Compliance with Aerial Bombing Norms:
A Study of Two Periods –
1939 – 1945 and
1990 – 2004
Annual Convention of the
Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics
Explaining the Current Observance of
Norms Regarding Air Warfare
with Precision Guided Munitions
Air War Then and Now:
Early in World War II, the joke among the American B-17 crews was that they could hit any city, so long as it was big enough. Today, when an air crew can target and strike a single building, or a floor of a building, or a window on that floor, it is hard to imagine air warfare of 1941 when whole cities were hard to locate and to hit, and innocents had little to protect them except luck. In World War II, norms regarding aerial bombing and the protection of innocents were first sustained, however tenuously, then broken in limited ways, then broken more generally and finally were totally shattered and disregarded. By contrast, in air warfare during the last decade and a half the same sorts of norms have been with few exceptions scrupulously observed. Why were norms poorly observed in the 1940s while observance in the 1990s and more recently has been much more consistent and robust?
A Theory of Norms’ Emergence and Endurance:
To answer this question we will need a brief outline of a theory of why norms form, why they attract actors who comply with them and so help the norms gain in strength and why they lose observers and are violated and so weakened. Since norms are “collective understandings of the proper behavior of actors,” it is useful to begin by considering how those understandings arise, and since most ethical norms correspond to the deep moral principles deeply held by societies, it is reasonable to assume that those principles are their source. It is natural to speak of norms against slavery, piracy, aggression and the killing of noncombatants as rooted in strong moral principles. In many cases these norms have been incorporated into “global prohibition regimes,” like the global regimes banning piracy and slavery.
If one grants that these collective understandings of proper behavior that we call norms have their origins and roots in deeply held moral principles, it remains to be asked why do some principles gain attention and attract observance while others do not? Why do expectations accrete at certain times around some forms of behavior, like the obligation to direct air weapons away from noncombatants, and not around others, like the obligation to extend aid to needy foreign societies or the obligation to assist legal authorities in the apprehension of criminals in cross-border flight?
In those two latter cases a new norm requiring foreign aid or legal cooperation conflicted with older norms centered on sovereignty. The rise of the new norm in each case coincided with the rise of new capabilities to organize and deliver aid or to track criminals. It is reasonable to speculate that increases in capabilities of actors, often in connection with new means created by the increase in wealth, technological change or some kindred development, will give rise to new expectations and so new norms. This is the case in air war in the 1940s, with the invention of the Norden bombsight and improved means of inertial navigation and again in the 1990s with laser and GPS-guided bombs, real-time intelligence and communications and improved surveillance leading to a near complete vision of a dynamic battle space.
Once collective understandings or expectations of the proper behavior of actors begin to accrete around an activity, why are some actors willing to observe these standards, even when there may be some cost in freedom of action or other prerogatives? One may theorize that actors like states will observe new norms if the norms align in some important ways with the interests, political or strategic of those states. The alignment may not be obvious or immediate and short-term, but it will be important. Otherwise observance and compliance will be lacking or infrequent or brief.
Having ventured these brief theoretical speculations, the next step is to apply them to the two cases at hand, air war in the 1940s and in the 1990s and beyond.
Air War In The 1940s
As air war began
in 1939 between
First, with regard to the origins of the norms: the norms against bombing cities had their roots in the strong moral principle against the killing of innocents. This was a widely and deeply held principle with powerful consequences in the form of moral opprobrium that would attach to the first power that broke its terms. The opprobrium had grown throughout the 1930s over the course of a long, highly publicized debate over aerial bombing which had built great dread in the populations of the capitals of Europe that the outbreak of war would cause levels of deaths in the cities like those that had been seen in the trenches twenty years before.
