Among the dead cities

As the war on terror grinds on, there are ethical lessons to be learned from the fire-bombing of German and Japanese cities during World War II in which hundreds of thousands of civilians perished.
Richard Umbers | Jun 22 2007 | comment  



Imagine an attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption and terror. 9/11? Resistance in Iraq? No, the Allied bombing of Hamburg in late July of 1943. Operation Gomorrah created a firestorm in which temperatures reached 800 degrees Celsius, oxygen was sucked out of bomb shelters, and thousands of non-combatant men, women and children ended up so shrivelled that dazed refugees took the corpses of loved ones with them packed into their suitcases. Everyone has heard about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How many of us remember the fire bombing of Tokyo in March 1945? Some 1,667 tons of incendiary bombs fell on 15 square miles of the most densely populated parts of the city. The resulting fire storm killed 85,000 people.

Among the Dead Cities is a moral evaluation of the Allies’ area bombing campaign and an attempt to purify the historical memory of the victors. At a time when torture is seriously being contemplated in the War on Terror, A. C. Grayling, a philosopher at the University of London and Oxford, has provided us with an ABC of ethics that reminds us that not all is fair in love and war.

Indeed the bombing campaign was at its most devastating in the final months of a war that had already been won. By the end of the war Harris was targeting certain German cities for bombing, not because they had any strategic importance, but simply because they had yet to be bombed!

Grayling is careful to distance himself from neo-Nazi apologists. He says that the Allied pilots flew bravely, that the Nazi atrocities were on a much worse scale than anything the Allies committed and that the Nazis were the first to instigate area bombing with their aerial attacks on Warsaw in 1939, Rotterdam in 1940 and the London Blitz. Still, the Allies do have a case to answer. Allied bombing killed 800,000 civilians.

Why in February of 1942 did the British War Cabinet decide to destroy all German cities with a population of over 100,000? A key factor was the replacement of Sir Richard Peirse at Bomber Command HQ by Sir Arthur ("Bomber") Harris. In preparation for this new posting Air Staff issued the following directive: "The primary objective of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population, and in particular on the industrial workers."

Harris’ desperate attempts to "carry the war to the Germans" led him to target civilians as a means of halting the German war effort. He believed, wrongly, that morale would break if Allied bombing were able to pulverise German monuments, libraries, churches and housing. The London blitz had shown that the bombing of civilians actually strengthened resolve. The German belief that the Allies were trying to reduce them to the pastoral status of New Zealand had a similar effect of galvanising their citizen’s efforts at quick rebuilding.

In the end, victory in World War II was largely a matter of production. It was the industrial might of the USA and the American strategic bombing of German oil supplies, something Harris vigorously resisted, that led to Germany’s demise. Harris’ campaign for area bombing only began in earnest when the tide of the war had already turned. Indeed the bombing campaign was at its most devastating in the final months of a war that had already been won. By the end of the war Harris was targeting certain German cities for bombing, not because they had any strategic importance, but simply because they had yet to be bombed!

Grayling is at pains to show that, whether or not area bombing was a war crime in the legal sense of the term, it was certainly against the spirit of international law and in itself offended against natural justice. Area bombing was a controversial volte-face from Chamberlain’s assurances at the beginning of hostilities that civilians would not be targeted. Pacifists like Vera Brittain wrote stern condemnations of this campaign that resonated with Londoners who knew at first hand about the horrors of civilian bombing. Her anti-bombing tract "Seeds of Chaos: What Mass Bombing Really Means" (1944) closed with the following claim, "the callous cruelty which has caused us to destroy innocent human life in Europe’s most crowded cities, and the vandalism which has obliterated historic treasures in some of her loveliest, will appear to future civilisation as an extreme form of criminal lunacy with which our political and military leaders deliberately allowed themselves to become afflicted."

Various excuses are given for the saturation bombing of civilians. Sir Arthur Harris gave the following in his memoirs, Bomber Offensive. "In spite of all that happened at Hamburg, bombing proved a comparatively humane method. For one thing, it saved the flower of youth of this country and of our allies from being mown down by the military in the field, as it was in Flanders… But the point is often made that bombing is specially wicked because it causes causalities among civilians. This is true, but then all wars have caused causalities among civilians. For instance, [in] the last war… our blockade of Germany… caused nearly 800,000 deaths – naturally these were mainly of women and children and old people because at all costs the enemy had had to keep his fighting men fed."

Vera Brittain had already written in Seeds of Chaos that the substitution of civilian deaths for military lives is no different to a soldier using a civilian as a shield on the battlefield. Whilst a certain degree of "collateral damage" can be afforded by the principle of double effect, it must not be disproportionate. Grayling says of such killing that it "violates the principle established by Aquinas and Grotius that a just action in war is a proportionate one. To stop guns being made by killing an armaments worker and his family and neighbours is disproportionate."

As for Harris’ second claim that civilians always get killed in war, let us remember that two wrongs don’t make a right. Says Grayling: "imagine a murderer defending himself by saying that there have always been murders, and that anyway he only murdered two people when someone else had murdered five." In the same vein we cannot excuse the carpet bombing by saying that the Germans were only reaping the whirlwind of what they had sewn.

Father Gillis, then editor of the Catholic World, had pointed out the logic of this argument at the time by stating that Vera Brittain’s opponents were arguing "missionaries should eat cannibals because cannibals eat missionaries". Perhaps another argument for bombing cities like Hiroshima, Nagaski and Dresden was to demonstrate to the Russians what Allied bombing was capable of. The cruelty of such an exercise in real Politik speaks for itself.

After a careful examination of the Allies’ own records and the reasons given by Bombing Command, Grayling comes to the following conclusions:

"Was area bombing necessary? No.

Was it proportionate? No.

Was it against the humanitarian principles that people have been striving to enunciate as a way of controlling and limiting war? Yes.

Was it against the general moral standards of the kind recognised and agreed in Western civilisation in the last five centuries, or even 2,000 years? Yes.

Was it against what mature national laws provide in the way of outlawing murder, bodily harm, and destruction of property? Yes.

In short and in sum: was area bombing wrong? Yes.

Very wrong? Yes.

… Should airmen have refused to carry out the area bombing raids? Yes."

What does this purification of the victors’ memory mean for the Coalition of the Willing today? We are at risk of going down the same ill thought-out utilitarian path. Recent US military manuals allow for economic targets (not just war industries) and the breaking of civilian morale as fair objectives for attack (cf. the Annotated Supplement to the Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations 8.1.1. Air Force Doctrine Document 1 (1997)). Among the Dead Cities is a timely reminder to our governments that might is not always right.

Dr Richard Umbers is a Catholic priest. He lectures in philosophy in Sydney.



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