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January 22, 2005

Let's Make Chris Bertram Uncomfortable!

He writes, on Crooked Timber:

Crooked Timber: Oliver Kamm, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and the supreme emergency exception : Having recently read W.G. Sebald’s The History of Natural Destruction , I found myself referring to Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars and his discussion of the “supreme emergency exception”. I was slightly relieved by what I found there. Walzer doesn’t justify the bombings of Dresden (1945) or the firebombing of Hamburg (1943) but rather holds that Britain, with no other effective means of waging war against the appalling evil of Nazi Germany, and facing the threat of national annihilation, was only justified in the area bombing of German cities — in violation of the prohibition on attacking noncombatants — until early 1942. Nevertheless, what Walzer calls “the supreme emergency” exception is there, and the grounds for it are reasonably clear: necessity. The bombers were the only weapon available to leaders the continued independent existence of whose people was mortally jeopardized....

My own view — like Coady’s — is that the best resolution of this issue is to reject the supreme emergency exception and to say that terrorism is always wrong, for states and non-state actors alike....

But because of the terror-bombing of German citizens by British and American warplanes (strategic bombing that did little to harm Nazi war production while leading to things like young women wandering Hamburg carrying the charcoaled remains of their babies in their handbags), by 1944 half the artillery barrels the Nazis had were in the Reich pointing skyward. If not for the terror-bombing, those artillery barrels would have been--in 1942, 1943, and 1944--in Russia pointing eastwards.

Would that really have been a better world? At the very least, it would have been a world in which World War II lasted much longer. And every extra week that World War II lasted another 200,000 people died. At the most, the extra artillery barrels might have tipped the balance on the Eastern Front, and produced a world in which the Nazis ruled continental Europe up to the Vistula, the Dneiper, or the Don for perhaps generations.

And, anyway, whose lives did the British and Americans have a greater duty to try to safeguard. On the one hand we have the lives of German civilians, willing and in many cases eager servants of the most gruesome and diabolical regime in human history. On the other hand we have the lives of Russian conscripts and volunteers fighting to rescue their homes and families from slavery, destruction, and death?

I understand Walzer and Bertram's desire to make leges to limit the destructive power of war. But it is very hard to do so in the context of World War II and the character of the Nazi regime. There indeed, inter arma silent leges.

Posted by DeLong at January 22, 2005 04:47 PM

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Tracked on January 24, 2005 08:51 AM


I had considered posting on Chris' post as well.

Posted by: Zed at January 22, 2005 05:18 PM

Anything less than total war is inhumane. If history and technology have taught us anything it is that, if a war is worth fighting, kill as many of the enemy as quickly as possible, as one can. Iraqi is an excellent example. We are learning the hard lesson of not killing enough of the enemy. A good yard stick is no less than 20% of the adult male population. We reach that level against the South in the Civil War and barely killed enough to root out that cull of a society. Those who remain in Iraq doubt our resolve because we didn't kill enough to start.

This also prevents wars to when they are really necessary. It takes a lot for a democracy to kill a lot. Bush tried to circumvent the rule and look where it has gotten him.

Posted by: Moe Levine at January 22, 2005 05:24 PM

Brad had too much wine at dinner again.

Posted by: a at January 22, 2005 05:43 PM

The appeal to the egregiousness of the Nazi regime is a bit hasty. Our enemies cannot always dictate or excuse our offenses.

Like any exception, particularly those couched in "ultimate," "supreme," "unique" or "last resort" terms, the supreme emergency exception must consume the principle to which it refers.

[Nicely put...]

The exception is as attractive and reasonable as any bit of casuistry possibly can be, because it flatters its advocates so well:

*You* would never normally consider bombing noncombatants, says the murmur of reason, but if you were faced with, with, say, the massed host of the worst of all possible adversaries, and your purpose were nothing less than the preservation of civilization itself, you might be forced, reluctantly, to resort to filling mass graves with the bones of infants. Really, the man of good conscience can do nothing less, tortured as his spirit may be thereafter by the oft-contemplated memories of the example he made of those who dared to defy him. Wasn't their defiance a grave threat to international stability and the health and happiness of future generations?

I wish I had a more sophisticated conclusion, but humanity just plain sucks.

Posted by: Rasselas at January 22, 2005 06:12 PM

Brad, your argument is, exactly, a defense of terrorism.

[Yep. Under certain specified circumstances. But what's the hole in it?]

One can defend 9/11 on much the same grounds--that US resources are being misspent because of the attack. And, at the same time, that defense shows the flaw in the argument; attacks on noncomabants most usually increase the overall violence and destruction of war. In our times, when violence and destruction have become so easy, the nightmare of military spasm has become a real possibility: the war that exhausts all combatants.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz at January 22, 2005 06:15 PM

field artillery is useless against high flying aircraft. There is no reason to use it to protect against bombing. It was not just the aircraft, H2S meant they could bomb targets thru' cloud cover.

Posted by: big al at January 22, 2005 06:29 PM

Brad's an economist, not a gunner.
Antitank guns and heavy artillary are what you use against aircraft. Antitank guns are high velocity guns used below two miles, when the bombers can see what they are aiming at, and are most destructive. They are the same as antiaircraft guns. Heavy artillary is used against high altitude bombers flying straight so they can try to actually hit something. It takes a while for the shell to get up to the aircraft, so the aircraft has to be flying straight for the heavy artillary to do any good.

[Ever heard of an 88? A *fine* AA weapon and a fine antitank weapon too...

...and industrial capacity used in making big AA barrels is industrial capacity that was not used in making somewhat smaller field artillery barrels. You can't weasel out of the dilemma that way]

And of course, ammo is ammo, and the 250,000 troops manning those guns were not available on the eastern front, and then there was the general reduction in potential industrial output caused by the disorganisation and relocation of industry.

The flaw in the bomber campaign was that until 1943 the bombers would have been more usefull hunting submarines in the Atlantic than distributing random loads of explosives over the Reich. Russia needed the cargo that those submarines were sinking.

In 1944 and 1945, the bomber raids did a good job of persuading the Germans that war was not something that happened to other people, but something that would come home to visit and stay for a while. In the last analysis, bombing Germany didn't do much to shorten WWII, but it did a great deal to make sure that there wouldn't be a WWIII.

Posted by: walter willis at January 22, 2005 06:52 PM


...IF I were an economist who was inclined discomfit others by doing them the service of waxing morally philosophical about the intentional killing hundreds of thousands of "willing and in many cases eager [civilian] servants [of one]..gruesome and diabolical regime" by the official servants of another 'regime', I would, as well, devote a few bytes to the historical political/economic question of how and why such 'regimes' ever came to be...


The Economic Consequences of the Peace

by John Maynard Keynes




An American Coup d'État?

by Clayton E. Cramer

History Today, November 1995



Lest We Forget

By Laurie Manis

Apr 9, 2003



“Bush - Nazi Dealings Continued Until 1951” - Federal Documents

By John Buchanan and Stacey Michael

from The New Hampshire Gazette Vol. 248, No. 3,

November 7, 2003









[Yawn] [Uhmmmm] [Sigh]

...But that's just me...

Posted by: Mike at January 22, 2005 06:52 PM

>But it is very hard to do so in the context of
>World War II and the character of the Nazi regime.

But (to make Brad uncomfortable)

[Oh it does make me uncomfortable. It does. And I can't stand for anyone else to be comfortable with their position on these questions either]

how far would he go to defeat the threat of Nazism? As far as Ken MacLeod's (swiftly withdrawn) defense of some of the brutalities of Stalinism? - http://kenmacleod.blogspot.com/2004_02_01_kenmacleod_archive.html#107713464265821106

For what was the situation the rulers of the Soviet Union faced at the end of the twenties? The peoples of the Soviet Union were the 'untermenschen' marked for extermination and enslavement. They were for the most part backward and ignorant peasants. In modern warfare they had not a chance in hell. Not only Hitler, but significant and powerful sections of the German ruling class, saw the former Russian empire as Germany's future colonial empire and 'lebensraum'. And the rulers of the other empires, the good liberal democratic colonial empires, were only too keen to point the Germans in that direction, and away from their own. (That's why I hate the Tories, by the way: for most them it was class before country, every time, and for many of them it still is. Well then: 'It will go hard but I will better the instruction.' Class before country.)

The rulers of the Soviet Union, that empire of untermenschen facing extermination or enslavement, knew what was coming. They knew that, in a decade or less, an army from the future would fill their horizon with a storm of steel. There was no way of avoiding it. There was no way of preparing for it without the most horrendous efforts, the most drastic expedients, to drive and dragoon their empire into the twentieth century. As I've said elsewhere, they had to beat their ploughboys into swordsmen. And if they chose that, there would be those who would flinch, those who would panic, those who would revolt and those who would betray. There was no way of knowing in advance who these might be. There was no benefit of the doubt to be given doubters. One slip could be fatal. There was not an inch to be given. The costs would be horrific. The price was madness. The reward was infamy. But it was that - or death.

[Such an "explanation" of Stalin, by the way, does not fit with the decapitation of the Red Army in the late 1930s]

Posted by: Henry at January 22, 2005 06:54 PM

I don't buy Brad's pragmatic argument. I submit that "incinerate old people and children if you can get good results by doing so" is not compatible with any morality worthy of the name.

So in trying to justify Dresden and Tokyo (and Hiroshima and Nagasaki), I try another of the arguments he suggests, that the German people tacitly allowed their murderous regime to exist, and that if 90% of the German people had risen up against it, Hitler et al. would've been hanging from lampposts.

