one century of bombing of humans and human habitat
a way to both remember and forget - a way to reconcile
a project proposal by Tjebbe van Tijen

The idea for the Umbombing Project came after I visited Tokyo in 1995. At first I could not understand why only such a few older buildings and landmarks could be seen, and I was shocked to discover that a great part of this huge city had been torched and burnt down during aerial bombing campaigns of the USA Air Force in March-July 1945. I was ashamed not to know that over a hundred thousand people died, probably more than the death toll taken by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. As 1995 was the 50 years anniversary of the dropping of the atom bombs, an international debate arose. A discussion partly triggered by a proposed exhibition in the American Smithsonian Institute of Technology of the airplane that dropped the atom bombs, the Enola Gay. A discussion about whether it had been right or wrong to drop the A-bombs; if it had "saved lives" of American soldiers and, possibly, many sections of the Japanese population that would have resisted a traditional sea-born invasion; if "the aggressive and murderous" Japanese nation deserved to be strafed in such a way; if the sea blockade had not already brought Japan on its knees, and so on. 1995 was also the year in which discussion lists on the Internet started booming and many people from the USA, Japan, the world over, used this new discussion medium.

The discussion was marked by an obvious split between right and wrong, victors and defeated, aggressor and counter-aggressor. It did not sufficiently address the wider problem of the use of aerial bombing: ways of waging war whereby civilians run even more risk to be killed than soldiers.

The Unbombing Project is an attempt to go beyond the dichotomized way of discussing war. It raises questions on the massive use of air power during World War II as a means to defeat Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperial Japan (it certainly does not fail to document the indiscriminate and vicious attacks by the air forces of these Axis countries); it raises questions on the practice of "terror-bombing", not aimed at military or economic targets, but at the morale of the population, and thus at their lives. A military strategy that has not sufficiently been put in question, and even continued during the Korean and Vietnam/Indochina wars. The post World War II international tribunals of Nuremberg and Tokyo failed to address the issue of aerial bombing and the hundred thousands of victims it caused. This has left a moral-vacuum, especially on the side of the British, the Americans and allied countries that had a major involvement in the air war (Canada, South Africa, Australia). This moral-vacuum is easily filled with anti-Western, anti-American, sentiments. International justice comes to be seen as a justice which exempts the victors.The debate about the throwing of the atom bombs on Japan, the bombing of Dresden, the Hamburg fire storm, the merciless pounding of Indochina (to mention only a few major cases), smoulders and keeps flaring up at unexpected moments.
Air power (aerial bombing and missile attack) continues to be used in the last decades. Not just by 'First World', "Western powers" like the United States or Great Britain but also by 'Second World' powers like the Soviet Union and its offspring, the Russian Federation, as in the case of Afghanistan and Chechnya. 'Thirds World' nations have joined in, as in the cases of Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Congo, Angola, and Columbia. Air power is a tool both for internal repression in civil war like situations (Nicaragua, Columbia, Congo, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Sri Lanka) and old fashioned inter-state wars like the one between Iran and Irak. There certainly is a decline in the number of bombing victims, massive and indiscriminate targeting of urban areas is not anymore on the military agenda, as public opinion and its management has become part of 'the military operation'. Nevertheless Gulf, Balkan and Afghanistan Wars saw "unintentional" killing, in spite of the praised "precision" of modern weapons. There may be almost "zero casualties" for the perpetrators, the ones flying, throwing, or merely plotting and pushing a button, human bodies, human lives on the ground are fragile, victims continue to occur, whereby one may also doubt whether the death of demonized adversaries (be they labeled soldiers or terrorists) by explosion or fire is the best solution for solving a conflict.

A historical reconciliation process, of bombing humans and human habitat, is still needed, a process that starts with attempts at "truth finding" and "truth telling", which will reveal that there is more than one truth, which will give some understanding of the military-industrial-complex and the weakness of political decision-makers dealing with it; a process which lets us listen to those from the past who spoke against massive bombing and torching of cities and villages, against the spraying of poison, the casting of cluster bomb; a process in which the voices of the aircrews that risked and often gave their lives, must be heard as well. For many fighters of the air war it has been more than just following orders, it was a fight against totalitarian and murderous regimes, or a defense of the own nation, putting at risk their own lives. Of course this is raising questions in hindsight, but still they need to be posed. Evading them and rigidly continue to foster historical self-righteousness will be impossible. The present is changing and the past will be reappraised.

Tjebbe van Tijen 9/2/2004

In the coming period I will try to find financial and technical support to realize parts of the Unbombing Project. It is clear that the scope of such a project is far beyond the capabilities of one person. From the beginning the idea has been to gather the content in a collaborative way, using the knowledge and insight of many people. The Internet offers opportunities to realize such a collective work on an international level. Before such a collaborative phase can start there is the need of a minumum corpus of examples of materials to be used (chronical of bombing instances, estimates of victims and damage, accounts of victims, of perpetrators, planners, decisionmakers).

