Allied Bombing


When I think about strategic bombing in WWII, I try to imagine my team changing our job from building economic forecasts for our firm to trying to build prediction models and narratives for where we should bomb, and why. There is a banal practicality behind having to make choices under uncertainty that doesn’t change form just because you’re deciding who to bomb.

This makes WWII strategic bombing very strange. What if the choices that resulted in millions of civilian deaths were based on the same low-information fuzzy decision making that basically all other choices are made from? It’s sad, and I think we all sort of hope that a group of brilliant British and American men sat around in 1943, with full information, and decided they had no choice but to burn hundreds of thousands of civilians to death in order to win the war. That would mean they had a clear philosophy and model of the world, which we can then try to supplant with our own refined philosophy and model. Wouldn’t it be more likely that they were instead a mix of CEO types and military bureaucrats, who were making choices without historical precedent in an existential environment? And if that were the case, doesn’t spending decades analyzing what they ought to have done seem… kind of silly?

If need be, as the war went on, we hoped to shatter almost every dwelling in almost every German city.  ”  (Official transcript of the meeting at the Kremlin between Churchill and Stalin on Wednesday, August 12, 1942, at 7 P.M.)

“The destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized community life throughout Germany [is the goal]. … It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives; the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale; and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy.  They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.” — “Air Marshal Arthur Harris to Sir Arthur Street, Under Secretary of State, Air Ministry, October 25, 1943”

August 7th, 1943, NYtimes

If you do want to analyze it, there is the economic statistical measurement of strategic bombing. What was the investment? What was the return? How do we measure this? In some aspects it’s incredibly open to economic analysis: There were inputs into planes and bombs, and we had an outcome of measured civilian deaths, shut down factories, and less economic efficiency. The civilian deaths of the axis are estimated at 305,000-600,000 German civilians, 330,000-500,000 Japanese civilians, and 60,00-100,000 Italian civilians. The allied forces also suffered, but not as much, excluding the Soviet Union which lost more than 500,000.

In Jurgen Brauer’s book, Castles, Battles, Bombs, which is a book by an Economic Historian, the author wrote that the British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris hoped bombing would be a method to win a war without the abject horror of WWI, which removed a generation of young men from Europe. Harris’ strategy was to measure success in square miles burned. His view was that surgical bombing was ineffective, and to win a war you had to burn or blow up everything in an area that was conducive to the enemy’s war effort, including enemy morale. The author’s interpretation of strategic bombing, which he took from analyzing the official military documents from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, is that the goal is to “first destroy the opponents ability to defend itself against air power; then, second, attack those targets inside the opponent’s territory that support it was war-making on the front; and third, wait until the enemy collapses from within.”

The problem though is that we have no counterfactual framework to even consider the question. Although we can observe that the war didn’t end until there was a ground invasion of Germany. In that case was strategic bombing useless? Obviously not, since the invasion might have gone faster or easier as a result of the bombing. The author goes on to try and measure the marginal returns from incremental inputs in bombings, which he argues were too low to justify the massive investment into each marginal bomb.

He uses the bombing in Hamburg as an example of a poor outcome on bombing returns. In Hamburg, Air Chief Marshal Harris created the first air-generated firestorm. From July 24th to July 30th the Brits and Americans dropped over 9,000 tons of bombs from thousands of planes. Between 35,000 and 50,000 civilians died in the inferno. Although it appeared that within days the bombed railroads and industries were back up running. That’s the type of stuff that I don’t think anyone could have predicted. It’s too complex. If a world has no real experience with this type of massive bombing, it would seem like a reasonable prediction that if thousands of planes create an inferno in a city, it will be permanently out of commission. That ended up not being the case, strangely enough. In that case we could say with new information it was a bad choice, but at the time it was a rational strategy.

It’s hard to know what percent of efficiency the city returned to, but let’s imagine 95%. WWII was a close war, what if 95% was enough? And what about the tens of thousands of civilians that were burned to death? At the company I work at now, if we randomly lost a few buildings and a few percent of our workforce we would have a tough time continuing at the same efficiency, even more so if we all knew people who had died. And could this have damaged the morale of the country? As far as I’m aware, measuring how slight changes in the morale of a country propagate through towards defeat or victory is essentially impossible. These things are impossible to measure.


