Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

Times Literary Supplement -- April 28, 2006

Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden 1945

Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang, eds.
Pimlico, 260pp

Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime?

A.C. Grayling
Bloomsbury, 361pp

by Ian Garrick Mason

“The sun was risen upon the Earth when Lot entered into Zo-ar… Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven; and He overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.” So says Genesis 19:24, as quoted in the first chapter of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

Humankind has moved on from such an abject dependence on God: we can destroy our own cities now. But we perfected this skill only recently, in World War Two, when thousand-bomber raids on German and Japanese cities were able to kill tens of thousands of civilians, and make hundreds of thousands homeless, in a single night. The catastrophically devastating raids on Dresden, which occurred on the night of February 13-14, 1945, and which Vonnegut experienced personally as a POW, would come to symbolize this power. In the global imagination, Dresden stands alongside the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a moral question mark – even an indictment.

But should it? University of Edinburgh historians Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang convened a colloquium in 2003 “to discuss the causes, conduct, and consequences of the bombing”. The resulting book, Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden 1945, addresses the difficult question of whether the destruction of Dresden – in which at least 25,000 people, possibly as many as 40,000, died – was “a war crime, [or] a justifiable, if ruthless, application of military force”.

The contributors are not all of one mind. Donald Bloxham argues that it was indeed a war crime – though he is careful to distinguish war crimes from the much more serious category of crimes against humanity. He refuses to accept “total war” as a blanket excuse for the bombing of civilians, asserting that there are always limits on behaviour: “Assuming that some such humanitarian line does exist, and that genocidal killing is not an option, a strong case could be made that the killing of tens of thousands of civilians within a little more than twenty-four hours, as at Dresden, should also go well beyond the line.”

By contrast, Sebastian Cox stresses Dresden’s role as an important industrial city and transportation hub. He points out that given the surprising German strength shown at the Battle of the Bulge and recent increases in that country’s oil and jet fighter production, “this was not a war which was obviously over to those engaged in fighting it.” With part of the Red Army pushing towards south-eastern Germany, Allied generals reasoned that a heavy strike on German communications and morale in that area would help the offensive along and shorten the war.

Firestorm’s other essays – among them, Hew Strachan’s on the development of strategic bombing policy, Tami Davis Biddle’s on wartime reactions to the raid, and Richard Overy’s on the contentious post-war debate over the raid’s legacy – add invaluable context and perspectives to the subject. Yet though contributors’ opinions on the morality of the raid often differ, they generally agree that Dresden should not be treated as exceptional. At least as many people were killed in Hamburg’s Operation Gomorrah, and Bomber Command dropped no greater proportion of incendiaries on Dresden than on other cities. The famous firestorm was but one particularly horrifying outcome of a standard operating procedure applied across Germany.

It is therefore appropriate that A.C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities should focus not on the morality of the Dresden raids but on that of the Allied area bombing campaigns against German and Japanese cities. As he explains, his book is in part a response to historians who have taken refuge in the assertion that the question of the campaigns’ morality “is too difficult, and must be left to philosophers to debate”. For of course, Grayling is a philosopher.

But he is a philosopher with a courtroom; his aim to make a definitive ruling on the charge that area bombing was a moral crime. Grayling’s standard of judgment is just war theory, particularly its principles of proportionality and necessity. Though he believes that bombing industrial plants and workers is a legitimate part of war, he contends that the area bombing of cities was disproportionate in its effects on innocents: “children, the elderly, the lame and ill, and at least many of the women.” The campaign was also unnecessary. The RAF and USAAF made far more of an impact on the war when they focused on bombing oil installations and rail centres, he argues, and the economic and military power that the Allies eventually brought to bear – “the inevitability of an Allied victory was [by the autumn of 1944] plain to all who could count and add” – meant that destroying cities was no longer justified. “The indictment stands,” he concludes with a bang of his gavel.

Grayling’s arguments, and the history he marshals to support them, are consistently thought-provoking. Yet they ultimately seem too limited to support such a strong conclusion. One problem is that proportionality and necessity are not nearly as clear cut as he makes them seem. To Grayling, “necessary” means “unavoidable as a means of defeating the Axis”. But generals and statesmen do not work from such narrow definitions; for them, “necessary” refers to a sweeping list of things: achieving victory, yes, but also maintaining domestic morale, visibly supporting allies, minimizing military losses, shaping the postwar balance of power, and concluding the war as quickly as possible.

This last point is important: in a six-year war that cost 25 million lives (the conservative estimate used by Grayling), the “run rate” of death averaged more than four million lives per year, mostly civilians. Shaving even 3 months off the war might well save a million lives. The area bombing campaigns killed 800,000 – but if they shortened the war even a little, did they save more people than they killed? It is hard to see how any Allied leader could have avoided this grim moral-mathematical question.

But Grayling’s contention that area bombing didn’t work allows him to avoid it – which means, in turn, that he also avoids having to address the most difficult question: What if it did work? Would it have still been wrong?

Consider torture, one of the great moral issues of our own age. Until recently, Western societies proscribed torture out of a sense of revulsion. Torture was considered, in a word, taboo. The strength of a taboo is that it trumps everything; you don’t violate it, even at the cost of your own life. Whether torture “works” or not was considered to be irrelevant. But torture is escaping from this status today in large part because of utilitarian arguments about necessity, starting with the now-famous “ticking bomb” scenario. There is even an argument from proportionality: what is the pain of a few “guilty” persons if it averts the death of many innocents? Just war theory, as Grayling additionally (though unintentionally) demonstrates by using it to justify American-style preventative war, is far too permissive a framework to ban practices like area bombing or torture.

If Grayling had focused on whether area bombing should be considered taboo, rather than whether it was necessary or proportionate, it would have forced up a host of difficult but important philosophical issues. Being willing to accept defeat rather than engage in certain practices is a grave thing; the charge can be made that it elevates moral rectitude over the lives of real people, even over the survival of one’s country. But in Grayling’s courtroom, the only trade-off is that between illusion and enlightened self-interest. Quite simply, he makes it look too easy.

Despite this, Grayling has done an enormous service – as have the editors of and contributors to Firestorm – in helping to raise the profile of a debate about wartime morality which is essential for the victor nations of WWII to have, if laudable ends are not to be allowed to retrospectively justify everything done to achieve them. We may be understandably reluctant to look back on our Sodoms and Gomorrahs with unshielded eyes, but we’ve got no excuse not to. Unlike Lot’s wife, we won’t be turned into pillars of salt.

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