Nationalism and Bombs Print
Politics
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 04 November 2010 08:32

When it all started, the U.S. took a firm moral stance against aerial bombing of civilians.  In 1923, a conference at the Hague issued “Rules of Aerial Warfare,” which proscribed “aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing or damaging private property not of a military character, or of injuring non-combatants,” and the U.S. conformed to that rule.  At the beginning of World War II, President Roosevelt urged the combatants “under no circumstances [to] undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities.”

The Hague conference’s prohibition of targeting noncombatants was consistent with centuries-old developments in just war theory.  For a war to be just, both the cause and the conduct of war have to be just.  According to Grotius’ influential formula, combatants should take “the greatest precaution . . . against involving the innocent in danger, except in cases of extreme urgency and utility.”  Citing classical and biblical authorities, he argues that women and children should be spared, and even men “whose modes of life are entirely removed from the use of arms.”

At first, Britain, France, and Germany all agreed to limit their bombs to military targets.  Then in May 1940, Germany destroyed the center of Rotterdam.  In August, Germany attacked London, and during Operation Blitz, which lasted for nine months in 1940-41, Germany unrelentingly attacked London, Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester, slaughtering 60,000 English civilians and demolishing some 2 million homes.  In the Pacific theater, the Japanese bombed Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, and other cities.  In Chongqing alone, they killed nearly 12,000 residents.

Churchill responded by bombing Berlin and then other German cities.  After the beginning of 1942, Britain intensified the attacks, bombing Essen, Kiel, Stuttgart, Mannheim, and Rostock.  British planes dropped 7000 tons of bombs on Hamburg and killed around 45,000 people.  By the end of the war, Churchill and Arthur Harris, the British commander in charge of aerial bombing, devoted (in the words of Max Hastings) “all available forces for the progressive, systematic destruction of the urban areas of the Reich, city block by city block, factory by factory, until the enemy became a nation of troglodytes, scratching in the ruins.”

Even after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. refused to target civilians, for a time.  By 1943 they had agreed to turn a blind eye to Britain’s bombing of cities while the U.S. kept its principles intact by focusing on military targets.   As the war dragged on and on, the U.S. changed course.  Armed with newly invented napalm and guided on night raids by perfected radars, U.S. planes joined in attacks on European cities.  In some circumstances, combatants and non-combatants are difficult to distinguish.  A young woman with no uniform might have a bomb strapped under her dress.  But that was not the situation that produced America’s policy change in the mid-1940s.  America joined allies in trying to break the will of the Axis powers by killing civilians.  It’s a classic Girardian scenario: We mimic our rivals and soon enough become all but indistinguishable.

On February 14-15, 1945, British and American bombers decimated Dresden, killing tens of thousands.  On March 9-10, the U.S. dropped firebombs on an area of Tokyo that was almost entirely residential.  Hurricane force winds spread the flames, which eventually consumed fifteen square miles of the city.  Estimates of the dead range from 85-125,000.  More than a million were left homeless.  Between December 6 and August 13, 1945, the U.S. launched sixty-five raids on Tokyo, killing nearly 150,000.  According to Mark Selden’s summary, during the first half of 1945, Americans “destroyed 180 square miles of sixty-seven [Japanese] cities, killed more than 300,000 people, and injured an additional 400,000.”  These numbers do not include the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Selden says that the U.S. campaign slaughtered “civilian populations on a scale that had no parallel in the history of bombing.”

The bombing of Dresden provoked protests in the U.S. and especially in Britain.  In response to press criticism, Secretary of State Henry Stimson defended the administration’s war-making by saying that “our policy never has been to inflict terror bombing on civilian populations,” and Stimson claimed that Dresden was a legitimate military target because it was a transportation hub.  It was an evasion at best, but an effective one.  Virtually no one protested the U.S. bombing of Japanese civilians and indiscriminate devastation of Japanese cities.  Dead civilians were collateral damage.  The U.S. convinced itself, and has convinced itself since, that we never attack civilians.

Since World War II, aerial bombing, including bombing of non-combantant civilians, has been a centerpiece of the American way of war.  Air strikes have obvious practical advantages: Attackers are relatively safe, and are even more so today when we can deploy unmanned drones.  Aerial attacks have psychological advantages too: Bombers grapple with their victims, never see them light up like matchsticks, never smell the piles of rotting and burning corpses they leave behind.  And the theory is that attacking civilian targets breaks the will of the enemy.

Israel, of course, waged wars of utter destruction against the Canaanites, slaughtering men, women, and children without pity (Deuteronomy 3:6; 7:1-16; Joshua 7, 10-11).  Just as they were for Israel, Israel’s herem wars are not normative for modern warfare.  Even Israel did not wage wars of utter destruction against every enemy.  Deuteronomy 20 carefully distinguishes between enemy cities that are “far” and those “nearby.”  Moses instructs Israel, “Only the cities of these peoples that Yahweh is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes” (vv. 15-16).  When Israel fought against “far” cities, they were to slaughter the men but to spare women, children, and animals (vv. 13-14).

Behind the bombings is a uniquely modern idolatry.  Deuteronomy 20:19-20 forbids Israel to destroy fruit trees during a siege.  Commenting on these verses, R. J. Rushdoony says that “war is not to be waged against the earth, but against men . . . . life must go on, and the fruit tree and the vineyard represent at all times an inheritance from the past and a heritage for the future: they are not to be destroyed. . . . Wanton destruction is not permitted.”  Rushdoony goes on to broaden the point: “Warfare is an aspect of the life of the political order, and its role is important, but production is more basic. . . . The priority of politics is a modern heresy which is steadily destroying the world.”

Powerful bombs, the idolatry of power, a nearly unshakeable conviction that we are the good guys no matter what we do: It’s a dangerous mix, a ticking bomb that only an honest and biblical assessment of the American way of war can defuse.



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