Three Monkeys Online

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Bombing Civilians – WWII’s ‘moral crimes’. A.C. Grayling in interview.

TMO: Why do you think massively destructive bombing raids like that on Hamburg, which you describe in violent detail, have largely been forgotten (presumably not by residents of Hamburg), while the raid on Dresden remains infamous? How many people now know, without studying the specific history of the war, that the bombing raids on Tokyo in March 1945 caused more direct deaths than the attacks on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki?

A.C. Grayling: This is a standard example of historical selectivity, the use of one iconic instance to do service for the whole truth. To be blunt, it is laziness and ignorance which combine to simplify things down to one case, leaving aside important and shocking other matters.

TMO: What kind of relationship did the press have with the aerial bombardment? For example, was the type of weaponry being used and its effects reported? How much detail was reported at the time, and to what extent – if any – was the wisdom of area bombing questioned by the press?

A.C. Grayling: To begin with reports of Bomber Command's endeavours, which in any case were fairly nugatory, were relegated to paragraphs on inside and back pagers. After Harris took over, wishing to have his Command's efforts fully recognised, all the major papers carried big news stories – front page for big raids – of the bombing; and they had interviews with and articles by airmen, photographs, and full news of the aircraft and bombing loads (although doubtless suitably massaged for both propaganda and security purposes).

TMO: In a generally favourable review of the book by the Observer Alex Butterworth hits on an important point: there is a contradiction within the book on the nature of the conduct of individual airmen. You prove that the targeting of civilians for bombing was both wrong and ineffectual, that it was a moral crime (and it can be argued, an actual crime under international law), yet you seem keen to avoid tarnishing the reputation of airmen with the label ‘war criminal’. Had soldiers, on the ground, arrived and shot massive amounts of civilians, used explosives designed to hinder the arrival of fire-fighters and rescue teams, all under orders and the mistaken belief that it would cause enemy morale to collapse, would they be judged differently?

A.C. Grayling: There is no inconsistency here. The campaign constituted a moral crime; those who planned it and oversaw it are culpable; those who carried it out at the sharp end were brave and made great sacrifices, and it seems unfair to blame them in the circumstances, which were: they rightly thought the war was a just war; they rightly thought they were fighting a wicked regime that had to be defeated; they had the support of the majority of their countrymen; and they were under military discipline (though of course the ‘following orders’ defence in relation to a crime is not a defence). In the book I say: in an ideal world, if offered the choice between bombing civilians and bombing clearly legitimate military and industrial targets, the airmen should have opted only for the latter.

TMO: How much of the bombing strategy can be accredited to Arthur Harris? The British establishment has had a troubled relationship with the legacy of Harris – for example, was it right to a) shun Harris in the initial honours lists after the war or b) allow a statue to be erected in his honour?

A.C. Grayling: Actually quite a lot of the strategy can be laid at Harris's door, with Charles Portal as a major coadjutor. As the war went on, Harris became more and more autonomous, until in its last 6 months he was refusing to accept Portal's pleas for concentration on German energy supplies, and even threatened to resign if Portal over-insisted: and Portal withdrew. In the diaries of Sir Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke), Chief of the Imperial General Staff, there are two references to Harris in the entire war, showing how the IGS regarded Bomber Command as a separate fiefdom which could be let along to go its own way, providing what Churchill called a &ldquonuisance” to the enemy; but no-one apart from Harris and, for a time, Portal believed that bombing by itself could win the war.

TMO: Arthur Harris flew in Iraq where the RAF gassed Kurds, and deliberately targeted civilians during WWII using weapons that incorporated napalm and phosphorous. At the end of the war he was slighted, but later given a baronet. In 2006, George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, under whose command cities like Fallujah have been shelled with weapons including white phosphorous and napalm-substitutes, are openly accused in the press of war crimes. How far have we come?

A.C. Grayling: We don't seem to have come far in practice, but we have come some way in general public awareness and moral sensitivity, as your question itself actually shows.

TMO: There is a discomforting argument that area bombing was not effective at causing the enemy’s collapse simply because prior to 1945 it wasn’t heavy enough. That casualties weren't great enough. While the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki may not have been ultimately necessary to bring the war against Japan to an end, can’t it be argued that the shocking destruction of civilian life has prevented the outbreak of further ‘world wars’? Without the spectre of deliberate targeting and destruction of civilians, as had happened in World War II, surely the Cold War would have developed into another brutal war?

