Our conduct in war

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AMONG THE DEAD CITIES: THE HISTORY AND MORAL LEGACY OF WWII BOMBING OF CIVILIANS IN GERMANY AND JAPAN

By A. C. Grayling

Walker & Co., $25.95, 384 pages

REVIEWED BY ERNEST W. LEFEVER

It seems that the outpouring of books and movies about World War II will never end. This is right and proper because in that conflict the stakes for Western civilization — indeed for humanity itself — were never higher. In 1940, Winston Churchill called Hitler’s slaughter of Jews in Poland and Russia “a crime without a name.” Ten years later aboard Williamsburg, the presidential yacht, he said to Harry Truman, “You, more than any other man, have saved Western Civilization.” He was right.

If ever there was a just war, the Western cause in World War II was it. America, Britain, and their allies defeated the two most powerful, barbaric, and expansionist regimes in history. At great sacrifice we, and ironically the Red Army, made the world safe for democracy and freedom — at least for a while.

But our conduct in that war against Germany and Japan raises moral questions that call for further scrutiny and soul-searching. In his fact-studded book, “Among the Dead Cities,” A. C. Grayling, a British philosopher, grapples with a fundamental ethical problem in that titanic struggle. He questions the morality and military necessity of the Allied bombing of cities in Germany and Japan that by war’s end claimed 800,000 civilian lives and injured three times that number. Though these deaths by bombing don’t begin to match the six million lives lost in the Holocaust, they deserve our attention.

Before I assess Mr. Grayling’s significant book, permit me a personal note. A religious pacifist during World War II, I along with other like-minded Americans criticized on moral grounds what we then called the “obliteration bombing” of German cities. In September 1945, shortly after Hiroshima, I went to Britain as a volunteer relief worker where I saw what the Luftwaffe had done to London and Coventry. Later, in West Germany, I walked among the rubble that was once Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne and Dresden, and a score of other flattened cities.

By 1948, when I returned to Yale University, I was no longer a pacifist but had become an advocate of the Christian just war doctrine. Even so, I still questioned the necessity and morality of bombing civilian populations. A year later I visited Japan and saw what American firebombing had done to Tokyo.

The central argument of Mr. Grayling’s book, which is buttressed by statistics, focuses on the morality and necessity of the deliberate Allied bombing of civilian populations in Germany and Japan. He asks, “Are there ever circumstances in which killing civilians in wartime is not a moral crime?”

According to the just war doctrine, combatants should fight for a just cause and employ just means. Further, the Geneva Conventions and the American rules of war declare that innocent civilians should be spared. But in what has come to be called “total war,” the distinction between civilian and militaryis difficult to maintain. The weapons designed to kill Allied soldiers were produced by thousands of German and Japanese civilians. Hence, American and British air commanders faced a strategic and moral dilemma. As the war grew more fierce, it became difficult to distinguish between military necessity and the rights of innocent civilians.

In 1943, the strategic port city of Hamburg, a prime military target, was firebombed by the allies. The dead totaled 45,000, mostly civilians. Before long, carpet bombing of German cities became routine.

For three years Dresden, the beautiful baroque city in southern Germany with few military installations, was spared Allied bombing. Then in mid-February 1945, when the Third Reich was virtually defeated, Dresden was needlessly firebombed by American and British planes. In one night 30,000 were killed, many of whom were fleeing the Russians from the East. More than 250,000 civilians were bombed out. Historic churches and museums were reduced to rubble. Dresden became a vivid metaphor for critics of “city busting.” In studied understatement, Churchill said, “The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.”

British opponents of carpet bombing German cities included religious leaders and a handful of Royal Air Force officers. Anglican Bishop George Bell joined the critics, but when it came to dealing with Hitler, the bishop was among those plotting his assassination in 1944.

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