Thursday, July 20, 2006

The aerial bombardment of civilians: a survey

Given its topic relevance right now, I thought I'd highlight some articles on the bombing of civilian populations in wartime.

This post from TomDispatch is a few years old, and asked the question why aerial bombardment is rarely covered by war journalists. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the media made a big fuss over "embedded" journalists riding shotgun with Army and Marine units, and undertook detailed surveys and analyses of ground tactics and troop movements. However, the role of aerial bombardment, especially that of the United States Air Force, was practically ignored. No journalist embedded themselves for a B-52 run, for example. Given the central importance of air power in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and their continued significance during the occupations, why isn't it given more coverage?

Englehardt's article mentions the fascination aerial bombardment had with speculative fiction writers long before it became a reality. But once it did, many military theorists pondered its use as a weapon against enemy morale. Specifically, bombing the enemy's civilian population until they were so terrorized they pressured their government to surrender.

One of the pioneers of this school of thought was the Italian general Giulio Douhet. Douhet recognized the value of air power early on; first dirigibles, then fixed-wing aircraft. He put forth many "radical" ideas of the time: that air power should be represented by a separate branch of the military, and the use of air power in warfare. He put these ideas to the test during Italy's war with Turkey over Libya in 1911. In that conflict the Italians pioneered the use of aircraft in reconaissance, artillery spotting, transport, and bombing.

Douhet theorized that aerial bombardment could be used to cripple "the will of the people" to make war. This was a theory that gained much traction by the interwar theorists. The acceptance of this theory was seen in the Second World War, during the blitz of London by the Luftwaffe and subsequent German V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks, and its response by the Allies as personified by "Bomber" Harris.

Its effectiveness has been debated, however. Despite months--or even years--of bombardment, the morale of the British did not flag. There is every indication that German bombardment only served to stiffen the resolve of the British people. However, there is also evidence that the bombing of cities in Germany and Japan in the last few years of WWII did negatively affect civilian morale. This paper by a USAF major examines the topic thoroughly.

UPDATE (26-Jul-06): The UNITED STATES STRATEGIC BOMBING SURVEY of World War II Allied bombing has a section on the effects on German and Japanese civilians.

(Via The News Blog.)