By Tim Beal | July 31, 2021 | Originally published in Portside
Para-demolition bombs being dropped on supply warehouses and dock facilities at a port in Wonsan, North Korea by the Fifth Air Force's B-26 Invader light bombers (ca. 1951). USAF (photo 306-PS-51(10303)), public holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 541959., Public Domain, Link.
Bombing is perhaps the epitome of modern military power and imperial might, both in symbolism and significance. Consider the medieval knight resplendent in his armor that protected against the enemy, most of whom were poorly equipped peasants. The richer he was, the better the armor, giving a sense of invulnerability and wealth, expressed in ornateness. It is not surprising that of all the artifacts of war that litter the grand houses and museums of Europe, it is the suit of armor that is most prominent.
Bombs are different. There is no armor to protect you from bombs themselves; it seems that one can only dig a hole and cower in it. The silver plane high above, beautiful in its way but evil in its consequences, raining bombs onto the hapless people below, is the supreme symbol of invincible power.
From the early twentieth century onward, bombing in various forms became the destructive signature of war. A bomber crew could cause far more casualties and devastation than they could as a team on the ground. Guns can kill many in a short period of time, tanks can pulverize, but nothing matches bombing, especially, but not exclusively, nuclear bombing. The mode of aerial bombing has expanded over time, from planes to ballistic and cruise missiles to drones, but the objective has remained constant: to deliver the most effective destructive power. Sometimes, it is mass destruction, sometimes it is more selective, but always the aim is to wreak annihilation at minimal danger to the perpetrator. Similarly, the threat of bombing has become the most potent instrument of coercive messaging, replacing the gunships of the nineteenth century. In the Korean War, the United States dispatched solitary B-29 bombers to Pyongyang on simulated nuclear bombing missions designed to cause terror.1 Today, when Washington wants to intimidate Pyongyang (and Beijing), it again brings out the bombers—now B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s.2
The Korean War, which broke out on June 25, 1950, can be considered the epicenter of bombing as an instrument of war. The Korean War did not begin in 1950 (1945 is a better date) nor has it ended—but that is a story for another time. More people were killed by bombs in the Second World War and more bombs were dropped in Indochina subsequently. Nevertheless, the Korean War occupies a special place. For one, it was the first—and, so far, the last—time since 1945 that the United States seriously considered using atomic weapons during the course of an imperial war. In Vietnam, it seems to have been discussed, but was probably quickly discounted on grounds of practicability: the Vietnamese considered it unlikely, the Soviet Union had achieved thermonuclear parity (the combination of hydrogen bombs and delivery systems), and even China, bordering Vietnam, by then had rudimentary nuclear weapons.3 But the Korean War had General Douglas McArthur who was eager to extend the war to China. He was very much a child of empire—his father had been Governor-General of the Philippines, the first major U.S. overseas colony. While his desire for a war with China was considered too dangerous by Harry Truman, it was no doubt shared by many—his dismissal was a major political event of the early 1950s. In fact, the establishment viewed the wars in Korea and Vietnam as ways to contain China. The continued confrontation with North Korea too is, in geopolitical terms, essentially about China. Moreover, the war against Japan can been seen as a struggle over China; Japan lost to the Unites States, which, in 1949, “lost China,” as the McCarthyite criticism of the State Department put it.4
Thomas Hippler, in his study Governing from the Skies: A Global History of Aerial Bombing, dates the beginning of aerial bombing to 1911, when an Italian aviator named Giulio Gavotti dropped a rudimentary bomb (he had to pull the safety pin out with his teeth) on an Ottoman encampment in Libya. The locale was, as Hippler notes, pregnant with irony. The Italians were wresting Libya from the declining Turkish empire, with the agreement of Britain and France. A hundred years later, when Hippler wrote his book, imperialism was back in Libya, this time with Britain and France doing the bombing under U.S. supervision in what has been called Hillary’s War, and with U.S. “humanitarian intervention” (a ploy invented by Richard Holbrooke) replacing the Italian’s “civilizing mission” as the pretext. Repercussive ironies continued after 2011. The destruction of Libya unleashed a flood of refugee migrants into Europe and jihadists into Syria. The empowerment of jihadists in Libya and displacement into Syria horrified Michael Flynn, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency—the war, he argued, qualified Hillary Clinton “for government housing, though not in the White House.” The falling out with this side of the U.S. establishment seems to have led to the sting operation against Flynn that unraveled in 2020.5 Meanwhile, the Turks are back in Libya as part of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman dream, this time as bombers, but using drones instead of planes. The same sordid motives for over a century, but with changing technology.
