Sunday 10 August 2003

As We May Incinerate

“Ah. They destroyed all the napalm in 2001, you see,” writes Jill Walker. “What they dropped on Iraq wasn’t napalm, it was Mark 77. Well, yes, it does has the same effect but the chemical structure is slightly different. Really!”

Reading Jill’s entry—after I’d read the Sydney Morning Herald article to which she refers—and knowing that Jill is a hypertext theorist, I couldn’t help reflecting on the connection between hypertext and napalm, via Vannevar Bush, whose seminal essay As We May Think was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1945.

Vannevar BushIn an article by Torill Mortensen & Jill Walker titled Blogging Thoughts, the co-authors summarize Bush’s ideas:

Computers were deliberately designed to reflect and augment our thinking. Vannevar Bush, a prominent developer of analogue computers, argued for mechanical, non-hierarchical ways of organising information which would be more suited to the associative thought patterns of our brains. In a 1949 article tellingly titled ‘As We May Think’, Bush sketches designs for a device he called the memex. Though never realised, Bush’s descriptions and thoughts about the memex are commonly seen as direct ancestors of today’s digital hypertext.

And connect Bush’s memex with blogging:

A blogger can be seen as a modern version of Vannevar Bush’s trail blazers: a person who links separate documents together, creating a trail or a path through them for others to follow.

In addition to being the prototypical “hypertext theorist,” Vannevar Bush was the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), the US government agency responsible for coordinating R&D for most of the new American weapons developed during World War II, including the proximity fuze, the bazooka, the DUKW amphibious vehicle, the atomic bomb, and napalm.

In his biography of Vannevar Bush, Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the Twentieth Century, G. Pascal Zachary describes a conversation between Bush and General “Hap” Arnold, the head of the United States Army Air Force:

Bush… had piqued Arnold’s curiosity about firebombing in the first place by telling him about a new incendiary jelly called napalm. After hearing about the jelly, Arnold imagined the terrifying power of firebombs, fixated on one chilling image of napalm thrown in all directions and burning with such intensity that if dropped near the entrance to a cave or a building, they caused all the air to rush out and anyone inside died from lack of oxygen.

Since napalm was invented in 1942 by Dr. Louis Fieser and his team at Harvard, it is quite probable that Vannevar Bush was the first person to tell General Arnold about the new incendiary. It is, however, highly unlikely that Bush had “piqued Arnold’s curiosity about firebombing in the first place” nor that it was the first time Arnold had “imagined the the terrifying power of firebombs.” The possibility of subjecting vulnerable Japanese cities to attack by fire had arisen in the 1920s and 1930s, when American strategic bombing theorists were trying to imagine how a war with Japan might be conducted.

According to Kenneth P. Werrell’s Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers over Japan during World War II,

The bombing of Japan was very much in the public’s mind on both sides of the Pacific. Knowledgeable Americans and all Japanese knew that the latter’s cities were extremely vulnerable to fire, as demonstrated by the numerous earthquakes Japan had suffered throughout its history, particularly the earthquake of 1923. The fires from that monster quake raged for three days and in Tokyo cost the lives of about 110,000 and destroyed about 20 percent of the buildings. To the Japanese “the disaster was really the most horrible ever known since authentic history began.” The impact of the 1923 earthquake was the basis for much of the speculation concerning the potential of air attack, particularly fire raids, against Japan.

During the 1920s, according to Werrell, the leading American proponent of strategic bombing, General Billy Mitchell, “often asserted that the congested and flammable Japanese cities were especially vulnerable to air attack. He prophesied that bombers would lay waste to these cities from bases in the Aleutians, Kuriles, eastern Siberia, or Kamchatka.”

And Werrell quotes the top army airman, Oscar Westover as saying in 1937 that:

Japan was menaced by air bases in Siberia and “may expect a ruthless bombardment of her tinderbox cities. She [Japan] has not forgotten the terrible fire which followed the earthquake.” Incendiary attack, Westover surmised, would equal many such earthquakes.

