Terror Bombing: Shattering the immunity of civilians has become the very definition of terrorism
Winston Churchill launched Operation Gomorrah, ordering high-explosive and incendiary bombs to be dropped on the city of Hamburg on July 24, 1943. Five days later more than 50,000 civilians were dead. Two-and-a-half years later, the city of Dresden, crowded with refugees and of little strategic importance, was devastated by Allied bombers in February, just three months before the war’s end, making it a symbol to the world of the ruthlessness of modern warfare. In March of that year, the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo killed some 80,000 citizens. After the raid, U.S. Army General Curtis LeMay declared, “There are no innocent civilians.” Yet noncombatant immunity was the bedrock of the just war doctrine enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.
From the beginning of World War II, however, with the bombing of Warsaw, Pope Pius XII had repeatedly condemned the bombing of civilian centers. In this he was joined by George Bell, the Anglican bishop of Chichester, who would join him again in condemning weapons of indiscriminate destruction during the oncoming nuclear era.
Their opposition to the use of indiscriminate weaponry was, and still is, significant. During the cold war, it undercut the argument of some moralists that since the Soviet Union was a totalitarian society all of its citizens were, in effect, combatants. A similar argument is being used today by terrorists fighting in Iraq, Israel and Lebanon in an attempt to justify morally the killing of civilians to achieve war aims. The church’s teaching on indiscriminate bombing and its just war principles continue to offer moral guidance in these conflicts as they did in World War II.
Historians Take Another Look
Against this historical background, it is astonishing that a recently published book, which condemns Churchill’s bombing campaign, itself has become a casus belli among reviewers and readers in England. The book, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombings of Civilians in Germany and Japan, is written by A. C. Grayling, a “public intellectual” who has captivated serious audiences on television and radio.
Max Hastings, a historian of the Second World War, has criticized it as “bringing nothing new to the table” and “rehearsing familiar history.” The culture critic A. N. Wilson found the author’s use of just war arguments based on Thomas Aquinas “a surprising authority for this noted enemy of religion.” What Grayling has brought to the table is the just war doctrine.
As to Hastings’s “familiar history,” a flood of books on the Bombenkrieg have appeared over the last few years, most of them dealing with the nature and causes of the devastation. A few of them, however, have also drawn exonerative parallels between the impact of the bombing raids on the Germans and the impact of the death camps on Jews—as though one could equate the systematic extermination of six million Jews with the intentional, though random, killing of one-tenth of that number of Germans. Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand (The Fire) skirts that equation by likening Allied pilots to Nazi killing squads and air-raid shelters to crematoria.
Perhaps the most influential book on terror bombing is the late W. G. Sebald’s 1999 essay on the “air war and literature,” translated four years later as The Natural History of Destruction. Sebald emphasized that the goal of bolstering Britain’s morale was almost as important as undermining Germany’s. He also argues that once weapons had been created and were in place, the element of momentum in political-military “planning” made their deployment almost inevitable.
An entirely different kind of book, a powerful memoir of life in Nazi Germany, appeared in 2000. This was the abridged edition of the invaluable diaries of Victor Klemperer, a Jew who described his escape from the Nazis and from future death in the camps during the chaos following the destruction of Dresden. (For a survey of this literature and current issues relating to terror bombing, see my article “Dresden: The Fire Last Time” in Cross Currents, Summer 2004.)
Grayling, who teaches philosophy at the University of London, cites these and similar books, not in search of some new historical twist but merely to provide the necessary background to the war’s moral issues. Thomas Aquinas enters the discussion as an early moralist who treated in detail the conditions required for the just need for fighting and the just means for attaining a likely victory. Grayling also brings to the table calm reasonableness and logic, traits not always apparent in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when American aficionados of realpolitik contorted just war principles to sustain ideological positions.
Grayling’s countryman Christopher Hitchens, a defender of the Iraq campaign, responded to Grayling’s civility and logic during a discussion of the book on C-Span’s “Book TV.” Hitchens seemed on the verge of blessing the bombing of Dresden, if only because it was a clear signal to the Germans that their Reich was on the way to being utterly crushed and, incidentally, because it freed the Klemperers. Hitchens, though an admirer of George Orwell, did not bring up Orwell’s perverse notion that aerial bombardment meant “the burden of war was being more equally shared by everyone in the combatant nation” (“As I Please,” Tribune, 5/9/44). “The immunity of the civilian,” wrote Orwell, “has been shattered.” Shattering the immunity of the civilian has become the very definition of terrorism.
The Logic of Total War
During the C-Span discussion, Hitchens invoked the scorched-earth policy of General Sherman’s March to the Sea instead as the fit symbol of utter defeat facing a people who fought in support of immoral institutions. This was not a happy choice, for as Professor Harry S. Stout of Yale University shows in his recent and remarkable book, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, the same ethically blinkered view that created the victories of Grant and Sherman would be responsible for the devastation of Dresden and other bombed-out cities: “By condoning the logic of total war in the name of abolition and victory, Americans effectively guaranteed that other atrocities in other wars could likewise be excused in the name of military necessity.” Stout quotes correspondence from General Sheridan to General Sherman on repressing Native Americans: “If a village is attacked and women and children killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack.... Did we cease to throw shells into Vicksburg or Atlanta because women and children were there?”
While Stout’s book treats every major battle and every major military and political leader in the Civil War, Grayling’s pivotal concern in Among the Dead Cities is Britain’s Operation Gomorrah and the bombing of only one city, Hamburg. He argues that if bombing Hamburg, when there was no certainty of an Allied victory, “was an immoral act, then how much more so were Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki,” which were bombed when victory was imminent?
