The Worst New Idea of the 20th Century

I wanted to add something to my post on Hiroshima the other day.  The point of the post was not to argue for any comfort with atomic weapons or the killing of tens of thousands of civilians (mutual assured destruction has got to be the dumbest, scariest, craziest basis for international relations ever conceived).  The point was to argue that most arguments about Hiroshima are stripped of historical context, colored by our experience of the Cold War, and based on increasingly popular but incorrect assumptions about the rulers of Japan at the end of the war.

So as an adjunct to that post, I wanted to emphasize that I think civilian bombing (whether conventional or nuclear) to be the worst single new idea of the 20th century.  The absolute worst ideas of the 20th century were likely Marxism and genocide, but these were not new to the 2oth century.  But strategic bombing of civilian populations far to the rear of the front lines, whether convention or nuclear, by airplane or missile, was almost entirely new.  It was an awful, terrible idea that haunts us to this day.

It is in this context that I don't single out Hiroshima for particular opprobrium.  It was a change in technology in a horrendous program.  The worst of the lot in my mind was Arthur Harris.  Harris, head of the British strategic bombing effort through most of the war, did not even pretend to be targeting industries or factories.  He thought such precision bombing to be madness.  His very specific goal was to kill and "unhouse" as many civilians as possible, and he measured the British bombing effort in those terms.


  1. nemome:

    and the Germans were targetting who?

  2. me:

    Spot on. That was the point I was trying to make, albeit of course not nearly as cogent as you just did. Couldn't agree more.

  3. me:

    I think the point is that the very idea is abhorrent and immoral, regardless of who chooses to do so.

    The entire "they did, too" and "look what you made me do" arguments are appropriate for ages four to six, not for civilized nations.

  4. nemome:

    ahh, ad hominem attacks. I refer you to Will and Ariel Durant's first volume of "The History of Civilization" If you take the morals of one culture and subtract out the morals not accepted by another culture, basically no morals exist. Morality in war is basically an oxymoron.

  5. Joe:

    I am not going to justify the bombing of the civilian population on grounds that the axis powers did it first.
    The two points I would like to make is that
    a) the shift to civilian targets was done primarily because the bombing of military targets was largely ineffective. In japan, the bombing was also partly justified by the workforce structure. For the most part, there were no large factories, but many small homes supply parts to the war making machinery.
    b) the second reason was the concept that it was the way to destroy the moral to continue the war.

    As I previously stated in other posts, eventually the primary goal of the allied powers was to destroy the culture that permeated both japan and Germany - the complete.unconditional surrender of the axis powers. The resulting destruction of that culture has proven to be a resounding success. Within just 20 years after the war and continuing today, both societies remain outstanding members of the world community.

    Appeasement of anti western cultures instead of the destruction of such cultures only continues to breed future problems. The limited 2-3 month success of Chamberlian inspires some of our current leaders - instead of the larger and more important history lesson occurring just 6 or so months after chamberlians so-called "success"

  6. Mercury:

    Well, that toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube. The wartime targeting of civilians is only “the worst single new idea of the 20th century” in the context of post-classical Western civilization (and even then there are qualifications).

    Recall that the militarily mighty British looked disdainfully upon the American colonists for essentially fighting like Indians and not like gentlemen. Of course the colonists ultimately achieved victory, largely through attrition and you could argue that as otherwise powerful European militaries lost more and more engagements to non-Western forces who used “whatever it takes” guerilla type tactics (including blurring the distinction between soldiers and civilians) the more accepting they themselves became of targeting civilians directly.

    The problem is that less civilized/humane warfare tends to be more effective, pound for pound than more civilized methods and tactics (aka asymmetric warfare). Ironically the US underestimated a “non-conventional” enemy in Vietnam who played a role not unlike the one played by the American colonist 200 years prior. And post-Vietnam the US has had very little success fighting “limited”, more humane wars that try to avoid civilian casualties.

    I’m to making apologies for A or B – like many aspects of the human condition at this point in history it’s a shitshow one way or the other.