The Japanese were equally worried, with many experts predicting that an air attack on Tokyo would result in destruction and casualties comparable to the 1923 earthquake or the other great fire that ravaged Edo (as Tokyo was called then): the Meireki Fire of 1657, which killed at least 100,000 people, though some estimates run as high as 200,000. Fire was “the greatest fear of all Japanese” and yet the Japanese firefighting service was poorly trained and ill-equipped to deal with fire on the scale being contemplated by bombing theorists.

In early 1940 General Claire Chennault also suggested the firebombing of Japanese cities:

Chennault wrote Hap Arnold concerning the potential of small incendiaries against oriental cities. The United States, Arnold responded, was only interested in the precision bombing of military targets, and the “use of incendiaries against cities was contrary to our national policy of attacking military objectives.” Chennault countered that, with 500 aircraft built, crewed, and maintained by Americans, [his Chinese airforce] would be able to “burn out the industrial heart of the [Japanese] Empire with fire-bomb attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps of Honshu and Kyushu.” Whereas Arnold and the airmen rejected the idea, Roosevelt was delighted by the proposal and ordered his top cabinet officials to work on the project.

General Arnold’s refusal to countenance the firebombing of Japanese cities was an unambiguous expression of the USAAF’s tactical doctrine of precision bombing: in Werrell’s words, “the destruction of vital physical objectives, not the killing or the terrorizing of populations.” As late as 1939, one of the USAAF Tactical School lecturers

objected to the concept of the direct attack of civilians with bombs and gas, even though “most of the European nations are definitely contemplating such a method of attack.” Such action, he continued, is “repugnant to our humanitarian principles, and is certainly a method of warfare that we would adopt only with great reluctance and regret.”

Yet on 15 November 1941 Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall gave a secret briefing to seven Washington journalists in which he told them that the US was on the brink of war with Japan and “intended to fight a merciless war, with B-17s being ‘dispatched immediately to set the paper cities of Japan on fire. There won’t be any hesitation about bombing civilians—it will be all out.’”

Most of General Marshall’s subordinates in the Army Air Force did not agree, believing instead that precision bombing could be achieved with the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers, each fitted with up to ten .50-caliber machine guns and equipped with the Norden bombsight. They were confident that by dispatching 300 bombers or more at a time, the heavily-armed formation could fight its way to the target and back without the fighter escort that the British and Germans had already discovered was essential for any kind of daylight bombing. Once over the target, the highly accurate Norden bombsight would ensure that no bombs would go astray and cause civilian casualties.

According to Werrell, tests of bombing accuracy conducted in the late thirties showed that the bombers could get their bombs “within 270 feet of the aiming point from altitudes below 10,000 feet—extrapolated to 20,000 feet, this was equal to less than 460 feet.” The airmen called this “pickle-barrel” bombing, failing to realize that a theory “proven” under clear American skies with no enemy opposition would count for little when applied to the real situation in Europe where dense cloud was common, the flak (anti-aircraft fire) was concentrated and accurate, and the German fighter pilots were well-trained, resolute, and courageous.

Under the optimum conditions—clear weather, light flak, and few or no fighters—precision bombing was indeed possible, as shown by the raid on the Messerschmitt aircraft factory at Regensberg on 17 August 1943. Colonel Curtis LeMay’s force bombed so precisely that, according to Martin Middlebrook’s The Schweinfurt-Regensberg Mission:

The people of Regensberg were full of admiration and respect for the accuracy of the American bomber crews. One [German] lady made me promise to record her comment: “Everyone in the town was surprised that the Barmherzigebrüder Hospital was untouched when almost every building in the factory was hit. We all said that it was a perfect example of precision bombing.

But under the conditions that frequently prevailed over Germany, the Eighth Air Force was forced to bomb “blind” using radar during the day, as the British did at night. As late as January 1945, it was accepted by USAAF bomber commanders that “the average bombing error using instruments was still about two miles and that to hit the target involved drenching an area with bombs to achieve any results.”

