The Firebombing Of Japan: An Apology

Errol Morris Presents Robert S. McNamara

The American firebombing of Japanese cities in 1945 is the defining imagery in the new documentary film by Errol Morris, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara,” to be released in December by (Catch the irony) Sony Pictures Classics.

This artfully illustrated interview of a man who is a first source on the murderous 20th Century was a must-see at the Telluride Film Festival where, like Morris’ “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control” a couple of years ago, it received its North American premier. McNamara, now 87, braved the high altitude of the Colorado mountain town and assumed star status, sitting for interviews and Q and A sessions in which he was not always supportive of Morris or his unconventional work.

McNamara was U.S. secretary of defense from January 1961 to March 1968 under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Vietnam was called “McNamara’s War” by Sen. Wayne Morse, D-Ore., one of the few Congressional opponents of the shamefully coerced Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964, and the label stuck. “In Retrospect,” published in 1995, was McNamara’s apology for Vietnam.

And now, it seems, he’s apologizing for the destruction of Japan’s wooden cities in World War II.

“Fog of War” is the movie based on McNamara’s best seller because he repeats so much of what he wrote there about Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis (“We came that close to nuclear war.”) But the part of the movie about the firebombing of Japan is new. Morris said it astounded him when it came out in the interviews.

In one dramatic sequence, Morris links each of 67 burned Japanese cities to one of similar population in the United States, superimposing the names and staggering death numbers over black-and-white aerial footage from bomber cameras, as the soundtrack with its eerie Phillip Glass score evokes a million distant thumps. The suggestion of terror on the ground is more effective than seeing it close up.

Firebombing, as was discovered earlier in the war at Dresden, Germany, had a number of unpredicted effects, including the depletion of oxygen, destrictive high winds and “conflagration” in which walls of flame perpetuate themselves. Dresden was the setting of a famous novel by Kurt Vonnegut, but except for descriptions scattered in the works of Yukio Mishima not much has been published in the West about the firebombing of Japanese cities — most likely because it was eclipsed by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later in the year, in August 1945.

Richard Rhodes, historian of the atomic bomb, dwelled on the March 9-10 firebombing of Tokyo in order to give some proportionality to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. About 100,000 men, women and children were killed outright that night in Tokyo, and another 1 million sustained burns or injuries as 334 bombers dropped 2,000 tons of incendiaries.

The firebombing campaign was designed by Gen. Curtis LeMay, who came up with the idea of using the new high-altitude B-29 bombers to drop clusters of incendiary bombs at low altitude (5,000 feet) where anti-aircraft guns were ineffective. McNamara was a 29-year-old lieutenant colonel, one of a group of brilliant statistical planners recruited from Harvard, serving under LeMay.

In the film, McNamara tells how his group improved the efficiency of bombing of Germany by statistical analysis proving that the 17 per cent rate of aborted missions was due to fear, not to the stated reasons, such as mechanical failure or sickness. He also claims a part in statistical analysis showing that hitting Japanese cities with India-based bombers refueled in China was not feasible.

McNamara’s intellectual contribution to the subsequent firebombing of Japan from Pacific island bases is not spelled out in his comments to Morris, but he does say that when LeMay served under him in the Kennedy administration, the old general commented that if Japan had won the war they both would have been charged for acting like war criminals.

This startling self-indictment, discussed in at least one Telluride apperance by Morris, probably will get more attention once the movie sinks in, but it’s not as sensational as it sounds because the context was that war crimes are defined by whoever wins the war.

McNamara is harsh on LeMay, as he was in the Vietnam book where he portrays the then Air Force chief of staff as recklessly advocating bombing Cuba during the missile crisis and bombing North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the early stages of Vietnam. McNamara stood in the way, but he eventually approved “Operation Rolling Thunder,” the carpet-bombing of the Vietnam countryside, and it looks an awful lot like the firebombing of Japan, as Morris presents it.

