This is a long essay about the changing ratio of military to civilian casualties written by Historian Mark Selden
Mark Selden This essay explores the logic and the consequences-for its victims and for subsequent global patterns of warfare-of new technologies and strategies of mass destruction associated with the rise of air power and the obliteration of the distinction between combatant and non-combatant in World World War II: from the European theatre, with the bombing strategies adopted by the Germans, the British, and the Americans in the European theatre, it reached a climax in the final months of the Pacific War with U.S. firebombing of Japanese cities and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Elimination of the distinction between combatant and non-combatant would shape all subsequent wars from Korea to Vietnam to the Gulf War and the ethnic conflicts of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, to mention but a few. The combatant-non-combatant distinction has always been at best fragile, even ephemeral, frequently providing little or no protection for those deemed subhuman. This is well illustrated by the long history of religious and colonial wars. Nevertheless, certain constraints on barbarism did exist and affected the conduct of all sides in World War II. The assault on these norms in the context of new warmaking technologies is among the legacies of the war.
Public debate in the United States, Japan and Europe has long pivoted on the ethical and political issues associated with the U.S. decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. U.S. policy in general, and the final year of the Pacific War in particular, raises important questions of morality and war concerning the elimination of restraints on the killing of noncombatants during the preceding phases of a war which took more than 50 million lives. The totalism of the war was reinforced at the outset by American insistence that the only acceptable outcome lay in unconditional surrender of the enemy, a position that it maintained with respect to Japan until immediately after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when it promptly softened its terms. Franklin Roosevelt’s words delivered in his message to Congress a month after Pearl Harbor provide the classic moral-philosophical statement undergirding the total war position:
“There never has been-there never can be-successful compromise between good and evil. Only total victory can reward the champions of tolerance, anddecency, and faith.”
Ideological bases for the destruction of noncombatants defined as “the enemy” existed on all sides of the conflict from the outset, yet there were also constraints at work in the early years of the war. These constraints on policymakers derived in part from historically grounded moral strictures that placed limits (however fragile) on the bounds of warfare, for example those protecting women, children, and the elderly, from direct attack.
More important than moral imperatives were well-grounded fears on all sides that the escalation of conflict by deliberate targeting of noncombatants for destruction, would provoke devastating retaliation. The partial and imperfect restraints on the use of poison gas provide perhaps the best documented example of such fears. With respect to the uses of air power, the belief long persisted in some influential quarters that the most cost-effective bombing strategies were those that pinpointed destruction of enemy forces and installations, factories, and railroads, not those designed to terrorize or kill noncombatants. Such a view influenced U.S. bombing strategy prior to late 1944 or early 1945, a point to which we return below.
Air War and the Noncombatant
The classic combat of World War I was trench warfare involving industrial nations of roughly comparable strength and technology. World War II was distinctive both for the growing importance played by the new weaponry, particularly air power and bombs, and the broadening of the theatres of war to include the colonial and semi-colonial zones as well as the industrial heartland. During World War II, Britain, Germany and subsequently the U.S., among others, shifted from selective to systematic destruction, that is from attempts to destroy verifiable military and industrial objectives to the use of air power to terrorize and kill civilians.
There were a number of important and controversial examples of terror bombing early, on including the bombing of Guernica in Spain in 1937 and especially German destruction of central Rotterdam with a toll of 40,000 civilian lives in order to force the Dutch surrender in May 1940. The decisive deployment of airpower against European cities, however, was in the 1940-41 German-British conflict which constituted the most important prelude to the U.S. onslaught against Japanese cities in spring and summer of 1945. Viewed in terms of loss of life, the bombing of European cities was but a pale shadow of what lay ahead in a Japan that by 1945 was virtually defenseless against bombing raids. This essay focuses on U.S. destruction of Japanese cities and the slaughter of civilians in the final half year of the war, practices that deeply influenced the conduct of all subsequent wars yet have been largely overshadowed by the impact of the atomic bomb.
The theoretical underpinnings for strategic or area bombing-the technical terms that mask the reality of the annihilation of civilians-were fully spelled out prior to and following World War I, particularly in the writings of the Italian General Giulio Douhet.
By the early 1930s, U.S. General Billy Mitchell and others had already pinpointed Japan’s wood and paper cities as prime targets for firebombing. Mitchell warned of the “yellow military peril” of a Japan bent on attacking both its possessions and the U.S. itself long before Pearl Harbor.
