Bombing makes China modern

One thing that made China truly modern in 1932 and then again in 1937 was that its cities were being bombed. Here is a cartoon by Sapajou, the White Russian cartoonist who was the face of Shanghai in the 1930’s, if you were a foreigner.


The guardian of the “Temple of 10,000 tortures” seems to be mystified by the threat of aerial bombardment, and well he should, since the bombings of European cities in World War One paled besides the bombings of Shanghai, the world’s first modern city. (Assuming that being bombed from the air makes you a modern city.)

Although foreigners were reluctant to take Shanghai bombings seriously, given that both the bombers and the bombed were Asians, the bombings of Shanghai in 1932 and 1937 fit in well with the developing international understanding of war. Inter-war thinkers believed that “the bomber would always get through” i.e. airplanes were the first version of nuclear missiles: they could not be defended against, and would inevitably destroy whichever target the authorities aimed them at. In fact bombing was far more risky and above all more random than they thought.

Paul Fussell discusses how even those subjected to bombing assumed that the targets were chosen rationally, since even  assuming that one was being bombed by evil people was preferable to realizing that war was mostly random violence with only the most minimal connection to any possible goal.

Shanghai in 1937 was (or should have been) one of the last gasps of the old innocence where some could assume that the random violence of bombing was due to incompetence of the bombers rather than the nature of modern war. Here is Stillwell, a septic about the power of aviation, describing the early bombings.

“An imposing list of useless and stupid bombings by both sides on targets which by no stretch of the imagination could be said to have any military value. These targets include, for the Japanese, university buildings, a department store, a mission hospital, a railroad station crowded with refugees, and the car of the British Ambassador. About the only thing lacking is an orphan asylum. The Chinese have to their credit a hotel, and American merchant ship, and a street crowd in a densely populated section of the International Settlement; except for the ‘President Hoover’ these cases can probably be laid to the inexperience and nervousness of amateurs rather than to deliberate intention, and the case of the ‘Hoover’ the the unwarranted assumption that she was a Japanese troop transport. ”

Stillwell, report 9588 August 21-Sept 1 1937

In fact, the inability of the Chinese and Japanese pilots to hit what they aimed at was not due to their being Asians, but to the fact that everyone would end up finding that hard to do.

A nice quote if you are interested in the evolution of ideas about war and bombing, or Western ideas about Asians.

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