We humans

Aerial bombing: Turns out, it almost never works

Nov 17, 2014 /
The history of aerial bombing | ideas.ted.com

A short history of the warfare tactic that crushes cities but not morale: or, a study in the paradoxes of technological dystopianism.

The first time a city was bombed from the air was in 1849, some fifty years before the Wright brothers made their pioneering flight on a North Carolina beach. Forces from the Austrian Empire were besieging Venice, at that time seeking to liberate itself from Austrian rule. The Austrians attached explosives to unmanned balloons and released them. After a certain interval the bombs were to drop on the city. Their attempt failed: the bombs did little damage, with some even landing on friendly troops. But the attack showed how aerial bombing altered the calculus of warfare, because it could embroil civilian populations even if they were far behind the front lines. As a onetime U.S. consul to Venice wrote, flying ordnance had become a threat to a place that its doges had “so fondly, yet so mistakenly, believed unassailable externally by any mortal foe!”

It was thought that bombing would smash the spirit of civilians.

Bombs were first dropped on Britain during World War I, when Germany sent zeppelins against London and other cities, killing hundreds. Britain launched its own raids in return. The British public were said to have coped relatively well with this novel threat. As U.S. Army War College historian Tami Biddle writes, they were angered by the lack of defences, though not necessarily in a state of panic. There were some civil disturbances, and people attacked shops owned, or thought to be owned, by Germans. Still, a view crystallized in the British establishment that bombing could undermine the home front, and even prompt civilians to call for surrender.

It is tempting, as coalition forces continue attacks on the Islamic State, to see air power as a panacea that can deliver an irremediable blow. This was a common view of aerial bombardment in Britain and the U.S. when it began in earnest in the early 20th century and during World War II. In fact, military experts had ambitions for bombing that were on the order of the fantastical, and that had taken shape in the context of colonial misadventures and the publication of apocalyptic writings. It was thought that bombing would smash the spirit of civilians. “What civil or military authority could keep order, public services functioning, and production going under such a threat?” asked a notable military theorist, Giulio Douhet. Today, though, the limits of bombing have been revealed, as if upon waking from a fever-dream.

Racist ideas about various countries’ ability to endure suffering were mixed in.

“Experience goes to show that the moral effect of bombing industrial towns” — meaning its effect on morale — “may be great, even though the material effect is, in fact, small,” said Hugh Trenchard, the future head of the Royal Air Force, who earned the nickname of “Boom,” in 1917. He would later propose that the effect of bombing on morale was 20 times as great as whatever material destruction it caused, though it is unclear how he arrived at this ratio.

Such suppositions may have been motivated, Biddle suggests, by fears that the poor, sickly urban societies engendered by the Industrial Revolution were susceptible to collapse. According to one social reformer writing at that time, city life had created “a characteristic physical type of town dweller: stunted, narrow-chested, easily-wearied; yet voluble, excitable, with little ballast, stamina or endurance.” Racist ideas about various countries’ ability to endure suffering were mixed in. The French, according to Trenchard, would “squeal” first in the case of a bombing war with Britain. And fears about bombing were fanned by apocalyptic literature. H.G. Wells described the destruction of Western civilization by bombers, while military writer B.H. Liddell Hart predicted that bombing would cause dislocation, insanity and eventually capitulation. “Imagine for a moment London, Manchester, Birmingham, and half a dozen other great centres simultaneously attacked,” he wrote. “Whitehall a heap of ruins, the slum districts maddened into the impulse to break loose and maraud, the railways cut, factories destroyed.” He concludes: Would not the general will to resist vanish?

The first case of bombing from an airplane occurred when an Italian pilot threw grenades over the side of his craft and onto military positions in Libya.

European colonial endeavors seemed to confirm these ideas. The first case of bombing from an airplane, in 1911, in fact occurred when an Italian pilot threw grenades over the side of his craft and onto military positions in Libya during a conflict with the Ottoman Empire. Britain policed tribal peoples with aircraft in Mesopotamia, which includes modern-day Iraq, and bombed them, because it was cheaper and easier than sending in ground forces, Derek Gregory, a University of British Columbia geographer who has written on bombing, said in an interview. In a paper he quotes a report by Arthur Harris, who would later lead Britain’s bombing efforts during World War II, about raids on Kurdish rebels: “[T]hey now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage: they now know that within 45 min a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.” (An unsympathetic individual, Harris would also say during the war that “We have got to kill a lot of Boche,” meaning Germans.)

One of the most comprehensive theories of how aerial bombing would destroy morale — an account that is also almost incomprehensibly callous — was written by Giulio Douhet, a key early thinker about the role of air forces. He was born into a military family in the Italian town of Caserta, became a fascist activist after World War I, and his 1921 book, The Command of the Air, displays a Hobbesian mindset. “Wherever two men meet, conflict is inevitable,” the text begins. Douhet argues, not incorrectly, that aircraft had changed the nature of war, because they made civilian populations into targets. But from this he draws idiosyncratic conclusions.

