Very Recommended Reading: "Among the Dead Cities"

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Ralph
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Very Recommended Reading: "Among the Dead Cities"

Post by Ralph » Wed May 24, 2006 9:38 am

From Americanheritage.com:

Posted Thursday April 6, 2006 07:00 AM EDT

Was the American Bombing Campaign in World War II a War Crime?

Deliberately targeting civilians is widely considered terrorism nowadays, but during World War II both the Britain’s Bomber Command and the United States Army Air Force deliberately targeted civilians.

The British philosopher A. C. Grayling, in his new book Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan (Walker, $25.95), points out that the two air forces combined killed perhaps 600,000 German civilians and another 200,000 Japanese. He makes the case that at least by our current standards we were terrorists, and it logically follows that the attacks were war crimes. In an age of political terror, when it is urgent to come up with a persuasive distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence, it is hard to overstate the importance of the questions Grayling raises.

If targeting civilians significantly contributed to defeating the Axis powers, there may be something to be said in defense of British and American terror attacks, but Grayling, along with a lot of other people, thinks the evidence shows that the strategy contributed little if anything to the defeat of Germany or Japan. Germany suffered no militarily significant loss of morale, the reasoning goes, and Japan surrendered because of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, which in combination with naval blockade convinced the Japanese military that the Home Islands could not be defended. By his account, our war crimes lack not only the justification that military necessity might provide but even the extenuation of usefulness. He thinks that pointing this out requires moral courage but that logic and moral seriousness demand nothing less. This case has been made many times, and Grayling observes that it was indeed made during the war itself. Is it true?

Grayling notes that German war production rose through 1944, while German morale clearly remained solid enough to sustain effective combat though early 1945, so indiscriminately bombing German cities clearly failed to deliver on either of the promises made by its theorists and practitioners. But that increase in German production has to be put in perspective: It rose under the bombing because before 1942 German production had been remarkably lax, and it might have reached appallingly high levels under Albert Speer’s efficient management had the bombing not occurred.

Grayling knows this, and although he repeatedly addresses the issue of bombing and German output, he exempts direct attacks on such targets as German munitions factories from moral condemnation, even though a vast number of civilians were killed in such attacks. Those deaths are what is generally called collateral damage, and they were absolutely predictable, so some would say their lack of sufficient effect would make them immoral. In any case, Grayling acknowledges that American bombing attacks on German fuel stocks, transportation and aircraft factories actually had some significant effect on the outcome of the war, so he gives the U.S. Army Air Force a partial pass. The USAAF usually attempted precision bombing of industrial targets by day; the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command usually attempted area bombing by night, and aimed at whole cities. Grayling does not give the Bomber Command that partial pass.

He has a lot of objections to area bombing, his chief one that “soldiers . . . are contracted to kill us and ours; and are armed for the purpose, whereas civilians are not.” While he is sure that area bombing failed to do much to either German morale or German production, he would still oppose it as intrinsically evil even if it had broken the enemy’s morale. Moreover, he approvingly quotes the British pacifist Vera Brittain, who thought that a people beaten into apathy and defeatism by their conquerors were hardly likely to conclude that violence didn’t pay. Grayling is aware that there are those who justify terror today by citing the Allied use of it. Apologists for Al Qaeda and Hamas have made the analogy, as have plenty of editorialists around the world.

What distinguishes Grayling from most critics of strategic area bombing in World War II is his familiarity with some of the arguments that are made in its defense. They begin with the notion that the RAF targeted German civilians because early in the war it couldn’t directly attack German production without ruinous loss. Daylight raids on heavily defended positions were catastrophic for Bomber Command, and most bombs dropped in the first years of the air war failed to land within five miles of their targets; the only targets big enough to hit with any level of accuracy were cities. Cities contained factories and industrial workers, along with civilians who did little or nothing to directly aid the German war effort. It was considered impossible to effectively attack the former without simultaneously attacking the latter. And something had to be done to Nazi Germany while its armies seemed to be on the verge of conquering all Europe. The RAF did the only thing it could do, hoping to inflict devastating damage on German morale while inflicting some damage on the German economy.

Grayling argues that there was something else the RAF could have done: work to develop the tools of USAAF-style precision bombing, while attacking the German navy and its ports. But unfortunately the RAF couldn’t develop those tools quickly, and the case for doing something immediately seemed very pressing after Germany invaded the Soviet Union and inflicted four and a half million casualties in the first few months.

