This is a shocking book. It is a reminder – if one were needed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February – that 20th century warfare eroded the distinction between civilians and combatants. It is the story of the ascent of air power and of the deliberate use of aircraft and later of missiles to flatten cities in pursuit of unconditional victories. And it begs the question as to whether use of the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945 was militarily or politically necessary or ethically justifiable.

James Scott’s “Black Snow” tells a disturbing story with a cool pen and with quiet objectivity. He takes as the epigraph for his book words written in 1921 by the influential military strategist and advocate of air power, Giulio Douhet:

“There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians”

Battle by battle, new weapon by new weapon, Scott takes the reader on a journey from the Nazi bombing blitz over Coventry and London in 1940, via Allied bombing raids on Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in February 1945 to the ever more insistent US attacks later the same year on multiple cities and towns all over Japan culminating in the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945. Allied advocates of air power thought that command of the skies and targeted use of ever larger bombs and ever more destructive incendiary devices would overwhelm the enemy and deliver victory. But their belief that civilian populations would be quelled into submission and their governments with them, proved to be wide of the mark. To use the language of US commanders at the start of the second Iraq War in 2003, “shock and awe” were not enough then nor had they been during the Second World War. 

Scott shows in unrelenting detail that air force commanders – and General Curtis LeMay in particular – frustrated in their inability to subdue the enemy by “precision” bombing, turned up the dial and with an increasing lack of discrimination slid towards “area” bombing or, to use the crude but vivid shorthand, “city-bashing”. Key to Scott’s account is the advent of the Boeing B-29 strategic bomber about which LeMay commented:

“Never before in the history of warfare has so much been expected of a single weapon”

The senior US air commander bought the plane off-plan, committing vast sums of money for its development without being sure it would deliver what was promised in terms of pay-load and range. Though the prototype achieved lift-off in late 1942, a massive engineering task lay ahead. Modifications were still being made in the course of 1943 before the first 97 aircraft emerged onto the tarmac in January 1944. Only a matter of months thereafter production was running at four aircraft a day; but the pressure to produce a sufficiently large fleet of aircraft to bring Japan to heel was unending. 

As always the US armed services competed for resources and key roles; the air component was still subordinate to the army and its leaders were anxious to show that only air power could end the war with the least loss of US servicemen. With the conveyor-belt arrival of increasing numbers of B-29s at newly constructed runways in the Marianna Islands east of the Philippines, US commanders at last had aircraft large and powerful enough to reach the Japanese mainland and drop significant tonnage of bombs on selected targets across the country. 

Perhaps the most sympathetic portrait of a US General in “Black Snow” is of Haywood Hansell who had led the intelligence and assessment work that underpinned US plans for aerial attacks on Japan. Hansell and his teams focussed on industrial and military targets in and around Japanese cities and it was he who first took command in the Marianna Islands of Saipan and Tinian. He wasn’t given long to deliver results. In Washington, there was soon growing concern that Hansell and the B-29s weren’t having sufficient impact with their precision targeting objectives; bad weather was a constant problem and the Japanese demonstrated  – as the cities of Coventry and Hamburg had shown earlier – an ability to recover industrial capacity surprisingly quickly notwithstanding the loss of civilian lives. Hansell was relieved of his command and a more determined and ruthless man took his place, General Curtis LeMay.

LeMay immediately began to draw on information assembled by US planners which demonstrated the vulnerability of many Japanese cities, Tokyo most of all. After a devastating earthquake in 1923, wooden dwellings were built rapidly and tightly packed together. Air planners realised that even more than had been the case in Hamburg, incendiary devices dropped from the B-29s could readily ignite the wooden buildings and generate widespread fires, even firestorms. Unlike Hansell who had ruled out bombing targets with significant concentrations of civilians nearby, LeMay had no such compunction. As precision targeting of military and industrial sites failed to produce the desired results quickly enough, LeMay geared his bombers and adjusted his operational tactics to deliver unrestrained attacks on city after city across Japan.

Even so the Japanese did not cave in as rapidly as LeMay had hoped. One of the strengths of “Black Snow” is the alternating way Scott relates what was happening on the ground in Tokyo with what was happening in the Marianna Islands and in Washington. LeMay operated with a good deal of local autonomy as his bombers extended their range of targets, but Tokyo was the main one and the chapters describing the impact of the incendiary devices on the ordinary people, the non-combatants, living there are truly harrowing. Even so and only a matter of days before firebombing was unleashed on Tokyo, the US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, told the press:

“Our policy has never been to inflict terror bombing on civilian populations. Our efforts are still confined to the attack of enemy military objectives.”

That was not though what LeMay was intent on doing. An incredible 87.4% of the designated incendiary zone in Tokyo was known to be residential. Even whilst recognising the horrors Japan had visited on subject territories in the course of the war, the statistics from the series of bombings over Tokyo remain profoundly unsettling: 15.8 square miles incinerated, over 250,000 homes and businesses destroyed, around 100,000 people killed and 1 million left homeless. Commenting in a radio interview shortly afterwards LeMay said:

“If the Japs persist, I now promise that they have nothing more to look forward to than the complete destruction of their cities.”

 “City-bashing” with incendiary devices did not achieve the decisive outcomes its proponents – whether “Bomber” Harris in Hamburg or LeMay in Tokyo – claimed as their objectives. Even after Tokyo and other Japanese cities had been devastated, the Japanese still didn’t surrender, though there were signs that they were heading in that direction by mid-1945. What Scott demonstrates – but never quite says explicitly – is that Le May’s area bombing or “city-bashing” served to desensitise US commanders to the scale of destruction they were effecting and thereby helped open the road to use of the first atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

The Japanese had indeed been worn down by the unending bombing of their cities, the mounting losses of civilian lives and, in the case of the atomic bombings, emerging radiation effects. But ironically, as Scott argues, Tokyo’s decision to surrender was at least in part determined by the Soviet Union’s late declaration of war on Japan and the consequential loss of any prospect (always unrealistic though it was) that Moscow might have been instrumental in brokering a peace deal in which they would have hoped to avoid an unconditional surrender, as demanded by Washington. 

The reader of Scott’s book is left far from convinced that the indiscriminate use of incendiary bombs against so many Japanese cities was militarily justifiable, even before use of the atomic bomb. Hansell had thought that more discriminating use of air power against military targets and industrial infrastructure could have delivered victory, albeit on a slightly slower timeframe. What is certainly clear is that LeMay’s bombing campaign was deliberately designed to target civilians alongside military infrastructure. LeMay himself was not unaware of the ethical dimensions of “city-bashing” but he took comfort from an assumption that by such means the US and its allies would win the war. As he remarked to a close aide immediately before the B-29s first took off to firebomb the city of Tokyo:

“If we lose, we’ll be tried as war criminals.”

LeMay’s private reflection seems especially resonant today as Ukrainian cities and their civilian populations are continuing to be pounded by Russian military forces.

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