Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Bombing Civilians: A World War I Heritage

General Giulio Douhet (1869–1930)

A plain-speaking Italian general saw it all coming out of the ashes of the Great War—the Blitz, strategic bombing, mutual assured destruction: 

Never, at any time during [World War I], was a death-blow struck—a blow which leaves a deep gaping wound and the feeling of imminent death. Instead both sides struck innumerable blows and inflicted many wounds; but the wounds were light ones and always had time to heal. Such wounds, while leaving the body weaker and weaker, still left the patient with the hope of living and recovering strength enough to deal to an equally weakened enemy that last pinprick capable of drawing the last drop of blood. . .There is no doubt now that half of the destruction wrought by the war would have been enough if it had been accomplished in three months instead of four years. A quarter of it would have been sufficient if it had been wrought in eight days. 

Bombing Antwerp, 1914

We need only envision what would go on among the civilian population of congested cities once the enemy announced that we would bomb such centers relentlessly, making no distinction between military and non-military objectives...The very magnitude of possible aerial offensives cries for an answer to the question, ‘How can we defend ourselves against them?' To this I have always answered, ‘By attacking'...The fundamental concept governing aerial warfare is to be resigned to the damage the enemy may inflict upon us, while utilizing every means at our disposal to inflict even heavier damage upon him…Mercifully, the decision will be quick in this kind of war, since the decisive blows will be aimed at civilians, that element of the countries at war least able to sustain them. These future wars may yet prove to be more humane than wars in the past in spite of all, because they may in the long run shed less blood. But there is no doubt that nations who find themselves unprepared to sustain them will be lost.

Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, 1921 


  1. Perhaps Douhet was not so prophetic as one might think. Consider that the Prussians bombarded Paris in 1871 and Napoleon was no stranger to leveling cities. Yet their actions did not bring about capitulation. The good general just had little faith in the people he was asked to defend. Facsist in the making. Cheers

  2. Well, we finally figured out how to strike that "death blow" as described above, with the A-Bombs in WW2.

  3. He fell into what I call the "technology trap" by which strategic thinkers are seduced into believing we can shorten war and thereby reduce casualties by a better mousetrap. Still very prevalent in defense circles today. Remember Shock and Awe?