A.C. Grayling: Among the dead cities: Was the allied bombing of civilians in WWII a necessity or a crime?

By Reviewed by Max Hastings

Few aspects of World War II are today analysed and debated more intensely than the Allied bombing of the cities of Germany and Japan. Germans, in particular, have become assertive about the horrors of what was done to their civilian population by RAF Bomber Command and the USAAF.

In Britain, a dwindling band of specialist aviation writers addresses the bomber offensive simply as a heroic adventure story about the aircrew and planes which carried it out. Most historians, by contrast, perceive area bombing as a regrettable and relatively unsuccessful aspect of the Allied prosecution of the war.

I wrote in a book, published in 1979, which included the line: "The cost of the bomber offensive in life, treasure and moral superiority over the enemy tragically outstripped the results that it achieved." I quote this only to suggest that A. C. Grayling does not bring much new to the party by writing a book in 2006 which repeats familiar history, and concludes that bombing was a bad idea.

Grayling is a philosopher by trade. His work addresses chiefly the moral aspects, rather than telling us anything fresh about what was done, why and how. He can claim originality only in the absolutism of his conclusions: area bombing, he says, was unnecessary, disproportionate, a crime against humanity and morality.

The airmen of Bomber Command, who knew perfectly well what they were doing to innocent civilians, should have refused to carry out such operations.

This certainly represents a step-change from the namby-pamby, on-the-one-hand-and-on the-other approach adopted by more cautious historians. Grayling rejects the "cruel necessity" view taken by many of us, that Britain took up area bombing in 1941-42, because its leaders could see no other way of carrying on the war against Hitler.

Bombing civilians is "morally criminal", says the author, and that is that. I have argued in my own books that it is important to recognise the extent to which the Allies in 1944-45 were prisoners of earlier industrial decisions to create a huge bomber force.

I also reject the use of the phrase "war crime" to describe what was done.

However mistakenly, those who conducted the bomber offensive believed that it would hasten the military and industrial collapse of German and Japanese tyrannies. Nazism's ghastly excesses, by contrast, were conducted solely for ideological purposes, against defenceless people.

Grayling will have none of this, nor of the arguments of such writers as Richard Overy, that the need to find resources to defend Germany against air attack importantly weakened Hitler's armies in the field.

In the last phase of the war, bombers punished the German people rather than contributed in any plausible way to their defeat. But it seems extravagant to use such a phrase as "culturecide" to describe what was done.

The author makes the cardinal error of imposing the values and knowledge of the 21st century on decisions that were made in the fog of a war of national survival which Britain nearly lost.

He refers to modern Western policy towards Iraq, declaring: "We are at risk of repeating mistakes if we do not face up to their commission in the pasting the record straight is all that can be done now." Yet Grayling's book adds not a tittle to the record, and precious little useful to the debate.

He abhors nuances, yet nuances seem indispensable to any grown-up discussion. How would he answer, for instance, Professor Sir Michael Howard, who once pondered aloud in my hearing: "How would the British and American publics have responded, if early in 1945 they had been told that the bomber forces had been stood down, while German and Japanese troops were still fighting furiously to kill Allied soldiers?"

It seems plain silly to suggest that RAF aircrew of 1939-45 could credibly or honourably have refused orders to attack Germany's cities.

There is also the small matter that the Germans and Japanese started the whole thing. It feels odd to me, as a writer who has been more critical than most of the bomber offensive, to find myself so irked by Grayling's polemic. Yet the author's lack of humility, relentless certainties and rejection of all contrary argument or mitigating circumstance, add up to an unconvincing package.

All participants in all wars are in some degree morally compromised. Grayling seems to have nothing more useful to tell us about the bomber offensive than writers who inveigh against, say, the conduct of the British empire in the 18th century. We know that today we would do it all differently, but that is not the point.

* Published by Bloomsbury

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