World War II was a landmark in the development and deployment of technologies of mass destruction associated with air power, notably the B-29 bomber, napalm and the atomic bomb. An estimated 50 to 70 million people lay dead in its wake. In a sharp reversal of the pattern of World War I and of most earlier wars, a substantial majority of the dead were noncombatants.  The air war, which reached peak intensity with the area bombing, including atomic bombing, of major European and Japanese cities in its final year, had a devastating impact on noncombatant populations.
What is the logic and what have been the consequences—for its victims, for subsequent global patterns of warfare and for international law—of new technologies of mass destruction and their application associated with the rise of air power and bombing technology in World War II and after? Above all, how have these experiences shaped the American way of war over six decades in which the
Strategic Bombing and International Law
Bombs had been dropped from the air as early as 1849 on
Major European powers attempted to use them in newly founded air forces during World War I. If the impact on the outcomes was marginal, the advance of air power alerted all nations to the potential significance of airpower in future wars.  A series of international conferences at
Throughout the long twentieth century, and particularly during and in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the inexorable advance of weapons technology went hand in hand with international efforts to place limits on killing and barbarism associated with war, particularly the killing of noncombatants in strategic or indiscriminate bombing raids.  This article considers the interplay of the development of powerful weapons and delivery systems associated with bombing and attempts to create international standards to curb the uses of bombing against noncombatants, with particular reference to the
The strategic and ethical implications of the nuclear bombing of
If others, notably
The twentieth century was notable for the contradiction between international attempts to place limits on the destructiveness of war and to hold nations and their military leaders responsible for violations of international laws of war (Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals and successive Geneva conventions, particularly the 1949 convention protecting civilians and POWs) and the systematic violation of those principles by the major powers.  For example, while the
Since both sides had played the terrible game of urban destruction—the Allies far more successfully—there was no basis for criminal charges against Germans or Japanese, and in fact no such charges were brought . . . . Aerial bombardment had been used so extensively and ruthlessly on the Allied side as well as the Axis side that neither at
From 1932 to the early years of World War II the
Strategic Bombing of
After entering the war following
Throughout 1942-44, as the air war in
They burnt the whole damn town down . . . . Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A fire storm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe.
“Along with the Nazi extermination camps, the killing of Soviet and American prisoners, and other enemy atrocities,” Ronald Schaffer observes, “
Strategic Bombing of
But it was in the Pacific theatre, and specifically in
As Michael Sherry and Cary Karacas have pointed out for the
Curtis LeMay was appointed commander of the 21st Bomber Command in the Pacific on
The full fury of firebombing and napalm was unleashed on the night of
In contrast with Vonnegut’s “wax museum” description of
Police cameraman Ishikawa Koyo described the streets of Tokyo as “rivers of fire . . . flaming pieces of furniture exploding in the heat, while the people themselves blazed like ‘matchsticks’ as their wood and paper homes exploded in flames. Under the wind and the gigantic breath of the fire, immense incandescent vortices rose in a number of places, swirling, flattening, sucking whole blocks of houses into their maelstrom of fire.”
Father Flaujac, a French cleric, compared the firebombing to the
In September 1923, during the great earthquake, I saw
Nature reinforced man's handiwork in the form of akakaze, the red wind that swept with hurricane force across the
The Strategic Bombing Survey, whose formation a few months earlier provided an important signal of
The chief characteristic of the conflagration . . . was the presence of a fire front, an extended wall of fire moving to leeward, preceded by a mass of pre-heated, turbid, burning vapors . . . . The 28-mile-per-hour wind, measured a mile from the fire, increased to an estimated 55 miles at the perimeter, and probably more within. An extended fire swept over 15 square miles in 6 hours . . . . The area of the fire was nearly 100 percent burned; no structure or its contents escaped damage.