    Where culture once restrained human behavior, the global leaders/elite of the developed world now seek to employ technology instead. I don’t think that will end well.

    Anyway, the closest thing we still have to determining outcomes by marching soldiers in brightly colored uniforms onto a designated field of battle to violently engage their opposites…is American pro football. And even that may be coming apart at the seams.

  7. Bram:

    Killing civilians was hardly a new idea in the Twentieth Century. Historians are still debating how many hundreds of millions of Chinese civilians were killed when Genghis Khan invaded.

  8. smilerz:

    The only reason that idea is new is that bombing was new. War against civilians has lasted as long as there has been war. Tossing plaugue ridden victims over castle walls was a favorite of Genghis Khan. Murdering peasants was quite common in Europe.

  9. kidmugsy:

    Just another tactic introduced by Germany, at which she was eventually utterly outclassed.

  10. vikingvista:

    That was an important clarification of your opinion, even if you are wrong in thinking that targeting maximal civilian casualties is anything new.

    For those out there who agree with the deliberate mass killing (whether by nuclear weapons or other means) of unarmed men, women, and children in an aggressor nation's territory, I ask you, what wouldn't you be willing to do to achieve your ends?

    But with Japan in particular, the US military having removed the threat (using e.g. the USSR as an example of the kind of threat that was deemed tolerable), the USA could have declared victory and gone home. Who knows, maybe a residual fascist Japan would've been enough of a communist enemy to reduce the tens of millions of murders committed by Mao's followers. Or not.

    But judging hundreds of thousands of concrete murders now as worth some highly uncertain future benefit is not the kind of calculus any decent, or non-monstrous, person makes.

    There were those among the Allies in that war who deserved a firing squad, and none of them were deserters.

  11. mlhouse:

    The rules were set by the Germans and the Japanese long before Bomber Harris became the commander of Bomber Command. With the limitations of the weapons in the 1940's civilians were going to be targeted. Further, the killing and unhousing if civilians was rightfully considered to be a strategic target. If you killed or displaced the worker in the munitions or ball bearing plant you set back the enemies war production.

    The Germans and Japanese created this level of total war. The ratio of civilians killed by the Axis to the Allied forces is probably 50-1.

    So lets not weep for the the instigators of a war that killed 60 million people.

  12. Joe:

    vikingvista - "There were those among the Allies in that war who deserved a firing squad, and none of them were deserters."

    There were approximately 160 US soldiers executed by the US for various crimes, rape murder during WWII. As I recall, a high percentage were black enlisted men in patton's army.
    Slovik (sp) was the only one executed for desertion.

  13. mlhouse:

    The Germans targeted civilian targets in Amersterdam, London and all of England. The Battle of Britain was German bombing attacks against British civilians. They further attacked using V1 and V2, which were not precision weapons and were aimed at the civilian homes.

    The Japanese conducted crimes against the civilian populations all across Asia.

  14. mesocyclone:

    It was mostly technology that caused this to happen. Countries have always waged war on civilians. Ask General Sherman.

  15. Gil G:

    Heck the Bible depicts what nowadays would be a blueprint for Mongolian invasion - eliminate everyone except virginal women.

  16. obloodyhell:

    }}} (mutual assured destruction has got to be the dumbest, scariest, craziest basis for international relations ever conceived)

    Dumbest, craziest? No. Scariest, that one might fit.

    But when there is a weapon like that, and there is NO PRACTICAL DEFENSE AGAINST IT**, it isn't dumb to go with the only option you have, a gun to everyone's head if anyone misbehaves.

    **One of the reasons for the ABM treaty, which said, essentially "no defenses" (the USA and the USSR were allowed to "defend" one city each. The USSR supposedly built one for Moscow, we never bothered) was the simple fact that it was demonstrable that for every 100 dollars spent on defense, you could overwhelm it by spending 10 bucks (or whatever -- much less than 100) on more offense.

