Anachronist concerns
Posted by aogTuesday, 04 March 2008 at 21:34 TrackBack Ping URL

Via Hot Air is an article about confronting the Caliphascists. It’s generally good, but I was taken with this section —

If we want to dismantle the networks that support and create terrorism, then we have to adjust our definitions of civilian and combatant accordingly. That change has been forced on us by the terrorists, which is one of the reasons we cannot abide their presence: they want real non-combatants to die in droves in order to undermine our morale, precisely because we want to remain in a World War II mentality.

The assumption I find questionable is that we had much concern about civilian causualties in WWII. The history of that war used to be a hobby of mine, and while the Allies weren’t in the same league as the Axis powers, the idea that civilian casualties were a deterrent to military operations is one I find ahistorical. Much of the bombing of Germany by the UK was “giving it back to Jerry”, with civilian casualties a feature, not a bug. But we need not stop with the UK — it was the USA, after all, that killed the most civilians in a single bombing raid in the entire war, even before we started nuking Japanese cities. That raid, on Tokyo, used incendiary bombs to deliberately set the wooden shacks of the workers and poor on fire so that roughly 120,000 people were burned alive. Somehow, I don’t read that as being overly concerned about non-combatant deaths. I think that concern is emblematic of the post-WWII era, and really only a phenomenon of the West starting 1970 or so, after the turbulent years at the turn of the decade, as it’s hard to see support for the Mutual Assured Destruction theory of deterence gaining support in a political environment sensitive to non-combatant deaths. Yet so powerful is that phenomenon that even people who don’t agree with it rewrite history to accomodate it.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Hey Skipper Wednesday, 05 March 2008 at 14:48

Keep in mind that the fire bombing raids came only after high-altitude daylight precision — the point of which is to put as much force as possible on a militarily significant target — bombing failed.

The jet stream over Japan is both often very fast (I have seen over 200 knots), and relatively low.

That drove the B-29s to low altitude, but that put them right in the heart of the AAA envelope.

The only answer to that was to attack at night, which negated the relative precision of the Norden bombsight.

Combine that with Japanese construction and the way they did not segregate industrial facilities, and firebombing became the only effective tactic.

Economy of force is what keeps civilians alive; it is only over the last 20 years or so where technology has allowed us to take full advantage of that particular principle of war.

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 05 March 2008 at 15:37

Yes, but the key point remains — the USA didn’t let the deaths of non-combatants get in the way of achieving military objectives in WWII. The concept that such deaths are an unacceptable cost to waging war obviously post dates WWII.

cjm Wednesday, 05 March 2008 at 18:48

it is my thesis that genocide is a feature, not a bug — as well. the wholesale replacement of one population by another is in our genes.

Hey Skipper Wednesday, 05 March 2008 at 20:41


You are right, we didn’t let those deaths get in the way. Unlike the British bombing campaign, though, killing civilians was an unavoidable consequence, not the goal. (Although, it could be said the British were faced with unavoidable constraints — the inability to sustain significant losses — that forced them into night bombing and the attendant consequence of having to attack area targets.)

The question remains unanswerable: if the technology for true precision bombing existed in WWII, would we have actively avoided civilian casualties? I say yes, if for no other reason than economy of force considerations.

Oddly, Orrin Judd insists that terror bombing was the sole point all along. Pointing out the actual history and technical challenges made no difference whatsoever.

No surprise there.

Gronker Thursday, 06 March 2008 at 01:08

In the case of WWII Japan and Germany, I would have to say that there was very little difference between civilian and combatant. At least at first. By the end, there were alot of folks that just wished it would all end. In some ways, they got what they deserved for appeasing the dictators and not getting rid of their tyranical, aggressive governments. I feel this way about Iraqis as well.

However, Skipper’s point is spot on. Our bombings, then and now, were about hitting targets, killing soldiers and destroying supplies. If we could choose between hitting a bridge, or hitting a bridge and a school, we would ALWAYS hit just the bridge. This is not the case with the dictators of the past.

