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Allied Area Bombing Revisited By: Michael Lopez-Calderon
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 26, 2006


“The bomber will always get through …The only defence is offence.  You have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourself.” Stanley Baldwin, November 10, 1932[1]

“War is a nasty, dirty, rotten business.  It’s all right for the Navy to blockade a city, to starve the inhabitants to death.  But there is something wrong, not nice, about bombing that city.” – Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris[2]

On February 13, 2005, a large crowd of Germans gathered in Dresden to mark the 60th anniversary of the Allied bombing of that city.  The massive attack carried out by the Royal Air Force Bomber Command (RAF-BC) and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) over two dreadful nights on February 13-14, 1945,[3] killed an estimated 45,000 German civilians.  It along with Hamburg, Monte Cassino, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, remains one of the most controversial Allied military actions of the Second World War.  Contemporary Germans and Japanese, fueled in part by growing anti-Americanism, are raising questions about the suffering the Allies inflicted on their people during the Second World War.[4]  Many sincerely believe their countrymen were victims of Allied atrocities.[5]  While most scholarly critics of Allied “area bombing”[6] are anti-Nazi, several revisionist critics reflexively are anti-American[7] and anti-British.  Other critics like University of London Professor of Philosophy, A. C. Grayling, one of Britain’s foremost public intellectuals, retrospectively apply an impossible standard of moral perfection to judge Allied area bombing a war crime.  In his new book, Among the Dead Cities, Professor Grayling uses an unyielding just war theory to condemn Allied area bombing during World War II.  To his credit, he eschews the evil twins of contemporary liberalism: moral equivalency and moral relativism.  However, Grayling’s absolutist moral judgment will be used by leftists, who include in their extensive anti-Western and anti-capitalist arsenal, the charge that Allied area bombing during WW II was a war crime.  Unfortunately, the left will find Among the Dead Cities a useful device for undermining Anglo-American legitimacy in the contemporary world.    

Second Thoughts Rehashed

 

Professor Grayling’s work presupposes the viability of moral philosophy operating in a world long since devoid of such thought: “Did the Allies commit a moral crime in their area bombing of German and Japanese cities?  This is the question I seek to answer definitively in this book.”[8]  Grayling reminds his readers that the mere framing of the question is fraught with unintended consequences, largely the fault of neo-Nazis that wish to exploit the current debate for their own political gain, he argues.  However, he neglects to note that leftist intellectuals also have criticized the Allied area bombing campaign, equating it with Nazi and Fascist conduct as part of their relentless attack on capitalist societies.  Nevertheless, Grayling insists that criticizing Allied area bombing is legitimate:

 

“But if the Allied bombing campaign did in fact involve the commission of wrongs, then even if these wrongs do not compare in scale with the wrongs committed by the Axis powers, they do not thereby cease to be wrongs.”[9]

 

Though Grayling is not a revisionist apologist for Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, he keeps company with the guilt-ridden collective of post-War Anglo-American scholars[10] ensconced in their ivory towers, living a life of comfort and security that was made possible by the blood sacrifice of an earlier generation.  He repeatedly warns against those who would read into his study an apology for the Axis, though he never issues the same warning against those that might see in his work an acceptance of the leftist revisionist critique of Allied area bombing:

 

“Two things must be made emphatically clear at the outset. First, it is unquestionably true that if Allied bombing in the Second World War was in whole or part morally wrong, it is nowhere near equivalent in the scale of moral atrocity to the Holocaust of European Jewry, or the death and destruction all over the world for which Nazi and Japanese aggression was collectively responsible: a total of some twenty-five million dead, according to responsible estimates.[11]  Allied bombing in which German and Japanese civilian populations were deliberately targeted claimed the lives of about 800,000 civilian women, children, and men.  The bombing of the aggressor Axis states was aimed at weakening their ability and will to make war; the murder of six million Jews was an act of racist genocide.  There are very big differences here. … Allied bombing campaigns … do not compare in scale with wrongs committed by the Axis powers … nothing in this book should be taken as any form of revisionist apology for Nazism and its frightful atrocities, or Japanese militarism and its aggressions, even if the conclusion is that German and Japanese civilians suffered wrongs.”[12]

