We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Military lessons

LAURENCE REES: It’s clear, isn’t it, that one lesson the military takes from all this is that 'we’re we’re not going to bomb entire cities again'.  So we're back to the ideal of precision bombing.

CONRAD CRANE: One of the ironies of this is that in some ways we’ve raised expectations too high. We’re back to the bombs down smokestacks again, there’s a sense now that we’re so precise that we should be able to drop bombs and nobody gets hurt and no real damage is done. But warfare is not like that, warfare is always going to be a bloody business and mistakes still happen and bombs land a couple of feet from where you want them to, or somebody else is in the room than who you thought was in the room. We’re never going to be as perfect some people think we are. Michael Ignatieff has written a book called ‘Virtual War’ where he talks about the way our expectations have gone, and these video game wars.

With that said, it’s amazing the care that’s taken in American targeting. I’ve worked with a lot of American Airforce officers who’ve described the targeting techniques in Iraq and Afghanistan and the care they go through to figure out who’s in the target area. They deliver the bombs from certain angles to make sure that the blast goes a certain direction, they carefully choose the munitions to limit the damage and adjust to the masonry or whatever the structure is that they’re attacking. An immense care is taken to try to avoid collateral damage, because, again, in modern warfare the informational aspects of what you do are very important, and if we say we’re the good guys and we’re out to limit civilian casualties we’ve got to do that, and we understand the collateral damage can have massively negative connotations and impacts in modern warfare. You’ve got to limit it and expectations are that we should and we try our best to limit it. And I don’t think we often get enough credit for the care that’s taken in this targeting.

LAURENCE REES: But there is also a psychologically distancing effect with this method of killing. It must have been harder for a Stone Age man to kill someone with an axe in front of him, than for a modern bomber pilot to kill a hundred thousand people from up in a plane?

CONRAD CRANE: There’s a number of ways to go with that. The B29 is the most sophisticated bomber of its era. It is a pressurised cabin, it flies at higher altitudes and it flies faster. It’s not like the B17s or B24s in Europe which are open and it’s 40 degrees below zero in there, your people are freezing, frostbite’s a problem, and the German fighters are all over the place - it wasn’t quite the same over Japan. It was a very long flight and a very quick mission. In some ways they may have felt more like technicians than warriors, but with that you still read accounts, especially in the early raids, of some of the airmen handing in their mission reports where their hands were shaking from what they had seen, and they had to fumigate the aircraft from the smell of burning flesh on some of the raids. So there is a sense of what’s going on, that they’re doing something to help win the war. But you don’t have a lot of memoirs from the B29 pilots, whilst you have a lot from the European theatre, but here it’s not a very long bombing campaign. The fire campaign really doesn’t start until March of 1945 and of course by July they’re starting to cut back and everything’s going on to prepare for the atomic bombs and everything, so it’s not a long campaign.

LAURENCE REES:   Is there any evidence that these bomber crews were suffering major post traumatic stress?

CONRAD CRANE: No, there’s no records like that, but there weren’t a lot of studies done, most of these guys just kind of fade into the woodwork and go back to what they were doing. Eventually they were going to have the 8th Airforce and Bomber Command brought over to get B29s to do the same thing, which was the eventual plan if the war went on longer. And you think about the things they were going to do in Japan, they were going to use poison gas on the beaches, they were going to destroy the rice crop, I mean, the war would have been heinous. Even for the invasion of Kyūshū the plans are to drop two or three atomic bombs behind each beach with the instructions that the invading forces could go through those areas one hour after they were dropped. We just didn’t know what we had with these atomic weapons. But the bottom line in Japan is that life for the Japanese would have been even more terrible if the war had gone on.