Jonathan Yardley
A distinguished philosopher asks if killing innocents is ever justifiable.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 9, 2006



By A.C. Grayling

Walker. 361 pp. $25.95

In the summer of 1943, the Bomber Command of Britain's Royal Air Force began what it chose to call Operation Gomorrah, "five major and several minor" aerial attacks on the German city of Hamburg, "with the aim of wiping Hamburg from the map of Europe." Most of the bombs it dropped were incendiaries, "small bombs filled with highly flammable chemicals, among them magnesium, phosphorus and petroleum jelly." The result was "the first ever firestorm created by bombing, and it caused terrible destruction and loss of life," almost entirely among civilians. At least 45,000 human corpses were found in the ruins, and more than 30,000 buildings were destroyed. A.C. Grayling writes:

"In the cellars, otherwise unscathed people suffocated to death. Police reports and eyewitness accounts later confirmed many of the horror stories told 'of demented Hamburgers carrying bodies of deceased relatives in their suitcases -- a man with the corpse of his wife and daughter, a woman with the mummified body of her daughter, or other women with the heads of their dead children.' "

At about this time, Winston Churchill watched "a film showing RAF bombers in action over the Ruhr." According to one who was present, Churchill suddenly blurted out: "Are we animals? Are we taking this too far?" Quite to the contrary was the view of Bomber Command, in particular its commander, Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, who "wanted to make a tremendous show" (the words are his own) in Hamburg and got what he wanted. But the question remains: Was the indiscriminate bombing of civilians -- in Hamburg, in Dresden, in Tokyo, in Hiroshima, in Nagasaki -- justifiable militarily, or was it "in whole or in part morally wrong"?

This is the question addressed in Among the Dead Cities by Grayling, a professor of philosophy at the University of London and one of Britain's more prominent and outspoken public intellectuals. Almost immediately one senses what his answer will be -- an unequivocal "Yes" -- but he must be given full credit for reaching that conclusion only after a careful, nuanced analysis that gives full credit to the views and intentions of the bombers as well as making clear that the Allied bombing, however terrible, was "nowhere near equivalent in scale of moral atrocity to the Holocaust of European Jewry, or the death and destruction all over the world for which Nazi and Japanese aggression was collectively responsible: a total of some twenty-five million dead, according to responsible estimates," by contrast with the toll of "about 800,000 civilian women, children and men" exacted by Allied bombing.

Grayling's study focuses primarily on British bombing and especially on Operation Gomorrah, "because it took place when the war was, although running in the Allies' favour, by no means securely won." The bombing of Hamburg, in other words, occurred at a time when the arguments for bombing would seem strongest: It aimed to sap the power of a formidable enemy, to reduce military and civilian morale, to weaken enemy industry, and to divert "soldiers, guns and fighter planes away from the battlefronts to protect the cities instead." By comparison with the far better known attacks on Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred when the outcome of the war was known, the bombing of Hamburg may -- emphasis on may -- have helped swing the war in the Allies' favor and thus have served a desirable and justifiable end.

Grayling is at considerable pains to give the advocates of bombing civilian targets their full say. He is fair to Harris, who "was not a man of culture," but "balance requires that one remember that (in the phrase much then employed) 'there was war on,' and he took himself to be in command of a campaign that would not only defend his own country from a dangerous aggressor, but would win the war to boot, and thereby destroy the regime which had plunged the world into catastrophe." Harris meant to destroy "one major city after another until the population of Germany could take it no longer," and he "fervently believed that bombing was a war-winning weapon."

On the European front, American policy, by contrast with British, was to use precision bombing aimed as directly at military and industrial targets as circumstances permitted. In the Far East, though, the United States embraced saturation bombing of civilians with the same zeal that Britain directed it at Germany, and with the same arguments. To this day, most Americans apparently believe that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki drove Japan to surrender and saved uncountable American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. When, several years ago, a controversial exhibition at the Air and Space Museum revived debate over this issue, I was one of many who expressed in public the prevailing, and conventional, view.

Grayling has me thinking second thoughts, and others are likely to have the same response. He argues that the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 -- of which Gen. Curtis LeMay said, "We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapour in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined" -- and the Soviet invasion of Mongolia, as well as other influences, had Japan on the brink of surrender and that the atomic attacks were far less crucial than is commonly believed. If there was no military justification for the bombings, then there cannot possibly be a moral one, and Grayling's judgment that they were immoral seems to me exceedingly difficult to refute.

It would be quite another matter had Grayling stacked the deck in his favor, as has been done by too many American critics of aerial attacks on civilians, in particular those who wrote the text for the Air and Space Museum's deservedly infamous Enola Gay exhibition. The military and moral arguments against the bombing of civilian targets are not so airtight as their adherents believe, especially in circumstances -- Saddam Hussein's Iraq, for one -- in which regimes have deliberately situated military and/or industrial targets in civilian areas. But Grayling gives the benefit of the doubt to supporters of bombing before, finally, coming down on the opposite side. He praises the courage of the bombers' crews and readily acknowledges the sincerity and patriotism of those who sent them on their missions. He emphasizes that World War II was as close to a "just war" as humankind has undergone.

But he also insists, correctly, that "acts of injustice can be perpetrated in the course of a just war, and if the injustices committed are themselves very great, their commission can threaten the overall justice of the war in which they took place." St. Thomas Aquinas argued that "on three conditions, war can be justified." These are "first, that there is a just cause of war, second, that it is begun on proper authority, and third, that it is waged with the right intention, meaning that it aims at 'the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.' " Obviously World War II satisfied all of these conditions. But what about two others formulated by modern just-war theorists: "that to be just a war must have a reasonable chance of success, and that the means used to conduct it must be proportional to the ends sought."

It is on this final condition that bombing of civilians comes a cropper. Leave aside all the other objections to such bombing, moral and otherwise -- and there are plenty of them -- the simple fact is that it is disproportionately cruel, destructive and wanton. The ends sought -- defeat of Germany and Japan -- were in sight before the bombings of 1944 and 1945, and even the bombing of Hamburg in 1943 was out of proportion to the gains it allegedly brought to the Allied cause, if in fact there were any. The "horrific firestorm" it produced may have been small compared to the atrocities of Auschwitz, but it was horrific all the same. Grayling is right to insist that by acknowledging that we do not "have clean hands ourselves," we would be in a far stronger position to condemn "the people who plunged the world into war and carried out gross crimes under its cover." As matters stand now, we are at the very least open to the charge of hypocrisy. ยท

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