 

Grayling then takes us through the whirlwind of tactical and strategic changes that began prior to and accelerated during the Second World War: rapid advances in aerial military technology; lessons drawn from the First World War; evolving doctrines of aerial warfare; faulty assumptions of aerial warfare’s impact on an enemy’s will to fight; the tit-for-tat nature of retaliatory strikes; the mindset of the brilliant though flawed aerial commanders; the futile attempts by nations to curtail evolving bomber technology and doctrine via international law; and finally, the indefatigable courage, determination, and sacrifice of the aircrews.  Over 55,000 British[13] and 40,000 American bomber crew personnel lost their lives during World War II.  While Grayling cautions that great care must be exercised so as not to impugn these men’s sacrifice, his conclusion that the Anglo-American allies indeed committed a major war crime through area bombing is the ultimate imputation.  A review of the processes that led to area bombing and its consequences is crucial in comprehending the hubris of Among the Dead Cities.

 

A Moral Philosopher’s Panache

 

It remains fashionable for some scholars and laypersons to judge previous generations harshly, applying contemporary standards with utter disregard to the prevailing standards of the past.  Professor Grayling attempts to avoid such a pitfall, and ends up doing something worse: citing both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas[14] as his authorities, he adopts a single moral standard of just war theory that is applied without exception.  A philosopher who adheres to a single standard may be called a monist.  Through the application of a one-size-fits-all and presumably transcendent morality, Grayling judges Allied area bombing a moral crime.  For Grayling, area bombing by itself was not immoral.  However, he argues that area bombing became immoral because it was disproportionate in the casualties inflicted on noncombatants; it was unnecessary and came at the expense of what should have been more strategic bombing that would have hastened Germany’s defeat.[15]  He is dismissive of the defenders of area bombing and their arguments.  We are instructed to be aware of the complexities prior generations faced, and warned to be prudent in our judgment by a man who exercises neither approach.  A philosopher’s conceit prevails throughout the book, that is, the privileging of the ideal over the practical, the ephemeral over the substantive.  A major weakness is imbedded in Grayling’s work: his acknowledgment of the constant evolution of lethal technology undermines his claims of an evolving morality.  A fundamental truth quietly slips in: changes in weaponry determine changes in tactics, not the other way around.  If today we use near-perfect precision bombing, it is not due to a higher moral consciousness or an evolutionary advance in international law, both of which he admirably highly recommends we pursue.  On the contrary, precision bombing is used today because the technology exists whereas no such technical capability was possible in 1939-1945.  Nevertheless, Grayling insists in moving forward with his just war theory and critique; we must first consider three essential questions of Allied area bombing:

 

“No understanding of the questions about the morality of Allied area bombing in the Second World War can be attempted without having before us the following three matters: what actually happened in the bombing war; what was known, thought, intended and hoped by those who carried it out; and what effect it had.”[16]

 

Had sufficient empathy been given to “what was known, thought, intended and hoped by those [Allied commanders] who [ordered]” the bombing campaigns, Professor Grayling perhaps would have adopted a less strident tone in his conclusion. 

 

Evolution of Aerial Warfare: Shutting Pandora’s Box

 

In chapter 4, “The Mind of the Bomber,” Grayling examines earlier attempts to reconcile morality with an increasingly secularized and dynamic material reality.  By the late 1860s, the major European powers attempted to reconcile Enlightenment political and moral values as well as mid-Nineteenth century optimism with the era’s evolving military technology.  One is struck both by the idealism and naivety.  For example, an International Military Commission held in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1868, “agreed to forbid the use of specified projectiles, among them exploding or incendiary bullets.”  The myth about human progress being linear is dispelled when we read the elegant words of the St. Petersburg Declaration of 1868—the ideals expressed are as progressive as anything produced by our generation:

 

