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



Stephen Wrage

Associate Professor

Political Science

United States  Naval Academy

Annapolis, MD 21402



Explaining the Current Observance of


Norms Regarding Air Warfare


with Precision Guided Munitions


Stephen Wrage


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.[1]  In World War II, norms[2] 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?[3]


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.[4] 

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?[5] 

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 Britain and Germany, both sides complied quite stringently with targeting norms.  For two years compliance was strong, but in the winter of 1940 it deteriorated drastically, and thereafter the descent became a rapid spiral into complete abandonment of targeting norms.  This behavior accords with the theory outlined above quite closely.[6] 

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.[7]

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.[8]  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 Munich.[9] 

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[10] and, according to Thomas, “until the German offensive against France in May of 1940, the use of bombers on both sides was more or less limited to reconnaissance missions.””[11]  Even after they invaded France, Thomas adds, the Germans “struck only a few RAF bases in southeast England, and refrained from bombing Paris altogether.”[12]

After the invasion of France and the beginning of the Battle of Britain, the moral underpinning of the bombing norms comes in conflict with another moral principle: the right of  resort to any means in a moment of supreme emergency.  By the summer of 1940 the British faced as an imminent and not unlikely event the prospect of being crushed by Nazi forces that had recently and swiftly overrun Belgium, Holland and France and isolated three hundred thousand fleeing British forces at Dunkirk.  Invasion across the channel was a daily possibility.  The British had every reason to expect that fascist domination would mean the end not just of their government but of their culture and even of the national community which was both the source and the expression of their values.  This is precisely the situation Michael Walzer defines as a supreme emergency – the condition which permits the resort to any measure which serves to stave off the threatened destruction of the community.  (Britain in 1940 through 1942 is in fact the very example Walzer offers of the rare condition of supreme emergency.[13])  Thus the bombing norm calling for the protection of civilians and innocents was opposed by the equally powerful norm calling for the preservation of the state and the society from dissolution and destruction.  Where moral force had heretofore been behind a ban on indiscriminant use of air power, in mid-1940 it in some powerful senses became a justification. 

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 Ruhr it was only one in ten.”[14]  That means that in the region where defenses were strongest, nine out of ten planes were failing to put their bombs within five miles of their targets, and the phrase “of those planes attacking their targets” should remind one that many more planes did not attack because they were damaged or downed by mechanical difficulties, ground fire or enemy interceptors. According to John Keegan, British airmen died in such numbers in missions over France and Germany throughout 1941, and their bombs fell so randomly, that deaths among the crews in the air actually outnumbered the deaths they were able to inflict on their enemies on the ground!  In short, the British airmen died in great numbers “largely to crater the German countryside.”[15]  

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 London in the war’s opening days.  It is not surprising to student of norms who know that states often accept limits on their actions, particularly when they recognize that crossing a firebreak cause a situation to deteriorate quickly into the total abandonment of restraint. 

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 London on the night of August 24, 1940, and the British response.”[16]  Legro argues that the Germans inadvertently struck London that night with a dozen bombers.  The British intentionally struck Berlin with ninety-five bombers the next night.[17]  These raids, at first costly and ineffective as described above, grew more accurate and destructive, increasing incentives to abandon targeting norms.  Across a span of eighteen months, the bombers’ penetration, accuracy and survival rates all rose, and by the end of 1942, massive slaughter of noncombatants was being accomplished regularly.  The best and newest techniques with Norden bombsights and radio-assisted navigation meant that American and British air crews could work together in mid-1943 to produce 42,000 civilian deaths in Hamburg.  That was 30% of the population of that city, incinerated in four nights of raids.[18] 

The rhetoric of the leaders in Britain and the United States reflected the quick turn away from noncombatant protection norms.  In early 1940, Churchill had condemned “this odious form of warfare,” but soon after Britain began purposely targeting civilians he dropped the condemnation and instead promised “the systematic shattering of German cities.”[19]  Roosevelt argued that burning cities would shorten the war, but even at the time that point was debated and one finds few persons since then who will argue that line.[20]  As one would expect in wartime, there were many not entirely coherent statements blaming the enemy (“Our plans are to bomb, burn and ruthlessly destroy in every way available to us the people responsible for creating the war”[21]) and many indistinct and figurative claims that the mass killing of innocents by concussion and incineration was exactly what ought to be happening – that the enemy should suffer “an ordeal the like of which has never been experienced by any country.”[22]  Statements of outright justification seem to have been rare, but announcements of intention simply took for granted the idea that war is war and the targeters had no choice.  During the course of the war, the actions of the Bomber Command and the 8th Air Force brought heavy praise, in part because for the first three years of the war, the bombers were “the only instrument of force the Western powers had brought directly to bear against the territory of the Reich.”[23]  After the war, however, the return of a sense of moral outrage and the urge to attach blame to someone led to British Air Marshall “Bomber” Harris being the only officer of that rank not recognized with a peerage at war’s end. 