Opportunities for financial support from the cultural and scientific sector will be used. Applications for support will be posted here as down-loadable files in Acrobat PDF format:

2004/02 Proposal for German phase Edith-Russ Haus Oldenburg(putting the German "Bombenkrieg" discussion in a global perspective, 14 pages)
- UBWproject.pdf

2004/02 Overview of content of global Unbombing database (1911-2003 overview of all bombed towns/areas 815 records, 36 pages)
- UBWdatabase.pdf

Below is the second version of the original concept first published on the Web in 1999.


90 years aerial bombing of the human habitat

a proposal for an installation on the history and future of planned destruction and reconstruction

corrected draft version of 1999

Tjebbe van Tijen - Imaginary Museum Projects

fire cauldron with charcoal
aerial photographs of destroyed habitats engraved in (tomb) stones

stands with loose paper sheets for making 'rubbings' of tomb stones with charcoal
fountains for washing hands after making rubbings



bureau-desk interface with LCD-screen desktop, drawers for files to go through database by sliding in and out, headphone sets and airplane models to access dramatised audio sequences about bomb targets.

drawing table interface with LCD or projection desktop and ruler and pen to access visualized and dramatised histories of reconstruction of bombed areas.


flight similator platform interface, one of a game arcade, the other for military instruction.
computer flight simulators with joysticks both for the consumer markets and military use.with introductory interviews with players and makers of these games.

video cameras capturing the image of people working at the desk and table.

over a million of death, more than a thousand square kilometres of vanished townscapes

The planned destruction of human beings and their habitat by aerial bombing, including the inevitable attacks by 'mistake'. Showing all aerial bombings in an impartial and indiscriminate way, making them comparable, thus putting the debate beyond the justifications of contemporary 'real-politik'. Clarifying the underlying structures of the military-industrial complex and the political bureaucracy that formed, and still form, the basis for this kind of mass destruction. De-constructing the process: mapping, targeting, choosing, planning, testing, threatening, bombing, mediating, evaluating, commemorating. Make it understood that there is a close link between the violence of weapons of the military and the violence of euphemistic language of the politicians.

Give voice to those in the past who dared to question or criticise the aerial bombings of 'their enemies' and had to face the consequences of such 'anti-patriotic' behaviour. Re-evaluating the official and unofficial protests of the bombed ones, with their accusations of 'crimes against humanity', raising the ethical question of means and ends, why not all atrocities are considered 'war crimes'. Putting the emphasis not so much on the spectacular sight of destruction with its heroism and even aesthetic attraction, as can be found in many eyewitness accounts of major blasts and fires by people that were lucky enough to escape and tell their story, but on the much more invisible phenomena of the 'bureaucratisation of genocide'; the daily routine of mapping and targeting the supposed enemy. A practice that has not been stopped at the end of the Second World War, Cold War, or Vietnam War, but has continued to exist till this very moment.

Condensing these complex issues by juxtaposing fragments of historical documents relating to the different actors in this theatre of war, both perpetrators and victims: politicians, civil servants, scientists, industrialists, military personnel, civilians. Choosing a significant number and a representative variety of bombed cities from the complete list of approximate 400 towns in the world that have been bombed in the last 90 years. Dramatising the historical documents that belong to the chosen examples, by using interactive audio-visual media. With each chosen dramatised example, showing comparable examples (just in text form, diagrams or maps) from the complete list, to make the magnitude of destruction always understood.

Letting the voices of the victims of bombing be heard by quoting from the vast arsenal of personal accounts that have been published the last nine decades in different countries that have suffered bombing attacks. Making a choice of such writings and translating them in the languages needed in the country or countries where the installation will be shown. Setting up an international network of concerned people: archivists, artists, people who have witnessed a bombing, local journalists, peace activists, translators, photographers, etc., who will share their knowledge by adding it to a public accessible database which will be made available over the Internet.

Placing the destruction by aerial bombing in a wider historical context by finding ways to show how, through the whole of history, towns and their inhabitants have been made a target, put on a list to be destroyed or annihilated, from the legend like biblical story of the destruction by divine fire of Sodom and Gomorra, to the bombing raid of the combined American and British air forces with the code name 'Operation Gomorra' on Hamburg in 1943, where 40.000 civilians were killed in a human made fire storm. Studying the language used by those attacking and those being attacked, showing the links with events way back in history, with words like 'Huns' and names like Genghis Kahn, surfacing again. Showing how deeply rooted the collective memories of these violent periods in human history are. Relating this to man made apocalyps of the middle of the twentieth century: Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. Posing, also, the question about a possible link between urban growth and urban disaster, between destruction and reconstruction, noting the vitality of all those cities that, in one way or another, did rise from their ashes, maybe even more vital as before.

