Leiden International Studies Blog

On the Side of the Victims: Aerial Bombing in History and International Law

On the Side of the Victims: Aerial Bombing in History and International Law

On 18 April 2018, the International Studies programme hosted Professor Tullio Scovazzi (University Milan-Bicocca, Italy) as guest lecturer. The theme of the lecture was aerial bombing in history and in international law.

Is Aerial Bombing Killing with Impunity?

Aerial bombing is in the news since the invention of aviation. Today bombs are dropped in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and so on; in the past they were dropped elsewhere, but it is difficult to remember a period in our lives without aerial bombing somewhere in the world. Aerial bombing is one of the most atrocious contemporary human inventions. It allows humans to kill other humans by clicking a button and without hearing the victims’ screaming and without smelling their burning flesh. This is because the killing takes place far away enough from the perpetrator.

The hypothesis put forward by Scovazzi are two. Firstly, to deal with aerial bombing is to deal with a subject that, in the minds of political and military elites, is outside the realm of international law. Even though this is not completely true, because international law did try to govern the practice of bombing since 1899 and 1907 with Conventions signed in The Hague. The problem is that situations of “emergency” allow for the breaking or superseding of such rules. Secondly, the peculiar paradigmatic relationship between international law and the use of aerial bombing is that the practice of killing “from the sky” relied on the assumption that “those who bomb better are those who are right”. If this is the reality, then law does not exist.

People as Collateral Damage

According to Scovazzi, from late nineteenth century until the second world war, it is possible to talk of a “negation of law”. One of the first aerial bombings is recorded during the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1912. Italy used aircrafts in order to fly over the enemy’s lines and drop grenades by hand. Bombing by flying means substantially the following things: bombing military targets; bombing the territory of an enemy regardless of targeting military or civilian targets; bombing civilians. Early legal provisions therefore were intended to forbid the bombing of defenceless urban areas and even monuments. The law established the obligation to warn before an aerial bombing. However, during the two world wars a shameful euphemism was used to justify the bombing of civilians: break the “morale” of the enemy. The enemy was not the enemy’s army but the enemy’s nation. This simply led to the slaughtering of unarmed civilians who posed no military threat whatsoever. Hitting civilian targets was considered necessary to win the war by putting pressure on the enemies’ governments.

Italian general Giulio Douhet is amongst the first to theorise this in a book, Il dominio dell’aria (1921). Bombing should be organised in the following way: target cities, first with explosive bombs to hit buildings and spread fear, then with incendiary bombs to spread fire and burn everything, then with chemical and bacteriological bombs to kill human survivors, and finally with bombs of delayed explosion in order to prevent the intervention of the fire brigades. Only a criminal mind could develop this strategy, and according to Scovazzi, this can be called terrorism in as Douhet himself wrote that aerial bombing must spread “terror”.

Since then war is not only a clash of armies but a matter which increasingly involves civilians. As Mary Kaldor explained, war is progressively affecting more civilians and less military. This is possible because war take place in legal vacuum. During a series of conferences in Washington, between 1922 and 1923, civilian killing became “collateral damage”. In other words, civilian bombing is justifiable if it is an accident.

Another way to circumvent laws is to expand the concept of military objective. A tank could be a target of aerial bombing, but also the factory where tanks are made, also the houses of workers of the tank factory, etc. This is why Germans bombed Warsaw, Rotterdam, London and Belgrade; while the British and Americans bombed German cities. “Carpet bombing”, “saturation bombing”, and “fires storms” were carried out with total impunity. “Enemy civil population” and industrial workers were mentioned as target in British official directives. Like Douhet, Raymond Harries, wing commander of the Royal Air Force, theorised the bombing of civilians in a written document.

The step forward, from conventional to nuclear bombing, was very easy to make, ergo Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens if not hundreds thousand people perished in the nuclear attacks. Scovazzi asks whether these are to be considered crimes against humanity. There were many justifications given by the Allies to justify their actions, including putting an end to the world war, but the question remains: is there a ratio of proportionality?

Which Future for Humanity?

As world war two was coming to an end, a British intellectual, Vera Brittain, wrote that carpet bombing “will appear to the future civilisation as an extreme form of criminal lunacy with which … political and military leaders deliberately allowed themselves to become afflicted” and, adds Scovazzi, it epitomised “the end of human civilisation”. For this a Geneva Convention was passed in 1949, followed by two protocols, adopted in 1977, with which international law attempted to regulate and restrict the use of aerial bombing, especially against civilians. But not only some states are not parties to the treaties, some parties presented reservations, limiting the power of these treaties. Bombing of civilians never stopped. Perhaps a part from history and international law, psychiatry can help to understand why some human beings are prepared to conceive and organise the mass killing of other defenceless human being.