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    Tokyo fire-bombing anniversary

    My energy has been diverted elsewhere, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention, before the date expired around the globe, that yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the fire-bombing of Tokyo that killed 100,000 people during World War II. Atsushi and I watched the hour-long NHK special over the weekend. Information about the sequence of events is, to my knowledge, covered well here. I believe war is essentially a fact of human nature, and I’m thankful daily that I’ve spent my entire life in powerful, dynamic societies with bad-ass armed forces staffed by volunteers. I also, naturally, am glad we did what we needed to do to win World War II.

    But winning a war against a ruthless opponent requires ruthless tactics:

    The Superforts returned in force at the end of the month, flying at altitudes that insured immunity from attacks by Japanese defenders. Although their high altitude provided a shield for the bombers, it also decreased the accuracy and impact of their bomb runs. To correct this deficiency, Major-General Curtis Lemay (newly appointed commander of the American Bomber Command) ordered a dramatic change in tactics. The bomber runs would be made at night, at low altitude and deliver a mixture of high explosive and incendiary bombs. The objective was to turn the closely-packed, wooden homes and buildings prevalent in the Japanese cities into raging infernos and ultimately into the most destructive of all weapons – the firestorm.

    The Allies had first encountered the phenomenon of the firestorm when the British bombed the German city of Hamburg in August of 1943. The night raid ignited numerous fires that soon united into one uncontrollable mass of flame, so hot it generated its own self-sustaining, gale-force winds and literally sucked the oxygen out of the air, suffocating its victims. Lemay hoped to use this force to level the cities of Japan. Tokyo would be the first test.

    A successful incendiary raid required ideal weather that included dry air and significant wind. Weather reports predicted these conditions over Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945. A force of 334 B-29s was unleashed – each plane stripped of ammunition for its machine guns to allow it to carry more fire-bombs. The lead attackers arrived over the city just after dark and were followed by a procession of death that lasted until dawn. The fires started by the initial raiders could be seen from 150 miles away. The results were devastating: almost 17 square miles of the city were reduced to ashes. Estimates of the number killed range between 80,000 and 200,000, a higher death toll than that produced by the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki six months later.

    Those who’ve studied the reconstruction of Japan after the war will recognize Lemay as a key figure–it’s worth noting that, while he was willing to go to extreme lengths to fight the Japanese, he was also there to get their country going again–by structuring the SDF!–after they surrendered. That doesn’t necessarily make him a nice person, but, unfortunately, you don’t win wars by being nice.

    Journalist David McNeill ran a piece yesterday asking why the Japanese don’t pay much attention to the anniversary of the Tokyo firebombing. In it, he raises and then glides over that issue. He finishes with a quotation from one of the survivors:

    30 Responses to “Tokyo fire-bombing anniversary”

    1. John says:

      The industrial sites weren’t next to the residential areas, they were in industrial areas. Munitions-making equipment had even been transferred to schools. This was partially due to the fragmented nature of Japanese industry at the time (most thimgs were made in worshops below the owner’s apartments), and partially due to a deliberate Tokyo policy.
      Looking at pictures of houswives and schoolchildren training with bamboo spears, and old farmers teaching civilians how to clean and cook rabbits and gather herbs from the mountainside, I am certain that this was a lifesaver in the end. And given Japanese behavior on Saipan and Okinawa, I hestate to call the raid barbaric. Necessary evil perhaps, but necessary nonetheless. Curt LeMay is a much maligned figure because of Slim Pickens.

    2. yago says:

      how many japanese civilians died in total at the end of the war? Just to have an image of how defenseless they may have felt themselves in the post-war.

