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Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japanby A. C. Grayling
"This book is bound to win a lot of notice....But what's good in it isn't new — area bombing has been subject to rigorous scholarly scrutiny for decades now...and the moral questions involved have been thoroughly explored. And what's new in it — a rigid philosophical and legalistic approach to the complexities of history...isn't good. The book, then, is a lost opportunity: it addresses a troubling episode that has yet to be assimilated by the public mind, but it does so in a manner that proves that war is too important a business to be left to the philosophers." Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
When Nuremberg was scouted in 1945 as a possible site for the Nazi war crime trials, an American damage survey of Germany described it as being among the dead cities of that country, for it was 90% destroyed, its population decimated, its facilities lost. As a place to put Nazis on trial, it symbolized the devastation Nazism brought upon Germany, while providing evidence of the destruction the Allies wrought on the country in the course of the war.
In Among the Dead Cities, the acclaimed philosopher A. C. Grayling asks the provocative question, how would the Allies have fared if judged by the standards of the Nuremberg Trials? Arguing persuasively that the victor nations have never had to consider the morality of their policies during World War II, he offers a powerful, moral re-examination of the Allied bombing campaigns against civilians in Germany and Japan, in the light of principles enshrined in the post-war conventions on human rights and the laws of war.
Intended to weaken those countries' ability and will to make war, the bombings nonetheless destroyed centuries of culture and killed some 800,000 non-combatants, injuring and traumatizing hundreds of thousands more in Hamburg, Dresden, and scores of other German cities, in Tokyo, and finally in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Was this bombing offensive justified by the necessities of war, Grayling writes, or was it a crime against humanity? These questions mark one of the great remaining controversies of the Second World War. Their resolution is especially relevant in this time of terrorist threat, as governments debate how far to go in the name of security.
Grayling begins by narrating the Royal Air Force's and U. S.Army Air Force's dramatic and dangerous missions over Germany and Japan between 1942 and 1945. Through the eyes of survivors, he describes the terrifying experience on the ground as bombs created inferno and devastation among often-unprepared men, women, and children. He examines the mindset and thought-process of those who planned the campaigns in the heat and pressure of war, and faced with a ruthless enemy. Grayling chronicles the voices that, though in the minority, loudly opposed attacks on civilians, exploring in detail whether the bombings ever achieved their goal of denting the will to wage war. Based on the facts and evidence, he makes a meticulous case for, and one against, civilian bombing, and only then offers his own judgment. Acknowledging that they in no way equated to the death and destruction for which Nazi and Japanese aggression was responsible, he nonetheless concludes that the bombing campaigns were morally indefensible, and more, that accepting responsibility, even six decades later, is both a historical necessity and a moral imperative.
Rarely is the victor's history re-examined, and A. C. Grayling does so with deep respect and with a sense of urgency to get a proper understanding for how peoples and states can and should behave in times of conflict. Addressing one of today's key moral issues, Among the Dead Cities is both a dramatic retelling of the World War II saga, and vitally important reading for our time.
"The Allied bombing of Axis cities, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and made smoking ruins of Dresden, Tokyo and Hiroshima, remains one of the great controversies of WWII; this probing study does the issue full justice. Philosophy professor Grayling (The Meaning of Things) focuses on Britain's 'area bombing' of entire German cities, a strategy adopted initially because bombers couldn't hit smaller sites and then, as attitudes hardened, continued as a deliberate attack on civilian morale. Grayling scrupulously considers the justifications for area bombing — that it would shorten the conflict by destroying Germany's economy and will to resist, that civilian workers were also combatants or that it was simply the rough justice of war — and finds them wanting. British bombing, he contends, did little damage to the German war effort at an unconscionable price in innocent lives, in contrast to American pinpoint bombing of industrial and military targets, which succeeded in paralyzing the German economy with few civilian casualties. (The Americans, he sadly notes, resorted to area bombing in their devastating air campaign against Japan.) Drawing on firsthand accounts by theorists, architects, victims and opponents of area bombing, Grayling situates a lucid analysis of the historical data within a rigorous philosophical framework." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In the summer of 1943, the Bomber Command of Britain's Royal Air Force began what it chose to call Operation Gomorrah, 'five major and several minor' aerial attacks on the German city of Hamburg, 'with the aim of wiping Hamburg from the map of Europe.' Most of the bombs it dropped were incendiaries, 'small bombs filled with highly flammable chemicals, among them magnesium, phosphorus and petroleum... