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September 22, 2003


Was World War II
American Urban Bombing
Democide?

R.J. Rummel

In my Statistics of Democide, Chapter 13 "Death By American Bombing and Other Democide,", I listed American indiscriminate urban bombing of Germany and Japan as democide-murder by government (I include elsewhere in the book such bombing by Britain, Germany, Italy, and Japan). The worst of these democidal bombings was the firebombing of Japanese cities, almost entirely carried out by American bombers, and designed and commanded by General Curtis LeMay. One of his planners was Robert S. McNamara, then a lieutenant colonel, who in the 1960s would become the Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

In his article, HREF="http://www.larrycalloway.com/column.html?_recordnum=45">"The Firebombing Of Japan: An Apology--Errol Morris Presents Robert S. McNamara, Larry Calloway points out that McNamara said in an interview with Morris, "[T]hat when [General Curtis] LeMay served under him in the Kennedy administration, the old general commented that if Japan had won the war they both would have been charged for acting like war criminals." To many, including especially those who served in the military during the war, this is ridiculous, morally absurd. Before getting into this, I should note that just on the fire bombing of March 9-10, 1944, near 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed, more than died in the Hiroshima atomic bombing. In the war overall, bombing of Japanese cities might have killed about 337,000, including my estimate of 165,000 by atomic bombs, the quintessential city and civilian killers. Equally indiscriminate bombing of German cities by the United States and Britain may have killed about 410,000 German civilians.

Aside from these death tolls, I don't want to deal with the nature and sorry history of strategic bombing for the United State and Great Britain. I will mention, however, that the United States began its strategic bombing campaign by legal (according to international law) daylight "precision bombing" of military targets in or around urban areas. In Europe, its loss of bombers became such that it adopted the British strategy of nighttime, indiscriminate urban bombing. For Japan, precision bombing was the rule until the above mentioned General LeMay took over the 20th and 21st bomber Commands, and initiated the firebombing of Japanese cities. If I recall his words correctly, he thought the Japanese deserved it. The best sources? Kennett, Lee, A History Of Strategic Bombing (1982), and particularly, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey (European Theater), and United States Strategic Bombing Survey (Pacific Theater).

1. Was the indiscriminate (meaning the target was the city, usually the city center, and not military installations) American bombing of urban areas democide (mass murder), that is, the intentional targeting of unarmed civilians with deadly weapons? I don't see how this can be denied. Bombs were dropped intentionally on unarmed civilians in their homes or at work. These people died not because they lived near military targets or were caught in the crossfire of battle, but because of their nationality and the urban area in which they lived. It was democide. I think LeMay was correct. Not only would he, McNamara, and others on his planning staff, be charged with war crimes had the Japanese won, but in fact they had committed war crimes.

2. Was this illegal at the time? If one considers the various conventions trying to limit war and agreed to by the international community as establishing a legal code, then the Hague Convention of 1923 (Articles 22, 23) made indiscriminate urban bombing illegal. This view is confirmed by the speech of the British Prime Minister before the House of Commons in 1938 in which he said that any such bombing was an "undoubted violation of international law." Shortly after, the League of Nations unanimously passed a resolution affirming that such bombing was illegal.

3. Was this illegality known before the fact by the perpetrators? Yes, by the statements of the British Prime Minister, and as shown by Anglo-American protests to Japan over its bombing in China. For example, in 1937, the American State Department protested to Japan about its bombing of Chinese cities, "[A]ny general bombing of an extensive area wherein there resides a large population engaged in peaceful pursuits is unwarranted and contrary to principles of law and of humanity." In 1938, the United States protested again (also protesting bombing of cities in the Spanish Civil War) and now called such bombing "barbarous." The protest continued: "Such acts are in violation of the most elementary principles of those standards of human conduct which have been developed as an essential part of modern civilization." Surely, something must appear morally wrong if Anglo-American leaders officially characterize Japanese bombing in China as barbaric, inhumane, and criminal (in violation of international law, as later officially adopted by the League of Nations), but which bombing is not so when the Americans and British do precisely the same thing. And even much worse (e.g., the atomic and fire bombing).

4. Is it fair to call it democide, since this concept/idea did not exist at the time? Genocide scholars do this all the time for "genocides" that occurred before the word was invented in 1941, and sensitivity to such murders had become general. Democide should be no different.

