Just War Part 11: Giulio Douhet

Giulio DouhetThere are no more prominent theologians left in our history of Just War thinking. From here on out the leaders of government and military will steer the Just War tradition to the present. Beginning with Giulio Douhet.

Italian Brigadier General Douhet (1869-1930) presented his revisions to Just War doctrine in his treatise The Command of the Air, influencing both British and American military leaders and training programs between the two World Wars. Air power had changed the way wars were fought and who was affected by them. Douhet was the first to put together comprehensive and coherent philosophy for governing the use of this new force.

Before air power the bulk of a nation’s population was unreachable by the enemy, safe behind the line of battle.

“…[in the past] the civilian populations of warring nations did not directly feel the war. But that situation is a thing of the past; for now it is possible to go far behind enemy lines of defense without first breaking through them.”(1)

Douhet also observed that the structure of society had so changed that it was impossible to separate combatants from noncombatants.

He wrote…

“The prevailing forms of social organization have given war a character of national totality – that is, the entire population and all the resources of a nation are sucked into the maw of war.”(1)

In these two ways modern warfare was far different from warfare of past generations and so, Douhet felt, the rules of war needed to change as well.

“No longer can areas exist in which life can be lived in safety and tranquility, nor can the battlefield any longer be limited to actual combatants. On the contrary, the battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to aerial offensives of the enemy.”(1)

Previously, Just War thinkers had defined a “combatant” as anyone who attacked or contributed to attack. Douhet broadly redefined a “combatant” as anyone who could be attacked.

Douhet mocked traditional Just War ethics and those who would be reluctant to wage war on the general population of an enemy nation in the modern age, arguing that a soldier’s life may be worth more than a civilian’s.

“[It is] a peculiar traditional notion which makes people weep to hear of a few women and children killed in an air raid, and leaves them unmoved to hear of thousands of soldiers killed in action. All human lives are equally valuable; but because tradition holds that the soldier is fated to die in battle, his death does not upset them much, despite the fact that a soldier, a robust young man, should be considered to have the maximum value in the general economy of humanity.”(1)

Douhet also predicted how wars fought against an entire nation would be won in the future, and theorized that these wars would be more humane because of their brevity. He argued that conflicts should begin with the bombing of cities and the general population using “explosives, incendiaries and gas bombs.”

“Word of such an assault on a few of the urban centers of a nation would so terrorize the citizens of other cities that all social order would collapse. Soon the nation would cease to function and its people would plead for peace. All this could happen before the army could be mobilized.”(2)

“Whatever its aims, the side which decides to go to war will unleash all its aerial forces in mass against the enemy nation the instant the decision is taken, without waiting to declare war formally, trying in this way to exploit to the utmost the factor of surprise.” (1)

So, Douhet did away with the need to declare war, widened the scope of war to encompass all of a nation and its citizens. Any nation refusing to surprise the enemy, use the full force of their bombers against urban centers, or reluctant to “kill civilians” was doomed to lose. But to attack as Douhet advised would be “merciful” and result in swift victory.

“Mercifully, the decision will be quick in this kind of war, since the decisive blows will be directed at civilians, that element of the countries at war least able to sustain them. These future wars may yet prove to be more humane than wars of the past in spite of all, because they may in the long run shed less blood. (1)”

New war technology had made the traditional moral considerations “obsolete.” Non-existent even. As one U.S. military historian states…

“We see here a total rejection of the just-war tradition. The long-established distinction between warrior and civilian was swept away in what [Douhet] admitted was a dark and bloody picture. The time-honored military ethic was gone, a fearful prospect. …[He] discarded both the old military methods and the traditional ethics of the warrior, leaving what could seem to be only cruel and heartless pragmatism.”(2)

And another…

“One senses here the final and frightening abandonment by the soldier of any sense of responsibility for the political and social consequences of his military acts, not only abroad but at home.”(3)

Douhet contribution to Just War history was to blatantly form war ethics on the anvil of pragmatism instead of tradition or faith.

Next? America’s military makes its first contribution to Just War history.


  • (1) Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (new York: Coward-McCann, 1942)
  • (2) Louis A. Manzo, Morailty in War Fighting and Strategic Bombing in World War II (Air Force Historical Foundation, 1992)
  • (3) Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age