NEW YORK – The time before last that Israel was fighting a war in Gaza, in 2009, Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister at the time, compared the conflict to America’s war with Japan. There was no need for a costly ground invasion; the enemy could be bombed into submission from the air.
The comparison, seemingly outrageous, was not entirely wrong. Nor is it today. Inflicting maximum damage from the air was and remains Israel’s strategy toward Hamas-ruled Gaza. Even if we accept that Israel has a legitimate reason to shut down tunnels that are used to infiltrate Palestinian commandos into Israel, this does not explain why it is necessary to bomb schools, power plants, hospitals, mosques, and densely packed civilian areas.
The official explanation is that Palestinian missiles are hidden in civilian areas. This may well be true. But Israeli leaders also appear to believe that by smashing Gaza and its people with bombs, Palestinians’ morale can be destroyed. At some point, they will have had enough and give up – and perhaps even turn against their rulers.
This is what used to be called “strategic bombing,” or sometimes “terror bombing,” a method of warfare designed to break the will of a people by destroying its “vital centers.” The main advocates of the idea, developed in the 1920s, were the Italian Guilio Douhet, the American William Mitchell, and the Englishman Hugh Trenchard.
The British first used this tactic in the mid-1920s in Mesopotamia, where they tried to break the will of Iraqi and Kurdish anti-colonial rebels by wiping out entire villages from the air, sometimes with bombs filled with mustard gas. The bloody high point came in August 1945, when the United States used atomic bombs to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki – which is what Lieberman may well have had in mind.
There were many other instances of strategic bombing. Nazi Germany tried to break British morale by blitzing large areas of London, Birmingham, and Coventry, among other places. When the Japanese could not bring Chiang Kai-shek’s China to its knees in the 1930s, bombers brought terror to Shanghai, Chongqing, and Hankow. In 1940, the Germans destroyed the center of Rotterdam.
From 1943 onward, Trenchard’s protegé, Arthur “Bomber” Harris, used wave after wave of Royal Air Force attacks to demolish almost every city in Germany. The RAF bombed the Germans at night, and the US Army Air Force bombed them by day.
Worse would be in store for Japan. Well before the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the USAAF, under the command of General Curtis LeMay, managed to burn every major Japanese city to a cinder with fire bombs.
Strategic bombing is an application of the concept of “total war,” in which all civilians are considered to be combatants and thus legitimate targets. In 1965, when the North Vietnamese were proving to be stubborn enemies, LeMay threatened that they would be “bombed back into the stone age.”
The problem with strategic bombing is that it never seems to have worked, with the possible exception of Rotterdam (but by then Holland had already been defeated). Rather than breaking popular morale in London, Berlin, Tokyo, or Hanoi, it usually strengthened it. Confronted by a common deadly threat, civilians rally around the only leaders who can do anything to protect them, even if those leaders are widely disliked.
And so the Germans fought on, until the combined force of the invading Allied armies overwhelmed them in 1945. The Japanese finally surrendered because they feared an invasion by the Soviet Union. The North Vietnamese never surrendered. And the Palestinians, whether they are ruled by Hamas or not, will not stop fighting Israel, especially in Gaza, where wholesale destruction has left them with nothing much more to lose.
So why do governments persist in using this cruel but ineffective strategy? Sheer bloodlust – the pleasure of inflicting pain on a hated enemy – may have something to do with it. Perhaps it motivated Harris to bomb German cities over and over again, even when there was no longer any conceivable military purpose.
But violent passion and the desire to wreak vengeance cannot be the only, or perhaps even the main, reason. A more plausible explanation is that strategic bombing is indeed about morale, but not that of the enemy. It is the morale of the home front that must be boosted, when other methods appear to fail.
Winston Churchill decided to unleash his bombers on German civilians when an Allied victory was still a long way off. He needed to build British morale with a demonstration of force against an enemy that had just spent several years bombing the United Kingdom.
The other advantage of bombing campaigns, avidly promoted during World War II by men who were haunted by memories of the endless bloodshed of World War I, was that attacking the enemy did not require losing many of your own troops. Many British bomber pilots died, of course, but many more soldiers would have died in a ground invasion. Indeed, with supremacy in the air, as in Mesopotamia in the 1920s or Japan in 1945, mass killing can be carried out at virtually no cost at all.
There is another explanation, which also stems from the 1920s. Bombing was a way, as Churchill put it, to police an empire “on the cheap.” Rebellions could be stopped by killing enough people from a great height. US President Barack Obama’s use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen derives from the same principle.
But these are always Pyrrhic victories, because every murder of civilians creates new rebels, who will rise again in time. If Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does not know that, he is a fool. If he does, he is a cynic who has given up on any idea of lasting peace. It is difficult to know which is worse.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, and the author of