Slaughtering Civilians as a Military Tactic: Japan, March-August, 1945

Japan stood alone against the USA in the Second World War. Unlike America, it didn’t have natural resources; or a huge population. By early1945, Japan was defenceless. All that was left was their indomitable spirit. The USA had been taught about this by the 82 day battle for Okinawa.1 The Americans believed Okinawa would be replicated in the principal Japanese islands. Their war games postulated as many as two million American casualties, which was completely unacceptable. Crushing Japan from the air was an attractive option as Japan had no air force. Success wasn’t guaranteed. Prior to this moment only land based invasions had achieved victory.

Total American domination gave them complete freedom of action. Firebombing defenceless cities had been perfected in Germany with Dresden, 13-15th February 1945 being the classic example.2 This was replicated on 9-10th March 1945 on Tokyo. The Americans firebombed a largely wooden city, deliberately causing about 100,000 deaths.3 But it failed its principal objective as it had in Germany the previous month. The principal challenge is that terror bombing only terrifies those directly affected. The saturation bombing of Germany had caused major casualties but hadn’t weakened the regime.4 Notwithstanding the protestations of ‘Bomber’ Harris, bombing wasn’t a decisive tool in securing victory.

The development of the ‘A’ bomb introduced generalised terror into the collective psyche. Swarms of bombers were understandable. Civilians adopted tactics to mitigate the attacks. A single bomber destroying an entire city with a single bomb was an alien concept. This was a military novelty and therefore the collective imagination worked overtime. Being slaughtered by this technique was paralysing in a way which conventional bombing wasn’t.

On 6th August 1945 Hiroshima was obliterated. Although there was a similar number of deaths to the Tokyo attack, it was an event which shattered illusions. The Japanese population now had unequivocal evidence they were helpless. The ‘A’ bomb attack didn’t feel like warfare at all. It created a new psychological dimension. This was underlined on the 9th August 1945 when the Americans used their only other ‘A’ bomb on Nagasaki. Seeing two cities obliterated drained Japanese confidence, demanding surrender. They accept the unacceptable: defeat.

Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech is classic with one stunning phrase, which tells you everything that you need to know about the unbelievable spirit of the Japanese. He said,

– the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.6

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes,7 just as Dresden was in February 1945. Defenceless cities were obliterated quite intentionally, causing tens of thousands of civilian deaths. Attempting to justify these deaths on the grounds that they ‘saved’ British and American lives is fallacious. Soldiers knowingly enter combat and fully understand the risks involved. This isn’t the case for civilians going about their daily lives. Those who took part in the bombing raids were not punished: they were the victors. Indeed they were rewarded with medals.

The only occasion that bombing was decisive was with the ‘A’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was decisive because no-one could comprehend it and so fear paralysed the Japanese high command. The ‘A’ bomb attack was, as it were, the ultimate military visual aid. The entirety of Japan could, seemingly, be obliterated without a single American soldier setting foot in the country. Courage, a principal Japanese characteristic, was utterly redundant. Strangely enough, by deleting civilian resistance to an American invasion, millions of Japanese lives were saved as well as those of the American army. Does this justify a war crime and a crime against humanity?


2 The attack on Dresden was a joint British and American endeavour. About 35,000 people died see


4 For a comprehensive summary see


6 This is very much worth chasing up.


Slaughtering civilians is also a ‘crime against humanity’ see


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