The legacy of March 10

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I spent most of the morning on a re-write of the current section of Cibola, which concerns a heavily mythologized but still probably historical act of genocide against a near neighbor. It turns out to be an appropriate date for such reflections. From the Japan Focus newsletter:

Sixty years ago today, on March 10 1945, the US abandoned the last rules of warfare against civilians when 334 B-29’s dropped close to half a million incendiary bombs on sleeping Tokyo.

The aim was to cause maximum carnage in an overcrowded city of flimsy wooden buildings; an estimated 100,000 people were ‘scorched, boiled and baked to death,’ in the words of the attack’s architect, General Curtis LeMay. It was then the single largest mass killing of World War II, dwarfing even the destruction of the German city of Dresden on Feb. 13, 1945.

B-29 pilot Chester Marshall flew above the destruction, but not far enough: “At 5,000 feet you could smell the flesh burning,” he later told Australian broadcaster ABC. “I couldn’t eat anything for two or three days. You know it was nauseating, really. We just said ‘What is that I smell?’ And it’s a kind of a sweet smell, and somebody said, ‘Well that’s flesh burning, had to be.'”

Even the city’s rivers were no escape from the firestorm: the jellied petroleum that filled the bombs, a prototype of the napalm that laid waste to much of Vietnam two decades later, stuck to everything and turned water into fire. “Canals boiled, metal melted, and buildings and human beings burst spontaneously into flames,” wrote John Dower in War Without Mercy. People who dived into rivers and canals for relief were boiled to death in the intense heat….

Robert McNamara, a former statistician who helped plan the Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki raids, went on to become US Defense Secretary (1960-68) during the war against Vietnam, where he authorized carpet bombing of vast swathes of the country with incendiaries and Agent Orange. In last year’s documentary The Fog of War, McNamara ponders the morality of victor’s justice, saying: “Was there a rule then to say that you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death one hundred thousand civilians in a single night?”

The legacy of the March 10 raid though is what it bequeathed to the rest of the century: the trumping of political and moral arguments against mass civilian slaughter by military technicians and rationalists. As historian Mark Selden wrote: “Elimination of the distinction between combatant and non-combatant would shape all subsequent wars from Korea to Vietnam to the Gulf War and the ethnic conflicts of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, to mention but a few.” It’s a legacy we still live with.

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