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The use of the atomic bomb is still so unique that it is difficult to compare it with more conventional bombing like the fire-bombing tactics used in Europe and in Japan near the end of WWII. Fire-bombing grew out of the desire to obliterate enemy cities and destroy their morale and significant amounts of effort and thought were put into how to burn as much as possible using as few bombs and bombers, Curtis LeMay was a big proponent.
The atomic bombs were dropped, in my opinion and according to much of what I've read on the subject, to send a message to Stalin as much as or more than they were to have any effect on a war with Japan that was already won.
Historians who debate the use of the atomic bomb in World War II often bring up the comparable damage and deaths caused by widespread firebombing on both the European and Pacific fronts. Their main point being that the destruction of cities like Dresden in Germany in 1945 and Tokyo (among others) in 1945 killed hundreds of thousands of people and was devastatingly destructive and brutal.
Now they can use that argument two ways. They can use it to say that the use of the atomic bomb was justified because other types of bombing that are not historically controversial were even more destructive and deadly. Or they can make the argument that the firebombings were every bit as wrong and criminal as dropping the atomic bombs were. Either way, it's a fairly compelling point to make.
Both firebombing and the atomic bomb caused wide spread damage that went far beyond military targets. Those who weilded them were fully aware that civilians would be caught up in the destruction and devastation. Both weapons were also meant to demoralize surrounding communities and strike fear into the populace at large.
Both weapons, once dropped, could no longer be controlled. Both had a far more damaging affect than anyone would have predicted.
Of course both the firebombing of cities such as Dresden and the use of the Atomic bomb are alike in that they were acts that were to be deplored. They were not targeted at armed forces fighting the war but were deliberately aimed at producing civilian casualties and lowering moral as part of the war effort. Where the difference comes in, in my mind, is the massive difference in power and range of the Atomic bomb, which was undoubtedly the deadlier weapon. It was the use of this weapon against innocent civilians who really had very little chance of escape or fleeing which makes this act far more deplorable than the use of firebombing.
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