“The Contracting or Acceding Parties reserve to themselves to come hereafter to an understanding whenever a precise proposition shall be drawn up in view of future improvements which science may effect in the armament of troops, in order to maintain the principles which they have established, and to conciliate the necessities of war with the laws of humanity.”[17]

 

That passage was cited in the 1899 International Peace Conference held at The Hague.  Several conferences were held at The Hague in the 1890s, all intended to build a consensus for international law.  The advice of “outstanding Russian international-law theorist Fedor Fedorovich Martens” was augmented by one of the conference’s most influential persons, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, and the endorsement of Czar Nicholas II.[18]  Buttressed by two royal sponsors, the Declaration, known as The Hague IV, encapsulated the highest ideals of European civilization:

 

“Until a more complete code of the laws of war is issued, the High Contracting Parties think it right to declare that in cases not included in the Regulations adopted by them, populations and belligerents remain under the protection and empire of the principles of international law, as they result from the usages established between civilised nations, from the laws of humanity and the requirements of the public conscience.”[19]

 

The nobility of the objectives pursued reveal a European elite committed to humane concepts though woefully naïve of what horrors were already incubating in their midst.  Just twelve years later, Italian forces in Libya engaged in combat with the Ottoman Turks, carried out history’s first aerial bombing on November 1, 1911.[20]  On the eve of the First World War, few major European powers possessed bomber aircraft; by 1914, the first year of the conflict, all major powers had produced bomber aircraft.  The Germans are credited with being “the most adventurous bombers in the Great War, beginning with Zeppelins and later the feared Gotha C-V bomber.”[21]  From 1914-1918, German bombers were responsible for killing 1,400 British civilians and injuring another 3,400.[22]  Clearly, the ideals advanced at The Hague IV were buried in the rubble of bombed British cities.

 

Tragically, one of the lessons gleaned from the First World War, i.e., that aerial bombing could bring a faster end to war because the psychological terror inflicted on civilians would debilitate factory workers, undermine morale, and bring pressure on political leaders to sue for peace, was based on the perceived beneficial outcome of initial aerial bombing.  When people experience some horror for the first time, the shock of the new can indeed have a paralytic impact.  However, the “peculiar psychological potency”[23] of sustained aerial bombing wore off as civilians both adapted to the horror and became increasingly incensed at the enemy.  In the interregnum (1919-1939) between the world wars, a number of Italian, British, and American military theorists advanced the efficacy of air power with the noble aim of reducing the length of wars and their bloody tolls by achieving victory as quickly as possible.  They believed, on the basis of the available evidence, that aerial warfare would quickly incapacitate an enemy population’s will to wage war.  Interestingly, the American advocates of aerial bombing early on broke ranks with their British and Italian contemporaries by stressing strategic bombing over area-bombing.  It is important to examine the ideas of these often maligned, but influential theorists of modern aerial warfare.

 

Douhet, Trenchard, Mitchell, Arnold, and Eaker 

 

One of the earliest theorists of aerial warfare was the Italian Giulio Douhet (1869-1930).  His book, Command of the Air (1921, republished again in 1927), emphasized the need to achieve total air superiority.  Though he emphasized striking “swiftly and aggressively in mass area bombings against enemy centers of population … to destroy civilian morale,”[24] Douhet’s primary method to achieve air superiority “was to strike [an enemy’s] bases and sources of production,”[25] by use of what he called a “battleplane.”  The battleplane was to be a fusion between a fighter and bomber, and it was to be “an all-purpose offensive aircraft … [created] to conquer command of the air.”[26]  A British army veteran of the Boer War, Hugh Trenchard (1873-1956), initially was dubious of strategic bombing when he took over the Royal Air Force in 1919.  Though he later acknowledged the benefits of strategic bombing, Trenchard saw the long-range bomber as “the counter force … [that] constituted the only defense.”[27]  He asserted that the nation which struck hardest first could win by breaking the morale of the enemy population before the he could counter-attack.  To accomplish this goal, Trenchard believed “the ratio of moral to material effect created by bombing [should be] 20:1.”[28]  This figure had no empirical basis; nonetheless, he asserted the nebulous ratio believing it sufficient to break an enemy nation’s will to fight.  In 1925, Trenchard fell under the influence of the distinguished military historian Basil Liddell Hart, who among other things, argued that area bombing would hasten the end of conflict, thus reducing overall death and destruction.  Professor Hart even contemplated the use of gas attack from the air as a deterrent; his reasoning that leaders would balk at using such a horrible weapon preceded by decades the same argument put forth by proponents of nuclear weapons.[29] Though Hugh Trenchard moderated his advocacy for area bombing by 1928, he couched his reservations in words that provided “official fig leaf … to justify the area-bombing campaigns”[30] later used by the RAF Bomber Command.