I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that. -Slaughterhouse 5

There is a pattern. These people who lived through the bombings are willing to make it an inalienable principle to never repeat this violence. When I was a little younger my rationality was more naive. I took a sense of pride in the fact that I’d have dropped the bombs. Why would I even think that? Well, dropping the bombs was a hard choice, it was a horrific thing to do. Yet we had to do it, for the good of mankind and our survival. My role model, George Orwell, wrote that pacifists secretly know that “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” I took that to mean that while the weak sit around, it takes an iron will and strength to make these hard choices.

May 30th, 1945, NYtimes

Both Vonnegut and Orwell had the same other worldly response to the bombs. The protagonist Billy in Slaughterhouse-5 is warped between the bombed German town Dresden, where he was kept as a prisoner of war, and an alien biodome run by the Tralfamadorians. His book juxtaposed the equal absurdity of mass incineration of civilians and alien abductions, as something we can’t accept understand or accept as true.

Orwell wrote:

A world in which it is wrong to murder an individual civilian and right to drop a thousand tons of high explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder whether this earth of ours is not a loony bin made use of by some other planet.

What worries me is that there may be no way for us to evaluate whether it was the right or wrong choice without going through their experience. They try to write it for us and reconstruct the information, but when we read it and run it through our heads it’s pointless. If I could spin off simulations of myself who experience strategic bombing, then have them come back and merge, would my view change? Would I experience a surge of pacifism like Vonnegut?

An abstraction of the cost vs. benefit of a grand historical experiment is great when there is a clear signal, since we can then carry that knowledge with us into the future. When the signal is so volatile that reasonable people can’t come to a conclusion, it might mean the system is too noisy and has too much information loss for us to take a clear lesson. Even for those of us today who read and think about these things, the amount of information available in historical archives is too great for us to fully know, and the more crucial information is probably lost to the sands of time.

When scholars disagree, and 80 years after the fact people are still debating and arguing over the right answer, it might mean our estimation methods aren’t going to converge. It is possible that one side is totally right, and they will eventually convince the other side of the argument that they are wrong, but I tend to think that is less likely as time moves on from the event.

Why then are the modern debates so important to political identities? Different political groups take a stance on the strategic bombing question, since they trace their identity or roots back to this time. Depending on how they evaluate it, it counts as for or against their cosmic scorecard. There are clearly lessons to be learned from WWII and the existing political systems at the time, but how granular do these lessons get? Can we really add or subtract points to democracies or fascist governments based on the death tolls and bombing strategies during a period of total war?

While writing this I stumbled upon subreddits dedicated to making fun of the internet neo-Nazis, who often write about so-called alleged allied war crimes. These neo-Nazi groups that use the strategic bombings as evidence that the Nazis weren’t uniquely bad. Neoreactionary literature uses the WWII strategic bombing of the allies as evidence that the US and the allied forces don’t have a strong claim as the ‘good guy.’

And, of course, (c): the Allies positively reveled in the aerial mass incineration of German and Japanese civilians. They did not kill six million, but they killed one or two. There was a military excuse for this, but it was quite strained. It was better than the Nazis’ excuse for murdering the Jews (who they saw, of course, as enemy civilians). In fact, it was a lot better. But was it a lot lot better? I’m not sure. -Moldbug

There is probably some use in making that argument. I don’t think it’s related to political systems as tightly as many might like to believe. It’s instead related to the ability of humans to justify and commit massive atrocities, even when we think they are the good guys.

I think the lesson behind studying this topic isn’t that there is a clear answer, but that it’s a complex problem that can’t be clearly classified. I see this as an optimistic lesson, because if we are able collectively to study history without trying to tally up the winners and losers, and fix past injustices, and as a result focus less on our classifications, identities, and historical records, we can lower the chance we end up in the same situation.

2 Responses to Allied Bombing

  1. John Dougan says:

    If you are actually interested in this topic, you’ll probably find interesting. In this theses, they apply modern accrual based cost accounting to the UK’s strategic bombing program in an attempt to really understand the true costs.

    I’d also note that there is a good argument that the primary reason for the strategic bombing was simply a lack of alternatives after the fall of France and Dunkirk. No complex justification needed, and at the time, many really believed that it would win the war. They were wrong: short of nuclear weapons, strategic bombing was never going to win the war by itself.

    • John Dougan says:

      One does wonder though if Churchill kept a heavy bomber capability despite his belief in the wastage, because of the MAUD report.

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