War and the Bombardment of Cities

...Warfare today tends to be a paroxysm of ferocity directed and accentuated by technology. There can be no question of making war human; rather is it a question of not permitting war to become infinitely bestial.... The conditions under which modern warfare is waged have destroyed the whole edifice of positive international law with regard to war. There remains only the natural law and those unwritten laws to which Antigone appealed.

The very first unwritten law, the first moral precept recognized in this matter of conscience, is that the man who wages war should not destroy more of the physical heritage of human lives in the nation he is fighting than is necessary to obtain victory. Total warfare-which is justified on the ground of the prompt conclusion it achieves by means of destruction for destruction’s sake, killing for the sake of killing...-is thus the worst form of barbarism and bestiality. It is a bestiality of man, which is far worse than the bestiality of an animal; it is a barbarism of civilized men, which is far worse than the barbarism of savages.

We are told that there are no more open cities, that the distinction between open and fortified cities no longer makes sense. I reply that there is always a distinction between combatants and non-combatants. We are told that the life of a combatant is worth no less than the life of a woman or a child. I reply that all life is precious and that that is why we must hate war. But if a war is being fought, then let men fight it as men and not as wild animals; let them, as I have just said, destroy only as much of the nation’s population as is necessary to achieve victory, sparing as much as possible the non-combatant population. Dropping bombs upon a city, of whatever sort it may be, when one cannot clearly aim at the military objective which one set out to bombard and when the stronger possibility is that one will massacre non-combatants; bombarding civil populations in order to try to terrorize them; machine-gunning columns of refugees from an airplane and killing women and children-such actions, or any other like them used as means of warfare (stupid means because they intensify resistance and invite reprisals)-such actions are crimes and will always be crimes which no ideological reasons can excuse.

When, having used the excuse of total war, we set up and honor and glorify throughout the world the spirit of the assassin, we shall see what sort of peace will come-a peace which will itself be total, the peace of the great cemeteries of the state.

The Commonweal

September 2, 1938

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