Now, McNamara says in the film that as an undergraduate at Berkeley he loved economics, mathematics and, particularly, philosophy, especially ethics, which he said proscribes “duty to society,” meaning your own people. It was a principle that served him well as he rose to power.
As a product of Berkeley and Harvard (MBA 1939), he has praised the 1930’s leaders of the University of California for keeping the liberal campus safe from the then overwhelmingly conservative rural-dominated legislature. Coincidentally, another man of great scientific intellect who was nourished in the same atmosphere at the same time was J. Robert Oppenheimer, also a Harvard product, although they apparently didn’t know each other.

McNamara is a classically ethical man. His confessions regarding Vietnam tell of misinformation, mistakes in judgement and wrong facts, not moral failings in the light of international law. Few audiences could be expected to remember all 11 points of Morris’ title, but the first “lesson” is memorable: in war, you must understand the motives of the enemy. That was the fault in Vietnam. The domino theory (illustrated by Morris’ image of rows of dominoes clicking down across a map of Southeast Asia) was wrong because its propagandists failed to see that the Vietnamese were fighting a war of independence. They were resisting their old enemy China as well as America and, indirectly, the Soviet Union. They were not puppets intent upon spreading Communism. On the other hand, they failed to understand that America did not wish to succeed France as a colonial ruler.

In the movie McNamara, the classical ethicist, often justifies his actions as consistent with American values and tradition. He is not one to seek a higher morality. And so he is not actually doing mea culpas, as some have described his late-in-life apologies. He does not follow the postmodern argument, so clear and persuasive in Samantha Power’s Pulitzer-prize winning “A Problem From Hell,” that genocide is an absolute crime and that America throughout its history has failed even to recognize it.

McNamara in his Vietnam book takes note of U.S. ratification of the international genocide convention but asks how, in cases like the former Yougoslavia, we can do anything about it when intervention infringes on national sovereignty. On the other hand, Power in her book condemns the early inaction of the empathetic but militarily incompetent Clinton administration in the face of Serbian genocide in Bosnia and Clinton’s total inaction in the face of genocide in Rwanda and, yes, Iraq.

McNamara made mistakes, but he was not incompetent. He was not mystified or intimidated by military power. In his government service he was a man of action, and like most mainstream American political figures, including Colin Powell, he had an allergy to humanitarian wars. Which is to say, these guys really hate war except for the cold, hard, unemotional defense of national interests — even if the facts are wrong and the interests entirely abstract, as in Vietnam.

And now, due to McNamara’s testimony via Morris, it must be asked if the facts were wrong in Japan. Another Pulitzer prize winner, Herbert Bix, in his biography of Hirohito, says the firebombings of Japanese noncombatants “qualify as atrocities.” Bix, however, is the first to make the case that not only was the emperor very much in authority over the generals, but he also was not facing reality. Bix returns to a version of the postwar thesis, discarded by revisionist historians who say Hiroshima was the first shot of the Cold War, that it took the combined shock of the new secret weapon plus Soviet intervention to make Japan, in the person of the emperor, admit defeat and surrender before everybody was killed (and the imperial palace destroyed).

In defense of LeMay, and by implication of himself, McNamara tells how a pilot in a debriefing complained that by misusing B-29’s at low altitude the general was responsible for the death of his copilot from small arms fire. The bullish cigar-smoking general, who McNamara recalls seldom spoke in anything but monosyllables, responded angrily that the pilot lost a buddy but the firebombing was saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers preparing to invade Japan.

The belief that the dug-in people would fight to the last man, woman and child has always been the position of those who say President Harry Truman saved a half million American lives by dropping the atomic bombs, and it was Truman’s defense too. The firebombing had already set a moral precedent that mass destruction of cities was OK because all houses were worker houses and all workers were involved in the war effort. So the difference in August was only quantitative.

The quantity was a quantum leap. One bomb killed 140,000 outright at Hiroshima, and kept on killing. Which leads to another of McNamara’s “lessons.” Namely, that rationality cannot save us from nuclear war because as long as there are nuclear weapons, even in a rational world, they eventually will be used.