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.”[24]

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[25] by the United States.  Though there have been significant temptations and incentives to violate them, the norms have been upheld to a surprising degree with remarkable consistency.  It remains to use the interplay of the same factors to explain this very different outcome.

Dramatic technological changes described together as a “Revolution in Military Affairs” have had many effects, prominent among them a dramatic enhancement of America’s ability to respect the moral principles underlying the noncombatant protection norms.  These norms are expressed in the waging of war through the in bello  principles of the Just War theory.  Precision guided munitions [PGMs] enable the targeter to choose exactly where a weapon should go and to fire the weapon with considerable confidence that it will go there and not elsewhere.  This allows the user of force to be highly effective.  It also encourages others to hold the targeter strictly accountable.

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.[26]  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.[27] 

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.[28] 

The circumstances of the “War on Terror” which has followed September 11th 2001 have created still further incentives to be scrupulous in respecting the norms that express the principles of protection of innocents.  Observance of these norms underlines the difference between terrorists who violate them and the legitimate professionals who pursue the terrorists.  Finally, evidence from the last fifteen years suggests that the military professionals themselves are deeply interested in upholding the norms that outline the moral use of force.  One sign of this is the revulsion expressed by some pilots at the “turkey shoot” as the killing of Iraqis fleeing Kuwait in 1991 came to be called.  Another sign is the deep and lasting interest shown by several services (but particularly by the U. S. Marine Corps) in the work of Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder who has argued that grave harm is inflicted on soldiers when they are asked to violate moral principles they hold deeply.  A third sign is the strongly positive reaction to Michael Ignatieff, a historian and philosopher who teaches that the only important distinction between proper and respectable military professionals and barbarians, brigands or terrorists is the discipline and care with which they direct their use of force – that is, the respect that they show for norms describing proper behavior.

Technological 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 Belgrade, it was thanks to him.”[29]  In respecting targeting norms the US also respected allies’ prerogatives, frustrating though that may have been.

Finally, certain 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 United States possesses preponderant power, in a military sense at least, and as Charles Kupchan warns, “preponderant power can do a nation much more harm than good.  When unchecked, primacy often invites enemies and provokes the formation of hostile, countervailing coalitions.  When wielded with prudence, however, dominance handsomely rewards the nation that possesses it, securing not only its well-being, but extending through the international system a stable order crafted in its image.”[30]

Dominance unchecked will incite what structural realists call “balancing behavior.[31]  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.[32]

Precision guided 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, Russia “should enjoy the right to consider the first [enemy] use of precision weapons as the beginning of unrestricted nuclear war against it.”[33]

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 United States will be whether we can turn our current predominant power into international consensus and our own principles into widely accepted international norms.”[34]


Works Consulted:


Bacevich, Andrew, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.)


Boorstin, Daniel, The Americans: The Democratic Experience, (New York: Random House, 1973.)


Brown, Seyom, The Illusion of Control: Force and Foreign Policy in the 21st Century (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2003.)


Chandler, David, “Rhetoric Without Responsibility: The Attraction of “Ethical” Foreign Policy”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Vol. 5, No. 3, 295-317.


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.)


Glaser, Charles L., “Realists as Optimists: Cooperation as Self-Help”, International Security , Vol. 19, No. 3, 50-90.


Ikenberry, G. John, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)


Ikenberry, G. John, (ed.) America Unrivalled: The Future of the Balance of Power, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.)


Kaplan, Robert D., Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, (New York: Random House, 2002.)


Kupchan, Charles A., The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.)


James Kurth, “The First War of the Global Era”, in Bacevich and Cohen, (eds) War Over Kosovo: Politics and Strategy in a Global Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.)


Lebow, Richard Ned, The Tragic Vision of Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.)


Legro, Jeffrey W., Cooperation Under Fire: Anglo-German Restraint During World War II (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.)


Legro, Jeffrey W., “Which Norms Matter?: Revisiting the ‘Failure’ of Internationalism in World War II”, Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, August 31-September 3, 1995.


Murray, Williamson, Air War in the Persian Gulf (Baltimore: The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1994.)


Nadelmann, Ethan A., “Global Prohibition Regimes: The Evolution of Norms in International Society,” International Organization, Vol. 44, no. 4, Autumn 1990, pp 479-526.


Nye, Joseph, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.)


Kenneth Pollack, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, (New York: Random House, 2002.)


Thomas, Ward, The Ethics of Destruction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.)


Todd, Emmanuel, After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.)


Walt, Stephen, “Keeping the World ‘Off Balance’: Self Restraint and U.S. Foreign Policy” in John Ikenberry (ed.) America Unrivaled: The Future of the Balance of Power (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.)


Watt, D.C., “Restraints on War in the Air Before 1945” in Michael Howard, (ed.) Restraints on War: Studies in the Limitation of Armed Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.)