The survey concluded—plausibly, but only for events prior to
“probably more persons lost their lives by fire at
How many people died on the night of March 9-10 in what flight commander Gen. Thomas Power termed “the greatest single disaster incurred by any enemy in military history?” The Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,793 people died in the raid, 40,918 were injured, and 1,008,005 people lost their homes. Robert Rhodes, estimating the dead at more than 100,000 men, women and children, suggested that probably a million more were injured and another million were left homeless. The Tokyo Fire Department estimated 97,000 killed and 125,000 wounded. The Tokyo Police offered a figure of 124,711 killed and wounded and 286,358 building and homes destroyed. The figure of roughly 100,000 deaths, provided by Japanese and American authorities, both of whom may have had reasons of their own for minimizing the death toll, seems to me arguably low in light of population density, wind conditions, and survivors’ accounts.  With an average of 103,000 inhabitants per square mile and peak levels as high as 135,000 per square mile, the highest density of any industrial city in the world, and with firefighting measures ludicrously inadequate to the task, 15.8 square miles of Tokyo were destroyed on a night when fierce winds whipped the flames and walls of fire blocked tens of thousands fleeing for their lives. An estimated 1.5 million people lived in the burned out areas. Given a near total inability to fight fires of the magnitude produced by the bombs, it is possible to imagine that casualties may have been several times higher than the figures presented on both sides of the conflict. The single effective Japanese government measure taken to reduce the slaughter of US bombing was the 1944 evacuation to the countryside of 400,000 children from major cities, 225, 000 of them from
Following the attack,
No previous or subsequent conventional bombing raid ever came close to generating the toll in death and destruction of the great
In July, US planes blanketed the few remaining Japanese cities that had been spared firebombing with an “Appeal to the People.” “As you know,” it read, “
Between January and July 1945, the
Michael Sherry has compellingly described the triumph of technological fanaticism as the hallmark of the air war that quintessentially shaped the American way of fighting and heavily stamped remembrances of the War ever after:
The shared mentality of the fanatics of air war was their dedication to assembling and perfecting their methods of destruction, and . . . doing so overshadowed the original purposes justifying destruction . . . .The lack of a proclaimed intent to destroy, the sense of being driven by the twin demands of bureaucracy and technology, distinguished America’s technological fanaticism from its enemies’ ideological fanaticism.
Technological fanaticism served to conceal the larger purposes of power both from military planners and the public. This suggestive formulation, however, conceals core ideological patterns at the heart of American strategic thought. Wartime technological fanaticism in my view is best understood as a means of operationalizing national goals. Taken for granted were the legitimacy and benevolence of American global power and a perception of the Japanese as both uniquely brutal and inherently inferior. Technology was harnessed to the driving force of American nationalism, which repeatedly came to the fore in times of war, and was fashioned under wartime conditions, beginning with the conquest of the
Throughout the spring and summer of 1945 the
The targeting for destruction of entire populations, whether indigenous peoples, religious infidels, or others deemed inferior or evil, may be as old as human history, but the forms it takes are as new as the latest technologies of destruction and strategic innovation, of which air power, firebombing and nuclear weapons are particularly notable.  The most important way in which World War II shaped the moral and technological tenor of mass destruction was the erosion in the course of war of the stigma associated with the systematic targeting of civilian populations from the air, and elimination of the constraints, which for some years had restrained certain air powers from area bombing. What was new was both the scale of killing made possible by the new technologies and the routinization of mass killing or state terrorism. If area bombing remained controversial throughout much of World War II, something to be concealed or denied by its practitioners, by the end of the conflagration it would become the acknowledged centerpiece of war making, emblematic above all of the American way of war even as the nature of the targets and the weapons were transformed by new technologies and confronted new forms of resistance. Indeed, for six decades the
Concerted efforts to protect civilians from the ravages of war reached a peak in the aftermath of World War II in the founding of the United Nations, German and Japanese War Crimes Tribunals, and the 1949 Geneva Accords and its 1977 Protocol. The Nuremberg Indictment defined “crimes against humanity” as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war,” language that resonated powerfully with the area bombing campaigns not only of Japan and Germany but of Britain and the US.  These efforts appear to have done little to stay the hand of power. Indeed, while the atomic bomb would leave a deep imprint on the collective consciousness of the twentieth century, memory of the area bombings and firebombing of major cities soon disappeared from the consciousness of all but the victims.
