Fire From the Sky

By Benjamin Schwarz

June 2006 Atlantic


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 nearlybomber-command-cre_2261407k 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 _70139231_3140120the 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.

Moreover, Grayling is a philosopher pursuing absolute arguments, yet he’s treading on the muddy ground of history, which is defined not by certitudeshamburg-24-july 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 RAF plane dropping bombs over Duisburg, Germany, 15 October 1944Command 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.

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