The core of the standard defense of strategic (that is, non-battlefield) bombing is that while the RAF failed miserably at undermining civilian morale, it nonetheless made another entirely unintended but genuinely effective contribution to winning the war. The German authorities deployed two million people in defense against air attacks, committing 10,000 of their famously effective 88 mm. artillery pieces and perhaps 70 percent of the Luftwaffe’s to home defense. The 88s were the same gun tubes used as antitank weapons; every 88 deployed in Germany meant one less facing Allied soldiers, who had a tough enough time dealing with the German Army as it was. Every fighter plane and pilot used in home defense was one less helping to conquer the world, and the Red Army’s counteroffensives, and the Allied invasions of Western Europe, would have been far more costly and hazardous if the Luftwaffe had been present in greater strength on those fronts. (On D-day there were only 300 Luftwaffe fighters to oppose the Allied landings in France, and only 500 on the Eastern Front.) According to this theory, Bomber Command’s areas attacks on German civilians made a significant contribution to victory—despite the commanders’ faulty strategic thinking.

Grayling knows about this argument, and he dismisses it with startling ease. He discounts entirely the military value of the two million Germans deployed on home defense. These were boys of 16 or men older than 38, or women, good for no other purpose, he argues. This is not necessarily the strongest part of his case. I have known men who fought Germans who were 16 or past 38 toward the end of the war, or who were worked almost to death by armed German old men, and I have known female slave workers who were supervised—that is, beaten, starved, and tortured, and who saw other female slaves murdered—by armed German women. None of these people was as sure as Grayling is that the two million Germans engaged in air defense and air-raid-repair work were capable of no other strategically significant activity.

When assessing the importance of those 10,000 artillery tubes and swarms of fighters—and of the swarms of German bombers never built because German aircraft capacity was shifted to building fighters for home defense—Grayling wholly dismisses the value of area attacks targeting civilians. He tersely asserts that air attacks restricted to German industrial facilities would have sufficed to draw those artillery tubes and fighters back from the fighting fronts to defend the Reich, and therefore the Allies targeted civilians to no real advantage at all.

This is a very clear argument, but again, it has weaknesses. Logic suggests that defending the entire urban population of Germany entailed a far larger commitment of resources than defending key industrial facilities would have. Would the resources freed up by more circumscribed Allied air attacks have protracted the war? To ask this question is probably to answer it.

Grayling at one point quotes a British estimate that strategic bombing, apparently both area bombing and precision attacks, reduced German armaments output by just 1 percent in 1944. Bomber Command’s area attacks on German civilians provoked a massive response, and small wonder: Allied bombing killed 600,000 of them. Would Germany have pulled the same number of guns and fighters off the fronts to defend whatever portion of 1 percent of its armaments output was lost to precision bombing? Grayling is certain it would have: “If a principle aim of the bombing attacks was to anchor defensive resources to Germany, then however inaccurate the attempts to bomb factories, power stations, railway lines and marshalling yards...the mere effort would have been enough to achieve this aim.” But anchoring defensive resources to Germany, while the principle useful effect of the bombing, was clearly not its principle aim, and it seems implausible that this effect would have been achieved no matter how inaccurate the bombing.

Another feature of Grayling’s analysis is his focus on the issue of whether area bombing was crucial in winning the war. He argues that attacks directed at civilians were less justifiable once it was clear the Allies were going to win. He believes Allied victory was certain by 1943, and insofar as it is possible to make such a determination, he is probably right. But the near-certainty of victory is not the only relevant consideration. In the absence of area bombing, when would victory have been achieved? What costs would a delayed victory have exacted?

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred long after victory was certain, but if they significantly shortened the war, they probably saved vast numbers of civilians lives, and not only Japanese civilian lives. By one recent estimate 17,000 Asian civilians were dying every day in Japanese-controlled territory in late 1945. In 1943, and indeed in 1945, civilian Russians, Poles, Jews, Chinese and Serbs, among others, were also dying in appalling numbers each day the war dragged on, many murdered, more killed more indirectly. To pick only one example of the probable cost of a longer war, an initially healthy slave laborer in Dora-Mittelbau, the SS facility for producing V2s, had a life expectancy of two weeks; one in three of the 60,000 slaves there died, 12,000 of them worked to death or executed on the premises. To pick another, every day of a protracted naval blockade would have killed significant numbers of Japanese civilians. During the First World War, the Royal Navy’s blockade is commonly believed to have killed almost 800,000 German civilians.