Murder of the innocent is always immoral, so numerical ratios that may reach the level of crimes against humanity dictate “more” or “less” evil. After weighing the arguments for and against, Grayling essentially posits that Operation Gomorrah’s aerial bomb campaigns were morally unjustifiable. Still, the media debate about this controversial aspect of World War II continues.
Ian Garrick Mason in The Times Literary Supplement (April 28) ended his review by asking: “but what if terror bombing did work?” Even to broach the question is to begin the transformation of Gomorrah into Armageddon, just as merely to introduce the ticking-bomb scenario into pondering torture, as Harvard University’s Samantha Power has rightly argued, makes use of the latter a more likely eventuality.
Christian Influence Misrepresented
Finally, what Stout stresses and Grayling almost ignores is the role of Christian teaching in the explication and application of just war principles. That is why the defense of those principles by Pope Pius XII and Bishop Bell was so significant. Both men, who were once renowned as peacemakers, have been judged by posterity mainly by the characterization of the then-unknown German playwright Rolf Hochhuth.
Twenty years of frustration throughout the West at the insoluble mystery of the six million left many desperate for answers—any answers that might allay the horrors of continent-wide mass murder and, particularly in Germany, the ensuing sense of national guilt. As a consequence, Pius, who was honored the world over during his lifetime, became after death the villain of Hochhuth’s “The Deputy” and the object of continuing obloquy. Bell, whom Churchill dishonored by refusing him the archiepiscopal see of Canterbury, became after death the hero of Hochhuth’s play “Soldiers,” for opposing Britain’s policy of morale-bombing of German cities.
That asymmetric equation had its origins in The Destruction of Dresden, by another then-unknown writer, David Irving, whom Hochhuth would describe in a published interview in 2005 as “a fantastic pioneer of current historiography who has written terrific books.” That was not the judgment of a British court, however, which five years earlier had found that Irving “persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence...that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is antisemitic and racist....”
Still, just as Hochhuth in 1963 had passionately portrayed the bishop of Rome as being in a state of Holocaust-denial, he declared with equal passion that “to accuse Irving of being a Holocaust-denier is simply idiotic” (einfach idiotisch). Hochhuth also said that Irving should have been invited to the 60th-anniversary commemoration of the Dresden bombing because of his book, a work that by any consensus, including that of the trial judge who treated it extensively, vastly exaggerated the murder and destruction wrought by Allied air attacks.
The occasion of the Hochhuth interview was his letter to the German chancellor, advocating a bombing memorial museum to be underwritten by the German republic. The museum Hochhuth envisioned was to commemorate victims and refugees of all bombardments “from London to Baghdad.”
Unmentioned by Hochhuth was the fact that the only major wartime leader who consistently condemned city bombing was the craven “deputy of Christ.” That distorted image, perpetrated by Hochhuth when a youthful playwright, has been adopted even by some Catholic scholars as cause to dismiss the pope’s actual words and affirm that he only “spoke out against the bombing of civilians when the Allies gained aerial superiority.” (See Michael Phayer’s The Catholic Church and the Holocaust.)
It leaves unexplainable the fact that after the German bombing of Belgrade in 1941, which killed more people than the earlier raids on Warsaw, Rotterdam and Coventry combined—all condemned by Pius—the pope denounced “the ruthless struggle that has at times assumed forms which can be described as atrocious...the sufferings of civilian populations, defenseless women and children, the sick and the aged.”
In fact, from the time of his Christmas message of 1940, the pope’s concern embraced refugees, bombing victims and deportees, “including non-Aryans” (i.e., Jews), even though the fate of the latter was not yet known.
The most notable expression of such concern was his Christmas message of 1942, which contained what the writer John Cornwell in Hitler’s Pope calls its “paltry statement” about the Jews. Actually, it contains three statements: one on the refugees, a second on the Jews and a third on noncombatants. If his message proves Pius to be indifferent to Jewish victims, as Cornwell and Garry Wills (Why I Am a Catholic) insist, it must also prove the pope to be indifferent to the bombing of civilians and to the plight of refugees. At a time when no other figure in authority had expressed concern over these collective catastrophes, the pope made their cessation the climax of his most widely diffused address:
Mankind owes that vow [to bring society back to its center of gravity in God’s law] to those numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn away from their native soil and dispersed in a foreign land.... Mankind owes that vow to those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or gradual extinction. Mankind owes that vow to the many thousands of noncombatants, women, children, sick and aged, from whom aerial warfare has, without discrimination or through inadequate precautions, taken life, goods, health, and home.
So, as a last word to Hochhuth: if he wants a worthy bombing memorial museum, he could do no better than to petition the German chancellor that it be named after Pius XII.
Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombings of Civilians in Germany and Japan
By A.C. Graying
Walker & Company. 384p $25.95
Upon the Altar of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War
By Harry S. Stout
Viking. 576p $29.95
Works Cited as Background
By Jorg Friedrich (2002)
The Natural History of Destruction
By W. G. Sebald (1999)
The Diaries of Victor Klemperer
(published variously in several volumes) (1999)
"The Duputy" and "Soldiers"
By Rolf Hochhuth (1963, 1967)
The Destruction of Dresden
By David Irving (1965)
By John Cornwell (1999)
Why I am a Catholic
By Gary Wills (2002)