Hiroshima and Mass Terror Bombing 1942-45
[We have just commemorated the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This older essay attempts to place Hiroshima and Nagasaki within the bigger historical context of Allied mass terror bombing, a war crime, in World War 2. In the victors’ countries like the US, Britain and here in Australia the war crime order-givers and the bomber pilots are commemorated as heroes. The image is from Nagasaki 1945. Despite all the complexity of all social issues like war, in the end there will be no more wars when people begin to really understand why there are wars, who manipulates for and profits from them and who the victims are on all sides, how all wars dehumanise, bestialise and traumatise, then simply refuse to fight them. WordPress again won’t allow my copious endnotes.]
Mass Terror Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan 1942-45
The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended, is prohibited.
– Article 25 of the Hague Convention of 1907
One of the most essential principles of civilized warfare involves the distinction between the peaceful civilian and the military and the prohibition of deliberate attack on the former. If this distinction is obliterated, warfare must inevitably degenerate into barbarity. Yet, the practice of air bombardment in World War II eroded this principle.
– ‘War, Laws of’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15 edn., vol. 19, p. 541 .
Was there a rule to say you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death one hundred thousand civilians in a single night?
– ex-US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the film The Fog of War (2004)
Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans.
Spare their women for Thy sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
– from John Betjeman, In Westminster Abbey
But to whom could you express such doubts? Raids on our cities helped to still the small voice of conscience but it worries me still to this day. Had the Germans won the war, should we or ought we to have been tried as war criminals? If we believed it morally wrong, should we have spoken out to our squadron commanders and refused to participate? What would have been the results? Court martial! It would have needed much more courage to have spoken out on this matter than the mere fact of continuing to fly on operations.
– A Pathfinder navigator of the Second World War
What does it matter to the widows, the orphans, the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought in the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?
– Gandhi (cited in Nikki van der Gaag, ‘Iraq- The pride and the pain’, New Internationalist
316, Sept 1999, p. 9)
On the first day of the Second World War in September 1939, US President Roosevelt appealed to the warring nations that ‘under no circumstances [to] undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities.’ The following year, in the course of its openly imperialist attacks, Hitler’s Nazi regime first unleashed terror bombing campaigns against civilian targets in cities like Warsaw, Rotterdam, Belgrade, Coventry, London, Stalingrad. Hitler also planned the complete annihilation of Moscow and Leningrad, the genocidal eradication of Poland and the Ukraine, the forced expatriation or killing of thirty one million people in Western Russia, home of my paternal ancestors. Total civilian deaths resulting from the German Blitzkrieg on Britain in 1940/41 were about 66,000; 4.1 million houses were destroyed. President Roosevelt quite accurately described the Blitzkrieg on British cities as ‘inhuman barbarism.’ The urgent question then was how democratic regimes would respond to the fascist barbarism of indiscriminate terror bombing of civilians.
Beyond all the ‘just cause’ and ‘just war’ rationalizations given to this day, and in solidarity with the point of view of the innocent victims that this essay is based on, the democratic response was also: equally ‘inhuman barbarism’. It was a complete reproduction of fascist means and principles. It was (and still is), however, known as ‘area’ or ‘strategic bombing’, an obfuscating linguistic euphemism like ‘collateral damage’ that is meant to effectively ‘disappear’ the civilian victims.
The allied bombing campaign on Germany during the second world war – directed on the British side by Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris – involved the Royal Air Force alone dropping a million tons of bombs on enemy territory, attacks on 131 cities and towns, the destruction of 3.5 million homes, 7.5 million left homeless and the deaths of about 600, 000 civilians. Of these 600,000 (mostly women or the elderly) about 80,000 were children.
In February 1942 Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet sanctioned a mass bombing campaign that was openly and officially intended ‘to destroy the morale of the enemy civilian population and, in particular, of the industrial workers.’ According to Philip Knightley, this decision
abandoned the accepted practice of attacking the enemy’s armed forces and, instead, made civilians the primary target. Night after night, RAF bombers in ever-increasing numbers struck throughout Germany, usually at working-class housing, because it was more densely packed.