Long dreamed of by novelists such as Victor Hugo and H. G. Wells, as new technology developed, aerial bombing captured the imagination of military strategists in the interwar period. Not only did it leap over the static trench lines of the First World War, restoring mobility to war, but it also had two more important consequences. First, it led to “total war,” where the economy and people of the other side could be attacked with unprecedented ferocity. Second, it involved the populace far beyond formal front lines. Jane Austen’s characters went about their business oblivious to the war being fought in their name across the English Channel, but the inhabitants of London and Berlin in the 1940s were very much aware and involved. Total war was mirrored by people’s war. This duality undercut the advocates of airpower who argued that terror would break the morale of the enemy; in many cases, it did the reverse. That was not the only problem. The enemy sometimes became adept at limiting the effectiveness of bombing—Londoners slept in deep stations of the underground system, Koreans built facilities deep below the surface (and still do), Vietnamese moved people and material under a jungle canopy (which the U.S. tried to destroy with chemical weapons), Serbs produced decoy tanks for the United States to bomb. And air defenses made bombing a hazardous occupation in peer-to-peer war.
The joke in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is that a bomber pilot could only be sent home if he was insane, but if he wanted to go home because of how dangerous his task was, he was sane, and thus forced to further take on missions. The best wars from this point of view were imperialist ones, where the enemy had no defenses—the other main, initial, and continuing reason for the utility of bombing. The standard problem facing empires has been that imperialists were usually greatly outnumbered by the subjugated, who again were often spread over vast areas. Air power—“governing from the skies,” in Hippler’s phrase—seemed to offer a safe, cost-effective way of controlling them. Winston Churchill, with his predilection for dropping poison gas on “uncivilized tribes,” was a leading, but by no means only, enthusiast for such measures.6
Sven Lindqvist in his History of Bombing neatly brings together imperialist fantasies and realities in a marriage of convenience that links the early days of aerial bombing and today:
Pilot as policeman, bomb as baton—this thought was developed early by R. P. Hearne in Airships in Peace and War (1910). Punitive expeditions are costly and time-consuming. It can take months for them to reach their goal. But punishment from the air can be carried out immediately and at a much lower cost.
“In savage lands the moral effect of such an instrument of war is impossible to conceive,” writes Hearne.… The appearance of the airship would strike terror into the tribes. And in addition, one could avoid “the awful waste of life occasioned to white troops by expeditionary work.”
The air force could simply patrol the land as the navy patrolled the sea. When necessary, bombers could mete out a “sharp, severe, and terrible punishment,” which would nevertheless be more humane than a traditional punitive expedition. For the bombs would affect only the lawbreakers, and would leave the innocent unharmed.
This was of course pure fantasy. Hearne’s idea demanded a precision that did not exist. When the French sent six planes to perform police actions in Morocco in 1912, the pilots chose large targets—villages, markets, grazing herds—otherwise their bombs would miss. And when the Spaniards began bombing “their” part of Morocco the next year, they used German cartouche bombs, filled with explosives and steel balls, bombs that were , especially made not to focus their effect, but to spread it to as many living targets as possible.7
These themes resonate today: the need to limit casualties among “our” troops, who are not necessarily white, though the people who control them usually are; the pretense that “precision bombing” differentiates between the “lawbreakers” and the “innocent.” The media routinely report Pentagon claims that U.S. airstrikes are the most precise in history, an assertion contradicted not merely by the estimates of observers, but also by photographs of the devastation.8 Those villagers in Morocco probably had a better chance of surviving bombs than inhabitants of contested areas of Mosul a century later. Greater precision lagged a long way behind the exponential growth in destructive power. And always, despite the hypocrisy, there was little concern for those who were being killed from a distance, usually a safe one for the perpetrators.