Still, it's rather difficult to see what little Hans, age 6 mos., reduced to a puddle of boiled fat, had to do with the Nazi regime's being in power. (I have a 3-mo.-old and feel a little sick writing the last sentence; but that's what we did.)

So I'm a little lost on just what a "war crime" is any more. Moe Levine, you still readin' this string? What, please, is a "war crime" in the era of "total war"?

(To prevent confusion, crimes v. humanity are different; Auschwitz is even more appalling than Hamburg because it had nothing to do with winning the war. At least, the war everyone but Hitler & Himmler thought was going on.)

Posted by: Anderson at January 22, 2005 06:56 PM


I haven't heard these claims before:

"by 1944 half the artillery barrels the Nazis had were in the Reich pointing skyward. If not for the terror-bombing, those artillery barrels would have been--in 1942, 1943, and 1944--in Russia pointing eastwards."

Walter Willis addresses them a bit above, but...

Any citations for them?

[Let me dig them out...]

Posted by: paul at January 22, 2005 07:06 PM

The holes are the assumptions of rationality in the politics of war and linearity in economics, I think--the idea that the diversion of resources from the front was the only result of terror bombings and that the bombings did not, in other ways, make the war worse by, for instance, stiffening the resolve of the German military. I am not very familiar with the history of World War II in Europe, but I do believe that in Japan it was largely complex errors of understanding, prejudice if you like, that led the USA to reject Japanese offers of conditional surrender and thence to undertake our species first nuclear assault.

[I submit that a regime that had managed to kill five million Chinese civilians should not have been allowed to survive the war. Conditional surrender was not in the cards.]

I suspect that careful study would prove something similar with Germany.

[Advocates of allowing the Nazi regime to survive the war should think again.]

And never forget the loss to the world, after. In Baghdad, part of human history has been lost, not to be replaced. So in Dresden. Some assaults are assaults on humanity, not just the targeted nation-state. Looking at 9/11, I do not believe that Usama bin Laden wanted to see Iraq invaded. It is a costly misuse of resources, to be sure, and one that immeasurably harms the cause of the USA and the West, but I suspect his heart burned with the Koranic Library in Baghdad.

I've been rereading Lord of the Rings lately, and I've found myself reflecting how Sauron is such a wonderful enemy if one wants to tell a story of glorious battle--one need feel no sympathy for him, and only a little for the orcs in his armies. But human enemies are not that way. If Hitler was a monster

[The "If" needs to be removed from this sentence]

, and if he had many captains willing to do his will, well, not all Germans were that. Wars end, and after we must pick up the pieces and go on.

Finally, the universal acceptance of the defense of terrorism you have made I think would have in foreign policy effects similar to the acceptance of total greed in economic policy. As the acceptance of total greed as led, ultimately, to the undermining of the underpinnings of our economic system, the acceptance of terrorism, I believe, would lead to the failure of what tools we have for resolving international conflicts and ultimately the world in flames. For survival--let us not speak of "good"--it is necessary to find other ways to resolve our conflicts.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz at January 22, 2005 07:07 PM

Excellent comment, Mr. Fritz.

Posted by: Anderson at January 22, 2005 07:13 PM

It's worth pointing out that nobody had any experience with strategic bombing at the beginning of WWII, and there was limited intelligence available to let the US and UK know how effective their strategies were. It turned out that area bombing was about the most useless thing to do with a bomber, and the strategic bombing targets were poorly picked, and it's easy to say what should have been done in hindsight, but at the time, I don't think that what they did was unreasonable.

After Hamburg, Albert Speer thought that 5 disasters like that would cause Germany to lose the war. That would have clearly been worth the carnage, and who knew that Speer (and the Allied commanders) were wrong?

Posted by: rps at January 22, 2005 08:32 PM

["The main prolongation of WWII is probably the fault of the russians." Out of line. Bye.]

Posted by: at January 22, 2005 08:37 PM

The bombing of German cities was a brave and very dangerous venture - bomber aircrew losses were heavy - however, from what I've read it seems that the only really effective part of the strategic bombing campaign was the attack on oil refineries and synthetic fuel plants late in the war. In retrospect that's probably what should have been done earlier. To some extent the options for effective attacks were limited by the technology available: night bombing was massively inaccurate, day bombing was terribly costly until the long-range P-51 Mustang fighter was available to provide air cover all the way to Germany.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the war, the bombing of cities was a matter of controversy - the head of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, did not receive the same honors as other British war leaders - IIRC he got a knighthood but not a peerage. The worst case of all was the firebombing of Dresden, which completely destroyed the city with a massive civilian death toll (something like 150000 ?), for a target with no military significance at all.

I'll declare a personal interest here, as my grandfather flew heavy bombers over Germany - he also flew over Iraq in the 1920s and was wounded there, so I have inherited some respect for the capabilities of Iraqis armed with rifles.

Posted by: Richard Cownie at January 22, 2005 09:47 PM

So now we've a justification by De Long of terror bombing. I should think you'd be right at home in Attorney General Gonzales' department, writing torture memos.

Posted by: Dick Fitzgerald at January 23, 2005 12:05 AM

You can only let bad things go on long enough, and then you just have to hear the sound of smashing dishes.

Posted by: nanpotnan at January 23, 2005 12:12 AM

"...strategic bombing that did little to harm Nazi war production..."

The fact that Nazi war production continued to increase for a long time despite the bombing does not mean that the bombing did little to harm it. Without the bombing it could have increased much more rapidly.

In his highly informative book on the immense impact on Allied strategy of the intelligence gained through code-breaking (MAGIC and ULTRA), Bruce Lee relates that the Japanese consul in Hamburg reported that 80 percent of the Blohm & HVoss submarine assembly plant was put out of commission, that various other factories and the main railroad station had been destroyed, and
three hundred thousand people made homeless.

As best I can remember from Albert Speer's memoirs, he was hardly of the opinion that the bombing was of no consequence.

As someone noted above, the famous "88" antitank gun was also an excellent antiaircraft weapon. I believe, in fact, that that was what it was originally designed as.

It was very good that Brad noted that about 200,000 people died for every extra week the war lasted. Though the deaths of children in the firebombing were aesthetically horrible, their pain ended a lot quicker than that of those elsewhere who starved to death.

Posted by: jm at January 23, 2005 12:31 AM

A book I read recently on the Allied bombing campaign made the excellent point that it tied up huge amounts of construction resources in the rebuilding of factories and the building of underground factories and bomb shelters -- resources which otherwise could have been used to more heavily reinforce the defenses along the Normandy coast.

Posted by: jm at January 23, 2005 12:41 AM

I like the way Brad thinks about this. Yet even more important for the outcome of the war than all those artillery barrels must to have been the non-role of the Luftwaffe from 1944 onwards. When the allies landed in Normandy, it didn't put in an appearance. With proper aircover, I have little doubt that the allies would have been swept back into the sea relatively easily. What happened to the force that provided close air support for the army in Poland, France, and Russia? To a very large extent, the continued attacks on British and US bomber formations (a huge embarrassment to Göring) destroyed the Luftwaffe and -- even more importantly -- killed its pilots. In February 1944 alone, the Luftwaffe lost 33 percent of its single-engine fighters and 20 percent of its pilots, including a number of aces with more than 100 kills. In the first four months of 1944 it had lost 1,684 fighter pilots. Those left were mostly young and ill-trained. I continue to be puzzled by the fact that nobody writing about WWII ever raises this issue.

Posted by: Joachim Voth at January 23, 2005 01:13 AM


I usually -- not always, but usually -- like what you have to say, but this is just pathetic. I see some of the responses above nibble at your claims, but only one really got to the core of it at all: do you have any supporting evidence that "area" bombing forced a shift in German deployment of artillary? Well, as one poster said above, you're an economist, not an historian, and here it's kind of showing.

The argument you raise was -- in fact -- first voiced a long, long time ago. I can't remember the source at this remove (my days studying WWII history were two decades ago), but this argument was one that I well recall. It was raised after the end of the war, primarily by those who desperately wanted to justify the Dresden bombing and similar examples of mass murder. (The same tactics were done to Japan, of course, and no less than Mr. Bomb-Them-Into-The-Stone-Ages himself, Curtis LeMay, admitted that if we hadn't been the victors, we'd have been fairly adjudged as war criminals for it).

The argument was bankrupt then, and still is.

During the war itself, Dyson showed -- conclusively -- that carpet bombing (that's really what you're talking about) was a foolish waste of energy and resources, not to mention brutally murderous. It had essentially NO effect on shortening the war. By contrast, targeted bombing (which was considerably less "satsifying" to those wanting to exact revenge from the Nazis) was highly effective. His point was proven, for example, when it was discovered after the war that the typical war plant in Germany was restored to operations often within days of a bombing. Had the Allies hit those targets repeatedly, however, it would have had a BIGGER impact on their war production capacity. Yet another example was cited by a poster above, namely, the failure to deploy enough anti-submarine air patrols.

The ostensible purpose of the Dresden bombing, by the way, was to destroy the critical train yards there. Of course, dumb iron drops tend always to send bombs where they aren't intended, especially when done at night, but the record is clear that the Brits quite intentionally wanted to level the city, including those parts miles removed from the train yards. And in fact, they COULD have mostly focused the bombing on the trainyards (and with far fewer sorties that night, to boot).