 

The American William “Billy” Mitchell (1879-1936) served after World War I as assistant chief of the Air Service from 1921-1925, during which he became a bellicose, at times insufferable proponent of air power and pin-point bombing.[31]  Unlike Douhet, Mitchell stressed both the fighter plane and the bomber, though he saw limits to area bombing.  The fighter plane and bomber could best perform in daylight operations; optimal daylight conditions were imperative for strategic, later called pin-point bombing, asserted Mitchell.  Out of the American Air Service Tactical School based at Langley Field, Virginia (founded in 1920), there emerged the formula of American air doctrine.[32]  The foundation of American bomber force doctrine consisted of three intertwined parts: daylight operations, high-altitude, and precision bombing.  Though a debate raged in the States throughout the 1930s between proponents of pursuit aircraft and those of high-altitude bombers, the basic framework for the model design of aircraft, pilot training, strategic and tactical objectives were established a decade earlier.  As historians Stephen L. McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton noted, “Trenchard, Mitchell, and Douhet were not the only prophets of air power … [t]hey were the ones whom historians have identified persistently as the [men] whose ideas most influenced the development of long-range strategic air forces,”[33] in the United Kingdom and the United States.  Their ideas fused aerial warfare doctrines with the advances in aircraft and their increasingly lethal capabilities.

 

On the eve of the American participation in World War Two, the cumulative work of the Air Corps Tactical School’s Harold L. George, Haywood Hansell, Kenneth Walker, and Laurence S. Kuter paved the way for the Air War Plans Division-Plan 1 (1941).  The AWPD-1, issued just before Pearl Harbor, “envisioned bombers winning the war and long-range escorts as technically probable … AWPD-42 (1942) stressed “that unescorted long-range bombers could reach their targets ‘without excessive losses.’”[34]  Both plans contained the core of American bombing strategy that has changed little if at all today: destruction of the enemy’s key industrial links and disruption of supplies by pin-point bombing of strategic targets that in turn would snap the vital threads of electricity, transport, oil, machine tool, aluminum and magnesium plants.[35]  The confidence in strategic or pin-point bombing was not matched by the available technical capabilities of fixed-wing aircraft.  Despite production of history’s first accurate bomb sights, the top-secret Norden Bomb Sight[36] used by American bombardiers, the old adage that weapons force changes in tactics, not the other way around, held.  Norden Bomb Sights proved ineffective; the Americans’ desire to avoid civilian casualties was offset by the technical shortcomings of available bombing technology.  Here was a case where humane bombing tactics were defeated by inaccurate weapons’ systems.  Nevertheless, on the eve of the American entry into World War Two, USAAF General H. H. “Hap” Arnold and Brigadier-General Ira Eaker argued in their jointly authored Winged Warfare,[37] that the United States Army Air Force’s faith in strategic bombing was premised on a solid commitment to that tactic.  Their faith in “precision daylight bombing” relied upon two ultimately flawed premises: that civilians would crack under the bombs and an enemy’s vital industrial base could be destroyed.[38]  The realities of aerial warfare and bombing would shake their beliefs within less than two years and force a sea-change in strategy.

