Punitive Bombing

I grew up in the 1970's, a time when a lot of Americans post-Vietnam were questioning the value, even the sanity, of war.  Opinions were certainly split on the subject, but one thing I remember is that the concept of "punitive bombing" was widely mocked and disdained.  Which is why I find it amazing to see bipartisan, multi-country support for exactly this tired old idea as applied to Syria.  Has bombing ever done anything but radicalize the bombed civilian population against the bombers?  The reaction to the London Blitz was not to have the English suddenly decide that they had been wrong in supporting Poland.  Nor did Germans or Japanese generally reprimand their leaders for the past policies as as result of our firebombing Tokyo or Dresden.  Or look at drone strikes in Afghanistan -- do you get the sense anyone there is saying, "Boy, have we ever been taught a lesson."

In the comments, readers are welcome to contribute examples of countries who "learned their lesson" from punitive air strikes and changed their behavior.

PS-  Apparently the reason we "must" have at least air strikes is that we have established a policy that we will "do something" if countries use chemical weapons.  And if we don't have air strikes, the world will think we are weak, right?  But the problem is that this logic never ends.  If the country then ignores our air strikes and behaves as before, or perhaps performs an FU of their own by using chemical weapons openly, then what?  Aren't we obligated to do something more drastic, else the world will think we are weak?


  1. iron-y:

    Well, the US is an excellent example. One lesson we've clearly learned from the Twin Towers bombing and the planes is not to meddle in the middle east.

  2. oneteam:

    There's no solution, if that's possible. If we don't do anything, it'll look like we don't care about dictators using chemical weapons against their own populace. And of course, in liberal speak, that means we're evil. But then when we try to do something to "contain" it, we're viewed as imperialist trying to foist our will upon a sovereign country. It's really a no win situation. The only thing that will eradicate the middle eastern problem is if Islam up and just disappeared as a religion. Barring that, it's always going to be a stick fight. I say just leave them the hell alone. Let them all kill each other. I'm so tired of trying to civilize a part of the world that is wholly unable to be civilized. Give Israel military aid and support (as the only true democracy in that part of the world) and then just sit back and see what happens.

  3. jon:

    Maybe we should remember all the times we have used chemical weapons on other countries in the recent past?


  4. Bruce Stegiel:

    Maybe we move beyond parochial analysis and recognize the United States is not United or States but is instead a population subject to corporate overlords who have no flag. These colonial wars are not for anything more than advancing interests of that class of men whose whole delight is in destroying. The emergence of neo-Feudalism rests on weakening the USA through warfare. The United States as cop on the block is a quaint fig leaf of the Ashcroft variety.

  5. Daublin:

    Japan in World War II. After two nuclear bombs, they cried uncle. Over the ensuing decades, they embraced much of the culture of their attackers.

  6. david propsting:

    It is illegal to smack a child in a way that leaves a mark in the UK.
    Punitive measures do not address the problem and intelligent people understand this.
    Why are the leaders of the West not intelligent people?
    There are solutions to the problems showing so horribly in Syria and other parts of the Middle East at the moment.
    There are just no military solutions.
    The West can actually help by supporting the civilians (that as always are the most affected in these situations) with aid and by helping the different Rulers of the entire region come to a diplomatic solution and by not stirring up the region for selfish reasons.

  7. Joe_Da:

    In many respects I completely agree with you, on the other hand, I completely disagree with your logic.

    One of the reasons both Japan and Germany have emerged post wwII is that the allies not only destroyed the military, but destroyed the culture that led to lead the war like mentality.

    In syria's case, there are three groups, 1) the assad regime backed by Iran, 2) al qeada, 3) and a large segment of the Syrian people that want nothing to do with either group.
    The mistake the US and its allies will be making in Syria is the killing people in the third group instead of destroying both of the first two groups.

  8. Roy:

    I agree with the sentiment Warren expresses (which I take to read as "Bombing Syria may turn out counterproductive", and "Before we bomb anyone we oughta think carefully about what we hope that bombing to accomplish"). But I have reservations about his method of expressing that sentiment.

