Governing from the Skies

Governing from the Skies:A Global History of Aerial Bombing

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The history of the war from the past one hundred years is a history of bombing

Ever since its invention, aviation has embodied the dream of perpetual peace between nations, yet the other side of this is the nightmare of an unprecedented deadly power. A power initially deployed on populations that the colonizers deemed too restive, it was then used to strike the cities of Europe and Japan during World War II.

With air war it is now the people who are directly taken as target, the people as support for the war effort, and the sovereign people identified with the state. This amounts to a democratisation of war, and so blurs the distinction between war and peace.

This is the political shift that has led us today to a world governance under United States hegemony defined as ‘perpetual low-intensity war’, which is presently striking regions such as Yemen and Pakistan, but which tomorrow could spread to the whole world population.

Air war thus brings together the major themes of the past century: the nationalization of societies and war, democracy and totalitarianism, colonialism and decolonization, Third World-ism and globalization, and the welfare state and its decline in the face of neoliberalism. The history of aerial bombing offers a privileged perspective for writing a global history of the twentieth century.


  • What is original about Thomas Hippler’s essay is the way he examines the ‘government of the world’ from the early twentieth century through to our own time in the light of its ‘privileged instrument: air bombing with “police” objectives.’ Utilizing testimonies, reports and other historical material, which he synthesizes with eloquence, Hippler develops a political philosophy of war around this topical question: how can one understand ‘the extension of colonial practices to the world population as a whole’?

    Le Monde
  • In November 2011, the first bombs dropped from an Italian aeroplane in Libya inaugurated a century of violence from the skies. In an essay both fascinating and disturbing, Thomas Hippler traces this history to reveal the ‘political philosophy of the bomb’, as theorized in particular by the Italian Giulio Douhet, the key figure in this book. The bomb is not only the emblematic weapon of colonial domination, but also became the weapon of ‘total war’ with the annihilation of British, German and Japanese cities between 1939 and 1945 and the employment of drones in today’s ‘low-intensity conflicts.’ The author links this sequence of events to the reputedly ‘democratic’ character of aerial bombardment, an instrument of domination applied from a distance that by its nature is indiscriminate, targeting an entire body politic, life in the air-raid shelter becoming its striking microcosm. A stimulating and very Foucauldian reflection on the power to ‘overfly and destroy.’