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When in war, why bomb the innocent?

Historians argue that bombing civilians is a tragic and virtually ineffective strategy

by Jeff Kingston

How one feels about what one is reading can differ depending on where and when. Reading these essays while boarding a flight from Tokyo, transiting Hanoi and then arriving in Laos — all places that have been subjected to extensive U.S. bombing — is to feel the long arm of history tug at one’s conscience.

BOMBING CIVILIANS: A Twentieth Century History. Edited by Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn Young. New York: The New Press, 2009, 291 pp. $30 (cloth)

Some monks I met in Luang Prabang (Laos) recounted a recent journey to the Plain of Jars, a World Heritage sight. They said there are carefully marked paths with signs warning not to wander off because of unexploded ordnance in the area — cluster bombs dropped by the United States on a neutral country in a secret war that never happened. Estimates suggest that this insidious legacy of the bombings, which ended in the 1970s, has resulted in more than 20,000 Laotian casualties including many maimed children.

Rather than accusing, seeking vengeance or accountability, the monks calmly praised the very limited mine clearing efforts of U.S. veterans. They said they don’t feel anger; it was all a long time ago and would be of little importance if not for the continuing dangers.

This unsought absolution stirs a sense of incredulity about why the U.S. government has done so little to help a desperately poor country that it dragged into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War. This malign neglect also extends to Vietnam, where people continue to suffer from the dioxin residue left behind by extensive spraying of Agent Orange during the war.

Mark Selden argues that the U.S. has much to answer for in the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Japan. We learn that Japan crossed that bridge itself in 1932 with the bombing of Shanghai, and Tetsuo Maeda details Japan’s bombing campaign against Congquing’s civilians from 1938.

Selden and colleagues are not out to exonerate the Japanese or privilege their suffering over what they inflicted on others. He is reminding us, though, that the U.S. systematically firebombed and gutted 66 Japanese cities in 1945 under flimsy excuses that these were primarily military targets.

The intention, however, was not solely a matter of zapping Japan’s factories and infrastructure. This aerial terror amounted to vengeance, payback for Pearl Harbor and mistreatment of prisoners of war, and was intended to inflict as much suffering on the civilian populace as possible.

However much this campaign of “terror bombing” disrupted life and demoralized the people, Japan’s military leaders were undaunted as they persisted in gambling on a decisive battle. For this, there was a price to be paid and, as in most modern conflicts, civilians paid the highest price. The firebombing of Tokyo alone killed an estimated 100,000 people. The total firebombing tally is roughly 300,000 plus 400,000 wounded (these figures exclude Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

Selden reminds us that the comforting dominant narrative of the Good War (aka World War II) averts our eyes from the grim realities of these crimes against humanity and the ongoing evasion of accountability.

Selden believes the failure to hold the victors accountable for crimes is crucial to understanding why “Mass murder of civilians has been central to all subsequent U.S. wars.” He concludes that “the pre-eminence of strategic bombing as quintessential to the American way of war” persists even though it has not been effective.

Marilyn Young’s essay explores the fallacy that bombing of civilians is effective, a mistaken assumption that has led to horrific humanitarian consequences for little strategic gain.

Yuki Tanaka traces the early history of aerial bombing of civilians from World War I. In the aftermath, the battered British found such bombing an economical way to maintain imperial interests. The first campaign was against Afghanistan in 1919 followed by Somaliland and then far more extensively in Iraq during the 1920s and 1930s.

In Iraq, civilian casualties were high and intentional as part of a campaign to demoralize the population. The British, and subsequently the Italians in Ethiopia, were explicitly racist in justifying indiscriminate bombing of those they viewed as “uncivilized,” while this is implicit among contemporary avatars. The efficacy of this strategy remained unquestioned even though the results were decidedly mixed.

Tsuyoshi Hasegawa asks whether the atomic bombings were justified and were the key to Japan’s surrender; he gives an unequivocal no on both counts. He argues that Truman used the atomic bomb in an effort to secure Japan’s surrender before Stalin could enter the war and impose a joint occupation.

In his view, the decision to surrender was not due mainly to the atomic bombings, but rather to the Soviet entry into the war as well as concerns about preservation of the monarchy.

This rich collection of essays makes a cogent case for reassessing the effectiveness of air campaigns and how power influences accountability. How can the international community hold any country accountable if the worst perpetrators get immunity?

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.