In that respect, although the American aircrew regarded precision bombing as morally superior to the British methods, the results of many USAAF raids were hardly different to those of the RAF’s area attacks, which used incendiary bombs to burn out the workers’ housing in the center of many German industrial cities. Ironically, LeMay had to resort to area bombing when the unpredictable weather and the high-altitude jetstream made precision bombing against Japanese targets virtually impossible.

By March 1945, when (the now) General LeMay was under pressure to achieve results in the air war over Japan, the USAAF had a variety of available incendiary munitions, most of them developed after the US had entered the war. Werrell explains that the US airmen “recognized that incendiary conditions in Japan differed from those in Germany”:

80 percent of Japanese cities were built with wood and paper, whereas 95 percent of German cities were constructed of brick and stone. Roof construction was most important, as the incendiary had to penetrate into the building’s interior to be effective, which was easier to do in the straw or thatch roofs of many of Japan’s structures. In addition, Japanese cities were much more crowded, with the result that fires would be more difficult to control. And although German fire-fighting capabilities were perhaps the best in the world, Japanese firefighters were few in number and their equipment was sparse.

By 1941, the AAF had two incendiary bombs: the 73 pound M-47 (for penetrating roofs) and the four pound M-50, based on a British design, which easily ignited wooden buildings. The M-50 was dropped in a cluster of 34 bombs, which separated a few thousand feet over the target, ensuring that the firebombs were “distributed for maximum effect.”

However, as Werrell explains, “a third incendiary bomb… became the AAF fire starter of choice:”

In September 1941 Arnold wrote that U.S. airmen required an incendiary bomb and urged that a substitute be found for magnesium, which was in short supply. Jellied gasoline, or napalm, was one of the fillers developed and has been the standard ever since. The end product was small (3 inches in diameter and 20 inches long) and light (weighing only 6.2 pounds). It was first tested in early 1942 and proved superior to all other small bombs under development. (The advantage of small bombs was that they could start many fires and overwhelm firefighters.) One of its negative characteristics, however, was that it tumbled as it fell, which proved a major problem since it had to hit a target with its nose to ignite the fuse. In 1943 the bomb was fitted with a three-foot cloth streamer—a stabilizing fin would have been too bulky for the small device—and it solved the problem. Initially, this bomb was called [the] M-56, and then was redesignated the M-69.

Diagrams of M-69 incendiary bomb
M-19 Aimable Cluster containing 38 M-69 incendiary bombs
Nihon kūshū: beigun ga kiroku shita
(An Account of the Air Raids on Japan—Based on US Military Records)

The first napalm bomb was used in the invasion of Tinian which commenced on 23 July 1944—after nearby Saipan had been captured. These islands in the Marianas, once taken, would provide sites for airfields from which B-29s could attack Japan. (The 509th Composite Group, which dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was based on Tinian.)

By the time the B-29s of LeMay’s XXI Bomber Command took off from Guam, Saipan, and Tinian on the evening of 9 March 1945, the M-69 had been thoroughly trialled:

To provide more realistic tests of incendiary devices, U.S. military authorities built replicas of both a German and Japanese village at two locations. They went to great lengths to duplicate conditions as closely as possible. The Japanese “village” at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, consisted of a dozen two-family houses complete with wood, tatami (straw floor covering), and furniture simulating Japanese construction. Tests began there in May and lasted through September 1943. Four types of bombs were used, with the M-69 proving to be the most effective. When the results of these tests were challenged by the British, who had been running their own incendiary tests, the tests were reassessed. Experts concluded that the Dugway tests were done under conditions that were drier than those of Japan, while British conditions had been too wet, since the climate of Japan is more like that of eastern North Carolina than that of either Utah or Great Britain. In further tests at Elgin Field [Florida] in April 1944, B-17s dropped incendiaries on surrogate Japanese houses. Firefighters reached the fires three and a half minutes after the incendiaries ignited and found five or six fires burning that could not be handled by anything except the major fire equipment of large city fire departments. All of the buildings were destroyed.