As a result, both
sides were loathe to be the first to initiate air strikes on cities, and for a
time this moral principle aligned closely with the political and strategic
interests of both sides. The British,
for their part, feared that if they were seen to have slaughtered innocents in
German cities they might lose the sympathy and moral support of the Americans
who the British were hoping would enter the war. On the German side, Hitler, according to
George Quester, held tight, personal control of targeting decisions and held
back Goering’s Luftwaffe because he hoped the prospect of its use would cow the
British into a negotiated settlement early in the war. He had, after all, found that the threat of
city bombing was a powerful inducement to Chamberlain when they met at
Thus early in the
war the British put a large array of targets off limits for fear of killing
civilians. For example, they refrained
from bombing German naval ships in dry docks
and, according to Thomas, “until the German offensive against
After the invasion
That the norm held
as long as it did is testimony to the power of the moral principle beneath it,
plus the strong alignment with political and strategic interests to that
point. The poorly developed level of
bombing technology to that point was a third factor reinforcing the norm for
some time. As late as 1941 the accuracy
and effectiveness of bombers, even ones aimed at large targets like cities, was
extremely low. A report prepared for Winston Churchill in August 1941 found that
“of those aircraft attacking their targets, only one in three got within five
miles…; over the
The durability of
bombing norms in the first two years of the war was surprising to a Realist
like Lindbergh who had predicted the destruction and gassing of
That was the case
in the summer and fall of 1940. The
reciprocal observance of the norm against city targeting held until it broke,
but then it broke down quickly. “The
pivotal events in the breakdown of the norm were the Luftwaffe raid on
The rhetoric of
the leaders in
It is important to note that moral outrage during the war was almost totally lacking. News coverage at the time was reflexively favorable and little inclined to treat matters like the morality of target selection. Indeed, Michael Walzer says that most of the British populace was not even aware that cities and not military sites were being targeted!: “[A]s late as 1944, according to other opinion surveys, the overwhelming majority of Britishers still believed that the raids were directed solely against military targets.”
In summation, then, in 1939 and the first half of 1940, strong moral principles, limited technological capabilities and numerous political and strategic interests aligned in favor of sustaining the norm of aiming away from non-combatants. After mid-1940, however, supreme emergency for the British realigned the moral argument, technological changes yielding more accuracy and survivability of bombers made the temptation to strike cities much greater while public interest or concern was so slight as to be no significant political disincentive, and a probably mistaken reading of strategic advantages made what was then called “morale bombing” seem a more attractive option than seeking to carry out the more difficult and costly daylight strikes on military centers, oil depots, loading docks and other sites, many of which were defended. On all three fronts we are considering, the factors that once had reinforced the noncombatant protection norms now undermined them, and, not surprisingly, the norms were violated and abandoned.
Air War in the 1990s
In the early 1940s
the norms against the killing of noncombatants, supported reciprocally by two
powers, held for a time, then broke, and once broken were overrun. We have discussed that case of norm failure
in terms of the interplay of underlying moral values, of changes in the
capabilities of the actors and of changes in the alignment of the norms with
the political and strategic interests of those actors. Since the early 1990s, similar norms have
been held unilaterally
technological changes described together as a “Revolution in Military Affairs”
have had many effects, prominent among them a dramatic enhancement of
Increased accuracy enhances the moral principles that underlie protection of the innocent norms because it allows one to aim narrowly at legitimate targets and carefully away from noncombatants. In this respect, the characteristics of precision weapons enable their users to conform to the standards for discrimination established in the just war tradition.
Greater accuracy also means that in addition to greater discrimination, greater effectiveness can be achieved. Moderate increases in accuracy yield large increases in effectiveness, and if (as has lately become possible) one can place the charge next to or on top of the target, one can employ a much smaller charge. This means that highly accurate weapons permit one to practice an economy in the use of force, using smaller warheads, carrying out far fewer strikes, putting fewer people at risk and cutting back the number of occasions for errors and so the likelihood of unintended damage or killing. This economy of force allows users of precision weapons to conform to the standards for proportionality established in the just war tradition. In short, technological changes bringing greater accuracy mean greater care can be taken and both of the in bello tests that are part of the just war tradition, that of discrimination and that of proportionality, can be more fully satisfied. In these ways the force of the underlying moral principle remains strongly aligned with and reinforcing of the noncombatant protection norms.
The technological progress that has given rise to greater accuracy has also given rise to greater popular expectations, and these have created great incentives for commanders to abide scrupulously by targeting norms. In dramatic contrast to the public’s indifference to the killing of innocents in 1945, today there is an intense concern over unintended deaths. The gun camera footage from the first Gulf War excited high hopes for a kind of perfectionist, immaculate warfare where every weapon found its intended target and exploded with a discreet, nearly delicate regard for damages to surroundings. While this can be unrealistic, it create a strong incentive for policy makers to abide by norms and to make a strong effort to present a spotless performance. In the recent Kosovo and Afghanistan campaigns, for example, officers from the Judge Advocate General corps did “due diligence” on each proposed target to determine if it conformed to the laws of war and fell within boundaries set by all the NATO allies. Every strike that landed off target was literally autopsied by inspection teams that took measurements, collected samples and conducted a forensic analysis.