The ability to destroy an entire city and annihilate its population in a single bombing campaign was not only far more “efficient” and less costly for the attacker than previous methods of warfare, it also sanitized slaughter. Air power distanced executioners from victims, transforming the visual and tactile experience of killing. The bombardier never looks squarely into the eyes of the victim, nor does the act of destruction have the physical immediacy for the perpetrator of decapitation by sword or even shooting with a machine gun. This may be particularly important when the principal targets are women, children and the elderly.
The atomic bombing of
World War II remains unrivaled in the annals of war by important measures such as the number of people killed and the scale of mass destruction. In that war, it was not the bombing of cities but Nazi genocide against Jews, Catholics, Romany, homosexuals and other Germans as well as Poles, the German invasion of the
The war dead in Europe alone in World War II, including the Soviet Union, have been estimated in the range of 30 to 40 million, fifty percent more than the toll in World War I. To this we must add 25 to 35 million Asian victims in the fifteen-year resistance war in
In World War I, ninety percent of the fatalities directly attributable to the war were military, nearly all of them Europeans and Americans. Most estimates place World War II casualties in
World War II remains indelibly engraved in American memory as the “Good War” and in important respects it was. In confronting the war machines of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the
For most Americans, in retrospect World War II seemed a “Good War” in another sense: the
World War II, building on and extending atavistic impulses deeply rooted in earlier civilizations and combining them with more destructive technologies, produced new forms of human depravity. German and Japanese crimes have long been subjected to international criticism from the war crimes tribunals of the 1940s to the present.  At
In contrast to these responses to the war in
In his opening address to the tribunal, Chief Prosecutor for the United States, Justice Robert Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the
That poisoned chalice was put to American lips in the 1945 trials and all the more so in subsequent wars. Sahr Conway-Lanz rightly points to the deep divisions among Americans seeking to strike an appropriate balance between combat and atrocity, and between war and genocide.  But with absolute American preponderance of technological power and the threat of enemies from Communists to terrorists magnified by government and the media, in practice, there were few restraints on the annihilation of noncombatants in the succession of US wars that have exacted such a heavy toll in lives. American self-conceptions of benevolence and justice have remained fixed not on the reality of the killing of noncombatants but on the combination of American intentions in combat and generosity in charting postwar recovery in all wars since 1945.
The centrality of the wholesale killing of noncombatants through the myriad uses of air power runs like a red line from the bombings of 1944-45 through the Korean and Indochinese wars to the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In the course of six decades since the firebombing and atomic bombing of Japan, while important continuities are observable, such as the firebombing and napalming of cities, new, more powerful and versatile aircraft and weapons would be deployed in the course of successive American wars fought predominantly in Asia.
General Curtis LeMay, the primary architect of the firebombing and atomic bombing strategy applied to
We slipped a note kind of under the door into the Pentagon and said, “Look, let us go up there…and burn down five of the biggest towns in North Korea – and they’re not very big – and that ought to stop it.” Well, the answer to that was four or five screams – “You’ll kill a lot of non-combatants,” and “It’s too horrible.” Yet over a period three years or so…we burned down every town in
In the course of three years, US/UN forces in
One striking feature of these wars has been the extension of bombing from a predominantly urban phenomenon to the uses of airpower directed against rural areas of
Here we consider one particularly important element of American bombing of
Before turning to
Another story of indiscriminate bombing in
It is notable, by contrast to the preceding six decades of American warfare, that the centrality of the image of airpower and the bomb as the summa of destructive might, has shifted dramatically in the Iraq War: Americans remember World War II above all as the crowning achievement of air power, symbolized and mythologized by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; they remember the era of US-Soviet confrontation above all as one of nuclear standoff; and they remember both Korea and Vietnam in no small part through images of American predominance in the air, as in the bombing of Hanoi and North Vietnam as well as the defoliation using Agent Orange, air power. But, as Michael Sherry observes, air power has largely receded from consciousness in the wake of the collapse of the
In thinking about the Iraq War and contemporary American consciousness, I would like to suggest an alternative scenario. First, I believe that 9/11 and the
We have shown the decisive impact of the final year of World War II in setting in place the preeminence of strategic bombing as quintessential to the
This article was written for
Mark Selden is a research associate at the East Asia Program, Cornell University, and a coordinator of Japan Focus. His recent books include War and State Terrorism. The United States, Japan, and the Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century.
