One of the most interesting and in some ways infuriating books I’ve read recently is A.C. Grayling’s “Among the Dead Cities,” a book by philosopher 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. I wrote about it (extensively) here but here’s a short version, focusing on the salient points.
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 is not concerned here with war crimes 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.
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.
My question is, how does this apply to what’s going on now between Israel and Hezbollah and the Palestinians? One obvious point of departure is that World War II was fought in a time when only nation-states had the ability to rain death from the air, and thus the responsibility to consider questions of proportionality and double effect. That’s no longer the case.