By Francine Koubel
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Bombing Civilians

This article is over 10 years, 11 months old
Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B Young (eds), The New Press, £14.99
Issue 355

Is it ever acceptable to bomb civilians? This book brings together ten academic essays which discuss how and why such strategies have been used in Iraq in 1921, China in the 1930s, on all sides during both world wars, Korea and Vietnam. It finishes with an examination of the moral debates and legal frameworks concerning aerial bombardment of civilians. The more recent bombing of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan has its precedents in these strategies.

The introduction summarises the key effects of aerial bombing as “fire, smoke and flight”. Yuki Tanaka suggests that it owes its popularity among military elites to “the sharp juxtaposition of abstract and concrete” and the separation between intent and actual effect, reducing both the culpability and the vulnerability of the attackers.

The history of aerial bombing, from the use of hot air balloons in the late 18th century – it quickly became apparent that surveillance operations could also be used to kill – to the use of air attacks to control and intimidate “subject” populations, is repeated throughout the essays. The “humanitarian” justification – that aerial bombing ends opposition more quickly and so may save lives – is widely rejected.

While most of the essays examine this proposition in the context of particular conflicts, one contribution usefully explores the philosophical debates behind the utilitarian assumptions. Quite obviously, however, many war-makers – from “Bomber” Harris to Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Stalin – wholeheartedly supported aerial bombing and felt no such qualm or need for justification.

While the contributors report on particular campaigns, they focus mainly on the sheer scale of bombs dropped and civilian casualties to illustrate the horror of the practice. However, they say little that is really new.

Perhaps the most radical statement comes from Tanaka, who equates the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre with the aerial bombardment of, for example, Hiroshima, seeing both as acts of terrorism. He concludes that killing civilians is a crime against humanity regardless of the asserted military justification – a crime that should be punished on the basis of Nuremberg and Geneva principles.

Bombing Civilians offers a detailed and accessible introduction to the subject, but there is little discussion of civil wars, or mention of resistance, anti-war movements or military personnel who rebel. The narrow focus on aerial bombardment also seems at times dated, with no mention of other forms of war-making, such as guerrilla warfare, or other victims, such as those captured and tortured. The focus on the warmongers in ruling establishments ends up portraying both the bombers and their targets as pins on a war map.

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