    Warren's question (provide egs of punitive bombing enemy behavior) has built in definitions that make answering similar to all double bind questions. What does he (or other users) mean by punitive? What constitutes success in achieving behavior change?

    The atomic attacks on Japan did not occur for primarily or even secondarily punitive reasons. That they significantly changed Japan's behavior (and, not coincidentally, but intentionally saved several hundreds of times more Japanese lives than they cost) is non-debatable historical fact. But they were not what I think of when I ponder "punitive" (which is more like punishment for past behavior, or more like revenge, or more like extracting restitution).

    Furthermore, and, as the case for Japan, equally historically valid to the military aware in contrast to the politically shaped, bombing in each of Warren's cited instances did cause changes in behavior (read "strategy and tactics" in contrast to "will to continue fighting").

  9. ColoComment:

    Obama talked himself into a box with his red line statement, never thinking that Syria would call his bluff. We don't even know for sure who used the gas? poison? but golly gee let's go bomb someone so that the world will take Obama for serious. He's a weak leader, a buffoon, an incompetent surrounded by sycophants. The commander in chiel of the greatest military force the world has ever seen doesn't have a effing clue what he's doing.

    He's not working with Congress because he doesn't want to be told, "No, no military action." He is sidestepping the UN because he can't get a resolution through. His "coalition of the willing" is the UK and France. Who will be right BEHIND the U.S. in any military action. He should just man up and say, "I mis-spoke. We have no national interests at risk in Syria. It's a tragedy that Assad and his opponents have the civilian population caught in their crossfire, but the U.S. can't resolve this dispute."

    He's not got the moral courage to say he was wrong to speak at all.

  10. Brennan:

    I think one has to define what "punitive" means. When a state is openly attacked, kinetic retribution might be in order. When a state takes drastic steps to curb turmoil which by definition is an internal matter to that state, such as the case in Syria, it's harder to make the case for an external state to spend blood and treasure punishing the former.

    For example, when Libya was feeling froggy back in the '80s, and was proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have been behind attacks on US citizens and assets, it could be argued that the flight of F-111 bombers that targeted a few of his residences convinced Ghadaffi to keep his head down for many years thereafter.

    OTOH, history is rife with examples of negative short and long-term results to the interests of the state that took on the role of avenging angel when no national interest was at stake. Cold-hearted though it may be, US interests are best served by letting Syria continue to burn, IMO. The best choice between the Assad-Hezbollah forces and the Iranian-backed Al-Qaeda rebels is public concern and private glee. We have no dog in this fight.

    Besides, I'm a little vexed at being a proxy for faux French outrage. If Hollande is so upset, he can put on his big boy pants and make a bad military decision without any help from the US.

  11. Brennan:

    Good point about not knowing all the facts about the gas/poison/WMD tactics used. Who is the trustworthy source for this intel?

    As an aside, it was common for the various factions to use barbaric tactics during the conflicts that resulted from the fall of the former Yugoslavia. Typically this would happen when one side thought they weren't getting enough media attention or felt they were losing support. Sometimes the way to get attention and support back would be to stage an attack on one of its own villages, wipe it out, then claim the other side did it while pointing to atrocities they themselves committed. Not saying that happened in Syria, but there are some cultures that behave this way.

  12. ColoComment:


  13. HenryBowman419:

    Well, we have also used it on our own citizens: Bill Clinton (or his agents, Janet Reno and the Hildebeest) used it on civilians during the Waco massacre.

  14. HenryBowman419:

    The idea that we must do something, even if it is wrong is a hideous idea primarily designed to help out those who believe it, rather than other directly affected. It is truly a terribly destructive notion, one that should be discouraged at all levels.

  15. MingoV:

    "... countries who "learned their lesson" from punitive air strikes and changed their behavior..."

    England learned its lesson and built more fighter planes and more air raid shelters.

