Of Airpower and Morality

June 1, 2006

It must infuriate World War II bomber veterans for critics to suggest they are war criminals. According to certain academics—and their amen corner in the media—the great 1942-45 air offensives against German and Japanese cities constituted moral atrocities, amounting to a deliberate killing of 800,000 innocent civilians.

Such claims have been advanced with special vigor by A.C. Grayling, a University of London philosophy professor, in his new book Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan.

Grayling’s 361-page morality pageant, which now enjoys great popularity in the better salons of Europe and America, turns on this basic claim (p. 272): “The area-bombing campaigns of the Second World War were, as a whole, morally criminal.” As Grayling sees it, precision bombing was permissible, but city-bombing was unneeded, ineffectual, disproportionately savage, unhumanitarian, offensive to Western morals, illegal—in short, “very wrong.”

For Grayling, guilt flows even to individual airmen; they, after all, failed to back away from what he believes were immoral deeds.

The subject is vast and complex, and this space is not large enough for an extended discussion of Grayling’s charges. However, several responses are in order, partly because the “war crimes” claims are heard more and more, but also because the book has obvious contemporary relevance.

The first point to make is that World War II airmen, to the exasperation of their academic critics, are convinced their area-bombing efforts did, in fact, contribute to victory. They do not grant to Grayling his pivotal claim that Allied area-bombing in Europe and Japan had little military impact. This is a key count in his “war crimes” indictment; without military justification for bombing cities, there could be no moral one.

However, justifications did exist. For one thing, London and Washington were determined to convince the Soviet Union, which was bearing the brunt of combat against Hitler, that they were not sitting out the war. Otherwise, the Kremlin might make a separate peace with Germany. For the US and Britain, one of the few options at that time was to strike from the air at German cities, and that evidently was sufficient for Stalin.

Moreover, in Germany, area bombing kept anti-aircraft guns and troops pinned down and away from other fronts. Hitler’s minister of armaments, Albert Speer, left no doubt about this. “The real importance of the air war consisted in the fact that it opened a second front long before the invasion of Europe,” said Speer. “That front was the skies over Germany. The fleets of bombers might appear at any time over any large German city or important factory.” The need to defend against this threat, he said, tied up 10,000 guns, hundreds of thousands of troops, squadrons of fighter aircraft, and half of Germany’s electronics industry.

Critics overreach with another claim: that the Allies continued to pound away months—perhaps years—after the Axis nations were beaten. Doing so, they argue, was morally wrong. But how, one may ask, could Allied leaders—or anyone else—know at the time when Germany and Japan were defeated? Stalin could create a serious reversal of the war all by himself. Hitler’s V-2 rockets and nuclear arms program caused deep anxieties. In the Pacific, Japan’s fanatical defenses of Iwo Jima and Okinawa made it clear that Tokyo, in 1945, planned for a grisly fight to the finish.

Finally, the war crimes accusation has about it the aroma of ex post facto moralizing. As even critics of the bombing concede, the Allied attacks on Axis cities did not constitute a war crime at the time of World War II. The relevant international proscription didn’t appear until 1977, more than three decades after specific military acts which the academics now condemn.

The morality of airpower (as well as land and naval power) has been a contentious issue in many eras, and World War II was one of them. Still, one wonders: Are Grayling and other airpower critics all that interested in long-ago deeds in Europe and Asia, or are they actually targeting today’s US Air Force

Grayling himself lets the cat out of the bag. The book’s dust jacket claims that these World War II cases are “especially relevant in this time of terrorist threat, as governments debate how far to go in the name of security.”

“One suspects that it is British and American pilots operating over Afghanistan, Iraq, and perhaps Iran, whom the professor would like to see in the dock,” wrote historian Michael Burleigh in a recent Times review. “While Grayling implicitly regrets that he can’t haul wartime Allied airmen into [court], … the purpose of his book is to increase the likelihood that contemporary American (and British) pilots will face that prospect every time one of their precision bombs hits a collateral target.”

The danger is not theoretical. USAF pilots might soon be in action against Iran, under circumstances likely to cause civilian casualties. Investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh, writing in the April 17 issue of The New Yorker, quoted US officials as saying “Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets” of nuclear facilities, most of which are in urban areas.

Modern airpower already is tightly constrained. Targets are approved only after detailed analysis and review. Those with high potential for civilian casualties frequently don’t make the cut. The process often bogs down in legal wrangles. “Lawyers already abound at the United States Central Command in Florida,” Burleigh notes. “If Grayling has his way, they’ll be scuttling along beside the pilots on the runways.”

The Air Force does not need more shackles placed upon it. It is a truism—because it is true—that the United States will always struggle to safeguard civilians and conduct operations in a just fashion. What Americans also need to remember is that, in the trials to come, as in World War II, failing to prevail would be an immoral act all by itself.