The Revolution in Military Affairs also has made careful observation of noncombatant protection norms more feasible by substantially dispelling “the fog of war.” This phrase is meant to refer to all the confusion, uncertainty, tension and pressure that surround military operations. What Clausewitz called “friction” leads to fatigue, fear and even panic among combatants, but war fought remotely with distance weapons guided by extensive real-time intelligence is unprecedentedly free of such factors that can overwhelm a combatant, cause errors and over-reactions and lead to unintended or unjustifiable killing.
of the “War on Terror” which has followed
change and underlying moral principles both currently encourage scrupulous
respect for targeting norms. Strategic
and political interests align with them as well. To give a single example, maintenance of good
relations within the NATO alliance has run parallel with giving careful
attention to targeting norms. The confident expectation that all strikes could
be delivered precisely and unfailingly on target led NATO allies to realize
they could deliver detailed “off-limits” lists to the NATO commander, thus
complicating the use of these weapons still further. French President Jacques
Chirac “boasted to a French reporter that if there were bridges still standing in
less obvious, more long term strategic and political interests –geopolitical
interests – support the observation of norms in this decade. There is no question that the
Dominance unchecked will incite what structural realists call “balancing behavior. It may also lead to tests of one’s power, and even the most dominant power does not want to be tested, if only because the tests are costly.
munitions and the Revolution in Military Affairs, if not handled with prudence
and with great respect for global norms on the use of force, may incite some
fairly hysterical balancing reactions. A
single example: General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., an insightful Air Force legal
officer, writes that “Russian generals fear that, in a general war, Western
nations could employ such ‘smart munitions’ to degrade Russian strategic
forces, without ever having to go nuclear themselves. Consequently, said General Volkov,
To avoid inciting
other powers to engage in balancing behaviors, to avoid tests and hysterical
reactions, it would make sense to give norms their weight and to accept
voluntarily certain strictures on American power. This of course would mean a radical turn away
from the unilateral and preemptive doctrines of the current administration, but
it would likely be the best way to protect American interests over the long
term. American hegemony will not last
forever. As Henry Kissinger has warned,
“The test of history for the
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Experience with precision weapons in the last twelve years confirms that force
has been used with fewer unintended destructive consequences than in earlier
instances. Human Rights Watch found that
there were between 488 and 527 unintended deaths in Operation Allied Force over
Kosovo. (Human Rights Watch, Civilian Deaths in the NATO Air Campaign,
www.HRW/org/reports/2000/NATO.) In the far larger uses of force in the first
Gulf War the number of unintended deaths was around 3000. (
 Norms may be defined simply as “collective understandings of the proper behaviors of actors.” Jeffrey Legro, “Which Norms Matter?” p. 2. (Quoted in Ward Thomas, The Ethics of Destruction, p. 7.) The writer adopts what Robert Keohane calls the “neoliberal institutionalist” understanding of norms. Keohane explains that neoliberal institutionalists hold that states gain more from some forms of cooperation than from unmoderated or anarchic competition. They avoid risks of conflict and they achieve great gains in the form of such things as orderly markets, safer air travel and improved crime control to name just a few. To organize such cooperation, states and non-state actors collaborate in the creation and maintenance of regimes, and norms are one of the elements that make up a regime. Keohane, After Hegemony, pp. 63, 66.
 Underlying this question is what Keohane calls “the puzzle of compliance”: “Why governments, seeking to promote their own interests, ever comply with rules… when they view these rules as in conflict with… their myopic self-interest.” Keohane, After Hegemony, p. 99. Keohane explains that the rules may function in the longer term interest of the state or other actor that observes them, may be in line with moral standards valued by the populations of states, and that it may be costly to be seen as a breaker of certain rules, etc. See discussion in Thomas, Ethics of Destruction, chapter two. The topic of this paper is the narrower and more specific question of why the actors in recent air war have observed norms more strictly, and the hope is that in illuminating that question some light may be cast on Keohane’s puzzle.
 See Ethan Nadelmann, “Global Prohibition Regimes: The Evolution of Norms in International Society.”
It is important to note that until the late 18th century, foreign
aid was an alien concept. When, for
example, citizens groups in the
 The following analysis substantially parallels that offered by Thomas in Ethics of Destruction, chapter four.