[1] 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.  (Middle East Watch, Needless Deaths in the Gulf War: Civilian Casualties during the Air Campaign and Violations of the Laws of War, (Washington: Human Rights Watch, 1991.)  See Ward Thomas, The Ethics of Destruction: Norms and Force in International Relations, p. 169 for evidence of dropping numbers of civilian deaths per ton of munitions since the introduction of precision guidance. 

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] See Ethan Nadelmann, “Global Prohibition Regimes: The Evolution of Norms in International Society.” 

[5] It is important to note that until the late 18th century, foreign aid was an alien concept.  When, for example, citizens groups in the U.S. sought to send famine relief to Russia in 1891, the idea was shocking and contrary to many people and it was ruled unconstitutional to transport the aid in American ships.  Similarly, the practice of aiding in the apprehension of criminals who have fled across borders dates only to the 1920s.  See Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience, pp. 568-579.

[6] The following analysis substantially parallels that offered by Thomas in Ethics of Destruction, chapter four.

[7] On the extremely grim, almost hysterical anticipations of air war in the 1930s, see Watt, “Restraints on War in the Air before 1945.”

[8] See Legro, Cooperation Under Fire, pp. 141 ff.

[9] See Quester, “Strategic Bombing in the 1930s and 1940s,” p. 242 ff.

[10] See Cohen, Arms and Judgment, p. 94.

[11] Thomas, Ethics of Destruction, p. 128,

[12] Thomas, Ethics of Destruction, p. 129.

[13] See Just and Unjust Wars, pp. 251-63.

[14] John Keegan, The Second World War, (New York: Viking, 1989) p. 420.

[15] 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. 

[16] Thomas, Ethics of Destruction, p. 130.

[17] Legro, Cooperation Under Fire, p. 102.

[18] 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 March 9, 1945, U.S. bombers used 1600 tons of improved jellied incendiaries (napalm) on the flammable stick and paper housing of Tokyo to produce fires that devoured 89,000 civilians in a single night (March 9, 1945.)  This was followed by air attacks that incinerated more than sixty cities by the end of July and the nuclear attacks in August.

[19] 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.

[20] 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.

[21] Brendan Bracken, Minister of Information, quoted in Ford, p. 139.

[22] Churchill speaking before Commons on June 2, 1942, quoted in Ford, p. 139.

[23] Keegan, p. 417.

[24] Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 257.

[25] When norms are held in a reciprocal setting, as they were by Britain and Germany in early 1940, the breakdown of norms may be delayed as neither power is willing to take on its head the opprobrium attached to violating the norm.  At the same time, however, a breakdown is likely always to be imminent since each side must anticipate the defection of the reciprocating partner.  In fact, each may be watching for a pretext for breaking the norm while blaming the other partner.  In such circumstances, adherence to norms likely will be quite strong for a time, then suddenly minimal.

[26] 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 “Clark had to devote a good part of his day to reassuring allied militaries and governments on issues of civilian collateral damage….  NATO was always on the defensive and never did succeed in putting Yugoslav’s claims into perspective.”  [Arkin, “Operation Allied Force”, p. 15.]  One of Clark’s pilots mistook trucks filled with refugees near Djakovica on April 14, 1999 for a military convoy.   Seventy-three civilians were killed by that single misdirected weapon, and “Belgrade… succeeded in conveying the impression that this was a regular occurrence.” [Arkin, “Operation Allied Force”, p. 15]  Later another pilot released a missile at a bridge seconds before a train started across the span.  “The pilots’ identities were shielded from the press, so it was Clark himself who went out after the bridge bombing, and showed the press the horrible gun camera footage: how the weapon was released and a passenger train came into view, a split-second too late.” [Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, p. 101.]  These errors led Clark to do what General Norman Schwarzkopf had done before him in Desert Storm after the strike on the Al Firdos bunker: to rule that all strikes in Belgrade must be personally approved by him.

[27] 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 Afghanistan, interviewing local persons, collecting evidence and assembling comprehensive lists of munitions used, damage done, casualties caused and circumstances left behind.  Arkin worked until recently with Human Rights watch and operated in informal collaboration with the U.S. military as he attempted to reconstruct the events surrounding every strayed bomb in Kosovo and Afghanistan. 

[28] 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.


[29] 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.]

[30] Charles Kupchan, The End of the American Era, p. 3.

[31] See Stephen Walt, “Keeping the World ‘Off Balance’: Self Restraint and U.S. Foreign Policy” in John Ikenberry (ed.) America Unrivaled: The Future of the Balance of Power.

[32] See Andrew Bacevich, American Empire, p. 192.  Bacevich points out that the U.S. was tested and prevailed in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, but that it took over seventy days and over 35,000 missions to war down “a pint-sized nation whose entire gross national product amounted to one-sixteenth of the Pentagon’s budget.” 

[33] 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)

[34] Quoted in Joseph Nye, The Paradox of American Power p. 169.