The mortality figures presented by A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, in the appendix of his recent book Amongst the Dead Cities are shocking. Shocking because of their scale, but also because they are a surprise. The Allies’ use of saturation bombing, deliberately targetting civilians in Germany and Japan, has long been accepted by conventional wisdom as a necessary evil, and one that it’s perhaps best not to dwell on. Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki are portrayed as the brutal exceptions (for example, the degree of devastation in Dresden was partly the result of an unfortunate prevailing wind that fanned the flames). Dreadful moments in the war, but isolated. Grayling’s appendix, though, shocks with figures such as those of the largely forgotten bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 – in four night-time raids (Operation Gomorrah), the Royal Air Force dropped over 9,000 tons of bombs, killing at least 45,000 civilians and destroying over 30,480 buildings. Over 800,000 civilians were killed by bombing raids – raids which, particularly in 1945, had questionable strategic value.
Grayling, as a boy in the Fifties, like many of his generation, grew up fantasising about spitfire fighter planes and assembling model kits of Lancaster bombers (he remarks at the close of the interview that the cover of Among the Dead Cities shows B-24 Liberators, and not, as is incorrectly printed, Lancaster bombers). Despite his obvious admiration for many of the men involved in the Allied Air Forces during WWII, Grayling felt the necessity to examine the moral questions brought up by allied bombing strategy: “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?”. Questions that are as relevant today as they were back in 1945.
Professor Grayling kindly agreed to the following e-mail interview with Three Monkeys Online.
TMO: Is it surprising that over sixty years after the events described in Among the dead cities, questioning the legitimacy of allied area bombing can be deemed ‘controversial’?
A.C. Grayling: Not really. Historians of WWII, and especially of the air war, typically express uneasiness or defensiveness about the area bombing, but typically boot the matter into touch by saying (e.g.) that it is a question for philosophers whether it was right or wrong (hence my accepting the challenge). It has never been given a full frontal, book-length analysis before; and this fact alone might explain why it has generated controversy.
TMO: Implicit in the writing of the book is that the morality of allied area bombing during World War II has not been sufficiently called into question. Have our historians and philosophers been remiss, and why? One motive, perhaps, is to presume that questioning the morality of the Allies is to give succour to Neo-Nazis.
A.C. Grayling: There are a number of reasons, some very understandable, why this matter has been insufficiently explored. One is that despite the highly questionable moral character of deliberate massacre-bombing of civilian populations, the raw fact of the Holocaust hugely overshadows it. Another is, as you say, that to criticise area bombing seems (wrongly) to imply some form of Nazi sympathy. This is emphatically not the case with me. A third reason is that questioning the bombing seems to impugn the courage and sacrifice of our bomber crews. This too is wrong: how could one not admire the courage of the aircrews, or ignore the sacrifice made (55,000 of our own kin killed in the skies over Germany) in fighting a war they rightly thought just, even though what they had been required to do in it was a wrong, for which the planners and overseers of area bombing are accountable.
TMO: In 1944, the Allies received concrete information about extermination camps such as Auschwitz, and also appeals from the Polish resistance and British diplomats based in Switzerland to bomb the railways leading to the camps. No such action was taken, either in ’44 or in ’45. Does this refusal to bomb the Nazi’s genocidal infrastructure, while continuing to bomb civilians in cities, often with little or no strategic or military value, add a further important moral consideration when discussing bomber command’s targeting of German cities?
A.C. Grayling: Why the RAF and USAAF did not bomb the camps or the rail links to them is a mystery, and a shameful one. It most certainly raises hard questions about the priorities and attitudes of the Allied bombing commanders and their political masters.
TMO: To what extent did trench warfare in World War I provide a rationale for area bombing? Wasn’t it a reasonable assumption that a ground war could provoke millions of deaths similar to the war of 1914-18, while targeting civilians could cause a collapse in support for the war inside Germany? After all, during the First World War, civil discontent had brought Russia out of the war, and had played some part in Germany’s final decision to surrender (without subscribing to the Nazi ‘stab-in-the-back’ theory). With hindsight we know that area bombardment didn’t cause a collapse of German morale, but could Bomber Command have known that?
A.C. Grayling: The WWI trench experience was certainly a factor in making bomber force planners hope and believe that aerial bombardment would avoid the useless slaughter of a static ground conflict. Harris acquired his unshakeable belief in the efficacy of bombing from this source, and from his experience in bombing Iraqi tribesmen in the 1920s. And, as you say, the collapse of morale at the close of WWI would certainly have strengthened this belief. But the experience of the British in the Blitz might have raised some questions about the truth of this assumption; and long before the area bombing campaign was over it was clear that German civilian morale was not being destroyed by it. Rather the contrary.