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Tami Biddle on: Strategic Bombing
Q: What about the moral issues? How can you think about strategic bombing in moral terms?

TB: I think what one has to do is look at the progression of strategic bombing and the use of bombs on cities over time, really starting in 1915 with the Zeppelin raids that are waged against Great Britain, and to see it as a progression that moves along almost with its own logic and its own force. And no one is ever really able to wrestle it to the ground and to put boundaries around it. There are attempts made. In 1922 there is a conference held to sort of establish rules for aerial bombardment, to basically put things out of bounds, put civilians out of bounds at some level. And it doesn't really go anywhere, it's not ratified by any state. Then in the 1930s, the early

1930s, there is an attempt to ban bombers. And there is a great amount of effort dedicated to this thought, there are great hopes that this might be possible, and yet it proves not to be possible in the end. There are too many problems. It is too easy to convert civilian aircraft to bombers if you really want to, so on and so forth. So there is no progress made in kind of getting a hold on this. And even though populations looking ahead to future wars are very desperately concerned about the impact of aerial bombardment, particularly on cities and urban populations, there is this sense that it is somehow beyond our control. We must do everything we can to insure that it doesn't happen and that it doesn't spin any further out of control than it did in World War I. And yet the dynamic of the war with Nazi attacks on Warsaw and then Rotterdam and then the Blitz in 1940 -- the gloves come off in a sense. So, that is the phrase that was used at the time. Even though there have been pledges by states prior to the war that they wouldn't go after cities or non-military targets. The gloves came off and suddenly everything became possible. And even though people looked at this and went into it I think reluctantly at least from the allied side, there was a sense that we have to do what we have to do at that time. And the problem that the British faced in 1940, 1941 was that they really didn't have any other means by which to wage an offensive against the Nazi state and they felt it very important to wage some kind of offensive against the Nazis in that time period. And this was their only instrument. And yet it was an incredibly blunt instrument. Far more blunt than they had anticipated it would be. They did a study in the summer of 1941 based on photo reconnaissance and they determined exactly how accurate their bombing was. And it was really a rude shock. They found that only about one in five of their bombers was getting within five miles of target. Which really meant that if you were going to pursue strategic bombing in any form, then it was going to have to be against targets you could find and hit. And what that meant in 1941, 1942 for the British were cities. And they justified it by saying to themselves, well, look at what Hitler has done. And we have to respond. We have to wage some kind of an offensive. We don't have an army that is large enough to contemplate using it against the Wehrmacht at this point in the war, so what can we do about this terrible catastrophe that is occurring in Europe? Well, the one thing that we can do is to use the resources that we have, our navy to blockade to cut off shipping and supplies, and strategic bombers to not only cause physical destruction, but to cause a deterioration of the German will to fight. And so this is how it was justified at the time. So it was a process whereby people kind of were pulled in the direction that they didn't really want to go in, but found themselves there anyway. The debates in Britain during the war are fairly limited. There are certainly some critics of strategic bombing at the time, the Bishop of Chichester for instance and others made very vocal and pointed critiques of British policy. And Churchill was always nervous about public reaction and the possibility that the British public would become unhappy about the nature of British strategic bombing. He was always edgy about that. And yet he felt again that he had to go on and do what was open to him, what was possible with the British at that time. When the Americans came into the war they came in with the idea that they were going to do selected targeting of military installations and military targets that were critical or almost key nodes identifiable key nodes in the German war economy. This was a theory that had been developed in the 1930s, actually, if you want to trace its roots, you can go all the way back to the British air staff in 1917-1918. But the Americans had liked this idea and they developed it further in the 1930's. So they came into the war very optimistic about the possibilities for precision bombing and bombing of selected military targets that would enable them to pretty much sidestep all of the moral issues about bombing cities. And this was the theory that they tried to implement. The problem was that they really didn't have the technological means to do it early in the war. And of course anyone who has been in northern Europe for any period of time knows what the weather is like. It is very cloudy. And so, if you are trying to use bomb sights that rely on visual processes, you are in trouble in a hurry. Because most of the time you are bombing through at least 5/10ths cloud and probably more. And this meant that this American hope for quote-unquote precision bombing was really frustrated by European weather, repeatedly. So the heads of the Air Force basically had to back away to some extent from their own theory and say, okay, we've got to start doing what is essentially a kind of area bombing in order to make some headway. By this time it was the end of 1943 and they're getting frustrated about the fact that strategic bombing with all of its great promise, pre-war promise about what it might be able to do in the war, had really not made much of an impact and the Wehrmacht was rolling along and the German war economy was continuing to expand and people were getting increasingly frustrated. So really in Europe the Americans began to do a kind of area bombing. It was not played up by any means in the press. And in fact after the war the Americans continued to argue that certainly their intent was selected precision targeting. And the fact that we weren't doing it a great deal of the time was not emphasized. Obviously, the Air Force had no incentive to emphasize that. But the reality was that if you were living in Europe, if you were in Germany in 1943, '44, '45, the difference between British bombers and American bombers wasn't very great to you. The raids that were being waged were indiscriminate raids by both air forces much of the time. It has been argued that the British bombed area targets with precision and the Americans did area bombing of precision targets.

