Saturday March 4, 2006
Politics, philosophy and society
Methods of barbarism AC Grayling's Among the Dead Cities asks important questions about how far a civilised power should go in waging war, says John Charmley
Among the Dead Cities
by AC Grayling (361pp, Bloomsbury, £20)
This book is going to cause a good deal of annoyance, not least because its extremely sophisticated argument lends itself to being immediately misunderstood by those of a less liberal frame of mind. Grayling uses his fine philosopher's mind to examine the question of whether the western Allies committed "war crimes" in their area bombing campaigns during the second world war. That he thinks the answer to this question should be in the affirmative is what will lead to a good deal of huffing and puffing. Those historians who have written about Bomber Command will object to his moral judgment; others will object simply to the way his mind works; still others will rail against the concept of applying such moral judgments to something designed to stop Hitler. All such readers would be well advised to take a deep breath and count to 10; after that they should proceed to chapter seven, where they will find that Grayling has anticipated all their arguments (save the most bone-headed). If they read him with the care he deserves, they will find that his critique is directed against the concept of area bombing, not against the idea of bombing itself.
Grayling outlines his argument carefully, and its obvious contemporary relevance gives this book a timeliness to add to the timeless nature of the debate to which it contributes. It might be objected that all he does is prove that by 21st-century standards those who dictated our bombing policy in the last world war were war criminals; that would be to simplify things to the point of misrepresentation. As Churchill himself recognised, once one begins to use concepts such as "war crimes", all war leaders stand in danger of condemnation; if that makes our leaders rather more careful in future, it is no bad thing. The modern international laws of war, whose origins Grayling details in chapter six, owe those origins, at least in part, to the horrors depicted here; this is not a book for the squeamish.
Grayling is not deaf to the argument that war justifies whatever means might be necessary to win it most effectively, but he shows that even this cannot be deployed to condone barbarism - especially when this makes it more difficult to win the war. He shows, convincingly, that area bombing may have lowered the western governments to the level of the Nazis but did not speed up the Allied victory. German morale was not broken, nor was its ability to carry on the war much impeded. Targeted bombing campaigns might have been just as effective in military terms, and would not have carried the moral stigma of area bombing; much the same argument is used to combat the idea that area bombing pulled German war matériel away from the eastern front. It might seem pertinent to ask whether Allied bombing techniques were advanced enough in the 1940s to allow precision strikes, and even here, as recent events have shown, civilian casualties cannot be avoided.
The bigger question lurking in this provocative and readable study is how far civilised powers should go in waging war. For pacifists the question has an obvious answer, but for those engaged with the Hobbesian struggle that is international relations, other answers have to be found. The claim to be fighting for civilisation is one that is hard to deny to Churchill and company; a victory for Hitler would indeed have signalled a "new Dark Age". But it does no one any favours to overlook the crimes committed in pursuit of that victory. Allied leaders themselves had earlier rejected the concept of mass area bombing and, on the evidence offered here, they were right to do so; it was militarily ineffective and morally repugnant; two wrongs do not make a right.
This book has a clear moral purpose. Only by acknowledging where mistakes were made in the past can we avoid making them in the future. Perhaps Grayling's tone is, at times, too much of that of the detached moral philosopher, and he is bound to find reviewers asking him what he would have done at the time; but that is the purpose of his book, to provoke our leaders, and those on whose behalf they purport to act, to ask how to wage a war by methods short of barbarism. Although Grayling does not cite him, he might like to be reminded of the comment of that unjustly forgotten Liberal leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who, when confronted with evidence of the British use of concentration camps in the Boer war asked: "When is a war not a just war? When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa." Unless we exercise vigilance over our leaders, they will fall for the tempting arguments that lead to area bombing, or its modern equivalent. Books like this should be compulsory reading for all senior politicians.
· John Charmley is professor of modern history at the University of East Anglia [read MORE]