 

The two most dynamic political leaders of the free world, British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill[39] and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, endorsed air power as a powerful deterrence.  If war became necessary, Churchill and Roosevelt considered massive bomber fleets the remedy that would bring about an enemy’s defeat quickly.  Historian Richard Overy wrote that President Roosevelt’s

 

“…confidant Harry Hopkins [a trusted personal advisor] reported in August 1941 that the President was ‘a believer in bombing as the only means of gaining a victory.’  Roosevelt told his Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, that ‘the only way to break the German morale’ was to bomb every small town, to bring war home to the ordinary German.”[40]

 

Churchill had long been an enthusiast for aerial bombing, going back to the First World War and well into the 1930s.  He defended the Royal Air Force in its infancy from attacks by the Royal Navy and army, both which saw the air force as a mere “parvenu service”[41] that lacked the honor and stature of the traditional forces.  The Royal Air Force in turn was in search of a role other than reconnaissance for the army and navy.  On May 10, 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister and five days later, unleashed his heavy bombers against German targets in the aftermath of the Nazi’s devastating attack on Rotterdam.  Though Churchill would in 1943, 1944 and again in 1945 express doubts about area bombing’s efficacy and morality, he had sealed his pact with this method of warfare in an August 1942 address to officers of the British Eighth Army (The famous “Desert Rats”) in Cairo, Egypt: “Germany has asked for this bombing warfare … her country will be laid to ruins.”[42]  Those words sealed the fate of cities like Hamburg, Berlin, Nuremberg, and Dresden among dozens of others.

 

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[1] A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the W W II Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, New York: Walker & Company, 2006, p. 148.  Stanley Baldwin was a harsh critic of evolving aerial warfare doctrines that favored area-bombing of densely populated cities.  Note: I have kept the British spelling when citing from British sources.

[2] Philip Kaplan, Bombers: The Air Crew Experience, New York: Barnes and Noble, 2000, p. 8.

[3] Craig Whitlock, “As Dresden Recalls Days of Ruin, Neo-Nazis Issue a Rallying Cry,” The Washington Post, February 14, 2005; Page A01. While most of the Dresden demonstrators memorialized the attack with calls for peace and remembrance, others had a different goal.  An estimated 5,000 neo-Nazi protesters gathered at the same 60th anniversary Dresden rally, seeking pity for the vanquished National Socialist German Reich.  These far-right retrograde practitioners of Nazi revisionism have for years claimed that the Allied bombing of German cities during the Second World War was a war crime equal to those committed by the Third Reich and cited at the  Nuremberg Trials.  The only difference, argue the neo-Nazis and revisionists (including some on the Far Left), between Nazi Germany’s conduct of the war and that of the victorious Allied Powers, was that the Axis lost and thus bore the brunt of war crimes accusations, prosecutions, and eventual guilt.  In recent years, a small number of highly vocal Japanese nationalists also have challenged the credibility both of American assertions and the post-war Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

[4] A. C. Grayling addresses this phenomenon in the Introduction to Among the Dead Cities, pp. 1-2.

[5] Most Germans and Japanese however do not equate Allied area bombing with the Holocaust or massacre of Nanking.

[6] Area bombing is also known as carpet-bombing or saturation bombing.  It is the willful bombing of urban populations without regard to civilian casualties and destruction of non-military or nonessential industrial assets.  The polar opposite of area bombing is strategic bombing, also known as precision bombing or pin-point bombing; this type of bombing attempts to avoid civilian casualties and instead concentrates on military targets and vital industrial assets.  Noncombatant casualties of strategic bombing often are called collateral damage.

[7] Colin Joyce, “Japanese are forgetting the lessons of Hiroshima, says the man who was Barefoot Gen,” The London Telegraph, August 4, 2005.      

[8] A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, p. 3.

[9] Ibid., p. 6.

[10] Ben Fenton, American troops 'murdered Japanese PoWs',” The London Telegraph, August 6, 2005.

