Targeting Civilians

There are no innocent civilians. 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.

? Gen. Curtis E. LeMay [1]

On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States government dropped atomic bombs on two densely-populated Japanese cities, killing between 200,000 and 300,000 civilians. Commemorations of the atomic bombings often focus on the need to destroy nuclear weapons. But the anniversary raises another issue that is no less important, for the bombings had specifically targeted Japanese civilians. The military tactic of targeting civilian populations in times of war was nothing new, with deep historical roots extending back to Biblical times when armies would lay siege to entire cities. More recently, US military manuals of the 1920s and 1930s had promoted such tactics not just for the potential scale of destruction but also for the psychological effects on civilians. Air Corps doctrine, for example, praised air raids as “a method of imposing will by terrorizing the whole population,” and before World War II advocated “attacks to intimidate civil populations” [2]. Secretary of War Henry Stimson later made a similar point, boasting that “the atomic bomb was more than a weapon of terrible destruction; it was a psychological weapon” [3].

When World War II started, however, such strategies were frequently condemned in international circles. Although military technology had developed rapidly in recent decades, the previous century had also witnessed notable national and international agreements designed to limit the brutality of warfare. Building on a centuries-old moral and legal distinction between soldiers and civilians, the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions had banned the “bombardment, by whatever means” of urban residential areas [4]. The 1925 Geneva Protocol had added to wartime prohibitions, condemning the use of chemical and biological weapons. In 1939, then, widespread acceptance of the targeting of civilian populations such as occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki six years later was by no means a foregone conclusion. Yet those acts enjoyed enormous support, and not only within the upper echelons of government: 85 percent of the US public approved of the Hiroshima bombing in an August 8, 1945, poll [5].

How did the sort of logic that condoned the targeting of civilian populations prevail over the countervailing moral norms codified in international law in previous decades? As historians have pointed out, the development of the military tactic of “area bombing” early in the war was a crucial stepping stone to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Area bombing refers to the aerial use of explosive and/or incendiary bombs against entire geographic areas, usually cities, rather than against conventional military targets. The logic of area bombing expands the definition of “military” to include industries, residential areas, and even the working population of laborers involved in economic production. As a theoretical and moral development, then, area bombing was unique in that it implied no hesitancy about killing noncombatants, and often sought specifically to do so [6]. An examination of the process by which area bombing gained practical acceptance as military strategy during World War II can help shed light on several issues: the ways that Allied leaders justified the bombing of cities; the reasons why the US public usually accepted those justifications; the ways that area bombing help paved the way for the use of the atomic bombs in August 1945; and finally, the long-term legacy of launching air raids against civilian populations in the years 1940-45.

The Path to Area Bombing

The area bombing of cities during World War II in fact followed a number of historical precedents. Roman military leaders, for example, had followed a comparable logic in the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. Although traditionally executed from the ground prior to the invention of airplanes, full-scale attacks on entire cities were common in ancient times. Since the early 1900s European powers had also engaged in the deliberate bombing of cities. Germany, France, and Great Britain had all bombed cities in World War I, and both France and Britain had used aerial strikes in the 1920s and 1930s to punish “intransigent tribesmen” in colonized territories in Africa, India, and the Middle East (the US also did so in Nicaragua around the same time) [7].

Area bombing was unique, however, in that it sought indiscriminate annihilation of entire places. Hitler’s 1940 air raid on Coventry, England, destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure and was one of the first instances of “indiscriminate bombing” during the war [8]. Nazi attacks on London, Moscow, and various European countries throughout the war also fall under the category of area bombing. But even so, area bombing was largely an Allied practice, especially from 1942 onward. Whereas most German and Japanese aerial attacks involved “tactical,” “strategic,” and/or “terror-bombing” (which certainly inflicted large civilian casualties at times), British and US aerial bombing was more often directed toward wiping out entire urban areas. By the end of World War II the Allies had carried out more area bombing missions than had the Axis [9].

