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At what point did it become morally acceptable to bomb civilians?

It’s tempting to blame the Italians. They were the first to drop explosive ordnance from airplanes—on Ottoman forces during the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War—though the results were less than impressive. Italian air power prophet Giulio Douhet advocated bombing enemy population centers as a means to shorten wars, predicting in his 1921 book The Command of the Air that under a sustained aerial onslaught, “The time would soon come when, to put an end to the horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by instinct and self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war….” Of course Douhet’s prediction proved illusory: Often the bombing of civilian targets only served to strengthen the people’s resolve, as was the case with the World War I zeppelin raids on London and the Luftwaffe Blitz during the Battle of Britain. And those living under the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were hardly in a position to rise up and make demands of their governments.

When it came to wholesale destruction of cities from the air, nobody was as effective as the Allies in WWII. The names are familiar to any student of history: Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin, Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Nagasaki—cities all but leveled by American and British bombs. Allied air commanders were unapologetic. “We are going to scourge the Third Reich from end to end,” said RAF Bomber Command leader Sir Arthur Harris. “We are bombing Germany city by city and ever more terribly in order to make it impossible for her to go on with the war.” And U.S. Twentieth Air Force commander Curtis LeMay put it succinctly: “We’re at war with Japan. We were attacked by Japan. Do you want to kill Japanese, or would you rather have Americans killed?”

Perhaps the man most associated with the area bombing of urban-industrial centers, LeMay drew no distinction between enemy combatants and civilians. “There are no innocent civilians,” he told an interviewer in 1989. “It is their government and you are fighting a people; you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders.” In defending his approach, LeMay was taking a page from Douhet, who wrote: “Any distinction between belligerents and nonbelligerents is no longer admissible today….because when nations are at war, everyone takes part in it: the soldier carrying his gun, the woman loading shells in a factory, the farmer growing wheat, the scientist experimenting in his laboratory.”

It is this context of modern war in which the history of strategic bombing must be viewed. Yet it’s also important that the people of all nations learn from the past and strive for a better future—“a future in which,” as President Barack Obama put it on May 27, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening.”