But wait, I'm still not cutting down to a key point. You set up a false dichotomy which I'm only hinting at here. You suggest that it was "carpet bombing or nothing." That's not right. It was carpet bombing versus targeted bombing. Either tactic would have required the Germans to produce and deploy essentially comparable quantities of AA guns and ammunition to homeland defense (although not, presumably, for submarine operations). And bcause that is true, your basic thesis is, well, rather flawed.

-- Roger Keeling
Portland, OR.

Posted by: Roger Keeling at January 23, 2005 01:30 AM

The point of my original post was to raise an inconsistency in Walzer's position: namely, his asymmetric treatment of state and non-state actors.

[Well, I thought the point of your post was to rule the "supreme emergency exemption" out of court--a move that I think is a big mistake, because it forces the deontological argument into profoundly immoral positions]

But as you rightly say, Brad, Walzer and I share a judgement about the impermissibility of what was done to Hamburg and Dresden.

As I understand your post, you want to trump our deontological concern about noncombatant immunity with a straightforward consequentialist calculation. (Typical economist!) Interesting that you aren't able to do so without some use of non-consquentialist categories: _blaming_ German civilians -- including infants? -- for their regime (does this apply to fried Iraqis too?); _special duties_ towards Russian civilians, etc.

[Touche. But conscripts--even volunteers defending their homes against the Nazis--are much more like civilians than they are like knight-errants who have chosen a dangerous sport for their profession. I agree that my position (to the extent that I have one) is inconsistent and uncomfortable: I just want everyone else to be uncomfortable too.]

Your use of a consequentialist ethic, though, raises questions about your own consistency. As you rightly point out, WW2 killed a lot of people on a daily basis, it also had consequences like the post-war Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, the end of the British Empire, etc. None of these were calculable in advance (and the consequences are still unfolding). _From a purely consequentialist point of view_ should the war have been fought (or continued) at all? Should the British not rather have sought an accomodation with Hitler after the fall of France? Should the British and French not have shrugged and made the calculation that Poland simply wasn't worth it? Answering purely on the basis of information available at the time, what's your answer?

Myself, I think that it was right to fight, and right to fight well, and that the requirement to fight well sprang from many of the same values that the requirement to fight did.

Meanwhile, consistency also requires that people with your position abandon most grounds for *sincere* indignation directed at the perpetrators of 9/11 or at people who blow up pizza parlours in Tel Aviv. Sure, you can continue to rail against the killers for blowing up kids for no worthwhile purpose. But, but, if (counterfactually) such bombing _did_ make an Israeli government less intransigent, more willing to compromise, to accept a Palestinian state, wouldn't it be worth it? How many lives would thereby by saved if a quicker resolution of the Palestinian conflict was reached? Aren't you being squeamish preferring the lives of the children who actually get blown up over those of the nameless otherwise-dead?

Uncomfortable now Brad? You ought to be.

[Yep. I always have been uncomfortable with these issues]

Posted by: Chris Bertram at January 23, 2005 02:04 AM

"Though the deaths of children in the firebombing were aesthetically horrible, their pain ended a lot quicker than that of those elsewhere who starved to death."
It's not the sentence, it's the mind at work here that makes me throw up.

Posted by: Hans Suter at January 23, 2005 02:46 AM

Ethical considerations apart, there were and are robust military and economic reasons for questioning Air Chief Marshall ("Bomber") Harris's continued obsession through to the end of the war in Europe with night area bombing of targets in Germany by the RAF, and certainly so after the Allied "Pointblank" Directive of June 1943 gave absolute priority to the destruction of Germany's capacity to make and deploy fighter planes to ensure air supremacy for the Normandy invasion. Notwithstanding that and the continued scale of the bombing, German production of aircraft, aeroengines and munitions in 1944 was actually higher than in previous war years [sources: Oxford Companion to World War II (2001)]. Manufacture of warplanes peaked in the winter of 1944/5. Fortunately, scarcity of fuel was the binding constraint on their use.

Dig into the sources and a curious reader soon comes to appreciate that by late 1944 the RAF's area bombing strategy for "thousand bomber" raids at night was subject to mounting criticism outside RAF Bomber Command, including by Churchill. Just in military/economic terms, there were challenging questions then about whether the military outcomes attained by the hugely inaccurate night raids were worth the costs in terms of mounting RAF casualties and the resources in Britain committed to building the heavy bomber planes. An alternative strategy, mooted at the time, was to use instead the light and very fast twin-engined Mosquito for precision daylight bombing raids. Such use as was made of Mosquitos for precision raids showed lower casualty rates for air crews and greater bombing accuracy.

Post conflict assessments by military historians and intelligence analysts have, if anything, increased scepticism about the good sense of the RAF's bombing strategy when the results and costs are reviewed dispassionately. It seems that through to the end, Bomber Harris continued to believe that bombing alone could decide the course of the war.

Posted by: Bob B at January 23, 2005 03:32 AM

So, I figure you're talking as an economist: everything is a question of scale. If you're a guy at Abu Ghraib and you're torturing what? Ten or twenty losers it's just not worth it, but, if you're bombing 100 times that, then its O.K.? I hope Gonzalez doesn't read this.

Posted by: Nina at January 23, 2005 04:33 AM

I wish the moderator had simply edited away all of my comments than simply take a sentence out of context and say bye. I am not precisely blaming the Russians for prolonging WWII. I was blaming the fact that neither side, Germans or Russians, spared any kind of thoughts on any kind of limits. If a situation of no quarter exists, then it's alot harder to stop stuff. The Russians were at the tail end of this, but I blamed both sides for prolonging the war.

[Once again, out of line: Stalin bears responsibility for creating the situation in which Hitler believed he could start the war. The Russians bear *no* responsibility for prolonging the war.]

Posted by: shah8 at January 23, 2005 04:40 AM

Questions about the Soviet's war strategy would take us on a long detour. The prevailing Soviet sentiment was that since they had been spared no quarter by the invading German armies, they owed absolutely nothing in return. In the context, it's a bit difficult to argue against that. A far more challenging issue is about whether the Soviet high command was right to apply tactics that evidently had little regard for the scale of Soviet casualties.

Posted by: Bob B at January 23, 2005 04:59 AM

One more thing, there is a big difference between things like Sherman's march to the sea, which did help the Northern war effort in a very conclusive sense, or like Alexander the III's scorched earth policy, and things like the early major battles of WWI, or early US ill-fated attempt to conquer as much as Canada as possible, or the various colonial wars.

One is about destroying the things you do control, to sow low morale and permanently weaken the enemy. Another is about destroying the things you don't control. There might seem to be no difference, but that isn't really true. War is about attacking the other side's center of gravity (or coherence) and preserving your own *relative to each other*. Absolute reductions in the sense of charging a whole bunch of men at trenches and machine gun nests just so you would hope to decrease men and manpower on the other side, doesn't ever really work, unless you have an overwhelming edge. And it's a waste of that edge, and harbors loooooong term consequences

The central moral and military crime of things like Dresden and the japanese firebombing is that, while they did wear down the opponent, they did not alter the balance of the equation. Men like Alexander and Cyrus the Great won and won big because they were the most focused and disciplined men around. While tyrants ordered slave armies to do all manners of horrific things as well as kill their enemies, Alexander and Cyrus spent all their energies at beating up JUST the people and things that opposed their order.

last minute addition...Bob_B, that's exactly why I didn't like that edit, though my post *was* filled with fire and brimestone that might otherwise be offensive (I was pretty angry with the line of though Delong proposed), my post *did* talk about german conduct in the beginning of the war, leading to russian conduct at the end.

Posted by: shah8 at January 23, 2005 05:23 AM

Harris was such a kool-aid case that he even had to be forced by Portal to accept Pointblank and the Spaatz Transportation Plan because he didn't believe in targeting on the basis of economics; he and his even came up with a straw-man term to frame against it ("panacea targets").

Speer remarked after the war that five more raids on the scale of the first 1,000 attack in a month would have finished the war, but then again he also always found a way of routing round the blocks. German arms production peaked in November 1944. Also the RAF could never have delivered; the 1000 bomber raids were surge efforts that required the mobilisation of instructors and trainees from Operational Training Units (a serious risk in itself) as well as canning the maintenance schedules - to generate that many aircraft meant either putting off work or racing to complete. After each 1000er, the tempo of operations fell drastically because of the need to reconstitute the force.

There is, I suppose, some substance to the view that the raids kept 88mm flak batteries in Germany, but this is a secondary benefit: after all, the bomber offensive itself took up a huge percentage of UK industrial production (a figure of 33% was quoted by AJP Taylor). The idea is that you try to fix a *larger* enemy force in place. Otherwise it's you who's being tied down. When you think of the example of the Battle of Britain, it's alarming that no-one seemingly thought of the parallel.

The temptation of a terror bombardment of London eventually warped the German strategy in 1940 - in the end their bomber force became tied down in the battering of London, relieving the pressure on RAF Fighter Command's institutional structure. They didn't have the weight of attack to achieve a strategic result against London, and the attrition rate did for them. In a sense, for much of the war Bomber Command was in a similar position, with the difference that it had the logistics to survive the attrition. (only later with the technological jump in 1943 did the balance of attrition swing).