However, it was in Europe that bombing garnered the most attention, overshadowing the Japanese invasion of China between 1937 and 1945, and the colonial wars elsewhere. Ironically, by the war’s end in 1945, it was the Japanese who appeared to have suffered the most civilian casualties from bombing, followed by Germany. The German bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica in 1937 is widely seen as ushering in the new era of terror bombing, etched in public consciousness by Pablo Picasso’s painting of the same name. Unlike airstrikes in support of surface forces (then Stukas and Panzers, now strikes against ISIS and allies in Iraq and Syria), this bombing targeted the enemy hinterland in an attempt to destroy both economic infrastructure and popular morale. The Germans continued this with the Blitz against Britain, but before long it was the British, then the Americans, who developed strategic bombing with immensely greater destructiveness.
The bombing of Guernica took some 153 lives, but that of Hamburg (six days in 1943) killed about 43,000 and Dresden (three days in 1945) about 25,000. Dresden overshadows Guernica as a symbol both of the horror and the crime of war. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five brings out the horror, but Dresden was more than that. The city had no great military significance and the war in Europe was nearly over; the bombing was an opening shot for the next one. It was a message to the Soviet Union of the might and ruthless determination of U.S. power; the “American Century,” with violence as a defining characteristic, had arrived. The message to the Soviet Union was replicated a few months later in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.9 Japan’s defeat was inevitable, surrender was imminent, but the Soviet army was sweeping through Manchuria as arranged at the Yalta Conference, mopping up Japan’s elite Kwantung Army and heading toward Korea and perhaps Japan. It has been suggested by Gar Alperovitz and others that the United States deliberately stalled Japan’s surrender by insisting on the abolition of the Emperor system, with its implication that Hirohito might be hanged as a war criminal, in order to allow time for the atom bomb to be tested.10 Once the efficacy of the bomb was confirmed, the insistence that the Soviets enter the war against Japan was regretted, but it was too late—the division of Korea with the United States holding the southern part as a forward base in Asia (which it still is) can be seen as an attempt to rectify that.
Thus, the “atomic age.” which seemingly established U.S. global dominance, began. However, it was not realized at the time, and perhaps not widely today, that the U.S. development of nuclear weapons was in fact the harbinger of the end of U.S. invincibility.
Although the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was horrendous, and highly symbolic, it was essentially the climax of an onslaught of conventional bombing, especially firebombing, which together inflicted unparalleled destruction:
Throughout the spring and summer of 1945 the US air war in Japan reached an intensity that is still perhaps unrivaled in the magnitude of human slaughter. That moment was a product of the combination of technological breakthroughs, American nationalism, and the erosion of moral and political scruples pertaining to the killing of civilians, perhaps intensified by the racism that crystallized in the Pacific theatre.11
Atomic bombs could kill more people in a shorter period of time and needing fewer planes and pilots than any other device, with the added horror of the aftereffects of radiation, invisible like COVID-19. Moreover, a full-fledged nuclear war could destroy the planet. Nevertheless, for the victims of any sort of bombing, these considerations are irrelevant.
Mark Selden argues that initially, unlike Germany, Japan, and Britain, the United States had concentrated on military targets, but by 1944 joined Britain in the terror bombing of Germany and then took that further into Japan.12 Once the scruples had been abandoned, U.S. technological preeminence provided the instrument for mass destruction on a completely new scale. Carpet bombing became the U.S. way of war in the country’s two great post-1945 wars in East Asia. Extensive carpet bombing on the scale of those wars is no longer fashionable as it is not seen as cost effective, but the capability remains.13
The second of these wars, what the Vietnamese call “the American War,” has attracted more attention. Despite the carnage, the war ended in ignominious defeat, so much so that the United States has attacked a number of countries since then partly in an attempt to exorcise the “Vietnam syndrome.”14
Korea was different. It was the first war that the United States did not win. It ended in a stalemate—an armistice—that continues until today. Kinetic fighting was suspended, but the war continues (though only by one side) by what is conveniently but simplistically called sanctions. Neither a shameful defeat nor a victory, it was buried and became “the Forgotten War.” Even Hippler overlooks it, with sixty-one references to Vietnam but none to Korea. The failure to prevail in Korea deeply rankled Washington, and North Korea became an object of obsessive hatred. Outside Korea, and to some extent also China, the vast number of Korean casualties were largely forgotten.
