Aerial Bombing of Civilian Targets

In a war, is the intentional aerial bombing of civilian, non-military, targets considered a war crime?

I saw a program on TV recently about a WWII project in the US to build in the desert architecturally accurate German apartment buildings, used to test fire-bombing techniques. After several tests, refinements, rebuilds, and re-tests, the improved bombs and practices were employed on Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Dresden. This was ostensibly to depress Germans’ morale and hasten an end to the war.

I had long been aware of the Dresden story, thanks to Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse 5) but had no idea such preparatory measures were taken to maximize the killing effect on civilians.

Perhaps it is no different than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I know ‘the winners get to write history’, but this still left me wondering – if the other guys did it would it be considered a war crime? I’m thinking Germany bombing London, more recently Syria bombing hospitals, etc.

And I apologize for my shoddy knowledge of history…feel free to (politely!) set me aright.

Yes, the intentional targeting of civilians is against the law of armed conflict.

The Hague Convention of 1907 specifically outlawed the bombardment of “undefended” towns and villages. Subsequent treaties have further clarified this prohibition.

But if this situation is put in context of international humanitarian law that has been adopted by custom over the centuries, it is clear that use of force must comply at all times with two concepts: proportionality and distinction. Proportionality means that excessive force may not be used to achieve a military goal: you cannot carpet bomb a whole city in order to destroy an enemy squad of five soldiers. Distinction means that due care is taken to direct attacks against military forces to the extent that is possible. Eliminating the element of distinction between combatants and noncombatants is the most fundamental violation of the law of armed conflict that exists.

In terms of the context of WWII you also have to remember the concept of ‘total war’, which was (eventually) openly adopted & practiced by both Germany and Japan. It meant that every citizen was expected to contribute to the war effort in any and every way possible. Every citizen, not just soldier. Whereas before if you protested the war effort it could get you in trouble, now if you didn’t support it enough you could be accused of treason and imprisoned or executed.

Obviously the above gives credence to the idea that citizen ‘accomplices’ were just following orders and had little choice but to contribute. Well, war is hell, and the ‘fog’ of war is unpredictable, but once an enemy population appears totally committed to a war effort it gives the opposing forces certain justification for attacking civilian targets. Hence Sherman’s march to the sea…

Also, it was (and still is) terribly easy to find a fig-leaf justification for an attack. Is there an enemy tank, or artillery piece, or command post in the vicinity? Those are legitimate targets. Is there a major railroad junction, known to be used to transport troops or weapons? Bomb it to bits. If there is civilian housing nearby, well…

It’s pretty well established that both sides pushed that excuse farther than could possibly be reasonable. But, hyper-legalistically, a legitimate military target can be bombed, even if there are civilians in the vicinity.

Consider also the case in much modern “asymmetric warfare” (a.k.a. “guerrilla warfare”) in which the combatants on one (or more) side(s) don’t wear uniforms; pursue their war in urban areas; and blend in with the local population. They hide in residential apartments, and set up their bases next door to hospitals. (My father, who visited Lebanon during the one of their wars with Israel – 1967, I think it was – claimed to have seen this himself.) Then what?

Also consider that in modern industrial warfare, the factories that make tanks and guns, that make engines for transports, make rail cars, make ball bearings or plants that produce electricity to power all this, the roads and infrastructure - every part of society is in some way tied into the war effort. It becomes harder and harder to find parts of society that are not valid targets.

The real reason for the bombing campaign in WWII was twofold - first, bombing was not that accurate, so what it lacked in accuracy it compensated for with volume; second, both sides hoped to terrorize the civilian population into pressuring a surrender, with random terror and widespread death - which was probably directly against what Geneva said,

Agreed. But what struck me was that creating sample civilian dwellings and perfecting bombing techniques on them shows civilian residences were the primary target. and not collateral damage of valid military targets.

If “we” do it, it is somehow justified, if “they” do it, it is terrorism.


In modern warfare, it is the civilians that pay the highest price. As a rule.
(In older times, this was the exception)

Of course it is morally wrong, but humanity doesn’t seem to mind that much.

No German commanders were ever prosecuted for aerial attacks on cities. This is normally interpreted as a tacit admission that the Allies’ hands were not exactly clean on this point, either.

