Saturday, June 23, 2018

Among the Dead Cities by A. C. Grayling

I thought I was going to like this one much more than I did. At this point in my life, I’ve pretty much established for myself an anti-war political philosophy. The true challenge for political leadership in today’s world, in my opinion, is figuring out how to stay out of wars, not get into them. So a book by a renowned philosopher, dissecting the subtitular question “Is the Targeting of Civilians in War Ever Justified?” should be right up my alley.

And there is plenty of ammunition here for arguments against war. Here’s a description, for example, of the firestorm that resulted from the dropping of incendiary explosives on the city of Hamburg on the night of July 27, 1943.

Fires in different streets progressively joined together, forming into vast pyres of flame that grew rapidly hotter and eventually roared upwards to a height of 7,000 feet, sucking in air from the outlying suburbs at over a hundred miles an hour to fuel their oxygen hunger, creating artificial hurricanes ‘resonating like mighty organs’ as W. G. Sebald put it, which intensified the fires further. It was the first ever firestorm created by bombing, and it caused terrible destruction and loss of life. Its greatest intensity lasted for three hours, snatching up roofs, trees and burning human bodies and sending them whirling into the air. The fires leaped up behind collapsing facades of buildings, roared through the streets, and rolled across squares and open areas ‘in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders’. The glass windows of tramcars melted, bags of sugar boiled, people trying to flee the oven-like heat of air-raid shelters sank, petrified into grotesque gestures, into the boiling asphalt of the streets.

Horrors like these are seldom discussed or contemplated in the build-up phase towards war, but from my reading of history, they are inevitably the result. Whether it’s the Mule Shoe in Spotsylvania during the American Civil War or the firebombing of Hamburg during World War II, the wholesale destruction of human beings never seems the enter into the preliminary calculations.

And, of course, the damage to human life is only the first awful effect of these atrocities.

In the ‘pan of a gigantic oven’ that Hamburg had become, the searing winds changed direction violently and unpredictably, sweeping the walls of fire along with them. Women found their light summer frocks bursting into flame, and tore them off to run naked from the inferno. In the cellars, otherwise unscathed people suffocated to death. Police reports and eyewitness accounts later confirmed many of the horror stories told ‘of demented Hamburgers carrying bodies of deceased relatives in their suitcases -- a man with the corpse of his wife and daughter, a woman with the mummified body of her daughter, or other women with the heads of their dead children. One of these shocking details is to be found in an account, quoted by W. G. Sebald, given by someone who saw refugees from Hamburg trying to board a train in Bavaria, in the struggle dropping a suitcase which ‘falls on the platform, bursts open and spills its contents. Toys, a manicure case, singed underwear. And last of all, the roasted corpse of a child, shrunk like a mummy, which its half-deranged mother has been carrying about with her, the relic of a past that was still intact a few days ago.’

It’s the psychological damage of war. This, in my opinion, is the real moral crime of these activities. Its psychological scars, like those of fire on human flesh, are permanent, and radiate relentlessly down through the generations. How, I think it is fair for someone to ask, can we ever have peace when so many have been so damaged by war?

Is It Just?

But that ammunition for the anti-war argument isn’t enough to keep Among the Dead Cities from being a frustrating read for me. A lot of that frustration might be my own fault because, in reading the book’s subtitle, “Is the Targeting of Civilians in War Ever Justified?” I assumed that Grayling was going to examine arguments for and against that proposition that the targeting of civilians in war is immoral. But that’s not the definition of “just” that Grayling decided to adopt.

To anyone of humane and pacific instincts, the phrase ‘a just war’ looks like a contradiction. But a moment’s thought shows otherwise. The idea that war, however ugly in itself, is sometimes unqualifiedly just is amply demonstrated by the example of Allied opposition to militaristic Fascism in the Second World War, a struggle which provides the focal case of a legitimate use of armed force to defend against aggression and to put an end to oppression and genocide. In this case the just war was the one waged by the Allies, not of course by the Axis, whose instigation and prosecution of war constituted aggression of an egregious kind, which few apart from the lunatic fringe of neo-Nazi apologists would regard as anything other than criminal and immoral.