Posted by: Alex at January 23, 2005 05:54 AM

Any history professor would caution against the sin of "presentism:" the judging of past events in a frame of current understanding. Moreover, all of the participants in the Great WWII were making it up as they went along--all of them. Each of the European powers was faced with the real prospect of annihilation, Russia especially. War on the scale of WWII had never been seen before in the history of the world, and none of the particpants had any benchmark of proportionality by which to judge the application of force which was being multiplied exponentially by the power of modern technology. The primary yardstick was what was possible, and moral niceties fell by the wayside.

The British air campaign, in the first instance, was carried out because it could be. In the days before effective airborne radar, area bombing was the best anyone could do. The British intend to kill Germans, and did so. The symbolic effort represented by the air campaign was a sop to the Russians, devastated daily by the best army in the world, to show that the Allies were not content merely to allow the Bolsheviks to be ground up by the Nazis. It is possible, 60 years on, to scoff at this aspect, but it was a vital consideration at the time, and that is all that mattered at the time.

American "precision" bombing was not strategically effective. Not until the decision was made, in the run up to Overlord, to concentrate on the Nazi "lines of communications" was the might of the Eighth Air Force used effectively to interdict the resupply of German armies in France. And tactical air superiority--the dreaded Allied "jabos" played as big a role in this as did the "heavies."

Brad is completely correct that the air campaigns against Germany were primarily effective in diverting resources that would have otherwise gone to the Eastern Front. In this respect, the calculation involved is precisely the sort of order-of-magnitude judgments that economists are called upon to make. If Flak 36/38s--the famous "88"s, originally antiarcraft guns but supremely effective in the antitank role--had not been emplaced in droves in German cities, they certainly would have been blowing the crap out of T34s and Shermans. It is inescapable that this diversion of resources was the only strategis success of the Air War on Germany. And that, of course, was why Curtis LeMay sought to use the same tactics with his B29s against Japan.

War, of course, is hell, and no war was ever as hellish as the Great WWII.

Posted by: petronius at January 23, 2005 05:59 AM

It was all about having a nice tight bombing pattern, dear Professor.

Posted by: Adi at January 23, 2005 06:33 AM

Let's not get in a discussion about holy grail weapons. That's part of the problem.

First, the 88mm guns, as I understood their use as antitank weapons, were of limited mobility, and required things to come to them. Removing did not really stop them killing tanks so much as let them start killing bombers and their pilots, who are higher value targets, and what they were made for, to boot. That's pretty nonlogical. Moreover, with 88mm in the cities, the logistical path was eliminated. One didn't have to deliver ammo, and those AA guns go through ammo like you wouldn't believe. What's more, it's pretty illogical to make the *prescence* of AA guns a symptom of success. What won the war as far as air is concerned is the burned out hulks of synthfuel refineries and reservoirs, and the destroyed train stations and linkages. Think about it! If area bombing was the *best* we can do in terms of bombing cities away from the front...given the losses that entailed to our side, maybe we should have gone on a different tact altogether.

Second, with the charge of presentism, I would like to counter that the single greatest and commonest failure of military leaders is *fighting the last war*. The charge also ignores the fact that, at the time, alot of people, military and political, protested against the use of force in this manner. The largest problem with air power in that era was that people kept thinking of air power as a panacea to stop the worst of WWI. And against colonial opponents, it did work pretty well, and helped the English and French to fight colonial wars with fewer soldiers (of course, it undermined them later on...)

The fact was, people like LeMay, Harris, and others were trying to PROVE that airpower as an entity on its own would win wars with much less loss of life. And what wound up happening was that the people that the Wehrmacht valued most got the shelters, but not the civilians. The factories got to be rebuilt in the bunkers and plenty of deception was used WHICH LED TO MORE INDISCRIMINATE bombing. It's the old friend...thinking if a little bit doesn't work, use a whole heckuva lot more.

To me, the chief value of air power is in combined arms scenarios, highly integrated air ground/air sea initiatives. Guarding or destroying roads and sea lanes, bombing all the easy stuff and force people to rebuild in bad places.

Doesn't *anyone* remember the lessons from the Gulf War? And yet we still go on thinking, bombing is the easy and quick panacea...

Posted by: shah8 at January 23, 2005 06:52 AM

petronius wrote, "The symbolic effort represented by the air campaign was a sop to the Russians, devastated daily by the best army in the world, to show that the Allies were not content merely to allow the Bolsheviks to be ground up by the Nazis. It is possible, 60 years on, to scoff at this aspect, but it was a vital consideration at the time, and that is all that mattered at the time."

Just symbolic, and just a sop. I doubt Stalin was much impressed by bombing; he was mostly interested in an Allied invasion in the West.

Interestingly, Gabriel Kolko's book implied that the British were much less enthusiastic about an aggressive timetable for the invasion of western Europe than the Americans. (IIRC; and I don't believe everything GK says by any means.)

Posted by: liberal at January 23, 2005 07:05 AM

The following extract from the comments of Father John A. Siemes, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima, may be apropos:


None of us in those days heard a single outburst against the Americans on the part of the Japanese, nor was there any evidence of a vengeful spirit. The Japanese suffered this terrible blow as part of the fortunes of war ... something to be borne without complaint. During this, war, I have noted relatively little hatred toward the allies on the part of the people themselves, although the press has taken occasion to stir up such feelings. After the victories at the beginning of the war, the enemy was rather looked down upon, but when allied offensive gathered momentum and especially after the advent of the majestic B-29's, the technical skill of America became an object of wonder and admiration.

The following anecdote indicates the spirit of the Japanese: A few days after the atomic bombing, the secretary of the University came to us asserting that the Japanese were ready to destroy San Francisco by means of an equally effective bomb. It is dubious that he himself believed what he told us. He merely wanted to impress upon us foreigners that the Japanese were capable of similar discoveries. In his nationalistic pride, he talked himself into believing this. The Japanese also intimated that the principle of the new bomb was a Japanese discovery. It was only lack of raw materials, they said, which prevented its construction. In the meantime, the Germans were said to have carried the discovery to a further stage and were about to initiate such bombing. The Americans were reputed to have learned the secret from the Germans, and they had then brought the bomb to a stage of industrial completion.

We have discussed among ourselves the ethics of the use of the bomb. Some consider it in the same category as poison gas and were against its use on a civil population. Others were of the view that in total war, as carried on in Japan, there was no difference between civilians and soldiers, and that the bomb itself was an effective force tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus to avoid total destruction. It seems logical to me that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good that might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?

Posted by: jm at January 23, 2005 08:02 AM

Brad, you are young enough that if you look at this post of yours years from now, hopefully, you will wonder what in hell you were thinking.

Posted by: Dubblblind at January 23, 2005 08:26 AM

This on the bombing of Germany by the RAF in a BBC series on WW2 may be of interest: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/wwtwo/air_war_bombers_02.shtml

Key points:

"Some 55,000 aircrew died in raids over Europe between 1939 and 1945, the highest loss rate of any major branch of the British armed forces."

"The report counted a hit if the bomb fell within five miles of the target."

"Losses on each flight varied enormously during the war. The acceptable rate was set around five per cent, and the average between 1942-44 was four per cent. This arithmetic is more brutal than it sounds. Less than one crew in eight would survive fifty missions. Half of all aircrew were lost before they had even completed ten missions."

On the officially under-appreciated merits of using the twin-engined Mosquito instead of heavy bombers like the Lancaster, try: http://www.2worldwar2.com/mosquito.htm

I was taught economics by one of three economists who worked in the (UK) Ministry of Aircraft Production during WW2 and it happens I also met the other two. I gathered from a conversation about this in the late 1950s that some during the war had recognised that greater use of the Mosquito as a bomber would have made much military and economic sense. Why that didn't happen is an interesting issue. Part of the problem was credibility - the Mosquito was made mainly of wood and the bomber version carried no guns for defence, relying instead on sheer speed.

Posted by: Bob B at January 23, 2005 08:37 AM

Robert Heinlein in his Future History series imagined a period of upcoming chaos he designated "the Crazy Years." Spider Robinson when he was writing a column for the Globe and Mail (in the 80s?) would drag out that term occasionally to apply to developments he considered insane.

But recall that Heinlein thought up the idea of "the Crazy Years" in either the late 30s or the very early 40s. What could be crazier than that era? Things are pretty damn bad and very dangerous now, but would you trade?

The posters who have talked about irrationality of bombing strategy are right on. We underestimate how "unrational" the "calculations" of military and political leaders are, and how easy it is to get into a mental space where huge incalculables can justify massacre. It is precisely this way of thinking that inspired the creation of constitutional government and the international laws of war -- inspired in the sense that they are fallible dams that sometimes slow down the tide of "kill, kill, kill, we have no choice" until enough people come to our senses again.

The insanity that produced WWII cannot and should not be our guide forever. We need a Godwin's Law II. It is not always Munich, September 1, 1939, or June of 1941. 9/11 was a horrible and dramatic crime, but it did not change everything -- unless people want to use it as an excuse.

I see this discussion as an indication that the USA in deep, deep, trouble. Even the reality-based community doesn't look terribly real from here.

Posted by: sm at January 23, 2005 08:37 AM

No "charge" of presentism: just a reminder that it easy to analyze history from a perspective of hindsight while forgetting that frightened and deluded individuals generally make history in the first place. It is easy to pass moral judgment on the atrocities of history but it is much harder to understand them for the purpose of avoiding their repetition.

It is impossible to discuss the outcome of battles without reference to the men and materials of war. The mention of a weapon system does not constitute its apotheosis. One can't pretend that P51 Mustangs did not have a definitive impact on the air war in WWII. Nor can one ignore that 6x6 trucks supplied under Lend-Lease freed Soviet production capacity for tanks and cannon, helping Stalin beat the Nazis. No one calls the GMC a "holy grail," however.

