Thursday, June 29, 2006

Among the Dead Cities

I so agree with the core of the ethical case presented in A.C. Grayling's "Among the Dead Cities" that I'm surprised how unsatisfying I find the book overall and how much I want to argue with the author.

A.C. Grayling grew up in postwar England, enthralled by the war, and he dreamed of being a fighter pilot. He built models of Spitfires and Lancasters and ran around in the yard with his arms out, dogfighting imaginary Messerschmitts. Yet he grew up to be a philosopher, not a fighter, and he's written a book that argues that much of the Allied air war -- British bombing of German cities and the U.S. bombings of Japanese cities, including the A-bomb attacks -- was an unjustifiable moral crime.

Whether we like it or not, this likely will be the judgment of the future: The area bombing campaigns will be seen as a black mark on a generally just Allied war against fascism and Japanese militarism. Which is not to say I would write such a book. As long as we still greet at family gatherings the veteran pilots and bombardiers, as well as some of the hundreds of thousands of American men whose lives were spared because Japan did not have to be conquered hill by hill, we who benefit from their bravery risk showing disrespect in condemning them via an academic exercise in ethics.

Grayling treads carefully, but I believe sincerely, around this pit. I think he passes the essential test to write this book, for those who can tolerate his conclusion. He is not a neo-Nazi and he denies he is a pacifist. He takes every opportunity his text presents to declare the Allies waged a just war. He never says the moral failure of the area bombing campaigns rises to the level where it overwhelms the justness of the Allies' war.

Nor does he blame the bomber crews or doubt their bravery, though he does mention in his conclusion that, in a perfect world, they would have refused missions known to be aimed at civilians and demanded to be sent against military targets.

Grayling's central precept is that "the means used to conduct the war must be proportional to the ends sought." This notion is not entirely accepted today, he acknowledges, but he shows it to be the essential quality of a just war, as that concept has evolved since Aquinas.

He does not claim the Allied area bombings of 1942-45 were a war crime, in that they violated any international laws then binding on the combatants. But he shows that they would have been considered such if judged by provisions set out by the victorious Allies themselves at the International Military Tribunal, the overseers of the Nuremberg Trials.

He is not concerned here with law so much as morality. Grayling's non-pacifist stance allows him to invoke the doctrine of double effect: "No wrong is committed by the belligerent if the harm he does to innocents is an unaviodable ancillary to military operations -- even if such harm can be foreseen." In other words, if the primary goal is good and legitimate, the negative secondary effect, even if foreseen, is -- not good, but not wrong.

This, too, is a controversial notion and one rejected outright by strict pacifists, for it legitimatizes some collateral damage. Grayling says the proportion doctrine applies:

Take the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: if these were claimed to be attacks on targets of military value, assuming there to have been industrial units or military barracks in these cities which 'military necessity' demanded should be destroyed, dropping an atom bomb on them is the equivalent to chopping off a man's head to cure his toothache, such is the degree of disproportion involved.

He lists the large arguments in favor of such bombing, then pushes them back. Was area bombing worse than what the Germans did to the Jews or the Japanese did in Nanking? Certainly not. But "the fact that a wrong is less than a competing wrong does not make it a right."

Did bombing civilians hasten the end of the war and thus spare the Allies greater battlefield casualties? Some say so. But saving military lives by substituting civilian ones is, Grayling says, like using civilians as human shields on the battlefield.

What's left among justifications are the lesser ones of whether the bombing did in fact have a military objective important enough to justify the civilian deaths and wanton destruction of culture and property. Grayling enlists the many historians who have argued effectively against this conclusion.

I can agree with Grayling about the moral error of the destruction of German cities and the firebombing of Toyko. But I part ways with him on his condemnation of the atomic bombs as identical to the obliteration of Dresden and Hamburg.

Yet I admit he scores points. "Bomber" Harris, who led the air destruction of Germany's cities, believed the air raids themselves would end the war in Europe, defeating the aggressors while sparing hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers from death and wounds in an invasion.

This also is the common reason put forth in justification of the use of atomic bombs on Japan. And in the case of Japan, it's arguable (though not uniformly accepted) that it did hasten surrender. Nobody today argues this with regard to Germany. Yet as Grayling already has explained, saving military lives by substituting civilian ones is not morally acceptable, even if it works.

But if the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki really brought the war to a quick end, and spared Japan an invasion or a long starvation blockade, didn't that also save civilian lives? Perhaps ten times as many as were lost? Not just in Japan but in the wide swath of Asia it still occupied in 1945?

The need to wrap up World War II quickly and face the Cold War, which already had begun in 1945, is a grim fact of realpolitik, but not a justification for the A-bombs. There were other and more humane motives for ending the war sooner rather than later.

The option of setting off a bomb in an unpopulated area in view of Japanese leadership, which Grayling favors, seems to present the enormous risk of it not working.

The oddest section of the book is the chapter titled "Voices of Conscience," where he describes the opposition of British pacifists during the war to the bombing of German cities. He focuses on the Committee for the Abolition of Night Bombing, which formed in the summer of 1941 and in the spring of 1942 reorganized as the Bombing Restriction Committee.