    3. Sean Kinsell says:

      Everything I’ve ever seen has said (or mapped) that they were targeting the areas around plants next to the harbor, from which the decimated residential areas were just inland. Or am I misreading what you’re saying, John? If I made it sound as if they meant to avoid housing entirely and just missed, that’s not what I meant–I was just pointing out that the option of hitting nothing but factories full of evil munitions developers muttering, “一億玉砕!” (ichiokugyokusai: literally, “100 million, the shattering of a jewel!” with the “shattering of a jewel” part being a purple way to refer to the honorable death of a warrior in Japanese, and “100 million” referring to the number of people in Japan) wasn’t realistic. And, as you say, a further complication was that the citizenry had been mobilized.
      And, yeah, when that writer talked about the bombings of Dresden and Tokyo as if they’d injected barbarianism into the conflict, it kind of made me wonder just what the Rape of Nanjing qualified as.
      yago, the most extreme number I’ve heard for civilian deaths in Japan is 2,000,000. Most frequently, you hear around 1,000,000. I think that if you add up the official death tolls, they come to 750,000-ish, but most of them were calculated early and are probably too low. Even the exhaustively studied A-bombings have different figures attached to them depending on whom you read. Hiroshima was more deadly than Nagasaki, but otherwise, accounts don’t agree. Hiroshima is usually given as between 100,000 and 150,000; Nagasaki as between 50,000 and 80,000. Then you have to factor in conventional bombings in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, and Osaka (did I miss anywhere)? And you should probably also count those who may have died from wartime deprivations, but that’s probably not really possible.
      [Note: I’ve edited this because, in cutting and pasting, I put the wrong number into the wrong sentence.]

    4. John says:

      Yago, Japan got off light with 350,000 civilian deaths. The USSR lost 19 million civilians, Poland 2.5 million, Germany 2 million, and Yugoslavia 1.3 million. For Pete’s sake Greece and Rumania lost more than Japan at about 400,000 civilians apiece.
      My father-in-law left a wife and two kids in China, never to see them again, because of the Japanese and the Communists, so that side of the family has little use for Japanese woe-is-me cries about how unfair WWII was. China lost 9 million civilians in the war, not to mention the chaos left by the retreat of the Japanese and the ensuing civil war.

    5. Sean Kinsell says:

      350,000? I don’t think I’ve seen anyone give that low an estimate, though given all the qualifications and disclaimers that accompany the stats, it’s pretty obvious that the true number isn’t really known. The 2,000,000 figure has always seemed to require special pleading (and sometimes it’s labeled non-combatant deaths and then turns out to include soldiers). 350,000 is close, though, to what you get when you add the figures for Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki together and leave room for the cities that had fewer deaths from bombings.

    6. Sean Kinsell says:

      (BTW, John, are you going by combined official death tolls?)

    7. John says:

      No, from LeMay’s notes, they knew that the plants were dispersed in homes, the were targeting homes, but homes in the highest concetration of mini-factories around the Sumida.
      The 2million figure I’ve seen is total csualties: 1.75 million military, 350,000 civilian. I’ll double check.

    8. John says:

      I just checked around. Adding up the major raids (not accounting for error bars) gives a figure of around 550,000. Still a far cry from 2 million. And I don’t know how many military personnel were killed in the raids.
      We just couldn’t reach Japan on a regular basis until the end of the war, unlike Germany.

    9. Sean Kinsell says:

      Oh, right. Yeah, “targeting women and children” has a slightly different cast when the weapons are parked around them.
      And you’re right that most places you look, 2 million is given as the figure for total deaths. That I’m certain of because it’s an easy number to remember. Non-combatants I really do think I’ve seen mostly pegged at 3/4 million, but your point stands that that’s nowhere near the number a lot of other countries lost.

    10. Sean Kinsell says:

      That last was a reponse to John’s 10:17 comment, BTW; I didn’t see his 10:25 comment until I posted.

    11. John says:

      I wonder how many civilian casualties were Korean slave labor? Just occurred to me because one of the IJA military casulaties in that list is a Taiwanese great uncle-in-law.

    12. Joel says:

      There were lots of Koreans working in Hiroshima and Osaka. And in the coal mines of Kokura, which IIRC was the original target for the Nagasaki bomb. There were also Allied POWs working those coal mines.
      I’ve posted a bit more context on the fire-bombing, too.

    13. Dean's World says:

      Japanese History

      Our friend Sean has an interesting piece on the 60th anniversary of the great fire-bombing of Tokyo.

      To this day it still confounds me that most Americans se…

    14. Dean's World says:

      Japanese History

      Our friend Sean has an interesting piece on the 60th anniversary of the great fire-bombing of Tokyo.

      To this day it still confounds me that most Americans se…

    15. Dean's World says:

      Japanese History

      Our friend Sean has an interesting piece on the 60th anniversary of the great fire-bombing of Tokyo.