I was born on 6 August, and have reflected all my life on the import, moral and practical, of "pikadon." No rational human would suggest that the destruction of Hiroshima was a morally praiseworthy act--especially in retrospect. Yet the quote from Father Siemes (props to jm for introducing it) points up the ineluctable ambiguity of the act, which was my overall point: the participants in war-to-extremis make decisions--correct or incorrect--with an eye towards survival and not moral opprobrium.

Posted by: petronius at January 23, 2005 08:50 AM

But we still must make an effort to keep an eye on the prize. Peacetime is an excellent time to decide how to keep sane during war. The problem with being an apologist is that it's almost impossible to grant that it is so in the past, and be able to condemn it in the future.

People like Harris and LeMay were deliberately focused on killing as many civilians as possible without regards to the immediate military situations and needs. That isn't really a debatable fact. This is the kind of shit that a) loses wars b) when we lose them, we won't see any mercy when they come for us. It's exactly the attitudes of Hitler and the Kwangtung army, but they figured they wouldn't lose.

Peacetime is an excellent time to realize that this is not the way to win, either. That leads to catastrophic successes as well as pyhric sp? victories. We must be determined to stay sane as long as possible in the next war. It's how to win, and how to win going away.

Posted by: shah8 at January 23, 2005 09:04 AM

Damm, What a lot of wasted electrons. It boils down to the statement that: We had to destroy civilization in order to save it.
What a sad comintary on the state of humanity.

Posted by: dilbert dogbert at January 23, 2005 09:25 AM

"It Is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end."
Ursula K. Le Guin

Posted by: Bob B at January 23, 2005 09:46 AM

My father was born in 1936 in Hamburg and (he also studied History) tells me that the (British owned) refineries there never got bombed. Perhaps someone else has more info on this.

Shouldn't those kinds of facilities be bombed before you turn to the population? Just a thought...

Posted by: Wolf at January 23, 2005 09:53 AM

Much above re-hashes issues I thought settled decades ago, esp. that Allied area bombing did not produce results worth the resources required. Not even close.

Kennett, Lee, A History Of Strategic Bombing (1982)

The United States Strategic Bombing Survey (European Theater).

But economic reasoning overlooks the basic fact of war. It's about blood. Our blood. Their blood. It's madness, affecting even men in neat uniforms in safe bunkers.

Abstract logic is an early casualty. And of little use in evaluating wartime decisions, long after the dead are dust.

True then as now. We've invaded another country, when almost every offensive war since Westphalia (1648) has failed (excluding civil wars).

Where's the logic of the "cool conservative men" (and women) who lead us? Read in the daily news how the spilling of blood slowly changes our beliefs and standards.

Perhaps our grandchildren will wonder what we were thinking during the ill-fated Iraq War?

Posted by: L at January 23, 2005 10:16 AM

After reading up a little more on this, I believe the intentional bombing of German civilians was "worse than a crime; it was a mistake". The rationale for area bombing was that night raids with heavy bombers could only put about 1% of the bombs on target, and only about 30% of the bombs within 5 miles of the aiming point. With those figures, you had to aim at something really big like a large city.

But at the same time the De Havilland Mosquito medium bomber was able to achieve excellent accuracy with very low losses (because it could outrun any fighter of the time). The bombload was only about half as big, but with only two engines and two aircrew, plus the greater accuracy, it was clearly a more efficient way to put bombs on target, and had the necessary accuracy to hit industrial and military targets.

There was an active debate at the time about the decision to keep pouring resources into heavy slow four-engine bombers when all the statistics showed the Mosquito was much more effective. The wrong decision was taken, and Allied aircrew and German civilians paid a heavy price.

However, mistakes do happen in war, and the line between an error of judgment and a war crime is often unclear - if you want to worry about it, it may be more useful to worry about current US operations in Iraq, where we regularly drop 500lb bombs (which kill 50% of people within 60m) on densely-populated urban areas, and in a situation where the survival of the US is clearly not threatened.

Posted by: Richard Cownie at January 23, 2005 10:30 AM

Brad, now that this thread has made the inevitable connection between then and now, I wonder what you think an acceptable action from the Iraqis (from their point of view) towards American civilians would be?

Posted by: Dubblblind at January 23, 2005 10:56 AM

>Perhaps our grandchildren will wonder what we >were thinking during the ill-fated Iraq War?

I wonder that now.

Posted by: sm at January 23, 2005 01:03 PM

The tactical and strategic issues which predominate here are interesting, but I think they miss the point. Okay, they miss my point. Which is that the definition of "morality" has to include the notion that there are some things you just cannot do, however advantageous.

The locus classicus is the 35th chapter of The Brothers Karamazov; Ivan speaks:"... Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature -- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance -- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."

"No, I wouldn't consent," said Alyosha softly.

"And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy for ever?"Those, I think, are the questions to ask about whether Hamburg and Tokyo were acceptable choices.

Posted by: Anderson at January 23, 2005 01:09 PM

Tried to link, blockquote, etc., to no avail. If anyone wants to see the Dostoevsky quotation in context:


Posted by: Anderson at January 23, 2005 01:14 PM

Right (your characterization of me), insofar as I think the inconsistency ought to be resolved by removing the SEE rather than making it available to non-state as well as to state actors.

Posted by: Chris Bertram at January 23, 2005 01:54 PM

>Which is that the definition of "morality" has to >include the notion that there are some things you >just cannot do, however advantageous

Current US military doctrine seems to be highly focused on "force protection" - i.e. minimizing losses of your own forces, apparently even at the cost of causing civilian casualties. And US commentators are especially critical of opponents who take the opposite approach of mounting suicide missions. So at the moment it seems the US is willing to contemplate nuclear bombing of cities, the use of landmines, large stockpiles of chemical weapons, bombing of densely-populated areas, the use of carcinogenic depleted-uranium projectiles, torture, collective punishment (e.g. taking family members as hostages). The only actions we regard as completely morally unacceptable are those which put our own soldiers at excessive risk.

This is just wrong.

Posted by: Richard Cownie at January 23, 2005 02:48 PM

See this Ted Rall piece:


Posted by: sm at January 23, 2005 04:14 PM

Brad, you could use the same reasoning to justify torture.

Considering that certain methods are inacceptable whatever their efficiency is what makes the difference between civilisation and barbarity.

Posted by: Melanchthon at January 23, 2005 05:00 PM

Many of those responding to Brad's post are taking the position that, because his subject or his conclusions are 'icky', there's something morally suspect going on here.

Look - you go to war, folk, and you need to make decisions between truly horrible alternatives, often based on poor information. It *should* make you feel uncomfortable.

But you're gonna have to think these thoughts, and work these things out, cos' flinching from the blade only gets you run through.

Posted by: Paul G. Brown at January 23, 2005 05:16 PM

It looks to me like a lot of the discussion has missed Brad's point.

I want to restate it as I understand it, and find out how close I got.

The essential difference between terrorism and legitimate war is that terrorism intentionally targets civilians. Our army only hits civilians by mistake or as an unavoidable side effect of hitting the enemy's military. We don't target civilians, terrorists do.

There are other differences -- terrorists we dislike also do not run governments; they don't control territory; they can't collect taxes; they don't wear uniforms. But the central difference is that they target civilians. If al qaeda had attacked only the Pentagon and nothing else, it would have been a surprise attack and so on, but it wouldn't have been an attack on civilians.

But our military has made attacks on civilians, and the mass airbombing of WWII is a clear example. Our free-fire zones in vietnam and iraq are not quite as clear. But it'd undeniable that in WWII we intentionally attacked civilians and defended the practice.

If Brad simply pointed out that the situations are in some ways equivalent -- Allied bombing and terrorist bombing -- people might nod and ignore it. But when he defended the allied bombing himself, while admitting that it's morally queasy, a whole lot of people jumped on him.

So we got the side issue about whether the justification of expediency really worked. Did we really use up more german resources defending than we used ourselves attacking? But that doesn't address the moral issue when it *does* work. If WWII didn't actually work, still other examples do. As a trivial example, the israelis set up a few commando squads in helicopters who could attack undefended pumping stations, telephone exchanges, etc etc in egypt. It was mostly civilian targets but they were vital to egypt. The egyptians wound up putting little squads all over the nile and the desert, wherever there was some little target. The egyptian army was much bigger than the israeli army but a lot of it got pinned down by a very small israeli attack force. They could have beaten individual egyptian squads and done their destruction anyway, but that wasn't the point. They didn't want to take any casualties wiping out egyptian squads and hitting targets that were individually insignificant. What they cared about was pinning down those troops. They weren't attacking civilian lives but it was civilian targets they hit to pin down the egyptian army, just like it was german civilian targets we hit to pin down their antiair defenses.

So, how would an economist think? If the expectation is that the war crimes will actually "work", how much do we need to profit from them to make it worth what it costs us in honor? Most of us are agreed that it's worth sacrificing our own honor when the alternative is that monsters like the nazis win the war and control the world for the indefinite future.