* The author thanks Noam Chomsky, Bruce Cumings, John Dower, Laura Hein, Gavan McCormack, and Michael Sherry for critical comments, sources and suggestions. The term holocaust used in the title draws on its original meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary provides this definition: “Complete consumption by fire; complete destruction, especially of a large number of persons; a great slaughter or massacre.”
 Estimates vary, especially in the Pacific theatre. See, for example, John Ellis, World War II - A statistical survey (New York: Facts on File, 1993); John W. Dower, War Without Mercy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), pp. 294-300; in Roger Chickering, Stig Forster and Bernd Greiner, eds., A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction 1937-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) p. 3, Chickering and Forster estimate military deaths at 15 million and civilian deaths at more than 45 million; Wikipedia offers a wide-ranging discussion of numbers and sources.
 Lee Kennett, A History of Strategic Bombing (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982), pp. 9-38; Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing (New York: New Press, 2000), pp. 31-42.
 “General Report of the Commission of Jurists at
 A valuable synthesis of the literature on war and the noncombatant is Sahr Conway-Lanz, Collateral Damage: Americans, Noncombatant Immunity, and Atrocity After World War II (
 A small number of works have drawn attention to
 Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, pp. 90-91. Grayling goes on to note the different experiences of survivors of the two types of bombing, particularly as a result of radiation symptoms from the atomic bomb.
 Conway-Lanz, Collateral Damage, provides a useful overview of international efforts to protect noncombatants throughout history and particularly since World War II. See also Timothy L. H. McCormack and Helen Durham, “Aerial Bombardment of Civilians: The Current International Legal Framework,” forthcoming.
 The question of universality has been the centerpiece of Noam Chomsky’s critique of the conduct of the powers, above all the
 Quoted in Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, p. 81. The
 Tami Davis Biddle, “Air Power,” in Michael Howard, George J. Andreopoulos, and Mark R. Shulman, The Laws of War. Constraints on Warfare in the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 151-52. Gordon Wright, The Ordeal of Total War 1939-1945 (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), p. 26.
The first major British success came at
 Max Hastings, Bomber Command: The Myth and Reality of the Strategic Bombing Offensive (New York: Dial Press, 1979), p. 139.
 Sherry, Air Power, p. 260. With much
 Interview quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), p. 593.
 Schaffer, Wings, p. 97; see also Sherry, Air Power, pp. 260-63. Grayling makes a compelling case for the failure of area bombing of
 The most eloquent criticism was the writing of Vera Brittain. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, pp. 180-86. In the midst of the
 Tsuneishi Keiichi, “Unit 731 and the Japanese Imperial Army’s Biological Warware Program,” from Hata Ikuhiko and Sase Masanori, eds., Sekai Senso Hanzai Jiten (Encyclopedia of World War Crimes), (
 Kerr, Flames Over
 Michael Sherry, “The United States and Strategic Bombing: From Prophecy to Memory,” forthcoming; Cary Karacas, “Imagining Air Raids on Tokyo, 1930-1945,” paper presented at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting, Boston, March 23, 2007, pp. 2-5. Sherry traces other prophecies of nuclear bombing back to H.G. Wells 1913 novel The World Set Free. Sherry makes clear that prophecy has the capacity to speak forcefully not only to proponents but also to energize opponents of the envisaged future.
 Sherry, Air Power, pp. 272-73, 404-05.
 Cf. Stewart Udall’s discussion of responsibility for the US shift to area bombing, centering on President Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and Air Force Secretary Robert Lovett, and the difficulty of documenting responsibility for the policy shift. Sherry and Schaffer provide the most exhaustive study of the shift in
 Kerr, Flames Over
 “Tokyo Under Bombardment, 1941-1945,” Bethanie Institute Bulletin No. 5, translation in General Headquarters Far East Command, Military Intelligence Section, War in Asia and the Pacific Vol. 12, Defense of the Homeland and End of the War, ed., Donald Detwiler and Charles Burdick (New York, 1980); see also Karacas on the imaginative link between the Tokyo earthquake and the bombing in the Unna Juzo novel.