German housing at the Dugway Proving Ground(Though the Japanese village at Dugway was completely annihilated, an article by Jonathan Glancey describes the “single block of high-gabled, prewar Berlin working-class housing” that remains in the Utah desert. “It is accurate in every respect. And it should be: commissioned by the chemical warfare corps of the US army, it was designed by Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), the German architect who settled in the US in 1941 after a spell in England.” Even more bizarre is the fact that “German-emigré set designers from Hollywood’s RKO studio” used their expertise to design “the proletarian Berlin interiors down to the last detail.” Recently the remaining building in the German village has been repurposed as “a training center for tactical offense against domestic terrorism.”)

“Sixteen square miles of the city [of Tokyo] was destroyed,” writes Robin Neillands in The Bomber War, about the March 9/10 raid on Tokyo:

18 per cent industrial, 63 per cent commercial, and the entire working-class residential zone, amounting to around 250,000 houses. The US Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,792 people lost their lives, 40,918 suffered injuries, and over 1 million lost their homes on that one mission. And yet this raid on Tokyo is virtually unknown outside Japan. It is a fair assumption that every reader of this book will know about Dresden but that not one in a hundred—at a generous estimate—will know what happened to Tokyo on 10 March 1945, just three weeks later.

In the ABC radio documentary, Tokyo’s Burning, B-29 pilot Chester Marshall recalled the experience of bombing Tokyo that night:

You know, you didn’t know whether you were killing a lot of women and children or what. But I do know one thing, you could at 5,000 feet you could smell the flesh burning. I couldn’t eat anything for two or three days. You know it was nauseating, really. We just said “What is that I smell?” And it’s a kind of a sweet smell, and somebody said, “Well that’s flesh burning, had to be.”

As for Vannevar Bush, “the father of hypertext,” it seems he never forgot either napalm or Tokyo. In his biography of Bush, G. Pascal Zachary writes that Merle Tuve, whose team developed the proximity fuze under Bush’s direction, believed

that Bush suffered from war guilt. Not from the atomic bomb, but from his role in aiding the ghastly firebomb raids against Japan. “For years after the war Van Bush would wake up screaming in the night because… he burned Tokyo,” Tuve later recalled. “The proximity fuze didn’t bother him badly… even the atomic bomb didn’t bother him as much as jellied gasoline [napalm].”

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Oop! Feel free to delete that first trackback; I posted in the wrong place initially, so the link won't go anywhere. Sorry.

Posted by steve on 11 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I've always had mixed feelings about the firebombings in Japan (as well as the use of nuclear weapons). On one hand, the wholesale slaughter of civilians is, in any context, reprehensible. On the other, it is rather easily argued that without them a ground invasion of the Japanese home islands would have been required to end the war, which would have cost the lives of countless troops (on both sides) and civilians, damaged the infastructure even more than it was through bombing.

Better of two evils, I suppose? It's hard to imagine, given the technological capabilities of the day, a better way to force capitulation.

Posted by John on 11 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

It's set in Kobe rather than Tokyo, but one of the most gut-wrenching movies I've ever seen is Hotaru no haka (Grave(yard) of the Fireflies):
If you think animiated movies featuring kids are kid stuff, think again. Rent this movie and see what it's like to be burned out of your house and then try to survive on your own in the middle of a war.

The question that occurs to me after reading the post is "Why didn't the Japanese have good fire departments?" If you're going to have huge cities full of wooden houses that will burn easily, and for whatever socio-politico-economic reasons it's not feasible to rebuild them, the least you can do is be ready to handle the fires. It seems literally insane not to. Any ideas?

Posted by language hat on 11 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

John, the issue of the firebombing of German and Japanese cities -- like any moral argument concerning behavior during war -- is complex and, ultimately, insoluble. Proponents of the bombing argued that there was little difference between the soldier throwing a hand grenade and the worker who assembled that hand grenade in a factory.

Although the Germans and Japanese had no qualms about bombing civilian populations, both the British and the Americans entered the war with a policy of only bombing military targets. The British soon found that daylight precision raids by unescorted bombers were impossible in the face of the Luftwaffe fighters and that it was equally impossible to bomb accurately at night. They changed their policy to area attacks at night against the German civilian population. From the viewpoint of Churchill and RAF Bomber Command, it was either bomb German civilians or don't bomb at all.

What's interesting to me is the American persistence in sticking to daylight precision bombing in Europe, steadily ironing out the technical problems until, with the advent of the P-51 Mustang fighter, they were able to range across Germany at will. They never, however, truly overcame the problems posed by the European weather so that over 40% of the tonnnage dropped on German was "aimed" by radar, in other words area bombing just like the British.

Even more interesting is the fact that the "morally superior" policy of daylight precision bombing was abandoned in the air war against Japan. General LeMay -- who was probably the most able bomber commander in the USAAF -- realized that hitting "purely military" Japanese targets with high explosives was impossible and that area raids at night using incendiaries were the only alternative.

More importantly, the years of war had insensitized Americans -- soldiers and civilians alike -- and the terrible cost of the island campaign in the Pacific led to the view you mention, that a ground invasion of Japan had to be avoided at all costs.

Language Hat, thanks for the pointer to "Hotaru no haka" -- I'll see if I can find it. To answer your question, the Japanese didn't have good fire departments for a variety of reasons (I've taken much of this information from Edwin P. Hoyt's "Inferno"):

* Even though the Japanese civilian population expected to be bombed, the official policy of the military government government was that it was impossible for the Allies to attack the Japanese homeland. Thus, although the Japanese had seen how the Chinese in Chungking cleared fire lanes to stop the spread of fires caused by Japanese bombers, the Japanese refused to do the same until it was too late. I know this sounds crazy but, even though the Germans were infinitely better prepared (they had a comprehensive network of air raid shelters in all their major cities), the Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goering had famously said that if British bombers appear over Germany, "you can call me Meier."

* Responsibility for air raid defence was split amongst a number of bodies including the Tokyo city government, the police, the Home Ministry, and the Army. These efforts were uncoordinated and, not suprisingly, ineffective.

* Responsibility for firefighting operated at the neighborhood level. Each household was expected to keep a water supply of 200 liters for each 100 square meters of floor space as well as 50 liters of sand plus straw mats for smothering fires. Each neighborhood association had ladders and shovels plus 1000 liters of water on a cart fitted with a hand pump -- this cart would be dragged to places where the fires threatened to get out of control. It's unbearably poignant to compare these measures with the kind of attack the USAAF was capable of mounting.

* As for shelters, there were none; and by the time the need for shelters was appreciated, it was too late to build them.

* By early 1945, the authorities realized that fire lanes were essential and razed 10% of Tokyo's buildings to provide them. This doubtless saved many lives. But the scale and intensity of the American attack meant rendered them largely irrelevant. The air force planners had devised a complex bombing plan which ensured that the incendiaries were widely dispersed and so numerous that a city constructed mainly of wood and paper was utterly defenceless.

Posted by Jonathon on 11 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

There were three contemporary thinkers after WW I who were largely responsible for the idea of strategic bombing. The American Billy Mitchell, the Italian Guilio Douhet, and the Brit Sir Hugh Trenchard.

In some measure, the ascendency of the notion of strategic bombing was due to the horrific nature of trench warfare in WW I and the staggering casualties that machine guns, massed atillery and poison gas were responsible for in the trenches of Europe.

