Paper presented; Grossman, D., "The Morality of Bombing: Psychological Responses to 'Distant Punishment.'" Department of Defense, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Dueling Doctrines and the New American Way of War Symposium, Washington, DC, 24 June 1998.

The Morality of Bombing:
Psychological Responses to "Distant Punishment"

by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, USA (Ret)


With the 1921 publication of his book, Command of the Air, Guilio Douhet became one of the world's first recognized airpower adherents, claiming that the disintegration of nations brought about by attrition in World War I would be accomplished directly by aerial forces in the future. Since then airpower advocates have repeatedly proclaimed their ability to win wars solely through what has accurately been termed "distant punishment." But Douhet had an excuse that present day "air barons" do not: his belief was based upon current scientific theory. That is, current as of 80 years ago. A theory which has since been soundly disproven and is no longer accepted by any scientific body.

The Origin of the Myth of Distant Punishment

During World War I the probability of a soldier becoming a psychiatric casualty was greater than that of being killed by enemy fire. This was a new phenomenon in human history, resulting from the manifestation of day-and-night combat for months on end. When these hundreds-of-thousands of psychiatric casualties began to occur in World War I, they were termed "shell shock" and it was sincerely (and quite incorrectly) believed by psychiatrists that these casualties were a result of the physical impact of prolonged concussions on the brain.

At the end of World War I, psychiatrists and psychologists believed that similar concussions, delivered by air and inflicted on enemy troop concentrations and civilian populations in cities, would result in similar mass psychiatric casualties. As a result of this fallacy, air power adherents sincerely envisioned vast numbers of "gibbering lunatics" being driven from enemy cities by a rain of bombs.

The fields of psychiatry and psychology were truly "voodoo sciences" during this period, far removed from the scientific body of experimental-based, peer-reviewed, replicatable data that has been so painfully established in the Post-World War II era. And it was a tragically flawed but widely accepted conclusion by the embryonic science of psychiatry that formed the theoretical foundation for the German attempt to bomb Britain into submission at the beginning of World War II and the subsequent Allied attempt to do the same to Germany.

This unpredictable, uncontrollable reign of shock, horror, and terror inflicted on civilian populations in World War II is exactly what psychiatrists and psychologists believed to be responsible for the vast numbers of psychiatric casualties suffered by soldiers in World War I. And yet the Rand Corporation's Strategic Bombing Study published in 1949 found that there was only a very slight increase in the incidence of psychological disorders in these populations as compared to peacetime rates. In the words of historian Paul Fussell, these post-World War II studies ascertained that: "German military and industrial production seemed to increase just like civilian determination not to surrender the more bombs were dropped."

The Real Cause of Psychiatric Casualties

Today the science of psychology knows that it is not fear of death or injury that causes psychiatric casualties. Modern society pursues fear through everything from roller coasters, to action and horror movies, to rock climbing, and a hundred other legal and illegal means. Fear itself is seldom a cause of trauma in everyday peacetime existence, but facing close-range interpersonal aggression is a traumatizing experience of an entirely different magnitude.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association affirms that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) "...may be especially severe or longer lasting when the stressor is of human design." The DSM goes on to note that PTSD resulting from natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes is comparatively rare and mild, but acute cases of PTSD will consistently result from torture or rape. Ultimately, like tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes, bombs from 20,000 feet are simply not "personal" and are significantly less traumatic -- to both the victim and aggressor.

When snakes, heights, or darkness causes an intense fear reaction in an individual it is considered a phobia, a dysfunction, an abnormality. But it is very natural and normal to respond to an attacking, aggressive fellow human being with a phobic-scale response. This is a universal human phobia. More than anything else in life, it is the potential for intentional, overt, human confrontation that has the greatest ability to modify and influence the behavior of human beings.

What this means to us today is that the entire body of psychology and psychiatry, and the entire body of history in this field, all affirm that a soldier, police officer, or peacekeeper on the street is infinitely more effective at influencing behavior than any quantity of impersonal bombs in the air, no matter how "smart" those bombs may be. Anything else is simply wishful thinking. 

Psychologically, aerial and artillery bombardments are effective, but only in the front lines when they are combined with the threat of the physical attack which usually follows such bombardments.

This is why there were massed psychiatric casualties following World War I artillery bombardments, but World War II's strategic bombing of population centers were surprisingly counter-productive in breaking the enemy's will. Such bombardments without an accompanying close-range assault, or at least the threat of such an assault, are ineffective and may even serve no other purpose than to inoculate the enemy and to stiffen his will and resolve.


This is why inserting combat units in the enemy's rear is infinitely more important and effective than even the most comprehensive bombardments in his rear, or attrition along his front. We saw this in the early years of the Korean War when the rate of psychiatric casualties was almost seven times higher than the average for World War II. Only after the war settled down, lines stabilized, and the threat of having enemy in rear areas decreased, did the average rate go down to that of World War II. Again, just the potential for close-up, inescapable, interpersonal confrontation is more effective and has greater impact on human behavior than the actual presence of inescapable, impersonal death and destruction. 

The Death of a Myth

The lure of a sterile, distant, "clean" airpower victory seems to be embedded in the human psyche. Many politicians, and a certain breed of warrior, are deeply troubled by the prospect of face-to-face confrontation. And, while they want desperately to inflict their will upon their opponent, they strive to find some way to do so without having to physically confront that opponent, and without having to personally witness the effects of their actions. 