 Sherry, Air Power, p. 276. A detailed photographic record, including images of scores of the dead, some burnt to a crisp and distorted beyond recognition, others apparently serene in death, and of acres of the city flattened as if by an immense tornado, is found in Ishikawa Koyo, Tokyo daikushu no zenkiroku (Complete Record of the Great Tokyo Air Attack) (Tokyo, 1992); Tokyo kushu o kiroku suru kai ed., Tokyo daikushu no kiroku (Record of the Great Tokyo Air Attack) (Tokyo: Sanseido, 1982), and Dokyumento: Tokyo daikushu (Document: The Great Tokyo Air Attack) (Tokyo: Yukeisha, 1968).
 The Survey’s killed-to-injured ratio of better than two to one was far higher than most estimates for the atomic bombing of
 Karacas, “Imagining Air Raids,” p. 22.
 Dokyumento. Tokyo daikushu, pp. 168-73.
 John W. Dower, “Sensational Rumors, Seditious Graffiti, and the Nightmares of the Thought Police,” in
 Conway-Lanz, Collateral Damage, p. 1.
 Kerr, Flames Over
 Two excellent complementary accounts of important dimensions of the geopolitics and political economy of contemporary
 The numbers killed, specifically the numbers of noncombatants killed, in the Korean,
 Mark Selden, “American Nationalism and Asian Wars,” (in progress).
 Cf. Dower’s nuanced historical perspective on war and racism in American thought and praxis in War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986). In Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Boston: South End Press, 1993) and many other works, Noam Chomsky emphasizes the continuities in Western ideologies that undergird practices leading to the annihilation of entire populations in the course of colonial and expansionist wars over half a millennium and more.
 Geoffrey Best, War and Law Since 1945.
 See for example Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell,
 Bombing would also be extended from cities to the countryside, as in the Agent Orange defoliation attacks that destroyed the forest cover and poisoned residents of sprayed areas of
 I have explored issues of
 R.J.R. Bosworth, Explaining
 Dower, Embracing Defeat, pp. 443-47; Conway-Lanz, Collateral Damage, pp. 16-17.
 Mark Selden, “Nationalism, Historical Memory and Contemporary Conflicts in the Asia Pacific: the Yasukuni Phenomenon, Japan, and the United States”; Takahashi Tetsuya, "The National Politics of the Yasukuni Shrine" in Naoko Shimazu, ed., Nationalisms in
 Quoted in Noam Chomsky, “War on Terror,” Amnesty International Lecture,
 Collateral Damage, pp. 18-19. Conway-Lanz traces major
 General Curtis LeMay, Oral History, 1966, cited in Marilyn Young, “Total War”, conference paper, 2006.
 Young, “Total War.”
 Bruce Cumings, Origins of the Korean War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) v.2, p. 755.
 Hersh, Chemical and Biological Warfare, pp. 28-32. See also Ronald B. Frankum Jr., Like Rolling Thunder. The Air War in
 Hersh, Chemical and Biological Warfare, pp. 131-33. Hersh notes that the $60 million worth of defoliants and herbicides in the 1967 Pentagon budget would have been sufficient to defoliate 3.6 million acres if all were used optimally.
 Hersh, Chemical and Biological Warfare, pp. 134, 156-57. Canadian Dr. Alje Vennema described the symptoms of gas victims at Quang Ngai hospital where he worked in 1967, including two children and one adult who died.
 Elizabeth Becker, “Kissinger Tapes Describe Crises, War and Stark Photos of Abuse,” The New York Times,
 “Bombs Over
 Michael Sherry, The United States and Strategic Bombing: From Prophecy to Memory,” forthcoming.
 Seymour Hersh, “Up in the Air Where is the
 Tom Barry, “The Militarization of Space and U.S. Global Dominance: the China Connection”
 Anthony Arnove, “Four Years Later... And Counting. Billboarding the Iraqi Disaster”, TomDispatch,