Was American Bombing Campaign in World War II a War Crime?

(I was considering posting this in ‘Culture & History.’ If the mods think its more appropriate in there - please move it to that forum)

I have seen posts asking a somewhat similar question previously. Here is a review of a book written by a Brit which focuses on this question.
I thought it might make an interesting thread for a Sunday.

[quote]
The dust jacket of Grayling

I havent read the book but it was an interesting critique. One thing that puzzles me is that the person writing the critique seems to be saying that since the intentional bombing of civilians was effective or useful in winning the war then that means it is moral. I am not sure if usefulness or how effective a measure is should be the basis of deciding if an action is moral.

If this is the case then would this not mean that any means is acceptable as long as you win? The west has defined terrorism as the deliberate targeting of civilians for the express purpose of causing terror. Is this not what the carpet bombing of Dresden etc. was for?

One could make the argument that the bombing ended the war earlier and therefore saved a number of lives but Grayling’s book seems to be claiming that it did not save more lives. (again I have only read the critique not the book but it’s still an interesting topic)

One problem I have with this notion of saving more lives is that it’s all hypothetical. We know that the bombing killed a lot of civilians but we are only guessing that we are saving more civilians by bombing. It also locks one into an “either/or” dilemma. Maybe what needs to be looked at is what could have been done to end the war earlier that didnt include the bombing of civilians(this has probably already been debated and discussed by people much smarter than I so I’ll leave it at that)

The link takes me to a page not found error, so I only have TC’s quote to go by. As such, all I can say is Grayling offers far too many opinions and not enough facts.

The link works fine for me.

[quote=“Dr_Zoidberg”]The link takes me to a page not found error, so I only have TC’s quote to go by. As such, all I can say is Grayling offers far too many opinions and not enough facts.[/quote]Dr. Z -
I tried the link several times and it appears to be functioning. Give it another shot.

Not seeing many comments yet. Here’a a comment from aother site discussing this book.

[quote] Nothing in this book about the German Blitzkrieg or the Russian bombardment of Polish cities?
Nothing at all about the German bombing of the Vatican and Castle Gandolfo, the Pope’s personal
residence where 500 Jews being hidden there were killed by Nazi bombs? The fact is that this “author”
forgets that the U.S. bombing of Dresden was in response to the Nazi WAR CRIMES and atrocities. This
is just another trashy book seeking to defile history by taking facts out of historical context and by
judging the events of a particular time period against modern thought.

Now that the Crusades have finally been vindicated as necessary defensive wars, after decades of
anti-Christian and anti-Catholic “historians” calling them “Brutal papist wars fought for the purpose
of subjugating and converting muslims to Christianity”, they have to continue on with their quest of
revising history to make evil appear good, and good appear evil. These twisted times we now live in
will no doubt be judged by honest historians as the era that sought to murder all truth and that
attempted to elevate evil to God’s throne. File this book in the maneur heap of dispicable lies and
twisted insinuations along with the Davinci Code hogwash.[/quote]A rather strong observation, eh what? Good in pointing out the ‘revisionist history’ patterns that seem to be a trend now-a-days.

[quote=“TainanCowboy”]Not seeing many comments yet. Here’a a comment from aother site discussing this book.

[quote] Nothing in this book about the German Blitzkrieg or the Russian bombardment of Polish cities?
Nothing at all about the German bombing of the Vatican and Castle Gandolfo, the Pope’s personal
residence where 500 Jews being hidden there were killed by Nazi bombs? The fact is that this “author”
forgets that the U.S. bombing of Dresden was in response to the Nazi WAR CRIMES and atrocities. This
is just another trashy book seeking to defile history by taking facts out of historical context and by
judging the events of a particular time period against modern thought.

Now that the Crusades have finally been vindicated as necessary defensive wars, after decades of
anti-Christian and anti-Catholic “historians” calling them “Brutal papist wars fought for the purpose
of subjugating and converting muslims to Christianity”, they have to continue on with their quest of
revising history to make evil appear good, and good appear evil. These twisted times we now live in
will no doubt be judged by honest historians as the era that sought to murder all truth and that
attempted to elevate evil to God’s throne. File this book in the maneur heap of dispicable lies and
twisted insinuations along with the Davinci Code hogwash.[/quote]A rather strong observation, eh what? Good in pointing out the ‘revisionist history’ patterns that seem to be a trend now-a-days.[/quote]

This person’s response seems to be falling along the tired old lines of “They did it first so it’s okay for us to do it”. Does an act that is deemed to be immoral suddenly become moral if someone else does it first?

