On Aug. 6, 1945, the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and incinerated 140,000 people, President Harry Truman issued a warning: If the Japanese “do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”
While the scale of immediate destruction in Hiroshima — and, three days later, Nagasaki — certainly had “never been seen,” the bombing of civilians on a mass scale was, in a sense, nothing new. Aerial bombardment of cities and factories during the previous five years had been so rampant — from London to Dresden to Tokyo — that a war crimes prosecutor at the Nuremberg tribunals would go so far as to declare the practice “innocent;” its universal adoption by all sides, including the Japanese, had made it a "recognized part of modern warfare."
In the popular imagination, Hiroshima and Nagasaki may still be seen as uniquely horrible moments, but scholars over the past seven decades have placed the bombings squarely within the context of modern warfare. Swedish historian Sven Lindqvist, in his seminal 1999 work “A History of Bombing,” traces aerial bombardment of civilians from Tripoli in 1911 to the modern era of “low-intensity” conflict. Lindqvist argues that while the weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were novel, these bombings used well-established justifications for killing civilians. Whether to demoralize the enemy or exact just reprisal, whether protected by a sense of racial superiority or a physical and psychological distance from the act itself, Lindqvist argues, states have found many ways to justify the bombing of civilians, and they continue to do so.
The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.
President Harry Truman
Radio address on Aug. 9, 1945
Fears of flying death machines have been around since the early days of aircraft. In 1907, four years before the Italians dropped the first bomb on Tripoli, diplomats signed the Hague Convention to ban the bombing of “undefended” areas. Bombing did not play a prominent role in World War I, but it found widespread application in the colonial conquests of the 1920s and 30s. From the shade and safety of their cockpits, Lindqvist writes, pilots targeted troublesome natives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, advancing the “civilizing mission” of colonialism through a tactic that became known as “control without occupation.” International law did not apply to “savage tribes who do not conform to codes of civilized warfare,” as the British Air Force headquarters in India explained in a letter to a British administrator in 1922, shortly after the Third Afghan War. Women in Afghan society, for example, were considered “a piece of property somewhere between a rifle and a cow,” so their deaths could not be equated with those of European civilians.
It wasn’t until the Spanish Civil War in 1937, when German and Italian forces dropped 5,771 bombs on the undefended Basque town of Guernica that civilian bombardment hit home in Europe. Hundreds were killed, earning Guernica the distinction of “the most gruesome episode in history of modern war,” as one reporter put it. Guernica revived early anxieties, posed by novelists, military strategists and diplomats alike, that an era of “total war” would soon be upon them, with bombers in the sky making no distinction between combatant and non-combatant. As Giulio Douhet, an Italian general and theorist on aerial warfare during the 1911 campaign over Tripoli, put it: “The safest place may be the trenches.”
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, there was a last minute, largely futile scramble to spare civilians the brunt of the violence. The Americans called for bombing to be restricted to “combat areas,” a plea that, if observed, might have prevented Truman from targeting Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But in 1940, British and German bombing campaigns spiraled rapidly out of control. Vague stipulations of “proportionate” response, mandated under international law, were tossed out the window. Advocates of bombing industrial and, later, residential targets argued that if the aim of war was psychological defeat of the enemy, civilians must be harmed. The Holocaust and both sides' aerial campaigns may both have amounted to the “well-organized mass murder of innocent people,” Lindqvist writes, but the Allies saw a critical distinction: They didn’t want to exterminate German civilians; they just wanted them to surrender.
That was the stated rationale behind Hiroshima and Nagasaki, too. We “have given the Japanese people adequate warning of what is in store for them,” Truman said in a radio address on the evening of August 9, 1945. “Our warning went unheeded.” At the same time as Truman argued that the bombs had ended the war early and saved countless American lives, he sought downplay the devastation, too. The first bomb had been dropped on “Hiroshima, a military base,” to avoid, “in so far as possible, the killing of civilians,” he explained in the same address. Not until journalists tracked down survivors and photographs surfaced of human ashes burnt into the ground like shadows, did Americans begin the long and painful process of rethinking their government’s narrative.
Japan did, indeed, surrender, on Aug. 15, and not long afterward, the European powers resumed their practice of bombing rebellious colonies — Kenya, Libya and French Indochina. While civilian bombardments may have temporarily suppressed certain uprisings, the colonial powers eventually all lost control. The U.S. made its next attempt to bomb an enemy into submission in Korea. In 1950, Truman again found justification for bombing: The United Nations had ruled the North’s invasion of the South an unwarranted aggression. But instead of unconditional surrender, as proponents of air war had hoped, the end result was a permanently divided Korea and more than 2.5 million civilians dead or wounded over the three-year war.
Bombing, which has always been sort of abstract to Americans, is now even more abstract.
Professor of History, New York University
In Vietnam, Lindqvist argues, the road to mass civilian slaughter was a phased escalation over more than a decade of conflict. Observers were gradually desensitized to the steady stream of violence, until American jets were regularly showering farmland with napalm. As Robert McNamara, defense secretary from 1961-68, told President Lyndon B. Johnson as the violence raged in 1967, “The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny, backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.”
Since Vietnam, military historians have argued that the age of “major war” — conflict fought directly between two superpowers — is over. But even this age of “low-intensity conflict” has afforded few protections to those civilians trapped in conflict areas. To use a contemporary example, in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has used century-old justifications to explain its treatment of the uprising against his rule. Regime forces have been accused by human rights groups and Western governments of barraging Syrian citizens with crudely fashioned, internationally prohibited barrel bombs, which explode and scatter shrapnel indiscriminately. The bombs have killed more than 1,331 civilians since the war began in 2011, according to activist group Violations and Documentation Center in Syria. Assad has denied the allegations but broadly explains his brutal crackdown with variations on a catchphrase: “We need to fight terrorists because they are killing innocent people, and we have to defend these people.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. and other states have justified the use of new weapons, from laser-guided bombs in Iraq to drones in Yemen and Pakistan, by emphasizing the need to minimize noncombatant casualties. And yet civilian deaths continue. The Obama administration has come under intense criticism, in particular, for its practice of “signature strikes,” in which drone warfare targets are chosen based on patterns of behavior and other intelligence, rather than their known identities. More than 450 civilians have been killed in these strikes since they began in 2002, mainly in Yemen and Pakistan, according to estimates from the New America Foundation.
Marilyn Young, an editor of the book, “Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History,” notes that drones introduce a new advantage to the long history of civilian bombardment: secrecy. In places like Yemen or Pakistan, drones have not even been subject to the rules of war because the U.S. uses them with the full endorsement of those governments. “Bombing, which has always been sort of abstract to Americans, is now even more abstract,” Young said, in a recent interview. “What’s been achieved is the invisibility of war. That’s the most any government can hope for: to conduct war without anyone noticing.”