The fire-bombing raids on Japan constituted all-out war on a civilian population.

By Sam McGowan

It was a method of warfare that would have been anathema to Americans only a few short years before. A major reason for the development of high-altitude precision bombing was the belief among most Air Corps officers that deliberately attacking civilians was immoral. Even as the British turned toward area bombing of German cities, American strategists continued hazardous daylight bombing from high altitudes. Yet, many of these same officers enthusiastically embraced a policy of deliberately attacking Japanese civilians. What was their rationale for such a change in thinking?

The fire-bombing raids on Japan constituted all-out war on a civilian population.
A B-29 flies over Japanese incendiary targets.

Racism no doubt was a major factor—not to mention that quite a few high-ranking American officers were of German descent while none were Asian. Hatred of—or resentment toward—the Japanese for attacking Pearl Harbor was another, although it is important to recall that the Japanese targets in Hawaii had all been military. Fears of high casualties from an invasion was another factor, even though the costly battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa were still long in the future when the Twentieth Bomber Command began considering a change toward urban attack. Rationalization for war on civilians was also likely based on Japanese decisions to turn the entire country into an armed camp, with all Japanese males aged 17 to 60 and all women 17 to 45 subject to military service. The new policy rationalized that there were no more civilians in Japan.

Fire-bombing constituted the worst form of warfare imaginable, as incendiary bombs and napalm were dropped with the intention of creating mass conflagrations that would sweep through Japanese cities, sending thousands of men, women, and children to painful, horrible deaths. The results of the atomic bombs were even worse, compounded by the effects of radiation. “Civilized” war had become the most horrible form of warfare ever imagined and no one was off-limits to the destruction.