The RAF was joined by US bombers from 1943 onwards. Even when deployed against whole cities (not military targets), only 20% of US bombs dropped during the war actually fell on designated areas. While terror bombing German civilians was in fact British War Cabinet policy, throughout the war, it was always officially claimed (and of course never contradicted by patriotic Allied correspondents) that only military targets were being bombed and German or neutral correspondents’ reports to the contrary were dismissed as propaganda in Britain and the US.
Lübeck, an old cultural city of no military importance, became the first target of Harris’ new ‘area bombing’ strategy. Many other German towns and cities like Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt and Hamburg were then subjected to mass bombing onslaughts. The Most Secret Operation Order No. 173 of May 27, 1943, stated under the heading of ‘Intention’ that the aim of the bombing raid was ‘to destroy Hamburg’ and estimated, in language strongly reminiscent of National Socialist usage, that 10,000 tons of bombs would be needed to ‘complete the process of elimination’: the raid in July 1943 in fact successfully created warfare’s first artificial firestorm that, in a single night, ‘eliminated’ 45,000 people by burning them alive.
However, it is Dresden that has, rightly or wrongly, long been the symbol of this policy of massive civilian killing by means of conventional aerial bombing. On February 13, 1945, the war almost over, the RAF dropped three-quarters of a million incendiary bombs on the city crowded with refugees from the Soviet advance. There were no ammunition factories or military facilities and the marshalling yards were not even attacked. ‘The aiming-point issued to Bomber Command crews was not the railway yards, but a stadium close to the city centre.’ The bombs created a fire storm in which winds approaching 100 miles an hour swept people into a fire centre where the temperature exceeded 1,000 degrees centigrade. Casualty figures have long been controversial. Knightley reports the long generally accepted figures of between 100,000 and 130,000 people being burnt alive or suffocated. More recent research by Dresden academics puts the figure considerably lower at around 25,000.
What is not disputed is the overwhelming ferocity of the attack, the fact that the city was a helpless target, that there were hardly any bunkers for the population and that the next day US planes returned to – in the great tradition of the ‘turkey shoot’ (cf. such US practices in the Vietnam and Iraq wars) ‒ ‘machine-gun survivors as they struggled to the banks of the Elbe’. As with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of the main motives for the bombing of Dresden was to also ‘show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do’ (from the briefing note to Bomber Command squadrons detailed for the attack on Dresden).
According to one source, the first US fire bombing of Tokyo on 9-10 March 1945 roasted more than 80,000 people alive, made 1,000,000 homeless and destroyed about 25% of the city in a single night. According to another source, this raid killed at least 200,000 people. 334 B-29 bombers dropped almost half a million incendiary bombs containing jellied petroleum, a prototype of the napalm later so notoriously used in Vietnam, a substance that stuck to everything and turned water into fire. The horrific fire storm moved at 30m/second, canals boiled, metal melted and people burst into flames and became living torches.
The commander of the operation General Curtis LeMay, who at the time had said he wanted Tokyo ‘burned down, wiped right off the map’ in order to ‘shorten the war’, afterwards also boasted ‘we scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of 9-10 March than went up in vapour in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.’ He later also laconically expressed considerable insight into the true nature of his actions: ‘I suppose if we had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side’. The US Strategic Bombing Survey itself concluded
Probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period that at any time in the history of man. People died from extreme heat, from oxygen deficiency, from carbon monoxide asphyxiation, from being trampled beneath the feet of stampeding crowds, and from drowning. The largest numbers of victims were the most vulnerable: women, children and the elderly.
Similar fire bombing raids were conducted on Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Yokohama, Toyama and about 60 other Japanese cities, leaving a total (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) of about 672,000 incinerated civilians (most of them of course women and children) and 10,000,000 homeless.
