The Bombing of Japanese Cities as Omen

A few days ago I watched part of a public-TV documentary, whose title I didn’t catch, about the US firebombing of Japanese cities. It was factually interesting but also full of hindsight judgment of the whole enterprise as immoral. (It’s possible that I missed something as I did not watch the entire documentary.) There was an emphasis on the death, destruction and horrible suffering that the bombing caused in Japan, and also on deaths among American air crews. There were interviews with former B-29 crew members who expressed moral qualms about what they had done.

This was all reasonable. I have no doubt that our bombing of German and Japanese cities was one of the most terrible things ever done. But what made the documentary tendentious was that it left out the political and military context; there was no more than superficial discussion of what led the USA to adopt such brutal tactics. The remarkable tenacity and cruelty of the Japanese fighters we encountered in our island-hopping campaign weren’t discussed, nor was the terrifying prospect of invading the Japanese home islands — a prospect which, until the atomic bombings, appeared certain and would have certainly killed millions. Instead the documentary framed our decision to burn the cities as having been based on Curtis LeMay’s desire to find a more-effective alternative to using inaccurate high-explosive bombs against Japanese factories. Of course, when you present the story in such a narrow way it makes it look like we went too far. The documentary might have been redeemed if someone had said: Yes, we did terrible things, but they only became conceivable late in the war after we learned what the enemy was capable of, and the alternatives were all much worse. But no one said that, at least not that I heard.

I don’t think this documentary could have been made in the 1960s or 1970s. It would have been widely seen as revisionist. Too many people were still aware, either from direct experience or from having learned about the war from family elders or in school or from the media, of the rationale for destroying the Japanese cities. But nowadays probably a lot of the people doing film production, and certainly a lot of the viewers, are too young and too scantily educated about World War II to recognize an incomplete historical treatment when they see one. This is a great pity in the context of the current war, because people in the democracies need to understand that insufficient seriousness in fighting radical Islam now could in the long run lead to a situation in which we kill millions in order to get the fight over with and protect our people. It could happen. The history of our war with Japan makes clear what we are capable of doing to an enemy who provokes us sufficiently. The Islamists, who are as cruel as the Japanese were, need to understand this too, but probably won’t until it’s too late.

(And of course these are not original thoughts on my part. I am grateful to a number of bloggers, as well as commenters on this blog, for helping me to think them through for myself.)

UPDATE: In the comments, Jim Bennett suggests that the Islamists are making the same specific miscalculation as the Japanese did: “The Japanese thought that suicide tactics would demoralize the Americans and serve as a demonstration of Japanese resolve. They were right, in a way, but they failed to anticipate what the results of that effect would be.” The thugs and autocrats who make war on us often have a poor understanding of the political dynamics of democratic societies in general and of American society in particular. Eventually they tend to overplay their hands.

The real game is the competition for public opinion in our country. Successful war means an early consensus for defeating the enemy; unsuccessful war means no consensus on what to do or even what the problem is — until the enemy miscalculates and provokes us severely. Both scenarios have the same ending for the enemy.

The only successful enemies the USA has are ones with limited goals who are shrewd enough to remain below our threshold of provocation. The leaders of wartime Japan were insufficiently shrewd and failed to limit their goals. The Islamists appear to be repeating those mistakes.

14 thoughts on “The Bombing of Japanese Cities as Omen”

  1. Very specifically, the suicide tactics of the Japanese kamikaze corps reinforced the American resolve to use tactics like firebombing and atomic weapons to end the war. The Japanese thought that suicide tactics would demoralize the Americans and serve as a demonstration of Japanese resolve. They were right, in a way, but they failed to anticipate what the results of that effect would be.

    There might be parallels with the present-day situation.

  2. The death-toll from Tokyo firebombing (~100K) was greater than from the Nagasaki bomb 75k, but not as great as Hiroshima was put at around 140K.

  3. War is supposed to be horrific, so horrific that the enemy is overwhelmed, defeated, and dare not repeat it. The goal of war (from the US perspective) is to eliminate a threat against civilization. Nukes, military occupation, martial law in a hostile territory is the answer. May seem radical but this is precisely the remedy US imposed on Japan. Since WW2, Japan has dare not repeated its facist history.

  4. Damn it, why do these revisionists always gloss over the decentralized nature of production in late-war Japan? After the big factories got bombed, they interspersed small machine shops and AA guns among the living quarters in the Shitamachi. Much like the Hezbollah tactics of this past year. This was not blind striking at civilians, this was striking at the production capacity of Japan, which had morphed into a decentralized collection of microfactories. Our stated objective for all the bombing campaigns was to eliminate their ability to produce war material, and this was the final phase. Schools were routinely used as military training facilities and the gymnasiums used sa factory floors. That area around Asakusa is still dotted will small machine shops, although there are some office buildings across the Sumidagawa river, now.