    Japan learned its lesson and told its citizens that the evil Americans will burn all Japanese cities, and that all citizens of all ages must fight an American invasion. Surrender was not an option. (We knew this, and that was a justification for nuking Japan.)

    North Vietnam learned its lesson and dispersed its military bases, supplies, and factories throughout the country. It also moved its men south via Laos.

  16. Anonymous Mike:

    The examples of a country changing its behavior due to air attacks was Serbia twice in the 1990s, first with Bosnia and then with Kosovo.

    Technically Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs changed their behavior and since the only thing that had changed was the introduction of U.S. bombing you can make the case that it was the bombing that made the difference. However there are major things to consider:

    1) By the time of the bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 the war in Bosnia had already stalemated and the Serbs had already made all their major gains early in the war. You could argue that the NATO campaign was the straw that broke the back of the Serbs willingness to continue the war as opposed to an action that caused a radical change of behavior.

    2) Just as the Bosnian Serbs could keep most of their gains out of the Dayton Peace Accord, the Serbs in 1999 could afford to leave Kosovo because a) they already had a place to go (Serbia) and b) they were facing an untenable demographic situation in Kosovo anyway. Assad and the Alawaites have nowhere else to go, this is a fight to the death. When the stakes are that high, aerial campaigns without a strong ground component don't work. The model everyone points to is the RTP campaign in Libya in 2011 without remembering that we had the Libyan rebels on the ground to take advantage of the opportunities the bombing campaign created.

    3) It's very hard to calibrate bombing campaigns to achieve measurable results in terms of breaking the enemy's will to resist. We had a horrible time in 1945 knowing just how effective the bombing of Germany was going. Likewise if you remember the Kosovo campaign, Serbia seemed able to withstand every blow we landed on her leading to a loss in morale on our part until Serbia suddenly collapsed.

    Unless we were committed to a lengthy bombing campaign coupled with coordination with the Syrian rebels and the resulting massacre of the Alawaites and Christians this is just going to be a multi-billion dollar fireworks display that will add to the casualty count so we can feel good about ourselves/

  17. Harry:

    Bret Stephens wrote a persuasive piece in Tuesday's WSJ arguing that Bashir Assad is the guy to punish by killing him and his family. Bashir is the ultimate trigger man who not just used sarin gas, but also killed another hundred thousand by more conventional means.

    Not that any choice presented is a good one in this mess.

    I can remember the newly crowned Speaker Nancy Pelosi, wearing a scarf piously on her head, almost licking Bashir Assad's boots, doing San Fransisco-style diplomacy in 2007. Bashir Assad, son of Hafez Assad, the butcher of Hama. Bashir Assad, friend of Hezbollah and Ayatollah Khameni.

  18. Mole1:

    Exactly. People don't respond to incentives. If they suffer negative consequences as a result of their actions, they just do it more. That is why we need strong governments to control markets, because market forces never provide sufficient punishment to deter bad behavior.

    Without the sarcasm: the logic behind punishing the use of weapons of mass destruction is that people do respond to incentives. Syria was left alone until they used chemical weapons, and now foreign powers will intervene (at least that is the idea - one could argue they used chemical weapons nearly a year ago and got away with it; which resulted in further chemical weapons use). Future leaders considering the use of chemical weapons can be expected to respond to the incentives (not 100% of the time, obviously, because many of them are loons).

  19. mesaeconoguy:

    I have read no stated reason (other than we must “respond”) from this amateur hour administration that we must bomb/do something to Syria.

    At least Bush had a (faulty) premise for the Iraq invasion. Obamarama doesn’t even bother with the formality – and he’s well on course to bypass Congress entirely, and probably the UN, not that anybody really cares about them, but still…

    Can someone point me to any reason given by this childlike fascist dictator and his juvenile lickspitlles, other than “we must respond?”

  20. marque2:

    Did he use gas? He has been winning the war- why would he use gas when he is winning. Could it be that El.Quaeda groups launched it themselves and are using it as an excuse to drag the USA in and win the war for the terrorists? I wouldn't be surprised.

