Among the Dead Cities

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

After World War II, the Allies held trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity in both Germany and Japan. The most famous of those were held at Nuremberg and resulted in the death penalty for German leaders such as Herman Göring, General Wilhelm Keitel, and Joachim von Ribbentrop and in lengthy prison terms for others, such as Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer. In Japan in similar trials seven Japanese leaders were sentenced to death and sixteen to life imprisonment. The war crimes included violations of the accepted procedures of war and mistreatment of civilians. Crimes against humanity included, among other offenses, large-scale atrocities. Only the actions of individuals in the defeated nations were subject to trial. As victors, the Allies were the judges, not the judged.

In Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, University of London philosopher A. C. Grayling seeks to judge the actions of the victors by the standards of the war crime trials. Specifically, he asks whether the bombing of German and Japanese cities and civilian populations by British and American forces were war crimes. In doing this, Grayling denies that he is equating the Allied bombing with Nazi genocide. He recognizes that the Holocaust was an unparalleled crime but asserts that an evil cannot be made good by the existence of a still greater evil.

Grayling makes a great deal of the distinction between area bombing, the targeting of an entire locality and its inhabitants, and precision bombing, the targeting of particular military objectives. Although his concern is with both British and American activities in Germany and Japan, he concentrates on the British bombing of German cities and focuses specifically on Operation Gomorrah, the attacks on Hamburg in late July and early August, 1943. At the end of the book, he explains the use of the Hamburg bombing as his principal example. Most of the cities attacked by Allied bombers were hit in 1944 and 1945, after it was already clear that the Allies would win the war. Moreover, the bombs that fell on Hamburg were of the fairly conventional incendiary and high-explosive type, unlike the atomic variety that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus, according to Grayling, if the destruction at Hamburg can be judged a crime, the aerial assaults on other cities were even more clearly criminal.

Grayling begins by telling the story of how the bomber war developed. At the beginning of the war, the British opposed the bombing of civilian populations. However, after the 1940 German Luftwaffe bombing of the Dutch city of Rotterdam, the British government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, authorized the bombing of German territory, although official policy continued to be to avoid unnecessary harm to civilians. Under the leadership of Sir Charles Portal, first as head of Bomber Command and then as Chief of Air Staff, though, the Royal Air Force (RAF) began to become less careful about avoiding collateral damage to civilian populations while hitting military targets and then shifted toward targeting the civilians themselves. Portal’s successor as head of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, strongly advocated area bombing of civilian inhabitants of Germany, even when there were few distinct military targets, in order to spread terror and undermine German morale. With Operation Gomorrah, the strategy of area bombing was embraced wholeheartedly.

The Americans had supported precision bombing as having greater military value than area bombing. While they joined the British in bombing Hamburg and other cities, the RAF dropped most of the explosives. In Japan, though, the Americans were the ones doing the bombing. This did not begin in earnest until late in the war, in 1945, after American forces had taken the Mariana Islands and the resistance of Japanese fighters had been reduced sufficiently to allow highly successful aerial attacks on Japanese cities. General Curtis E. LeMay devised the strategy of low-level attacks at night by planes carrying loads of incendiary bombs that would lay waste to Japan’s mainly wooden cities. The massive incendiary bombing gave way to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the last acts of the war....

(The entire section is 1754 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

America 195 (August 28-September 4, 2006): 27-30.

The Atlantic Monthly 297, no. 5 (June, 2006): 95-100.

Booklist 102, no. 7 (December 1, 2005): 16.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): 27.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 43 (October 31, 2005): 40.

School Library Journal 52, no. 7 (July, 2006): 134-135.

The Times Literary Supplement, April 28, 2006, p. 26.

Weekly Standard 11, no. 43 (July 31, 2006): 27-30.