Although US officials had planned to firebomb Japan as early as 1940, US military practice early in the war, with some exceptions, did not generally involve area bombing of urban locations. Instead, military strategies went through several escalations in their level of brutality. The Doolittle raid on Japan in April 1942 was the first large-scale use of incendiary bombs against civilian populations. Between 1943 and early 1945 the number of Allied incendiary raids gradually increased, punctuated by the mid-1943 US-British attacks on Hamburg, Germany, and the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. After the US Army’s Chemical Warfare Service successfully developed napalm in 1943, the Allied use of incendiaries increased [10]. During the war roughly 593,000 civilians died in bombing raids on German cities, and at least 780,000 civilians in Japan died as a result of incendiary raids alone [11]. The latter figure excludes civilian fatalities from both explosive raids and the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which followed three months after the Tokyo raid.

For many US officials the incendiary and area bombing of cities were not just “necessary evils”; equally crucial “was the psychological impact of death and destruction” [12]. The intent to terrorize civilian populations frequently appeared in official doctrines and private conversations, though seldom in statements meant for a public audience. But for other policymakers, the practice of area bombing only gradually came to be accepted and legitimated over a period of several years. The shift from “precision” to full-scale area bombing often involved no explicit decision. Area bombing started while traditional bombing techniques continued (and while certain officials remained in willful denial about the use of area bombing) [13]. Nor is there any direct link between the start of area bombing in 1940 and the use of the atomic bombs five years later. The lack of concrete decisions that characterized each “shift” does not mean that individuals were powerless to affect the course of events, or that each shift was inevitable given its predecessor. But the gradual progression from “precision” to area bombing, and from area to atomic bombing, means that US politicians, military men, and civilians probably found Hiroshima and Nagasaki easier to justify than they would have otherwise. The schematic below shows the progression and timing of Allied aerial military tactics during the war [14].

“Precision” bombing of military targets in or near cities

Area bombing of cities using explosives (December 1940)

Area bombing of cities using explosives and incendiaries (April 1942)

Area bombing of cities at low altitudes using napalm and other incendiaries (March 1945)

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945)


Official Rhetoric and the Reasons for Public Approval

The advocates of area and incendiary bombing couched their rhetoric in terms of military necessity. German and Japanese forces, they pointed out, had also carried out area bombings of civilian areas. Furthermore, Allied “precision” bombing had often failed to exact significant damage on opposing forces [15]. Political leaders, military men, and scientists frequently portrayed military innovations like aerial warfare and napalm in a positive light, as instruments that would ultimately preserve rather than destroy lives. By mastering the means of extreme violence, they claimed, the US could make wars shorter, more decisive, and more humane. In the right hands such violence could be a force for peace and human progress. Of course, all governments involved offered similar rationalizations; Hitler, for example, had claimed that the German bombing of Holland would “save lives” in the long run. The rhetoric of both Allies and Axis was full of Machiavellian justifications of the bombings as necessary to save lives and bring peace [16].

In addition, basic facts had to remain hidden. The US public and international observers could not know that civilians were being targeted by Allied attacks. The Roosevelt and Churchill governments therefore sought to “terrorize” civilians but “without appearing to use terror tactics” [17]. Roosevelt and his advisers tended to emphasize subtle, rather dubious distinctions between targeting the “economy” versus the “population” [18]. Political and military leaders repeatedly insisted that Allied attacks targeted only “war industries” and “Army bases” (in rare instances they were more candid, as in the quote from LeMay that begins this essay) [19]. That claim was applied to most bombing throughout the war, from the first area bombings in 1940-41 to the use of the atomic bombs in August 1945. Most US media sources were willfully compliant, parroting official government assertions about the surgical accuracy of “precision bombing” raids and justifying those raids as militarily necessary. Most journalists and newspapers ignored the psychological effects that US policymakers hoped such bombing would have on civilian populations. Historian Michael S. Sherry has noted that as early as 1940 “the language of precision bombing provided a figleaf for attacks on the Nazis’ cities and morale” [20]. Such deceit was necessary for two reasons: on the world level, because psychological warfare targeting civilians had been internationally condemned by the time of WWII, and within the country because US mainstream culture did not knowingly sanction that level of barbarity.

