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Guilty Civilians: A Review Of Among The Dead Cities

Richard Fitzer Sep 1, 2006

Among The Dead Cities: The History And Moral Legacy Of The WWII Bombing Of Civilians In Germany And Japan By A.C. Grayling

If it is true that a nation is united by lies about its past and hatred of a common enemy, then give A.C. Grayling credit for trying to remedy this. Among the Dead Cities places the Allied bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan in the context of history’s efforts to humanize warfare. He writes with the twin convictions that World War II was “a just war against morally criminal enemies” and that “we owe it to our future to get matters right about the past.”

Dead Cities takes us to a time when air travel was breathtakingly new and death from the air was as unthinkable as jets crashing into the Twin Towers. After the shocking experiences of World War I, governments gathered in Geneva and The Hague to consider such proposals as outlawing “aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing civilian populations.” Ironically, just as these negotiations collapsed in the run-up to WWII, the United Kingdom and United States were considering whether to make bombing a war crime.

Using sources that include government bombing surveys, academic histories and personal diaries, Grayling examines three Allied bombing campaigns: Britain against Germany, the United States against Germany and the United States against Japan.

He finds that despite each government’s stated policy of avoiding civilian targets leaders sought to “undermine morale” with “area bombing.” It was only the U.S. campaign against Germany in which the stated policy of limiting air attacks to military targets matched the action. In fact, wartime German reports make clear U.S. “precision” targeting of oil depots had a devastating impact on the Nazi war machine.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of bombs were dropped on civilian targets even after the Allied leadership agreed that winning was largely a matter of time. Although London initially chose to shift from daylight “precision” raids to night “area” raids simply because it couldn’t afford to lose planes or pilots, this policy of carpet bombing continued nearly until Germany’s surrender.

By contrast, Japanese civilians were always a target. The firebombing of Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945, in which 100,000-185,000 were killed, remains the deadliest single air raid in history. Its planner, Curtis LeMay, offered his thoughts: “There are no innocent civilians… The entire population got into the act and worked to make those airplanes or munitions… men, women and children.” Months later, President Truman would announce that the first use of an atomic bomb was against a “military target.”

Given London’s earlier experience as Germany’s main bombing target, it is revealing that opposition to Britain’s bombing of civilians was much stronger in the capital than the rest of Britain.

When a leading opponent, Vera Brittain, pointed out that bombing civilians to “shorten the war,” thereby protecting air crews, was morally equivalent to an infantryman advancing behind a mother with child, she was viciously attacked.

No certainty for the justness of any cause can lead to certainty regarding methods. As U.S. Admiral Ralph Ofstie, member of the Strategic Bombing Survey, testified to Congress, “Must we translate the historical mistake of World War II into a permanent concept merely to avoid clouding the prestige of those who led us down the wrong road in the past?”