On 30 September 1938, the League of Nations expressed itself on the subject of aerial warfare directed against civilian populations. With the stench of Germany’s April 1937 assault on the Spanish city of Guernica still wafting beneath the noses of European leaders, the League reaffirmed previous international law and declared that such attacks lacked “military necessity” and caused only “needless suffering.” It furthermore insisted that nations who deployed air power must seek “legitimate” and “identifiable” objectives and that they must exercise extraordinary caution to ensure that civilians would not be “bombed through negligence.”
Although the League resolution passed unanimously, the use of “strategic bombing” to terrorize civilians had already achieved an extensive pedigree. Prior to the Guernica bombing -- which killed 1600 and wounded nearly 900 -- aerial warfare had already been used by most of the European belligerents during World War I. Although Germany’s zeppelin raids were most destructive during the early phase of the war, as explosive packets brought death to the streets of Paris and London, other nations would sustain the campaign of terror after the armistice. The English were without question the most flagrant proponents of “strategic bombing” during the era surrounding the Great War. Britain, in addition to carrying out retaliatory raids against German towns in 1917-1918, also bombed Egypt, Sudan, Constantinople, and Northwestern India during the war; afterwards, it carried out attacks against Afghan, Iraqi and Somali civilians, killing hundreds who presumably obstructed the march of civilization.
During the early 1920s, the Royal Air Force immolated Arab and Kurdish towns and deployed chemical weapons to suppress the Iraqi revolt against the British mandate. Arthur “Bomber” Harris, Squadron Leader of the RAF, presciently observed that the ungrateful Iraqis had learned “what real bombing means.” Within forty-five minutes -- a length of time Tony Blair would someday claim sufficient for Iraq to mobilize chemical weapons -- Harris bragged that “a full-sized village can practically be wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured" because they would have “no effective means of escape." Twenty years later, Harris would serve as head of RAF Bomber Command, from which post he authorized the notorious night-time raids against Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, and numerous other German cities where more than half a million civilians perished. Meantime, Japanese, German, and Italian planes choked the life out of targets throughout the Eastern Hemisphere, forever mocking the premise that this was a "good war."
Similarly priapic over the advantages of strategic bombing, the American pilot Billy Mitchell argued in the years after World War I that air power might be used to “go straight to the vital centers and entirely neutralize or destroy them.” On Mitchell’s view, which he drew from the repugnant theories of Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, any successful military campaign needed to target “the cities where the people live, areas where their food and supplies are produced and the transport lines that carry these supplies from place to place.” Although Mitchell died in 1936, his vision of aerial warfare -- and not that of the League of Nations -- would come to dominate the Second World War. Mitchell would no doubt have felt vindicated by his nation’s decision, in February 1945, to reduce itself to the standards set by its enemies and closest allies. Abandoning his own 1939 insistence that air attacks against civilians represented an "inhuman barbarity," Franklin Roosevelt permitted American pilots to annihilate German and Japanese cities, culminating in the decision by Harry Truman to unsheath the most grotesque weapon ever to descend from the air.