All Is Fair in Love and War

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There’s a lot of bombing the bejeezus out of all sorts of people around these days and Webdiarists seem to be much keen on discussing it recently so I am grateful both to SWMBO and the Librarian at St Vincent’s College Potts Point for bringing to my attention AC Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime? Bloomsbury Publishing, London 2006. Grayling is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London and he raises some interesting points that I thought germane to a few recent debates on WD. Grayling of course is a philosopher while I am a legal philosopher so we differ from the outset however some of the questions he raises and analyses raise interesting points about warfare in general, air warfare in particular (including the use of tactical nuclear weapons) and moral culpability.

He writes very much from a British perspective, having grown up in post-war England but he analyses the attitude of Bomber Command to "area bombing" in Europe as against tactical bombing by the US 8th Air Force and the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The pacifists amongst you will be sad to learn that he starts from the premise that the war, on the part of the allies, was a just war and that just war is permissible [pp 210-4] but comes to the conclusion that both area-bombing in Europe and the atomic attacks were immoral, disproportionate and unnecessary.

For reasons which will appear below, I differ but not without some disquiet.

His starting point [p10] (I said he was a philosopher) is:

I reported the assertion that ‘deliberately mounting military attacks on civilian populations, in order to cause terror and indiscriminate death among them, is a moral crime’. I then asked: Are there ever circumstances in which killing civilians in wartime is not a moral crime? Are there ever circumstances – desperate ones, circumstances of danger to which such actions constitute a defence – that would justify or at least exonerate them?’ I take the assertion and these questions as my terms of reference. Here, it should be noted that he is dealing with aerial bombardment specifically. Although he is not an historian the book contains a fairly detailed history of the bomber airwar for Europe. He points out that at the beginning of the campaign standing orders required that:

Bombing was to occur only on definite visual identification of a target to avoid accidental harm to civilians [p 30] and he takes into account the actions of the Germans (14 May 1940 Rotterdam 30,000 civilian casualties [p35] which was an accident and the night of 24-5 August 1940 when the Luftwaffe accidentally dropped their loads on London rather than the target – an aircraft factory [p38]) in inflaming public opinion in favour of revenge. The Blitz commenced on 7 October 1940.

On 9 July 1941 the War Cabinet authorised the issue of the following directive to bomber command:

switching its primary attention from oil and naval targets to ‘dislocating the German transportation system’ and ‘destroying the morale of the civil population as a whole and of the industrial workers in particular’ . [p 47] By 14 February 1942 (a rather ironic date) that changed to:

"The primary object of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population , and in particular on the industrial workers. [p50] He gives but does not principally rely on the bombing of Dresden:

Eight hundred RAF bombers attacked on the night of 13-14 February 1944; and the next day and the day after, the Americans followed with 300 and 200 aircraft respectively. The Americans aimed at the railway marshalling yards, but the RAF night attack of the 13-14 used a stadium in the city centre as its aiming-point. The majority of bombs dropped in Bomber Command’s night attack were incendiaries, 650,000 of them. The firestorm that resulted wiped out the Baroque...
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