We see that argument even in the current war. The argument goes that it will take us about ten years to win in iraq. And if we fail to see iraq through to ultimate victory, we'll pull out and never go back. The arabist terrorists will have a secure base, they'll use that base to take saudi arabia, iran, and the whole middle east, they'll cut off our oil while they grow rich on oil profits and buy all the nukes they might want, and then they'll come after us. We'll be helpless and they'll win everything, they'll control the whole world. So there's no choice. We must be resolute and do whatever it takes to win iraq, because the alternative is total defeat for the entire free world. Snicker if you like, but the people who make the argument appear to believe it completely.

On the other hand, what if it's a war that we will win, but the question is how many lives it costs. Count it as US lives, allied lives, neutral lives, enemy civilian lives, and enemy combatant lives. If the cost is our honor and X lives destroyed by our war crimes, and in return it saves A US lives, B allied lives, C neutral lives, D enemy civilian lives, and E enemy combatant lives, how big do A B C D & E have to be relative to X to reach a point of indifference? I suppose we'd probably get a simple equation relating them as a preliminary step. As a first guess, one US life would be worth two allied lives, 3 neutral lives, 4 enemy civilian lives or -5 enemy combatants. We'd sacrifice 1 US soldier to kill 5 enemy soldiers, or kill 4 enemy civilians as collateral damage if it lets us kill 5 soldiers etc. But maybe for some of us it would be that 1 US life is worth 1 allied life, 10 neutral lives and 1000 enemy civilian lives. It's something to work out.

So then once we have an idea what ratio of lives we'd sacrifice in honorable combat -- then we can figure out how many more lives our honor is worth.

Most of us would sacrifice our honor if it was absolutely necessary to keep an ultimately evil regime from taking over the whole world. But what's your minimum requirement? Is it one US serviceman's life? A 1/10 chance of saving one US serviceman's life? A 1/100 chance? 1000 soldiers? 10,000 civilians?

It isn't a yes/no moral choice. Like the old joke goes,

"What kind of person do you think I am?"
"We've already established that, now we're establishing the price."

Posted by: J Thomas at January 23, 2005 06:04 PM

Mr. Thomas, two issues

1) I will grant that civilian brutality works when done right. The English were masters at this stuff, highlighted with the Boer War. The analogy with the israeli and the egyption is pretty false though. It was cheap attact squads tying down large forces and the action was towards directly that. The practical and moral issue here is does using terror on a mass scale like area firebombing work to break morale and stop the city from supporting armed forces, which was the stated goal.

2) We should also not confuse morality with codes of honor, and moreover, these issues are not divisible nor are they fungible, which is why doing chance vs chance things usually gets towards the absurd.

Nietche sp? had two statements that are the truest, one dealing with the abyss, and the other dealing with monsters. Monster v Monster smashups usually don't come out permanent winners. There's always another monster, and there is always somewheres lower you can go.

Morality is part and parcel of why we fight. The Soviet Union had to use political officers to shoot the people who flee. If there are monsters before you and monsters behind you, why should anyone fight for homeland, at least one greater than what is known to an individual? The French and the US were two countries that paid dearly for the previous lack of morality in wars. The French couldn't rely on their soldiers in WWII because of the mistrust devolving from criminal orders in WWI. The US populace strongly resisted intervention into WWII because Wilson completly abused his office, sending Marines everywheres in Latin America and elsewheres, and dragging the US into WWI(despite tremendous opposition), which is probably one of the greatest mistakes of history. People have to trust that soldiers will be doing the right thing, and that soldiers who leave good men, will come back good men, if a bit worse for wear. Asking them to be war criminals for the sake of interdepartmental rivalry by air force officials was really bad.

I've, and others as well, have already talked about how ineffective this was as a tactic.

Karma is just too much of a bitch to play around like this, or even condoning actions like this.

Posted by: shah8 at January 23, 2005 06:53 PM

JThomas cites one of my favorite jokes, thus lending great weight to his position. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what his position is. He correctly distinguishes the expediency arguments from those relating to morality (or what he calls "honor," it seems). But in theory, at least, he seems to concede the expediency argument (correct me if I'm wrong).

"Most of us are agreed that it's worth sacrificing our own honor when the alternative is that monsters like the nazis win the war and control the world for the indefinite future."

But when do we ever really face a choice like this? Fearmongering aside, were the Allies really looking at *losing the war* if they confined their bombing to clearly delineated military targets? Certainly by the time of Dresden, there was no such fear; it was all about "shortening" the war, hence the assertion that every week of war cost another 200,000 lives. IMHO, any time that people are driven to resort to war crimes, it's because they're going to lose anyway. (Leaving aside those who, like the Japanese at Nanking, commit war crimes because they're fun; such folk are not interested in our discussion, having no moral issues on this topic.)

The point of the Dostoevsky that I quoted above is that some crimes aren't subject to a cost/benefit analysis, so that there *is* no "ratio" which will justify our crimes. Assuming we could know such a ratio in advance and not in retrospect (the old problem with utilitarianisms).

If we can't admit "yes, it was immoral of us to burn up all those noncombatants in WW2," then there is nothing to stop us from doing it again. That's why I'm so worried by this thread's focus on "expediency."

Posted by: Anderson at January 23, 2005 07:11 PM

Shah8, if you grant that civilian brutality *can* work, I'll gladly drop my minor israeli example. The question "Will it work this time?" is a question of expediency, and uncertainty about it is a valid expedient reason to choose against. But that's separate from the moral issue that remains when we accept that it will work this time.

We don't only fight for morality. We also fight for the survival of our people. The russian experience under mongol rule taught them that no matter how bad your own rulers are, foreign rulers are likely to be worse. At least your own rulers live here. If they treat you like their farm animals at least they care about keeping the farm going instead of burning all the farms and opening the land for rangeland for their horses. Russians fought Hitler the way they fought Napoleon etc; their current monsters were suddenly on their side. They were a lot less enthusiastic once the germans were pushed out of their borders and the task was pushing them back through other people's countries, though they went ahead and did it.

That leads to another expediency argument -- if people on the other side who're unenthusiastic about fighting see you going after their civilians, what does that tell them about the consequences of losing the war? If you don't want them to fight their hardest, wouldn't it be better to look out for them? Give them the idea that their people will be better off if you win than if they win, and the battle is mostly won. Alternatively....

Posted by: J Thomas at January 23, 2005 07:49 PM

>If we can't admit "yes, it was immoral of us to
>burn up all those noncombatants in WW2," then
>there is nothing to stop us from doing it again.

Welcome to political reality. If you think that burning up civilians is immoral (and I do, though I understand how decent people can find themselves doing it in the middle of a bitter war), then you must also think that threatening to do so is similarly immoral. And that must lead you to reject the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction which has been mainstream US policy ever since Stalin got nukes.

So yes indeed, there *is* nothing to stop us doing it again, and the whole of the Republican party and all but the leftmost fringe of the Democrats supports the principle of burning civilians by the tens of millions. And we're seeing in Iraq that our politicians haven't put up much objection to killing roughly 100000 civilians; a much more politically sensitive issue is whether we're putting our own soldiers at unnecessary risk by failing to provide body armor and armored vehicles.

Discussions of morality are interesting, but don't delude yourself that these moral considerations have the slightest effect on the policies and actions of the US (and in this respect there's little to choose between Democrats and Republicans).

Posted by: Richard Cownie at January 23, 2005 08:31 PM

Anderson, my personal moral position isn't much help for deciding what the US Army should do. Armies at least give the appearance of doing what their commanders tell them to do, and commanders publicly agree with whatever the prevalent public morality is. Americans mostly agree that when the chips are down we'll do what we have to. So that's the position we'll be starting with. From there the question is what can actually work. Since we hate to admit defeat, when we're stuck with no good choices we'll try out the bad choices one by one until we run out.

In my personal life I've done what I thought I had to. I've backed down from fights I thought I could win because the stakes weren't worth the damage I'd have to do to the other guy. I've been called a coward for it. I've fought dirty when I didn't trust the guys against me to treat me right if I backed down and I didn't think I could run away. I've never held a knife to a woman's throat to get men to back off, but I might have if the choice arose and it seemed expedient. I expect if I was making policy undeterred by public opinion I'd do it like my personal life. I'd rule out nothing, but I'd try to limit the destruction if I could.

You ask when our survival (or even our victory) ever truly depends on immoral warfare. I can't think of a real example, the USA has been pretty lucky that way. And as you almost say, usually the people who do war crimes are so bad off it doesn't turn things around and let them win after all. But people do make the argument, and they do seem to believe it. I hear two versions of the iraq example. In one version losing iraq means the muslims all get together under one government that controls all muslim-owned oil, and they build an unstoppable military force. In the other version they build or buy nukes and smuggle them into the USA and destroy one or more cities, and then we're forced to nuke them all -- over a billion people -- and so winning the war in iraq and then spreading liberal democracy to all other muslim nations is an *altruistic* thing we're doing to keep them from inevitably all getting nuked. These people are serious.

As an aside, if we thought WWII was costing 200,000 lives a week and we wanted to shorten it, why not negotiate a settlement? The very fact that we were negotiating would have sapped the nazis' will to fight. Again if it was me doing it and I didn't have to answer to public opinion, here's the deal I would have offered;

1. No war crimes trials, no imprisonment of nazi officials.
2. No reparations.
3. Temporary occupation by the USA, repatriation of forced-labor workers and forced prostitutes and foreign concentration camp inmates, orderly release of german camp inmates and other political prisoners. Gestapo disbanded. European transportation network to be rebuilt, food distributed to all in need, etc.
4. As soon as practical, free elections. Nazis may run. Occupation authority turned over to new government.