Due to the limitations of bombing technology and the efficacy of air defenses, the damage in Europe, although devastating, had been limited. Even in the more vulnerable Japan, destruction was incomplete: Kyoto, for instance, was spared due to its cultural significance and other cities were left untouched because clean targets were thought to be necessary for testing the efficacy of atomic bombs. Not so in Korea.
One North Korean source gives some statistics:
More than 428,000 bombs were dropped on Pyongyang alone, the number more than that of Pyongyang citizens at that time. At the time, the US had completely reduced the whole territory of Korea into ashes by showering bombs of nearly 600,000 tons, 3.7 times greater than those dropped on Japan during the Pacific War, even using napalm bombs prohibited by the international conventions.
The US massacred more than 1,231,540 civilians in the northern part of Korea during the three-year war.15
The figures are plausible and corroborated by, among others, Blaine Harden, a virulently anti-North Korean journalist writing in the Washington Post:
The bombing was long, leisurely and merciless, even by the assessment of America’s own leaders. “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20 percent of the population,” Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force History in 1984. Dean Rusk, a supporter of the war and later secretary of state, said the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops.16
In his autobiography, Curtis LeMay (whose mantra was “bomb them back into the Stone Age”) “offered this observation,” as John Dower wryly put it: “We burned down just about every city in North and South Korea both.… We killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes, with the inevitable additional tragedies bound to ensue.”17
The word genocide is much bandied about, but it surely fits here. Although there are no definitive internationally comparative statistics, it seems certain that the U.S. bombing was, in terms of the percentage of the population, the deadliest in history.18 And, cruelly, all these crimes were committed in the name of the United Nations, whose imprimatur the United States had been able to capture because the Soviet delegation was boycotting the UN Security Council at the time and so could not veto it. The China seat was still held by Chiang Kai-shek, who had fled from the mainland and was ensconced in Taiwan; the other members of the Security Council, both permanent (the United Kingdom and France) and temporary, were subservient allies. Then, as later regarding sanctions against North Korea, the voice of justice was not raised but stifled by realpolitik. In the early 1950s, the people of North Korea were attacked with bombs; today sanctions and other forms of non-kinetic war are the instrument. While not as lethal as high explosive and napalm sanctions, economic sanctions still inflict great suffering, as manifested in malnutrition statistics, for example.19 The United Nations, which at its inception promised to save “succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” soon became complicit in visiting that scourge on Koreans.
When there are wars between established nation-states, and even in the case of imperialist wars, the aggressor can usually be readily identified, but civil wars tend to erupt because both sides claim suzerainty over the whole territory. To a large extent, this was what happened in Korea in June 1950, though U.S. historian Bruce Cumings, in his preface to I. F. Stone’s iconoclastic Hidden History of the Korean War, agrees that a U.S.-orchestrated provocation is a possibility and notes that the State Department had made preparations to involve the United Nations if (or when) fighting broke out. However, even as a civil war, Korea has to be situated within a wider geopolitical framework that includes the post-1945 anticolonial movement, particularly strong in Asia, as well as the concomitant establishment of “the American Century,” the expansion of the U.S. imperium and its containment of the Soviet Union, and subsequently China. This geopolitical imperative is still the major driver of U.S. Korea policy and is the basic reason why it is unlikely that Joe Biden will accept a peace deal for the Korean peninsula, and why Donald Trump did not either, despite his narcissistic pirouettes.20
Within this broader context, the specific U.S.-North Korea confrontation has yielded one of those ironic outcomes that history often dishes out, and one that brings us back to bombing.
The lingering hybrid war that the United States has conducted against North Korea over decades has brought about a major transformation in the power relationship between imperialism and its victims. In 1945, the atomic bomb was the prerogative of the mightiest—only the United States could harness the scientific, technological, and economic resources. However, the U.S. nuclear monopoly was soon lost, initially to the Soviet Union, then to China, and then to others. The concomitant development of intercontinental ballistic missiles meant that the United States was no longer either invincible or unattackable. Neither Germany nor Japan had been able to transcend the wide oceans and strike the continental United States, but intercontinental ballistic missiles changed that. Worse was to come with North Korea’s development of nuclear capability.
