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Is All Fair In Love and War?

By Malcolm B Duncan
Created 13/07/2006 - 10:18

Malcolm B Duncan [0] is a NSW based lawyer, satirist and independent politician. Several of his personalities are regular Webdiarists. The eighth and latest part of the Chronicles of Nadir series by 'Tom Lewis' is here [0].

by Malcolm B Duncan

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 city, and killed somewhere in the region of 25,000 people.[p 72]

He then turns to the attacks on Japan, principally the conventional attack on Tokyo on 9-10 March 1945 in which 1,667 tons of incendiaries were dropped creating a firestorm which killed more than 85,000 [p 77] and the ensuing atomic attacks which, in a view which is at least controversial if not outright surprising from an Australian or US perspective, he asserts were unnecessary and morally indefensible because on any view of it Japan knew it was defeated and "victory was no longer genuinely doubtful" [p79]

The book then considers the points of view both of the bombed and the bombers He points out [p104] that on a rough estimate, it took 2.25 tons of bombs to kill one German civilian and that bomber command lost 7,700 aircraft in the process. [p 104] It is a passing criticism of the book that such figures are not specifically footnoted but as I say he is not an historian and for the purpose of the overall argument there is no need to doubt the numbers although one might doubt whether they really were all civilians.

Fairly [p 134] he raises the important question of what is a ‘military objective’ and goes on in a number of places to discuss the various theories that if industrial production of an enemy is a legitimate target (think no power in the Gaza strip) are the industrial workers themselves not legitimate targets? Developing that idea (and he doesn’t) what about the people who grow their food or make their clothes? What about the children now 12 who may be fighting the war of terror in 5 years time? Where does one draw the line?

All good questions. Is ‘total war’ morally wrong and always indefensible?

In discussing the revenge question he quotes something which should be remembered:

[Vansittart in his Bones of Contention, March 1945] wrote ‘The Germans are savage to a degree almost inconceivable to anyone who has not had actual experience of them, and are a people born to deceit.’ These were not his own words; he was quoting from the first-century Roman historian Paterculus, and he went on to quote Tacitus, Seneca, Claudian, Nazarius, Ammianus, Marcellinus, Quintillian and Josephus to the same effect. [p 165]

Plus ca change? As a partial aside, I was struck at the 1916 display at the Australian War Memorial on Saturday by the heedless, even wanton, destruction wrought by German artillery on French civilian targets on the Somme. In confining himself to air warfare, Grayling does not address that in his moral assessment and WWI was a very different scenario but where lay the moral compass there?

Back to the book:

In the case of the USAAF in the pacific theatre, the ferocity and destructiveness of its air-bombing campaign these are also explainable by two factors. One was the belief and hope that a bombing campaign could win the war against Japan without an invasion. The other was – to use blunt terms – racism towards and anger against the Japanese. There were at least four main reasons for this. One was the perfidy of the Pearl Harbour attack. Another was Japanese cruelty to American prisoners of war as testified by those liberated during the American advance along the Pacific islands. A third was the ferocity of the Japanese as fighters in contesting those advances. The fourth was the tactic of Kamikaze attacks …[p 109]

Apparently to this Pom, ANZACs didn’t play much of a role in the Japanese defeat.

There is then a chapter on "Voices of Conscience" relating domestic protests both in Britain and the US against air tactics (interestingly, Eric Blair was not one of them [p204]).

He then proceeds to discuss the case against the bombing and the case made to justify it.

He points out that every German soldier had a paybook which contained a clause stating that he was not required to obey an illegal order [p 230] and ultimately concludes that the bomber pilots should have refused orders to fly area-bombing rather than specific target missions. He also assesses the effectiveness of the bombing concluding that it achieved neither its objective of destroying German morale (just as the Blitz and the V1s and 2s did not destroy British) nor of destroying German production which continued to increase every year of the war despite the bombing until its oil supplies were so disrupted that industry could not continue.