Yes, Grayling is going to venture in the territory of “just war theory,” and draw from it -- not from anyone’s humane and pacific instincts -- the definition of “just” that he will apply to the targeting of civilians in war.

So the question before us is not what makes a war a just war, not whether the Allies’ reasons for going to war in 1939 and 1941 respectively were such that their war was just or not; we can take that point as settled in the affirmative. In a different book questions might arise about a later matter -- the Allied determination to settle for nothing less than unconditional surrender, thereby prolonging the war considerably, with consequent great destruction and loss of life. That topic might itself raise problems about the justum ad bellum. But in this book area bombing -- a jus in bello point -- is the focus, and the question being asked about it is whether the Allies, in carrying out area bombing, acted justly once engaged in their just war.

I was not previously familiar with the Latin phrases justum ad bellum and jus in bello, but they are evidently an intrinsic part of the lexicon of just war theory, the former dealing with the determination that the reasons for fighting a particular war are just and the latter dealing with the determination that the methods for prosecuting war -- whether that war itself is just or not -- are just. In other words, justum ad bellum helps us decide if our end is good. Jus in bello helps us decide if our means are good.

Except not really. Because as I read through Grayling’s otherwise lucid prose, I found myself getting tripped up again and again on the unconscious translation I just made. Although I guess I can’t be certain of this, in language of just war theory, it is not appropriate to equate ‘just’ with ‘good’ or with ‘moral’, and ‘unjust’ with ‘bad’ or with ‘immoral’. I get the decided sense that the terms ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ mean something qualitatively different that our day-to-day understanding of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’.

And Grayling is not going to help me understand if there is and should be, in fact, a difference in these terms. Sometimes he sticks with ‘just’ and ‘unjust’.

Consider again the thought that it is not only the ends but the means which settle whether or not a war is just. Reflection suggests that questions of ends and means can and sometimes should be considered apart, as when for example one argues that ends do not justify certain means -- as we are here considering in the case of area bombing. But even if we take it that means and ends must always be considered together, are we bound to say that if the area-bombing campaign turns out on examination to be unjust, that detracts from the justice of the Allied cause?

There’s a lot to dwell on in that paragraph, but for a moment, just focus on Grayling’s use of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ -- and their implicit association with the concept of justice. Now assess this paragraph.

One standard view offered in philosophical discussions about war is that if the practice of war is governed by rules, then whatever the rules are they must at least dictate what can be attacked and how it can be attacked (unless the rules are so permissive that they say ‘anything’ and ‘anyhow’ respectively, thus not really being rules at all). A straightforward principle might apply both to what counts as a legitimate target and what counts as a legitimate weapon or method of attack, namely, that whatever damage or loss of life is caused by military activities, it should be necessary to the attainment of the war’s aims, and it should be proportionate to them. Thus, the definition of a just military action is any action necessary and proportionate to winning the war. By the same token, any unnecessary and disproportionate act is wrong.

Notice how Grayling, intentionally or not, smuggles morality into the discussion with his use of the word ‘wrong’ at the end of this paragraph. The opposite of ‘just’ is no longer ‘unjust’. Now, it is ‘wrong’, meaning, of course that ‘just’ can be considered a synonym for ‘right’.

But is that the fair and accurate way to parse these painful and difficult decisions? I think not. Justice, and the actions that bring it about are, in my view, accurately seen as neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong’. They are ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ precisely because one often has to employ means that are objectively ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’ in order to bring about just ends. This is a distinction that Grayling is never explicit about, so I can’t tell if he believes it, and is therefore being sloppy with his language, or if he doesn’t believe it, and is perfectly fine with equating ‘just’ with ‘good’ and ‘moral’.

All War Is Immoral

But all war is immoral. Is it even necessary to debate this? After all, throughout history, even the people in charge of fighting wars seem to understand their inherent immorality.

General Curtis LeMay, in charge of the area bombing of Japan … described the firebombing of Tokyo in uncompromising terms: ‘We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapour in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.’ He is famous for saying, ‘Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at the time … I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal … every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.’