Make the offer public. The russians would hate it, and I'd tell them "The war is costing 200,000 lives a week, let's get it over with. A surrender will save russian lives, and if germany gets taken by force there aren't going to be any reparations then either."

It would be a big problem that after the WWI peace fiasco the germans wouldn't trust a conditional surrender. And it would be a big problem that americans (not to mention english and russians etc) wanted blood. But in terms of sheer logic -- we were ready to do carpet-bombing to shorten the war but we weren't ready to give up war crimes trials to shorten the war? Maybe we could have avoided the SS and the Red Army fighting across a big part of eastern europe. Avoided D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge etc. Avoided a whole lot of bombing. And what's the chance the germans would elect the nazis in a free election, after the chewed-up army came home, after the concentration camps opened, after it was safe for germans to admit how FUBAR it was? What's the chance the germans would have their own war crimes trials? And looking ahead, all the german industry that wasn't destroyed and the german soldiers who weren't killed would be available for the cold war....

If strategic bombing was expedient, a conditional surrender was more expedient. But we wouldn't even consider it. It was too immoral.

Posted by: J Thomas at January 23, 2005 08:52 PM

Had the Allies adopted the position that cities absolutely could not be attacked, the ruthless elements in the German and Japanese high commands would immediately have begun relocating all militarily important factories into them. It has been reported that the Japanese were in fact doing this in 1945 when they realized that the U.S. was reluctant to bomb Kyoto.

The nature of Japanese geography and industrial growth patterns was such that even ten years ago much industrial component production was being done by small companies whose workshops were scattered throughout the working-class neighborhoods of Tokyo. There was no great separation between residential and industrial zones.

Prohibiting attacks on cities would therefore have been essentially equivalent to prohibiting attacks on arms factories, and would have prolonged the war by many years.

Had the war been prolonged by so placing their war industries off-limits to attack, the Germans and/or Japanese would have been much more successful in bringing into production the various advanced weapons systems they had on their drawing boards. They might even have succeeded in developing nuclear weapons.

Posted by: jm at January 23, 2005 09:52 PM

I don't think JM's remarks will bear scrutiny with regard to the Japanese; the Strategic Bombing Survey, I believe, concluded that attacks on the nation's rail/transport system would have left the gov't with a choice between starvation and surrender. The former choice, in their minds, amounted to inviting a Red revolution that would topple the emperor. They would've surrendered. See Richard Frank's excellent, though redundantly titled, "Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire."

(How that ever made it past the copyeditors I'll never know ... or is that an accurate translation of what the Japanese called their gig?)

As for the Germans, I'm less informed, but I suspect that a similar tactic would have largely shut them down as well. In any event, I don't buy "many years," once the US and USSR were fully engaged. Hitler landed Germany in the trash compactor from "Star Wars" when he declared war on the U.S.

And neither Germany nor Japan was anywhere near nuclear weapons; in Germany's case, the reason why is in dispute, but not the fact itself. Germany simply couldn't wage a two-front war while devoting the necessary resources to an A-bomb.

Posted by: Anderson at January 23, 2005 10:30 PM

Hey, you consequentialists: Here's a fact from an Amazon review of "Downfall":

"About 100,000 civilians in Japanese occupied territory, including the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, China, French Indochina, and the Philippines, were dying because of the war each month the war lasted."

Ergo, incinerating Japanese babies was an acceptable way to prevent the deaths (presumably including disease, malnutrition, & the occasional Japanese bayonet) of non-Japanese babies?

Or would taking out the transport network, combined with the 99% effective naval blockade, have brought Japan down even faster than the firebombings?

Posted by: Anderson at January 23, 2005 10:34 PM

>Prohibiting attacks on cities would therefore
>have been essentially equivalent to prohibiting
>on arms factories, and would have prolonged the
>war by many years.

This is a strawman. Everyone accepted that bombing industrial and transport targets would cause considerable civilian deaths. The moral issue is whether it's permissible to mount attacks aimed entirely, or primarily, at enemy civilians. Proponents of such attacks would say they break the morale of the civilian population; opponents would say they terrorize innocents. That's two ways of saying the same thing.

Posted by: Richard Cownie at January 23, 2005 10:35 PM


Think more broadly about the way consequences ripple out from the epicenter of a decision.

The course of the war wouldn't have been only a little bit different, it would have been quite different, and maybe even completely different.

Had the growth German war production not been constrained by the bombing, the Soviet Union might have been defeated.

Had the Soviet Union been defeated, more American resources would have been tied up in the European war, and progress in the Pacific much delayed. Japan might have been supplied with oil from the fields of the Causasus, and other war materials from continental sources.

Had the information that the Soviets possessed about the Manhattan project fallen into German hands along with the uranium they had mined, Germany might have developed atomic weapons.

Posted by: jm at January 23, 2005 10:56 PM

jm, looking at it in hindsight, attacking refineries etc was the critical thing, and nothing else much mattered. Bombing one hydroelectric dam maybe made a difference, and a ball-bearing factory, but mostly it was the oil. If we had bombed more oil facilities and less of everything else, would the war have been longer or shorter?

Maybe longer, but not because of the damage we did to things that weren't limiting. The bombing might have been less effective and more costly because if we only bombed oil facilities the germans could have concentrated all their air defense there. The more targets we bombed, particularly the more cities we bombed, the more we tempted the germans to spread out their defenses and sothe more we could get through them. The point of bombing cities like Dresden that had no obvious military significance was not to get the antiaircraft guns away from the russian front. It was to get them away from the refineries.

The bombing may have scared the civilians but it also reminded them what they were fighting for and against. They were fighting the kind of people who dropped bombs on random civilians. The kind of people who'd run the occupation after they surrendered. Show them you have no mercy and they'll do everything they possibly can not to be left at your mercy.

Anyway, regardless how you rationalise it after the fact, here's how I think it happened. Before the war we didn't know how it would work. We hadn't done large-scale bombing against an enemy with extensive AA. We had to be ready to do it because it might be decisive. We had influential people who were sure it would be decisive. (And as it turned out air power was decisive at sea.) So we didn't know what we were getting into but we had plans. And we followed the plans because it was what we knew how to do. We modified them in minor ways as we found out what worked better, but there was no way we'd call them off entirely just because they weren't working adequately. We couldn't drop bombs with any precision, and the plan was to drop bombs, so we accepted the bombs would land wherever they fell and we came up with a rationale to fit what we were already doing.

Similarly, we got into iraq without really knowing how to fight an insurgency. A lot of our advice about that comes from the israelis who aren't known for their skill at winning hearts and minds. So as of last week we were still dropping precision-guided 500-pound and 2000-pound bombs on Fallujah. There's something special about a 2000-pound bomb that lands within inches of where it's aimed. How does the slogan go? "Measure with a micrometer. Mark with chalk. Cut with a wood chipper." It isn't so much that precision-guided 500-pound bombs are a particularly appropriate way to go after insurgents in residential neighborhoods. It's more that we have the bombs so we need to find something to use them on.

Posted by: J Thomas at January 23, 2005 11:11 PM

When the only tool you have is a bomber, every problem looks like an airstrike target.

Posted by: J Thomas at January 24, 2005 05:27 AM

J. Thomas: Your reasoning that, "... if we only bombed oil facilities the germans could have concentrated all their air defense there," is definitely one of the differences in the course of the war that would have resulted from a prohibition on city bombing. One of the reasons why the refineries weren't attacked more (and more successfully) early in the war was that they were extremely well defended. Without the city bombing they would presumably have been even better defended.

Regarding Dresden, the reality is more complex than conventionally thought. I recommend you read "Dresden : Tuesday, February 13, 1945" by Frederick Taylor.

I broadly agree with your fourth and fifth paragraphs, but regarding your third would opine that a major reason why the Japanese, and probably also the German, populace did not more strongly resist the slide towards war was that they were convinced that their own cities could never be attacked.

That American cities have never been bombed to the ground is, of course, one of reasons why there was too little opposition to our idiotic venture into Iraq.

Your statement that, "... we got into iraq without really knowing how to fight an insurgency," is not quite right. Rather, we were lead into Iraq by arrogant jackasses who ignored the advice of experts who understood quite well what we were getting into. The Bush administration is broadly similar in character and behavior to that of Hirohito in Japan.

Posted by: jm at January 24, 2005 06:11 AM


If the important thing was to have been minimizing the civilian death toll, why would bringing Japan to surrender by starvation have been more humane than bombing? I have decades of experience with Japan and have read a fair amount of history in the original Japanese, and I strongly doubt that Japan would have surrendered until literally millions had starved to death.

Given the nature of starvation, millions more would likely have perished before we'd have been able to distribute relief post-surrender. This was remarked upon in the book you mention; I assume that the reason you know of its remarks on the transportation attack plans, but not why "Downfall" in the title is not redundant,is that you have read a review rather than the book -- I strongly recommend you read the book itself.

Posted by: jm at January 24, 2005 06:26 AM

Many comments can be summarised in one sentence:

From an economist's point of view, crime pays.

Maybe the question is: what society do you want to live in? A society where crime pays?

So, when waging a war, one should ask: what society are we building through the decisions we make?

Posted by: Melanchthon at January 24, 2005 06:36 AM

When waging war, certain types of decisions may lead to you losing the war, and not having any say whatsoever in the kind of society that is built.

Posted by: jm at January 24, 2005 07:16 AM

The lives of Russian conscripts were in some cases dead either way. And that's not even considering the Polish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian troops who fought both the Soviets and the Nazis and got killed regardless.