5. So, such bombing was democide, illegal, a war crime, and now punishable under the International Court of Justice. Still, many will justify such democide. It saved many allied lives by ending the war sooner; it helped destroy enemy morale; the urban areas contained military-transportation junction yards, or factories producing military goods; or in many homes civilians were doing military piece work on small machines; and so on. But, these are rational reasons. Having lived through the war, I know that hatred or the desire for revenge was paramount for many people; and as far as bombing the Japanese was concerned, for some it was racial.

6. Some arguments take a different tack. The objection is not that I call the bombing democide, but that we were fighting a good war against evil governments; that democide was one of the necessities of the war; that calling this criminal conduct is a radical extremist view; and that we would have to call the popular leaders of the war "war criminals" would equate their conduct of the war with what the Nazis and Japanese did. But, democide is both a moral and empirical term, as is murder. There are characteristics of behavior that define the concept. Without such empirical characteristics, we could not do empirical research on democide as on this website and hope thereby to understand its causes and conditions. What this means is that we must be consistent in what we call democide, even though doing so may be hard to stomach.

7. I will not agree or disagree with the view that democide was one of the necessities of the war. The argument is irrelevant. To me, democide is wrong, whether it promoted the war or not. But for those who do justify this democide, I would like to see the moral argument made explicit. When is murdering en mass an unarmed population justified? This is an ethical question, not empirical/factual. Even if one adopts a situational ethic and says that in some circumstances a utilitarian calculus applies, that is an ethical choice (I accept Hume's guillotine--facts cannot logically justify ethical axioms). To help clarify the ethics involved, consider this question: can one ever ethically justify committing genocide? Is genocide ever right? I answer no. Absolutely. Then, if this is ethically true of genocide, isn't it also ethnically true of democide, a component of which is genocide? (Keep in mind that for some genocide scholars genocide = democide.)

8. This is not to deny that democide is situational, and its immorality is inherently multidimensional. Consider three cases. Person X rapes and tortures to death a child. While holding up a store, person Y shots to death a clerk suddenly reaching into a drawer. Person Z gives his wife, who is terminally ill, paralyzed and in acute pain, an overdose of sleeping pills. All three cases are murder, and thereby labeled immoral. But, they are situationally different, and are thus, different degrees of immorality. Indiscriminate city bombing by the Anglo-Americans was immoral and on par with such bombing by their enemies. But, to call it democide does not mean that this democide was immorally the same as much of the democide the Japanese and Germans did by hand.

Following is a book review of Hermann Knell's book, To Destroy a City . . . . The review brings to life what democidal urban bombing means in human terms. Note that the estimates of the human toll given in the review differ from my own, which is expected, given the sheer subjectivity of all these estimates. No matter. We know for sure that hundreds of thousands of civilians were so killed. And our differences in estimates are not worth a pennies difference in our evaluation or judgment of this horror.


Book Review
by Richard M. Ebeling
September 15, 2003

To Destroy a City:
Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences
in World War II

by Hermann Knell
Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2003)
373 pages; $32.50.


On the night of July 27, 1943, 728 Allied bombers arrived over the German city of Hamburg at one o'clock in the morning. Ten thousand tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs were dropped on several districts of the city. The late W.G. Sebald explained what followed in his recently published book, On the Natural History of Destruction (2003):

Within a few minutes, huge fires were burning all over the target area, which covered some twenty square kilometers, and they merged so rapidly that only a quarter of an hour after the first bombs had dropped the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see. Another five minutes later, at one twenty a.m., a firestorm of an intensity that no one had ever before thought possible arose. The fire, now rising two thousand meters into the sky, snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force.... The fire burned like this for three hours. At its height, the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising billboards through the air, tore trees from the ground, and drove human beings before it like living torches. Behind collapsing facades, the flames shot up as high as houses, rolled like a tidal wave through the streets at a speed of over a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour, spun across open squares in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders of fire. The water in some canals was ablaze. The glass in the tramcar windows melted; stocks of sugar boiled in the bakery cellars. Those who fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions, in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt.... Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish little phosphorous flames still flickered around them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size.... Other victims had been so badly charred and reduced to ashes by the heat, which had risen to a thousand degrees or more, that the remains of families consisting of several people could be carried away in a single laundry basket.

That night in this one raid alone, more than 45,000 men, women, and children were killed in Hamburg. Half the houses in the city were destroyed, and more than a million Germans had to flee into the surrounding countryside.