Most of the US public was simply not aware of the numbers of civilian deaths in Allied raids on German and Japanese cities, and most ordinary citizens were certainly unaware that many of those raids had specifically targeted the civilian population. In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most US citizens who supported the use of the atomic bombs had little or no knowledge of the status of the surrender negotiations, had been told that a costly US mainland invasion of Japan might otherwise have been necessary, and were not aware that the bombings had again targeted civilian centers.

But aside from government deception, there are additional reasons why so many in the US?including political leaders, soldiers, and the public?accepted what often amounted to direct bombing of civilian populations in Europe and Japan. Certainly many people simply accepted aerial bombardment thinking it was militarily necessary to defeat a greater evil. But as the United States engaged in the war against fascism, there also emerged a widespread sense of moral invulnerability. As WWII Air Force bombardier Howard Zinn has written,

It seems that once an initial judgment has been made that a war is just, there is a tendency to stop thinking, to assume then that everything done on behalf of victory is morally acceptable. I had myself participated in the bombing of cities, without even considering whether there was any relationship between what I was doing and the elimination of fascism from the world. [21]

Deep-seated US exceptionalism, reinforced by the widespread conviction that the Allied cause was just, blinded many US citizens to further moral or legal questions. What psychologists have labeled “moral inversion” inclined ordinary US citizens to rationalize increasingly brutal behavior in the name of defeating evil [22]. In the case of the Pacific war, US attitudes toward the Japanese had also been shaped by blatantly racist propaganda in the US mass media and by politicians like Truman who characterized the Japanese people as “savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic” [23]. Allied forces usually targeted working-class neighborhoods, too, which made the prospect of civilian deaths even more acceptable to many educated Western observers. Together all of these factors helped to prevent civilian fatalities and other “marginal considerations of morality” (in the words of one dispassionate military historian) from influencing either policymaking or the US public’s response to their government’s actions [24].

Just as incendiary area bombing of cities like Tokyo produced an uncontrollable “firestorm” that spread rapidly to engulf entire neighborhoods and cities, the moral reasoning of political leaders and civilians in the Allied countries might be said to have undergone a similar process. The firestorm image conveys both the unique terror caused by incendiary area bombing and the process by which moral questions were increasingly disregarded during the war, or at least subsumed beneath the conviction that fascism must be defeated at all costs. That conviction allowed many Allied political leaders, military men, and soldiers, and civilians to overcome any uneasiness about potential civilian deaths. By August 1945 the moral justification of atrocity had spiraled nearly out of control, producing a moral climate far more accepting of “enemy” civilian deaths than the one that had existed five years earlier.

Yet unlike the firestorms that rapidly destroyed urban areas in Germany and Japan, the development of area and incendiary bombing?and the downward moral slope that ran parallel to that development?was a gradual process. As mentioned, these techniques emerged and gained legitimacy only over a period of several years, and moreover had historical antecedents dating back thousands of years. During the war itself the shift from “precision” to area targets was sometimes so gradual (and so unofficial) that “even airmen did not always realize they were crossing a threshold” [25]. Bombing techniques evolved from 1940 to 1945 by a process of “piecemeal evolution” characterized by few deliberate decisions on the part of policymakers and military leaders [26]. The gradual nature of the process and the absence of clear-cut decisions by individual leaders undoubtedly helped to make area bombing more palatable by the later years of the war.


The use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 is in a sense the logical and moral culmination of Allied area and incendiary bombing strategies developed over the course of World War II. Civilian populations had long been the targets of aerial bombings, a fact that probably made the use of the atomic bombs on urban areas seem less radical. In addition to the moral blinders that most US observers erected upon entering World War II, official deceptions, US nationalism, and intense racism no doubt contributed to public approval of the atomic bombings.