  21. marque2:

    Except for three talking heads it seems like no one really wants.to do this except Obama because the new puppy diversion didn't work. It has a 9% approval rating. Can't get much lower than 9%

  22. mesocyclone:

    You've got the North Vietnam and Japanese lessons thoroughly wrong.

    North Vietnam moved their men south through Laos *before* the "punitive" bombing. The Christmas Bombings of 1972 decisively and rapidly defeated North Vietnam. This was the first time that US Air Power was allowed to strike all military targets without restrictions (other than a prohibition on hitting the dikes), and to continue striking until the enemy was completely out of ammunition (SAMs) and thus defenseless. It is no coincidence that North Vietnam surrendered (sued for peace) a few months later, even as US forces were being rapidly removed from the theatre.

    Likewise, Japan learned its lesson too: Hiroshima and Nagasaki suddenly and thoroughly defeated an enemy that had previously been willing to fight to the last civilian.

    None of this, however, has any bearing on what Obama is likely to do in Syria - which is most likely going to be pin-prick bombing.

  23. mesocyclone:

    I think you forgot to put on your tin foil hat this morning. The US has not used chemical weapons on any country since WW-I, and I'm not sure we used them then. You link is to a piece that belongs in a psychiatric museum.

  24. marque2:

    There have been several cases where the US has sprayed substances on its own citizens for military experiments- most notably in St Louis.

  25. ErikTheRed:

    It's essentially turned into an international dick-measuring contest that only one leader is insecure enough to participate in. Yay Hope and Change!

    And at the risk of being an insensitive prick, what's the big deal about chemical weapons? It's just another way of killing people. There'd be plenty of dead bodies if they'd used conventional explosives and shrapnel, or just plain old bullets. Dead is dead and maimed is maimed. In theory, you can kill people more quickly and efficiently with WMDs, but in practice national leaders don't seem to have much difficulty ordering the same number of people destroyed using more "acceptable" techniques. It's perfectly awesome behavior to condemn any killing of innocent civilians, but to make a "special" case for WMDs just makes it seem like "Oh, it would have been fine if he would have just lined them up and shot them."

  26. ErikTheRed:

    The evidence that Syria used poison gas is buried in the desert right next to Iraq's WMDs.

  27. ErikTheRed:

    News stations get higher ratings during a war. This is some just amazingly f'd up self-serving behavior by "journalists." I mean, deeply, and thoroughly f'd up. Completely sociopathic.

  28. TiminKuwait:

    There have been a reported 110,000 civilians killed in this 2+ year conflict. Killed by bullets, bombs, falling buildings, beheadings, and who knows what other "conventional" means. There is also several million people displaced because of the war.
    Now, all of the sudden, we are concerned about 350 people who may or may not have been killed by chemical weapons???
    Does not pass the logic test and sure as hell doesn't pass the moral test!!
    We have no business in Syria. Their war poses absolutely no threat to the US.

  29. TiminKuwait:

    Exactly!! Assad may be an evil mutant dictator but one thing he isn't is stupid!

  30. HoratiusZappa:

    Assad already thinks the US weak, or he would not have called the bluff. Authoritarian regimes which do not think themselves answerable to any other power or coalition (read: willing to trade deaths until the latter tire) will do whatever is necessary to cling to power.

    In view of the fact that foreign interventions in general - and bombing campaigns in particular - tend to stiffen popular support of a regime, the hypothesis which must be considered is whether a response is exactly what Assad desires. The US only has the power to attack; it doesn't have the power to decide for Assad whether the attack should be perceived as punishment or puppet-on-a-string.

  31. morganovich:

    fwiw, i do not think there is widespread public support for this.

    "About 60 percent of respondents in a Reuters/Ipsos poll said United
    States should not intervene in Syria's civil war, while just 9 percent
    thought President Barack Obama should act."

    this is an absolute no win. colo is exactly right this this is a corner obama backed himself into and now, he's going to have to eat crow. launching airstrikes that will be wildly counterproductive to protect his ego would be an act worthy of commodus.