      To this day it still confounds me that most Americans se…

    16. Dean Esmay says:

      I think Mrs. Suzuki is right but then I don’t know anyone who thinks Iraq was like a video game. At all. I would also have to point out that compared to what the fighting was like in WWII, Iraq is no comparison–the scale of the slaughter and mayhem is orders of magnitude less. Indeed, despite the tiny number of casualties we take by comparison (1,000 or so killed in action in two years?) we would be taking even less in Iraq if we weren’t so concerned with preserving life and not committing unnecessary destruction.

    17. Sean Kinsell says:

      14 comments on this thread, and about half of them are my saying, “Uh, did I type ‘2,000,000’? I meant ‘750,000.’” I should know by now to stop half-watching television and double-check my numbers when John’s on-line. :)
      billy-jay, in the excitement of screwing up statistics, I forgot your comment was there, but it’s a good one, of course. There’s no reason that memorial services need to be “balanced” by tit-for-tat mentions of Japanese atrocities. I did find the NHK special as unsettling as it was moving, though, because it didn’t address the urgency of the war effort at that point at all. It was just the human-interest angle, which naturally focused on heartbreaking stories of survival and loss and a testimonial from…who’s that pilot who’s always quoted about the smell of burning flesh? He has a common name, you see him cited to indicate how low the planes were flying–actually, maybe there’s more than one, but I feel as if it’s the same name most of the time.
      Anyway, yes, when something like the current debate over Article 9 comes up, you realize that a lot of people have “moved on” by shoving difficult questions aside rather than confronting them and finding painful but satisfactory answers. Perhaps they’ll be forced to do so organically in the process of dealing with the WOT and China.
      Joel, thanks for mentioning your post. I’ve linked it.
      Dean, one connection I noticed people weren’t making, weirdly, related to natural resources. That’s the usual justification given for Japan’s “advance” into Asia and declaration of war on the US. Of course, then you’d have to compare “All about the oil!” America with WWII Japan, and that would kind of undercut the image of the Japanese as dignified, self-sacrificing nuke victims.

    18. Catch 22 says:

      During my military years in Tokyo prefecture from 1968 thru 1971, my dear friend Ando-san told me he spent three days searching the burnt fields of Tokyo looking for his wife from whom he had been separated. Fortunately they found each other alive and they then vowed that neither would train to Tokyo without calling one another at every train stop or journey pause. He’d done that for some 25 plus years. When asked about the bombing of Tokyo he said that in spite of the horrific destruction, it really was a wonderful visual sight to see the fireworks from the sky. He was being very serious.
      He told me after the war he never was afraid of americans and at an appropriate opportunity he presented himself at a US militaty facility near Tachikawa for employment. Ando was a wonderful and humble man. I miss the guy.

    19. Toren says:

      Kobe was also firebombed the night after Osaka was hit. The heartbreaking book “Hotaru no Haka” (I defy you to read the first page without getting tears in your eyes) was based on those events. The anime film is excellent for those who can’t read Japanese (I don’t think the book has ever been translated).
      If you watch the anime, be prepared for strong emotions. After my first viewing, I was unable to leave the theater until I had composed myself, which took a good 15 minutes.
      As for the war itself, I’ve often been amazed by the number of folks who consider the atomic bombings the worst we visted on the Japanese. Either they are unaware of the firebombings or they especially object to the atomic bombs because they were insufficiently labor-intensive or something.

    20. Sean Kinsell says:

      Insufficiently labor-intensive, and somehow dishonorable because we didn’t present 200,000 of our own citizens to the Japanese to give them the old college try at killing them to keep things proportional. Trying to fly a bomber out of the range of anti-aircraft guns is supposedly dishonorable, too.

