Ethics & Public Policy Center

Our Conduct in War

Published in The Washington Times on April 30, 2006


Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan.
By A.C.Grayling. Walker & Co. 384 pp. $25.95

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 military is 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.

During and right after the war, the American strategic bombing surveys conducted in Germany and Japan concluded that “city busting” had surprisingly little impact on war production, in part because aircraft and major arms construction had been moved underground. Mr. Grayling notes that even under intense allied bombing in 1942 and 1944, the German production of rifles doubled, hand grenades tripled, artillery pieces increased sevenfold, and “three times as many aircraft were built in 1944 as in 1941.”

Mr. Grayling acknowledges that the situation in Japan was quite different from that in Germany, but he came to essentially the same conclusion — city bombing in Japan was also morally wrong and ineffective. He quotes the official U.S. bombing report on Japan: “Total civilian casualties in Japan, as a result of 9 months of air attack, including the two atomic bombs, were approximately 806,000. Of these, approximately 330,000 were fatalities . . . . Of the total casualties, approximately 185,000 were suffered in the initial attack on Tokyo on 9 March 1945.”

Mr. Grayling also concludes that despite the barbarity of Japanese atrocities against conquered peoples and allied POWs, the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be morally justified.

Sensitive to Mr. Grayling’s arguments, I find much merit in his opposition to Allied carpet bombing in Germany but part company with him when he condemns the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Given the military situation in mid-August 1945, America was faced with an invasion of Japan that could have cost a million or more lives, mostly Japanese. Given these dire circumstances, Truman was right in dropping the bomb to end the war. It could even be argued that it was the more humane option.

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki was and remains more problematic. President Truman thought the one-two punch was necessary to knock out Japan’s war party and enable the emperor to sue for peace. He found no solid evidence that Japan, though beaten, was about to surrender. The evidence was overwhelmingly on the other side, as amply demonstrated by the suicidal resistance of Japanese soldiers in Okinawa and Iwo Jima. In Okinawa, American forces lost 10,000 men and Japan lost 100,000, as well as one-third of its civilian population.

The bombing of Nagasaki three days after Hiroshima sealed Japan’s surrender, to shouts of relief throughout the world. The day after Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito sided with the government’s “peace faction,” saying that Nagasaki had forced his decision because the war had “developed in ways not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

Hiroshima was a tragedy, but it was also a necessary and prudent act in an eminently just cause. We Americans can regret the wrenching necessity for the atomic bombing, but we should not feel guilty about it.


–Ernest W. Lefever, founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written a dozen books on ethics and foreign policy. He latest book as editor is an ironic departure: “Liberating the Limerick: 230 Irresistible Classics.” He can be reached at Elefever
@aol.com.

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