Here was a small country that, while unable to instigate war against the United States—a preposterous myth given the huge disparity in military power—was able to threaten retaliation if attacked again. To start a war against the United States would invite inevitable destruction, but to deter through a credible promise of retaliation is something quite different.21 Kenneth Walz has argued that a nuclear-armed Iran would produce stability, but so far, despite Trump’s abrogation of the nuclear deal, Iran has not pursued that option.22 However, the North Korean example is a potent one.
The importance the United States places on nonproliferation is not, despite the rhetoric, out of concern for humanity, but rather from a well-founded fear that nuclear weapons may become the great equalizer. If Giulio Gavotti knew that the enemy would be able to retaliate by dropping a bomb on his hometown, he may well have desisted. Where would imperialism be if the ‘‘uncivilized tribes’’—on whom it has, with little compunction, been dropping bombs for over a century—could return the favor? That potential equalization puts Korea at the center of the murderous history of bombing.
Gavan McCormack, “Sunshine, Containment, War: Korean Options,” Asia-Pacific Journal 1, no. 2 (2003).
“S. Strategic Bombers in Provocative Show of Force,” Zoom in Korea, August 19, 2016.
Marjorie Cohn, “S. Nearly Used Nukes During Viet Nam War,” CounterPunch, June 11, 2014; “Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.047, Regular,” February 19, 1968, available from the History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive.
John Kifner, “John Service, a Purged ‘China Hand,’ Dies at 89,” New York Times, February 4, 1999.
Paul Craig Roberts, “The Case of General Michael Flynn: The Use of Law as a Political Weapon,” Global Research, May 20, 2020.
Giles Milton, “Winston Churchill’s Shocking Use of Chemical Weapons,” Guardian, September 1, 2013.
Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing (New York: New Press, 2003), section 75.
Missy Ryan, “After Bloody Insurgent Wars, Pentagon Launches Effort to Prevent Civilian Deaths,” Washington Post, February 4, 2019.
Gar Alperovitz, ““Obama’s Hiroshima Visit Is a Reminder that Atomic Bombs Weren’t What Won the War,” Huffington Post. December 6, 2017.
Gar Alperovitz, “Hiroshima: Historians Reassess,” Foreign Policy 99 (1995).
Mark Selden, “A Forgotten Holocaust: US Bombing Strategy, the Destruction of Japanese Cities & the American Way of War from World War II to Iraq,” Asia-Pacific Journal 5, no. 5 (2007).
Mark Selden, “American Fire Bombing and Atomic Bombing of Japan in History and Memory," Asia-Pacific Journal 14, 23, no. 4 (2016).
Micah Zenko, “Ted Cruz and the Myth of Carpet Bombing,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 29, 2016.
Stephen Zunes, “The US Invasion of Grenada,” Global Policy Forum, October 2003.
Korean Committee for Solidarity with the World People Societies for Friendship with the Asia-Pacific People, “67th Anniversary of Outbreak of Korean War,” e-mail, Pyongyang, North Korea, June 24, 2017, available at timbeal.net.nz.
Blaine Harden, “The U.S. War Crime North Korea Won’t Forget,” Washington Post, March 24, 2015.
John Dower, “Terror Is in the Eye of the Beholder,” TomDispatch, May 4, 2017; Thomas E. Ricks, “‘Mission with LeMay’: Perhaps the Worst Military Memoir I’ve Ever Encountered,” Foreign Policy, March 28, 2013.
Charles K. Armstrong, “The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950–1960,” Asia-Pacific Journal 7, no. 0 (2009).
Edith M. Lederer, “UN Investigator: 11 Million North Koreans Are Undernourished,” Associated Press News, October 22, 2019.
Tim Beal, “The Angler and the Octopus: Kim Jong-un’s Ongoing Peace Offensive,” Monthly Review 71, no. 6 (November 2019).
Tim Beal, “Hegemony and Resistance, Compellence and Deterrence: Deconstructing the North Korean ‘Threat’ and Identifying America’s Strategic Alternatives,” Journal of Political Criticism 21 (2017).
Kenneth N. Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 4 (2012).
Tim Beal is a retired New Zealand academic who has written extensively on Asia with a special focus on the Korean peninsula. His most recent work is the entry on Korea for The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism (Springer Publishing, 2019).