A Secret History of Unmanned Bombing
Last week America’s drone war was brought back into sharp focus when President Obama admitted that a US drone strike in January killed two al Qaeda hostages, an American and an Italian. “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur,” Obama told the nation.
Writing in the New York Times, Peter Baker noted that the apology underscored “the perils of a largely invisible, long-distance war waged through video screens, joysticks and sometimes incomplete intelligence.” Jason Linkins and Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post put it more directly in their piece, “A Drone Program That Has Killed Hundreds Of Civilians Finally Killed Some That The White House Regrets.”
Two days before Obama’s press conference I was on a long drive, binging on podcasts, and found myself immersed in a kind of secret history of unmanned bombing. Two random podcasts came on almost back-to-back that were haunting in their description of the lengths humans will go to drop bombs on each other. The two stories are powerful in and of themselves, but were made all the more striking in light of Obama’s comments.
The first episode was from Nate DiMeo and the Memory Palace. Titled, “Itty Bitty Bombs,” it was just a short five-minute clip, but the weight of it seemed to fill my car as I listened. DiMeo describes it as “fact-for-fact one of the most bonkers stories” he ever tackled.
DiMeo describes the history of a dentist who, in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, came up with the idea of strapping time-bombs onto 1,040,000 bats and dropping them over Japanese cities. Some of the bats would burst into flames on the way down but, as DiMeo tells it, “the others would scatter, taking refuge in attics and eaves and under porches, like bats do, and one by one, over the course of hours, or days, the bombs would go off, and fires would start.” The system was designed to do immense structural damage, but also to maximize the terror people felt — never sure if their house had a weaponized bat living in it.
His idea somehow reached the president and got traction. DiMeo says that U.S. military worked on developing the bat bombs for three years, finding the right bats, designing the right bombs and running numerous successful tests. But by that time, the US had developed the atomic bomb and the bats were no longer needed.
The second story of unmanned bombing also comes from World War II. Radiolab introduces the episode, “Fu-Go,” on their website this way: “During World War II, something happened that nobody ever talks about. This is a tale of mysterious balloons, cowboy sheriffs, and young children caught up in the winds of war. And silence, the terror of silence.”
Between 1944 and 1945 the Japanese launched roughly 9,000 paper balloons into the jet stream high above the Pacific Ocean in hopes they would reach the shores of the United States. Suspended from the enormous helium filled balloons was a chandelier of tiny bombs designed to fall from the skies over America. To work, Japanese engineers had to devise complex systems of altimeters and sandbags to keep the balloons aloft through the long journey.
Remarkably, the plan worked. Hundreds of the balloons made it across the Pacific dropping down with their deadly payloads in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona and beyond.
However, after a few initial reports in the local press the U.S. War Department issued a blanket order demanding newspapers not report on the balloons. The government didn’t want to cause a panic and didn’t want the Japanese to know their plan was working and that the balloons were reaching their target. They also argued that if the Japanese knew where the balloons were landing based on press reports, they could aim the balloons with even greater precision. For the most part, the press agreed to the censorship out of concern for national security. That’s one of the reasons many of us have never heard about the balloons today.
The Radiolab episode includes many more haunting details and personal stories from the balloon bombs. You really need to hear the full hour. On their website they have photos and schematics from the balloons as well.
Radiolab calls the balloon bombing a “seemingly ridiculous, almost whimsical series of attacks” a phrase that feels just as apt for the bat bombs Nick DiMeo describes. It is that ridiculousness and whimsy, carried to a terrifying end, that makes these two stories so poignant.
Today, our bombs aren’t carried by balloons or bats, they are delivered by robots.
Today, our bombs aren’t carried by balloons or bats, they are delivered by robots. These robots are controlled by joysticks, driven by a new generation of soldiers in command centers that resemble office buildings. We’ve replaced the random selection of balloons riding jet streams and bats seeking shelter with a calculated, targeted specificity. But last week was a reminder that even with 70 years of technology on our side, sometimes the results are no better than balloons drifting in the fog of war.