Aug 5th 2014

Why Bomb Civilians?

by Ian Buruma

 


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit. 

NEW YORK – The time before last that Israel was fighting a war in Gaza, in 2009, Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister at the time, compared the conflict to America’s war with Japan. There was no need for a costly ground invasion; the enemy could be bombed into submission from the air.

The comparison, seemingly outrageous, was not entirely wrong. Nor is it today. Inflicting maximum damage from the air was and remains Israel’s strategy toward Hamas-ruled Gaza. Even if we accept that Israel has a legitimate reason to shut down tunnels that are used to infiltrate Palestinian commandos into Israel, this does not explain why it is necessary to bomb schools, power plants, hospitals, mosques, and densely packed civilian areas.

The official explanation is that Palestinian missiles are hidden in civilian areas. This may well be true. But Israeli leaders also appear to believe that by smashing Gaza and its people with bombs, Palestinians’ morale can be destroyed. At some point, they will have had enough and give up – and perhaps even turn against their rulers.

This is what used to be called “strategic bombing,” or sometimes “terror bombing,” a method of warfare designed to break the will of a people by destroying its “vital centers.” The main advocates of the idea, developed in the 1920s, were the Italian Guilio Douhet, the American William Mitchell, and the Englishman Hugh Trenchard.

The British first used this tactic in the mid-1920s in Mesopotamia, where they tried to break the will of Iraqi and Kurdish anti-colonial rebels by wiping out entire villages from the air, sometimes with bombs filled with mustard gas. The bloody high point came in August 1945, when the United States used atomic bombs to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki – which is what Lieberman may well have had in mind.

There were many other instances of strategic bombing. Nazi Germany tried to break British morale by blitzing large areas of London, Birmingham, and Coventry, among other places. When the Japanese could not bring Chiang Kai-shek’s China to its knees in the 1930s, bombers brought terror to Shanghai, Chongqing, and Hankow. In 1940, the Germans destroyed the center of Rotterdam.

From 1943 onward, Trenchard’s protegé, Arthur “Bomber” Harris, used wave after wave of Royal Air Force attacks to demolish almost every city in Germany. The RAF bombed the Germans at night, and the US Army Air Force bombed them by day.

Worse would be in store for Japan. Well before the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the USAAF, under the command of General Curtis LeMay, managed to burn every major Japanese city to a cinder with fire bombs.

Strategic bombing is an application of the concept of “total war,” in which all civilians are considered to be combatants and thus legitimate targets. In 1965, when the North Vietnamese were proving to be stubborn enemies, LeMay threatened that they would be “bombed back into the stone age.”

The problem with strategic bombing is that it never seems to have worked, with the possible exception of Rotterdam (but by then Holland had already been defeated). Rather than breaking popular morale in London, Berlin, Tokyo, or Hanoi, it usually strengthened it. Confronted by a common deadly threat, civilians rally around the only leaders who can do anything to protect them, even if those leaders are widely disliked.

And so the Germans fought on, until the combined force of the invading Allied armies overwhelmed them in 1945. The Japanese finally surrendered because they feared an invasion by the Soviet Union. The North Vietnamese never surrendered. And the Palestinians, whether they are ruled by Hamas or not, will not stop fighting Israel, especially in Gaza, where wholesale destruction has left them with nothing much more to lose.

So why do governments persist in using this cruel but ineffective strategy? Sheer bloodlust – the pleasure of inflicting pain on a hated enemy – may have something to do with it. Perhaps it motivated Harris to bomb German cities over and over again, even when there was no longer any conceivable military purpose.

But violent passion and the desire to wreak vengeance cannot be the only, or perhaps even the main, reason. A more plausible explanation is that strategic bombing is indeed about morale, but not that of the enemy. It is the morale of the home front that must be boosted, when other methods appear to fail.

Winston Churchill decided to unleash his bombers on German civilians when an Allied victory was still a long way off. He needed to build British morale with a demonstration of force against an enemy that had just spent several years bombing the United Kingdom.

The other advantage of bombing campaigns, avidly promoted during World War II by men who were haunted by memories of the endless bloodshed of World War I, was that attacking the enemy did not require losing many of your own troops. Many British bomber pilots died, of course, but many more soldiers would have died in a ground invasion. Indeed, with supremacy in the air, as in Mesopotamia in the 1920s or Japan in 1945, mass killing can be carried out at virtually no cost at all.

There is another explanation, which also stems from the 1920s. Bombing was a way, as Churchill put it, to police an empire “on the cheap.” Rebellions could be stopped by killing enough people from a great height. US President Barack Obama’s use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen derives from the same principle.

But these are always Pyrrhic victories, because every murder of civilians creates new rebels, who will rise again in time. If Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does not know that, he is a fool. If he does, he is a cynic who has given up on any idea of lasting peace. It is difficult to know which is worse.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org




 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "