Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

May 1999 (Vol. XXIII No. 2)

Lack of Moral and Ethical Dilemmas in the Western Narrative: A Perspective on Colonial Massacres, Strategic Bombings and Other Issues
By Vinod Anand *


The Anglo-American strikes launched against Iraq during Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 not only reveal the double standards adopted by America and Britain but also their lack of concern for sufferings and casualties caused to the civilian population. These missile attacks and aerial strikes had no sanction of the UN Security Council and yet the US claimed to have acted to save the United Nations' honour. These strikes caused death and destruction without achieving any worthwhile objective. At a time when America, along with some of the Western countries, has assumed the mantle of not only being the champion of human rights and morality but also the saviour of people and countries from rogue nations, it would be pertinent to reflect on their past. It would be seen that over the centuries, there has been a constant mismatch between what they have preached and what they have practiced.

The air strikes against Iraq are reminiscent of the strategic bombings carried out by the US and Britain against German and Japanese cities during World War II. These bombings in World War II had killed more individuals than the whole of the Luftwaffe's campaign. However, the German blitz against Britain was more publicised. The US raids on Japanese cities were more merciless and were without any moral or ethical compunctions. While Hiroshima and Nagasaki raise no moral questions in the West, apologies are still being demanded from the Japanese.

The Western media carried out a liberal critique of the American defeat in the Vietnam War but it paid little attention to death and destruction wrought on Vietnamese society and environment. In the Gulf War of 1991, there were massive civilian casualties; civil infrastructure was almost totally destroyed and aerial attacks were even carried out on the retreating defenceless Iraqi troops. There was enormous loss of life but this was presented on the Western media and TV channels virtually as entertainment. Only selected images from the Gulf War were filtered back to suit the Western discourse.

It is also evident from the nuclear policies being pursued by the Western countries that there is a total lack of any moral or ethical dilemma on their part. While they retain the right of being promiscuous, they preach total abstinence to non-nuclear countries. The recent events in Bosnia have revealed the hypocrisy of the Western countries. Thus, whatever is not according to the Western thought process or whatever is not suited to the Western discourse, is not rational. The colonial massacres of an earlier era revealed the white man's notion of superiority over the non-whites; this notion, to some extent, persists in the policies being followed by USA and some of the Western countries.


Colonial Massacres: A Historical Perspective

In the 19th century, industrialisation in Europe and America created new tools of violence. Though industrialised and capitalist societies promoted new and liberal intellectual thought processes, at the same time, new tools of war were being used in the late 19th century to launch the colonial campaign and subjugate and exterminate populations of lands far away from the Western countries. The non-whites were regarded as the white man's burden and slavery was justified. Racism was used to justify an acute form of violence.

During the Westward expansion of America by the European settlers, native Indian settlements which stood in the way were razed to the ground and there was mass slaughter of Indians, especially when they stood in the path of economic opportunities. The result of the forced marches for resettlement of Indians and the random massacres was that three million Indians died and remnants of these people were offered "reservations" for mere physical survival. 1 Their culture was destroyed; they became a source of entertainment and tourist interest for the Westerners. The slaughter of Indians merely confirmed the white man's sense of supreme superiority. 2 Another racial genocide that took place in the development of America was that of the African Americans. It is believed that 15 million Africans were taken from their country and sold into slavery. 3 And long after slavery became illegal, white men were exterminating Africans. In the official history and narratives of the United States, the history of oppression of African Americans is largely absent.

In the mid-19th century, there was a race amongst the European countries to grab colonies due to sheer greed and for economic benefits. In Africa, the white European simply eradicated all obstacles in the way to commercial development. People were cleared from the scene as if they were part of the natural environment. The victims were not considered real human beings; the death of non-Europeans did not pose any moral or ethical dilemma. Africans were considered as people without culture and their decimation took place without any compunction. In the Belgium Congo under Leopold II, the population was reduced from 22 million to 10 million in a policy that became known as "administrative massacres." 4 A not too dissimilar process was repeated in Australia, where "culls" of the Aborigines still occurred in the 1920s. Thus, the original inhabitants were simply swept away and excluded from the script. Moral and religious notions that white European settlers were the unique chosen ones was the dominant theme of the Western narrative.

