As Bret Stephens reminds us in his most weekly WSJ column, the recent death of Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, will reinvigorate the debate about "the strategic value and moral justification of the aerial bombardment of civilian targets in wartime." It's a debate that's been raging for more than 60 years, and (unfortunately) shows no sign of slowing.
Even in an era of satellite-guided weapons and pin-point targeting, the subject of "collateral damage"--including civilian casualties remains contentious. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly complained about civilian casualties from NATO airstrikes in his country, claiming that "hundreds" of Afghans have died this year alone.
It's a theme that has also been echoed on the campaign trail; Democratic President hopeful Barack Obama recently accused allied forces of "air raiding" villages in Afghanistan, inflicting civilian casualties that turn local populations against us, and obliterate the gains of individual bombing missions. Humanitarian concerns aside, it's a message that clearly resonates with the constituencies of both President Karzai and Mr. Obama.
On the other hand, it is worth noting that the debate over the deliberate targeting of civilians is largely historic. The last time it happened on a grand scale was during World War II, when all sides bombed enemy population centers for psychological and strategic reasons. Since then, western powers (particularly the United States) have gone to great lengths to avoid collateral damage, capitalizing on improved technology that has improved the accuracy of aerial weapons, and the political need to avoid excessive civilian casualties.
Indeed, many of the highly-publicized collateral damage incidents in recent conflicts (the Al Fidros Bunker in Desert Storm; the Djakovica convoy during Operation Allied Force, and recent civilian deaths in Afghanistan) were the product of faulty intelligence, or combatants hiding among innocents. They were not an attempt to sap the morale of an enemy populace, a rationale sometimes used to justify the targeting of cities during World War II.
Regrettably, decades of revisionist history have created the impression that killing enemy civilians was a key aim of strategic bombing campaigns in the Second World War. Mr. Stephens notes a recent essay by Algis Valiunas in the summer issue of Commentary, which highlights four recent books on the air war, with emphasis on British and American raids against German targets. They are:
Michael Bess’s Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II ; Jörg Friedrich’s The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945; A.C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the World War II Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan ; and Marshall De Bruhl’s Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden. According to Valiunas, all four recount the history of air warfare in theory and practice; describe the nature of the attacks and the damage done to human life, property, and cultural inheritance; and examine whether the bombings were militarily necessary or morally justifiable. He also finds that three of the four are decidedly revisionist in their conclusions.
"...Bess, a history professor at Vanderbilt University, has written the most wide-ranging volume of the four, with chapters on topics as diverse as the Allied pact with Stalin, kamikaze attacks, and the Nuremberg and Tokyo war-crimes trials. In a chapter subtitled “A Case of Moral Slippage,” he concludes that the large-scale bombing of cities was an unpardonable atrocity, “the single greatest moral failure of the Anglo-American war effort.” Grayling, a philosophy professor at the University of London, essentially concurs with this judgment, at much greater length; he goes so far as to insist that Allied airmen ought to have refused to carry out area-bombing raids, designed to kill civilians."
"Friedrich, a Berlin broadcast journalist turned historian, avoids Grayling’s kind of pontification, but nevertheless indicates that the time has come for Germans to “appropriate” their past as the suffering victims of a brutal air war. De Bruhl, a distinguished editor and publishing executive, is the only one of the four to defend the firebombing of German cities, with full awareness of how terrible the destruction was and how difficult it is to make his case."
To support their positions, each of the writers notes the horrors inflicted on the cities of Hamburg (in 1943) and Dresden, in February 1945. Successive attacks by RAF Bomber Command and the U.S. Eighth Air Force killed between 30-40,000 people over an eight-day period in late July and early August. The heaviest raid, by 700 RAF bombers on the night of 27 July, touched off a literal firestorm that killed 40,000 civilians--80% of those who died during the campaign, dubbed Operation Gomorrah by the allies.