  5. As an ironic aside, there is a fireworks festival held in that area – the fireworks are fired off of barges, and the barges are located prety much in the center of where the napalm X was lit by the lead bombers as a target for the following waves.

    The fireworks are spectacular, though.

  6. 1 – Unlike the bombing in Europe, the bombing in Japan did reduce the military industrial output – Coxx, Alvin D.; Japan at the End of Her Tether, History of the Second World War [Part 91], BPC Publishing Ltd, 1966, London. Pg 2537.

    In Kobe city, for example, workers dropped their tools as soon as an air raid alert sounded, so they would have enough time to flee to the hillsides immediately behind the metropolis before the bombers could arrive. Consequently the mere sounding of the alert signal in the Kobe region caused an immediate drop in industrial production. According to information reaching the War Ministry about May 1945, the attendance rate at munitions factories, throughout the country immediately after an air raid dwindled to 20-30%. The average rate of absenteeism at factories in devastated areas approximated 40%. In unraided zones the absentee rate averaged 15%, but even in unbombed Kyoto lost man hours totaled 40% by July 1945.

    An indirect result of the raids was the dispersal of the labour force because of housing problems, thereby affecting both control and efficiency.

    According to Home Ministry data, the following Japanese civilian losses were the minimum incurred as the result of all air raids on the Homeland: 241,309 killed, 313,041 injured, 8,045,094 homeless, 2,333,388 buildings destroyed, 110,928 partial destroyed. The number of houses razed represented at least 30% of the national total. It should also be noted that the Japanese themselves demolished 615,000 buildings as firebreaks, 214,000 of which were located in Tokyo. In all about 13,000,000 people were driven from their homes by the destruction of dwellings; a substantial additional number were rendered homeless by the bombing of factory dormitories.

    Large-scale evacuation of Japanese civilians from urban areas began in 1944. Between January and September of that year, 1,000,000 moved out of Tokyo. The capital’s population fell from 5,000,000 in January of 1945 to 2,453,000 in June. About 55% of the Nagoya area inhabitants were evacuated; 60% of the Osaka-Kobe complex. Probably 8,295,000 persons of all categories were evacuated throughout Japan. Dispersal of the urban school population, began slowly in mid-1944, was intensified after the raids of March 1945. By April, over 87% of urban school children had been moved

    2 – The figure for Hiroshima of 140K is fictitious. I’ve kept the newspaper reports on Hiroshima for a while and every year the number keeps increasing. Just because someone was in Hiroshima and dies in 1998 doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship, but they is the game they’ve been playing. The Bombing Survey wanted to know exactly the consequence of the new weapon. A census as conducted using as the baseline the rice ration allocations that the Japanese government had been using. Then a person to person interview process was conducted, not only to identify residents, but their neighbors, to get as good an idea of who was were on that day – a census, not a sampling. The final number arrived at was around 65K with another 5k or so tracked for radiation poisoning. Since then the number somehow keeps increasing from the 60s to the 90s, then over a hundred, and in the most recent release around that 140K. It’s the victim game. It works. Go look at how many Philippinos were butchered by barbed wire, bullet, and bayonet of the Japanese Imperial forces in Manila in February of 1945. Somehow that second ‘Nanking’ doesn’t get the press. Of course the Americans didn’t do it, maybe that has something to do with the lack of coverage.

  7. Don – the most reliable figure I’ve seen is 75 – 80K in both cities. I’ve been to both sites, and looking at the radius of destruction, that seems about right for 1945 poulation levels.

    Coox is an awesome historian, isn’t he? Have you read Nomonhan?

  8. John,

    The documentary went into quite a bit of detail on the issues you raised. I don’t fault it at all in that regard. My objection is based on its framing of our late-war bombing decisions as resulting entirely from tactical considerations. Would we have used incendiaries on cities in 1942 if we could have? I doubt it; certainly it would have been less likely. So the question is, what happened during the course of the war that loosened our inhibitions on the use of such brutal tactics? The documentary’s weakness was in not addressing that question.

    In this regard the documentary wasn’t unusual, and I probably shouldn’t single it out. Revisionism about the atomic bombings has been common for decades, as have doubts about the morality of bombing cities. But now such revisionism has become almost the standard position, at least in popular media. That’s partly because many people are too ignorant about the war to understand the context in which democratic nations, after several years of brutal war, could decide that killing hundreds of thousands of civilians was the lesser of evils. Those who forget the past. . .

  9. Victor Davis Hanson covers this topic with his typical brillince in the first section of “Ripples of Battle”. As you stated the Kamikaze attacks did nothing but infuriate the US soldiers over there, and Hanson specifically analyzed the Battle of Okinawa.

  10. One consequence of the fire-bombing raids was the destruction of one of the Japanese atom-bomb projects. (They had two.)

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