After the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japan was termed as a major threat to the USA and in American popular literature, the Japanese became the focus of "Yellow peril" syndrome, replacing the Chinese. There was a fear of invasion by Asians through immigration, and popular American literature depicted the USA utilising its superior technology to annihilate the "Asian hordes." Much of this literature advocated genocide, down to the extermination of the last person, of blacks and Asian people.


World War II: Dresden Bombings

The industrialised and white societies clashed with each other on a massive scale during World Wars I and II. After World War II, the Nuremberg trials symbolised the guilt of Germany and other Axis powers regarding offences concerning human rights. The sins of the Nazi state were all too apparent in the Holocaust but there is little reflection in the official narratives of the glaring sins and misdemeanours of the Allies. At the beginning of the 1914-18 War, and as also in 1939, European leaders suggested that bombing of civilians would be immoral. Churchill's view that it was an inhuman form of barbarism was endorsed by Roosevelt. But it was Churchill who ordered the air attack on Germany in July 1940, and sanction for the raid on Berlin was given in August. German night raids on British cities began only later, in September 1940. 5

The most controversial of all Allied strategic bombings was that of Dresden which took place on February 13, 1945. This was at a time when the town was swarming with refugees fleeing from the advancing Red Army. In the night, the town, which had hardly any importance as a military target and was an important cultural centre, was attacked in waves by British bombers using incendiaries. The next day, it was attacked again by American heavy bombers and thereafter, whatever was still visible and alive in the smoke and devastation caused below was strafed by American fighter aircraft. It was believed at that time that perhaps a hundred thousand people were killed in Dresden as a result of this unnecessary military air attack. The figure has been lately revised to 35,000, but it was still a human massacre. 6 The Dresden bombings did bring to attention the immoral behaviour of the Allies vis-a-vis Axis powers.

In July 1942, 800 bombers struck Hamburg; 80 per cent of city buildings were destroyed and up to 42,600 people were killed. 7 In another raid in early February 1945, US aircraft bombed Berlin, leaving 25,000 dead but this did not attract any attention. 8 However, the official stance was still maintained that the policy was one of precision bombing of military targets. That perfectly innocent people had been killed raised no moral dilemmas for the Allies. The propaganda during the war was designed to dehumanise and depersonalise the enemy, that is, the Germans and the Japanese. The Anglo-American stories and pictures stressed on the theme of the Allies, and especially Britain under Axis attack, and missing from verbal and cinematic pictures of Anglo-American bombers was the world of the bombed.

When judged against the bombardment of German cities, the bombing of Japanese cities was much more destructive. In 1944 and 1945, when air bases were found closer to Japanese shores, the B29s of the XXth and XXIst Army Air Force (AAF) burned city after city to the ground. There were some feeble voices, which spoke about the ineffectiveness and the immorality of the bombing of civilian targets, but the dominant majority had no such qualms. Except for four cities on the special target list for the planned atomic attack, no Japanese city was spared from the destructive bombings. The newly developed napalm bombs and cluster bombs containing a large number of small magnesium incendiaries were used to burn the "people cities" of Japan. While Dresden has been called a "mass murder", the raid on Tokyo on March 10, 1945, by the XXIst AAF was the most violent and destructive act in human history. The attack was planned on ten square miles of the eastern sector of the city, where 1.5 million people lived. An ingenious technique was adopted to create a tidal wave of fire, which caused maximum destruction and loss. 9 At the end of the three-hour raid, 16 square miles were burned out, 267,000 buildings were destroyed, a million people were homeless, and between 87,000 and 100,000 people were dead. 10 Thus, before the actual use of the nuclear bomb, the moral threshold of killing innocents had long been surpassed in the conventional raids.