Nevertheless, in the early years of the Second World War, in both Europe and the Pacific, cities were rarely targeted for destruction from the air. Roosevelt and his advisers, as well as a range of American writers and public figures from Ernest Hemingway to Herbert Hoover, bitterly denounced the most egregious instances of the bombing of civilian populations by Germany, Japan and Russia. To be sure, adversaries invariably demonized the enemy and cloaked their own mission in heroic garb, yet particularly where the adversary was a formidable military-industrial power with the capacity to retaliate, tacit rules limited the uses of air power. Not until late 1940 did German bombing attacks target London, killing approximately 40,000 people in a six month period, and even then the primary targets were ostensibly military and military-related industry and infrastructure including bases, large factories and docks. By early 1941, however, Britain’s Royal Air Force Bomber Command formalized what it had been doing in recent months, having abandoned all pretense of precision bombing of military and industrial targets in favor of bombing cities with the aim of killing workers and disrupting and demoralizing society. Both the British and the Germans shifted the focus of their attacks to night bombing. Civilian populations not bases or even factories were the primary targets. Both the RAF and the Luftwaffe, having proved hopelessly inept and vulnerable in daytime raids, limited themselves to night attack in which only area bombing and not precision attack was possible in an era prior to laser technology. In the final years of the war, Max Hastings observed, Churchill and his bomber commander Arthur Harris set out to concentrate “all available forces for the progressive, systematic destruction of the urban areas of the Reich, city block by city block, factory by factory, until the enemy became a nation of troglodytes, scratching in the ruins.”
The debate within U.S. military and political circles over the uses of air power in the years after Pearl Harbor is illuminating. While the air war in Europe was careening toward civilian bombing, throughout 1942 and 1943, Air Force strategists and generals insisted that tactical bombing of military and industrial targets was the most cost effective use of air power. This view was reinforced by the fear that indiscriminate killing of civilians could strengthen enemy resolve, a phenomenon that had apparently occurred in both England and Germany under strategic bombing. Thus, at Casablanca in January 1943, the U.S. formally rejected British pressures to shift from daylight to night bombing and reaffirmed its intention to continue costly and largely ineffectual daylight precision bombing of German military and industrial targets. In practice, of course, U.S. airpower complemented, and at times directly assisted, the equally ineffective British nighttime area bombing directed against civilian populations.
Throughout 1943-44 the U.S. Air Force proclaimed its adherence to precision bombing. However, as this approach proved futile not only in forcing surrender on either Germany or Japan but even in inflicting significant damage on their warmaking capacity, as the sophistication, numbers and range of U.S. aircraft grew, as the technology of firebombing advanced with the development of napalm and more effective delivery methods, and as the Air Force sought to strengthen its position in inter-service rivalries and competition for resources, pressures mounted for a strategic shift. In the early months of 1945, the remaining fragile restraints on the bombing of noncombatants dissolved just as the United States shifted its attention to the Pacific theatre and as it gained the capacity to effectively attack the Japanese home islands from newly captured bases in the Pacific.
In the final six months of the war, the U.S. threw the full weight of its airpower into campaigns to burn whole Japanese cities to the ground and terrorize, incapacitate and kill their virtually defenseless populations in an effort to force surrender. This shift in the conduct of air war, culminating in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, constitutes among the most important legacies of World War II for the subsequent conduct of war. The techniques for firebombing cities, including nighttime and radar bombing that were honed by British and American fliers in the early 1940s against Germany and her European allies, were applied in the final months of the war in a series of attacks that began with Operation Thunderclap directed against Berlin. In Europe, the culmination came on February 13-14, 1945 in the destruction of Dresden, a historic cultural center with no significant military industry or bases. At Dresden, by conservative estimate, 35,000 people were incinerated in a single raid led by British bombers with U.S. planes following up. The American writer Kurt Vonnegut, then a young POW in Dresden, later recalled:
They burnt the whole damn town down. . . . Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A fire storm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe.
The destruction of Dresden, with a fire storm visible to flight crews two hundred miles away, was the prelude to the wave of American B-29 firebomb and napalm attacks that sowed far greater destruction across virtually every major Japanese city, exacting an immense toll in human life throughout the spring and summer of 1945.
“Along with the Nazi extermination camps, the killing of Soviet and American prisoners, and other enemy atrocities,” Ronald Schaffer observes, “Dresden became one of the moral causes célèbres of World War II.”