The death toll from military bombing of civilian populations in the Second World War was massive. German bombs and V-rockets killed more than 60,500 British civilians in Great Britain. German civilian deaths from British and American bombing of German cities have been estimated to have been between 570,000 and 800,000, and more than 120 cities were turned to virtual rubble. The civilian death toll in Japan from Allied bombing was between 330,000 and 900,000 with an additional 112,000 killed from the atomic bombs. To undertake Allied raids on German and Japanese cities, more than 46,250 Royal Air Force bomber crewmen were lost, and more than 161,000 U.S. Army Air Force crewmen were killed.

Hermann Knell was 19 years old when the Allies bombed his home city of Wčrzburg, Germany, in March 1945. The deaths of 6,000 people and the destruction of 92 percent of a city of great historical beauty and no military significance led him to decide, after the war, to try to find out and understand why decisions were made to target civilian cities for terror bombing. The result is his book To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences in World War II.

The first significant aerial bombardments of targets were conducted during the First World War when the Germans used zeppelins to attack British military facilities in England and succeeded only in killing civilians. Planes were then used by both sides to hit targets behind enemy lines.

But it was in the years after World War I ended that a theory of the strategic use of civilian bombing was developed. It was first formulated by an Italian, Giulio Douhet, who argued that in war "the bomber force must ruthlessly attack the enemy hinterland." It must be directed "against enemy population morale" and "the bombing effort must be massive." Its purpose, Douhet argued, was to break civilian support for the war and minimize the cost of war because "aerial bombs are cheap."

But the major voice in the period between the two world wars for the use of civilian bombing to destroy the will of the enemy was Hugh Montague Trenchard, chief of staff of the RAF. And it was the British who utilized and began to perfect civilian bombing techniques in the years after the First World War. In 1919-1920, they bombed Kabul, Afghanistan, and rebellious tribal groups along the border areas of India. And in the 1920s, the British intentionally bombed rebel villages in Somalia and Yemen and undertook an extended bombardment campaign against civilian populations in rebel areas in British-controlled Iraq for several years.

In the years leading up to the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the British undertook the construction of a long-range bomber fleet, precisely with the intention of having the capacity to attack cities far inside German territory. Knell details the development of the British bombing capacity, as well as the use of bombing methods in the Spanish Civil War by the Russians and the Germans on their respective sides of that three-year conflict.

"Bomber" Harris

While the Germans following the fall of France used civilian bombing as a method of their campaign against Great Britain, it was the British who developed and initiated massive urban area bombing. The master theorist and practitioner of civilian bombing was Sir Arthur T. Harris, marshall of the RAF and commander of the British bomber command from 1942 until the end of the war.

One of the rationales Harris used was that, since precision bombing was not perfected, "to destroy something you have to destroy everything." The aiming points were "usually right in the center of the town." And Harris proudly declared at one point during the war, "I kill thousands of people every night."

A staff report in 1942 stated that it was necessary to destroy 42 German cities with populations exceeding 100,000; that one ton of bombs was needed to kill 800 people; and that 75,000 tons of explosives would be dropped per month for a six-month period. And in a later report in 1942, it was said that the goal would be to cause 900,000 civilian deaths and 1 million to be seriously wounded, while 25 million would be left homeless. Besides Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria were targeted for civilian casualties in the war, but it was German cities that bore the brunt throughout the war in Europe.

Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. military command had no serious disagreements with civilian bombing campaigns, with only a greater concern about the losses to Allied bomber crews. When some members of the American bomber command in Europe objected to Washington that urban bombing was "baby-killing," they were either ignored or told to shut up.

It was almost a completely American show in the bombing raids on Japan. The most severe and continuous campaign against Japanese cities began in January 1945. By the end of the war in August 1945, 153,000 tons of bombs had been dropped on civilian targets, 75 percent of the bombs being incendiaries. The result was that 60 major Japanese cities were burned down, with Tokyo being the major target in a series of raids in February and March of 1945.

The leading rationale for civilian area bombing had been that it would break the morale of the home population and the people of Germany would pressure their government to sue for peace. It did nothing of the sort, Knell explains; if anything it stiffened the resistance and anger of the population. Nor did the bombing succeed in its second major purpose, the destruction of German industrial capability; many German industrial facilities had been moved to the countryside or were relatively easily repaired.

Knell concludes his history of civilian bombing in the world wars with these words:

One can say that the losses and destruction were unnecessary and do not represent a leaf of honor in the annals of mankind. They cannot be excused. The best one can do so many years after the wars is to analyze and assess them, dispatch them to history, and hope and pray that they will never happen again.

Richard Ebeling is the president of the Foundation for Economic Education

Book Review From: The Future of Freedom Foundation




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