Atomic Bombings

When the nuclear bomb was actually used in 1945, it was as a sequel to the already established tradition of using strategic bombing to raze cities to the ground. The moral or ethical inhibitions had long since been abandoned due to the remoteness of the world of the victims of the strategic bombings. In the US, the discussions about nuclear policy, were mainly about which cities would be attacked by the atomic bombs and not whether the attack should take place. The atomic massacre of the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the most reprehensible and dishonourable act in the history of warfare. Some estimates put the toll of the massacre at more than 300,000. 11 This was ostensibly justified as necessary to save American casualties in the long drawn-out war. It also needs to be noted that by mid-1945, Japan was a battered and war-ravaged nation. A serious debate was going on in the Japanese Parliament on the conditions of surrender. Their major concern was to prevent the humiliation of their Emperor and the people. And then without any warnings or ultimatum, or setting a date for the surrender, the Americans dropped their atomic bombs in August 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The use of the atomic bomb against civilian targets set a precedent, and its use was sought to be justified in various nuclear and military doctrines, which were propounded later. The use of these weapons against civilian targets, in fact, became legitimate once President Truman authorised it on the pretext of bringing the war to a seemingly dramatic end. In the post-World War II era, the principle was practised again in Vietnam and Iraq without any moral inhibitions when a large number of civilians and civilian infrastructure was destroyed during carpet bombing and strategic bombings.


Carnage in Vietnam

The "liberal" critique of Vietnam by American and Western scholars has emphasised the damage done to American society; the social problems caused by the war, the 59,000 dead, the drug addiction and broken marriages, the impact of the defeat in Vietnam and the lack of any appropriate or valid cause for getting involved in Vietnam on such a massive scale. The Western narrative paid little or no attention to the severe damage which America inflicted on Vietnam. 12 The ecological damage caused by the use of Agent Orange and its effects on the genetic development of the Vietnamese people have not been adequately highlighted in Western discourse. This can be contrasted with their newly found concern for chemical weapons in the possession of Iraq. A story that was aired on CNN in August 1998 giving evidence of the use of a nerve gas agent by Americans in the former Indo-China during the Vietnam War, was ruthlessly killed and the CNN-Time company was made to retract the story.

The American policy of strategic bombing translated into dropping of 75,000 tons of explosive in a period of nine weeks at Khe Sanh in 1967. This was almost equivalent to the explosive power of five Hiroshima-sized bombs. 13 It is believed that during the entire period of war, the casualties for Vietnam were in the range of 1 million to 2.6 million, including 600,000 children. The USA continued to harass the Vietnamese on the question of 3,000 Americans missing in action, whereas the Vietnamese had a figure of 300,000 missing of their own. 14 The Americans also refused to exchange information on the location of mines and unexploded devices (which is a normal course of action after a war); this resulted in a large number of Vietnamese being killed or injured.


The Video Game War

The wholesale destruction of large areas of Iraq in 1991 was presented in the Western media as a geo-political video game where selected images showed the wonders and thrills of technology which destroyed military targets. CNN depicted the Gulf War as a complete entertainment. That Iraq was attacked primarily by precision munitions is largely a myth. The then US Air Force chief of staff had admitted that of the 88,500 tons of bombs used, only 6,520 were precision guided and claimed that of these, 90 per cent hit the targets. 15 Others have suggested a success rate of 60 per cent. The CIA estimated casualties between 100,000 and 26,000; Greenpeace estimated more than 150,000 dead, with upto 15,000 civilian deaths. In an interview, General Schwarzkopf showed that it did not really matter anyway: "50,000 or 100,000 or 150,000 or whatever of them to be killed." 16 However, this was loss of life on a massive scale and it was presented on Western TV screens virtually as entertainment. The filtered images were projected to make it seem that civilian Iraqis were going about their business while only their military infrastructure was being destroyed. In fact, the whole infrastructure of Iraq--its water sewerage and power systems, communication network and industrial base--was destroyed in the air offensive which lasted 40 days. This war was against the civilian population and has been a cause of major suffering for the Iraqi people.

