Precise Moral Judgments Blurred by War’s Messiness

In some contexts, the good, decent humanist approach seems more callous than sheer bloody-mindedness. Here’s how A.C. Grayling, a professor of philosophy at the University of London and nothing if not a good, decent humanist, defines his objective in Among the Dead Cities: “[D]id the Allies commit a moral crime in their area bombing of German and Japanese cities? This is the question I seek to answer definitively in this book.” He thereby declares himself inadequate to the task. The question of what is permissible to defeat a barbarous enemy is one that resists moral definitiveness; it requires a capacity for ambiguity, uncertainty, irony.

This book is the work of a man done in by adverbs: Mr. Grayling will “answer definitively” whether or not civilian bombing was immoral; by late 1944, the Allies had “already won”; the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki took place when the war was “effectively over.” Pretending to the concrete while allowing a sliver of contingency, those words let Mr. Grayling gloss over any unpleasant facts that complicate his case. Knowing that the war is going to end is very different from knowing when or how it’s going to end. That the Allies had “already won” by late 1944 did not prevent horrendous fighting in places as far-flung as the Hurtgen forest (33,000 American casualties) or Okinawa (123,000 American and Japanese casualties).

But, Mr. Grayling insists, it’s the Allies who “kept the Axis powers going until the last drop of fuel” by insisting, at the Casablanca Conference in early 1943, on unconditional surrender. Mr. Grayling seriously believes that Hitler and Hirohito would otherwise have considered a negotiated surrender. The facts tell another story: Even with his defeat certain, Hitler expanded the draft to include boys of 16 and men of 50; Japan planned to conscript women from the ages of 17 to 40 to fight the expected land invasion.

There’s an entirely reasonable argument to be made against the Allied bombing of civilians: The ends do not justify the means. The chapter Mr. Grayling devotes to the German survivors of the 1943 Allied bombing raid on Hamburg is his way of saying that the unimaginable horror they endured is what supporters of Allied area bombing must face, and he’s absolutely right.

But if Mr. Grayling is going to argue that ends do not justify means, he should also be obliged to acknowledge the sacrifices entailed in achieving what he sees as morally acceptable ends. In Among the Dead Cities, you’ll find no mention of the 200 Jews remaining in Dresden who had been notified that they were shortly to be deported for a “labor task.” (Seventy died in the bombing; others, like the diarist Victor Klemperer, were able to remove their yellow stars and escape.) You’ll find no mention of the estimates of Allied soldiers expected to be killed in the planned land invasion of Japan. Nor will you find the chilling promise of Japanese Field Marshal Terauchi. (He gave orders that, in the event of an Allied land invasion, all prisoners of war were to be immediately killed.)

For Mr. Grayling, we can safely conclude, those lives would have been acceptable losses if civilians had been spared. He’s appalled by Gen. Leslie Groves, who, after the bombing of Hiroshima, said he was thinking more of the soldiers on the Bataan Death March than dead Japanese civilians. (Exactly where General Groves’ sympathy should lie.) One of the ugly facts Mr. Grayling is incapable of facing is that when you’re waging war, you have to be more concerned with the lives of your soldiers than with the lives of enemy civilians. Mr. Grayling quotes approvingly the citizens of Coventry, the English town flattened by the Germans, who protested they did not want Germans to suffer as they did. But it’s not in his moral makeup to deal with the Jewish woman, sheltering with Klemperer during the raid on Dresden, who said, “If only they would smash everything up!” To Mr. Grayling, such a person can only have crossed the acceptable moral line.

He quotes an R.A.F. officer speaking at a press conference after the bombing of Dresden as saying that the strategy was one of “deliberate terror-bombing of German population centers as a ruthless expedient of hastening Hitler’s doom.” That’s the money quote that makes Mr. Grayling’s case for the sadism of area bombing. The trouble is that the officer never said it. The quote is from a report filed by the Associated Press’ Henry Cowan, who attended a press conference given by R.A.F. Air Commodore Grierson. What Grierson actually said when asked what the Dresden raid hoped to disrupt was, “Primarily communications. To prevent them moving military supplies. To stop movement in all directions if possible—movement is everything.” He added that the raid aimed to destroy “what was left of German morale.”

There’s little doubt that Mr. Grayling knows the truth about what Grierson said. In Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945—a book Mr. Grayling singles out for high praise—Frederick Taylor flatly declares: “No one at the press conference … used the word ‘terror’ or anything remotely like it.”

I’m skeptical of Mr. Grayling’s claim that area bombing was not only a moral crime but also ineffective. He argues that area bombing did not affect German war production—a highly debatable point to anyone who has read the airtight case in Mr. Taylor’s book for Dresden as a significant center of war production, as well as an important point for shipping supplies to the eastern front. Mr. Grayling’s arguments in favor of precision bombing take no account of the notorious imprecision of precision bombing. (In Wartime, Paul Fussell writes, “It became obvious to everyone except the home folks reading Life and The Saturday Evening Post that although you could destroy lots of things with bombs, they weren’t necessarily the things you had in mind.”) And even supposing Mr. Grayling is right to suggest that the bombing had no effect on German morale, he should also consider what effect it had on British morale—and explain why he’d find the cheering on the other side of the Channel morally distasteful.

He’d be right to feel that way. But his conclusion—that area bombing is against “general moral standards of the kind recognised and agreed in Western civilisation”—is nonetheless absurd and morally dishonest. War itself is against any recognized and agreed-upon moral standard of civilization, and to pretend that it can be waged in a refined manner is simply moral cushiness.

These days—with the U.S. government flouting international law in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and God knows where else—it would be easy to take my objection as an argument for war without limits. But recognizing the brutal reality of war is not at all the same as reveling in it. The overarching idiocy of Mr. Grayling’s book is the belief that war offers exactitude, moral and physical neatness, the ability to determine precisely “the point at which moral trespass occurred.”

Though Mr. Grayling claims that he’s taking up the challenge of a new moral inquiry impossible until now, Among the Dead Cities feels like the work of a sensibility that predates modern warfare. The author is like someone out of The Four Feathers, someone who believes that war can be conducted with the fairness and honor you’d expect to find on the playing fields of Eton: Dash it all, some things just aren’t cricket!

Only a sadistic cretin would feel pride at the inhuman destruction waged in the name of inhumanity during World War II. Both sides suffered. It does not follow that all victims are created equally.

Charles Taylor has written for Salon, The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He’s a frequent contributor to The Observer.

Precise Moral Judgments Blurred by War’s Messiness