Editor’s Choice June 2006

Fire From the Sky

What not to read this month

This book will vex and outrage many readers (as it did when it was first published in Britain earlier this year), for many wrong reasons and for a few right ones. Its author is one of those U.K. academics who has achieved something like celebrity: he writes regularly for the fancy British newspapers and magazines, and his books are best sellers. Most of the current crop of “teledons” are historians, but Grayling is a philosopher, and he believes that his field “should take an active, useful role in society,” which makes him something of a busybody, as he applies philosophical and ethical precepts to the muck of the Real World. He does so here by examining perhaps the most fraught and controversial episode in his country’s modern history: the Allies’ so-called area-bombing campaign—the indiscriminate assaults on enemy cities—during the Second World War. Grayling concludes that these efforts were “moral crimes,” that airmen should have refused to fly those raids, and that the most deadly British air assault—on Hamburg, in July 1943, in which some 46,000 civilians were incinerated, suffocated, and blown apart—and also the U.S. atomic attacks on Japan were “moral atrocities” of the same order as the 9/11 attacks. (An author’s fame and timing, and a nifty title, count for nearly everything in book publishing. This work has already been showered with attention in Britain; but Stephen Garrett’s clearly written, albeit prosaically titled Ethics and Airpower in World War II, which came out in 1993, very closely anticipated Grayling’s approach, arguments, and conclusions—even down to the same endless discursions on the Hague Conference of 1907—but it failed to make a ripple.) Grayling is no radical—indeed, he’s at the center of the British establishment (he’s even a fellow of the World Economic Forum)—so his views, which are widely held in academe, deserve scrutiny.

Alas, this is an unusually complicated and disputed subject, and it’s impossible to explicate it properly in a short review. (With the exception of a few troublesome errors and omissions, Grayling’s own well-written, smooth sixty-five-page overview chapter on the history of the bomber war is dependable, but far better are the two relevant chapters in R. A. C. Parker’s general history of the war, Struggle for

Survival, a model of compression and cool judgment; the most analytically sophisticated overview, meanwhile, is the germane chapter in Richard Overy’s exceptionally intelligent, briskly written Why the Allies Won.)

Grayling has anticipated the obvious objections to his indictment. He fully acknowledges that the Allies’ war crimes—by modern standards, the area-bombing attacks were almost certainly war crimes—pale in comparison to the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi regime (though his response to those who would defend area bombing by invoking Nazi crimes is, essentially, that two wrongs don’t make a right). He concedes that if area bombing had significantly helped in the Allied defeat of Germany (in the case of Japan he seems less sure; he focuses overwhelmingly on the British bombing of Germany, so I’ll concentrate on that here), it would prove morally justified. He further allows that had the Allies believed area bombing to be effective, and had those efforts been made when national survival was seriously threatened, his indictment would be vitiated, but he holds that in fact neither condition applies.

There’s a lot of truth in Grayling’s arguments. Lofty and self-congratulatory cant surrounds so much discussion and evocation of “the Good War,” and Americans, much more so than the British, need to confront the terrible deeds committed by the Allies. As Edgar L. Jones, a veteran and this magazine’s correspondent in the last years of the Pacific War, wrote here in 1946:

We consider ourselves to be more noble and decent than other peoples, and consequently in a better position to decide what is right and wrong in the world. What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? … As victors we are privileged to try our defeated opponents for their crimes against humanity; but we should be realistic enough to appreciate that if we were on trial for breaking international laws, we should be found guilty on a dozen counts. We fought a dishonorable war, because morality had a low priority in battle. The tougher the fighting, the less room for decency …

The bomber war can be explained and even justified, but it was hardly decent. It killed some 600,000 German civilians (in Berlin alone it created 50,000 orphans, “some of them one-eyed or one-legged veterans of seven or so,” noted an observer just after the war). These people weren’t killed incidentally. Rather, they were the very targets of area bombing, which sought to undermine public morale by massacring or threatening to massacre huge numbers of civilians. Although Grayling too crudely dismisses the impact of area bombing on the German capacity to resist and on Japanese morale, there’s no question that the bomber war had a far less conclusive influence on the Allies’ victory than its advocates at the time asserted it would. And those same advocates—most notably Arthur Harris, chief of Britain’s Bomber Command—were almost willfully blind to the evidence that, by the final months of the war (the very period when the bombing offensive became most intense and deadly), undermined their position. It’s further true that Machiavelli’s (to me, perfectly legitimate) argument that “when the entire safety of our country is at stake, no consideration of what is just or unjust, merciful or cruel … must intervene” isn’t airtight in this case. Area bombing in Europe was overwhelmingly an RAF endeavor (in Europe, unlike in Japan, the United States concentrated on the “precision bombing” of economic targets, though Americans did conduct area bombing, including the bombings of Hamburg and Dresden the mornings after the British had created the notorious firestorms), but Britain lacked the ability to launch an intense area-bombing campaign when it was fighting alone and facing annihilation—that is, when the most desperate and ruthless measures were most justifiable. Area bombing became operationally viable only after both the Soviets and Americans entered the war, and in fact the firebombing of Hamburg, which in essence marked the opening of the most terrible chapter in the bomber war and which is the cynosure of Grayling’s book, took place just as the Red Army broke the Wehrmacht’s back at Kursk, the battle that marked the decisive turning point in Germany’s military fortunes (a point Grayling fails to make). And finally, while the bomber war exacted a terrible price among civilians, it was also obscenely wasteful of Allied life, given the extent to which it failed to meet the ambitious strategic goals its advocates set for it. Bomber Command alone lost 55,573 aircrew, a group largely made up of officers and Britain’s most able and technologically proficient men. This was an even greater slaughter of the nation’s elite than the British had endured in the First World War.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic.

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