I am not sure what is meant by the term revisionist history. People’s view of events changes as more information comes out or as they are able to view the events from a greater distance. If the author is not wrong in his facts then how is this revisionist history? Is the first analysis of an event always right and never to be changed. Instead of screaming “revisionist history” one should look at what the author is saying and calmly try to rebut it instead of relying on hyperbole. Simply claiming something is revisionist does not mean that it is not valid or that the author is not right. It usually means that the person can’t think of anything else to refute what the author is saying.

Please note TC this is not directed at you but at the quote you included in your post.

Well, if that is the conclusion, then there is no need for any Western society or nation to offer any apologies of any kind. Since it is a world of naked aggression, why bother with the conquered’s sensibilities at all? Let’s keep dropping the bombs since it is not a question of who acted first but one of not being able to determine any morality or immorality whatsoever. I am merely taking this argument to what I see as its logical conclusion. I do not believe that anyone can arbitrarily assign boundaries to these debates, as the author of this book would seem to attempt just to lay blame at the predetermined targets. At least, that is my view of this.

Well, if that is the conclusion, then there is no need for any Western society or nation to offer any apologies of any kind. Since it is a world of naked aggression, why bother with the conquered’s sensibilities at all? Let’s keep dropping the bombs since it is not a question of who acted first but one of not being able to determine any morality or immorality whatsoever. I am merely taking this argument to what I see as its logical conclusion. I do not believe that anyone can arbitrarily assign boundaries to these debates, as the author of this book would seem to attempt just to lay blame at the predetermined targets. At least, that is my view of this.[/quote]

Sorry, I am a little confused by this but that is probably my fault. The “person” I am referring to in the above quote is not the author but the person who wrote the “revisionist history critique” quoted by TC. I agree that the “They did it first” argument is not a very good one in attempting to determine the morality of an action(at least I think we agree). My question [“Does an act that is deemed to be immoral suddenly become moral if someone else does it first?”] was supposed to receive a “No” answer.

I don’t think the author of the book is making this argument but is instead arguing that the intentional targetting of civilians by the Allied forces was immoral and that it did not help end the war earlier. I am wondering if it should be deemed moral or immoral regardless of whether or not it helped end the war earlier.

I am not sure what boundaries the author is setting since his thesis seems to be “Was the allied bombing of civilians an immoral act” He may be focusing on the allies but does that make his conclusions any less valid? Regardless of what the Germans did, is the intentional bombing of civilians moral?

What never fails to amaze me by these academics who like to argue the air war was immoral, is they conveniently ignore the available technology of the time.

Certainly, today we would never consider bombing an entire city into oblivion. Then again, we don’t have to. Smart bombs accurately pinpoint the target, destroying the facility without eradicating the civilian populace. GPS and advanced onboard computer systems ensure planes are over their target.

Contrast that to the technology available in 1940. The best one could do was to estimate how close one was to the target. To ensure the target was destroyed, or at least damaged, one had to drop many bombs, and hope that some would actually land on the target. Of course, this meant bombs would off target and onto civilian areas.

But would Bomber Command still have obliterated German cities had smart bomb technology been available at that time? Of course not.

As Smoler points out in his review of Grayling’s book, Grayling will argue a particular point when it supports his thesis, but dismisses it where it contradicts him. Grayling discovered the air war was entirely inneffective and immoral because that is was he set out to discover.

[quote=“Dr_Zoidberg”]What never fails to amaze me by these academics who like to argue the air war was immoral, is they conveniently ignore the available technology of the time.

Certainly, today we would never consider bombing an entire city into oblivion. Then again, we don’t have to. Smart bombs accurately pinpoint the target, destroying the facility without eradicating the civilian populace. GPS and advanced onboard computer systems ensure planes are over their target.

Contrast that to the technology available in 1940. The best one could do was to estimate how close one was to the target. To ensure the target was destroyed, or at least damaged, one had to drop many bombs, and hope that some would actually land on the target. Of course, this meant bombs would off target and onto civilian areas.

But would Bomber Command still have obliterated German cities had smart bomb technology been available at that time? Of course not.

As Smoler points out in his review of Grayling’s book, Grayling will argue a particular point when it supports his thesis, but dismisses it where it contradicts him. Grayling discovered the air war was entirely inneffective and immoral because that is was he set out to discover.[/quote]

It seems to me (and I may be wrong) that Grayling was talking about was the intentional bombing of civilians to induce terror. He’s not talking about stray bombs etc. but about an intentional plan to bomb cities with the intention of killing civilians, weakening morale and creating terror.