The one major exceptions were the nukes in Japan. I am 100% for the action, but that was a concerted effort to kill a city to make one person see the horrors of war and where they were headed. I think that we would never have tried that tactic with another culture, nor would we have. But in that singular case, the japanese peculiar sense of honor and code of death had to be short circuited…and the destruction of a city in a blink of an eye was just the trick.

The good have always been handcuffed by their own morals. They limit thier own actions by their morality when their enemies do not. They good seem to come out on top, and as for a reason for that I dont really have answer. I can go to great lengths to speak to evil actions beget evil actions against, but it takes too long :)

Ali Choudhury Thursday, 06 March 2008 at 06:31

This isn’t the 18th century where regular armies and armed civilians were on similar footings. Modern governments can now bring far much more force to bear than irregulars. That is why you don’t see populations rising up against tyrants. It was also difficult in Japan’s case since the militarists assassinated every politician who spoke out against the army.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 06 March 2008 at 10:04

Ah, synchronicity, as Megan McArdle joins the party.


I am not arguing the morality of our actions in WWII, but only that it’s ahistorical to think that concern for non-combatant deaths was more important than achieving military objectives. Yes, our military made efforts to avoid such deaths, but military goals always came first. That’s changed, and it changed well after WWII was over. It just bugs me, because of the implication of how we wouldn’t have bombed Iraq as we did if we were still fighting as we did in the “Good War”. Well, actually, we wouldn’t have done as we did, we would have been far more brutal. But this is not part of the general awareness precisely because of the kind of halcyon haze present in this article by a normally hawkish writer.


I have been meaning to write a post for months on the subject how how the Ummah should be very worried about the American Street, as you put it, “just wishing it would all end”. Remember, the nuclear attacks were not even the most deadly bombings of the war, and moreover would have been a footnote had the war gone on long enough for our blockade of the Japanese home islands to really kick in, resulting in mega-deaths from starvation.

cjm Friday, 07 March 2008 at 13:22

i don’t know why other countries think a nation founded on (necessary) genocide, and with a history of killing on a mass scale (we smoked 1m chinese in the korean conflict, and they weren’t even officially involved) won’t lay some serious smack down if pressed. and the really funny thing is, a democratic administration is far more likely than a republican one to do the smacking. if israel truly wanted to survive (and i don’t believe they do) they would have treated the palistinians like commanches and leveled every structure, while pushing them literally into the sea or the desert.

it’s a shame the people in one or more American cities will have to die — and they will — but the aftermath will be pretty serene for several hundred years.

Harry Eagar Sunday, 09 March 2008 at 13:25

Generally, what AOG said. The difference, as we presented it to ourselves, was that we avoided civilian casualties when we could, and we conceived (correctly) that the Germans and Japanese (and at the end, the Russians) created civilian casualties as a matter of military tactics.

In the case of the very weird Japanese (and the Germans at the end) even own casualties.

It was in that sense a war unlike any before or since.

I’ll quarrel with Skipper whether the Norden was of the slightest value in placing a bomb. 8th Air Force after action reports say it wasn’t.

We sure as hell didn’t worry about civilian casualties in South vietnam. I suspect the revulsion by people my age (although not me personally) to US-created civilian casualties started then.

Also, the creation of the UN and the proliferation of idiot NGO organizations gives us a forum for bleeding hearts that did not exist during World War II. At least, not effectively.

In World War II and World War I, the only big influential voices were busy fighting and not likely to take time out to chide themselves about needless deaths.

An exception was the Catholic church, which, however, kept silent.

Go back to Henry Ford’s “peace ship.” That was it for “outsider” agitation against death in World War I.

Ruben Drexel Saturday, 19 November 2011 at 07:32

Hmm it looks like your blog ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any helpful hints for novice blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.

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