Reaping the whirlwind

Seventy years ago this week Nazi planes began a campaign of bombing civilian targets in London. Can we honestly say, “never again”?
Zac Alstin | Sep 10 2010 | comment  


“It began on Saturday 7th September 1940 at around tea-time… That Saturday was a warm, sunny Autumn day. In the late afternoon we of the Auxiliary Fire Service, stationed at the London Fire Brigade Station … [were] watching from the window towards Greenwich, across the Thames, we suddenly saw aircraft approaching, quite low, their shapes black against the bright sky. We watched, mesmerised, until someone said, uneasily, ‘I think we’d better go downstairs, these blokes look like they mean business’ They did. We closed the window and were walking, unhurriedly down the stairs when suddenly came loud rushing noises and huge explosions. Bombs! we were being bombed! “ ~ Doris Lilian Bennett


This month marks 70 years since the German Luftwaffe began its systematic bombing of English cities, killing 43,000 Britons in nine months of bombing. Nazi Germany adopted this tactic after failing to gain the air supremacy needed for a full scale invasion of Britain, and in retaliation for earlier limited bombings of German cities. “The Blitz” failed to defeat British morale; but the tactic of “terror bombing” became a central feature of the Second World War.

From 1942 onward, Britain’s Royal Air Force began the systematic bombing of German cities, under the direction of Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris:

“Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.”

Harris’ rationale is the epitome of “whatever it takes”, the principle of military expedience. But there is also a hint of vengeance in his words: “The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them… They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

Estimates of German civilian casualties suffered under Allied bombing range from 300,000 to 600,000 killed. The RAF were far more effective than their German counterparts.

In the Pacific region the Japanese military made no secret of their contempt for the rules of warfare. The numerous war crimes and atrocities committed by Japanese forces were more like natural extensions of the perverse Imperial ideology, rather than concessions to military expedience.

But the US firebombing of Tokyo from February 1945, and finally the use of nuclear weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are the epitome of doing “whatever it takes” to shorten the war, forestall invasion, preserve the lives of Allied soldiers, and let enemy civilians “reap the whirlwind”. The lessons of military expedience culminated in the most direct and effective violence ever inflicted upon an enemy population.

In the past few decades, Western democracies have shied away from the targeting of non-combatants. A narrative has emerged affirming the “exceptional” nature of World War II, that increased civilian mobilisation according to the principles of “total war” removed the distinction between civilian and military. Yet this “straw man” argument does not tell us why it should suddenly become morally licit to intentionally target enemy non-combatants; for it is the “combatant/non-combatant” distinction that determines the moral use of force, not the “civilian/military” dichotomy. Medics and chaplains may be military non-combatants, while civilians will become legitimate targets if they enter into combat.

The value of this distinction is most apparent in the two wars that have engaged Western democracies this past decade. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy is not “military”, yet he is most definitely a combatant. At the same time, the enemy has embraced whole-heartedly the principle of expedience, doing “whatever it takes” to achieve his goals. This principle is made explicit in the self-serving justification of al-Qaeda:

“Muslim scholars have issued a fatwa [a religious order] against any American who pays taxes to his government. He is our target, because he is helping the American war machine against the Muslim nation.”

 Another al-Qaeda leader offered justifications for the killing of non-combatants that read almost like a parody of arguments for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

“The citizens in democratic Western countries become full participants in governmental decision-making by voting in elections and therefore they are no longer considered ‘non-combatants’ as in past wars.”

Islamic terrorists and “insurgents” have even displayed an astonishing degree of callousness toward the lives of their fellow believers:

“The killing of infidels by any method including martyrdom [suicide] operations has been sanctified by many scholars even if it means killing innocent Muslims… The shedding of Muslim blood... is allowed in order to avoid the greater evil of disrupting jihad.”

We have returned to a point where Western nations uphold the ethics of warfare, while our enemies will do “whatever it takes” to win. Yet the temptation will always exist for us to abandon our self-imposed rules of warfare for the sake of a quicker, easier, or more vengeful victory.

To avoid this temptation, we must confirm that we are truly acting in accordance with the ethics of warfare, and not simply responding to the demands of the present era. It is clear, for example, that domestic and international politics will not condone the targeting of non-combatants as it did in the past. But is this opinion based on the fact that it is always wrong to target non-combatants? Or is it based on a pragmatic sense that such actions are not yet justified? We do not know what challenges the future holds, so we cannot predict how our judgment will be tested and warped by coming events.

Many people believe that war with Iran or North Korea are very real possibilities, and the threat of nuclear weapons from these nations cannot be ignored. How would we respond in such a terrible scenario? Would we view their non-combatant populations as worthy of protection? Or would we find some rationale to let them “reap the whirlwind”?

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.

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