He describes and quotes from its criticisms at length. Then he writes that the point of the chapter is to prove the bombing campaigns were controversial at the time and that the objections to them were spelled out and known to the organizers of the bombings. It is a point in the legalistic case he is building against the bombings.

But it feels like more; Grayling quotes extensively throughout his book from the British pacifist novelist and committee member Vera Brittain, who is an eloquent and principled figure even to a non-pacifist. In his own conclusions, he defers to her entirely in certain key matters, writing (probably correctly) that no one could say it better than she did. Yet she was a pacifist, and Grayling claims not to be; he claims to find certain cases of civilian deaths in war morally acceptable, and certain wars justified.

Which makes his choice of voices in this chapter all the more puzzling. He notes, correctly, that not all in the committees were pacifists. But with the exception of the Bishop of Chichester, those he focuses on, and quotes, tend to be absolute pacifists. Most of them would disagree vehemently with his distinguishing one type of war as good and another as bad.

He describes them as:

... people for whom it mattered that the war should be not only a justified one, but a justly fought one, and to whom therefore some of the Allies' actions were unacceptable.

Which makes them sound like a realistic lot who essentially agree with his propositions, not the kind of pacifists who wouldn't even fight Hitler.

As they are meant to be witnesses in his case, it is pertinent to question the competence of the witnesses. Grayling does not, but by consulting other sources we can. These individuals did not spring out of obscure and apolitical lives once news of the Allied bombing reached them.

Grayling quotes much from the organizer of the anti-bombing committee, Corder Catchpool, a British Quaker. Catchpool spent the years after World War I in Germany with the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, "Set up to further the task of reconciliation between the combatant nations. He remained in Germany for a time after the Nazi regime came to power, but his help for Jews attracted the attentions of the Gestapo, and he was arrested and interrogated by them. He returned to England soon afterward."

And there he carried on freely, denouncing the government, publishing, organizing, and opposing the war against the Nazis. Which speaks volumes about the nature of dissent and free societies, which you'd think a philosopher would at least notice, but Grayling seems not to.

"He had no illusions about Nazi Germany," (No? Then why did he claim in 1937 that National-Socialist philosophy "definitely repudiates" world-imperialist ambitions) "but he adhered to his Quaker pacifist principles despite that." I grew up among Quakers, and I am not aware that their principles include standing up for a cause only in a place where doing so won't get you arrested by the Gestapo.

Catchpool was an absolutist pacifist who welcomed the fall of France in 1940 as "the happiest day of my life" because one less nation was at war, and in 1944 he wrote, "I cannot pray for an Anglo-American victory, not even for a quick one." When the German concentration camps were uncovered late in the war, Catchpool did not condone them, but he seemed more concerned that their revelation was "a godsend to our authorities just at this juncture, and that the most is being made of them."

Such attitudes and such minds were what moved George Orwell to the famous conclusion that, in this war, a pacifist was objectively pro-fascist.

Another anti-bombing campaigner cited by Grayling, Stuart Morris, an Episcopal canon, was naive enough that in 1937 he had joined The Link, a British Nazi-sympathizer organization, and a year after the Munich agreement pronounced himself in favor "of giving a great deal more away [to Hitler]. I don't think Mr. Chamberlain has really started yet on any serious appeasement." Morris stood at a by-election in May 1941 on a platform calling for a negotiated peace with Hitler. Shortly before Christmas 1942 he was arrested in possession of "secret details about how Britain would respond to a serious challenge to its position in India." [Ceadel, "Semi-Detached Idealists']

If these were the most vocal opponents of the anti-bombing movement, it's no wonder even Eleanor Roosevelt dismissed their concerns as part of their airy world-view. They happened to be among those who were right about the bombing of civilian targets. But at the time their leadership of the cause rather damaged it than advanced it, by making it odious by association. It's an oft-rehearsed scene in American history -- think of the Abolitionists.

Grayling's book also has an annoying tendency to pick tangential fights and then walk away from them. He hints the defenders of Capt. Henry Wirz, of Andersonville notoriety, are merely a pack of kooky neo-Confederates (they aren't). Even more aggravating, he introduces the notion that the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender in World War II had the effect of "prolonging the war considerably, with consequent great destruction and loss of life," after having pre-emptively backed away from it by saying those were questions for "a different book." His discussion of what does, and does not, constitute just cause for starting a war reads like a line-by-line critique of the Bush Administration's handling of Iraq, but nowhere in it does Grayling step up and mention either by name.

He brings up the Morgenthau plan -- a proposal ginned up in the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., and temporarily sanctioned by Roosevelt, to dismantle German industry after the war and turn the defeated nation into a demilitarized agrarian region. But Grayling's text nowhere notes that Harry Dexter White, who drew up the plan on Morgenthau's orders, was spying for the Soviet Union and the idea of a passive Germany fit White's vision of a post-war world in which planned economies would rule and the Soviets would dominate Europe. The plan was approved heartily by the Kremlin; it was the British and the U.S. State Department that opposed it.