But the targeting of civilians in World War II has left a legacy extending far beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the half-century following the end of the war, the United States and its allies (and many of its non-allies) have intentionally bombed civilians in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and a host of other countries. In many other cases civilians have been the targets of non-aerial warfare, perhaps most notably in Central America during the 1980s [27]. Military forces have frequently cited “psychological” goals behind such operations, in much the same way that certain US officials did during World War II.

As scholar Kenneth Hewitt has argued, any consideration of area bombing or of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must question the extent to which “the rationalizations and the moral climate that led to Allied area bombing still surround us” [28]. Among the lessons we might take from the use of area and atomic bombings against civilians is an awareness of how political leaders use deceitful rhetoric to obscure the brutality of military actions; how those leaders appeal to national exceptionalism and “constructed communal hatreds” to accept increasingly brutal behavior in times of war, especially when ideals like freedom and democracy supposedly guide the leaders’ actions [29]; and how lofty proclamations of righteousness can dull the moral judgments of even well-intentioned people whose values would not otherwise condone violence and aggression.

To a remarkable degree, the domestic ingredients for large-scale violence remain present in full-force in the country that six decades ago claims to have fought a “Good War” in order to save mankind from those same dangerous tendencies. Fortunately, however, countervailing forces have long been developing in opposition to these tendencies; since the mid-1960s the moral culture of the mainstream US has?despite ebbs and flows?become more civilized, at least in the sense that the population-at-large is far less tolerant of US government savagery overseas than it was in 1945 [30].

Someday not too soon, in a more democratic world, international law will serve as an effective constraint on the actions of powerful politicians in countries like the United States. For the time being, however, political leaders with unrivaled access to the levers of military power will behave in a civilized manner only when forced to do so by the threat of mass resistance, from their own constituencies or from the populations directly affected by their acts of aggression. As a starting point, antiwar voices must go well beyond a single-minded critique of the Iraq occupation, insisting on strict respect for international laws and conventions in all overseas dealings. For the US this commitment would include, among other things: adherence to national and international prohibitions on aggressive warfare, torture, and terrorism (defined as the threat and/or the use of violence against a civilian population); adherence to signed commitments to begin eliminating our nuclear stockpiles and those of our allies; withdrawal of aid to regimes that violate basic international laws or human rights; unconditional recognition of all World Court and UN General Assembly rulings; and material reparations to the victims of our own many violations in these categories. From there strategies, tactics, and specific political positions can be debated, but these basic demands should be non-controversial.

KEVIN YOUNG is a graduate student in history at Stony Brook University. He can be reached at:


[1] Quoted in Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 287.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., 57.

[3] Henry L. Stimson, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” Harper’s Magazine 194, no. 1161 (1947), 105.

[4] Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 5. For a summary of international and national rules of war prior to 1939, see Telford Taylor, The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials (New York: Knopf, 1992), 5-20. Many of these rules were informal and there were few enforcement mechanisms in place prior to WWII, but they nonetheless represent important moral and legal advancements.

[5] See polls cited in Lawrence S. Wittner, Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1941-1960 (New York: Columbia UP, 1969), 128-29.

[6] Kenneth Hewitt, “Place Annihilation: Area Bombing and the Fate of Urban Places,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 73, no. 2 (June 1983), 261, 271. An important caveat is necessary, though not the focus of this article: “noncombatant” deaths are not the only ones to be mourned, especially in cases when the perpetrator has conducted an aggressive war of invasion. For example, in cases like Vietnam, Iraq, and Central America in the 1980s, the United States and allies are to be condemned for all casualties, not just civilian casualties; by focusing on civilian deaths I do not mean to condone the killing of all those who take up arms, sometimes quite legitimately. I thank David Brichoux for reminding me of this point.

