Thursday, August 06, 2009

The rational justice of carpet bombing?

John Gray, reviewing Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice, wants to discuss conflicting demands of justice, and lights upon the example of carpet bombing. His rhetoric is fascinatingly weak:
On any reasonable view, Allied saturation bombing of German cities in the Second World War inflicted severe injustice on civilian populations. A Nazi victory, on the other hand, would have spelt the complete death of justice in Europe. Leaving to one side the case that Allied bombing made that dreadful outcome less likely - despite clever-silly arguments to the contrary, I believe it may have helped - there is here an intractable moral dilemma.
If Gray really wants to cast contempt ("clever-silly") on contrary arguments, and really thinks that the carpet bombing made German victory less likely, then is it really enough to say that he "believes" it "may have helped"?

In the rest of the paragraph, we get from "maybe helping" or "making Nazi victory less likely" to a rather stronger conclusion:
However one describes this dilemma - as a quasi-utilitarian trade-off between injustices of differing degrees of severity, or a tragic choice in which the injustices involved were of such different kinds as to be incomparable - one thing is clear: a readiness on the part of the Allies to sanction grave injustice was a precondition of any kind of justice surviving in Europe, and perhaps the world.
That's just fantasy. Carpet bombing *may* have shortened the war and saved some Allied lives, though I do not think that it did; but only a theorist deeply ignorant of the war would think it arguable that the killing of thousands of civilians was "a precondition of any kind of justice surviving in Europe, and perhaps the world."

Carpet bombing was not a precondition for winning the war. It wasn't even close. The grim fact is that the Russian drive from the east, and the Allied invasion from the west, could have been carried out without carpet bombing a single city. Hitler's war was lost when he invaded Russia; there was never, after that, any realistic prospect of the Nazis ruling Europe, much less "the world." Hell, given the injustice of the Soviet system, and the fear it inspired in the Cold War, Gray could argue more plausibly that the alliance with Stalin was an example of competing principles of justice.

(That's not to say that civilian casualties were avoidable -- they never are. The Normandy invasion was preceded by bombing of the French transportation system that killed hundreds of French civilians. But that's genuine collateral damage, not the deliberate targeting of civilians for its own sake as in carpet bombing.)

If that's the best example Gray can muster, then the powers of reason are looking pretty good.


  1. "Hitler's war was lost when he invaded Russia..."

    I think that's easy to say in the hindsight of history, but I don't think many people realized it at the time.

    Not necessarily disagreeing with you as to whether it was ACTUALLY necessary to level Dresden et al, but I think it's important to make the evaluation based on what was known now compared to what was known then.

    One other thing to consider... As distasteful as it is, it's quite possible that the bombings contributed to the eventual peace. Based on what we've seen in other fast victories (see Iraq, Invasion Of) as insurgencies developed, there's at least a decent argument that the complete breaking of the nation's morale is what voided any kind of insurgency in either Germany or Japan, and allowed both countries to stabilize and rebuild relatively rapidly.

    That may be a hindsight of history argument as well... But I expect the complete breaking of Germany's will was high on the priority list, especially after the relatively quick recovery and Germany becoming a problem child again so quickly after the first world war.

  2. Britain built a bomber force with the express purpose of terror bombing, as Max Hastings illustrates in his not unsympathetic book, Bomber Command. There was no serious question that this was a war crime; rationales about "targets of military value," including the residences of factory workers, were never believed even by those who uttered them.

    An egregious fact about carpet bombing was that as Germany's defeat became more clear, the bombing of cities escalated.

    ... As for breaking Germany's will, I think complete, unconditional surrender, with the Red Army in Berlin and the nation vanquished on the field, more than sufficed. The contrast is as you note with World War One, where German armies continued to hold lines outside the nation's borders, and the people were under the illusion that victory was still feasible.

  3. I agree that the rationals were thin, at best. Maybe humans, as a people and a country, simply go insane when we're attacked. Has there ever been a country that suffered a major attack on their homeland that didn't get just a bit insane in response?

    I think it's also possible that the apparent fall of Germany wasn't felt to be assured. I'm probably citing unreliable sources here, but I believe that even after Japan had been driven back to the home islands the U.S. command felt incredibly short on resources, and feared that they couldn't finish things. It's not just a matter of whether Germany seemed to be beaten, it's whether the allies would let themselves believe they were beaten.

    Again, not excusing, just trying to get a little deeper at why we choose these responses.

  4. You are right to point to the irrational factors. I think the real story is twofold. One, prewar RAF doctrine was for reciprocal terror bombing (remember, "the bomber will always get through" -- they grossly underestimated the power of fighter/AA defense, which left lots of dead RAF airmen early in the war).

    Two, in 1940 the Brits were driven back on their island, confronted with a seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine that had done in 6 weeks to France what the Kaiser's armies could not do in 4 years, alone vs. the most fearsome military dictatorship in the world.

    So, the Brits had nothing to hit back with except Bomber Command. It's a bit like the argument re: the A-bombs that, having them in hand, there was no question of *not* using them. As it turned out in both cases, they happened to be weapons that killed civilians indiscriminately.

    I think the fall of Germany was evident early on, or at least that burning more cities wasn't going to speed things up. Japan is a tougher case, really the sterling case for carpet bombing's defenders. The Japanese leadership was n-u-t-s, and it's difficult to believe we could have obtained a surrender w/out blockade, A-bombs, or an invasion. (Those who point to alleged peace offers, etc., are failing to realize how chaotic the Japanese gov't was; the military chiefs were not going to agree to anything without a great shock AND the imperial command, and the latter evidently required the former.)

    My bottom-line concern is not to exhume Bomber Harris and hang his corpse on London Bridge, but to see it recognized that the burning-down of cities was indeed a war crime, so that we can understand how committing war crimes came to occur, and prevent such crimes in future. As they say, the first step is admitting you have a problem. And so long as America acts like it simply does not commit war crimes (except for "bad apples" like William Calley), we're not going to have that understanding.

  5. I certainly agree with the last part - we have serious "For me but not for thee" issues in this country... But I don't know if analysis of 60-year-old decisions are the way to go about fixing it. We might as well examine terrorism by evaluating the Colonial revolutionaries, whose guerilla tactics at the time were almost certainly considered such by the British (even if they didn't have a word for it).

    If nothing else, there is enough of a valid defense in "It was a different time" arguments to make such an analysis of questionable benefit. Digging into something like the number of civilian deaths in Iraq, or the use of white phosphorous, or our treatment of prisoners is far more timely, far more relevant, and avoids any potential ugliness with differing moral standards.