A Necessary Evil?

The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940–1945
Jörg Friedrich
translated by Allison Brown
Columbia University Press, $34.95, 532 pp.

When the Greek captain Menelaus was tempted to spare the life of an incapacitated opponent on the killing field outside the walls of Troy, his brother Agamemnon rebuked him: “Once in our hands not one should squirm away / from death’s hard fall! No fugitive, not even / the manchild carried in a woman’s belly! / Let them all without distinction perish, / every last man of Ilion, / without a tear, without a trace!” And in the end, as Homer’s listeners knew, that is exactly what would happen. Throughout history, every war has been a total war for those unfortunate enough to be trapped at the epicenter of violence, where “all without distinction perish.”

In the modern era, new technologies have greatly amplified war’s destructiveness. The most lethal new weapon was the airplane because it transformed the spatial dimensions of war by extending the battlefield beyond the zone where opposing armies met. Because an enemy’s entire society was now at risk, the concept of total war had a new and more terrible meaning.

Airplanes were first used in combat by the Italians, who dropped explosives on Arab tribesmen in Libya in 1912. During the First World War, both sides bombed civilian targets, but their efforts did relatively little damage and were without strategic significance. During the 1920s and ’30s, as the quality of aircraft steadily improved, advocates of airpower argued that strategic bombing...

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About the Author

James J. Sheehan, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University, is the author of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, among other books.