Constant American bombing of much of the world ought to raise questions about the morality (if any) of air power, even if few Americans bother to confront them. (Indeed, many moral theorists would rather apply their theorizing and “intuitions” to runaway trolley cars than to the real-world problem posed here.)
Air power first showed its long-imagined potential in World War One with Zeppelin raids, reconnaissance flights, and small-scale attempts at aerial bombing. Knightly airborne duels between flying aces helped distract attention from the horrific realities of the Western front and from the institutional stupidity of officers and political leaders everywhere.
The interwar years (1919–1939) saw the rapid growth of aerial fanaticism and planning. Many assumed “the bomber will always get through” (attributed to Stanley Baldwin). According to Italian Gen. Giulio Douhet, that was for the best, since bombing would shorten future wars when brutally battered civilians forced their governments to sue for peace. Professional military men wished to avoid another static Western Front and hoped air power could restore decisive combat. In America a noisy air-power lobby arose, symbolized by Capt. Billy Mitchell, supposedly martyred by backward Army brass.
In 1925, Capt. Eldridge Colby, U.S. Army, wrote that a “belligerent will not wish to risk his planes and pilots, expend his gasoline, or waste his munitions, on any objectives except those of military importance.” He conceded the gross inaccuracy of bombing: “Innocent people are bound to be struck,” whatever the bombers’ intentions (see “Aerial Law and War Targets,” American Journal of International Law, October 1925, p. 710). (My italics.) Having surveyed the existing laws of war, he unsurprisingly concluded that since following the apparent rules might outlaw most bombing, the rules should yield. British bombing of Afghanistan (!) in May 1919, he thought, gave convincing precedent.
I will add here that the traditional laws of war were entirely too permissive: consider 545 days of shelling at Charleston and General Sherman’s shelling of much of Atlanta before his men “accidently” burned it down. Even so, the laws (or rules) were better than nothing. The notion of “noncombatant immunity” at least distinguished soldiers from civilians, even if war-makers continually sacrificed the principle to supposed “military necessity.” Colby proved prophetic, and confused and unclear rules gave ground while the category of acceptable target expanded, especially in pragmatic American hands. Oddly, in 1932 Britain, reserving its right to bomb its colonies (to collect taxes in Iraq and keep order on the Northwestern Frontier), blocked a proposal at the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva, supported by Italy, Germany, Russia, and the United States, to ban aerial bombing.
Air power applied
In World War Two air power soared to new moral depths, assisted by officially entrenched American moral obtuseness. British and American strategists tailored their air forces to “area” or saturation bombing, and Lord Trenchard, “father” of the Royal Air Force, told the Lords that the Royal Air Force was “an offensive and not a defensive weapon.” The Germans and Soviets, on the other hand, designed their air forces to give tactical support to armies (H.W. Koch, “The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany,” Historical Journal, 1991). Civilian deaths reflect the fact: 600,000 Germans and 58,000 French (“allies”) killed by Anglo-American bombs; 70,000 English killed by German bombs. In such terms, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “hardly represented a moral novelty,” as historian David M. Kennedy states (“Victory at Sea,” Atlantic Monthly, March 1999).
Postwar euphoria helped speed along the independence of the Air Forces from the Army in 1947 (forcing the Navy, briefly, to make moral arguments at the margin). War liberals became Cold War liberals and imperial planning thrived. Atomic bombs (A, and later, H) were central to their plans, making “nuclear deterrence … the sword arm … of Cold War liberalism,” in historian Philip Green’s words (“Cold War Liberalism,” Reviews in American History, December 1979). Air power also appealed to remnants of the Old Right because of its seemingly “economical” character. As of 1945, advanced aero-maniacal planners anticipated most U.S. weapons systems now in operation (see Report of Scientific Advisory Group, August 22, 1945, in Michael H. Gorn, Harnessing the Genie [USAF, 1988], pp. 27–28). All the planners needed was a budgetary, legal, philosophical, and scientific revolution — the last amounting to a state-led paradigm shift across natural sciences, technology, and social sciences. Those things they achieved.
