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Two Weeks of Human Tragedy: The Firebombing of Dresden

To read the rest of our short series A Week of Human Tragedy: The Firebombing of Dresden, follow these links:

It Turns Out The Allies Weren't Perfect

The Good War! or: The Things We Lost in the Fires

What We Lost: Art Destroyed by the Axis Powers

War at its Worst: Slaughterhouse-Five and Dresden

What We Lost: Art Destroyed By the Allies

Guest Post: A Not So Analytical Look at Dresden

So It Goes: Slaughterhouse-Five and Vengeance

Guest Post- There's No Honor in This

Since we launched, Eric C has wanted to write about World War II. Since he is a pacifist, I philosophically question him with this conundrum: how do you challenge the most unassailable just war? He always responds with one word:


As a “just war”-rior, I have to answer the question: can we hold American, British and Allied officers morally responsible for their actions? What--ethically--do we say about an army waging a just war with morally dubious actions?

I didn’t want to address this issue. It’s too messy. It offends too many people. Then, I read a philosophical question posed by Gulliver at Ink Spots a few months back and I re-listened to A.C. Grayling on bombing cities during World War II on the Philosophy Bites podcast. These philosophical issues merit discussion, so I decided to give Eric C a week on WWII and Dresden--discussed philosophically and artistically.

As Gulliver wrote, it is hard to distinguish between a Colonel ordering his men to shoot every civilian in a city, and a Colonel ordering his fleet to drop bombs on that same city. The former is a war crime and never happened in World War II by the British or Americans; the second isn’t and happened repeatedly. Philosophically, what’s the difference? (Of course, the Germans and Russians are a different story.)

To understand the terms of this week, I recommend everyone read the Ink Spots post. Then I recommend that everyone listen to A.C. Grayling’s Philosophy Bites podcast on killing civilians in wartime. A.C. Grayling--especially in his book Among The Dead Cities--goes to great length to separate coming to grips morally with the actions of officers in World War II, and demeaning the troops. He clarifies in his book, much better than I can summarize, that, as moral creatures, we owe it to ourselves to question all actions, even those of our heroes.

Let’s get the various positions out of the way:

First, there’s the rationalist, realist or consequentialist approach. Especially when applied to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, defenders of civilian--carpet--bombings argue that America saved lives by detonating two nuclear bombs, firebombing Tokyo and targeting population centers. The other often mentioned defense is that carpet bombings (mostly) targeted legitimate military targets. In all, this position relies on the “had to do it to win/total death count was lower” argument.

Of course, “war is war”-iors mount an even more vigorous defense. In war, generals have the final say on what they do. Absolute war requires absolute means. Civilians and politicians shouldn’t second guess generals after the fact. Clausewitz is usually cited in this position (and indeed the second comment on Ink Spots did just that).

Then you have the ethical, idealistic or deontological position. In his final analysis, A.C. Grayling determines that neither of the two previous philosophies hold weight. We have laws of war based on sound humanist (in Grayling’s version) and religious (in historical sense) morality. Abandoning them just because war started doesn’t make sense. In the end--after debunking many claims of effectiveness and intention--and this is a massive summary of a complex argument, he finds that Allied Army Air Corps officers intended to kill civilians, and this violates moral and legal law.

The trouble of A.C. Grayling isn’t the clarity of his position, it’s the difficulty in execution. I think as humans, we can generally agree what position is more ethically evolved, more morally correct. What “a perfect world” would follow. As the realist always contends, we don’t live in a perfect world. The “perfect world” tends to require much more self-sacrifice from the idealists. Take capital punishment. In a perfect world, it doesn’t exist. The world isn’t perfect, and it does.

If bombing civilians from another country helped end the war, so be it, many would say. This makes Grayling’s position so hard to justify. Like capital punishment, if it doesn’t quite feel just, well, it doesn’t quite feel wrong either. Trying to argue against civilian bombings feels like arguing for martyrdom and self-sacrifice. Good luck convincing most people to do that.

In two weeks on this human tragedy, Matty P and I will attempt to answer the question, “Is bombing civilians in wartime ethical?” Eric C will punt on the issue entirely, digressing into posts about the art we lost and Slaughterhouse-Five. We won’t solve the Dresden problem this week, but we have a few posts on it that hopefully add to the discussion.

two comments

Don’t know what to say except: World War II was not as simple as it seems, or as it is commonly portrayed.

Not much to comment on here, as I’ll be doing it in the next few days. WWII lodges an impossibly large place in the American historical memory, but that is an issue for future posts.