Editor’s Choice June 2006

Fire From the Sky

What not to read this month

But many of Grayling’s arguments are simplistic. Area bombing’s strategic impact was far greater than he, relying on crude indices, allows. And his assertion, crucial to his overall argument, that Germany’s air-defense endeavors—which diverted, as he acknowledges, vital artillery and scarce manpower away from other fronts—would have been equally costly to the Reich’s war effort if the Allies had abjured area bombing and instead exclusively conducted precision bombing, is wrong. As Albert Speer wrote in his prison diaries:

The real importance of the air war consisted in the fact that it opened a Second Front long before the invasion of Europe. That front was in the skies over Germany. The fleets of bombers might appear at any time over any large German city or important factory … Every square metre of our territory became a front line. Defence against air attacks required the production of thousands of anti-aircraft guns, the stockpiling of tremendous quantities of ammunition all over the country and holding in readiness hundreds of thousands of soldiers …

Had the Allies curtailed their bombing targets, thereby in essence shrinking the front Speer describes, the burden on German air-defense efforts—and thus the costs in manpower and resources—would have been commensurately lightened.

Moreover, Grayling is a philosopher pursuing absolute arguments, yet he’s treading on the muddy ground of history, which is defined not by certitudes but by paradox and ambiguity, contingency and uncertainty, and, above all, by human passions. He comes to judge, not to explain, which means that he fails to understand the past on its own terms and that, critically, he overlooks context. (In this regard, it’s instructive to com­‑ pare Grayling’s book with Robin Neillands’s far more detailed 2001 work, The Bomber War, which presents the most thorough defense of area bombing. Unlike Grayling, Neillands, a historian, often contradicts himself, and his logic sometimes leaps. But his marshaling of fact and evidence allows the reader to transcend the present and to see the situation as the participants did at the time.)

When the British initiated area bombing, German forces had already bombed civilians in Warsaw; in Rotterdam; in London, Coventry, Liverpool, and other British cities (London suffered the first firestorm of the conflict, and German aerial assaults killed 60,000 Britons during the war); and in Stalingrad (in its assault, before the siege of the city, the Luftwaffe killed about as many civilians as the RAF would the following year in its operation against Hamburg, again, the most lethal attack of the bombing campaign; throughout the war, some half-million Russian civilians were killed by German air raids). This doesn’t exonerate the Allies, but it indicates that area bombing was part of what the critic and combat veteran Paul Fussell (in his underrated Wartime, which is among the most cynical and astute books ever written about the conflict) identifies as a general “coarsening of technique,” in which finesse and accuracy yielded to a grisly slog, the only goal of which was to finish the job regardless of cost to the opposing side. This wholesale brutalization isn’t a matter of reason or right (the somewhat abstract concerns of Grayling) but of fact and potentialities, as Harris’s second-in-command acknowledged in his assessment of the horrific assault on Dresden:

It is not so much this or the other means of making war that is immoral or inhumane. What is immoral is war itself. Once full-scale war has broken out it can never be humanized or civilized … So long as we resort to war to settle differences between nations, so long will we have to endure the horrors, the barbarities and excesses that war brings with it.

Further ignoring context, Grayling underestimates Britain’s and America’s urgently felt need to convince the Soviets that the West was making a serious contribution to the conflict, lest Stalin seek a separate peace with Hitler (from the German invasion of the U.S.S.R. until the Nazi defeat, the Red Army bore the overwhelming brunt of the war against Germany). Rightly or not, area bombing plainly helped assuage Stalin. Even more important, Grayling confuses what we know now with what was known then. By his lights, the war was clearly won by the summer of 1944, so the relentless pounding of Germany’s cities after that point amounted to useless slaughter. To be sure, victory seemed merely a matter of time, but time was a far more crucial issue than Grayling allows. The unexpected is inevitable in war, and the more time that elapsed before victory meant not only that more Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen would be killed and that subject peoples would continue to go unliberated (“When wars are long over,” John Terraine dryly notes in The Right of the Line, the definitive general history of the RAFs war in the European theater, “people tend to forget how compelling was the desire to finish them”); it also invited the greater possibility of a catastrophic reversal. Again, the coalition with the Soviets was always tenuous, and the Allies couldn’t be certain of the progress Germany had made in its atomic and other weapons programs (recall that at the time of the now- notorious firebombing of Dresden, in February 1945, Germany was still launching its supersonic V-2 rockets on England, indiscriminate attacks that killed 2,724 and came close to breaking British morale). Grayling is surely correct that in hindsight area bombing failed to deliver the decisive results its advocates claimed for it, and even that Bomber Command’s adherence to area bombing in the last months of the conflict was a very poor policy based on erroneous judgment and hope. But at the time the impact of area bombing on Germany wasn’t fully clear. In indicting Bomber Command for profligate slaughter, for instance, Grayling notes that quite soon after the devastating attack on Hamburg, German industry there had recovered. But Germans’ immediate fears of the consequences of the assault precisely echoed Bomber Command’s hopes: German military and political leaders thought the war was lost; the Luftwaffe chief of staff saw the defeat at Stalingrad as “trifling” compared with the Hamburg attack (he killed himself two weeks after the raid); and Speer told Hitler that another six such attacks on other cities would bring armaments production “to a total halt.” Again, in hindsight area bombing wasn’t as effective as its advocates wished, but—given the Germans’ reaction (and they were certainly in a better position to make a thorough judgment)—Bomber Command’s assumptions hardly seem criminally irresponsible.

This book is bound to win a lot of notice, since it addresses some topical issues and because it resonates with the recent flood of books and debate coming from Germany, in which area bombing is presented as the great, unacknowledged war crime. But what’s good in it isn’t new—area bombing has been subject to rigorous scholarly scrutiny for decades now (the most thorough, and ultimately damning, critique probably remains Max Hastings’s nuanced Bomber Command), and the moral questions involved have been thoroughly explored. And what’s new in it—a rigid philosophical and legalistic approach to the complexities of history and, most egregious, a fanciful, irresponsible, and fallacious effort to link the area-bombing campaign to the notional, so-called Morgenthau Plan for postwar Germany—isn’t good. The book, then, is a lost opportunity: it addresses a troubling episode that has yet to be assimilated by the public mind, but it does so in a manner that proves that war is too important a business to be left to the philosophers.

Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic.
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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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