[11] A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, p. 5.  Others put the death toll at much greater than 25 million.  For example, if one starts the body count with Japan’s aggression in Manchuria in 1932, and accepts the Soviet’s figures for losses suffered fighting the Nazis from 1941-1945, the number is closer to 40 million.  Further along in his book, Grayling writes on p. 257: “The shocking figures bear out the fact that the Second World War was certainly a war of peoples even more than of armies: an estimated 15 million soldiers, sailors and airmen were killed … between 1939 and 1945, whereas in excess of 45 million civilians were killed.”  Which figures are correct for the deaths inflicted by the Axis powers, 25 million or 40 million?   An estimated six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust; the Soviets lost about 20 million to the Nazis; China lost 12 million dating back to the 1932 Japanese aggression.  Those figures alone add up to 38 million killed by Axis aggression, and I have not counted the Americans, British, Polish, Hungarians, Yugoslavs, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Italian, Greek, Belgian, French, Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, and others that the Axis killed.  Most historians put the World War Two death toll at 55 million: 15 million military personnel, 800,000 German and Japanese civilians, and some 40 million civilians, most of them victims of Nazi and Imperial Japanese aggression.  Add the estimated 10 to 15 million that disappeared to Stalin’s overall terror dating from about 1930 through 1939, and we have a horrific death toll of an estimated 65 million to 70 million people from 1930 to 1945.  Truly the most sanguinary period of recorded history bar none.

[12] Ibid., p. 5-6.

[13] Grayling notes that RAF Bomber Command lost 7,700 planes during World War II.

[14] In chapter 6, “The Case Against The Bombing,” Grayling invokes Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica as well as St Augustine’s contribution to the theory of just war (justum bellum).  Whether it is Augustinian theological concepts of just cause (justum ad bellum) or just conduct in the course of war (jus in bello), or the idealism of Hugo Grotius’s On the Law of War and Peace (1625), there is a naïve quaintness to this unbending faith in the applicability of moral philosophical concepts to a modern age that declared nearly a century ago that God is dead.  In a world fraught with cultural and moral relativism, few are listening and fewer still are in a position of strength by which to impose the now dead Medieval Christian ideals.

[15] Ian Garrick Mason, “Book Review,” Times Literary Supplement, April 28, 2006.

[16] A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, p. 23.

[17] Ibid., pp. 123.

[18] Ibid., p. 121.

[19] Ibid., p. 121.

[20] It should be noted however, that Europeans had no moral reservations or qualms of conscience when it came to using airpower, chemical weapons and other mass casualty-inflicting weapons on non-European peoples in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

[21] A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, p. 126.

[22] Ibid., p. 126.

[23] Ibid., p. 128.

[24] Stephen L. McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton, To Command the Sky: The Battle for Air Supremacy Over Germany, 1942-1944, Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991, p. 19.

[25] Ibid., p. 19.

[26] Ibid., p. 20.

[27] Ibid., p. 24.

[28] A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, p. 132.

[29] Ibid., p. 133.

[30] Ibid., p. 134.

[31] McFarland and Newton, To Command the Sky, p. 20.

[32] Ibid., p. 24.

[33] Ibid., p. 24.

[34] Ibid., p. 82.

[35] A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, pp. 135-136.

[36] Ibid., p. 138.  The Americans placed so much significance in the Norden Bomb Sight that even the British were not given access to this “secret” piece of bombing technology.

[37] Ibid., p. 134.

[38] McFarland and Newton, To Command the Sky, p. 3.  The sanguinary policy of deliberately targeting civilians was of course disguised because U.S. official policy opposed acknowledging the unavoidable bombing of civilians.

[39] Churchill was a Member of Parliament in the late 1930s.

[40] Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won, New York: W.W. Norton, 1995, pp. 109-110.

[41] Ibid., p. 103.

[42] Ibid., p. 103.  In fairness to Churchill, he had been under enormous pressure from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to put more effort against Nazi Germany on the Western front.  In August 1942, outside of ground combat against the Afrika Korps in North Africa, aerial bombing of Germany and naval operations in the Atlantic were the only tools at the British and Americans’ disposal; Operation Torch, the landing of American ground forces in North America, would not begin until November 1942.


Michael Lopez-Calderon runs the website Calderon's Call and is also featured on Inherit the Wirbelwind.


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