While Hamburg's status as a legitimate target is beyond dispute--its shipyards and manufacturing plants were vital to the German war effort--Dresden is often cited as a city with no military value. Instead, it is described as a "Florence on the Danube," an artistic and cultural center whose destruction has become emblematic of the Allied bombing effort and its supposed moral failings. As Mr. Valiunas notes, only one of the recent writers mentions Dresden's importance to Hitler's military machine:
De Bruhl illustrates the point by listing some of the military-industrial installations in Dresden—110 of them, employing 50,000 people, and manufacturing everything from small arms to aircraft to antiaircraft and field guns to poison gas. He observes that the city was essential to the national postal and telegraph system, and that three great railway trunk routes met there. And he notes that the bombing helped ease the Soviet westward advance and impeded the Nazi retreat.
Additionally, De Bruhl is only historian (among the four) who makes a case for continuing American and British bombing raids into 1945, when allied victory was already assured. Two months after Dresden, he writes, President Harry Truman was told that Germany would not fall until October 1945 (at the earliest), and Japan would continue fighting well into 1946. Against that backdrop, Allied leaders decided--correctly--that it was the worth the effort to sustain the strategic bombing campaign. De Bruhl is also alone in noting that Germany's collapse accelerated extermination of the Jews, debunking claims that there was no moral imperative for the air campaign after 1944.
To be fair, there were limits on what the Allies achieved. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, released in September 1945, painted a picture of mixed results. While the deliberate targeting of key industries and production facilities limited German supplies of oil and ammunition, Nazi production of other war staples--including aircraft and armored vehicles--actually peaked in 1944, despite years of British and American air attacks. Results of the survey also confirmed what Allied intelligence analysts already knew; the accuracy attained by Army Air Corps and RAF bombers was poor. Only 20% of the bombs landed within 1,000 feet of their intended aim points, and many missed the target by miles.
Still, any objective reading of history would suggest that the Allied bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan were, indeed, morally defensible. The revisionists tend to forget that the great raids on Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and Tokyo came after the terror bombings of Rotterdam, Oslo and Shanghai. While the notion of revenge may provide shaky justification, history records this is was the Axis (not the Allies) that initiated the targeting of civilians during the war.
True, enemy bombing raids inflicted fewer casualties but the reasons are rooted in strategy, not humanitarian concerns. First, by launching their own bomber offensive, the Allies took the fight to Germany and Japan--forcing them to build more fighters and anti-aircraft guns, rather than long-range bombers. And secondly, while Japan and Germany embraced the ideals of strategic aviation, both neglected to fully develop their bomber fleets.
But more importantly, moral concerns about Allied bombing campaigns during World War II can summarized in a single question: what are good men willing to do in order to defeat evil in their time? As Mr. Valiunas writes, the answer lies in the conundrum that all democracies face in going to war:
The war locked decent men into a tragic dilemma. In so consuming a conflict, in which the stakes are nothing less than the survival of civilization, a decent people’s viciousness increases in direct proportion to that of its most unclean enemy—or else its chances of survival diminish drastically. To fail to do all you can to defeat an enemy truly malignant would be the greatest evil.
Valiunas also believes that the real moral failing of the west occurred before the war began, and not when fleets of B-17s, B-24s and Lancaster bombers wreaked death and destruction on Germany:
The fire from the sky that consumed Germany in 1945 became a necessary instrument of war only because the Allies failed to stop Hitler when he was just getting started. It is a lesson to take to heart as we face the prospect of another conflagration with a ruthless and evil enemy that is just getting started.
That's the real lesson to carry from the endless debate over the justification for Allied strategic bombing in World War II. General Tibbets should be remembered as a hero, not a war criminal. Continuing the controversy about the "morality" of our bombing campaigns from 60 years ago is the latter day equivalent of arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. It may be an interesting intellectual argument, and fill more than a few books. But in the end, it's a pointless exercise, and one that obscures history's real lessons for contemporary audiences.