A myth was also built up by American and Western media that Iraqi forces with their elite units of Republican Guards were formidable opponents. And that they were armed with chemical and biological weapons, which they would not hesitate to use. However, events showed later, this was false belief. Many of the units on the frontline were manned by Kurdish and Shiite recruits who were unwilling participants in the war. As the American and Allied forces approached, many simply ran away and others became casualties. It is difficult to believe that in a real war, one side lost a few hundred men (many from friendly fire) and the opposite side suffered casualties in the hundred thousands. The true story is somewhat different. The disorganised and retreating Iraqi units fleeing from Kuwait were attacked by wave after wave of US warplanes at Al-Jahra and Mutlah gap. The Americans used cluster and compression bombs. The scene at the end of the slaughter was unprecedented, but the media showed only the long line of vehicles destroyed along the road and not the dead. 17 A defeated army was systematically annihilated from the air by a technologically superior force engaged in mass killing. According to Philip Taylor (Wars and Media 1992), US navy pilots were so keen to return to the battle that, in order to rearm, they took any munitions they could get. One American described it as a "turkey shoot" and added that the Iraqi were like "cockroaches" that you crush under your foot.

The Western media has overlooked the massive slaughter of the Iraqi people in the Gulf War. However, since then, a plethora of material has appeared on TV and in the print media promising and celebrating the triumph of US high-tech warfare. For the US, the legacy of Vietnam had been vanquished; the USA had its revenge. During the Gulf War, fabrication of stories and false propaganda had reached such a stage that Iraqi forces were accused of switching off baby incubators and leaving 15 babies on the floor to die. This later proved to be false but at that time it had the effect of demonising and denigrating the Iraqis.


Morality of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Doublespeak) 18

According to Article 35 of Protocol 1 (1977) additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, use of weapons which cause unnecessary suffering is prohibited. Therefore, the use of weapons whose damaging effects are disproportionate to their military purpose is prohibited. Further, vide Article 51 of the same Additional Protocol 1 (1977), parties to a conflict must always distinguish between civilians and combatants, and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, use of indiscriminate weapons is prohibited. These are the fundamental principles of the international humanitarian law. The United Nations Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the use of certain conventional weapons, which may be deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects, was adopted in 1980 (and came into force in 1983). This Convention prohibits the use of, or attack by, incendiary weapons against civilian populations and restricts their use against military objectives. However, the Convention does not cover the use of nuclear or thermonuclear weapons, which cause similar effects and untold suffering to the injured.

The UN General Assembly in its very first resolution aimed at the elimination of all types of weapons of mass destruction, but treaties have since been concluded to ban and eliminate only biological and chemical weapons. Nuclear weapon powers, through a series of treaties like the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and its extension, have not only legalised the possession of nuclear weapons by themselves but also denied the same right to others. They have created nuclear weapon-free zones and given nuclear guarantees to some of the non-nuclear powers. All treaties, which have been concluded and are proposed to be concluded (i.e. the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty--CTBT) and measures taken are with a view to serve the American and Western interests. The unethicality of such treaties and measures has hardly created any moral dilemma for them.

Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction and India has been at the forefront of the campaign to get the use of nuclear weapons declared a crime against humanity. However, the nuclear weapon powers (especially the Western powers) are not willing to accept such a declaration. While America continues to retain its formidable nuclear arsenal, it questions the need for a minimum nuclear deterrence for India. It continues in its aggressive and intimidating nuclear policy of first use while it cannot understand India's "no first use" policy. It is quite evident that first use of nuclear weapons is unethical. But adopting this policy would deprive the Americans of their self-created macho image of themselves and perhaps, this would also amount to admitting in retrospect, the unethicality and immorality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. Thus, while it is illegal and immoral to kill with biological, chemical and certain kinds of conventional weapons, it is not so if nuclear weapons are used. A majority of the leaders, liberal intellectuals and media in America and the West are impervious to these glaring contradictions and anomalies in the Western discourse.