The airplane was a new technology, and like all new technologies, it was invested with everyone's fantasies that it "changed everything." Strategic bombing was supposed to make war relatively quick and bloodless. Whoever could destroy their enemy's strategic center of gravity, or industrial capacity, or "will to resist" (the objectives varied over time) would win the war. Given the long-range bomber's ability to strike deep into the heart of a combatant, far from the front lines and with great speed, long wars would be a thing of the past.

I think the American wish to continue to pursue precision bombing was due to the USAAF's belief in its own vision, of less senseless violence in the service of winning a conflict. The apparent facility of the switch in the case of Japan probably includes elements of racism, though I believe too much can be made of that; the more "personal" nature of the conflict vis-a-vis Pearl Harbor and the Philippines; and the ineffectiveness of precision bombing, as well as the inuring of our sensitivity to violence you have cited.

The Air Force has maintained the vision of precision bombing shortening wars and minimizing casualties throughout its history, although the range and payloads of today's tactical aircraft, combined with the accuracy of precision munitions have made purely "strategic" bombers something of an expensive anachronism. A bomber-type will pipe up and tell me that I'm wrong and point out any number of examples of how the B-52 or the B-1, and perhaps the B-2 were important players in Kosovo or Iraq, and I'm sure he or she would be correct in a narrow sense. I think the larger picture of the obsolescence of the strategic bomber is supported by the fact that we're simply not building any more, nor are there even any plans for new "strategic" bombers.

Back in the day of the B-2 program, I used to opine that when, in order for it to survive to accomplish its mission, you had to build a bomber so expensive that, in effect, you couldn't afford it, the day of the stragic bomber was over. Naturally, we built it anyway.

Posted by dave rogers on 12 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

dang, jonathon. nice piece of work. a little longer and you've got a new yorker feature on your hand.

Posted by xian on 12 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Many thanks for the compliment, Xian.

Dave, you make a number of excellent points, particularly that the "bomber dream" sprang from the desire to avoid the hideous and pointless losses of World War II. The RAF's Arthur Harris and the USAAF's Karl Spaatz and Ira Eaker were convinced that full scale use of air power -- strategic and tactical -- would make the Normandy landings unnecessary (although Harris suggested that they might need 4000 heavy bombers to accomplish the task). In a letter to Churchill, Harris wrote: "We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the USAAF will come in on it. It will cost between us 400-500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war." Despite his high regard for Harris, Churchill didn't believe this for a minute.

I agree with you that the recent war in Iraq was in many ways the fulfillment of the bomber dream but I'm not so sure about Kosovo. Robin Neillands notes, in The Bomber War, that the USAF flew 40,000 sorties in Kosovo and hit a total of 13 Serb tanks not the 10s and 20s reported destroyed every day. Serbian casualties turned out to be about 400, not the 10,000 originally estimated. And Milosevic's government remained in power another 18 months. One wonders how the war might have proceeded had the Serbs had been able to inflict even moderate losses on the US aircraft.

Posted by Jonathon on 12 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I enjoyed the piece. I wish more bloggers wrote "features" like this one as well as shorter pieces and "diary" entries.

Is there any chance you could do a piece on the Japanese schools' treatment of WW2? (Or perhaps you've already done such a post?)

Posted by Chris on 13 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm wondering if Bush's war guilt didn't have - if in fact it was singuarly connected to napalm - something to do with a means/method of human thinking in variance to his own.

A hypertext theorist would lead and connect even randomly seen links, creating a path others could follow - the trail blazers, as you point out: as a fire would jump from post to post - literally - beam to beam, house to house. (?)

I think, Johnathon, this might have been what initated your reflection.

But napalm is broadcast. More so than the dropping of even fifty thousand poorly targeted coventional bombs. The inverse of pointing and collecting, it is a roll - more like a virus or a worm than a good blog.

I think blogging is a bit of an exploration and then a reflection, a picking up off bits and pieces on a walk in the woods. Napalm is starting a wild fire with a can of gas and a match.

The results are a foregone conclusion.

