Keynote Lecture: Bombing Savages: In Law, in Fact, in Fiction

Sven Lindqvist

This presentation was a part of Opening Lecture, From 6:30 pm until 8:00 pm on Thursday 10th November, 2011, Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building, LSE


As early as 1885, in his classic Military Manners and Customs, James Anson Farrer warned that the lawlessness of Europe’s colonial wars would seep back into Europe.

As a result of colonial wars, wrote Farrer, Europeans have become accustomed to see all warfare as a kind of punitive expedition against rebels and criminals. “They have learned to burn cities and villages.”

Arthur “Bomber” Harris was a great believer in shock and awe and he loved bombing. In Iraq he often acted as a bomber himself and he was good at it. He invented a method of showering the straw roofs of Iraqi villages with small incendiary bombs. In Europe, he used the same method to burn down Hamburg and Dresden.

His closest colleague was an old pal from the bombing of Iraq. His closest superior was an old pal from the bombing of Aden. Those who had fought the lawless wars in foreign parts were now called back to Europe to defend freedom and democracy against Hitler. They brought their methods and their morals with them.

The killing of some 50,000 Dresdeners in a single night was of course a major war crime. Even worse, it established a precedent that made subsequent mass killings look justified.

After Dresden, the Americans abandoned their unsuccessful attempts to precision bomb Japan. Dresden was repeated in Tokyo, in Yokohama, in Osaka, in Kobe. Every major Japanese town was burnt to the ground with enormous civilian losses, until finally the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima seemed the natural next step.

And once Hiroshima had been nuked, US military planners could proceed to “Dropshot”, the battle plan of 1949, where the inhabitants of 100 Soviet cities were exterminated by 300 atom bombs, releasing the destructive power of 800 Hiroshimas.

The Red Cross tried to re-establish laws protecting civilians from bombardment. But the Allies could hardly agree to such rules without incriminating themselves for what they had just done and planned to continue doing. The Americans insisted that civilians should not be protected from nuclear weapons. The British insisted on freedom: “the freedom to carry out operations, particularly bombing”.   Britain also worked hard to outlaw the term “war crime”, and any other wording which could be taken to imply that breakers of the Geneva Convention were criminals and could be prosecuted.

Only when the great European empires were finally dismantled and when the American wars to stop the spread of Communism were finally over in the 1970s could the protection of civilians once again become part of international law.

But the hydrogen bomb, once designed to deter Soviet expansion, is still with us, long after the Soviet Union has been dissolved and its expansion but a memory.

Enormous stocks of nuclear weapons potent enough to kill every child on earth are still with us, more dangerous than the forgotten dangers from which they were once supposed to protect us.