[7] Ibid., 259-60, 261 (“intransigent tribesmen,” quoted), 259.

[8] Ibid., 272. Hewitt notes that the bombing was not wholly indiscriminate in that it was completely random, but was only “indiscriminate” within a specified area. That is, after defining a geographic area to bomb, forces would seek to wipe out that area as completely as possible without regard for specific targets within the area.

[9] Ibid., 260-63. The United States use of area bombing occurred primarily in Japan and in Europe in early 1945. Prior to 1945 Britain had been responsible for the majority of area bombing in the European theater. Interestingly, area bombing was itself largely ineffective in its purported goals; as Hewitt notes, the minimal impact of area bombing on “the industrial economy and war-making potential contrasts starkly with its huge impact on civilian lives, property, and urban culture”?although the latter were also targets, as the most candid officials sometimes admitted (Ibid., 272).

[10] Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 122-23, 152-56, 226-27, 272-75.

[11] Figures cited in Hewitt, “Place Annihilation,” 267.

[12] Gordon Daniels, “The Great Tokyo Air Raid, 9-10 March 1945,” in Modern Japan: Aspects of History, Literature, and Society, ed. W.G. Beasley (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1975), 118.

[13] Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 7, 94-95, 230. Most language used to describe area bombing was vague from the start, and talked ambiguously about eliminating the “enemy’s will to resist” (quoted in Ibid., 54) without specifying whether that meant, for example, bombing to damage industrial targets or the bombing of industrial workers themselves. See also Hewitt, “Place Annihilation,” 261-63.

[14] Of course, one technique did not stop being employed when its successor was initiated; explosive bombs were used throughout the course of the war. Nor does this simple diagram mean to imply that one development led directly to the next, or that these were the only important “steps” in the process.

[15] On the development of area bombing in response to the failure of previous techniques: Hewitt, “Place Annihilation,” 261, 271; Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 24. On the “they did it first” argument referring to Germany and Japan: Ibid., 59-60, 76-79, 91-92, 122.

[16] Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1995), 37, 81 (Hitler quote), 310-12 (preserver/destroyer inversion); Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 2-7. See also the distinction made between tool and weapon in Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 174-176.

[17] Quoted in Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 156.

[18] Ibid., 57.

[19] See Truman’s August 6, 1945, speech and the claims made by Gen. Lesley Groves, quoted in Lifton and Mitchell, Hiroshima in America, 4-6; Stimson, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” 105; Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 15, 109, 123.

[20] Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 94 (quote), 95, 258-59, 288-92.

[21] Howard Zinn, “Just and Unjust War,” in The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997), 259.

[22] Lifton and Mitchell, Hiroshima in America, 37, 81, 307-313.

[23] Quoted in Barton J. Bernstein, “Truman and the A-Bomb: Targeting Noncombatants, Using the Bomb, and His Defending the ‘Decision,'” The Journal of Military History 62, no. 3 (1998), 558.

[24] Quote from Daniels, “The Great Tokyo Air Raid,” 130; argument mine. See also Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 114-117, 285; and Hewitt, “Place Annihilation,” 271, who notes the greater public opprobrium that followed Hitler’s bombing of upper-class neighborhoods.

[25] Quoted in Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 288-89.

[26] Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 96, 230.

[27] Hewitt, “Place Annihilation,” 281. Although Hewitt doesn’t mention it, Nicaragua is a case in point. The US-backed Contra war deliberately targeted Nicaraguan civilians and infrastructure in hopes of destabilizing the country and inflicting suffering on the rural population to such an extent that the people would overthrow the Sandinista government just to end the military attacks. The strategy worked, at least in the short term, with the Sandinistas losing the 1990 presidential elections.

[28] Hewitt, “Place Annihilation,” 262.

[29] Mark Selden, “Introduction: The United States, Japan, and the Atomic Bomb,” in The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kyoko and Mark Selden, eds. (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1989), xxvi.

[30] Noam Chomsky, for one, has made this argument in many interviews and articles.