Thoughfar worse was in the offing, Dresden provoked the last significant public discussion of the bombing of women and children to take place during the war, and the city became synonymous with terror bombing by the U.S. and Britain. In fact, the debate was largely provoked not by the destruction wrought by the raids, which was already becoming commonplace, but by an Associated Press report widely published in the U.S. and British press stating explicitly that “the Allied air commanders have made the long-awaited decision to adopt deliberate terror bombing of the great German population centers as a ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler’s doom.” American officials quickly acted to neutralize the report, most effectively by pointing to the widely publicized great cathedral of Cologne, left standing after U.S. bombing as a symbol of American concern, and by reiterating U.S. adherence to principles restricting attacks to tactical bombing of military targets. In fact, in the midst of bombing on many fronts, and with a sense of victory in the air, U.S. public discussion, not to speak of protest, was minimal; in Britain there was slightly greater discussion. The bombing continued. Strategic bombing had passed its test in the realm of public reaction. Its primary targets would now shift to the destruction of virtually every major Japanese city. Curtis LeMay was appointed commander of the 21st Air Force Headquarters on January 20, 1945 just as a combination of circumstances placed Japanese cities within effective range of U.S. bombers with the capacity to inflict enormous damage at will on a Japanese nation whose depleted air and naval power left it virtually defenseless against air attack. General LeMay would carry firebombing and napalming to new levels of technological sophistication and terror, first in the cities of Japan and subsequently in city and countryside from Korea to Vietnam. If the bombing of Dresden produced a ripple of public debate, no discernible wave of revulsion, not to speak of protest, took place in the U.S. or Europe in the wake of the far greater destruction of Japanese cities and the slaughter of civilian populations on a scale that had no parallel in wartime bombing. For thirty years LeMay served as the most quotable spokesman for U.S. policies of putting enemy cities, villages and forests to the torch from Japan to Korea to Vietnam. Yet he was just a link in a chain of command that routinely sanctioned terror bombing extending upward through the Joint Chiefs to the president. Every U.S. president from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton has endorsed an approach to warfare that routinely targets entire populations for annihilation, an approach that eliminates all vestiges of distinction between combatant and non-combatant with deadly consequences. That policy and approach came of age in the U.S. firebombing of Japan.
The Firebombing of Japan: A Victim’s Perspective on The Logic of Mass Destruction
U.S. raids on Japanese cities began with James Doolittle’s solitary mission of April 18, 1942, widely hailed as the U.S. response to Pearl Harbor. All sixteen B-25 bombers were lost, however, when they were forced to land in Japanese territory. The U.S. would make no further attempt to raid Japan’s home islands for three years. The full fury of firebombing and napalm was not unleashed on Japan until the night of March 9-10, 1945. LeMay sent 334 B-29s low over Tokyo from recently acquired bases in Guam, Saipan and Tinian. Their mission was to reduce the city to rubble with jellied gasoline and napalm. U.S. bombers carried two kinds of incendiaries: M47s, 100 pound oil-gel bombs, 182 per aircraft, each capable of starting a major fire, followed by M69s, 6-pound gelled-gasoline bombs, 1,520 per aircraft in addition to a few high explosives to deter firefighters. The attack on an area that the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey estimated to be 87.4 percent residential succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of air force planners. Whipped by fierce winds, flames detonated by the bombs leaped across Tokyo generating immense firestorms that engulfed and killed tens of thousands of residents.
In contrast with Vonnegut’s cool “wax museum” description, of Dresden survivors, accounts from inside the inferno that engulfed Tokyo chronicle scenes of utter carnage. We have come to measure the efficacy of bombing by throw weights and kill ratios. Here I would like to offer some perspectives drawing on the words of those who felt the wrath of the bombs.
Fleeing the flames, thousands plunged in desperation into the freezing waters of rivers, canals and Tokyo Bay:
A woman spent the night knee-deep in the bay, holding onto a piling with her three-year-old son clinging to her back; by morning several of the people around her were dead of burns, shock, fatigue and hypothermia. Thousands submerged themselves in stagnant, foul-smelling canals with their mouths just above the surface, but many died from smoke inhalation, anoxia, or carbon monoxide poisoning, or were boiled to death when the fire storm heated the water. Others, huddling in canals connected to the Sumida River, drowned when the tide came in. . . . Huge crowds lined the gardens and parks along the Sumida, and as the masses behind them pushed toward the river, walls of screaming people fell in and vanished.
Police cameraman Ishikawa Koyo described the streets of Tokyo as “rivers of fire. Everyone could see flaming pieces of furniture exploding in the heat, while the people themselves blazed like “matchsticks” as their wood and paper homes exploded in flames. Under the wind and the gigantic breath of the fire, immense incandescent vortices rose in a number of places, swirling, flattening, sucking whole blocks of houses into their maelstrom of fire.”