Hypocrisy in Balkans

The actions of America and the Western countries in the ongoing Balkans imbroglio reveal, glaringly, the double standards followed by them. The West led by the United States has depicted the Balkans War as a war of good versus evil. Their media has presented the Serbs as villains. The Croats and other ethic communities have taken maximum advantage of this situation. There was a great outcry in the West and America to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims for defending themselves against the "wicked" Serbs. An American author, Charles G. Byod, states that American leadership "plays the dirty game of encouraging war in Bosnia while publicly declaring that Americans want peace." This is nothing but hypocrisy of the highest order, perpetuated by a country, which claims to be the guardian of accepted norms of international behaviour and which has a strong determination to punish violators.

The ethnic cleansing evoked condemnation when carried out by the Serbs. However, when 90 per cent of the Serbs in western Slovenia were ethnically cleansed as a result of Croatian troops overruning the Serbian populated areas in May 1995, it did not provoke a strong condemnation from the West. The UN, under the influence of the United States, had deliberately ignored the violation of the arms embargo against Croatia. More than 15,000 women, children and elderly persons were expelled from the area and at least 3,000 other Serb civilians were slaughtered. 19 There was no condemnation of the Croatian "ethnic cleansing" because the supporters of Croatia justified it as the sovereign country's right to drive away rebels. This was application of double standards by the West and the only superpower--the United States of America. The violation of human rights and international norms was totally ignored.

The UN under the influence of the US followed double standards in calling on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) for air strikes on the Serb military positions in Bosnia but failed to take any action against the Croats who violated the truce in Krajinia. If the US considered the Russian military actions, including air strikes at Chechnya violations of human rights, then how can it justify the air strikes in Bosnia where the civilian population has been suffering? Presently, America is continuing to punish Serbia with NATO air strikes demanding that it give certain concessions in Kosovo to the Kosovars. This is clearly a violation of the UN Charter. America has been constantly violating international norms, and its double standards are clearly apparent.


India and the Western Double Standards

After the Pokhran II nuclear explosions in May 1998, the reactions of America and some of the Western countries were not dissimilar to their reactions to Pokhran I in 1974. On both occasions, the same Western powers exposed their irrationality and double standards. While it was the privilege of the nuclear powers to test and develop nuclear weapons, the same cannot be emulated by India. Western powers like Canada, Australia and New Zealand have the nuclear umbrella but question the need for a nuclear deterrent for India. The US imposed economic and technology sanctions implying guilt on the part of India whereas India had not violated any international treaties, obligations or commitments. Though the US and other nuclear powers can retain their nuclear arsenals, the same right is denied to the largest democracy and a country with an impeccable record of adhering to international law and norms. The ongoing Indo-US nuclear dialogue and the US and Western stance reflect their double standards. Any amount of principled logic and reasoning will not prevent the US from pursuing its unprincipled agenda.

The US carried out missile strikes against the terrorist bases of Osama Bin Laden in Sudan and Afghanistan in August 1998. While the US was free to launch such strikes, bypass the UN and violate the sovereignty of other states, in the American view, India has no right to adopt similar methods while defending its territory against terrorist attacks from across its border.

America, the biggest champion of democracy, has not shied away from dealing with totalitarian states like China and the military regime of Pakistan when it has suited its interests. The US track record of using Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Duvalier and Mobutu when it suited its interests and dumping them later when they became a liability, is well known. Pakistan was permitted to deal in drugs and develop its nuclear arsenal with Chinese assistance so long as it was needed by the US as a frontline state against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Any amount of remonstration by India and revelations in the international media about the Sino-Pak nexus on nuclear cooperation did not impel the US to curb this nexus. The role of American, British and some other Western firms in the development of Pakistan's nuclear programme is well known. At the same time, America is pressurising Russia to dilute its traditional technical and military ties with India. India, thus, needs to tread cautiously in the ongoing Indo-US nuclear dialogue and pursue its national interests and security concerns unambiguously.



