The German city of Dresden, once saturated by fire, is now soaked in irony. The carnage wrought by Allied bombers during World War II, captured memorably in Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, became a staple of Nazi propaganda almost immediately. In the postwar years, East German Communists made Dresden a potent symbol of Western imperialism. Then, in a final wretched metastasis, Dresden morphed into a cause célèbre for Europe's neo-Nazis, who held a massive "funeral march" to mark the bombing's 60th anniversary in February 2005.
About a year earlier, British historian Frederick Taylor had published a fascinating piece of Dresden revisionism. Despite its beauty and culture, Taylor argued, Dresden was in fact a nerve center of Nazi industry and military transport. Many trains passing through carried men and munitions to the eastern front; others carried the future victims of Auschwitz. In a subsequent interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, Taylor stressed that he was hardly trying to justify the bombing-which, he said, "is to be regretted enormously"-but rather place Dresden in its proper context.
According to A.C. Grayling, a British philosopher and Financial Times columnist, Taylor's "outstanding" book "offers the fullest picture of the circumstances yet given." Taylor reaches the same conclusion, says Grayling, of British historian Richard Overy: "that Allied bombing was a decisive factor in the victory over Germany and Japan." Grayling himself is only partially convinced. "Bombing was decisive," he writes, "but not area bombing. And it is area bombing which is the moral issue at stake here."
His latest book, Among the Dead Cities, casts doubt on the necessity of flattening German and Japanese cities to end World War II. Indeed, his verdict is rather harsh: "The area-bombing campaigns of the Second World War were as a whole morally criminal." Area bombing should not be confused with "precision bombing," another strategy used by Allied fighter jets. The latter entailed narrowly targeted strikes. The former can otherwise be termed "carpet bombing," "saturation bombing," "obliteration bombing," or "mass bombing." It meant targeting focal points of urban congestion.
Grayling starts with a caveat: Allied bombing was "nowhere near equivalent in scale of moral atrocity to the Holocaust of European Jewry, or the death and destruction all over the world for which Nazi and Japanese aggression was collectively responsible." The Allies sought to end a war by weakening the aggressors; the Nazis wanted to consummate genocide-"there are very big differences here." Indeed there are, and for at least part of this book Grayling keeps a sturdy moral compass.
Early in the war, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) kept a strict embargo on targeting civilians. The shift to area bombing stemmed from many factors, including the difficulty and danger of hitting precise targets during daylight; angst over the war's stilted progress; the Nazi obliteration of Rotterdam; the London Blitz; the promotion of Sir Charles Portal to Chief of the Air Staff; and the ascension of Sir Arthur Harris to head of Bomber Command.
Yet even Winston Churchill grew to have qualms about area bombing, remarking in March 1945 that "the destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing," and that perhaps "the question of bombing German cities for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed." In Churchill's estimation, British policy had yielded "mere acts of terror and wanton destruction." He withdrew these comments after Portal and other Air Ministry officials protested.
Grayling's case is simple: Area bombing wasn't necessary; it didn't work; it was "disproportionate"; and it betrayed the Allies' moral guidelines. He cites the greater success of targeted strikes on Nazi oil plants. "If there is a single thing that bombing can be said to have contributed to Allied victory over Nazi Germany," says Grayling, it was the devastation of Hitler's "oil infrastructure."
He devotes a good portion of his book to Operation Gomorrah, the Allied bombing of Hamburg in July 1943. Why Hamburg? "Because it took place when the war was, although running in the Allies' favor, by no means securely won." So "if Operation Gomorrah was an immoral act, then how much more so were Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki"? And this is where Grayling begins to go wrong.
To argue that "the war was effectively over" by early 1945 requires a dash of sophistry. As British historian Sebastian Cox has noted, the failed Allied landings at Arnhem and the German offensive in the Ardennes had imbrued a strong (if temporary) sense of pessimism about when victory in Europe would arrive. One senior U.S. Air Force officer predicted the Nazis might have "500-700 serviceable jet aircraft" by June. "The Anglo-American armies in northwest Europe alone," says Cox, sustained nearly 100,000 casualties in February and March. "This was not a war which was obviously over to those engaged in fighting it."
And what of Japan? Between March and June 1945, the U.S. suffered roughly 50,000 combat casualties in the battle for Okinawa, including more than 12,500 killed or missing. This, after the fight for Iwo Jima had claimed some 26,000 American casualties, including nearly 7,000 dead or missing. As American historian Richard Frank has written, decoded radio intercepts revealed a Japanese war cabinet hell-bent on preserving the imperial system, even if it meant a bloody, prolonged defense of the home islands. U.S. plans for such a full-scale invasion were on hold: partly because of the carnage on Okinawa, partly because of Japan's military buildup on Kyushu, and partly because the Navy had balked. "It is hard to imagine anyone who could have been president at the time," says Frank, "failing to authorize use of the atomic bombs in this circumstance."
Oddly, Grayling spends very few pages on Japan, though he does cite University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape's argument that the naval blockade, the U.S. "invasion threat," and the Soviet attack on Manchuria were more decisive than area bombing in compelling Japan's surrender. Based on the declassified intelligence noted by Frank, this is radically unpersuasive.
Grayling's chief focus is Germany. Among the Dead Cities "is not intended," he says, "to impugn the courage and sacrifice of the men who flew RAF and USAAF bombing missions over Nazi-dominated Europe." But later he argues those men should have refused orders to carry out area-bombing raids. How does that square with his pledge against "devaluing their sacrifices"? It doesn't.
At length, Grayling finds "very little difference in principle between the RAF's Operation Gomorrah, the USAAF's bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York by terrorists on 11 September 2001." All were "terrorist attacks," all were "atrocities," and all consisted of "deliberate mass murder of civilians to hurt and coerce the society they belong to." Therefore, "the same moral judgment applies to all three."
Those are breathtaking statements. And coming on the book's final pages, they threaten to spoil the entire experience. Luckily for Grayling, he's that rare specimen: a writer whose book is worth reading even if you reject his ultimate conclusion and recoil from his more vulgar analogies.