korea and Vietnam were, so to speak, living laboratories for the development of new weapons: the 1,200-pound radio-guided Tarzon bomb (featured in Korean-era Movietone newsreels); white-phosphorous-enhanced napalm; cluster bombs (CBUs) carrying up to 700 bomblets, each bomblet containing 200 to 300 tiny steel balls or fiberglass fléchettes; delayed-fuse cluster bombs; airburst cluster bombs; toxic defoliants; varieties of nerve gas; sets of six B 52s, operating at altitudes too high to be heard on the ground, capable of delivering up to thirty tons of explosives each. A usual mission consisted of six planes in formation, which together could devastate an area one half mile wide by three miles long. Older technologies were retrofitted: slow cargo planes (“Puff the Magic Dragon”) equipped with rapid-fire machine guns capable of firing 6,000 rounds a minute; World War I– era Skyraiders, carrying bomb loads of 7,500 pounds and fitted with four 20-millimeter cannon that together fired over 2,000 rounds per minute.
The statistics stun; they also provide
distance. They are impossible to take in, as abstract as the planning
responsible for producing them. In
To the policy makers, air war is abstract. They listen attentively for a response to the messages they send and discuss the possibility that many more may have to be sent. For those who deliver the messages, who actually drop the bombs, air war can be either abstract (in a high-flying B-29 or B-52, for example) or concrete. Often it is a combination. Let me offer an example that combines the abstract with the concrete. During the Korean War, one pilot confided to a reporter that napalm had become the most valued of all the weapons at his disposal. “The first couple of times I went in on a napalm strike,” Federic Champlin told E.J. Kahn,
I had kind of an empty feeling. I thought afterward, Well, maybe I shouldn’t have done it. Maybe those people I set afire were innocent civilians. But you get conditioned, especially after you’ve hit what looks like a civilian and the A-frame on his back lights up like a Roman candle—a sure enough sign that he’s been carrying ammunition. Normally speaking, I have no qualms about my job. Besides, we don’t generally use napalm on people we can see. We use it on hill positions, or buildings. And one thing about napalm is that when you’ve hit a village and have seen it go up in flames, you know that you’ve accomplished something. Nothing makes a pilot feel worse than to work over an area and not see that he’s accomplished anything.
A “hill position,” a “building” (in
Years later, another pilot, flying a small
spotter plane to call in napalm strikes in
In addition to the bombs that were dropped
General Douglas MacArthur thought the
conditions were ripe in December 1950 and requested permission to drop a total
of thirty-four bombs on a variety of targets. “I would have dropped 30 or so atomic
bombs . . . strung across the neck of Manchuria,” he told an interviewer, and
“spread behind us—from the Sea of Japan to the
The cease-fire that ended the Korean War
followed a crescendo of bombing, which was then taken as proof that airpower
was as decisive in limited wars as it had been in total war. The cities and
towns of central and northern
Freda Kirchwey, in an essay for The Nation, tried to explain the general indifference of the American public to the destruction:
We were all hardened by the methods of
mass-slaughter practiced first by the Germans and Japanese and then, in
self-defense, adopted and developed to the pitch of perfection illustrated at
Kirchwey thought that this repression
explained the lack of protest “against the orgy of agony and destruction now in
For a force which subordinates everything
to the job of killing the enemy becomes an enemy itself. . . . And after a
while plain horror displaces a sense of righteousness even among the defenders
of righteousness, and thus the cause itself becomes hateful. This has happened
“The American mind,” Kirchwey was certain,
“mercurial and impulsive, tough and tender, is going to react against the
horrors of mechanized warfare in
The air force reached different
conclusions. In 1957, a collection of essays was published whose title declared
its thesis: Airpower: The Decisive Force in
In what turned out to be the final phase of
the talks, President Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons if the
Chinese did not sign a cease-fire agreement. It has become part of the
Eisenhower legend that this last threat broke the stalemate and, in
Eisenhower’s words, gave the
Whatever the air force learned from the
Korean War, what the politicians drew from it was more specific and could be
boiled down to one dictum: fight the war, but avoid Chinese intervention.