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) jelly.' The result was 'the first ever firestorm created by bombing, and it caused terrible destruction and loss of life,' almost entirely among civilians. At least 45,000 human corpses were found in the ruins, and more than 30,000 buildings were destroyed. A.C. Grayling writes: 'In the cellars, otherwise unscathed people suffocated to death. Police reports and eyewitness accounts later confirmed many of the horror stories told "of demented Hamburgers carrying bodies of deceased relatives in their suitcases — a man with the corpse of his wife and daughter, a woman with the mummified body of her daughter, or other women with the heads of their dead children."' At about this time, Winston Churchill watched 'a film showing RAF bombers in action over the Ruhr.' According to one who was present, Churchill suddenly blurted out: 'Are we animals? Are we taking this too far?' Quite to the contrary was the view of Bomber Command, in particular its commander, Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, who 'wanted to make a tremendous show' (the words are his own) in Hamburg and got what he wanted. But the question remains: Was the indiscriminate bombing of civilians — in Hamburg, in Dresden, in Tokyo, in Hiroshima, in Nagasaki — justifiable militarily, or was it 'in whole or in part morally wrong'? This is the question addressed in 'Among the Dead Cities' by Grayling, a professor of philosophy at the University of London and one of Britain's more prominent and outspoken public intellectuals. Almost immediately one senses what his answer will be — an unequivocal 'Yes' — but he must be given full credit for reaching that conclusion only after a careful, nuanced analysis that gives full credit to the views and intentions of the bombers as well as making clear that the Allied bombing, however terrible, was 'nowhere near equivalent in scale of moral atrocity to the Holocaust of European Jewry, or the death and destruction all over the world for which Nazi and Japanese aggression was collectively responsible: a total of some twenty-five million dead, according to responsible estimates,' by contrast with the toll of 'about 800,000 civilian women, children and men' exacted by Allied bombing. Grayling's study focuses primarily on British bombing and especially on Operation Gomorrah, 'because it took place when the war was, although running in the Allies' favour, by no means securely won.' The bombing of Hamburg, in other words, occurred at a time when the arguments for bombing would seem strongest: It aimed to sap the power of a formidable enemy, to reduce military and civilian morale, to weaken enemy industry, and to divert 'soldiers, guns and fighter planes away from the battlefronts to protect the cities instead.' By comparison with the far better known attacks on Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred when the outcome of the war was known, the bombing of Hamburg may — emphasis on may — have helped swing the war in the Allies' favor and thus have served a desirable and justifiable end. Grayling is at considerable pains to give the advocates of bombing civilian targets their full say. He is fair to Harris, who 'was not a man of culture,' but 'balance requires that one remember that (in the phrase much then employed) "there was war on," and he took himself to be in command of a campaign that would not only defend his own country from a dangerous aggressor, but would win the war to boot, and thereby destroy the regime which had plunged the world into catastrophe.' Harris meant to destroy 'one major city after another until the population of Germany could take it no longer,' and he 'fervently believed that bombing was a war-winning weapon.' On the European front, American policy, by contrast with British, was to use precision bombing aimed as directly at military and industrial targets as circumstances permitted. In the Far East, though, the United States embraced saturation bombing of civilians with the same zeal that Britain directed it at Germany, and with the same arguments. To this day, most Americans apparently believe that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki drove Japan to surrender and saved uncountable American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. When, several years ago, a controversial exhibition at the Air and Space Museum revived debate over this issue, I was one of many who expressed in public the prevailing, and conventional, view. Grayling has me thinking second thoughts, and others are likely to have the same response. He argues that the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 — of which Gen. Curtis LeMay said, 'We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapour in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined' — and the Soviet invasion of Mongolia, as well as other influences, had Japan on the brink of surrender and that the atomic attacks were far less crucial than is commonly believed. If there was no military justification for the bombings, then there cannot possibly be a moral one, and Grayling's judgment that they were immoral seems to me exceedingly difficult to refute. It would be quite another matter had Grayling stacked the deck in his favor, as has been done by too many American critics of aerial attacks on civilians, in particular those who wrote the text for the Air and Space Museum's deservedly infamous Enola Gay exhibition. The military and moral arguments against the bombing of civilian targets are not so airtight as their adherents believe, especially in circumstances — Saddam Hussein's Iraq, for one — in which regimes have deliberately situated military and/or industrial targets in civilian areas. But Grayling gives the benefit of the doubt to supporters of bombing before, finally, coming down on the opposite side. He praises the courage of the bombers' crews and readily acknowledges the sincerity and patriotism of those who sent them on their missions. He emphasizes that World War II was as close to a 'just war' as humankind has