    21. Simon World says:

      Daily Linklets 15th March

      This is a daily collection of links, some with commentary, to news stories and interesting blog posts. It will be updated throughout the day with a new timestamp for the updates. Scroll down for today’s other posts. The New Blog Carnival is up at Multi…

    22. JimAC says:

      Three brief comments. My viewpoint will be obvious, yet I admit that I can’t guess how I would have felt during WW II, and don’t regard any of this as having simple answers.
      First, are the atrocities committed by Japan relevant in weighing our own conduct? Are morality and ethics situational; does one’s moral code shift in response to context? For example, do the actions of the Japanese government and military in Nanking provide moral license for the Allies to incinerate civilians in Tokyo?
      Second, is preventing military deaths an acceptable reason for inflicting civilian ones? Or does this run counter to the general concept of treating combatants and non-combatants by different rules? As a possible analogy, imagine a prison revolt, with guards taken hostage, and their lives, and those of SWAT team members, at risk if the stand-off is to be broken by assault. To prevent those casualties, may we bring the prisoners’ family members to the prison and kill them, in order to demoralize the revolt and bring about surrender?
      Third, if Japan had firebombed Chicago, or New York, or Detroit, would we today view that as an acceptable military action? I expect we would have learned about it in school as one of the great atrocities of the 20th century.

    23. JimAC says:

      One further comment. There seems to be a suggestion that an attack which killed large numbers of civilians was less objectionable than otherwise because those civilians had some complicity in, and hence accountability for, the actions of their government: “[I]t’s an exaggeration to say that every last Japanese citizen worshipped the emperor as a god, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that Japan was working as one big machine to maintain the war effort.” It’s not a far stretch to say that, by analogy, our re-election of President Bush in 2004 gives equivalent moral license to those who, in response to actions carried out by the Bush Administration, feel justified in committing indiscriminate acts of terror against America – which I reject, and I’m sure you do as well.

    24. Sean Kinsell says:

      “First, are the atrocities committed by Japan relevant in weighing our own conduct? Are morality and ethics situational; does one’s moral code shift in response to context?”
      There’s a distinction here: we reserve the moral right to go ballistic on our enemies if they don’t stop attacking us, but we don’t go ballistic before we have good reason. It’s not that morality and ethics are situational, it’s that actions are. That’s why you can’t make the blanket statement, “War is wrong.”
      Treating combatants and non-combatants by different rules is, similarly, great if everyone’s willing to play. By the time a war such as WWII has gone on for a half-dozen years, though, it’s basically driving society and the economy. If you’re at the end of a war that’s dragged on for a half-dozen years, deciding whether to take out a few hundred-thousand people in a single show of we-will-crush-you force or to let things escalate to ground combat that could kill more, the choice of being nice to the civilians basically doesn’t exist.
      Your prison analogy doesn’t work because the enemy can be contained and is only endangering people who signed on to mortal risk when they took their jobs. It’s not quite the same as an industrialized country of 100,000,000 people projecting force over half a continent and having to be beaten back and shown conclusively that it’s no use continuing to fight.
      As for your reelection comment…well, I do think it’s a stretch. Avoiding the killing of civilians until you have to do so to get to the people who are attacking you is different from targeting civilians as your primary strategy (and making a show of how much you enjoy it). And the fire-bombings were not indiscriminate. It was war-time, acknowledged by both sides as such, and they were targeted at large cities of strategic importance where all the citizens knew they were at war. It should not need to be explained how that’s different from 9/11, or Bali, or Madrid.

    25. JimAC says:

      I agree that actions are situational, in the sense that we had more business attacking Japan after Pearl Harbor than before. But, not in the sense that if my enemy becomes too much of a problem, I become justified in adding his wife and children to my targeting list.
      As to the choice of being nice to – not killing – civilians: two defining characteristics of a terrorist act are that it is the resort of those who feel they cannot win using conventional tactics, and it primarily targets those who are considered ‘outside the conflict’, victory being accomplished not through military defeat but by turning public opinion, and/or shattering morale. Once you consider an entire national population inside the conflict, you have talked yourself into genocide. There’s a difference between accepting civilian casualties as incidental to a military action, and considering killing civilians to be an acceptable military action.
      Note also that the Tokyo fire raid did not accomplish its demoralization goal, meaning the deaths of those hundred thousand civilians did nothing to reduce Allied casualties. Even if one believes that killing civilians to shorten war is justified, the only salvation from such an act is success. Without that, it

    26. JimAC says:

      Sorry, not trying to flame, I

    27. Sean Kinsell says:

      “Picture yourself as Saddam Hussein around October 2002. It

    28. JimAC says:

      While it’s enjoyable arguing with somebody informed and intelligent, somehow I don’t think either of us will persuade the other. Still . . .

