[New York Times reporter David] Philipps details one particularly horrific bombing [in Syria] in 2019 which appears to have killed as many as seventy women and children.Dave Davis, National Public Radio, “Fresh Air,” June 13, 2022
RAF [UK Royal Air Force] airstrikes killed 29 civilians in Iraq and Syria in two years, analysis suggests.Dan Sabbagh, The Guardian, March 23, 2023
Headlines of civilian deaths in recent fighting rightly provoke investigations, soul-searching, and sometimes disciplinary or legal actions against some of those responsible. How then are we to think about an instance within living memory when the civilian death toll was over a hundred times higher and inflicted in a single night? These casualties were inflicted, not by terrorists or evil dictators, but by Americans fighting in defense of their country. How can we justify such actions?
On the night of March 9, 1945, U.S. B-29 bombers of the XX Air Force firebombed the city of Tokyo. The attack killed between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand Japanese—mostly civilians, many women and children. The purpose of this article is neither to applaud nor to condemn this attack and many others like it; rather, it is to explain briefly how such attacks came to be accepted as legitimate acts of war and to assess their outcome.
Civilian populations have always suffered in wars. Despite repeated attempts to limit attacks from the air on undefended civilians, the world entered the Second World War without agreed laws that specifically governed air warfare. During the interwar period, the air war advocate Italian Brigadier General Guilio Douhet published his influential justification of air power, The Command of the Air. In it, he advocated the bombing of civilian populations to break civilian morale and force a surrender. While not adopted wholesale by any air force, Douhet’s work did accelerate the breakdown of conceptual barriers to attacks on civilians.
The U.S. Army Air Forces entered the war in 1941 committed to the concept of precision bombing of critical industrial targets in daylight by formations of heavily armed bombers. German defenses and European weather largely frustrated American efforts to bomb accurately in daylight, however. Winter weather during 1944–1945, for example, precluded all-visual bombing eighty percent of the time. Even using radar-directed bombing, postwar analysis indicated that U.S. aircraft using radar alone had to drop 567 bombs to get one within one thousand feet of the aim point.
All these issues and more would bedevil the U.S. attacks on Japan. U.S. bombers had only hit the Japanese home islands once prior to 1944, during the April 1942 Doolittle raid. The vast distances of the Pacific and the limited range of existing bombers protected the homeland for much of the war. In June 1944, the new Boeing B-29 began to bomb Japan itself from bases in China and then from the newly captured Marianas Islands in the central Pacific in November 1944.
Initially, the B-29s flew at high altitudes above thirty thousand feet (standard airline cruising altitude today) to reduce their vulnerability to Japanese fighters and antiaircraft guns. The B-29s were dropping mostly high explosive bombs (as opposed to incendiaries intended to start fires) on specific military and industrial targets. Winter weather over Japan was even worse than that over Germany, however. Additionally, the bombers faced previously unsuspected high-velocity winds (now known as the jet stream) above thirty thousand feet, which made accurate bombing even in good weather almost impossible. U.S. target intelligence on Japan was also weak, especially information on the small industrial shops scattered throughout residential areas. These small workshops subcontracted with larger factories to produce parts and subassemblies of weapon systems.
U.S. targeteers had always looked hard at the use of incendiaries against Japanese cities. Devastating fires like those which had followed the 1923 Kanto earthquake in Yokohama had shown how vulnerable the largely wooden Japanese cities were to fire. Incendiaries would also reduce the need for pinpoint target intelligence, since fires could devastate large areas.
By early March 1945, it was clear that the U.S. daylight precision bombing campaign was ineffective. Major General Curtis LeMay, commander of the bombers of the XX Air Force, decided to send his entire force of B-29s at night, at much lower altitudes and carrying almost no defensive ammunition, against Tokyo. The result was the holocaust discussed above. By the time Japan surrendered in August 1945, the bombers had attacked all but three of Japan’s major cities and towns. They had killed as many as three hundred and thirty thousand people (not including those lost to the atomic bombs).
Why did the Allies bomb Japan at all? By the time the firebombing started, Japan’s industry was already moribund, largely thanks to the American submarine campaign. Foodstocks in the home islands had never been robust, even before the war; by 1945, some parts of the civilian population were already nearly starving. It seemed to some in the West that surrender must be just a matter of time.
By late 1944, though, it was becoming increasingly clear that Japan was unlikely to surrender without the application of additional force. Even in August 1945, after the Japanese emperor had intervened personally to force a surrender, some army officers and units attempted to block the surrender announcement. The Allies could have invaded the home islands, but the bloody and slow campaign to get close enough to Japan to launch an invasion had shown that an amphibious attack on the homeland itself would come at a horrendous cost to the invaders. It would have been unthinkable (and politically suicidal) for an American president to sacrifice American and Allied lives in an invasion that might have been precluded by aerial bombing at a much lower cost to the U.S. Meanwhile, more and more Allied prisoners of war and native populations in countries occupied by Japan (especially China) were dying each month the Japanese held out.
By the spring of 1945, Allied military and political leaders were willing to consider almost any means to raise the pressure on the Japanese and force a surrender, despite the cost to Japanese civilians. From LeMay’s point of view, the switch to incendiaries was simply a way to bomb more effectively. The U.S. Army Air Forces also had their own reasons to try to force a Japanese surrender without a ground invasion. Air Force leaders had sought for decades to become a service independent of the Army and the Navy. The greater the role the air forces could play in victory, the more compelling the rationale would be for a separate air force.
Did firebombing help to end the war more quickly, even though it caused devastating losses of civilian life? While scholars remain divided, many have concluded that the firebombing, coupled with the dropping of the atomic bombs, the Soviet declaration of war against Japan, the effects of the blockade, and possibly the prospect of a conventional invasion, combined to tip the balance of Japanese government decision-making in favor of surrender—barely.