Wednesday 20 November 2002

Civilians in the front line

Mike Sanders points to a Slate essay in which Christopher Hitchens argues that “civilians are in the front line as never before.”

Where does it come from? This absurd misconception that civilians have, in recent times, been only accidental casualties of war.

The Luftwaffe’s attacks on British cities during World War II (known as The Blitz) were directed primarily against civilians, resulting in just over 50,000 deaths. Partly in retaliation, mainly because of technological inadequacies, RAF Bomber Command, led by Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, switched its focus to night attacks on civilian targets:

It was decided that precision bombing was beyond Bomber Command’s capabilities and when Harris arrived at High Wycombe he found there an eight-day-old directive which laid down a new policy: “The primary object of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the civilian population and in particular of the industrial workers.” In the absence of the ability to hit individual factories the whole town was to be attacked and its life brought to a halt. The official administrative buildings, the public utilities, the workers’ homes and, with luck, the factories would all be hit. The new policy became known as Area Bombing.

Martin Middlebrook, The Nuremburg Raid

The RAF attack on Hamburg in mid-1943 and the resulting firestorm killed an estimated 45,000 men, women, and children (according to German records: 13,000 men, 21,000 women and over 8,000 children). Estimates of those killed in the attack on Dresden, in February 1945, are less precise, varying from 50,000 to 250,000. A figure of around 135,000 is commonly accepted.

The commanders of the American Eighth Air Force, on the other hand, refused to commit their aircrews to area bombing: they felt serious moral reservations about attacking the civilian population of Germany and were confident that precision daylight raids by the heavily armed B-17 could accurately strike military targets. Their conviction was sorely tested in raids such as the second attack on Schweinfurt in which 20 per cent of the attacking force were lost (the accepted attrition rate of 5 per cent meant that only 277 out of 1000 men would survive a tour of 25 missions). The Eighth Air Force persisted and, escorted by the long range P-51 Mustang fighter, the B-17s proved the efficacy of daylight precision bombing.

The same tactics employed against Japanese military targets were, however, an unmitigated failure. Meteorological conditions over Japan—a combination of cloud cover and strong high altitude winds—made it almost impossible for the B-29s to bomb accurately. In early 1945, General Curtis Le May, commander of the XXI Bomber Command, decided to switch to area (fire) bombing at night.

In the first raid—on the night of March 9-10, 1945—napalm-based incendiaries killed an estimated 100,000 civilians. According to the most authoratitive source, Kenneth Werrell’s Blankets of Fire, during the course of the campaign B-29s destroyed 178 square miles (43 percent) of the built-up areas of sixty-six cities (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The United States Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 330,000 people were killed, 476,000 injured, 2.5 million buildings destroyed, and 8.5 million made homeless. The overwhelming majority of the dead, wounded, and “dehoused” (Sir Arthur Harris’s memorable euphemism) were civilians.

Mother and child: victims of the Tokyo firebombing
Young mother and child, victims of the March 9-10 raid on Tokyo

So, which front line is it, exactly, that civilians are in as never before?

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Christopher Hitchens is an American, I presume. One of the reasons that the September 11th attacks were so psychologically damaging to most Americans is that it shattered a (completely mythical, but well-ingrained) feeling of invulnerability that most Americans felt. The idea of anyone actually attacking CONUS with anything less than an all-out nuclear strike (at which point we'd all be dead anyway and it wouldn't matter) was, as far I as I can recall, never even discussed.

Hitchens essay is just another example of Americans, even educated and intelligent Americans, having no concept of what life is like outside the United States.

I believe the term "armchair general" is more apt in the United States than any many places simply because our civilian population hasn't been touched by war in any serious way since the War of 1812. A German or Japanese or Italian or Russian politician that never served in the military may well have been a child during raids like those that you mention in your post. There's at least some connection to the real effects of war.

In the United States, as far as I can see it, there simply isn't that connection.

Posted by John on 19 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Christopher Hitchens, as it happens, is a Brit living in the United States.

I found his assertions in the article mentioned very strange, because when I lived in England as a teenager, I felt that WWII was much closer in memory in England than it is in the US. Perhaps Hitchens has Americanized in that sense.

Posted by Ginger on 20 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

thanx...this website really helped on a school paper!!!

Posted by leslie on 13 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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Posted by leslie on 13 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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Posted by leslie on 13 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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Posted by leslie on 13 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I lived in a refugee camp in Prussia when the Russians began to bomb and remember the fear. I was eight years old.
A few months later, having escaped from the Russian front, we ended up in a refugee camp in Dingolfing, in Bavaria. A cloud of American bombers flew over and no one ran for cover. We the children watched in awe, not fear. Now I know why.

Thanks for the info

Posted by Ernest Hochhalter on 14 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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