  32. Matthew Slyfield:


  33. Matthew Slyfield:

    I don't think that irritants like tear gas and / or CX qualify as chemical weapons.

  34. marque2:

    This is one of those times when Google can be your friend. Google "St Louis military experiments" and you get tons of sources. First two are from a local TV station. Third is from Business insider. Here is a link to the TV report. St Louis wasn't the only city.


  35. marque2:

    A different program in Guam


    This one didn't involve spraying chemicals on people - but giving them mind altering drugs

  36. ColoComment:

    Keep in mind that, at the time of surrender, not only was Japan's industrial base and military leadership destroyed, but also that the U.S. has maintained a presence in Japan from August 1945 through the present. Ditto for [W.] Germany. I submit that, while the nukes ended the war with Japan, it was more the continuous military oversight/governance of the defeated nations and the rebuilding of their economies via U.S. inputs that promoted the culture change from empire & dictatorship to a more democratic/republican/parliamentary government structure.

    OTOH, more recently we've followed a strategy of bomb the enemy from offshore or 30k feet, but leave the remnants to the locals to pick up. Ergo, the MB (or its ilk) slips into governing roles like jackals feeding after a lion kill. You may bring up Afghanistan/Iraq as contrary examples, but Obama made it very, very clear that he would terminate the U.S. presence in those countries (and even exposed his timetable, the dumb*ss), which negated any "change" influence that our continuing oversight might have imposed on their cultures over the longer term. No guarantees, of course, but by leaving we denied those countries any chance at true cultural reform, which takes at minimum a generation or more to "set."

  37. Nehemiah:

    Big time misdirection here. IRS abuse, NSA lawbreaking, Obamacare breaking down. I know, lets start a war and get these other issues off the radar screen. This will not end well I can assure you.

  38. stevewfromford:

    The dancing that tool Carney did to claim there was an "imminent" threat to the US and thus Obama need not get congressional authorization, was disgusting. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of attacking Syria it is an act of war and thus clearly required to be authorized by congress prior to our involvement. Obama is so unconcerned about the constitutional limitations on the power of the President he doesn't even pay lip service to abiding by it's terms. It is truly distressing that the American people seem not to care much and our, supposed, "watchdog" media continue on as mere lapdogs to this extralegal regime of fools..

  39. mesaeconoguy:

    See the headlines scroll out this morning, morg? "Not Slam Dunk" followed by "No Conclusive Evidence Assad tied to gas attack" etc.

    Rank incompetence, and complete, total decimation of Obama's miniscule credibility. This moron is now officially a international joke.

  40. marque2:

    Tear gas is deadly. A certain percentage of folk die when it is used. UN has talked about including tear gas on chemical warfarw laws

  41. MingoV:

    You're conflating one punitive bombing campaign with all bombing. Second, North Vietnam did not surrender. The won the friggin' war. The took over South Vietnam, instilled Ho Chi Minh's version of communism, and oppressed the population for years. What planet are you living on?

    Re: Japan--My comment said that the fire bombings convinced the Japanese that Americans would be vicious if they invaded. The nuclear bombings caused a different response.

  42. beautox:

    Not all intelligent people think that smacking is evil. Some think that it will lead to a generation of people who don't understand consequences of their actions. And many intelligent people disagree with your analysis that there are solutions in Syria based on aid and helping. Perhaps you should stop trying to speak for intelligent people.

  43. mesocyclone:

    North Vietnam did indeed surrender. As part of the peace agreement, the US promised South Vietnam the following:

    1) Military supplies as required
    2) In the event of an invasion from the North, air support.

    Shortly thereafter, Congress passed, with a veto-proof majority, the Case-Church amendment forbidding any US military action in the theater (and thus betraying the South Vietnamese).

    In Aug, 1974, Congress significantly cut financial aid.