Dr. Kubota Shigenori, head of a military rescue unit, recalled that “In the black Sumida River countless bodies were floating, clothed bodies, naked bodies, all as black as charcoal. It was unreal. These were dead people, but you couldn’t tell whether they were men or women. You couldn’t even tell if the objects floating by were arms and legs or pieces of burnt wood.” Father Flaujac, a French cleric, compared the firebombing to the Tokyo earthquake twenty-two years earlier, an event whose massive destruction had alerted some of the original planners of the Tokyo holocaust to the possibilities of destruction.
‘In September 1923, during the great earthquake, I saw Tokyo burning for 5 days. I saw in Honjo a heap of 33,000 corpses of people who burned or suffocated at the beginning of the bombardment. . . . After the first quake there were 20-odd centers of fire, enough to destroy the capital. How could the conflagration be stopped when incendiary bombs in the dozens of thousands now dropped over the four corners of the district and with Japanese houses which are only match boxes? . . . In 1923 the fire spread on the ground. At the time of the bombings the fire fell from the sky. . . . Where could one fly? The fire was everywhere.’
Nature reinforced man’s handiwork in the form of akakaze, the red wind that swept with hurricane force across the Tokyo plain and propelled firestorms across the city with terrifying speed and intensity. The wind drove temperatures up to eighteen hundred degrees fahrenheit, creating superheated vapors that advanced ahead of the flames, killing or incapacitating their victims. “The mechanisms of death were so multiple and simultaneous-oxygen deficiency and carbon monoxide poisoning, radiant heat and direct flames, debris and the trampling feet of stampeding crowds-that causes of death were later hard to ascertain. . .”
The Strategic Bombing Survey, whose formation a few months earlier provided an important signal of Roosevelt’s support for strategic bombing, provided a technical description of the firestorm and its effects on the city: The chief characteristic of the conflagration. . . was the presence of a fire front, an extended wall of fire moving to leeward, preceded by a mass of pre-heated, turbid, burning vapors. The pillar was in a much more turbulent state than that of [a usual] fire storm, and being usually closer to the ground, it produced more flame and heat, and less smoke. . . .
The 28-mile-per-hour wind, measured a mile from the fire, increased to an estimated 55 miles at the perimeter, and probably more within. An extended fire swept over 15 square miles in 6 hours. . . . The area of the fire was nearly 100 percent burned; no structure or its contents escaped damage. The survey concluded-plausibly, but only for events prior to August 6, 1945-that “probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any time in the history of man.” People died from extreme heat, from oxygen deficiency, from carbon monoxide asphyxiation, or from being trampled beneath the feet of stampeding crowds.
How many people died on the night of March 10 in what flight commander General Thomas Power termed without hyperbole “the greatest single disaster incurred by any enemy in military history”? The Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,793 people died in the raid, 40,918 were injured, and 1,008,005 people lost their homes. Rhodes, estimating the dead at more than 100,000 men, women, and children, suggested that probably a million more were injured and another million were left homeless. The Tokyo Fire Department estimated 97,000 killed and 125,000 wounded. The Tokyo Police offered a figure of 124,711 killed and wounded and 286,358 buildings and homes destroyed in the raid.
With vast areas of Tokyo in ruins, more than one million residents fled the city. The figure of roughly 100,000 deaths, provided by Japanese and American authorities, both of whom for different reasons had an interest in minimizing the death toll, seems to me implausibly low in light of population density, wind conditions, and survivors’ accounts. With an average of 103,000 inhabitants per square mile and peak levels as high as 135,000 per square mile, the highest density of any industrial city in the world, and with firefighting measures ludicrously inadequate to the task, 15.8 square miles of Tokyo were destroyed on a night when fierce winds whipped the flames and walls of fire blocked tens of thousands fleeing for their lives.
Following the attack, LeMay said that he wanted Tokyo “burned down-wiped right off the map” to “shorten the war.” Tokyo did burn. Subsequent raids brought the devastated area of Tokyo to more than 56 square miles provoking the flight of millions of refugees. No previous or subsequent conventional bombing raid ever came close to generating the death toll of the great Tokyo raid of March 10, yet the airborne destruction ground on relentlessly. According to Japanese police statistics, the 65 raids on Tokyo between December 6, 1944 and August 13, 1945 resulted in 137,582 casualties, 787,145 homes and buildings destroyed, and 2,625,279 people displaced.