Taking these points one by one, they have a post hoc ergo propter hoc quality about them. Assessing the lawfulness of a command in wartime is difficult on the ground, how much more difficult in the air? One is being subjected to flack at all the targets one attacks, and how, practically as a pilot, navigator or bombardier does one assess the correctness of the target information? If intelligence tells you it’s a factory making widgets for tanks and it happens to be a large housing estate how is the flyboy to know?

The argument about destroying German morale is largely correct but by golly Japanese moral soon crumbled when the atomic message sunk in.

As he rightly concedes elsewhere in the book, one of the reasons German production continued to increase (and morale was maintained) was that the Nazi regime had an almost endless supply of slave labour to perform tasks like rubble clearing, burying the dead, re-building, manning factories etc and this was an incredibly low maintenance workforce – you could starve it to death and just get more. Where, I ask you, is the moral balance in doing whatever may be necessary to destroy a regime that behaves in that manner?

He then advances a completely unacceptable post hoc argument: the death camps. He correctly labels these as crimes against humanity but, given that their true nature was, at best, known to very few outside the very highest eschela of Allied Governments while they were operating and only became widely known after they were liberated, it seems logically impossible to use them as a justification for bombing Germany beforehand. Not so, perhaps, with the Japanese. The rape of Nanking and the Manchurian campaign were known before Peal Harbour and the roll-back of the Japanese advance revealed their true barbarity, particularly in their treatment of prisoners of war.

Grayling turns the argument to Japan and says it was morally unjustifiable to bomb Tokyo, Nagasaki and Hiroshima because

The defeat of Japan was not in question when the Tokyo firebombing happened in March 1945 [p 263]

In my view, this is the most questionable assertion in the book. Macarthur was assembling an invasion force and anticipated over a million casualties (not troops fighting - casualties) if they encountered the resistance they had on useless defensive campaigns like that waged by the Japanese on Iwo Jima. To my mind, that sways the moral balance considerably. Does Grayling really believe that the Emperor would give in or his troops would not fight to the last man? He refers to some peace overtures [p 264] by "Japan’s military command" (not footnoted) but these were not overtures from the Emperor or his Government.

The uncontestable fact is that after the dropping of the two atomic bombs, even the Emperor gave in. Weighing the loss of life to troops on both sides (and the inevitable civilian casualties in house to house fighting), dropping the atom bombs was eminently justified both tactically, strategically and morally. It is interesting also to note that none have been dropped anywhere since.

The area-bombing argument, however, falls into a different category. Grayling quotes [p 280] Admiral Ralph Ofstie [where do they get these names?] of the United States Navy giving evidence to the House Armed Services Committee that "strategic bombing was ‘inherently inaccurate’ [and] … militarily ineffective." That is not to mention the blind rate (bombs that fail to explode like the famous exocet which lodged in a British battleship during the Falklands and which, had it exploded would probably have changed the outcome of the war). Bombing is notoriously ineffective and the examples are almost limitless: carpet bombing in Vietnam; smart bombs in Iraq, shelling in any war you like to name – Bosnia, Afghanistan, etc, etc. Further in a world where military targets are rarely isolated from major civilian areas (look at Fleet Base in Sydney or the Pentagon) wide-spread bombing campaigns are bound to cause massive civilian casualties, more massive the more and bigger the bombs.

Yet area bombing must be viewed (particularly in the modern context of warfare) in a more legalistic sense in my view. Is it within the rules of engagement defined as the rules of war (necessitating that there must be a formal declaration of war first) from the outset? If it is, it is in; if not it is out. That, of course begs the question, what if a modern country is not a signatory to the Geneva convention and its protocols and it issues rules of engagement which allow terrorism or genocide?

To what extent must international law (if there is such a thing) or morality influence the terms of those rules of engagement?

What if there is no state to declare war? What of "freedom fighters"? Where, Webdiarists does the balance lie? How does Grayling’s moral philosophy inform the debate?

From my point of view, area bombing is not a moral question – just a bad allocation of resources. The odd nuke, effectively used however, can save lives.

Over to you but not out.


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