I first published this essay in 2002 but is no longer online. I republish it now because of the prominence in the 2016 presidential campaigns of the how to confront and defeat ISIS and one candidate's assertion that he would order the intentional deaths of family members of enemy combatants, and other candidates' assertions of large-scale bombing raids against ISIS.
Various commentators have pointed out that during the early 1990s Persian Gulf War, only about 10 percent of the bombs US air forces dropped were precision guided. But during the Afghan campaign, so far, two-thirds or more have been precision guided.
There are many military and political advantages of using precision guided munitions, or PGMs. But may be some long-term drawbacks as well. Crudely put, our reliance on PGMs make it possible for a foreign power to fight us and lose, yet not suffer many of the consequences of war.
World War II "precision" bombing
The primary advantage of PGMs is simple: hitting the target. During World War II, when there were no PGMs, the allied air forces sent up to 1,000 heavy bombers over German targets at a time. Yet the number of bombs that actually had militarily significant target effects was small in comparison to the number dropped. The British knew this would be the case from the beginning, and didn't even try to hit their targets except by using the law of averages. "Area bombing" was their tactic. They hoped that if they dropped as many bombs as they could, enough would happen to hit the target to make the mission worthwhile.
|Area bombing of a German city|
American commanders believed that intentionally accurate bombing was possible; they even misnamed their technique "precision" bombing. Yet long before the end of the war, American bomb wings were really conducting area bombing tactics; they just pretended it was "precision" bombing. In all, according to the US Strategic Bombing Survey completed after the war, "2,700,000 tons of bombs were dropped [on Germany], more than 1,440,000 bomber sorties" were flown. Yet the Survey reports that "only about 20% of the bombs aimed at precision targets fell within [the] target area."
|That this was "precision bombing" was simply propaganda. US Air Corps bombing raids' accuracy was severely affected by German weather, which was almost never suitable for accurate bombing. An enormous number of US bomb missions were conducted by radar, which in that day was very inexact. There was no such thing as precision-guided bombs for these raids.|
The destruction achieved was enormous. Almost 60 years later we can scarcely comprehend what the Germans and Japanese endured. In Germany, "3,600,000 dwelling units, approximately 20% of the total, were destroyed or heavily damaged. Survey estimates show some 300,000 civilians killed and 780,000 wounded. The number made homeless aggregates 7,500,000. The principal German cities have been largely reduced to hollow walls and piles of rubble."
|Hamburg, Germany, 1943. Destruction of this magnitude across the whole of Germany was the deliberate war aim of both Britain and the United States.|
Most of this destruction was what we now term, "collateral damage." With an average of 80 percent of the bombs falling outside the target area, it was inevitable that non-target areas would suffer heavy damage. The British intended from the beginning to inflict massive destruction on civilian populations and facilities. Partly, this desire was revenge based, since the German Luftwaffe had terror-bombed England. But it was mostly based on the mistaken notion that heavy bombing of civilian centers would reduce civilian morale to the point where they would not support the war any longer. (Why the British thought that German morale was more frail than their own is an unanswered question.)
The Americans rejected terror bombing, but not for long. As the war went on and on, and German and Japanese resistance failed to slacken, President Roosevelt decided that the German and Japanese peoples must realize after the war that not only had their armed forces been defeated: the entire nation, as a nation, had been beaten. He and Churchill were well aware that German militarism had survived World War I because its apologists had successfully propagated the myth that the Kaiser's army had not really been defeated, it had been "stabbed in the back" by disloyal factions at home.
Hence, wrote Roosevelt in a letter to Secretary of War Henry Stimson,
It is of utmost importance that every person in Germany should realize that this time Germany is a defeated nation. . . . The fact that they are a defeated nation, collectively and individually, must be so impressed upon them that they will hesitate to start any new war.