White's double-dealing is borne out by the VENONA transcripts, even without reference to the Mitrokhin archive, which further bolsters it though that source is not universally accepted. But Grayling, in a footnote, dismisses all this as a whim of "revisionist and neo-Nazi historians" and makes it out to be mere McCarthyism, though he refutes it only with the unsurprising refusal of White's children to believe their father had been a traitor.

Grayling's misstep into the Morgenthau plan is part of an unconvincing section in which he attempts to prove wartime American blood-lust against Germans. In fact, most of the evidence he musters for that seems to me cases of political and publishing mavens trying to whip up anti-German sentiment in a population itself largely of German ancestry that had no particular race hatred for the Germans. Certainly the Americans' animosity toward the Germans was many levels below the mutual viciousness felt by the Americans and the Japanese (see John Dower's excellent book on this).

For the most part Grayling avoids making any explicit connection to modern events; he has drawn his case so narrowly around World War II that his conclusions hardly can be plugged into current event without burying them in a blizzard of caveats. Perhaps it's just as well; in the passage where Grayling tries to explain why all this should matter today, he cites the wording of U.S. military manuals from the 1990s suggesting civilian morale can be a factor in a military campaign.

Ah, those American barbarians! What would have been more interesting is to examine how air power in Afghanistan and Iraq is vastly more careful and conscientious than it was in World War II. But that seems not to interest Grayling. He skips over more pertinent modern examples of Russian bombing of Grozny or the Kurdish towns that were gassed by Saddam in the headlong rush for the easy American target, even if it's only a crime of word-choice.

Not only is the thinking in this book difficult to apply to current issues, it has limited relevance even to World War II. Grayling seems to regard as acceptable military strategy the Anglo-American bombing of French and Belgian cities, such as Caen (above, with Canadian troops at a religious service in 1944), which meted out firestorm destruction worse than many German cities suffered.

The goal in leveling Caen was to kill the German troops in it and allow a breakout from Normandy; the citizens of the town were warned in advance by leaflets that the bombs were coming. Nobody wanted to kill a lot of Frenchmen, as a military objective or otherwise. Yet nonetheless they died in the thousands and a medieval city was blown inside out, with tragic loss of historical and architectural treasures.

Further, because the British front was so close to the town, the bombers deliberately dropped their explosives a safe distance beyond the front, to avoid hitting their own men, which means the bombs apparently missed not only the British troops but the Germans as well and simply fell into the old city to no good purpose.

Grayling declares precision bombing aimed at specific military targets as legitimate and morally acceptable. This exempts most of the raids by the American air forces in Europe from his indictment, since they targeted German oil facilities and similar targets. The American bombing campaign "proved highly effective" and "was proportionate and pertinent; it could also legitimately claim to be a necessary part of the effort to defeat Germany. The area bombing of civilian populations was not necessary."

But this has problems, too. The Americans, in avoiding the heavy concentration of anti-aircraft fire around military targets, dropped from high altitudes and often with little ability to really aim for what they were after. The fact that such military targets as rail junctions and large-scale processing and manufacturing industries tend naturally to be surrounded by dense blocks of homes meant this tactic could be, and often was, as lethal as deliberate city-bombing.

And how do the ethics of air power apply to a ground war? The U.S. Army pushed through central Germany in the spring of 1945, with the German military before it mostly reduced to small ill-trained units, but when the Americans met any sustained resistance they pulled back, called in artillery, and blasted whatever was in front of them, whether it was a wooded ridge or a farming village.

The experience of Neuhof in the Frankenhöhe was typical of hundreds of other small German towns. The 92nd Cav. Recon Squadron reached it toward evening on April 15 and ran into a battle group of young SS soldiers north of the town. The Americans held off and pounded the town with artillery all night. In the morning, they waited for the fog to lift, then blasted Neuhof with phosphorous shells, setting everything ablaze. They attacked again at noon with infantry and tanks, but they still met resistance, so they poured more artillery and tank fire into the town. They finally took it at 5 p.m. that evening.

By that time only a few buildings still stood intact in Neuhof, most of the ancient village having been reduced to a glowing pile of ash and shattered stone. Cries from the wounded, strewn about with a dozen or so dead, intermingled with shouts for help from those still fighting fires and the occasional shots from American tanks to create a Dantesque atmosphere. [Stephen G. Fritz, "Endkampf," p.170]

In measuring the "proportion" and "double effect" rules, a philosopher can be content with images of cutting off heads to cure toothaches. A military commander in the field has to deal in more tangible material. Am I more responsible for protecting the lives of the men in my command than I am for those in the enemy's ranks? Yes. What about their civilians? If I kill 50 enemy soldiers and 1 civilian, is that proportionate? Are 10 civilians? If we have a 60 percent chance of killing Hitler if we bomb a certain city of 20,000 on a certain date without warning, is that legitimate?

These are questions more pertinent to the modern face of warfare. But Grayling's book is mute on them. In the end he's shone such a narrow shaft of illumination that "Among the Dead Cities" doesn't add much to what Billy Sherman said about war and hell.

Labels: , , , ,