Sad to say, every generation for the past century has known its own war — wars that have touched so many millions through the loss or traumatization of relatives, friends or fellow citizens.
“My war” was America’s in Indo-China, centered on Vietnam. Abhorrence of what my country, the United States, was doing to the region caused me, and many in my generation, to choose the life of an expatriate.
But it wasn’t until years later that I came to realize exactly how masterly criminal the prosecution of that war was. I didn’t know that Laos, for instance, is the country on which more bombs were dropped per capita than on any other in history. Between 1964 and 1973, 90 million cluster bomblets were rained on Laos in approximately 500,000 missions. Up to a third of those didn’t detonate; and, as a result, there are now about 25 million of them lying around in that country unexploded.
Some 12,000 Laotians have become casualties of these weapons since 1973. Full clearance of these little bombs is expected to be achieved by 2099.
As for Vietnam, it is estimated that 3 million people have suffered genetically from the effects of U.S. chemical- warfare attacks with the herbicide known as Agent Orange. This includes some 500,000 children born with birth defects.
This was all brought back to me when reading a new book, “Bombing Civilians,” published this year by The New Press of New York. Edited by Yuki Tanaka, a research professor at Hiroshima Peace Institute, and Marilyn Young, professor of history at New York University, the book comprises a compilation of lucidly written and deeply insightful essays about the brutality of aerial bombing in the wars of the past century.
Though a conference in The Hague in 1923 on “Rules of Aerial Warfare” denounced as unlawful “aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, or destroying or damaging private property not of a military character, or of injuring non-combatants,” some countries, led by Britain, Japan, Germany, the U.S. and Israel, have flaunted the conference’s precepts and used aerial bombardment specifically as a vehicle of terror.
Imagine scores of 9/11s happening in neighborhoods in your city, caused by an enemy you can neither see nor hear.
I recall clearly the justification provided to us by our leaders during the Vietnam War. The enemy, they claimed, was ruthless and “primitive,” killing and maiming our foot soldiers with booby traps made of sharpened bamboo as they walked through the jungle.
We Americans were more humane: We used sophisticated weapons; we never had to face our enemy far down below; our bombing was accurate, liquidating only those who would do us harm. Collateral damage was an accident, eliciting a terse apology at best. We were saving lives by killing tens of thousands of people!
The argument deployed by all nations that have used the shock and awe of aerial bombardment is that it weakens the resolve of enemy civilians on the ground. They are so demoralized that they beg their government to sue for peace.
As “Bombing Civilians” shows in every chapter, this has never been the case. If anything, civilians are brought together by terror bombing, their resolve reinforced.
The citizens of Chongqing; victims of Japan’s area bombardment of their city; or people in Coventry, which received the brunt of a massive Luftwaffe attack in November 1940; or those in Tokyo in March 1945, when more than 100,000 people lost their lives in a single night; or of Hanoi . . . none of these populations were cowed by the terror that befell them from the sky.
The British were early and ardent exponents of such terror. Sir Arthur “Bomber” (or, to his own men, “Butcher”) Harris masterminded the air attacks on civilians in Iraq in 1924, but outdid even himself with the destruction of most of Dresden 20 years later, killing up to 40,000 civilians, many of them refugees. (In 1992, the late Queen Mother unveiled a statue of Bomber Harris, who is still considered by many in Britain a hero.)
Curtis LeMay, father of U.S. carpet bombing in Japan, exhibits all the elements of a war criminal, save for the critical one: He was on the winning side.
Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime leader, was a keen advocate of showering fire from the air, as was his contemporary, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, a convert who had initially been opposed to it on humanitarian grounds.
In our own day this century, the same arguments in favor of aerial warfare have been proferred by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. Like many of their predecessors, it is the desire for revenge above all that motivated them to decimate the populations in their bomb sights. As “Bombing Civilians” shows in every chapter, aerial bombardment certainly maims and kills; but as a weapon of war, it is ineffective and often counterproductive.
In one of the book’s chapters titled “Were the Atomic Bombings Justified?, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, points out that the “moral high ground [of not allowing American aerial bombardment to take place] began to erode when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.” The thirst for revenge had to be quenched, as it was in the case of 9/11 by the erratic terror unleashed by the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hasegawa goes on to explain persuasively that even the use of two atomic bombs was not responsible for ending World War II, rather it was Japan’s fear of a Soviet invasion of Hokkaido that forced its militarists to lay down the sword.
In “Bombing Civilians,” Mark Selden, a research associate at Cornell University in New York, describes America’s use of bombardment from Japan to Iraq in the chapter titled “A Forgotten Holocaust.”
“Throughout the spring and summer of 1945,” writes Selden, “the air war in Japan reached an intensity that is still perhaps unrivaled in the magnitude of human slaughter.” He refers to this as a policy of “state terrorism.”
“Bombing Civilians” is a book for our times par excellence. It brings home — right into the living room — the truth that we have learned nothing from our own displays of colossal cruelty.
The words of Justice Robert Jackson, chief counsel for the U.S. at the Nuremberg Trials, encapsulate an ideal. Would that they would also be truly prophetic . . .
“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow.”
When, if ever, I wonder, will that tomorrow come?