Are we beasts?: War, civilian casualties, and Hamas

David J. Bercuson, National Post, January 2, 2024

“Are we beasts?” – Winston Churchill, 1943

Union major general William T. Sherman, commanding officer of Union troops in the vicinity of Atlanta, Georgia, in early September 1864, had just routed Confederate forces from this key southern railway and manufacturing city in a bloody campaign to capture the city and now warned the citizens of Atlanta to evacuate the city.  His plan was to burn it. 

Sherman had no intention of perpetrating a mass slaughter, but he did aim to level the city.  Some leading citizens of Atlanta wrote him and beseeched him to spare Atlanta. 

On September 12, 1864, he answered the citizens in a two-page letter in which he declared: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will.  War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our Country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.  I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to Secure Peace.  But you cannot have Peace and a Division of our Country.”

Sherman did not aim to kill southerners, not in Atlanta nor in his subsequent “march to the sea” but the core of his argument applies almost perfectly to the phenomenon that came to dominate warfare in the 20th and 21st centuries – aerial bombing.

Early advocates of air power – Hugh Trenchard of the UK and Giulio Douhet of Italy – believed that the chief target of any bombing campaign had to be the morale of the enemy population.  They believed that “morale bombing” – later called area bombing and to some “carpet bombing”, would so undermine a population’s will to fight that victory would soon follow.

Their followers in Italy, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom – practiced the deadly trade in the wars of the twentieth and twenty first centuries.  The Japanese inflicted it on China.  Italy inflicted it on Ethiopia, Germany inflicted it on Warsaw, Rotterdam and London and other British cities.  This was deliberate aerial murder, and it inevitably produced its counterstroke when the Allies resorted to the same tactics in bombing Germany and Japan in the Second World War. 

The Royal and Royal Canadian Air Forces killed some 70,000 German civilians in Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945.  They studied, and carried out, bombing tactics that produced fire storms.  The Americans – using the same tactics – killed some 100,000 people in Tokyo in early March, 1945.  Then did the same to almost every other Japanese city ending with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  These attacks prompted Churchill to proclaim in 1943 after seeing film of German cities being bombed: “Are we beasts?”.  But of course, he himself was an architect of these bombing campaigns.

From the early 1950s, after the 1946 publication of Hiroshima, by American writer John Hersey – a book that followed the story of some of the victims of the atomic bombing – public opinion began to change in the west, toward efforts to avoid mass civilian casualties in bombing campaigns. In Korea (1950-1953) and Vietnam (1965-1975) the US sought to avoid mass slaughter of civilians (despite Communist propaganda to the contrary), although tens of thousands of civilians were killed anyway – collateral damage.  That was also true in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  In these cases, Sherman’s warning came true – it is war and war is horrible and can only be described in harsh terms.

Any country that attempted strategic bombing of purely military targets in this century – including the US, the UK, Canada, Israel – killed “innocent” civilians.  There is no getting around it. 

When the Royal Canadian Air Force joined the campaign to bomb Serbia and Serbian troops in the Kosovo air war of 1999, representatives of the Judge Advocate General – the chief law enforcement officer of the Canadian Armed Forces – sat at the targeting briefing before Canadian jets went into action to pronounce on the “legality” of each and every target the RCAF intended to hit.  Innocent people died anyway.  We have precision guided munitions today, guided by lasers or GPS signals, but innocent people still get killed. There is no bomb invented which can distinguish between a Hamas terrorist and a civilian medical worker.

These considerations don’t apply to dictatorships.  No one knows – or will ever know – how many Syrians were deliberately murdered by Russian bombers in the early days of the Syrian civil war to dislodge Hafez al Assad from the presidency of Syria.  If Hamas had had a real air force, there is no telling how many Israeli civilians would have been killed on October 7 in addition to the1200 who did die.

About half of the bombs that the Israel air force is using in Gaza are “dumb” bombs.  These are gravity bombs that once released are subject to air pressure, humidity, winds on their way to the target. They cannot self-adjust as do precision guided munitions.  PGMs were first used in large numbers in the closing years of the Vietnam war but they are still very expensive when compared to “dumb” bombs which are still widely used by most air forces.  Dumb bombs will kill more innocent civilians than PGMs, but both cause wide collateral damage.

There is really only one way to avoid civilian casualties by aerial bombardment – don’t start a war in the first place.  Either Hamas could not figure that out, or they didn’t care.

David Bercuson is a Senior Fellow at the Aristotle Foundation and Director Emeritus of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

Picture: Dresden, 1945. Source: Deutsche Fotothek, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license

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