undergone. But he also insists, correctly, that 'acts of injustice can be perpetrated in the course of a just war, and if the injustices committed are themselves very great, their commission can threaten the overall justice of the war in which they took place.' St. Thomas Aquinas argued that 'on three conditions, war can be justified.' These are 'first, that there is a just cause of war, second, that it is begun on proper authority, and third, that it is waged with the right intention, meaning that it aims at "the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil."' Obviously World War II satisfied all of these conditions. But what about two others formulated by modern just-war theorists: 'that to be just a war must have a reasonable chance of success, and that the means used to conduct it must be proportional to the ends sought.' It is on this final condition that bombing of civilians comes a cropper. Leave aside all the other objections to such bombing, moral and otherwise — and there are plenty of them — the simple fact is that it is disproportionately cruel, destructive and wanton. The ends sought — defeat of Germany and Japan — were in sight before the bombings of 1944 and 1945, and even the bombing of Hamburg in 1943 was out of proportion to the gains it allegedly brought to the Allied cause, if in fact there were any. The 'horrific firestorm' it produced may have been small compared to the atrocities of Auschwitz, but it was horrific all the same. Grayling is right to insist that by acknowledging that we do not 'have clean hands ourselves,' we would be in a far stronger position to condemn 'the people who plunged the world into war and carried out gross crimes under its cover.' As matters stand now, we are at the very least open to the charge of hypocrisy. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at)washpost.com." Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Perhaps most swayed by the voices of contemporaneous critics, Grayling's verdict is surprising not in ultimately condemning the attacks but in doing so in an elegantly blunt fashion that simultaneously radiates profound compassion for the perpetrators." Booklist
"A philosopher seeks to determine whether Allied area-bombing during World War II was a moral wrong....Well-argued and persuasive, but not likely to sway the red states." Kirkus Reviews
"The excellence of Among the Dead Cities...rests less on Grayling's deductions than his provision of enough information and argument for readers with alternate premises to draw different conclusions. That richness makes wrestling with his views a demanding intellectual exercise." Philadelphia Inquirer
"Grayling brings a fresh perspective to some of the great questions of modern history...and gives answers that should broaden thinking about how the United States conducts its global war on terrorism and its ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan." San Francisco Chronicle
"Almost immediately one senses what [Grayling's] answer will be...but he must be given full credit for reaching that conclusion only after a careful, nuanced analysis that gives full credit to the views and intentions of the bombers..." Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
Book News Annotation:
Grayling (philosophy, U. of London) investigates whether the massive bombing of cities by British and American air forces during World War II was a crime against humanity. He considers the bomber war, the experience of the bombed, the mind of the bomber, the voices of conscience, and the case for and against. Annotation ©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
"Was the bombing offensive [against civilians in Germany and Japan] a crime against humanity," writes A. C. Grayling, "or was it justified by the necessities of war? These questions mark one of the great remaining controversies of the Second World War." Their resolution, which Grayling accomplishes with great respect and with a sense of urgency, is a vital contribution to the debate about how far governments can go in the name of national security.
Is it ever right to target civilians in a time of war? Or do the ends sometimes justify the means? The twentieth century - the age of 'total war' - marked the first time that civilian populations came to be seen as legitimate military targets. At this policy's most terrible extreme came the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but it is an issue that remains relevant today with the needs of the 'War on Terror' used to justify the use of drone strikes. In Amongst the Dead Cities, A.C. Grayling explores these moral issues in all their complexity with a detailed examination of the Allied bombing of German cities during World War 2. Considering the cases for and against the area bombing and the experiences of the bombed and the bombers, Grayling asks: was the targeting of civilians in Germany a crime? Now available in the Bloomsbury Revelations series, the book includes a new afterword by the author considering the issues in light of later conflicts up to the present day.
About the Author
A. C. Grayling is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of several books, among them The Meaning of Things and a biography of William Hazlitt. He is a fellow of the World Economic Forum, and past chairman of the human rights organization, June Fourth. He contributes frequently to the Financial Times, The Economist, and the Observer, and appears regularly on radio and television. He lives in London.
Table of Contents
Picture Credits Maps Preface 1. Introduction: Was It A Crime 2. The Bomber War 3. The Experience of the Bombed 4. The Mind of the Bomber 5. Voices of Conscience 6. The Case Against the Bombing 7. The Defence of Area Bombing 8. Judgement Postscript Appendix Afterword to the Bloomsbury Revelations Edition Notes Bibliography Index
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