A.C. Grayling: In the book I indeed argue that the reason why area bombing was ineffective was because it wasn't heavy enough, and that nuclear weapon attacks on a country today would instantly paralyse its war effort; but I also point out what governments and military know, which is that such a victory would be self-defeating, for the victors would come into possession of a ruined and dangerously radioactive land, for whose shocked and ill survivors they would have to provide – unless of course they were simply going to nuke the country and leave it alone; but then the affects of fall-out etc. on neighbouring countries and perhaps themselves would impose an intolerable cost; and so the very idea is a species of madness. By this logic, area bombing is futile, let alone morally despicable. Remember though that bombing of vital resources –fuel, transport, and crucial industrial bottle-neck industries – was very effective in WWII, and is likely always to remain so.

TMO: The usual defence of area bombing has been that its aim was to hasten the collapse of the enemy. Another motive, less discussed, which you touch upon in the book, was perhaps the desire to punish Germany (its people and culture) for its militarism and aggression. A motive that, by necessity of the Cold War, had to be downplayed after the war, when Germany became transformed into an important ally against the Soviets. When bombing non-military targets in 1945, how significant, if at all, was the motive to punish?

A.C. Grayling: Yes, punishment was part of the motivation, but even more so was the desire to root out the culture of Prussian militarism that had plunged the world into two world wars in a generation. This aspect of things I call &ldquoculturecide”, to make the point that peaceful reconstruction after the war was in danger of being hampered by depriving the conquered people of the resources necessary to rebuild civil society and its institutions.

TMO: “Take the centre of a large city and imagine what would happen among the civilian population during a single attack by a single bombing unit. I have no doubt that its impact on the people would be terrible […] What civil or military authority could keep order, public services functioning and production going under such a threat?” – you quote from Giulio Douhet, the Italian strategist author of the 1921 The Command of the Air. This Douhet-Trenchard thesis that you outline, which coloured much of the R.A.F’s thinking during the war, wouldn’t look so out of place in an Al-Qaeda training manual. Still, while agreeing with most of your arguments, it’s still shocking to read your judgement towards the end of the book that “there comes to seem very little difference in principle between the R.A.F’s Operation Gomorrah, or the USAAF’s atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York by terrorists on 11 September 2001”. What kind of reaction has the book received in the US?

A.C. Grayling: I debated the book with Christopher Hitchens in Washington, the debate being broadcast on C-Span, and he criticised me for drawing this parallel. My intention in so doing was this: if the massacre attack upon civilians, aimed at terrorising the population at large, which happened on 9/11 was wrong, which it emphatically was, then so is any such attack anywhere. WWII area bombing was just such a campaign of attacks: massacre assaults on civilians to terrorise the remainder of the population. There are of course differences: the latter took place in the context of declared war, the former not (thought no doubt Al-Qaeda claims otherwise: but they would claim anything); but this does not alter the moral complexion of it. On the whole the book received a surprisingly warm, and when not warm polite, reception in the States, from where I’ve just returned after a book tour; in all the radio interviews I did (radio being the big thing there, with hour-long phone-in programmes), I had exactly one angry caller.

TMO: While aerial bombing was not new by the 1940s it was new enough to be a grey area in terms of international law. This begs the crucial question can one be a war criminal if the act committed is not specifically covered by law?

A.C. Grayling: For this very reason I'm careful to say that I judge area bombing to be a moral crime, thus not using the expression ‘war crime’, a concept which technically gets its content from the Nuremberg Principles of 1945. But in view of the international law which has arisen since the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 on the question of protecting civilians in time of war – the First Protocol of which is a direct response to area bombing in WWII – retrospectively it is clear that the international community regards it as an act that should be called a war crime.

TMO: On an unrelated topic – David Irving, who, before becoming involved in Holocaust denial, wrote authoritatively on the Dresden firebombing, was convicted earlier this year to three years imprisonment by Austrian courts. Holocaust denial is both serious and dangerous, but is it best combated by the law? As a philosopher and academic, how do you view Irving’s conviction?

A.C. Grayling: I have no time for revisionists and Nazi apologists, and in so far as Irving is such (and is provenly at least the former), I have no time for him. But it was quite wrong to put him in prison for his unsavoury views. The freedom of free speech results in our hearing plenty of things we do not like, but the right way to combat bad free speech is with more and better free speech, not with the law and certainly not with imprisonment or censorship.

Among the Dead Cities by A.C. Grayling is published by Bloomsbury books.

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