They also leveled Korea. Gen. Curtis Lemay bragged, “We burned down just about every city in North and South Korea both…. [We] killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes” (quoted in Callum A. MacDonald, Korea: The War before Vietnam, 1986, p. 235). It is simply a long-standing American fantasy that the Korean War was “limited” in any meaningful way. (Compare Helen Mears, “A Note on Atrocities,” Dissent, Winter 1954.) It was a preview of war in Indo-China.
The post–Cold War world has seemed so target-rich to official U.S. eyes — Panama, Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Yemen, et cetera — that today’s Mark Twain would write “The United States of Bomberdom.”
The moral status of air power
Amidst the general happiness attendant on air power, only a handful of dissenters on the Left and Right, e.g., Dwight Macdonald, Vera Brittain, George Hartmann, and Felix Morley, took issue with it.
In “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing” (Theological Studies, 5, 1944) American Jesuit John C. Ford addressed the central questions while bombs still fell. The scale and inaccuracy of strategic bombing meant, he wrote, that the collateral and incidental damage in those raids was done to the military targets. The massive damage came to whole cities or sections of cities. British and American spokesmen repeatedly cited German popular morale as a primary target and could hardly claim not to intend the civilian deaths achieved. As for air power’s saving lives by ending wars sooner, Ford saw only “a problematical, speculative, future good.” He added, “If one intends the end, terror, one cannot escape intending the principal means of obtaining that end, namely, the injury and death of civilians.”
Such criticisms had no effect. American “defense” soon acquired unmanned air power: an array of missiles of increasingly greater range to carry nuclear “weapons” on their premeditated errands. With the laws of physics smiling benignly down, dubious theory ran riot.
Followed to its logical conclusions (American planners seldom stop short), air-power ideology implies erasure of all distinctions between civilian and combatant, home and abroad, et cetera This erasure necessarily infects the moribund “laws” of war, allowing a unitary U.S. politician to discipline the world with his now-famous “drones” — more controllable (and lethal) versions of Germany’s V-1 buzz bombs.
Snug in silos, nukes abide, while conventional bombs have grown very “smart.” Ideological rubbish about “precision” reassures the nervous, since “collateral damage” (very popular since the Gulf War) is alleged to have dropped below sight. The moral rehabilitation of air power looms.
Here we have the postmodern logic of “small massacres” — not demonstrably moral but easy to overlook because they are not Dresden, Tokyo, or Hiroshima — e.g., the “dynamic entry” of U.S armed forces into Panama City in December 1989, which killed 300–3,000 Panamanian civilians caught in the path of U.S. righteousness. For the late Howard Zinn, radical historian and veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War Two, air power is a tale of “endless atrocities, all calmly explained by deceptive and deadly language like ‘accident,’ ‘military target,’ and ‘collateral damage.’” (“A Just Cause, Not a Just War,” The Progressive, December 2001). Historian Robert A. Higgs has rightly contrasted military precision and moral precision (see “Military Precision versus Moral Precision,” Independent Institute, March 23, 2003).
Of course when I refer to the inherent criminality of air power, I mean air power as usually employed. That raises a question: could some uses of air power be moral in a war of pure defense? Could we morally use a fleet of fighter aircraft alongside anti-aircraft weapons to repel invading planes (or missiles, if feasible)? Perhaps we could, if there existed also a clear commitment to pure defense: to resisting and repelling while never invading the enemy’s home ground. (Admittedly, such a plan would find few adherents, but the savings, moral and monetary, might be enormous.)
Much has been claimed for air power, but as Bob Dylan says somewhere, “nothing was delivered.” Whether total “knowledge” in “real time” (bastard concept) together with artificial “intelligence” and robotics can change this outcome or not, one thing seems certain: we shall live to see wave upon wave of aerial vandalism and murder-by-GPS. The world’s Great Uncle will deliver his thanatograms at will until the whole world opposes him or he runs out of money and materiel. (He will never run out of devices and desires.)
And yet, the great promise of air power has not been realized, unless mere wanton destruction suffices. Air power’s persistent failure to deliver utopian victories never brings discouragement. The aero-maniacs’ motto surely is “Don’t think twice; it’s all right.”
This article was originally published in the July 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.