Why you should care

Modern air warfare can thank a long history of spin-doctoring for its “justification.”

It was a terrible firestorm. Dresdeners couldn’t breathe. Blame the bombs. But first blame the marketing that made it all possible.

Sure, the idea of political, wartime propaganda is nothing new. Neither are bombs. We’ve imagined the terror of global apocalypse since H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air 107 years ago. But there’s more to the story. Falling explosives have a long history of being sold, packaged and marketed to the public. Just think of the recent outcry over U.S. drones in Pakistan, which have claimed countless civilian lives in the name of a strategic strike. Yet today we’re living in a world where drones are increasingly normal, from providing Amazon deliveries to helping shoot movies.

The public campaign for approval of aerial bombing is a nice reminder of how we swallow the wars we wage.

The politics of ordering legal mass destruction are delicate, to say the least.

Dresden was decimated in the heat of World War II. But while we tend to think of the Blitz — Germans bombing the U.K. — on the other side, the Brits and Americans attacked and flattened many major German hubs. How? The politics of bombing are surprisingly delicate. At the Nuremberg trials, the public asked whether aerial bombs constituted war crimes; revelations about Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia prompted mass protests in the U.S.

The ruins of the city of Dresden after heavy Allied bombing during World War II, 1945.

The ruins of Dresden, Germany, after heavy Allied bombing during World War II

Source Popperfoto/Getty

So why do bombs keep falling? The British created a kind of formula for peddling death from above as an acceptable part of war — a strategy leaders still use today. The formula: Reassure the public that bombing is both short-term and unavoidable (even when it isn’t). Sound familiar? When Britain bombed Germany, they swore that the Germans would respond and mutiny after just a few weeks. Winston Churchill made the bombers seem patriotic, praising a “deliberate careful discrimination” of targets.

The Brits also put a photogenic face on the campaign, promoting heroic fighter pilots as selfless protectors of society. Plus, domestic distractions can help. Even if the public is troubled by the apparent inhumanity of a government maneuver, we stomach it more easily if we’re preoccupied with reconstruction, homelessness or rationing — as wartime Brits were.

Historians and military strategists have argued convincingly that the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign was ultimately ineffective, while activists have gone even further, condemning it as criminal. But the ugly fact remains: During the war, most Brits were convinced it was necessary.

Efficacy aside, understanding bombing may not be so much about deciding right from wrong, historian Richard Overy suggests, as it is about acknowledging why we fight. “There was a sense that ‘war’ itself was responsible and ‘modern war’ in particular, as if it enjoyed some kind of existence independent of the particular air fleets inflicting damage,” he argues in his new book, The Bombing War. Overy’s referring to World War II, but the theory holds sway today: The world has become so used to airstrikes, thanks to documentary footage, Hollywood and the news, that aerial bombardment seems almost normal.

Looking back on his prophetic novel just after World War I, H.G. Wells said it best: “‘War in the Air’ means social destruction instead of victory as the end of war.”

Photography by Shutterstock

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