August 06, 2008

The anniversaries passed with little fanfare in America. No nation really likes to remember its crimes. Stories appeared about the bombings in the German and Japanese press—though both nations feel honor-bound to place them in the context of fascist atrocities which provoked them. But with a few exceptions, the American press has done little to remind us what Allied bombers wrought 60 years ago over the skies of Dresden and other German civilian targets, or over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


And of course, there’s no hint of repentance. We were engaged in total war. The war had been forced on us by aggressive, inhuman regimes, of whom we could only demand unconditional surrender. In the face of so many extremes, of governments which could rape Nanking and slaughter the Jews, to win we could rightly resort to the most extreme of means. There was a powerful inner logic driving us to exterminate all those civilians. And so we did it. And so we refuse to regret it. And so we plan to do it again.


The First Crusade, launched in 1096, began as a just war—every bit as warranted as America’s or Britain’s World War II. It was waged against an oppressive, aggressive Islam, which had enslaved half a dozen Christian nations. It ended with Crusaders slaughtering the unarmed Jews and Moslems of Jerusalem. That first V-J day was ugly, as ugly as the second. Because few media choose to remind us of them, we ought to recall for ourselves what happened, in just three cities out of the many bombed in the waning days of World War II. We must decide if, upon the next provocation, we wish to end another crusade with a righteous massacre.


We will have to make our decision soon. If security experts are right, we need not wonder if someday terrorists will pull off another 9/11, this time with greater firepower, setting off a dirty bomb or releasing anthrax on our shores. It’s a matter of where and when. And how we will respond.


Editors at National Review Online famously mused about whether we ought simply to “nuke Mecca.” Such toxic scorn is part of the lingering poison spread by our bombs, by our continued defense of what Churchill and Truman ordered in 1945. Conservative journalists, would not, I think, have quipped back and forth about whether to “level every building, gas all the schoolchildren, and incinerate all the old people and women” of Mecca. If it took the deployment of soldiers, to do over the course of weeks what the SS did to the Warsaw Ghetto, I don’t think journalists would joke about whether to order it. But the quick, decisive nature of a nuclear attack—it’s like putting an entire city inside a microwave—helps us ignore the blood-soaked realities. We can skip over the details of the slaughter, which we neatly hide in two bumper-sticker syllables: “Nuke ‘em!”


Let us remember, before we decide:


On Feb. 14, 1945—on Shrove Tuesday, as the children and parents of Dresden returned in their carnival costumes from the last festival before Lent—British bombers descended upon a city of no military significance, crowded with tens of thousands of civilian refugees who’d fled the onslaught of Russian armies to the East. (Those Russian armies, to avenge the real atrocities committed by the Germans, routinely raped and killed German women in their thousands as they conquered. Our air campaign was meant to speed their advance—thus ceding to Soviet control larger swathes of postwar Germany) Using incendiary bombs which ignited thousands of wooden buildings before sucking out all the oxygen to asphyxiate any survivors, the Anglo-American air forces created a self-sustaining ‘fire storm’ which sucked people into the blaze. In two days, as many as 35,000 people, nearly all unarmed civilians, were killed—a small portion of the 400,000 non-combatants who died during Allied bombings of Germany. Ash Wednesday dawned on a city of cinders.


By August, 1945, Imperial Japan was militarily helpless to do anything but resist a ground invasion of its home islands. Its fleet had been sunk, its air force shot from the sky, its armies evicted from their vast conquests. A nation which could not feed itself was cut off from all trade, and entirely surrounded by enemies.


American strategists, still smarting from the furious struggle of doomed Japanese on Okinawa, warned of the cost in American soldiers—some put estimates in the high six figures—should the Allies attempt to take the islands. Others wondered if such an invasion was even necessary, since their foe had neither fuel nor food. Still others—perhaps those with the ear of President Truman—thought it wise to showcase the new American weapon, developed at such great cost and in utter secrecy, to send a warning shot to a grasping, ambitious Stalin.


On August 6, 1945, a lone American plane entered the skies over Hiroshima—an industrial town of small military worth—and dropped a single bomb named “Little Boy” from a height of 2,000 feet. The atomic blast which resulted killed some 80,000 people almost instantly, and caused the deaths by radiation poisoning and other causes of some 60,000 before year’s end. Lingering illnesses would claim many more; according to the city of Hiroshima, the final death toll of the bombing was 237,062.


When the first bombing failed to provoke a Japanese surrender, a second was planned for August 9. After weather conditions forced pilots to skip the initial target city of Kokura, another lone American plane descended on the ancient capital of Japanese Christianity, Nagasaki, and again dropped a single bomb—this one named “Fat Man.” The military targets in the town—major factories—were indeed destroyed. So were 75,000 civilians that day; at least an equal number would die within the year.