Thus the myth of distant punishment fulfills a deep-seated need, rooted in the avoidance of personal confrontation and a need to deny the consequences of combat. And across the generations airpower adherents have believed with all their hearts, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in the myth that they can just "wave the magic bombers and make the bad man go away."


The innocent civilians they kill in this process they euphemistically deny by simply terming them "collateral damage." And the consistent history of the ineffectiveness of distant punishment they simply choose to ignore, or to rationalize by saying, "This time it will work because...our bombs are more accurate...or more powerful." Or whatever. But they refuse to acknowledge that, while the nature of weapons may change, the basic nature of human beings does not change. Human nature is one of the constants of warfare, and what did not work before will not work now.


Our perennial airpower adherents base their calls for distant punishment on a myth, which in turn is based on long-debunked "scientific conclusions" that are close to a century old--the equivalent of basing your space program on the flat earth theory. Thus it is time to drive a stake through the heart of this myth and bury it once and for all. The basic concept is about as morally, scientifically, and politically sound as claiming that you can police New York City with cruise missiles.


Outside the trenches of denial among what is a small minority even in the Air Force, there is no significant body of support for the airpower adherents. Except in the recurrent wishful thinking of politicians and the twisted, self-serving logic of the aerospace industry, both of which are pandered to quite shamelessly by the bomber lobby.


I would submit to you that using distant punishment to influence a nation is like trying to get rid of the rats living in an inhabited residence, without ever entering the building. You can successfully influence the rats' behavior by burning the house down (as we did in Dresden), or blowing the house up (as we did in Hiroshima), or even by tossing in canisters of nerve gas. But the human inhabitants of the building, on whose behalf we are supposedly working, and the residents of neighboring houses, all tend to strongly disapprove of such strategies.


The obvious answer is to go into the building with our traps, cats, ferrets, and rat terriers, and to clean up the filth that the rats live in and on. But instead of doing this, some among our military community are still too fastidious to enter the building and confront the rats, and they have come up with the bizarre idea of placing snipers at the windows and periodically firing at the rats with shotguns and high powered rifles. The fact that this strategy is totally ineffective at controlling rats, and that it seriously endangers the innocent residents of the building, is completely inconsequential to the adherents of this distant punishment strategy. 


Immoral and Soon to be Illegal?

It has been my pleasure in recent months to correspond extensively with Dr. Robin Coupland, of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in Geneva, and editor of the ICRC report on "The SIrUS Project." This is an extensive body of research involving a database of over 26,000 war-wounded patients at Red Cross hospitals around the world since 1991. The objective of his work has been to determine which weapons inflict what the Geneva Convention identifies as "superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering." The upshot of this research is that an extensive body of data now exists to demonstrate what we all know: small arms fire kills or injures comparatively few non-combatants, but instruments of "distant punishment" (land mines, aerial bombing, and artillery) are responsible for the vast majority of the indiscriminate slaughter of non-combatants in war.


What I am telling you is that there is a tremendously influential force at play in the world today which is determined to see to it that artillery and aerial bombs will follow the land mine down the endangered species path already trod by gas warfare. It appears that those who propose to use "distant punishment" as national policy will soon see the day when they are considered as immoral international criminals, little different from Saddam Hussein.

We cannot escape the fact that, whether we like it or not, in the eyes of an increasingly large and influential body of individuals in this post-Cold War era, those who advocate distant punishment are really asking for license to kill civilians, and tax dollars to do it with.


American GIs, as combatants or peacekeepers, in the streets of a foreign nation have always been our best ambassadors, and American bombers dropping impersonal death and destruction from overhead have always been our worst. To have a national policy that relies excessively on distant punishment is to put our very worst foot forward. 


There can be little doubt that the execution of a policy based on strategic bombing is likely to explode in our faces. To explode figuratively, as CNN insures that we can no longer deny the dead and wounded women and children that in the past we have written off as "collateral damage." And then to explode quite literally, as enraged nationalists are inspired to return the favor of killing innocent women and children through terrorist attacks along the line of the Oklahoma City bombing--or, God forbid, with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.


What I have presented here has also been presented in my book, On Killing, which was nominated for a Pulitzer prize and has been positively reviewed in over 100 periodicals in over 30 nations. The implications of distant punishment outlined here have also been integral to my entry on "Aggression and Violence" in the Oxford Companion to American Military History, and my entries on "The Psychological Effects of Combat" and "The Evolution of Weaponry" in the Academic Press Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict, all with extensive peer reviews and all without dissent. I have lectured on this subject to 20 different colleges and universities in the U.S. and Europe, and as the plenary speaker to a British military historian's convention, as well as conducting in-service training at the local, state, and regional level to numerous psychiatric, psychological, and mental health organizations. Again, this has all been completely without dissent or controversy.


The bottom line is that, outside of a small cabal inside the Air Force, and some self-serving members of the aerospace industry, there is no intellectual, historical, or scientific basis of support for distant punishment as national policy. 


There can be no doubt. There can be no denial. The irrefutable truth is that, with very, very few exceptions, distant punishment in the form of aerial bombing is: psychiatrically unsound, psychologically impotent, strategically counterproductive, morally bankrupt, and likely to soon be illegal.


Thus there is very little justification for basing national policy on the effectiveness of air strikes. Or for directing precious national resources toward conducting any air strike. Unless it is in support of, and directed by, ground troops who can and will psychologically exploit it. Ground troops who will also have the moral courage to subsequently accept direct personal and national responsibility for whatever death and destruction results from that air strike. Nothing else should be acceptable for a democratic nation in the post-Cold War era.