Comparing the different reconstruction processes of bombed cities: those that have referred back to the past by building replicas of what have been destroyed, and those that were using the opportunity to build a new town, following a whole new concept, almost welcoming the 'tabula rasa' created by war, the unique opportunity, a town as an empty piece of paper on a drawing board. Contrasting the magnitude of destruction by bombing in war with that of destruction by regular urban renewal  Finding ways to show clearly what has disappeared forever, what have been reconstructed and what have been newly added. Ask people to imagine what would have happened if their town would not have been bombed.

Showing all this in an installation, an art work, an educational facility if you want, that has three different layers, using three main symbols:


Bureaucratic procedures for choosing targets can lead to the actual destruction of human habitat. High technology is used to bomb people back into the stone age. Images of this destruction, frozen in engraved tombstones, can be personally captured. Rubbings made on paper with charcoal can be taken home. Before proceeding to the other parts of the installation you can wash your hands in 'innocence'.

A graveyard of tombstones with aerial photographs of bombed cities engraved. The stones can be contemplated and visitors can make charcoal rubbings of stones to take home, either single stones of particular cities, or combining different cities in one rubbing. When they are finished with this they can wash their dirty hands and proceed to the rest of the installation.


There is an inescapable relation between the targeting and destruction of the human habitat and the reconstruction afterwards. However devastating and cruel the attack, none of the towns bombed by modern technology have been wiped of the face of the earth definitely. The office-desk and the drawing-table are the two symbols that stand at the beginning and end of this process of destruction and recreation.

Opening and closing of drawers to look through visual database of targets and weapons. Putting objects (a & c) on blotting paper (b) to see and hear details. Moving airplane model (c/d) up and down to trigger stories of people bombing and people being bombed. Stories can heard by headphone (A). Using ruler (e) and stylus (f) to go through visual database of bomb damage and reconstruction, displayed or projected on drawing table. Once a specific site has been chosen, different stories of planners and those being planned can be triggered by moving stylus (f) up and down. Stories can be heard by headphone (B).

The four positions of the chairs  steeri the four projection positions on the all around oval screen (1-3) and the two circular screens (4) hanging over the tombstones section Projection 1: video image of person working at desk or table; 2: target or destroyed area; 3: bombing results or reconstructed area; 4: video image of person working at desk or table fused with image of tombstone or aerial photograph of the scene today

Sitting at an office desk with drawers full of files with the names of target cities and target areas. Going through these files, taking out one, opening it and study the details. Opening the other drawer of the desk and going through the arsenal of possible weapons. Choosing the right weapon that belongs to how the chosen target fits in space and time. Bombing the target and turn around on your office chair, looking to what was there before and what after. Having the opportunity to turn away from the desk, asking yourself: "what have I done?"

Sitting at the drawing table of the urban planner, making an inventory of the war damage, thinking up new plans, deciding what to keep, what to knock down after all. Turning your chair, looking at what was before, at what came after, maybe turning around and ask yourself: "what have I done?".

By pointing a hand size symbolic model of an aeroplane up and down, the visitor can listen to narrated fragments from those who were bombing and those who have been bombed.

In a similar way, at the drawing table, the visitor can listen to stories of both the planners and the ones that have been planned, by moving a special drawing pencil up and down over the table.


The difference between playing war with an arcade or home game and real war has diminished greatly by the miniaturisation and computerisation of both military and consumer electronics. Desktop war as entertainment, or for real, has become a reality. Human victims seem to have no importance neither in simulation games nor in real life.

Around the installation with the stones and the desks are several flight simulators and wargames placed for the visitors to use. These are both recreational and military games. Before being able to play a game, to exercise war, the visitor will have to look at a short interview on the screens of the computers and the military and arcade game, with both makers and players of these simulations and games. Questions will be asked: "why is it that victims are so invisible", "can it be that these games will have a kind of kartharsis function?", "would you really push the button, do the attack when ordered?".

This is the second draft of the unbombing project as formulated by Tjebbe van Tijen/Imaginary Museum Projects. The aim is to find other people, other orgaisations, institutions that are interested, willing to collaborate on this project. There is a lot that still needs detailing, there are many things that can be adapted or changed, in one way or another, though the basic structure has now been laid down and should remain. A first list of possible cities and rural areas that might be part of this installation is included in this document. There is a seperate introduction for that section.

Amsterdam January 1999

All contacts via:
Imaginary Museum Projects
Nieuwe Amstelstraat 70, 1011 PM, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Telephone +31-(0)20-6261897, Fax 6271897
Email t.tijen@chello.nl: Tjebbe van Tijen

Other texts on history and  museums and remembering at  http://www.iisg.nl/~tvt/

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