On August 6, 1945, a US B-29 bomber, touchingly named ‘Enola Gay’ after the pilot’s mother, dropped the first atomic bomb (equally touchingly named ‘Little Boy’ ) on Hiroshima. According to one source, between 70,000 and 80,000 were killed instantly, more than 70,000 others injured and 11 square kilometres of the city completely destroyed. According to another source, 130,000 to 140,000 died in the first four months in Hiroshima. Hiroshima, a city of almost 400,000, was of no great military significance. A second bomb (named ‘Fat Man’ possibly to obscenely complete the unconscious Oedipal triad begun with ‘Enola Gay’ and ‘Little Boy’), testing an alternative plutonium-based device, was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. This directly killed between 35,000 and 40,000 people, injured a like number and devastated 4.7 square kilometres of the city. (Four months later, gain due to radiation sickness, the figures were again 60,000 to 70,000 dead in Nagasaki).
In 1955, 10 years after the bombing, the city of Hiroshima published the number of victims as being 260 000, but also included the number of missing persons as being 163, 293, which lets one conservatively assume the number of nuclear victims in Hiroshima as being around 300,000. Dr Rosalie Bertell’s estimate of Hiroshima-Nagasaki victims is 322,000, a figure which includes cancer victims and 1,000 to 21,600 genetically damaged offspring each generation until death of the family line.
Forty years later in the mid-eighties there were nearly 400,000 ‘hibakusha’ (nuclear victims) in Japan suffering from the delayed after-effects of radiation, scarring, disfigurement, recurring illnesses, survivor-guilt, prejudice and discrimination in finding jobs or marriage partners. They are still unsuccessfully demanding that the US government admit “that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were against all humanity and a violation of international law under the terms of the Hague Convention.”
The official reason given (both at the time by President Truman and still today) for the mass nuclear killing and maiming of civilians in Japan has been that it saved US lives by shortening the war. Accepting this reason for the moment, it would seem to be a fine display of Machiavellian (or Jesuit, fascist or Leninist-Stalinist) ethics. The means, hundreds of thousands of dead or maimed and terrorised civilians (who in this case also of course happen to be of another race, as well as being mostly women and children), are said to justify the purported laudable ends. The Hague convention and international law count for nothing, the standards laudably developed at the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials of Axis war criminals count for nothing in regard to one’s own crimes.
Moreover, the official reasons given may also not be the true reasons. Other, less ‘benign’, reasons also posited for these war crimes and crimes against humanity have been (a) to demonstrate, as the first warning shot in the Cold War, superior power to the imperial rival the USSR which was about to enter the war on Japan and/or (b) to study the effects of these new weapons on human guinea pigs (of another race). US scientists did in fact monopolise the radiation research studies on the victims by closing down the research sections of the Japanese hospitals but leaving the actual treatment of the survivors, of no interest to them, to Japanese doctors. Over a thousand victims’ bodies were flown to the US for autopsies and relatives could not bury them in Japan; US research was not made public at the time and when US archives were partly made public in 1977, survivors’ organisations had to actually buy back the information.
In US historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford’s view, as disconcerting an amoral continuity can be discerned between ‘conventionally’ destroyed Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and atomically destroyed Hiroshima, Nagasaki, as there can between fascist and democratic governments’ commitments to exterminating civilians:
But the facts are now clear: the preparation for this misuse of power preceded the explosion of the first atomic bomb. Well before the first atom bomb was tested, the American Air Force had adopted the hitherto ‘unthinkable’ practice of the wholesale, indiscriminate bombing of concentrated civilian populations: this paralleled, except for distance from the victims, the practices employed by Hitler’s sub-men in extermination camps like Buchenwald and Auschwitz. (…) Thus the descent to total demoralization and extermination was neatly plotted well before the supposedly ‘ultimate’ weapon, the atom bomb, was invented.
We also know that Churchill, in a secret memorandum dated 6 July 1944, and in language and mind set identical to Hitler’s, contemplated the following:
It may be several weeks or even months before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas, and if we do it, let us do it one hundred percent. In the meanwhile, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here and there.
