War Powers, War Lies: Part 22: Not One Stone

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War Powers, War Lies: A Series

Part 22: Not One Stone

Published in the Maryland Daily Record May 29, 2007

          Operation Gomorrah, commenced July 24, 1943, was, as philosopher A.C. Grayling put it, something new and terrible even by the standards of industrialised violence so far experienced in the Second World War.”[1]

          A Firestorm

Specifically, Gomorrah was mounted for the specific purpose of obliterating the city of Hamburg.  Royal Air Force Lancasters, Halifaxes, Stirlings and Wellingtons came loaded, not with conventional bombs, but with incendiaries.  In his 2006 book, Among the Dead Cities (upon which I draw heavily below), Grayling has described what they accomplished.  Here is part of what resulted on just one of the four nights of the raid, that of July 27-28:

Fires in different streets progressively joined together, forming into vast pyres of flame that grew rapidly hotter and eventually roared upwards to a height of 7,000 feet, sucking in air from the outlying suburbs at over a hundred miles an hour to fuel their oxygen hunger, creating artificial hurricanes ‘resonating like mighty organs’ … which intensified the fires further… Its greatest intensity lasted for three hours, snatching up roofs, trees and burning human bodies and sending them whirling into the air.  The fires leaped up behind collapsing facades of buildings, roared through the streets, and rolled across squares and open areas ‘in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders.’  The glass windows of tramcars melted, bags of sugar boiled, people trying to flee the oven-like heat of air-raid shelters sank, petrified into grotesque gestures, into the boiling asphalt of the streets.[2]

          In the wake of these four nights of raids, 45,000 identifiable corpses were found, and 30,480 buildings were reduced to rubble, half the Hamburg housing stock.  One and a quarter million refugees were created.

          Other exigencies of the war necessitated a pause in the “carpet bombing” or “area bombing” of population centers until February 1944, but then the pattern resumed: Stuttgart, Brunswick, Halberstadt, Regensburg, Schweinfurt and Augsburg.[3]  After another pause for D-Day and invasion support, the effort continued in February 1945: Dresden, Leipzig, Worms, Mainz, Würzburg, Hildesheim, Gladbeck, Hanau and Dulmen.[4]

          Laying the Carpet

          In Europe, although the Luftwaffe had certainly been the first to strike civilian centers from the air, with blitzkrieg in Eastern Europe, and in England with the Blitz, the RAF was the clear leader in the practice of aerial obliteration of civilians, their infrastructure, and their culture.  By contrast, the U.S. Eighth Army Air Force, when it arrived on the scene, insisted on efforts to focus on Hitler’s war industries, notably the ball bearings and oil which were central to the military effort.  (So effective was the Eighth Army that eventually the Luftwaffe was effectively grounded for lack of fuel.)

          In the Pacific, of course, the U.S.  made different choices.  When the U.S. finally got its B-29s within striking distance of the Japanese mainland, those bombers, designed to carry maximum payloads, were directed to fly low, allowing them to carry even greater loads – of incendiaries.  These were then dropped on the wooden Japanese cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe.  Tokyo was attacked on March 9-10, 1945.  Fifteen square miles in one of its most densely populated districts experienced “a ferocious firestorm that killed more than 85,000 people.”[5]  From there, the U.S. laid waste to “nearly half of the built-up areas of … sixty-six Japanese cities.”  The nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came at the end, in August 1945.  Between them the nuclear attacks killed perhaps 100,000 people immediately (over 100,000 more later on) and destroyed half the buildings in each city.[6]

          Illegal, But With Impunity

          Whatever the morality of these bombing campaigns, they certainly violated international law.  The Hague Conventions of 1907, never superseded at the time of the Second World War, specifically forbade employment of “arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering.”  Art. 23(e).  Under Article 25, “The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited.”  And Article 27 provided: “In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes.”  And it is worthy of note that in trying the Nazis at Nuremberg, the tribunal held that the Hague Conventions were part of the customary law of war, and binding on Germany whether or not it was a signatory.  Perhaps equally noteworthy, however, was that, although the twelfth and last of the “minor” Nuremberg trials placed on trial architects of war strategies and tactics that had violated international law, no German, so far as I am able to determine, was ever tried for atrocities against civilians from the air.  Perhaps reasons of state (i.e. the implications for the RAF and the U.S. Air Force) guided prosecutorial discretion .

          There had been efforts between the World Wars to update the Conventions, in view of the flagrant bombing violations perpetrated by all sides in World War One.  A running conference from 1922 to 1937 sponsored a draft set of Rules of Air Warfare, which would have forbidden Gomorrah and Hiroshima in even more express terms.  The Rules were never ratified for various complex reasons.  But in the course of the proceedings, the U.S. and (apparently) the British delegates had endorsed the view that bombardment of civilian centers violated extant law,[7] which the Rules merely articulated.[8]  Area bombing had thus clearly been recognized, in advance, as illegal by representatives of the very nations that later perpetrated it in places like Hamburg and Hiroshima.

