The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy


“Shock and Awe”—1945

Filed under: Military Strategy — eidelberg @ 4:32 am Edit This

In the Prologue of Victor David Hanson, The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999), we read:

“…on March 9, 1945, a 400-mile trail of 334 B-29s left their Marianas bases, 3,500 newly trained airmen crammed in among the napalm. The gigantic planes each carried ten tons of the newly invented jellied gasoline incendiaries.… Planes flew over [Tokyo] in small groups of three, a minute apart…. Five-hundred-pound incendiary clusters fell every 50 feet. Within thirty minutes, a 28-mile-per-hour ground wind sent the flames roaring out of control. Temperatures approached 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit…. [Air Force head General Curtis] LeMay wished to destroy completely the material and psychological capital of the Japanese people, on the brutal, theory that once civilians had tasted what their soldiers had done to others, only then might their murderous armies crack…. People would not show up to work to fabricate artillery shells that killed Americans when there was no work to show up to. Solders who kill, rape, and torture do so less confidently when their own families are at risk at home….

“Over 80,000 Japanese died outright; 400,918 were injured; 267,171 buildings were destroyed. One million Japanese were homeless…. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the March 9 raid was the beginning, not the end, of LeMay’s incendiary campaign. He sensed that his moment—a truly deadly man in charge of a huge democratic force free of government constraint—had at last arrived, as the imperial Japanese command was stunned and helpless…. There was no public objection to LeMay’s burning down the industrial and residential center of the Japanese empire—too many stories about Japanese atrocities toward the subjugated peoples and prisoners of war had filtered back to the American people. To a democratic nation in arms, an enemy’s unwarranted aggression and murder is everything, the abject savagery of it own retaliatory response apparently nothing….

“LeMay had thousands of recruits, deadly new planes, and a blank check to do whatever his bombers could accomplish. Over 10,000 young Americans were now eager to work to exhaustion to inflict even more destruction. Quickly he upped the frequency of missions, sending his airmen out at the unheard-of rate of 120 hours per month—the Eighth Air Force based in England had usually flown a maximum of 30 hours per month—as they methodically burned down within ten days Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka before turning to smaller cities….

“In revenge for the unprovoked but feeble attack at Pearl Harbor on their country, American farmers, college students, welders, and mechanics of a year past were now prepared—and quite able—to ignite the entire island of Japan… Their gigantic bombers often flew faster than did the sleek Japanese fighters sent up to shoot them down. Japanese military leaders could scarcely grasp that in a matter of months colossal runways had appeared out of nowhere in the Pacific to launch horrendous novel bombers more deadly than any aircraft in history, commanded by a general as fanatical as themselves, and manned by teenagers and men in their early twenties more eager to kill even than Japan’s own feared veterans. So much for the myth that decadent pampered Westerners were ill equipped for the savagery of all-out war….

“For much of my life I have wondered where such a murderous force of a season came from. And how a democracy made a willing killer out of my father and other farm boys, putting them into the hands of an unhinged zealot like LeMay, who ostensibly was neither emblematic of a democratic citizenry nor representative of the values that we purportedly cherish. Or was he? … How in less than a year after being assembled can a motley group of young recruits fly the most lethal bombers in history to incinerate a feared imperial militaristic culture six thousand miles from their own home? And how can that most murderous air force in the world nearly disappear into the anonymity and amnesia of democracy six months after its victory?

“Those thoughts are the easy anxieties of the desk-bound class. I have come to realize that Curtis LeMay and my father are stock types, not aberrations, of the democratic society that produced them. Democracy, and its twin of market capitalism, alone can instantaneously create lethal armies out of civilians, equip them with horrific engines of war, imbue them with near-messianic zeal within a set time and place to exterminate what they understand as evil, have them follow to their defeats the most ruthless of men, and then melt anonymously back into the culture that produced them. It is democracies, which in the right circumstances, can be imbued with the soul of battle, and thus turn the horror of killing to a higher purpose of saving lives and freeing the enslaved….

“[M]y father spoke highly of [LeMay]…. The bastard shortened the war against evil, my father told me. You were all lucky, he went on, once to have had angry men like LeMay and us in the air. We flew into the fire, he said, because we believed that we were saving more lives than we took…

“Democracies, I think—if the cause, if the commanding general, if the conditions of time and space take on their proper meaning—for a season can produce the most murderous armies from the most unlikely men, and do so in the pursuit of something spiritual rather than the mere material.”