Using a disease metaphor, Mumford sees the willingness of such democratic, ‘civilized’ men to practice obliteration bombing as an expression of the transferal (‘like cancer cells’) of fascist moral nihilism and disintegration into ‘the sound tissues of democracy’. Whether those democratic ‘tissues’ were as sound as Mumford maintains, is of course highly questionable. Sadly, the ‘transferal’ of fascist moral nihilism was not restricted to the old racist imperialists like Churchill and governmental and military order-givers like Truman. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki a Fortune Magazine poll found that a slim majority, 53%, of the US population ‘believe that we should have used this secret weapon in exactly the way we did’, while ‘a majority of all sexes, all age groups, and people in every part of the country subscribed to this feeling of satisfaction over our use of the atomic bomb.’
If this poll reflects true public opinion (and it still may very well be the prevalent popular opinion today), it would seem to at least raise uncomfortable questions of democratic majorities and minorities and of ‘collective guilt’ quite as incisively as those raised in regard to German collective guilt for the Nazi regime and its crimes, especially that of the Holocaust. Whether there is, or should be, such a thing as ‘collective guilt’ and if so, how much knowledge, blind collusion or outright support should define it, have been very controversial issues in the German case. To raise the same issue with regard to explicit democratic support for the terror bombing of German and Japanese civilians is of course based on an implicit moral premise that in itself cannot be ‘proven’ but only shared or rejected. This premise is that there can – whatever the historical situation or barbarities of the enemy regime ‒ never be such a thing as a ‘democratic mandate’ for the barbarity of obliteration bombing, crimes against humanity and the massacre of innocents, torture or genocide without destroying the very meaning of ‘democracy’, indeed of civilization, itself.
On this ethical assumption, ‘democratic barbarism’, ‘democratic terror’, ‘democratic torture’, ‘democratic area bombing’ or ‘democratic genocide’ can never be anything but absurd self-contradictions and Orwellian oxymorons. A corollary assumption is that there can never be any double standards with regard to the abuse of human rights without destroying the very meaning of those rights: the perpetrators are to be condemned, and brought to justice, as perpetrators and war criminals no matter what their nationalities, political allegiances, intentions or rationalizations.
If these basic moral premises (which also ground international law) are accepted, then it would seem difficult to refute Mumford when he maintains that ‘As with the Nazis, our lack of a sense of guilt was almost as great as the sin itself.’
However it should never be forgotten that significant minorities of people in democracies have, even in wartime, shared the moral assumptions outlined above and have thus refused to accept the double standards of their leaders and polled majorities. Even in 1943 a resident of one of London’s most heavily bombed areas could ask
Why is it that so many religious leaders, politicians and journalists, who denounced German barbarism during the heavy raids on this country, now either applaud such methods when they are adopted in intensified form by the Allies, or acquiesce by their silence?
British philosopher A.C. Grayling sums up the moral and human rights perspective on Allied ‘area bombing’ in the following way:
Was area bombing necessary? No.
Was it proportional? No.
Was it against the humanitarian principles that people have been striving to enunciate as a way of controlling and limiting war? Yes.
Was it against general moral standards of the kind recognised and agreed in Western civilisation in the last five centuries, or even 2,000 years? Yes.
Was it against what mature national laws provide in the way of outlawing murder, bodily harm, and destruction of property? Yes.
In short and in sum: was area bombing wrong? Yes.
Very wrong? Yes.
Total Civilian Deaths from Mass Bombing (Germany/Japan): 1,272,000
~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on August 10, 2015.
Posted in history, nuclear power, social change
Tags: area bombing world war 2, Bomber Harris, Churchill, collective guilt, democratic barbarism, Dresden bombing, General Le May, Hiroshima, mass terror bombing, Nagasaki, strategic bombing world war 2, Tokyo bombing, war crimes world war 2