    One of the many different concerns that led to the bizarre notion of the MX missile (later on in the piece if you follow the link), which was to deal with the increasing first-strike concerns about the steady improvement in the accuracy of Soviet missiles -- it was feared that the soviets could launch a first strike which would be accurate enough to take out our hardened silos, which meant that the one who attacked first would "win" (as much as anyone would win such a situation). This was considered destabilizing to the MAD situation, as it meant that one side could blow off the other's head and get away with it.

    Another concern was with the notion of blue lasers being used to penetrate the oceans, which would defacto expose our ballistic missile subs ("Boomers", for those of you familiar with Tom Clancy) and make their locations known, thus vulnerable, again, to a first-strike scenario.

    So, no, Warren, this was not a stupid scenario to exist. Scary, yes, one twitchy trigger finger and it's all over, but there was no satisfactory alternative, so it was anything but "dumb".

    Interestingly enough, Robert Heinlein had an interestingly prescient short story, titled, "Solution Unsatisfactory" -- written in 1940, mind you, before anyone had really done anything with radioactivity at all -- even Fermi's pile in Chicago was yet 2 years unbuilt -- which was yet another example of his foreseeing a situation that came to pass, even though his precise choice of technological means was itself wrong.

  17. obloodyhell:

    VV, you're mostly wrong, you've listened to the liberal revisionist BS and fallen for it.

    I'll offer this excellent video, several years old, now, by Bill Whittle, which details the vast array of wrongness that is the liberal BS PoV of Hiroshima

  18. vikingvista:

    Rather than assuming I'd be interested in a video of your choosing, how about just telling me what I'm wrong about?

  19. ee:

    Interesting chronology of the development of numbers of American lives saved: From 40k in '45 to Millions in '08:

    Personally, the entire chain of logic in the common narrative is obviously highly suspect:
    (1) Japan is seeking surrender through the Soviets since February but are unwilling to have the Tenno on trial
    (2) We push back seeking an unconditional surrender
    (3) Because we must have that unconditional surrender, we must invade
    (4) Because we must invade, 40k American soldiers are expected to lose their lives
    (5) That's unacceptable, so let's burn a few hundred thousand Japanese Civilians
    (6) Japan surrenders, Tenno intact, haha, just kidding in (2)

  20. Q46:

    Cry Havoc! Let slip the dogs of war.

    'Bombing' civilians was not a new 20th Century idea, what do you think happened in former times when cities were beieged?

    Why do you think cities had walls around them?

    To capture territory required capturing all its cities and castles/forts.

    What do you think the attacking forces did to those inside the cities to encourage them to open the gates? There had to be an incentive.

    Well yes, they would lob boulders, pots with burning oil over the walls. They also lobbed the decomposing bodies of dead animals and Humans over the walls to spread disease... biological warfare. In later times the missiles contained explosives.

    And then what happened when the city fell? Citizens would be raped and butchered and some taken as slaves.

    This was common: the incentive was open the gates now and we will be kind to you... a promise not always kept... or we will turn your city into a living Hell then be beastly to you once we get inside.

    Aerial bombing was just a new way of doing an old thing. Just as cannon replaced balisters to 'bomb' cities and terrorise citizens.

  21. Q46:

    Bomber Harris: he did not think precisions bombing was 'madness' he understood that precision bombing did not exist because bomb aiming equipment was inaccurate, the flight of bombs could not be controlled, cloud often obscured the target, anti-aircraft activity drove aircraft higher thus making 'accurate' targeting difficult, faulty intelligence meant bombs were dropped in the wrong place and at night.

    In essence most bombs fell on civilian targets whatever the intent.

    When the US entered the war with its allegedly precision aiming equipment, their accuracy in practice was little better for most of the same reasons. And they soon abandoned daylight raids as being too costly, which they had been warned by the British would be so because of heavy AA and war experienced Luftwaffe pilots.

    Area bombing was meant to draw resources away from the war effort in reconstruction and for air defence, kill factory workers, draw military and Luftwaffe resources away from front line activity, erode infrastructure, demoralise troops on the front lines worried about and suffering loss of their family back home, demoralise the civilian population (it didn't) and generally make the cost of waging war so high Germany would prefer peace and provide reassurance to the British population that 'we were giving it to 'em'.