          Such illegality posed two separate problems for the Allies: how to justify their actions to themselves, and how to justify them to the populace.  The story of how the Allied leadership muddled through those problems has very large implications.

          Apologetics and Justifications for Atrocities

          As the Allies and the Axis drew closer to war in the 1930s, there was never any question that our side intended to bomb civilians.  As early as the 1920s, the chiefs of British Bomber Command were formulating policy explicitly centered on area bombing.  The thinking was that bombing was so destructive of civilian morale that the national will to fight of adverse powers would crumble.[9]  While Britain had committed itself at the outset to complying with the draft Rules of Aerial Warfare, that commitment lasted only until May 1, 1940, when the order articulating that commitment was rescinded.

          American bombing doctrine, as noted, focused instead on pinpointed destruction of enemy industrial sites.  However, in practice U.S. and RAF military doctrines were much closer together than would appear.  If it was acceptable to bomb industrial sites, the U.S. approach, it was equally acceptable to bomb the infrastructure that made running those sites possible: the bridges, the railways, the water supply, the power grid.  If such bombing meant that life became impossible for civilians in large areas surrounding those sites, then so be it.  And in practice, the distinction was even less than might seem the case as a matter of theory.  American bombers simply lacked the technology and the correct weather in either theater of war to make precision bombing a full-time tactic, though in Europe they tried.[10]  In Japan, they did not try; there they were under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay, who became notorious in a later war, Vietnam, for urging that we bomb the North Vietnamese “back to the stone age.”  And he was not a late convert to that view.

          In any event, the internal justification for area bombing either espoused a view that civilians were collateral damage to attacks on the industrial war machine or that in modern warfare, the civilian/combatant distinction was not viable or important.  In some cases, bombing of civilians was, ironically, presented as humanitarian and in keeping with the larger goals of the law of war, in that collapse of the enemy could be precipitated faster, and at a lower cost in human life overall, if civilian morale could be broken from the skies.

          For some, it was not even a problem.  Extermination of the enemy populace and culture seemed like a self-evident goal to pursue.  For instance, the day after Pearl Harbor, Congressman Charles Eaton of New Jersey was clearly contemplating genocide against Japan in urging Congress and the country to summon “determination once and for all to wipe off of the earth this accursed monster of tyranny and slavery.” [11] Henry Morgenthau Jr., Secretary of the Treasury in 1944, as victory became clearly inevitable, put forward a plan for the complete demolition of the remainder of German industry postwar, leaving Germany permanently as a “pastoralized” country.[12]

          It was enough of a problem to most national leaders, however, that a frank dedication to extermination of enemy civilians was not prominently embraced.  Grayling is almost amusing in recounting the frustration of Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, the leader of RAF Bomber Command, at the official pronouncements and directives of those above him trying to steer him away from area bombing or at least to distance themselves from it.  Harris bluntly described himself this way: “It is my business to kill people: Germans.”[13]  And much boastful publicity was given to the Hamburg raid.  Yet when British humanitarian voices were raised in protest, and questions were asked in the House of Commons, Minister for Air Sir Archibald Sinclair responded firmly: “The targets of Bomber Command are always military.”[14]  This was of course true if and only if everything civilian was military by definition, a mental qualification that Sinclair almost certainly was resorting to.  (Shades of “I have never ordered torture”?)

          “A Military Base”

          Where it came to Japan, and in particular to Hiroshima, a similar mental qualification, amounting to a lie, may have been indulged in by none other than Harry Truman, so often presented as a paragon of honest speaking.  “The world will note,” Truman said, “that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base.”[15]  There were two significant military bases in the vicinity, but the bomb was not dropped, nor was it intended to be dropped on them.[16]  The Target Committee deliberately chose a location in the heart of the town, specifically rejecting going out of town to get near to the bases.  While Truman told the Secretary of War to avoid civilian targets[17], everyone involved in the targeting process knew that order was obsolete when given.  If Truman had been honestly mistaken in the radio address just quoted, he would doubtless have been informed of the gaffe afterwards, and if he had been totally honest, he would have owned up to it.  He did not.

          None of this is a discussion of the morality of area bombing in general, or Hamburg and Hiroshima in particular.  Rather it is a discussion of the way that laws of warfare are broken by even the best nations on earth and lies are told by the leaders of those best nations to hide it.

          It can indeed be argued that the Hamburgs and Hiroshimas were morally correct, even if illegal; but if they were truly believed to be correct, then why the dishonesty?  Why did the Allied leaders not adopt a moral stance challenging the laws of war, or at least the laws that forbade area bombing of civilians?