Napalm seems more like a really good modern day ad: well tested, effective, its conclusion foregone. There is no surprise
to its purveyors.

From a personal point of view, I'd like to think that as I begin a blog, or a post, that I am beginning a trail reflection or continuing down a path - of things and themes that are of interest to me.

If I thought for one second that my thinking, or my posting, or my words would lead to a literal firestorm - and I don't mean the meek 'controversy' - I'd pull them.

Van Bush didn't have the option of deleting or editing from the archive.

His thinking led to a site of dead links.

To other comments: I was completely unaware of the firebombing of Tokyo. This is not something I've forgotten, either. Thank you for the post, Johnathon.

Further, to the point regarding the morality of the incendiary nature of bombing, more specifically, the dropping of the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima (I don't see much difference: roasting by propane or microwave, you're still cooking people, alive) My father was serving in the British Army in Burma. I asked him recently what his reaction was when word reached the jungle of the dropping of the atomic bomb. He says that "to a man (meaning: it was the consensus) we thought it was wrong." Clear, unamibguous. He maintains that he and his fellow soldiers would have stayed and fought another ten years, if neccessary.

Bombing it seems is the continuing default mechanism of today's war room spam-artists.

Posted by Brian on 14 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Brian, you've made some fascinating observations. I did actually think about the fire jumping from house to house since that is a recurring theme in the accounts of those who managed to survive the firestorms -- whether in Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, or elsewhere. Nor have I ever been able to see any moral difference between the firebombings and the atomic bomb attacks.

I was, however, surprised to learn of of the response of your father and his comrades. I haven't yet got to the atomic bomb attacks in my reading since my main interest is the destruction of the Shitamachi (downtown) area of Tokyo. But I've always been under the impression that those fighting the Japanese in the Pacific would have supported almost any measure to end the war and that the horror of the atomic attacks was only realized once the Allied occupation of Japan was underway.

Posted by Jonathon on 15 August 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"John, the issue of the firebombing of German and Japanese cities -- like any moral argument concerning behavior during war -- is complex and, ultimately, insoluble."

It's thinking like this that leads good people to do horrible things during war, and makes war a convenient euphemism for barbarism. All moral dilemmas are ultimately solvable for the individual. Either killing is fine, or it isn't.


Posted by Paul D on 22 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The issue of firebombing German and Japanese cities is "complex and, ultimately, insoluble" -- which is why, in writing about it, I try to refrain from passing judgement on either side.

I read your comment not long after reading Charles Taylor's Salon review of Paul Fussell's "The Boys' Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945":

I'm not sure that killing is "fine" for anyone but a psychopath, which is the point Taylor makes when he writes:

"'The Boys' Crusade' is Fussell's distillation of what he has found in memoirs like Sledge's 'With the Old Breed,' Robert Kotlowitz's 'Before Their Time' and William Manchester's 'Goodbye, Darkness' (an uncomfortably honest memoir). What unites all of these books, and what colors all of Fussell's writing about World War II, is barely disguised bitterness. Sledge and Kotlowitz, Manchester and Fussell, and presumably all the men they speak for, know the necessity of what they did. But they still resent having had to do it. They know in their guts that war always represents some basic failure -- of diplomacy, of vigilance. And these writers write as men who were forced to learn things that they would rather not have known, that no decent person could ever want to know. To drape that knowledge in glory is, for them, an insult. It's the act of people like the ones Sledge refers to, those who talk about the honor of shedding blood for your country without ever having had to see the blood themselves."

Posted by Jonathon on 22 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Good quote, Jonothan, but I can use it to illustrate my point. Because in this instance, "necessity" drove good men to do terrible things. I'm sure many Nazis also felt resentment at the necessity of exterminating Jews.

On the other hand, in every war and scourge, there have always been people who solved this "insoluble" problem by refusing to act against their consciences; they don't suffer from the same guilt or bitterness.