      Dude, doesn’t what WE stand for mean anything to you? So what do we stand for? Our actions determine the gap between us and a Hussein, not our history or slogans. He could declare persons enemies of the state and deprive them of rights without due process, he used torture, his agents would visit houses in the night and take away family members without explanation, he . . . wait, which government was I talking about? No, I don’t consider us remotely near his despicable level, but there’s a thing called a slippery slope, and the pressure of fighting terrorism is pushing us down it. After all, in attacking Iraq we attacked a country that had not attacked us and was not a threat to us. Several thousand civilians died as a result. And our rhetoric that the Iraqi people are better off, while true in the long term, is a lie in terms of day-to-day life, given the terrible damage they’ve suffered to health care, utilities, sanitation, food supplies, personal safety, and so on. Have we admitted any error, or any negative effects from the invasion? No, we just switched our rationale, filtering our perception of what we did through our view of who we are. We know we’re good, so what we did must have been good, too. That’s the same lens I see the firebombing being viewed through (or the one it would be viewed through, if it was taught as part of our history. Funny, you’d think we were a little embarrassed by the whole thing.) That’s how good people become less than good, by clinging to self-image while ignoring conduct; talking the talk without walking the walk. That’s what I fear for us. When my children do something wrong, I want them to feel shame, because with shame comes moral growth, and stronger character, and motivation not to repeat bad behavior. I don’t hold my country to any lesser standard.

      What I see you doing – and I could be wrong – is justifying the use of tactics by our side, on the basis that we’re ‘good’, which you would find morally reprehensible if used by the other side. But such actions are morally reprehensible because of what they are, not because of who commits them. In a way, they are more reprehensible when used by the good side – that’s why a bad cop or pedophile priest is more disturbing to us than an ordinary criminal.

      “As for how women, children, and old men can feed the war machine, well, they can make clothing and store equipment and keep writing the troops to give them support.” Even without reading, I’m aware the domestic infrastructure supports any war effort, I just wasn’t aware that makes it all a military target. That’s my issue with drawing lines; your statement says that you would accept our primary schools as legitimate targets for the insurgency, because of the letters and care packages our children send to the troops. I can only understand taking that position if you feel war has no rules at all, or if you have no fear of being on the receiving end of that ethic.

      (orig. posted March 22, 2005 04:43 AM)

    29. Sean Kinsell says:

      Jim, I have no idea whether you’re still reading, but it took me forever to transfer your comment over from my old MT site–I couldn’t get it to stop posting it under my name. By the time it worked, I was ready to take my laptop and stomp on it a few times, so I was in no frame of mind to respond to what you wrote.

      I guess the main thing we disagree over is whether extraordinary circumstance demand extraordinary means to ensure survival. I would say that, yes, they do. I would also say that the end of a five-year war, with tens of thousands already dead (in the Pacific theater alone) and a population gearing up to try to repel a ground invasion, is a reasonable time to start sending people the message that we can kill them all if we have to. The only way you can really do that is to kill a limited but impressive number. And then, when the war is over and circumstances return to normal, you show that you’re honorable by reverting immediately to the behavior appropriate for normal circumstances. (See: the MacArthur Plan.)

      You don’t have to believe that everything we do is right–that’s not what I was taught in school, and Allentown, PA, is not exactly left-liberal headquarters–to believe that triage is sometimes necessary and that in a war, forcing a surrender may mean killing some people now to avoid killing more later. It would be wonderful if we could avoid ever, ever killing a woman or child in the process of defending ourselves, but there is nothing in history to indicate that that’s possible.

      I still don’t quite buy the comparison with Iraq, but I join you in wishing that the Bush administration were more willing to say, “Look, the operation was justified, and things are improving. At the same time, we’re learning from experience that we should have known better than to handle XYZ aspect as we did, and here’s how we’re fixing it.” Loony leftists would have a fit, but they’ll do that anyway. For those who guardedly supported the invasion, or who didn’t but believe that now that we’re there we need to see it through properly, I think it would be reassuring–especially now that Bush doesn’t have another election to face, with an opposing candidate always able to say, “Remember that press conference when he admitted he screwed up?”

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