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Bombing as the American Way of War

Bombing as the American Way of War

Mark Selden explains how U.S. bombing raids of Japanese cities in World War II would determine military tactics decades after 'the Good War.' Listen to a podcast of Selden's lecture.

For all the power unleashed by U.S. bombers -- for the all the millions of victims in the six decades since 1945 -- victory against successive predominantly Asian foes has proved extraordinarily elusive to the United States.

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Duration: 48:49

Scholars, students, and other guests crowded inside a small room in the UCLA Faculty Center on Jan. 28, 2008, to hear Mark Selden explain the connection between the U.S. conflict with Japan in World War II and other major conflicts involving the United States in the postwar period, including Vietnam and Iraq. The event was sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies.

Selden is a coordinator for Japan Focus, an electronic journal and archive on Japan and the Asia-Pacific, and a Senior Fellow at Cornell University in the East Asia Program. His research focuses on contemporary China and Japan.

World War II was a landmark in the development of technologies of mass destruction. Many of dramatic new technologies introduced were associated with air power—the B-29 bomber, napalm, and the atomic bomb. An estimated 50 to 70 million people died in World War II. Selden said that unlike World War I and earlier modern wars, the substantial majority of the dead were non-combatants or civilians.

He argued that the widespread use of "area bombing" may have contributed to the increase in civilian deaths. The term distinguishes aeriel bombing of a specified, sometimes extensive terrain from the "strategic bombing" of defined military targets. Selden said few people know about the extensive use of area bombing by the United States in World War II.

"The U.S. destruction of more than 60 Japanese cities prior to Hiroshima has been slighted both in the scholarly literatures in English and Japanese and in popular consciousness—surprisingly, in popular consciousness in Japan as well as in the U.S. and internationally," Selden said.

Germany, England, and Japan were the first countries to use area bombing, but Selden said that in 1944 and 1945, the United States destroyed entire cities by area bombing. He argued that area bombing was used more often by the United States in World War II than other countries and that it became the centerpiece of U.S. warfare from the Korean War to the Iraq War.

He said that the U.S. military continued to use area bombing after World War II because of perceived success—this despite difficulties in achieving clear victory in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.

"For all the power unleashed by U.S. bombers—for all the millions of victims in the six decades since 1945—victory against successive predominantly Asian foes has proved extraordinarily elusive to the United States," Selden said.

Ethical questions surrounding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki persist to this day, but Selden said similar questions are not raised about the use of U.S. area bombing in World War II. He argued that that may be a reason why Americans still consider World War II as 'the Good War' and fail to come to grips with ethical and legal questions about area bombing.

A podcast of the Jan. 28 lecture is available online.