I think it is this cavalier dismissal of immorality that bothers me the most. And in a way, I see Grayling’s exploration of “justness within a just war” as a framework a little too much like LeMay’s treatment of the moral aspects of what he is doing. Just as a moral conscious may prevent LeMay from being a good soldier, perhaps a moral perspective on war prevents Grayling from being a good philosopher.

Of all the people mentioned in the book, it is George Orwell who seems to speak the loudest for the point of view I’m trying to express. Grayling quotes him at length, especially as he reacted to a famous pamphlet that was published during the war.

Miss Vera Brittain’s pamphlet, Seed of Chaos, is an eloquent attack on indiscriminate or ‘obliteration’ bombing. [She is] not, however, taking the pacifist standpoint. She is willing and anxious to win the war, apparently. She merely wishes us to stick to ‘legitimate’ methods of war and abandon civilian bombing, which she fears will blacken our reputation in the eyes of posterity …

Now, no one is his senses regards bombing, or any other operation of war, with anything but disgust. On the other hand, no decent person cares tuppence for the opinion of posterity. And there is something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features. Pacifism is a tenable position; provided that you are willing to take the consequences. But all talk of ‘limiting’ or ‘humanising’ war is sheer humbug, based on the fact that the average human being never bothers to examine catchwords.

I think I agree. If you feel that a war is just, then the best course may be to make it as barbarous and as destructive as possible. The idea that a just war can be fought morally is about as counterintuitive as trying to mop the kitchen floor with tapioca pudding. You have to decide. War is either an immoral but necessary tool, or an abomination that is to be avoided above all else. I can respect both positions. But defining certain actions within war as moral and others as immoral is a recipe for ongoing disaster and atrocity.

Doing Wrong to Achieve Right

Which brings us back to the difficult proposition that, sometimes, and perhaps especially in war, the ends do justify the means.

Now, to be fair to Grayling, he does eventually come to the conclusion that the area bombing campaigns of the Second World War were unjust actions within a just war, presuming it is safe for me to adopt the precise terminology of justice that Grayling too often confuses with more common terms with more diffuse meanings. But in getting there he allocates a lot of pages to a careful dissection of both the motivations and actions of the Allies conducting the area bombing campaigns. He’s trying to determine if their targeting of civilians was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, given the premise that the cause the Allies was fighting for was ‘just’. In doing so, he becomes focused on the somewhat irrelevant question (from my point of view) on whether area bombing was necessary in order to win the war.

But there are other questions about Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They fall into a category made special not just by their character but by their timing. The bombing of Hamburg in Operation Gomorrah took place at the height of the war, when the outcome of the struggle was not yet certain, even though the Allied powers knew that they had industrial and manpower advantages that so far outstripped those of the Axis states that the balance of likelihood already lay well on their side. These other, later, bombings occurred when almost everyone involved could see that the war’s end was approaching. One can seriously ask for their justification even if one is already persuaded that such area attacks as Operation Gomorrah, conducted at the height of the war, were necessary or at least warranted by the circumstances of the time.

You might as well ask if General Sherman, marching to the sea in late 1864, was ‘justified’ in doing so when the Union ‘knew that they had industrial and manpower advantages that so far outstripped those of the [Confederate] states that the balance of likelihood already lay well on their side.’ Those assessments are easy to make in hindsight, when the outcome of each war is known. But when you’re in the middle of the fighting a determined foe, most warriors understand and follow the brutal logic of not letting up until the war is actually won.

This is a view that Grayling disputes.

These points -- the the defeat of Germany and Japan were seen to be inevitable, months if not indeed years before they actually happened -- is vigorously contested by some, who say that the outcome of the war was in doubt in both theatres until close to the end, and that continued assault from all quarters on all aspects of the military, civil and administrative organisation of the Axis powers was required to realise the overwhelming necessity of the war, which was to defeat them.

Does this objection have weight? On the question whether it was unclear that the Allies had won until close to the end, one need only quote the agreement of the historians. Robin Neillands says that by September 1944 ‘Germany was going to lose the war, and quite soon -- that much was clear’. John Terraine agrees; ‘By the end of August, 1944, Germany was palpably defeated.’ One could quote the same from many sources, and for Japan too.