It's worth noting that most terrible things are done by well-meaning people for good reasons. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all envisioned ends that justified their actions. It's an accident of history that they are viewed as villains, while Western military and political leaders are viewed (often) as heroes.

Posted by Paul D on 28 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Paul, I assume that the "people who solved this 'insoluble' problem" kept faith with their consciences by refusing to bear arms.

In another post I quoted John Keegan's attempt to address this "insoluble" dilemma:

"May we guess that Christ was conceding the moral position of the lawful bearer of arms, who must surrender his life at the demand of authority, and therefore bears comparison with the pacifist who will surrender his life rather than violate the authority of his own creed? It is a complicated thought, but not one which Western culture finds difficult to accommodate. Within it the professional soldier and the committed pacifist find room to co-exist -- sometimes cheek-by-jowl: in 3 Commando, one of Britain’s toughest Second World War units, the stretcher-bearers were all pacifists but were held by the commanding officer in the highest regard for their bravery and readiness for self-sacrifice. Western culture would, indeed, not be what it is unless it could respect both the lawful bearer of arms and the person who holds the bearing of arms intrinsically unlawful. Our culture looks for compromises and the compromise at which it has arrived over the issue of public violence is to deprecate its manifestation but to legitimise its use. Pacifism has been elevated as an ideal; the lawful bearing of arms -- under a strict code of military justice and within a corpus of humanitarian law -- has been accepted as a practical necessity."

It's instructive (and hardly coincidental) that Keegan uses the word "necessity" (to which you so clearly object).

I agree with John Keegan that our culture would be greatly diminished if it failed to accommodate those who believe that the bearing of arms is intrinsically unlawful. But I also believe that those who, legitimately (and often courageously), refuse to participate in war are able to safely do so partly because others -- for whatever reasons -- are willing to take up the arms that pacifists refused.

Whether the cause for which they fought was just is left for history to judge. As you correctly imply, history is frequently written by the victors.

Since you raise the issue of "exterminating Jews", something I wrote in another post best expresses my viewpoint:

"The contradiction, as it appears to me, is that the surviving Jews in Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and the other death camps were not liberated by pacifists. Those few Jews left alive were set free by courageous men and women who had fought their way across Europe against determined German resistance—men and women who, whether they were motivated by moral outrage, a thirst for justice, the instinct for self-preservation, or a sense of loyalty to their comrades, took part in a sustained campaign of murderous and coercive violence that resulted in the defeat of the Nazis.

"Were they wrong? Or mistaken? If so, what was the pacifist strategy for defeating Hitler, ending the occupation of Europe, and stopping the Holocaust? (And, by extension, for vanquishing the Japanese military forces and liberating the subjugated peoples of Asia.)"

Posted by Jonathon on 28 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)


I happened to stumble upon a web site for a documentary called Fog of War

It's a Flash site, so I can't link directly to the bit I'd like to call to your attention. But if you'll look for the "Video" link (tiny button, left side, between "Production" and "Film Score", and then select "1945" after the page loads, you'll hear Robert McNamara talking about the firebombing of Tokyo. He worked for LeMay.

The documentary will be showing in what seems like a rather limited theatrical release, so I suppose I'm going to have to wait for it to come to video to see it, but it looks fascinating.

Posted by dave rogers on 6 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Dave, thanks for letting me know about this. According to the Coming Soon section of the Sony Pictures Classics site, Fog of War will be released on December 19. It was directed by Errol Morris, who has made a number of innovative (and fascinating) documentary films. It'll probably get a limited theatrical release here in Australia too. Hopefully we won't have to wait too long for the DVD.

According to Kenneth P. Werrell, the Twentieth Air Force -- in which Robert McNamara served as an analyst -- had a number of other famous alumni including country singer "Tennessee" Ernie Ford, considered one of the finest instructor bombadiers in the USAAF, and George Wallace, a flight engineer who went on to become governor of Alabama. When Wallace ran as an independent for the US presidency, LeMay was his running mate.

Posted by Jonathon on 6 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour