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Origins of Mass Destruction

Weapons of Mass Destruction in particular nuclear weapons are the obvious consequence and continuation of a history of European warfare that is governed by the “impulse to utterly destroy the enemy” combined with the use of maximum force to secure total defeat and destroy the will of the enemy. This approach obviously leads to wars of simple distructive brute force. The emphasis is on offence and counter offence of an extreme nature. Escalation is fast and results are catastrophic for all involved.

History Before WWI

Carl von Clausewitz (1780 to 1831)

The European attitudes to war was expressed and possibly laid down in the book “On War” by the influential military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780 AD to 1831 AD)
Clausewitz sees war as “nothing but a duel on a larger scale” it is “an act of physical force to compel an enemy to do our will.” He continues, “To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless; and  that in theory is the true aim of warfare.” Clausewitz believes that in theory both sides must inevitably use the maximum force available to them without compunction, “undeterred by the bloodshed it involves.” He implies that defeat must be total and that the enemies will to wage war must be destroyed.
He also talks of the “impulse to destroy the enemy, which is central to the very idea of war” and the “aim to overcome or disarm the enemy” he does not make it clear which is more appropriate but he does say that to disarm the enemy one must put him in a position that is even worse than the sacrifice we call on him to make;
  1. war is just a duel on a larger scale,
  2. the enemy must be rendered powerless, totally defeated.
  3. both sides must inevitably use the maximum force available to them without compunction, 
  4. the impulse to destroy the enemy, is central to the very idea of war.
Clausewitz views contrast with Sun Tzu's “The Art of War” written some 2000 years earlier.

Sun Tzu (544 BC - 496 BC)

The title “The Art of War” appears to have been used twice. Once to describe a book written by Sun Tzu (544 BC - 496 BC) and once to describe a book written (1520 AD) by Machiavelli. Machiavelli's work deals primarily with basic weapons, formations and methods of his day and has little relevance here.
Sun Tzu states;
  1. The supreme act of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting
One of Sun Tzu's laws is the moral law - that he says causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by danger.
Sun Tzu could be said to have great relevance. His approach is very different from that of Clausewitz.


General Giulio Douhet (1869 - 1930)

The concept was taken up by General Giulio Douhet (1869 - 1930) an Italian air power theorist. He was a key proponent of strategic and civilian bombing in aerial warfare. In his book “The Command of the Air” published in 1921 Douhet argued that armies and navies were now best used for defence while air forces could take offensive action against industry, transport infrastructure, communications, government and "the will of the people".

This meant bombing civilians to shatter their moral and terrorise them into demanding their governments surrender. Douhet believed that wars would be short because as soon as one side lost command of the air it would capitulate rather than face the terrors of air attack.

Douhet noted, that in the modern democratic world, a nation went to war on behalf of its citizens, not a king or emperor. Spaight defined the new target as "the sovereign people who war and it is their nerve and morale which must be broken."

WP: In the period between the two world wars, military thinkers from several nations advocated strategic and civilian bombing as the logical and obvious way to employ aircraft. The British Royal flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service of the Great War had been merged in 1917 to create a separate air force, which spent much of the following two decades fighting for survival in an environment of severe government spending constraints.

WP: Royal Air Force leaders, in particular Air Chief Marshal Hugh Trenchard, believed that the key to retaining their independence from the senior services was to lay stress on what they saw as the unique ability of a modern air force to win wars by unaided strategic bombing. As the speed and altitude of bombers increased in proportion to fighter aircraft, the prevailing strategic understanding became "the bomber will always get through." Although anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft had proved effective in the Great War, it was accepted that there was little warring nations could do to prevent massive civilian casualties from strategic bombing. High civilian morale and retaliation in kind were seen as the only answers.

After WWI

WP: It was the British who utilized and began to perfect civilian bombing techniques in the years after the first World War. In 1919-1920, they bombed Kabul, Afghanistan, and rebellious tribal groups along the border areas of India. And in the 1920s, the British intentionally bombed rebel villages in Somalia and Yemen and undertook an extended bombardment campaign against civilian populations in rebel areas in British-controlled Iraq for several years.

A British Cabinet planning document in 1938 predicted that, if war with Germany broke out, 35% of British homes would be hit by bombs in the first three weeks. (This type of expectation should be kept in mind when considering the conduct of the European leaders who appeased Hitler in the late 1930s)
Pre-war planners, on the whole, vastly over-estimated the damage that bombers could do, and underestimated the resilience of civilian populations and the effects of air defences.