It’s easy to lose sight of reality, when we’re dealing with such numbers. So let’s think of it this way: Every child who died from our bombs was as innocent as Anne Frank.


Our bombing accomplished its goal, forcing elements within the Japanese government to surrender, and warning the Soviets of America’s unmatched capacity for destruction—which they raced to equal and exceed, in the great quest for nuclear firepower which continues to this day. As former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara—an architect of our civilian bombing during World War II and one of our helmsmen in Vietnam—points out, the U.S. continues to target hundreds of cities, mostly in our strategic partner, Russia, with enough firepower to massacre more than 200 million people. Conversely, our Russian allies still target cities from New York to Los Angeles. The missiles would arrive within an hour. They can be launched on 15 minutes notice. Several times, they have nearly been launched by mistake. In 1962 they were nearly launched on purpose. There is no imaginable reason, apart from bureaucratic inertia or blind insanity, for Americans and Russians to be targeting each other this way. And yet we continue—as smaller nations scramble desperately to join the nuclear suicide club.


The roots of this premeditated, ritual mass slaughter lie back in the 1920s. As Military historian Williamson Murray explains in The Luftwaffe, 1933-45: Strategy for Defeat, generals shocked by the slow, pointless attrition of World War I, tried to imagine ways to break such future deadlocks. Deeply elitist, both fearful and contemptuous of their own nation’s working classes, these strategists decided that proletarians were not made of such strong stuff as soldiers; subjected to protracted assaults from the sky, they theorized, any populace would rise up and demand surrender. This theory was almost completely unsupported by the facts; the civilian rebellions in Germany, Russia, and Austria during World War I were not provoked by enemy firepower. But the theory won the day through much of Europe.


While most of Germany’s victories were accomplished through close air support of combat troops on the ground, Hitler threw resources into strategic bombing instead—leveling cities like Rotterdam and Warsaw, and trying to force a British surrender from the air. Thankfully, he failed—as this strategy failed on every front where it was tried. Civilians, it turned out, reacted surprisingly to bombs; they grew angry at the men who were dropping them. Their morale quickly rose instead of declining. Their war effort increased. The Allied bombing of Germany did not even succeed in crippling the German war machine, which moved its production underground. At best, Murray concludes, Allied bombing helped shorten the war by a few months—chiefly by forcing the Germans to use their T-88 guns for anti-aircraft instead of antitank warfare. The atomic bombs in Japan did not provoke an uprising—though they forced the government to surrender a few months sooner, and perhaps more completely, than a total blockade of the island might have done. Was this really worth the carnage?


Strategic bombing would continue to fail after World War II—in Vietnam, for instance. Likewise, brutal retaliations against rebellious citizens would fail to quell guerilla conflicts across the world—with a regularity that astonished its practitioners, who seemed to ask themselves, “We were completely and utterly ruthless, don’t we deserve to win?”


But the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II did succeed in just one area: They entirely shifted the focus of military planning. Instead of imagining how to achieve the greatest military effect with minimal harm to civilians—the supposed aim of war since St. Augustine wrote in the 5th century—generals began to plan instead how to preserve their military forces by threatening to obliterate whole cities. Looked at from the sanest perspective—that of the helpless citizens caught up in the frenzy of war—the duty of soldiers on both sides is to resolve the military decision at minimal cost in civilian life. By deciding to kill several hundred thousand Japanese citizens, in order to spare American troops, we reversed the logic of combat, making civilians hostages to the well-being of men under arms. This hellish inversion defined the Cold War—in which relatively few Soviet or American soldiers would die (save in conflicts like Korea), while the entire populations of both countries stood always an hour or so away from extermination.


It is not surprising that soldiers, who are only human, might come up with such a strategy. What’s shocking is that we civilians stood for it—and still do. We really should not be surprised when murderers directed or inspired by Osama bin Laden—from London to Madrid to Baghdad to Chechnya — adopt the same disregard for civilian life as the world’s nuclear powers have shown and continue to show in their nuclear policy. Of course, nothing justifies the butchery of citizens of any country by those who disapprove of its government’s policies—in peacetime or in war. That goes for New York City, where I live. It also went for Dresden, and Nagasaki.


So long as our missiles target cities, so long as we build more “city-buster” bombs to point at vanished enemies, our condemnations of “terror” will ring hollow. And the race to master the means of mass slaughter will go on.


This essay originally appeared August 6, 2005—the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima—at


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!