Good. Historians, writing in 1985 and 2001, say that Germany was ‘palpably defeated’ by September 1944. Forget, I guess, that the Battle of the Bulge happened in December 1944, in which the Allied armies suffered somewhere close to 90,000 casualties. Even if Germany was a cornered animal at the time, it was clearly a dangerous one. It’s not at all surprising to me that the logic of letting up on a ‘palpably defeated’ enemy escaped the war planners and purveyors of the time.

Is the targeting of civilians in war immoral? Of course it is. And frankly, it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not the targeting of civilians was necessary and proportionate to winning the Second World War. If you adopt the perspective that war is an immoral tool that can nevertheless be used to achieve a just cause, then anything and everything you do in the prosecution of that war is de facto immoral. That’s a hard concept for many -- that the ends can justify the means -- which is why I would support the clear and careful adoption of a whole new lexicon in talking about these issues. War is immoral. It can never be right, but under certain circumstances is can be just or unjust.

But dealing only with the targeting of civilians also kind of misses the point. Because it seems that the Allies in World War II may have been engaged in something even more immoral than that.

For alas, responsible individuals in Roosevelt’s government did indeed put forward a plan for post-war Germany that, if not quite [the fantasy of German war propagandists], was uncomfortably close to it. The area bombing of Germany’s cities meant destroying its libraries, schools, universities, theatres, museums, art galleries, shops, monuments, architectural treasures, clinics, hotels, workshops, studios, concert halls -- in short: its cultural fabric, its embodied memory and character. And this was in addition to the destruction of its houses and factories, municipal offices and waterworks, roads and bridges, to say nothing of its people -- in short: its capacity to function. This pulverisation of the physical, cultural and human fabric of Germany was allowed to continue on a massive scale until the very last month of the war, not just unabated but with increasing intensity; which makes it natural to wonder whether it represented an intention to so cripple Germany that it could not revive to become yet again, as it had twice been in the preceding thirty years, a dangerous and oppressive destroyer of world peace.

That’s not just targeting civilians. That’s trying to destroy an entire cultural heritage of human beings. If true, it is an even graver crime against humanity -- something that, in the words of General Curtis LeMay, would have a loser tried as a war criminal. This, again, is part of what makes war immoral in the first place. To win one, even a just one, things that in other contexts would be viewed as atrocities must be committed. A war in which the combatants only engage in actions that would be deemed as moral is not a war at all. At least not in any sense of the word that we commonly understand.

Which Is Worse?

Let me try to wrap up with this. A lot of discussion has taken place over whether the conventional or atomic bombings of World War II represented the greater moral offense. After all, conventional bombing was responsible for more death and destruction than the atomic.

The first attack took place on the night of 9-10 March 1945. It was against Tokyo, which received 1,667 tons of incendiary bombs on fifteen square miles of its most densely populated districts. They were burned to the ground in a ferocious firestorm that killed more than 85,000 people. The death and destruction here was greater than the caused by either of the atom bombs dropped in August that year on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But even though the conventional bombing of the era killed more people and destroyed more of its targeted city than the correlated atomic bombing, there is another factor that make atomic bombs a much more fearful and dubious weapon.

Authorities in Washington were especially interested in the [U.S. Strategic Bombing] Survey’s conclusion that “the damage and casualties caused at Hiroshima by the one atomic bomb dropped from a single plane would have required 220 B-29s carrying 1,200 tons of incendiary bombs, 400 tons of high explosives, and 500 tons of anti-personnel fragmentation bombs, if conventional weapons, rather than an atomic bomb, had been used.”

One bomb and one plane equalled the destructive force of 220 planes and hundreds of tons of conventional weapons. Although conventional bombs did more damage and killed more people than atomic bombs did during World War II, the comparative cost in men and materiel of delivering atomic vs. conventional bombs would have likely dramatically turned those tables had the bombing continued beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Grayling calls both of these actions -- conventional and atomic bombing of civilians -- unjust, wrong, and immoral. And I believe he’s right when it comes to calling them wrong or immoral. But unjust? That’s a more complicated question, and it’s one that, because he doesn’t stick to a precise definition of that term, I’m not sure Grayling ever definitively answers.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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