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Answer by Jon Davis, military and cultural historian, veteran of U.S. military:
Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively ended a period of warfare that began with the advent of modern artillery and aerial bombing and ended with the downfall of one of the most aggressive empires in history. They weren’t, despite many people’s belief, unique in the scale of devastation because of the weapons used to bring them down. There are dozens of situations when we see entire cities wiped off the map both during, and even before, World War II. That practice didn’t start with the Americans, and the Japanese are just as guilty of it.
That said, I have often defined terrorism as any malicious actions against civilian populations with the intent of forcing them to make political choices in your favor. We could argue that the two cities had very strategic purposes: One was a major military city, and the other an important manufacturing center for the military effort. It’s obvious, though, that the intention was to instill enough fear in the civilian population that they would force the hand of the Japanese leadership.
We could see the same being said of the Allied bombing of Dresden or the Nazi bombing of London, the raids on Hamburg, or the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, known historically as the Rape of Nanking, if you want to assume the Japanese were the only victims of that war. As I said, the practice began even sooner, wherein German strategists tested new methods of destruction with Spanish allies during the Spanish Civil War. Those first of many downfalls of humanity is immortalized in works such as Guernica by Pablo Picasso. What World War II taught us was that this strategy really didn’t work very often. In most cases, it gave resolve to the civilian population, except when coupled with the presence of follow-on troops or the overwhelming force of a single weapon.
After the war, many new treaties stopped the practices that had become commonplace. Now, there really are no times where large numbers of people die in wars that people would say, “Well, that’s just the way it goes.” I’d like to think that leveling a whole city won’t ever happen again. It hasn’t in the last 70 years. The fact that we live in the age of laser and GP-guided precision bombing means that sort of destruction is simply not necessary. The Baghdad bombing in 2003 showed the power of precision bombing to completely level a regime, while leaving the civilian population intact. Independent studies have ranked the initial civilian casualties of that invasion at less than 7,000 for the whole country. While that number seems appalling in and of itself, it pales to the 10 million civilian losses suffered by Germany, or the 15 million lost to the Russians. The Baghdad bombing brought about a new age of warfare that, when followed through to completion, is in truth the most peaceful era the world has yet seen. In bitter honesty, the bombing was actually too effective compared with the old method because it left the country devoid of any leadership necessary to go on, while not reducing the civilian population to compensate. I know that sounds terrible, but having fewer mouths to feed has been a realistic aspect that helped get suffering regimes through the horrible times. With Iraq, you had a full population with no one to govern it.
Regardless of the success or failure of the Iraq war, we live in a time that won’t accept large-scale bombing campaigns like we saw in World War II. There are obvious connotations of terrorism. That said, our understanding of war today is what makes us define terrorism the way we do. Nations don’t fight as they did a century ago, when it was, I’ll call it, “acceptable” to see massive numbers of civilian losses, so long as they weren’t your own. Technology and a more complex diplomatic environment has changed the way we fight and forced us to abandon old strategies like citywide bombing. Groups that lack the resources of large nations to fight for whatever they believe in, good or bad, use tactics that we would consider terrorism. That is what modern terrorism means. For that reason, it doesn’t really work to compare 1940s nations at war with the terrorists of today.
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