According to Smoler, Grayling talks about both, and argues the bombing of production facilities is as immoral as terror bombing.

According to this quote he seems to think that one cannot morally condemn the attacks on production facilities but seems to be focusing on area bombing. Of course I’m only going by the review, not having read the book. Still it’s an interesting question to me.

Well, I’m curious to see what evidence he can produce to show American generals did not believe they were helping to end the war more quickly and with less loss of life. If he can’t show that, then I don’t think he has a case. I don’t think the mere “war crimes” classification is determinative, this sounds a lot to me like the famous trolley problem where one is faced with allowing 5 people to get run over, or pulling the lever and having 1 person get run over, if committing war crimes is pulling the lever, I say committ the crime.

If Japanese military leaders had fire-bombed Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and then tried to defend themselves by claiming that it was a legitimate act of war they would have been hung as war criminals – and rightly so.

have the losers ever been able to bring the winners up on war crimes? just keep winning and printing history books for the defeated nations.

if you haven’t read it, kurt vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE is quick read written by someone (one of the very few) who survived the firebombing of dresden.

yet it is debatable if they would have been tried and hung 60 years after the fact.

The problem with revisionist theory is that it assumes that we are “now” more moral and ethically superior than the time in question.

If the Allies bombed Dresden, for example, they must have had good reason, and maybe that good reason is not good enough for us, but then again, we weren’t there, were we?

It’s hard to judge these issues so late after the fact – I’ve read accounts by German and Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen that indicate that the deaths back home did affect them and their fellow servicemen. The Germans were a bit more open about this, but it seems that the reaction of both to mass bombings was not so much to “steel” their nerves to kill more Americans but, rather, to leave them somewhat depressed. More precisely, stoicism and fatalism are not quite the same things as enthusiasm. (On this score, the Germans appeared to be a bit more open about their feelings.) However, my reading habits are not enough to really form a scientific view of the effects of sustained bombing.

Sure, there were folks still willing to be fanatics right up to the end of World War II, but apparently there were far larger numbers of folks willing to pack it in and glad to have the whole thing done and over with. It may be impossible to know what part of the wartime hardships led to what precise parts of the German and Japanese military collapses or even the post-war willingness of both nations to lay down arms, but I am not sure bombing can be so readily tossed from the equation yet. It’s not always the “big” things like the Dresden or Tokyo bombings that kill the desire for war – it can also be the daily petty hassles of trying to get across town to one’s job, the constant lists of dead and wounded, the limited selections in stores, the ever-shrinking rations, the nightly disruptions of crawling down into shelters, trying to get home through pitch-black streets, and other features of getting by with regular bombing raids.

Perhaps the real question comes up – now that we have the “smart” weapons that allow us to get rapid victories against conventional military forces, how can we re-introduce the sort of brutality that may be necessary for the citizens of beaten nations to lay down arms? Brings to mind the old quote:

Of course, the flip side of that coin is that when we’ve won a relatively quick victory with “smart” weapons, how can we better get the local populace to lay down its arms and get constructive? The Devil finds work for idle hands, and so my initial guess is that keeping everybody working, even on fairly piddly things like road construction/repair, painting schools, etc., would help. Even with the Marshall Plan, we were at least smart enough to let the Europeans do most of their own reconstructing.

[quote=“skeptic yank”]if you haven’t read it, kurt vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE is quick read written by someone (one of the very few) who survived the firebombing of dresden.[/quote]skeptic yank -
While SlaughterHouse Five is an interestig book, it was not written by a survivor of the Dresden Raids.
"Billy Pilgrim"is a character created by Vonnegit. Not a real person. And, btw, Billy Pilgrim also travels to the planet Tralfamadore and lives there in a zoo.

Good book, but not a documentary… :slight_smile:

Not so fast there big fella.

[quote]Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born to third-generation German-American parents in Indianapolis, Indiana, the setting for many of his novels. As a high-schooler at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, Vonnegut worked on the nation’s first and only daily high school newspaper. He briefly attended Butler University, but he dropped out when a professor said that his stories were not good. He attended Cornell University from 1941 to 1943, where he served as an opinions section editor for the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun and majored in chemistry before joining the U.S. Army during World War II. His experiences as an advance scout with the U.S. 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge, and in particular his witnessing the bombing of Dresden, Germany, while a prisoner of war earned him a Purple Heart and would later influence much of his work. The bombing of Dresden would also form the core of his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five[/quote].

Huh! Even I knew that.

HG