Condemnation of Israel for its conduct of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza continues unabated. The chief accusation, heard time and again, is that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have either been cavalier about civilian casualties or are intentionally inflicting them. Israel and its defenders, for their part, have been at pains to point out the great lengths the IDF has gone to avoid injuring civilians, while at the same time noting the innumerable ways in which Hamas has violated the laws of war.
The debate over these matters has been almost as intense as the fighting itself. All too often, historical and moral perspective have been lost in the rhetorical smoke. No nation can survive with hundreds of rockets raining on its cities day after day while its borders are simultaneously penetrated by armed fighters seeking to spirit out hostages via underground tunnels. Once again, Israel has found itself waging a war for its survival. In such a war, the question becomes: What is forbidden and what is permitted?
As is well known but bears restating, the campaign Israel has been conducting to suppress Hamas rocket fire and destroy its tunnel network employs precision guided munitions. The attacks from land, air, and sea are designed to destroy Hamas’s command and control facilities and those structures in or from which it has been manufacturing, storing, or firing its huge arsenal of rockets. Before the IDF attacks any buildings where civilians are known to be living or congregating, it issues numerous alerts by dropping leaflets, making telephone calls and sending text messages, and firing warning shots.
In a conflict in which its adversary employs innocent women and children as human shields and fires offensive weapons from or near hospitals, schools, and U.N. shelters, Israel’s effort to reduce civilian casualties has clearly not succeeded in every case. But the effort itself, if not unique in the annals of warfare, is certainly far from the norm. Notably, it stands in the starkest possible contrast to the way Great Britain and the United States conducted their own war for survival.
The Germans in World War II may have initiated the carpet bombing of civilian centers, but it did not take long for the Allies to respond in kind. Days after the German bombing of Rotterdam, Winston Churchill’s war cabinet settled on the initiation of “unrestricted air warfare,” openly casting aside concern for civilian life so long as military objectives would be realized. What followed over the next years, as is well known, was the destruction of more than half of Germany’s urban centers.
What is less well known, but has been meticulously chronicled by the historian Richard Overy in The Bombers and the Bombed, is exactly how methodical—even scientific—that bombing campaign became. To calibrate how best to wreak destruction, the British air ministry devised a measure of the ratio between bomb weight and expected deaths among German workers, i.e., civilians. The unit of measurement it selected was based upon the casualties inflicted by Germany in the November 14, 1940, bombing of the English city of Coventry. The scale went from “1 Coventry” upward, with an attack of “5 Coventries” expected to yield approximately 28,000 German deaths. In the spring of 1942, Churchill’s scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell, produced his famous calculation that 10,000 Royal Air Force bombers would be sufficient to “dehouse” one-third of Germany’s urban populace.
A new military-scientific subdiscipline emerged: “incendiarism.” It is “axiomatic,” explained the report of one British defense research divison, “that fire will always be the optimum agent for the complete destruction of buildings, factories, etc.” Overy recounts how experts from the National Fire Protection Association in the United States traveled to London to provide advice on how best to achieve “large-scale fire destruction.” As the war progressed, considerable effort was devoted to making certain that targeted cities would be consumed by firestorms of the kind that sucked the oxygen out of the air and killed by the tens of thousands.
A unit in the British air ministry systematically considered the relevant factors for fostering the “essential draught conditions”: the dimensions of beams in the average house in northwest Germany, the materials used in constructing rooftops, the design of staircases, the thickness of floors. The happy conclusion it reached: “a German house will burn well.” Observing Churchill read aloud a memorandum setting forth the possibility of “round-the-clock bombing” of Germany, an American general was later to recollect: He “rolled the words off his tongue like they were tasty morsels.”