Were we terrorists? Apparently so.

My silly story about English Germanophobia hides a grimmer truth. During the Second World War, the British slaughtered German civilians in a way that boggles the mind. A new book asks whether the Allied bombing campaign in the War was a war crime. For the British child who hunts imaginary Jerries with plastic guns the narrative is simple: evil Nazis started the war; evil Nazis invaded other countries; evil Nazis murdered millions; evil Nazis lost to the Good Guys; we were the Good Guys; the ends justified the means.

But what happens when the Good Guys themselves turn to evil, to “terror”? Grayling’s book details the deliberate targeting of German civilians by Allied (particularly British) bombers. 600,000 dead. For sure, the Germans dropped their fair share of bombs on England (my mum has vague memories of the bomb shelter at the bottom of her road in Worcester), but here’s where it all gets so terrible: discussions like these tend to bring out the calculator — German civilian deaths vs. English civilian deaths vs. the Holocaust vs. potential deaths vs. the specter of a Nazi Europe vs. this vs. that. At what point are 600,000 dead a price worth paying?

War sucketh with much suckitude.

Anyway, this reminds me of an article about English vs. German humour. Apparently, this was meant as a joke:

On my first night in Hannover I had gone out drinking with some young German actors. “You will notice there are no old buildings in Hannover,” one of them said. “That is because you bombed them all.” At the time I found this shocking and embarrassing. Now it seems like the funniest thing you could possibly say to a nervous English visitor.

(Slaps knee.)

(The Transatlantic Minute)



  1. There’s an interesting tension in the way that we Westerners view war. On the one hand, we tend to equate governments, peoples, and their armies. Thus, we tend to be perplexed by situations like Vietnam and Iraq, where we defeat the army but don’t defeat the country or the people. But at the same time, we distance peoples from the responsibility of their armies (or at least their army’s leaders), and we decry the barbarism of the notion of collective responsibility (though it has a very high success rate; e.g., Montgomery used it with great success to clean up Palestine in the late 1920s).In any case, in the thick of a war where defeat is a real possibility (defeat in the sense that you lose your national sovereignty), something’s got to give. Either one must give up the idea that it’s meaningful to fight an army as a representative of a people, or one must break the artificial barrier placed between the people and its government and its army.Perhaps one way of looking at it is this: it’s not so much that war sucks as much as that the people who make war have a really shitty job.


  2. That’s interesting, David. On the other hand, the bombing campaign was ineffective. It neither slowed German war production, which peaked in January 1945, nor did it break the will of the German people to fight.In fact there is some evidence that indicates that the bombing campaign actually strengthened Hitler’s relationship with the German people.It makes a lot of sense to separate civilians and the military. Otherwise one only causes suffering that does little to advance the war aims.Most of those rules emerged after the religious civil wars that encompassed most of Northern Europe during the seventeenth century where Germany’s population was reduced by a third. In my home town, which was the capital of a principality, eight individuals survived. Everybody wins if one can avoid the depopulation of entire provinces.Like torture and other war crimes, targeting civilians is about revenge, not winning wars.


  3. The question of whether bombing proves effective is only one that can be answered in retrospect. The bombing of civilians in Japan sure seems to have done the trick. Even so, I think that the results in Germany are more open to interpretation than you’re letting on.My understanding is that the rules of war as we know them were largely created by Alexander, who did a real bang up job at civilizing mass-slaughter. But it wasn’t because he was such a great guy. It was because (surprise, surprise) if you intend to rule someone from a long ways away with minimal interference, it turns out to be a good policy to kill as few non-combatants as possible.


  4. Dropping two nuclear devices in Japan brought about the surrender. Fire bombing Tokio, which killed more people than either nuclear bomb, did not.By the way, even in Hiroshima industrial production was back up at fifty percent two weeks after the bombing (unfortunately, I cannot find the source at the moment but ten years ago I cited an essay titled something like “Why the Soviets Think that They Can Win a Nuclear War” that mentioned that statistic).Contemporary law of war originates with the Dutchman < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grotius" REL="nofollow">Hugo Grotius<>. Of course, he had predecessors such as Thomas of Aquinas who may have been the first to recognize that it is not sufficient to fight a just war (ius in bellum) but that you also have to behave just during the war (ius ad bellum). I am sure that Alexander had something relevant to say. I neither heard about it during my military training nor in graduate school, which leads me to conclude that it might not have been of great consequence for our age. < HREF="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0465037054/sr=8-1/qid=1148830263/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-4466620-2858455?%5Fencoding=UTF8" REL="nofollow">Just and Unjust War<> by Michael Walzer is a great book to study the historical development of the law of war.With respect to German war production, it is a well established fact that the allied bombing campaign did not have a big effect on war production. It only collapsed in face of the onslaught of the Red Army. The German armament minister Albert Speer and allied analysts agree on that score.There is even a debate about why the Ango air forces did not scrap the ineffective bombing of cities in favor of more ground support missions, which actually did make a difference. The author blames the desire of the Air Forces for autonomy for the inefficient allocation of resources. I will try to find the citation for you.


  5. I did not yet find exactly what I was looking for but here is a comparative analysis of thirty air campaigns including World War II:< HREF="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0801483115/002-2929503-4258401?v=glance&n=283155" REL="nofollow">Bombing to Win<> by Robert Pape.


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