    It is true vast resources of material and military were diverted to home defence instead of being used for the war effort and the production capacity was significantly affected.

  22. morganovich:

    there is very little new about targeting civilians for military purposes.

    the english were doing this to the french at the time of agincourt.

    they would preform a "chevauchee" which was basicall marching an army through the countryside burning and pillaging everything they could find. the goal was to do major damage, wreck harvests, and force the french to come out of the forts to fight.

    as others have said, bombing might be new, but that's just technology.

    the general idea of depriving the enemy of his productive resources and targeting civilians to make him fight is millennia old.

  23. HoratiusZappa:

    The only way to deal with critics who think you are trying to excuse bombing is to meet them head on. Indiscriminate (or weakly discriminating) attacks on populations are evil. In general moral terms, all lives are equal.

    However, the US government as a political - not moral - entity had a duty to preserve the lives and well-being of its young citizens conscripted to fight a war they did not start. Lives - any number of lives - of the people of the nations which started the war and behaved horribly in general to occupied populations had zero comparative value.

  24. me:

    I don't buy this argument: the reason those lives would be lost were just because of the absolute need to invade Japan to force unconditional surrender (which leading military minds of the time in question felt could have accomplished just by continuing to blockade). Japan was already on its knees and seeking to surrender. Just a few days after dropping the bomb, conditional surrender was suddenly acceptable. Based on that alone, I think it's fair to argue that saving American lives might have been an argument used to justify the action, but can't rationally have been the actual reason to deploy

  25. me: has an interesting description of the step-by-step escalation by which civilians became routine targets

  26. HoratiusZappa:

    With 100,000 people still under Japanese occupation dying each month, the luxury of trying out blockade for a while was just another way of trading some other innocent lives for Japanese lives.

  27. me:

    I somehow suspect that saving Japanese lives was also not the main motivator for the deployments. Or, to quote the words of the targeting committee: "It was agreed that psychological factors in the target selection were of great importance. Two aspects of this are (1) obtaining the greatest psychological effect against Japan and (2) making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized when publicity on it is released."

  28. Fred_Z:

    I may be the commenter here with the closest connection to victims of civilian bombing. My aunts uncles and grandparents were bombed in Paderborn Germany in April 1945.

    I was not born, but have spoken to them extensively about it. None were killed or injured. One aunt was sheltering in a doorway when a piece of shrapnel killed a man next to her and covered her in blood. Their homes were destroyed or damaged. Many of their friends and my more distant family were injured or killed.

    Not one of them, not one, had any resentment about the bombing. Their position was "We supported Hitler and the Nazis, we were still supporting them when we were bombed and the Allies had to do it."

    When the civilian populace supports the war machine they are part of it and a legitimate target. As for children and dissenters? Dunno. Hard to separate sheep from goats, but better their innocents than ours.

  29. me:

    Here's the a list of civilian casualties of bombing in the 20th century:

    Notice how the numbers escalate

  30. ee:

    magnitude: a few thousands vs a few million

  31. Mike Powers:

    Yeah; MAD wasn't a plan, it was an outcome. It was mathematically provable as the optimum choice, the Prisoner's Dilemma applied to weapons with global reach and city-destroying power.

  32. vikingvista:

    "So lets not weep for the the instigators of a war"

    Are you responsible for the Trail of Tears? The Mai Lai massacre? The Japanese Internment? The Civil War? Do you personally take responsibility and accept punishment for any and every act committed by a member of your government?

    If you introspect a bit, you'll see how collectivist thinking can lead to horrible atrocities.

  33. vikingvista:

    "Their position was "We supported Hitler and the Nazis, we were still supporting them when we were bombed and the Allies had to do it.""

    Gosh, I sure hope my neighbors whom I don't know have the courage to speak for me on life and death matters.

  34. Fred_Z:

    You sure do like straw man arguments don't you?

    "We" is my family.

    They have a direct connection to me, I know them and believe them, and believe their assessment of their neighbors.

    Just as I'd believe your neighbors' assessment of you. I'm sure it's flattering.