In his view there is no way of stopping aerial attacks — it is like defending oneself from a mad dog.

In his view there is no way of stopping aerial attacks — it is like defending oneself from a mad dog, he writes. He suggests that the only option is to strike the enemy’s air force with such force that it is unable to hit back, and that it is then possible to cause so much suffering that the people demand peace. Planes could bomb towns with incendiaries and poison gas to maximize the destruction of civilian objectives, such as shops and food supplies, he says, and paralyze human activity. Indeed it is more important, he writes, to hit a bakery than a trench, because it will have a greater impact on morale. “Normal life would be impossible in this constant nightmare of imminent death and destruction,” he contends. As for treaties regulating the use of chemical weapons, Douhet writes elsewhere that “he is a fool if not a patricide who would acquiesce in his country’s defeat rather than go against those formal agreements.” He adds that such agreements are “nothing but international demagogic hypocrises.”

While Douhet himself was not necessarily a direct inspiration for military commanders, University of Exeter historian Richard Overy writes in his doorstop-size study, The Bombers and the Bombed, that in the large Allied city bombing campaigns in Europe during World War II, “there was an implicit understanding that bombing alone might unhinge the enemy war effort, undermine popular war willingness, and perhaps even force the politicians to sue for peace.” In the U.S., for instance, a lecturer at a military school said that “the will to resist, the will to fight, the will to progress, are ultimately centered in the mass of the people. … Hence, the ultimate aim of all military operations is to destroy the will of those people at home.” In a different address, the speaker argued that in democratic states, the fact that governments need the support of the populace makes the morale of civilians a legitimate target. Officials imbibed the sense of threat. As philosopher A.C. Grayling, head of the New College of the Humanities in London, notes in his analysis of the city bombing campaign, ahead of the German attacks on London in World War II the British government predicted that half the city would be destroyed in three weeks, and that there would be 3 million psychiatric cases caused by terror and confusion. It was estimated that 20 million square feet of coffin timber would be needed each month.

It was estimated that 20 million square feet of coffin timber would be needed each month.

In the event, despite the high death toll and devastation resulting from the Allied bombing campaigns, they did not have the destabilizing effect that had been predicted. This is most obvious from 1942 onwards, when the RAF took an approach described by University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape as “Douhet-style incendiary bombing.” It was pursued for several reasons, Pape writes, for one because of pressure to retaliate over terrible attacks on British cities. And it was grounded by the RAF’s belief in the importance of targeting morale, as a strikingly unequivocal line from a 1941 air staff memorandum suggests: “We must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger.” The aim, it summarized, was therefore destruction and “fear of death.”

Incendiarism was carefully studied by the British and Americans, Overy notes. In Britain, the susceptibility to firebombs of various types of German roofs was tested, and there was debate over matters like the thickness of wood beams in German buildings. A report concluded that “a German house will burn well.” The Allied raids on Hamburg, lasting 10 days, created a firestorm with temperatures of over 800 degrees Celsius and winds so powerful that they sucked people into the blaze. Some 37,000 were killed, and over half the city’s houses and apartments were damaged or destroyed. Hamburg was a major shipbuilding center, but bombs were aimed at residential districts; Overy says that the intention was to destroy the city as a whole. Many other cities received this treatment.

Conventional bombing, history suggests, can weaken an enemy but is usually unable to swing a war by itself.

Still, bombing did not justify the hopes for it, certainly with regard to morale and social collapse. According to a report from the US Strategic Bombing Survey, “Allied bombing widely and seriously depressed German civilians, but depressed and discouraged workers were not necessarily unproductive workers.” In Pape’s evaluation of the impact of city bombing, he notes that instead of causing Germans to rebel against the Nazis, air raids increased their reliance on the Nazis for help. “Air power has never driven the masses into the streets to demand anything,” he writes. Allied city raids also had a negligible impact on German war production, not least because factories were often outside city centers. More efficacious than city attacks were attacks on resources needed by the German military, such as oil facilities. By the end, the Nazi forces had literally run out of gas.

Conventional bombing, history suggests, can weaken an enemy but is usually unable to swing a war by itself. “The lesson of all bombing campaigns since 1945, with the exception of the bombing of Belgrade, has been that air power on its own may inflict some damage, even, as in Korea and North Vietnam, extensive destruction, but there is no substitute for troops on the ground and the occupation of territory,” Richard Overy, the historian, wrote in an email. “The defeat of ISIS will only come on the ground.” More broadly the story of aerial bombing demonstrates the perils of what might be called technological dystopianism. A new technology may promise irrevocable cataclysms, but they are perhaps harder than this to achieve.

For more on the technology, and futility, of aerial war, watch Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk about the Norden bombsight >>

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