While the Germans following the fall of France used civilian bombing as a method of their campaign against Great Britain, it was the British who developed and initiated massive urban area bombing.

Sir Arthur T. Harris

The master theorist and practitioner of civilian bombing was Sir Arthur T. Harris, marshal of the RAF and commander of the British bomber command from 1942 until the end of the war.
Since precision bombing was not perfected, "to destroy something you have to destroy everything." The aiming points were "usually right in the centre of the town." Harris said, "I kill thousands of people every night."

Area bombing directive

Curtis Le May

Every major city in Japan, with the exception of Kyoto, was targeted by LeMay in the spring of 1945 for destruction. LeMay wanted to prove the decisiveness of such bombing. In April 1945, he wrote General Larry Norstad "I am influenced by the conviction that the present stage of development of the air war against Japan presents the AAF for the first time with the opportunity of proving the power of the strategic air arm. I consider that for the first time strategic air bombardment faces a situation in which its strength is proportionate to the magnitude of its task. I feel that the destruction of Japan's ability to wage war lies within the capability of this command, provided the maximum capacity is extended unstintingly during the next six months, which is considered to be the critical period. (23) (24Curtis LeMay, Missions with LeMay, Doubleday & Co., New York, 1965; p. 373.)


A staff report in 1942 stated that it was necessary to destroy 42 German cities with populations exceeding 100,000; that one ton of bombs was needed to kill 800 people; and that 75,000 tons of explosives would be dropped per month for a six-month period. And in a later report in 1942, it was said that the goal would be to cause 900,000 civilian deaths and 1 million to be seriously wounded, while 25 million would be left homeless. Besides Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria were targeted for civilian casualties in the war.
The strategic bombing conducted in World War II was unlike anything the world had seen before. The campaigns conducted in Europe, and at the end of the war over Japan, could involve thousands of aircraft dropping tens of thousands of tonnes of munitions over a single city.

Richard M. Ebeling writes: The death toll from military bombing of civilian populations was massive. German bombs and V-rockets killed more than 60,500 British civilians in Great Britain. German civilian deaths from British and American bombing of German cities have been estimated to have been between 570,000 and 800,000, and more than 120 cities were turned to virtual rubble. The civilian death toll in Japan from Allied bombing was between 330,000 and 900,000 with an additional 112,000 killed from the atomic bombs. To undertake Allied raids on German and Japanese cities, more than 46,250 Royal Air Force bomber crewmen were lost, and more than 161,000 U.S. Army Air Force crewmen were killed.

Wikipedia: Between them the Allied air forces were able to bomb around the clock. The USAAF with well defended aircraft by day in precision raids against specific targets such as industrial sites and the British with their less protected bombers crossing under cover of night into Germany and massing by the hundreds over the cities.

Bombing of Hamburg

Excert from: To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences in World War II by Hermann Knell (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2003); 373 pages;

On the night of July 27, 1943, 728 Allied bombers arrived over the German city of Hamburg at one o'clock in the morning. Ten thousand tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs were dropped on several districts of the city.

The late W.G. Sebald explained what followed in his recently published book, On the Natural History of Destruction (2003): Within a few minutes, huge fires were burning all over the target area, which covered some twenty square kilometers, and they merged so rapidly that only a quarter of an hour after the first bombs had dropped the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see. Another five minutes later, at one twenty a.m., a firestorm of an intensity that no one had ever before thought possible arose. The fire, now rising two thousand meters into the sky, snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force.... The fire burned like this for three hours. At its height, the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising billboards through the air, tore trees from the ground, and drove human beings before it like living torches. Behind collapsing facades, the flames shot up as high as houses, rolled like a tidal wave through the streets at a speed of over a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour, spun across open squares in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders of fire. The water in some canals was ablaze. The glass in the tramcar windows melted; stocks of sugar boiled in the bakery cellars. Those who fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions, in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt.... Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish little phosphorous flames still flickered around them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size.... Other victims had been so badly charred and reduced to ashes by the heat, which had risen to a thousand degrees or more, that the remains of families consisting of several people could be carried away in a single laundry basket.

Richard M. Ebeling writes: That night in this one raid alone, more than 45,000 men, women, and children were killed in Hamburg. Half the houses in the city were destroyed, and more than a million Germans had to flee into the surrounding countryside.


Curtis LeMay, Missions with LeMay, Doubleday & Co., New York, 1965; p. 373.
Strategic bombing in Europe never reached the decisive completeness that the American bombing campaign in Japan achieved, helped in part by the fragility of Japanese housing which was particularly vulnerable to the use of incendiary bombs. The destruction of German infrastructure became apparent, but the Allied campaign against Germany only really succeeded when the Allies began targeting oil refineries towards the end of the war. At the same time strategic bombing of Germany was a morale boosting action in the period before land war resumed on the Western front.

The most severe and continuous campaign against Japanese cities began in January 1945. By the end of the war in August 1945, 153,000 tons of bombs had been dropped on civilian targets, 75 percent of the bombs being incendiaries. The result was that 67 major Japanese cities were burned down, with Tokyo being the major target in a series of raids in February and March of 1945.

The development of the B-29 by the Americans gave the United States a bomber with sufficient range to reach the Japanese main islands. The capture of the Japanese island of Okinawa further enhanced the capabilities the Americans possessed in their strategic bombing campaign. Conventional bombs and incendiary bombs were used against Japan. Ultimately however, it was the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which were to determine the end of the war. (Not necessarily true.)


(Pacific War) - WASHINGTON, D.C. - 1 JULY 1946

As might be expected, the primary reaction of the populace to the bomb was fear, uncontrolled terror, strengthened by the sheer horror of the destruction and suffering witnessed and experienced by the survivors. Prior to the dropping of the atomic bombs, the people of the two cities had fewer misgivings about the war than people in other cities and their morale held up after it better than might have been expected. 29% of the survivors interrogated indicated that after the atomic bomb was dropped they were convinced that victory for Japan was impossible. 24% stated that because of the bomb they felt personally unable to carry on with the war. Some 40% testified to various degrees of defeatism. A greater number (24 percent) expressed themselves as being impressed with the power and scientific skill which underlay the discovery and production of the atomic bomb than expressed anger at its use (20 percent). In many instances, the reaction was one of resignation.
The effect of the atomic bomb on the confidence of the Japanese civilian population outside the two cities was more restricted. This was in part due to the effect of distance, lack of understanding of the nature of atomic energy, and the impact of other demoralizing experiences. The role of the atomic bomb in the surrender must be considered along with all the other forces which bore upon that question with Japan.


One cannot discount the bombing effort on genuine strategic targets such as Hamburg, it being a large port very much involved in the war effort. Inevitably in any mature war whole towns will be engaged in the war effort and therefore both the industry and its workers of those towns make legitimate targets.

Genuine strategic bombing needs precision. Although precision bombing was attempted it became clear that one could not simply drop a bomb with the required accuracy and so the mass destruction approach was taken as if sufficient bombs were dropped some should hit strategic targets and the remainder would be civilian bombing.
However it is clear that during the war a huge amount of offensive effort was put into pure civilian bombing in the quest to break the will of the people. Most sources agree that this did not happen and that frequently it strengthened the people's resolve to fight and re-enforced their view that their enemy was evil.

The lack of precision was not just a technical problem but one of poor strategy. Resources were waisted on the myth of breaking the will rather than any genuinely vulnerable point of the opposition. Once the allies targeted the oil supplies bombing began to have a segnificant impact.
Despite Clausewitz's view that there is no moral force in war, a great many individuals are driven and motivated to fight by moral beliefs.

Hermann Knell was 19 years old when the Allies bombed his home city of Würzburg, Germany, in March 1945. The deaths of 6,000 people and the destruction of 92 percent of a city of great historical beauty and no military significance, led him to decide, after the war, to try to find out and understand why decisions were made to target civilian cities for bombing. The result is his book To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences in World War II.

The majority do not have interest in politics or war until they have cause to. It seems that we find, the effect of civilian bombing is to kill, injure and turn people against those sending the bombers.
If bombing had been kept to genuine strategic targets how much sooner would the war have been won and how much less remaining resistance would there have been post war.

Being seen to be the right side, the side fighting for peace, liberty and justice, for ordinary people wins hearts and minds.

© Tom de Havas 2011. The information under this section is my own work it may be reproduced without modification but must include this notice.
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