The Corner

Among the Dead Cities

All right, I just finished Grayling’s book AMONG THE DEAD CITIES.  The book is a professional philosopher’s take on the question:  Was the “area bombing” campaign of WW2 (i.e. the deliberate destruction of German and Japanese cities, along with their occupants, to no DIRECTLY military purpose) morally wrong.  After a very judicious and well-balanced survey, the author concludes that it was, though he adds some qualifications:

“Should airmen have refused to carry out area-bombing raids?  Yes.  In the hypothetical ideal world which does not exist and certainly not in wartime, they should have insisted on being sent against genuine industrial and military targets, and unavoidable ‘collateral damage’ should have been the worst they accepted as regards the effects of their attacks on civilians.  Doubtless many thought or made themselves think that this was what they were doing anyway…  But many also knew full well what they were doing, and accepted it, or suffered silently because of it, or regretted it…”

I could spot a couple of holes in his arguments.  The biggest one is the effect of area bombing on German war-industrial capacity.  Grayling repeats the conventional wisdom (which I am willing to believe) that this capacity INCREASED all through the area bombing campaign.  However, he does not really address the big unknowable here:  How much MORE would it have increased if not for the area bombing?  Looking at those pictures of flattened cities, I find it incredible that the answer would be anything other than “a lot more.”

That segment I quoted above doesn’t ring quite true, either.  I grew up among a population whose adult menfolk were almost all WW2 veterans, including lots from Bomber Command.  (My best friend in England was born posthumously after his Dad was killed flying for Bomber Command over Germany.)  I never, ever heard any of these bombers express, nor even hint at, the slightest discomfort about their wartime actions.  Their main emotion was just gratitude at having survived — Bomber Command losses were terrible (as Grayling acknowledges).

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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