 On the extremely grim, almost hysterical anticipations of air war in the 1930s, see Watt, “Restraints on War in the Air before 1945.”
 See Legro, Cooperation Under Fire, pp. 141 ff.
 See Quester, “Strategic Bombing in the 1930s and 1940s,” p. 242 ff.
 See Cohen, Arms and Judgment, p. 94.
 Thomas, Ethics of Destruction, p. 128,
 Thomas, Ethics of Destruction, p. 129.
 See Just and Unjust Wars, pp. 251-63.
 John Keegan, The Second World War, (New York: Viking, 1989) p. 420.
 Keegan, p. 420. This inaccuracy contributed to the caution on both sides regarding bombing near cities. Leaders anxious to avoid being first to break the norm against city bombing could not be confident that their bombers would go where directed.
 Thomas, Ethics of Destruction, p. 130.
 Legro, Cooperation Under Fire, p. 102.
For a time the American B-17 crews, who joined the war in August 1942, did
marginally better in terms of aiming at military objectives and away from
noncombatants. They took the extra risk
of carrying out daylight raids and were able to do significant damage to
targets like shipyards or oil refineries, though they suffered severe losses to
do so. It was not long before they
reverted to the indiscriminant tactics of their British allies, and in the
Pacific theater their was no hesitation in resorting to city bombing. On
 Churchill speaking before Commons in July 1943, quoted in John C. Ford, S.J., “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing,” in Richard A. Wasserstrom, ed., War and Morality, (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1970) p. 139.
 Keegan argues that a more discriminating campaign aiming at German production centers would have ended the war more quickly. Keegan, The Second World War, pp. 415-435. Ward Thomas offers a great deal of evidence supporting that conclusion. Thomas, The Ethics of Destruction, pp. 87-146.
 Brendan Bracken, Minister of Information, quoted in Ford, p. 139.
Churchill speaking before Commons on
 Keegan, p. 417.
 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 257.
When norms are held in a reciprocal setting, as they were by
 In the air campaign over Kosovo, for example, expectations of near perfection in aiming on the part of the American public, the international press and the U.S. Congress left the NATO Supreme Commander, General Wesley Clark, musing that the only arena in which he could lose the war in a single day was on the television screen. Fearing that major errors might lead the White House, Congress or NATO allies to terminate Operation Allied Force, he attempted to produce an entirely error free campaign – a standard of performance seldom required of commanders in past campaigns.
In the first week of the air war only one civilian was killed. Nonetheless, the expectations were so high, the publicity so pervasive and the sensitivity so great that by the fourth week of the campaign the notion was established that the air campaign was marked by error after error or, as the propagandists of the Milosevic regime described them, crime after crime.
Errors inevitably occurred, and “
For a description of the kind of monitoring work done by such organizations as
Human Rights Watch, see William M. Arkin, “Checking on Civilian Casualties,”
The Washington Post, 9 April 2002 p. A-1.
Arkin, a retired intelligence officer, describes visiting bomb sites in
 One paradoxical effect of this greater controllability of force is that errors will not be forgiven. When a third great error was made in the Kosovo campaign – the strike on the Chinese embassy – the Chinese and others were certain that it was no mistake at all but rather a brutal case of message-sending by the Americans. Not one but two weapons struck the very floor in the building where the Chinese “journalists” were working, doing their intelligence gathering and analysis. [See James Kurth, “The First War of the Global Era”, in Bacevich and Cohen, (eds) War Over Kosovo, p. 24.] Clearly the Americans knew exactly what they were doing, the aggrieved parties and others concluded. They have let the unprecedented capabilities of these weapons go to their heads and surrendered to the temptation to use them for acts of intimidation and control.
 Ignatieff, Virtual War, p. 104. These limitations appear to have had financial as well as humanitarian origins. Arkin reports “Telephone communications had been a major target in the Gulf War, but remained largely off-limits due to collateral-damage concerns and allied investments.” [“Operation Allied Force” in Bacevich and Cohen (eds) War Over Kosovo p. 24.]
 Charles Kupchan, The End of the American Era, p. 3.
See Stephen Walt, “Keeping the World ‘Off Balance’: Self Restraint and
See Andrew Bacevich, American Empire,
p. 192. Bacevich points out that the
 Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., Technology and the 21st Century Battlefield: Recomplicating Moral Life for the Statesman and the Soldier (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1999)
 Quoted in Joseph Nye, The Paradox of American Power p. 169.