    You got any relatives who survived allied bombing? Or just a big mouth and a busted flush?

  35. vikingvista:

    “You sure do like straw man arguments don't you?”

    Could be a straw man, but then your whole post becomes a non sequitur. Let’s instead assume that your post has some relevance to the conversation here. What then, could your clarification “‘We’ is my family” possibly imply? Could it be…

    1. The Allied forces only targetted your family?

    2. The Allies conducted a poll of the civilian population and found unanimous consent to be bombed?

    3. Your family knew the entire targeted civilian population well enough to speak for them on life and death matters?

    4. Your family’s death expectation makes the deliberate mass slaughter of civilian populations less monstrous and easier to excuse?

    5. Perhaps an American family blaming Islamic militancy on US foreign policy backlash would bring acceptance of indiscriminate Islamic attacks in the US?

    “Just as I'd believe your neighbors' assessment of you. I'm sure it's flattering.”

    Hard to say. Unlike your family, mine can’t speak for every member of my city on life and death matters.

    “You got any relatives who survived allied bombing?”

    Uh no. All my relatives were killed by allied bombing years before I was born.

  36. mlhouse:

    1. In your earlier post you claim (as others do) that Japan was "seeking" surrender. This is absolutely false. Only morons peddle this claim. The Japanese government was controlled by the Japanese military. They were not seeking surrender. This government published in June its declaration that it would fitght to extinction The policy of the Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Admiral Suzuki, was to force a decisive battle that would bleed the United States and lead to a negotiated settlement which they believed would allow them to retain some of their conquests at best and at worst not force a humiliating surrender.

    2. While saving Japanese lives was probably not a motivator that these weapons were used versus other methods: blockade or invasion, probably saved millions of Japanese lives. Just different ones.

    3. As far as "continuing the blockade" against Japan, very few US military leaders advocated this. US military doctrine since the Civil War was to seek the destruction and unconditional surrender of its enemies. US and Allied War Policy was to reject any separate peace (which is why the feeble Japanese attempts to try to use the Soviets as a middleman in a negotiated peace were nothing but gestures) and to seek the unconditional surrender of their adversaries, the complete destruction of their military and leadership class, and the occupation of their entire territory by the victors. There would be no repeat of the Great War.

    4. Using the term "conditional" surrender is foolish. The Japanese sought a negotiated peace to avoid the occupation, disarmament, elimination of the military (THEM), political reform, war crimes, and elimination of the emperor. All they got was the preservation of the emperor.

    5. If you were a political leader in the United States, what would be the acceptable ratio of Japanese deaths to US deaths you would take to end the war?

    6. Please read Downfall: The end of the Imperial Japan Empire by Richard Frank. IT will end the myths that you believe.

  37. Mike Powers:

    Actually, it's a fiction that the American revolutionaries won by guerrilla tactics. They may have skirmished and sniped more than a British force would, but the decisive battles were stand-up fights using the traditional tactics of the time. The story of the American Revolution was, in fact, mostly a matter of the Colonial army running away until it finally had enough men and organization to fight. (That's why Washington crossing the Delaware was such a big deal.)

  38. Herb:

    Let me give a half defense of Harris.

    He was far from the first to believe that terror bombing a public far from the main lines was a valid method. Goering had tried the same on the south of England. Yet even he was influence by theorists between the war, most critically Douhet, who believed heavy battle plans would decide future wars.

    Yet strategic bombing of cities dates to WWI. The first zeppelin raid was on Antwerp in August, 1914. Non-precision bombing was used on London via zeppelin. I also know of at least bombing of civilians by the French. I also think the Big Bertha shelling of Paris should be included in the the idea of "no safe area" bombing of civilians.

    Harris, and even more so LeMay's, big crime wasn't promoting bombing of civilians far behind the lines but being so damned good at it.

  39. Herb:

    Also, location. Before aircraft and missiles you needed to occupy the territory to really kill civilians. If you are under siege you understand you can be killed even if not a soldier. Civilians hundreds of miles from any ground combat hadn't faced that terror before.