In total wars, soldiers and industrial workers tend to eat first. So while accelerating the war’s end through attacks aimed at German civilians cost many innocent lives, along with a few less-innocent civilian or non-combatant lives (after all, a judge in one of Hitler’s People’s Courts was a civilian, and a doctor conducting medical experiments in Auschwitz was a non-combatant), not ending the war as quickly as possible would also have cost innocent lives. Which policy would cost more innocent lives? Grayling doesn’t ask. Still, one suspects he thinks he knows the answer, for he approvingly cites Richard Pape, a political scientist who insists that Japan would have surrendered on precisely the same day had neither atom bomb been used.

There are other oddities to Grayling’s analysis. He takes it as an article of faith that morale bombing never works, which means that he pretty much ignores some of the very evidence he cites. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey is apparently unimpeachable when it declares that morale bombing was an absolute failure when applied to Germans, but can be summarily dismissed when it holds that morale bombing did produce the surrender of Japan. He acknowledges that morale bombing probably affected Italy’s decision to drop out of the war in 1943—before Allied soldiers had set foot on the Italian mainland—but then seems to forget this when he dismisses the possibility of morale bombing’s ever having any effect. He makes repeated and invariably approving reference to Richard Pape’s Bombing to Win, published in 1996, which sought to prove that morale and indeed all strategic bombing must always fail in its larger goals—and which was lucklessly published on the eve of the Kossovo campaign, the one occasion when strategic bombing managed to win a war without the commitment of a single infantryman.

Of course, much must be said against the morale bombers. On some occasions, commanders refused to let strategic bombers be diverted from morale bombing; this almost certainly hurt the war effort. British Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris was reluctant to let his aircraft be used against submarines at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, or to attack German communications in the run-up to D-day, and any honest observer has to admit that some of the late war raids were wanton. But accepting both the moral force of the argument against targeting civilians and also the terrible complexity of trying to minimize suffering in wartime, it is possible, at least after the fact, to speculate about what were the most ethical and prudent uses of air power during the war. It requires asking some very tough questions, though.

Grayling writes, “It is obviously better to destroy the factory than to kill the people who work in it.” But even that is not so simple. When waging war against an extremely formidable genocidal tyranny, it may not always be better to destroy things than people. Is it obviously better to destroy a factory than its employees, if those employees are irreplaceable Nazi nuclear scientists? As it turned out, Nazi nuclear scientists were not effective weapons designers, but one can imagine a slightly different history in which they were. During most of the Second World War it took much longer to train a pilot than to build a military aircraft. Allied pilots did not usually shoot German pilots parachuting to safety, but had they done so, in a desperate point in the struggle, would they have been hopelessly immoral? Some uniformed but unarmed non-combatants are harder to replace than are armed infantry—for example, skilled technicians repairing Me 262 jet fighters. Should the ethical pilot strafe the airfield defense troops, or the technicians’ canteen? Moreover, most soldiers in the Second World War were conscripts serving under significant duress. It is not clear that every Italian conscript more richly deserved death at the hands of the RAF than did a German worker manufacturing gas for Auschwitz in a civilian chemical plant. And as for the argument that defeat by terror can’t persuade the conquered that violence doesn’t pay, it seems to have convinced the Germans and the Japanese of precisely that, at least for the last 60 years.

Similarly, Grayling writes that “air bombing does indeed kill more civilians, massacre women and children, and destroy more cultural heritage than ground war does” This simply isn’t true. The Second World War killed perhaps 45 million, less than a third of them armed combatants. A few percent of that number died by aerial bombing. German ground war as practiced in Russia killed exponentially more civilians than died from aerial bombing there, and not on account of German forbearance; German air attacks on Stalingrad may have killed 100,000 civilians. As for the damage to cultural heritage, all the major and most of the minor cities in occupied Soviet territory were destroyed.

