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.
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.