Unlike Freda Kirchwey, military and civilian policy makers (and, for that
matter, the majority of the American public) never, to my knowledge, questioned
the morality of either the ends or the means of fighting in
Copyright © 2009 by Marilyn B. Young. This excerpt originally appeared in Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History edited by Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.
INDISCRIMINATE BOMBING OF GERMAN AND JAPANESE CITIES WWII: WERE THEY WAR CRIMES?
Among the Dead Cities: The
History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in
This book is going to cause a good deal of annoyance, not least because its extremely sophisticated argument lends itself to being immediately misunderstood by those of a less liberal frame of mind. Grayling uses his fine philosopher's mind to examine the question of whether the western Allies committed "war crimes" in their area bombing campaigns during the second world war. That he thinks the answer to this question should be in the affirmative is what will lead to a good deal of huffing and puffing. Those historians who have written about Bomber Command will object to his moral judgment; others will object simply to the way his mind works; still others will rail against the concept of applying such moral judgments to something designed to stop Hitler. All such readers would be well advised to take a deep breath and count to 10; after that they should proceed to chapter seven, where they will find that Grayling has anticipated all their arguments (save the most bone-headed). If they read him with the care he deserves, they will find that his critique is directed against the concept of area bombing, not against the idea of bombing itself.
Grayling outlines his argument carefully, and its obvious contemporary relevance gives this book a timeliness to add to the timeless nature of the debate to which it contributes. It might be objected that all he does is prove that by 21st-century standards those who dictated our bombing policy in the last world war were war criminals; that would be to simplify things to the point of misrepresentation. As Churchill himself recognised, once one begins to use concepts such as "war crimes", all war leaders stand in danger of condemnation; if that makes our leaders rather more careful in future, it is no bad thing. The modern international laws of war, whose origins Grayling details in chapter six, owe those origins, at least in part, to the horrors depicted here; this is not a book for the squeamish.
Grayling is not deaf to the argument that war justifies whatever means might be necessary to win it most effectively, but he shows that even this cannot be deployed to condone barbarism - especially when this makes it more difficult to win the war. He shows, convincingly, that area bombing may have lowered the western governments to the level of the Nazis but did not speed up the Allied victory. German morale was not broken, nor was its ability to carry on the war much impeded. Targeted bombing campaigns might have been just as effective in military terms, and would not have carried the moral stigma of area bombing; much the same argument is used to combat the idea that area bombing pulled German war matériel away from the eastern front. It might seem pertinent to ask whether Allied bombing techniques were advanced enough in the 1940s to allow precision strikes, and even here, as recent events have shown, civilian casualties cannot be avoided.
The bigger question lurking in this provocative and readable study is how far civilised powers should go in waging war. For pacifists the question has an obvious answer, but for those engaged with the Hobbesian struggle that is international relations, other answers have to be found. The claim to be fighting for civilisation is one that is hard to deny to Churchill and company; a victory for Hitler would indeed have signalled a "new Dark Age". But it does no one any favours to overlook the crimes committed in pursuit of that victory. Allied leaders themselves had earlier rejected the concept of mass area bombing and, on the evidence offered here, they were right to do so; it was militarily ineffective and morally repugnant; two wrongs do not make a right.
This book has a clear
moral purpose. Only by acknowledging where mistakes were made in the past can
we avoid making them in the future. Perhaps Grayling's tone is, at times, too
much of that of the detached moral philosopher, and he is bound to find
reviewers asking him what he would have done at the time; but that is the
purpose of his book, to provoke our leaders, and those on whose behalf they
purport to act, to ask how to wage a war by methods short of barbarism.
Although Grayling does not cite him, he might like to be reminded of the
comment of that unjustly forgotten Liberal leader, Sir Henry
Campbell-Bannerman, who, when confronted with evidence of the British use of
concentration camps in the Boer war asked: "When is a war not a just war?
When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in
· John Charmley is
professor of modern history at the