18 May 2017

Review: Bombing the People by Thomas Hippler

Hardcover, 285 pages
Published 2013
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939
by Thomas Hippler

I came to this book looking for a discussion of bombing civilian populations during air war and the ethics thereof. As its subtitle indicates, Bombing the People is really about the thinking of one particular air-power strategist, the Italian general Giulio Douhet. Douhet was an advocate for total war, and Hippler provides a comprehensive intellectual history of his thought-- if I recall correctly, many of the works Hippler examines had previously not been translated into English, leading to misrepresenation of Douhet's actual belief. Douhet's intellectual evolution is actually kind of fascinating and worth recounting in full.

Hippler argues that early on, Douhet actually considered the bombing of civilians unconscionable;  during World War I, he advocated for a World State that would abolish war. As someone who reads a lot of science fiction from 1880-1915, I find this a very familiar dream: H. G. Wells wanted this to happen, but so did many other proto-sf writers, like George Griffith and Louis Tracy, and Hippler reports that Douhet actually cites Wells. But Douhet went from seeing military forces as the only legitimate targets of aerial bombing in 1911 to call for strategic bombing of urban centers in 1915. How did this happen?

It's actually a pretty compelling chain of logic. Relationships between nations are essentially anarchic; if you want there to be civilization between states, not just within them, you need international police and international courts. Only such an organization could successfully ban war. Thus, a nation that carries out war anyway is not an enemy nation, but a criminal nation, and we believe that criminals must be punished for their misdeeds, partly to discourage other criminals from carrying out misdeeds. So if war is unjust, and we want to stop war, we actually need aerial bombing as a punitive measure, because there's no other way to effectively punish a state for its misdeeds. If the leadership is responsible, the people will eventually rise up and change the leadership, ending the war, and thus leaders will be discouraged from starting wars. If you attack the enemy's population center from their air and break their will, there will actually be fewer casualties than in a long, drawn-out war. It's an amazing argument, I think, and one that recognizes that all civilization is fundamentally based on violence; the last bit even presages ways that President Truman allegedly rationalized using the atomic bomb on Japan during World War II. But that makes sense, if you keep in mind that in the 1910s, all-out air war was perceived as being as apocalyptic as nuclear war would be in the 1950s.

Douehet actually wrote his own future-war novel in 1919, Come finì la grande Guerra, where he got to put some of his ideas into practice. I must seek it out. Thanks to Hippler for covering in detail this important strategic thinker, tangling with in reality the same ideas I see pored over in fiction from the same era.

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