The law of war doesn’t distinguish between sides. There is no way to articulate or codify the notion that the “bad guys” deserve their suffering whereas the other side does not. Yet at the same time, look at it from their perspective: This was a global war that had lasted for years and killed millions upon millions of people. Nazi Germany was one of, if not the, cruelest and most evil regimes imaginable. Imperial Japan never industrialized murder the way Nazi Germany did, but they routinely committed atrocities as a matter of policy. If you told me that nuking a few cities could decisively end the conflict, I would have a hard time saying “No.”

And this problem isn’t going away any time soon. Insurgent warfare hinges on exploiting the law of war to their benefit. Modern insurgencies systematically break down the difference between combatant and civilian specifically so that they can provoke attacks on civilians and claim propaganda victories.

This is entirely incorrect, you’re operating under the mistaken assumption that civilians and their housing weren’t the actual target of the bombing and were simply collateral damage. The civilian population themselves and their housing were the primary targets, not incidental damage to some other fig-leaf hyper-legalistic legitimate military target. See for example dehousing and the US firebombing campaign against Japan, the targets were the urban areas of the city itself.

They were the primary target, not collateral damage. Yes they were not legitimate military targets, but everyone did it anyway. Along with a German village, the USAAF also set up a “Japanese village” at Dugway Proving Grounds to test the effects of incendiaries on Japanese civilian housing, which was largely wood and paper. One of the stranger ideas tested was Bat bombs, using 0.6 and one ounce napalm incendiary devices attached to Mexican Free-tailed Bats which would be released by bombs and disperse themselves over a 25-40 mile area in the roofs of houses and such before the timer set them off.

The argument was that the civilians were the ones working in the weapons plants and so on, and that thus by attacking civilians we were decreasing the enemy’s capability to make weapons. There was still a fig-leaf justification, but the justification used was one consistent with deliberately targeting the civilians themselves.

For most definitions of modern and older times this is not true.

I believe it was Curtis LaMay who said, I we loose the war I would be brought up on war crimes.

Well, it also depends on how you define “civilian”. If you round up every able-bodied farmer in your fiefdom and give them each a pike, they’re soldiers now… but they’re the same people who would be the civilians if you had any.

Dresden was certainly defended, however.

It isn’t a fig leaf justification at all. An attack on a weapons factory meet the legal threshold of being a matter of military necessity, but the rules of discrimination and proportionality still apply.

So here’s a scenario: civilians are present at a weapons factory. A commander has a totally legitimate need to destroy the factory. However, he must still apply proportionality and discrimination to his attack, which could change the means by which a legal attack could be made on the facility. Commander A opts to drop a precision guided munition on the factory, destroying it, but in the process, any civilians inside would be killed. This would seem to be a perfectly valid military attack.

But let’s say that Commander B attacks a different factory. A precision guided munition strikes the factory, destroying it, and workers inside are killed. Survivors begin to flee the building, and artillery strikes are called in specifically to kill the injured, fleeing workers. This would very likely be judged a violation of the laws of armed conflict.

The laws of armed conflict anticipate that people may spontaneously take up arms to repel an invasion. Those taking up arms, even if they are not in uniform, are considered combatants and are even entitled to enhanced protections if they are captured on the battlefield.

That’s true for Japan, but NOT true in Germany. Almost every American mission that took off had a clear strategic target in mind- most were things like factories, warehouses, airfields, railyards, etc… and quite a few were dead-center in the middle of built-up areas, like the marshaling yards in Dresden, for example.

But there was a real element of collateral damage and horrid accuracy. Where today, we drop a laser or GPS guided bomb, and put 1000 lbs of explosive within 30 feet or so of we want, back then they flew 300 bombers carrying 4500 lbs of bombs each and bombed in formation- trying to literally flatten the entire factory and everything around it, because that was about as close as they could get with the technology of the time.

The British, on the other hand, weren’t as concerned with bombing particular targets smaller than a city.

Here’s a good article about the firebombs and test houses and such…

I’m not talking about the civilians who happen to be inside the factory when it’s bombed. I’m talking about the ones asleep in their beds when their homes were targeted.

Alas, so are the rest of us. If you live in an apartment – even if you’re in a hospital – and it’s close nearby a weapons warehouse, the enemy has the legal right of war to bomb that warehouse.

I believe there is some mushy language about how everyone is required to “try to minimize” civilian casualties, something both sides in WWII ignored. Language like that is usually non-enforceable anyway. What does it mean to “try?”

ETA: just re-read, and you did say “when their homes were targeted.” Specifically targeting homes would be against the laws and rules of war. But targeting that munitions dump right next door…fair game.