(Roosevelt's policy seems not far from Civil War Gen. William T. Sherman's observation of the Confederate States, "War, and war alone, can inspire our enemy with respect, and they will have their belly full of that very soon.") So, according to historian Richard B. Frank in his award-winning book, Downfall, the End of the Imperial Japanese Empire
Viewed in this light, massive urban bombing complemented the aim of unconditional surrender. It was not just a handful of vile men who flaunted vile ideologies; whole populations imbibed these beliefs and acted as willing acolytes. Unconditional surrender and vast physical destruction would sear the price of aggression into the minds of the German and Japanese peoples. No soil would be left from which myths might later sprout that Germany and Japan had not really been defeated. These policies would assure that there would be no third world war with Germany, nor would Japan get a second opportunity.
One notes that Japan and Germany have been well behaved since 1945. But we also have to note that massive, destructive bombing was alone not the reason. It was simply impossible for either country's armed forces to claim that they had prevailed, or at least held their own, on the field of battle. German and Japanese orphans, widows and grieving parents were in almost every other household, and a lie that their armed forces had not really lost could not possibly have found legs to stand on.
Most importantly, US forces occupied both countries for several years after the war. In Germany, the division of the country into free and communist states imbued it and Europe with a forced stability that they might not otherwise had. This gave time for democratic institutions to take serious root, and today German democracy is as strong as any in the world. It helped that Germany had no ages-long tradition of centralized authority in monarchs; it had been unified into a single nation only a few decades before.
But in Japan, the situation was quite different. Militarism was deeply rooted; in fact, the entire culture of the country was oriented on producing warriors. The imperial throne had been intact for 2,400 years, although its present polity dated only to the 1860s. Women were politically and socially powerless. And in 1945, its army, navy and air forces virtually eliminated, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur arrived as the first successful invader ever to set foot on the soil of Japan. In Japan, MacArthur eliminated Japanese militarism first by emplacing a democratically-based constitution and second by liberating Japanese women from centuries of patriarchal oppression. He gave women the rights to vote and to serve in democratic assemblies and government offices, steps MacArthur saw as essential to ending Japanese military aggressiveness. America also bore the brunt of rebuilding Japan's economy and infrastructure.
The result: today Japan may fairly be characterized as a Western country. It bears all the hallmarks of Western culture ands tradition: a capitalist economic system, a representative parliament, a toothless monarchy, a vibrant university system and the rule of law.
A comparison to America's present enemies is therefore apt. What made Japan's transition from a medieval culture to a modern one so successful so quickly was the fact that the Japanese people, from top to bottom, realized that the way they had been doing things, in every arena of their society, was no longer tenable and had to be abandoned. This realization was profound and wrenching, but it had been brought about through great violence and enormous cost to their nation.
I have noted before that there is no inherent contradiction between the religion of Islam and democratic institutions. On the contrary, I am convinced that state Islam, as practiced in the Arab countries today, serves mostly to amplify rather than create political and cultural oppression.
The real problem with Islam is not actually Islam; it is how Islam is practiced in Arab lands. Saudi Arabia is a paradigm. According to Prof. Fouad Ajami of The Johns Hopkins University, Islam has been "the handmaiden of the state" since the beginning of the modern Saudi realm, resulting from
... an alliance between a desert chieftan, Muhammed bin Saud, and a religious reformer named Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. This partnership anchored the kingdom. The House of Saud defended the country and struck bargains with world powers, while the descendants of the Wahhab family dominated the judiciary and an educational system suffused with religion.
The real enemy of Western civilization today is not Islam. It is arabism: a system of political and social authoritarianism in Arab lands using Islam as a handmaiden, as Prof. Ajami put it. (Remember, most Muslims are not Arabs.)
Our task is therefore over the long term to bring home to these nations, at every level of their societies, the fact that Japan had to face: the times, they are a-changing. These nations must come to realize at every level that they cannot successfully continue with business as before. They must transition into democratically based institutions with free-market systems and individual freedoms. The question is, can these reforms be brought about non-violently or do they require profound suffering by their peoples?