          I would posit, by way of an answer, that the real thought process here was likely more elemental than either a legal or a moral one.  Nations grow lawless in wartime – an ancient observation, memorably phrased by the Roman orator Cicero: Silent leges inter arma.  (Literally “the laws are silent amid arms.”)  So it may be that the very concept of the laws of war is mostly a fig leaf and a sham.  There is propaganda value, however, in pretending to hold to those laws so that there is a yardstick for the enemy not to measure up to.  But hypocrisy is required to make people believe there is a yardstick at all.

          Meanwhile, the real law of war may be this: destroy the alien, the other, the enemy.  Burn, sack and pillage the cities.  Leave not one stone upon another (as Jesus prophesied would happen to Jerusalem).[18]  Erase the enemy from the book of life, as mankind has tried to do in countless wars, at Auschwitz, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Kosovo, in Darfur.  View enemy armies merely as impediments to the chief goal of war: obliterating the civilians. Certainly there is something in the warrior mind that will always tend in this direction.  Even in somewhat more civilized wars there will always be My Lais and Hadithas.


          But assuming, without conceding, that this is the real law of war, then even so it would have been productive to dispense with the hypocrisy, and to speak openly of the moral, tactical and strategic choices being made.  Surely it would have been a good idea to talk honestly about Hamburg.  If the nations that billed themselves as the last hope of civilization against barbarity wanted to go ahead and roast cities alive after such a discussion, “civilization” would at least have chosen what was done in its name.

          Honest debate would have been even more helpful before the end.  The choice to bomb Hiroshima may have seemed only a small step beyond the choices to bomb Hamburg and Tokyo.  It is arguable that to the air force personnel who carried out the actions, there was little difference, except that far fewer aircraft were involved.  To the airmen, an incendiary bomb was an incendiary bomb.  In hindsight, though, we know that the Hiroshima projectile had quite different implications.

          And if for security reasons the debate could not be had before the fact, surely it would have been in “civilization’s” best interest to have had a frank national dialogue about the atomic bomb afterwards, and not to have obfuscated with happy talk about military bases.  The deceptions deprived us of much of that dialogue.  The U.S. had just unleashed a weapon whose best use, and perhaps sole purpose, was the obliteration of whole cities at a blow.  It was therefore a weapon whose whole point was to violate international laws we ostensibly observed – unlike conventional incendiary bombs, which at least also had legitimate applications against military targets.

          Beware of Imitators

          Even a nation eager to elevate the “true” law of war above the “impossibly idealistic” Hague Conventions might have wanted to consider whether it was safer to observe the Conventions anyway — and thereby retain their protections.  After all, even a nation frankly bent on merciless obliteration of the enemy might still have had qualms about establishing a precedent that bore a distinct and novel threat of obliterating us as well.  For that is, of course, the strategic situation into which Hiroshima ushered us. 

          The nature of that strange and unprecedented strategic situation will be considered next time.

[1]   Among the Dead Cities (2006) at 16.

[2]   Id., at 18.

[3]  Id., at 65.

[4]  Id., at 73

[5]   Id., at 77.

[6]   Id., at 78.

[7]  “At the beginning of this conference Ambassador Hugh Gibson, speaking for the United States delegation, said that civilization was, threatened by the burden and dangers of the gigantic machinery of warfare then being maintained. He recalled that practically all the nations of the world had pledged themselves not to wage aggressive war. Therefore, he said, the conference should devote itself to the abolition of weapons devoted primarily to aggressive war.  Among the points advocated by Ambassador Gibson [of the United States in Geneva in 1932] were the following: Special restrictions for tanks and heavy mobile guns, which were considered to be arms peculiarly for offensive operations; computation of the number of armed forces on the basis of the effectives necessary for the maintenance of internal order plus some suitable contingent for defense; abolition of lethal gases and bacteriological warfare; effective measures to protect civilian populations against aerial bombing.” http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/WorldWar2/disarm.htm .

[8]   See Grayling at 146 and preceding pages.

[9]  Id., at 134 and following.

[10]   Grayling at 141, citing Stuart Halsey Ross, Strategic Bombing by the United States in World War II: The Myths and the Facts (2003).

[11]   Cong. Rec., 77th Cong., 1st Sess., Vol. 87, pt. 9 at 9520-27 (1941), cited in J. McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing (2003) at 44.

[12]   Grayling at 159 and following.

[13]   Id., at 118.

[14]   Id., at 189.

[15]   Radio address of August 9, 1945.   Cited in Grayling at 156. Cited to:Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, Containing the Public Messages, Speeches and Stements of the President April 12 to December 31, 1945 (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1961) page 212. The full text also was published in the New York Times, August 10, 1945, page 12.  Sourced in http://www.dannen.com/decision/hst-ag09.html,

[16]   See the Targeting Committee’s report, preserved at http://www.dannen.com/decision/targets.html .  

[17]   Truman confided to his diary that he had ordered that civilians be spared, and the targets be exclusively military.  http://www.dannen.com/decision/hst-jl25.html.