It is evident from the manifestations of international behaviour of the US and its Western allies that the concept of "Social Darwinism" is still alive. The concept espoused that struggle for existence and survival of the fittest applied to all classes of living beings, including man. And in the past it was used to justify a number of injustices, including racism, genocide, belligerent nationalism and monopoly capitalism. The Anglo-American strikes against Iraq in December 1998, and the NATO air strikes against Serbs (based on the principle of might is right and survival of the fittest) and a history of violations of international law and human rights erode the credibility of the US as a self-styled global overseer of justice, and a champion of human rights.

The USA and the West in their relentless pursuit of power and economic gains have been consistent in disregarding international norms and codes of moral and ethical behaviour. Whether it was their behaviour during the subjugation of native populations in the colonial era or during bombings of German and Japanese cities in World War II or the recent strikes in Iraq or Kosovo, they have had no moral dilemmas and have been devoid of compassion for the hapless victims of colonial massacres and strategic bombings. In the American and Western discourse, there has been very little which reflects on the glaring contradictions present in what they preach and practise. The American defeat in Vietnam gave rise to a plethora of articles in the Western media as to how it affected America. American misdemeanours, violations of human rights and international norms in Vietnam, Iraq, Serbia and other places hardly find a place in the Western discourse.

India, therefore, in its dealings with the US and the West, has to be firm and pursue its national interests relentlessly. It does not have to feel either apologetic or less than morally equal while discussing the nuclear issue with the US and the West. It should maintain its moral and ethical stance on the final elimination of nuclear weapons, on disarmament and its principled stand on other international issues. India has strictly adhered to international norms and behaviour and it should always endeavour to raise its principled objections to violations of such norms and behaviour. India should also remain alert to the use of human rights as a weapon against it by the US and the West to promote their economic, political or strategic interests.



*: Senior Fellow, The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.  Back.

Note 1: Christopher Coker, War and the Twentieth Century: A Study of War and Modern Consciousness (London, 1994), p. 15.  Back.

Note 2: Philip K. Lawrence, Modernity and War: The Creed of Absolute Violence (New York: St Martin's Press, 1997), p. 32.  Back.

Note 3: n. 1, pp. 226-227.  Back.

Note 4: Ibid.  Back.

Note 5: See Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven, 1987), p. 260. Also see Lawrence, n. 2, pp. 79-80.  Back.

Note 6: Lee Kennett, A History of Strategic Bombing (New York, 1982), p. 161. Also see pp. 146-148 and 165 for civilian casualties caused during the Hamburg bombings and the overall casualties caused by Allied bombing.  Back.

Note 7: Ibid.  Back.

Note 8: Ibid.  Back.

Note 9: n. 5, see pp. 275-278 for scenes of fire and inferno in Tokyo due to the bombings, and for various official and other estimates of casualties, see p. 413.  Back.

Note 10: n. 6, p. 171, See Ibid., also.  Back.

Note 11: See Sherry, n. 5, p. 413.  Back.

Note 12: See, for instance, Admiral U.S.G. Sharp, Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect (California: Presidio Press, 1998) and Robert S. Mcnamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Toronto: Random House, 1995) While Sharp criticises the restrictions imposed on an all-out strategic bombing during the Vietnam War (pp. 113-131 and pp. 191-92) and Mcnamara discusses the non-viability of strategic bombing to achieve military objectives in Vietnam, neither of them spare a thought for the Vietnamese victims of war.  Back.

Note 13: n. 1, p. 224.  Back.

Note 14: n. 2, p. 175.  Back.

Note 15: n. 2, pp. 179-180.  Back.

Note 16: Ibid.  Back.

Note 17: n. 2, pp. 180-181.  Back.

Note 18: See K. Subrahmanyam "Nuclear India," Indian Defence Review, April-June 1998, vol. 13(2), pp. 8-9. The author has given an excellent expose of the unethicality and illegality of nuclear weapons. The theme of this para is largely based on similar logic.  Back.

Note 19: O.N. Mehrotra, "Ethnic Cleanising in Croatia: Failure of International Community," Strategic Analysis, vol. XVIII, no. 7, October 1995, pp. 1059-74.  Back.