The Tokyo raid initiated Japan’s trial by fire. Between March and July, U.S. firebombing destroyed virtually every important Japanese city, killing hundreds of thousands and driving many more to rural areas. By July 1945, U.S. planes had dropped more than 41,000 tons of bombs on Japan rendering an estimated fifteen million homeless. LeMay’s bombers were rapidly running out of targets to strike.
In July, U.S. planes blanketed the few remaining Japanese cities with an “Appeal to the People.” “As you know,” it read, “America, which stands for humanity, does not wish to injure the innocent people, so you had better evacuate these cities.” Half the leafleted cities were firebombed within days of the warning. U.S. planes ruled the skies. Despite the pounding of the cities, heavy damage to many important industrial concentrations, and the inability of other factories to produce due to lack of parts and materials, the war ground on. In the spring of 1945, a gravely weakened Japan, its sea and air power virtually destroyed, bereft of oil (imports ceased from February 1945), facing acute food shortages as a result of declining production at home and the loss of vital imports, and its forces in full retreat across Asia and the Pacific, nevertheless revealed a defensive capacity to inflict the heaviest casualties of the war on the United States in its suicidal defense in the Battle for Okinawa. By this time, Japan’s offensive military capability was virtually eliminated and the Soviet Union was preparing to enter the war.
Following Japan’s surrender, the Strategic Bombing Survey would bluntly-yet still skirting the issue of civilian deaths-state the premises of the air assault, as in the opening paragraph of this report on Japanese morale:
The air attack on Japan was directed against the nation as a whole, not only against specific military targets, because of the contributions in numerous ways of the civilian population to the fighting strength of the enemy, and to speed the securing of unconditional surrender. The American attack against the “total target” was successful. In addition to enormous physical destruction, the strategic bombing of the home islands produced great social and psychological disruption and contributed to securing surrender prior to the planned war.
Successful, yes, in producing “great social and psychological disruption,” but the evidence suggests that just as in the German and British bombing of cities earlier, bombing which destroyed Japan’s cities and exacted so terrible a death toll had no significant effect on securing surrender. Between January and July 1945, the United States firebombed and destroyed all but five Japanese cities, deliberately sparing Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital, and four others from bombing. In the end, the Atomic Bomb Selection Committee selected Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki to display the awesome power of the atomic bomb to Japan and the world. The routinization of the uses of air power for the extermination of urban populations began in Europe with Guernica and Rotterdam and continued with German and British attacks on one another’s cities before being extended on a vastly greater scale to Japan. This was the prelude to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Sherry compellingly describes the triumph of American technological fanaticism as the hallmark of the air war: ‘
The shared mentality of the fanatics of air war was their dedication to assembling and perfecting their methods of destruction, and the way that doing so overshadowed the original purposes justifying destruction. . . . . The lack of a proclaimed intent to destroy, the sense of being driven by the twin demands of bureaucracy and technology, distinguished America’s technological fanaticism from its enemies’
Technological fanaticism served to conceal the larger purposes of power both from military planners and the public. This wartime technological fanaticism in my view is best understood not as antithetical to ideology but as a means of operationalizing an ideological package whose presuppositions included the legitimacy and benevolence of American global power and the perception of the Japanese as both uniquely brutal and inherently, or in John Dower’s terms racially, inferior.
Between February and August 1945 the U.S. air war reached an intensity that half a century later remains unrivaled in the magnitude of technological slaughter directed against a people. That moment was a product of the combination of technological breakthroughs together with the erosion of all moral and political restraints on the killing of civilians.
The “Good War,”Mass Destruction and the Politics of Memory
The targeting for destruction of entire populations, whether indigenous peoples, religious infidels or others deemed inferior or evil, may be as old as human history, but the forms it takes are as new as the latest technologies of air power and nuclear weapons. Among the most important ways in which World War II shaped the moral and technological tenor of mass destruction was the systematic targeting of civilian populations from the air. The ability to destroy an entire city and annihilate its population in a single bombing raid not only was far more “efficient” than previous methods of warfare, it also sanitized the process. Air power distanced victim from executioner, transforming the visual and tactile experience of annihilation. The bombardier never looks squarely into the eyes of a specified victim, nor does the act of destruction have the physical directness of decapitation by sword or even shooting with a machine gun.
In U.S. air attacks on Japanese cities, killing was “sanitized” by distance as well as legitimated by the conviction that it was justified by a good cause. Nonetheless, the bombing was invariably explained as being directed against military targets rather than against women, children and the elderly who were its principal victims.