As far as the situation in Japan goes, it is clear that the Americans did change strategy. They changed strategy in Europe but never completely admitted that they were doing so. In Japan it was more of a clear break. It simply proved impossible to do effective military targeting in Japan for two reasons. First, the cloud cover was even worse than it was in Europe. And second, the winds, the jet stream winds over Japan, made it impossible for bombers to hold formation at altitude. Which meant that they were getting blown all over the sky and they couldn't execute bombing in the way that they had done in Europe. Hap Arnold was getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in the Japanese theater. He was anxious for the B-29 to have an impact on the war, he was anxious for the Air Force to make a contribution to the end of the war, and here was a perfect opportunity. And yet very little was happening in terms of being able to erode the Japanese capacity or will to fight. So he brought in a new commander, Curtis LeMay, and I think LeMay understood from the beginning that he was being brought in to find a way to make strategic bombing work in Japan. And this, I mean, he was authorized from the top level. So I think FDR understood this full well, too. And he came up with a new strategy which was to take the armament off of his B-29s and to fly them at night at low level against cities. Cities in Japan obviously are made mostly of wood and they would burn. So the mix of bombs in the bomb bay was now considerably, more heavily weighted towards incendiary bombs, and the purpose was to basically burn these cities. That gets at the industry, it gets at the industrial capacity of Japan. What it also does obviously is to take a huge toll on the Japanese civilian population. I think the attitude of the Air Force was, it's unfortunate that there are all of these people in cities. And in order to get at the industry we are going to have lots of collateral casualties and that's too bad. But we have to do what we have to do. Again, it came back to this is kind of military necessity and what we are doing here is trading off this against a future invasion. If we can make this work, if we can bring about the end of the war in this way, we will head off the terrible bloody invasion that we've been looking at down the road, and the involvement of the Japanese civilian population in any kind of a war that would ensue following invasion. So I think again the people cope with the moral question by saying we have to do this. We don't have any other choice. And yet that is very problematic and that is very troubling, especially for those of us who are looking back on it with the advantages, admittedly, of hindsight and thinking, well, maybe there were choices that you didn't look at seriously enough. Or maybe this wasn't the best way to go about it. The problem with war is that once you have opened up that Pandora's box you are in a situation that does take on its own dynamic, it does take on its own ethical discourse. And it becomes very often quite far removed from the way that you had envisioned waging a war before you got into it.

Q: ...it reminded me of a quote from your book, actually, talking about ideas from a century ago about projected capabilities of aerial attacks and "English-speaking peoples raining incendiary bombs over the enemy to impose the customs of civilization".

TB: Yes, there's brilliant irony there, isn't there? Ideas about dropping bombs out of airplanes developed long before airplanes themselves were a reality. You can go back centuries and find speculation about possibilities of air warfare and what this would mean for societies. And from the earliest musings there is a sense that not only would this create tremendous physical destruction, but it would create havoc in societies, great societal disruption. It would undermine the will of peoples to continue fighting. And I think clearly part of this is coming out of concerns about how civilian populations are going to hold up to the rigors of warfare. Civilians who are living in cities, who are vulnerable because they live in cities, who are already enduring difficult conditions that come along with life in cities, who are perhaps alienated from the labor that they are doing, and may already be politically revolutionary or potentially radical, and what's going to happen, if bombs start falling on the heads of these people? What kind of chaos will be created that governments will then have to try to control? And there is, I think, in the writing of particularly the nineteenth century, turn of the century writing this great sense of fear about how governments will control their populations in the event of aerial warfare. And again, it's not just about the physical destruction which is peoples' great cause of concern in and of itself, but this havoc that will be created. And some of it gets tied into concerns about the working classes, concerns about potentially revolutionary political movements. There are great technological fantasies that appear at the turn of the century in which technologically advanced societies utilize their newly developed weapons to control and perhaps even destroy threatening other populations, other populations that threaten them.

I think part of this comes out of the whole sort of Victorian technological fantasy era in which people were imagining weapons of the future and things, elements that were coming out of the industrial revolution. All of these new things were being brought into development, and people were in a great hurry to figure out how might, how these might play into future wars. So there is a tendency to sort of think we, the English speaking peoples, will be able to use these to keep potential enemies in line, or to destroy potentially threatening populations. There is a lot of fear about Mongol hordes and about Asian populations that might grow out of control, or Slavic populations that might gain too much power. And so you see in a lot of this fantasy writing use of airplanes and aerial bombs to control or to destroy these populations that appear to be very threatening to the Victorians living in the late eighteen hundreds. But clearly as well, there is a sense that populations, any government that is going to go into a war in the future is going to have to figure out how it's going to control its own population when that population is threatened by aerial bombardment, which could be very disruptive potentially and cause people to panic and cause people to place great demands for protection on the government. And then what will that do to an ability to conduct a war, because if you have to suddenly divert all of your resources to defending the nation, how will you be able to wage an offensive strategy against your enemy? So your own civilian population could, in some sense, become your own worst enemy because they would keep you from prevailing in the war. You would become so burdened down by the obligations to defend them, to keep them calm, to keep them quiet. And a lot of this, again, is fueled by fear of people coming together in cities, of the dislocations of industrialization, the dislocations of urbanization, and what this does to populations and how it makes them vulnerable. And I think, really, right up through World War II and still today we have a sense that aerial bombardment can be used for psychological purposes, that you can manipulate the society that you are bombing psychologically. It's not just about the damage the bombs will do, but it's about being able to undermine the enemy's will to fight a war, being able to disrupt the enemy's society, being able to cause havoc so that society can no longer fight as a coherent political entity.

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