In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethics of Aerial Bombardment

  • Introduction
  • The Ethics of War
  • The Future of Airpower and Strategic Bombardment
  • Studies in Ethics and Morals in Aerial Bombing

Military History Ethics of Aerial Bombardment
Michael Pavelec
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0134


Aerial bombardment as a weapon of war was born in the high-technology era at the start of the 20th century. Although the technology—aircraft—was new the idea was a continuation of the attack in depth and nested within the context of warfare as a whole. Thus, to begin the discussion of the ethics of aerial bombardment, some context is necessary. War, as a human interaction, was and remains controversial in and of itself. Ranging from local to global struggles, warfare in human history has been chronicled, studied, and analyzed. The critique of war, in a philosophical sense, has continued concurrently with the great tales of battle. As early as Homer and Thucydides, questions have been posed to stimulate thinking on the ethics of war as a display of human interaction. When aerial bombardment is considered, a more vociferous critique emerges. Aerial bombardment began in earnest during World War I, with the strategic bombing campaigns mounted by the Germans against the Allies and vice versa. This new form of war exposed populations, cities, and industry to the horrors of war to a greater extent than ever before. Once civilian populations were put at risk, philosophers, theorists, religious figures, diplomats, and a wide variety of thinkers began to ponder the ethics, legality, morals, and necessity of bombardment from the air.

The Ethics of War

In the literature on the ethics of war, a number of specifically “modern” interpretations are especially noteworthy. Building on the writings of Saint Augustine and Grotius, works such as Walzer 2006 have rekindled the debate on the ethics and legality—in an international legal sense—of warfare. Christopher 2004, and Nardin 1996, also broach the topic and provide excellent opinions. Johnson 2011 is also an important book on the ethical use of force. These books are important primers on the ethics of war and the discussion of current trends in the philosophy of war.

  • Christopher, Paul. The Ethics of War and Peace: An Introduction to Legal and Moral Issues. 3d ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004.

    Christopher presents a coherent argument on the ethics of war from a historical perspective. His cases are excellent, and his contribution to the field is important.

  • Johnson, James Turner. Ethics and the Use of Force: Just War in Historical Perspective. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    A work by noted scholar James Turner Johnson on the subject of ethics and warfare. This collection of his essays is an important contribution to the subject.

  • Nardin, Terry, ed. The Ethics of War and Peace: Religious and Secular Perspectives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    This edited volume draws on a number of recognized scholars and their contributions to the argument. Complements Christopher 2004 and provides additional information and in-depth analysis on the religious perspectives on warfare.

  • Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. 4th ed. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

    Walzer presents the fundamental book on the topic. His study and style brilliantly encapsulate the background and argument on the ethics of warfare. His book is the starting place for the discussion. Originally published in 1977.

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