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Bombing of Dresden. Was it a War Crime?

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Tony Graying used to teach me philosophy. It was a long time ago (in the 1970s) when he was doing his PhD and was making extra money teaching adults at the local Society of Friends Meeting House. He was a great teacher and was a factor in my decision to join the profession. I have watched his progress with great interest. As well as being Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, he is also the author of a great book on one of my heroes, William Hazlitt. His latest book is Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime? He recently wrote an article for the Guardian that takes a look at the morality of bombing civilians.


AC Grayling

Monday March 27, 2006

The Guardian

No one knows how many civilians have died violently in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. The most careful assessment, by the website Iraq Body Count, estimates at least 36,000. The true figure could be three times higher. The uncertainty is explained by General Tommy Franks' now-notorious remark, "We don't do body counts."

Three interesting facts nevertheless help shape a sense of the possibilities. One is that the US forces insist that they use precision techniques to minimise "collateral damage". The second is that the coalition recently and controversially admitted using phosphorus weapons in its attack on Falluja. The third is that one of the US marine air wings operating in Iraq announced in a press release in November 2005 that since the invasion began it had dropped more than half a million tons of explosives on Iraq.

The felt inconsistency between the first fact and the other two reminds one that ever since the deliberate mass bombing of civilians in the second world war, and as a direct response to it, the international community has outlawed the practice. It first tried to do so in the fourth Geneva convention of 1949, but the UK and the US would not agree, since to do so would have been an admission of guilt for their systematic "area bombing" of German and Japanese civilians.

But in 1977 a protocol was added to that convention at last outlawing civilian bombing, and the UK signed it. The US still has not done so. Because enough nations are signatories the protocol is now part of customary international law, putting the US out on a limb.

Looking at area bombing through the lens of the 1977 protocol explains why it has always been controversial. Even during the second world war there was a vigorous campaign opposing area bombing, most strongly supported in places such as London and Coventry which had themselves been "blitzed". One of the campaign's leaders was Vera Brittain, whose pamphlet Seed of Chaos caused an outcry in the US; not having been bombed, it was enthusiastic about flattening enemy cities and their occupants.

The second world war bombing story is clouded by misunderstandings, largely because the victor nations, rightly condemning the far greater crimes committed by nazism, have yet to inquire properly into aspects of their own behaviour.

Confessing to a tactic which for decades before 1939 had been universally condemned as immoral, and which from early in the war was recognised as having little military value (and indeed perhaps the opposite), would have invited awkward questions about why it was done, and seemed unfair to the airmen whose extraordinary courage and sacrifice was called upon to carry it out.

Defenders of the area-bombing campaigns point out that losing the war against such wicked, dangerous enemies would have been the biggest immorality of all. They are right. But stooping to tactics as barbarous as those of the axis powers could only have been justified if there were no other arguably better ways of using the bombing weapon.

It has been hypothesised that if allied bombing had been relentlessly focused on fuel and transport in Nazi-controlled Europe, the war would have been shorter by two years. To their credit, the Americans understood this and in Europe did not join the RAF in indiscriminate area bombing, but concentrated on these crucial assets. As a result they share with the Russian army the largest single credit for victory over nazism. But when the US got within bombing range of Japan it adopted the RAF tactic with a vengeance, and in less than a year killed as many Japanese civilians as were killed in Germany in the entire war.

Details are more eloquent than statistics. Night after night, for years, the RAF rained upon Germany's cities a mixture of high-explosive and incendiary bombs, the latter outnumbering the former by four to one. The high explosives blew out windows, doors and roofs, allowing fires to spread. The incendiaries variously contained petroleum jelly, phosphorus and oil-soaked rags. When phosphorus splashed on to a human being, burning ferociously, it could not be dislodged. Victims leapt into canals, but the flames would spontaneously reignite when they clambered out. Among the bombs were time-delay devices, set to explode at intervals in the hours and days after a raid to disrupt ambulance, firefighting and rescue services.

Compared to the weight and ferocity of RAF and US bombing, the Nazi "blitz" and its V-rocket attacks of 1944 were small beer. Yet it was not allied civilian bombing that won the second world war, any more than did "shock and awe" in Iraq in 2003. What both show is that bombing civilians is not only immoral, but ineffective. It takes nuclear weapons, delivering absolutely massive civilian extermination, to have the desired effect of reducing a people to submission; but employing such a tactic today would be self-defeating, for all it offers is victory over a radioactive wasteland.

The main lesson of second world war area bombing for the international community has been to define it as a war crime. Its main lesson for today's militaries, by contrast, appears to be: "Don't do body counts."

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