    In 1975, after two years to lick their wounds and re-arm, the North Vietnamese launched a massive combined forces invasion of the South. The South, lacking adequate air support and running out of ammunitions and supplies, was then defeated.

    The war was won by bombing, and lost by Congress. The "peace movement" in the US gave the South Vietnamese over to the communists, at a huge cost in lives and a continuing huge cost in freedom.

    As a Vietnam Veteran, I was paying attention at the time.

    And *that's* the planet I live on - planet reality.

  44. obloodyhell:

    }}} The reaction to the London Blitz was not to have the English suddenly decide that they had been wrong in supporting Poland.

    Not that I disagree with your overall thesis, but this is a shoddy example of your point.

    Germany was bombing the RAF airfields consistently, not the cities -- this was a clear military target. Apparently the Brits were doing the same to German airfields.
    The wiki entry on the Battle of Britain describes how that changed:

    The Luftwaffe offensive against Britain had included numerous raids on major ports since August, but Hitler had issued a directive London was not to be bombed save on his sole instruction.[174] However, on the afternoon of 15 August, Hauptmann Walter Rubensdörffer leading Erprobungsgruppe 210 mistakenly bombed the Croydon airfield (on the outskirts of London) instead of the intended target, RAF Kenley;[175] this was followed on the night of 23/24 August[141] by the accidental bombing of Harrow, also on the outskirts of London, as well as raids on Aberdeen, Bristol, and South Wales. The focus on attacking airfields had also been accompanied by a sustained bombing campaign which began on 24 August with the largest raid so far, killing 100 in Portsmouth, and that evening the first night raid on London as described above.[155] On 25 August 1940, 81 bombers of Bomber Command were sent out to raid industrial and commercial targets in Berlin. Clouds prevented accurate identification and the bombs fell across the city, causing some casualties amongst the civilian population as well as damage to residential areas.[176] Continuing RAF raids on Berlin in retaliation led to Hitler withdrawing his directive,[177] and on 3 September Göring planned to bomb London daily, with Kesselring's enthusiastic support, having received reports the average strength of RAF squadrons was down to five or seven fighters out of 12 and their airfields in the area were out of action. Hitler issued a directive on 5 September to attack cities including London.[178][179] In his speech delivered on 4 September 1940, Hitler threatened to obliterate (ausradieren) British cities if British bombing runs against Germany did not stop.

    This makes it a poor example of your thesis because the bombing of London was nominally turnabout for bombing German cities (which itself was a turnabout for bombings of British cities), not for the Brit populace's support of Poland.

    The goal, as is usually the case for both sides, is to cause sufficient "Woe is me!" to turn the opposition's population against the government that was prosecuting the war.

  45. obloodyhell:

    }}} it was more the continuous military oversight/governance of the defeated nations and the rebuilding of their economies via U.S. inputs that promoted the culture change from empire & dictatorship to a more democratic/republican/parliamentary government structure.

    No doubt this was relevant, but I believe in both cases that the populace themselves felt that they, as a people, had screwed up and "deserved" their fate -- this is one of the key things different between Germany/Japan post WWII and, say, Afghanistan -- I suspect the Afghanis saw us as an occupier rather than someone trying to bring them back to the modern era after they'd drifted away from it. This is pretty relevant to the attitudes of the populace in the aftermath, which is how the results differed so significantly.

  46. obloodyhell:

    I generally concur though the use of chemical weapons, if true, is considered a violation of international treaties which previous governments of Syria were signatory to and thus a war crime.

  47. obloodyhell:

    "Don't Do Something!! Just Stand There!" should be an official motto of the next government, Come The Revolution.

  48. obloodyhell:

    I believe the general notion is that chemical weapons make no discrimination whatsoever -- you aren't even TRYING to not harm civilians at all. Bombings usually have a target that has some military relevance, at the least.

  49. morganovich:

    yeah. a charitable interpretation would be that this is a rational response to new data. i suspect the reality is that the data is being deliberately cast into doubt to try to get out of this corner.

    the time for honoring yourself will soon be at an end obama...