World War II is unrivalled in the scale of mass destruction. Nazi genocide, Japanese slaughter of Asian civilians, and Soviet losses during the German invasion exacted the heaviest toll in human lives. Each of the above mentioned examples has its unique character and historical and ideological origins. All rested on dehumanizing assumptions concerning the “other” and produced largescale slaughter of civilian populations. From the Rape of Nanjing to the bombing of Shanghai, Hankou, Chongqing and other cities, to the annihilation and pacification campaigns carried forward throughout the Chinese countryside, to the use of poison gas and the vivisection experiments conducted by Unit 731 to test and develop biological weapons, the death toll in the course of Japan’s fifteen year China war far exceeded that inflicted by U.S. bombing of Japan and probably surpassed the immense Soviet losses in the war that have conventionally been estimated at 20 million lives. The war dead in Europe alone in World War II have been estimated in the range of 30 to 40 million, fifty percent higher than in World War I. To this we must add 25 to 30 million Asian victims, including 15 to 20 million Chinese, in the fifteen year resistance war (1931-45), approximately three million Japanese, and millions more in Southeast Asia. Among the important instances of the killing of noncombatants that is an important legacy of the war, the U.S. destruction of Japanese cities is perhaps least known
In World War I, ninety percent of the fatalities directly attributable to the war were military, nearly all of them Europeans and Americans. According to one estimate, approximately half of the dead in World War II in Europe were civilians and, when war-induced famine casualties are included, the civilian death toll for Asia was almost certainly substantially higher in both absolute and percentage terms. The United States, its homeland untouched by war, suffered approximately 100,000 deaths in the entire Asian theatre, a figure lower than that for the single Tokyo air raid of March 10, 1945, and lower than the death toll at Hiroshima. By contrast, Japan’s three million war dead in the fifteen year war, while thirty times the number of U.S. dead, was still only a small fraction of the toll suffered by the Chinese who resisted the Japanese military juggernaut throughout a fifteen year war.
The consequences of this shift in the nature of warfare between the world wars-from the predominance of military to civilian casualties, and the growing technological imbalance between warring parties-were profound. This pattern of imbalance of deaths in the Pacific War-twenty million Chinese, three million Japanese, one hundred thousand Americans-more closely resembled earlier colonial wars than World War I or the European theatre in World War II, wars in which both sides suffered heavy casualties. U.S. casualties in World War II were a small fraction of those suffered by Japan, whose own casualties were in turn minuscule compared to those suffered by China.
This imbalance in casualties and deaths, mirroring broader patterns of social devastation and deprivation, has been characteristic of all subsequent wars in the postwar epoch, reflecting both the imbalance in the technological resources commanded by opposing forces and the breakdown of restraints on the killing of noncombatants. World War II remains indelibly engraved in American memory as the “Good War” and in important respects it was. In confronting the war machines of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the United States contributed to the defeat of some of the most brutal and aggressive foes of European and Asian peoples. But it was also a war that fortuitously served American great power interests by weakening not only foes but also allies and other potential rivals whose industrial heartlands and cities were destroyed.
For most Americans, it seemed a “Good War” in another sense: the U.S. entered and exited the war buoyed by absolute moral certainty borne of a mission to punish aggression in the form of a genocidal Nazi fascism and unbridled colonial aggression. The victory, propelling it to a hegemonic position which carried authority to condemn and punish war crimes committed by defeated nations, continues to constitute a major obstacle to a thoroughgoing reassessment of the United States’ own wartime conduct in general and issues of mass destruction in particular. World War II, building on and extending atavistic impulses deeply rooted in earlier civilizations and combining them with more destructive technologies, produced new forms of human depravity.
This essay suggests that Nazi genocide, a host of Japanese war crimes ranging from the enslavement of “comfort women” to chemical and biological warfare to cannibalism, and largescale American bombing of Japanese noncombatants rank among the most important of the legacies of the war. Nazi and Japanese crimes have long been exposed and subjected to international criticism from the war crimes tribunals of the 1940s to the present, and most importantly have been the subject of reflection and self-criticism by significant groups within those countries. In contrast to these, and to the ongoing debates about the uses of the atomic bomb, there has been little awareness of, not to speak of critical reflection upon the U.S. bombing of Japanese civilians in the half year prior to Hiroshima. The fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II and the dawn of the nuclear age, coming on the heels of events that signal the end of the Postwar era and the Cold War, offers an occasion for reflection on the American role in the mass destruction of oncombatants that is among the enduring legacies of the “Good War.”