What, finally, is Grayling’s opinion? Summing up, he is confident that area bombing was a “moral crime”—unnecessary, disproportionate, and against general human standards recognized for 2,000 years. He says air crews should have refused to carry out area bombing raids. Even in the darkest days of the war, the requirement to do something could have been met by launching more (suicidal and ineffective) “precision” attacks on German industry, and by attacking the German navy. He is convinced that there is no difference in principle between Allied area bombing in the Second World War and the attacks of September 11, 2001. All are terrorist attacks, all attempted coercion by deliberate mass murder. Hamburg, Hiroshima, and September 11 are all, for Grayling, the same sort of atrocity. He is clear that killing a Nazi accountant would be too high a price to pay for simultaneously killing an SS man machine-gunning unarmed Jews in an open pit. Despite all this, he also insists that he in no way intends to impugn the courage and sacrifice of RAF and USAAF bomber crews, or to insult them.

He may be unable to avoid it. I suspect that most airmen, being told that they had committed inexcusable crimes in useless actions at the cost of 60,000 of their comrades’ lives without contributing at all to victory in the war, would be skeptical about that last of Grayling’s intentions. Alternatively, they might be puzzled about why he lets them off so lightly. Under some interpretations of the Nuremberg standards, which Grayling invokes, there is a good argument for dragging my uncle, a former ball-turret gunner in a B-24, out of his bed and off to a war-crimes tribunal. (It might be some small consolation to him that his old flight crew would not be similarly at risk. He is the only one of them who survived the war.) Indeed, I’m not entirely clear why Grayling lets my uncle off the hook.

Perhaps the largest puzzlement raised by Grayling is the question of what we can say, with any precision, about the moral claims of civilians in wartime, in light of the experience of the Second World War. I share Grayling’s view that the claims of civilians in wartime are a matter of proportionality, but it seems to me that proportionality is in part a function of the scale and scope of the evil averted by victory, and of the price of letting that evil endure longer because of a delayed victory. This is a hard position to maintain, because no man is a good judge in his own case, and everyone tends to claim that he is fighting the near-equivalent of the Nazis. For example, the Palestinians and their supporters make this claim with surprising frequency. It is a particularly awkward position in the light of its monstrous abuse by exponents of Stalinist ethics over the course of the last century, and by contemporary apologists for terror.

But the difficulty of defending this position does not mean that we should defend its opposite, which is that the claims of civilians are absolute and universal to the point that 1942’s RAF pilots were the moral equivalent of today’s Al Qaeda, or for that matter of the German pilots who terror-bombed Warsaw and Belgrade. Here we must consider the morality of intentions. Defeating the Axis at the lowest practicable human cost was an admirable intention. Seeking a racist world empire was not. A good end cannot justify any means, but a supremely good and urgent end may at least partially justify bad means.

—Fredric Smoler teaches literature at Sarah Lawrence College and is a contributing editor of American Heritage magazine.
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Corlyss_D
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Re: Very Recommended Reading: "Among the Dead Cities&am

Post by Corlyss_D » Wed May 24, 2006 11:23 am

I caught a snipet of a program on the RAF last night and was charmed by the British historian who remarked "while the British were shooting down airplanes, the Poles [in the RAF] were shooting to kill Germans and whether the Germans were in the air or on the ground was no never mind to them."

People should never get into wars they don't intend to fight to win.
everyone tends to claim that he is fighting the near-equivalent of the Nazis. For example, the Palestinians and their supporters make this claim with surprising frequency.
Yes, that's been their propaganda strategy for almost 20 years. Between their aggressiveness in claiming it, their rich and callous patrons' use of oil as a weapon against the west, and the natural supineness of the Europeans, it's worked pretty well. As Richard Ben Cramer has written, Jews in Israel have lost control of their own tale in the world theater.
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Re: Very Recommended Reading: "Among the Dead Cities&am

Post by karlhenning » Wed May 24, 2006 12:43 pm

Corlyss_D wrote:People should never get into wars they don't intend to fight to win.
You yourself set that single line on its own, so it is right to address it on its own.

Does that justify any action, no matter how immoral? Does the 'intent to win' override all moral considerations? For all parties, and not the US (e.g.) alone.
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Re: Very Recommended Reading: "Among the Dead Cities&am

Post by Corlyss_D » Wed May 24, 2006 8:02 pm

karlhenning wrote:
Corlyss_D wrote:People should never get into wars they don't intend to fight to win.
You yourself set that single line on its own, so it is right to address it on its own.
Does that justify any action, no matter how immoral?
If I get to define immoral, no. If you get to define immoral, probably.
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