No, the ideal solution would have been for both the Soviets and Nazis to lose, but unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world.

Posted by: Hektor Bim at January 24, 2005 07:17 AM

As a semi-serious amateur historian of the WW-II era, I am extremely loath to critize the Allied war strategy, especially on the part of the Americans and British.

Fact is we were in an unprecedented global war for survival and the Allied command was very much making it up as they went along, with virtually no precedent for what they were doing, and very little intelligence to inform many of their decisions.

Compare America's WW-II with Bush's so-called War on Terror:


The American involvement in WW-II lasted 45 months from Pearl Harbor (Dec 7, 1941) to V-J Day August 14, 1945). During those 45 months the US built an Army, Navy, and Airforce virtually from scratch, island hopped across thousands of brutal miles of fighing in the Pacific, invaded and crossed Europe, invaded and crossed North Africa, invaded and crossed Italy etc. etc.

To date the "War on Terror" has lasted 41 months (Sept 11, 2001 to January 2005) and we have accomplishd what? Partial occupation and control over Afganistan, and close to total failure in Iraq. This despite overwhelmingly favorable odds in terms of military capacity, economics, population base, or whatever basis you want to use to compare the capacities of the Taliban and Bathist Iraq to the US military machine. The Taliban and Bathist Iraq were not even remotely in the same league as an opponent to the US as were Germany and Japan.

Of course the most damning comparision between WW-II and Afganistan/Iraq was in the post-war planning. The Pentagon and State Deptartment did an absolutely amazing and thorough job of planning for the German and Japanese occupations after WW-II, and in hindsight, they got almost everything right. Compare that to Bush's total failure to plan for any aspect of post-war Iraq.

Posted by: Kent at January 24, 2005 07:28 AM

Kent: To date the "War on Terror" has lasted 41 months (Sept 11, 2001 to January 2005) and we have accomplishd what?

Retaking the Senate in 2002, holding the White House and increasing majorities in both houses in 2004, passing a bunch of tax cuts, and as a bonus also killing a bunch of non-Christian foreigners. It's a huge success - so much so that it would be a great shame to shorten it by adopting policies that might actually "win".

Posted by: Richard Cownie at January 24, 2005 07:48 AM

As for those who argue that Allied war planners should have "taken their foot off the gas" so to speak and practiced a more traditional war of military attrition, rather than the "total war" that was fought in WW-II. Consider this: At the peak of WW-II, there were what? 10-million or more Americans serving in uniform in some capacity? I don't recall the exact number but it was huge. How many more months or years would you have asked them to put their lives on hold and risk life and limb?

From my point of view, the Allied command was quite correct to unleash all the weapons at its disposal to bring the war to a quick and bloody end. Otherwise, God knows how long we would have been fighing slow and bloody rear-guard actions in Europe and Asia.

Posted by: Kent at January 24, 2005 07:58 AM

"Had the growth of German war production not been constrained by the bombing, the Soviet Union might have been defeated."

America did not enter the war in Europe until Germany declared war on America, three days after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The really terrifying scenario for WW2 is if Nazi Germany had decided to first consolidate hold of conquered countries in western Europe, mobilising industries there for war before invading the Soviet Union - or declaring war on America. By any reasonable standard, the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was premature. The spring that year was late and the invading army was under-equipped for the forthcoming winter, which came early. Besides that, the invading army alienated indigenous populations in Belarus and the Ukraine, which had initially welcomed the invading armies as liberators.

The fact that Germany's production of crucial munitions was higher in 1944 than in previous years, despite increased bombing, shows that German industry had worked with substantial slack before. Had Speer been able to deploy his undoubted talents for industrial organisation for war production earlier, the course of the war might have worked out very differently. It tends to be overlooked that the combined population of Germany and Austria in 1939 was almost exactly twice Britain's population.

Posted by: Bob B at January 24, 2005 08:09 AM

JM: The thread seems to be winding down, but given your courteous replies, I'll tack on that I did indeed read "Downfall" a few months back. Whether the Japanese gov't would have accepted millions of deaths by starvation, you are evidently better suited to judge than I; the question I guess is whether the fear of a Communist revolution was moonshine; but Frank thinks the gov't took it seriously.

As for bombing's keeping Russia in the war, I disagree; the impact of bombing during the crisis period for Russia wasn't so great that it tipped the balance, and after summer 1942, I don't think the Russians were ever in serious danger. (But I may have a minority view, since I believe they could've given up Stalingrad while preserving their armies and just let Paulus go further & further on, a la Charles XII.)

Starvation v. firebombing is probably too nice a point, but it does seem more humane to me to blockade Japan until they cry uncle than to burn up their urban populations. Doubt that would make any difference to the starving Japanese children.

Posted by: Anderson at January 24, 2005 09:40 AM

"So, when waging a war, one should ask: what society are we building through the decisions we make?"

You used the metaphor, "Crime pays.". Continuing that metaphor, the issue of war crimes committed by your side is kind of like the issue of police brutality. Tell the police they're being too rough and they'll swear that they have to use all the brutality they're capable of on the hardened criminals or else crime will pay. And a lot of people will say that it's more important to stop crime than to coddle criminals.

Similarly, we're mostly agreed that it's far more important to make sure that anybody who starts a war suffers the consequences than to make sure we don't do any war crimes against them while we punish them for starting the war.

If nobody started wars we wouldn't have to worry about just what rules to fight by. So the international community has mostly agreed that aggressors should be punished for their wars.

Posted by: J Thomas at January 24, 2005 10:02 AM

I think we should look at the German and Japanese societies now and ask ourselves what they would be like if, instead of shattering the backbone of the Axis and the will of its people, we had ended WWII in a negotiated conditional surrender or a minimal victory with the survival of political forces behind those regimes. Would that have been humane to Germans and the Japanese?

Posted by: enfant terrible at January 24, 2005 10:30 AM

False dichotomy, mon enfant. EITHER we slaughter civilians by the hundreds of thousands, OR we fire Churchill & FDR and let the Germans have the eastern half of Europe, the Japanese have as much of China as they can hold.

Those are not the choices this thread has been about. Do we slaughter civilians by the 100,000s, or do we possibly shorten the war by a year or maybe two?

Besides the normal problems of the counterfactual. What potential Japanese & German democratic leaders were burned to a crisp at age 2? And so it goes.

Posted by: Anderson at January 24, 2005 10:37 AM

This thread has drifted into calculations of the consequences of various actions and non-actions during WWII. In the process it has largely failed to address what I see as (one of?) Bertram's main points (he is at liberty to correct me): that when you do things like target civilians in extreme circumstances, you lose leverage against that sort of behavior under any conditions. The problem is that just about anyone can convince at least themselves that they are justified under an extreme circumstatces exemption.

Some time ago Brad criticized Edward Said for using this rationale to defend Palestinian terror bombing. I thought Brad was right. Said claimed that, although he conceded that blowing up random civilians was immoral, it was justified this time because the Palestinians had no other method of compelling the Israelies to give them justice and stop various objectionable practices.

At the time I wondered how far this line of reasoning went. Are the Israelies entitled to reply something like "Under normal circumstances ethnic cleansing and/or mass murder is immoral, but this time it's the only way stop an intolerable practice by the Palestinians." This sort of reasoning is harder to start than to stop.

I have neither read widely nor reflected deeply on this issue. However, on first blush it seems all or nothing. Moreover, my reading of the consequentialist analyses above left me with the conclusion that if area bombing had been ruled out from the start the Allies would have found something more productive to do with their air power, such as anti-submarine patrols or an earlier commitment to a transportation strategy. If so the war might well have been won earlier, artillery diversion or no. I feel for this reason that a consequentialist arguement ex post doesn't hold up. Ex ante is much harder.

I'd also like to stress a point made above. Walter Willis wrote:

"In 1944 and 1945, the bomber raids did a good job of persuading the Germans that war was not something that happened to other people, but something that would come home to visit and stay for a while."

It must surely have been in the minds of the Allied commanders that Hitler came to power claiming that Germany had not really lost WWI, but had been betrayed. They must have thought that German civilians watching their cities turn to rubble around them would at least close off the "stab in the back" arguement for THIS war. Does this count in exculpation of the bombing strategy? I wish I knew.

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg at January 24, 2005 11:04 AM

This discussion is important in my view because it tends to show that moral arguments cannot be predicated on reasoning from fact without ultimate resort to some arbitrarily selected moral proposition, explicit or implicit. We could easily substitute the word "efficient" for "moral" in this line of reasoning about whether terrorizing civilians helped to achieve a desired result. Much of the argument appears to be whether state-conducted terrorist activity, in fact, led efficiently to a desired result, Allied victory in WW2. The tacit moral proposition on which the line of argument is based is that efficiency equals morality. The most uncomfortable aspect to me is how readily the commenters appeared to accept the underlying premise whether or not they agreed that terrorism was efficient.

Posted by: Dennis at January 24, 2005 11:17 AM

Anderson, I think enfant may be responding to me. I advocated attempting a conditional surrender.

Say they knew they had lost but they hadn't truly suffered for it yet. Germany lost a couple million civilians disappeared in the chaos when the russians took and occupied east germany. Germany lost a lot of soldiers on that long retreat. If we had arranged a surrender that didn't lose them so much, would the nazis have re-armed and taken over the government again and fought WWII all over again?

I think they would not, but it didn't happen so there's no way to find out. I can imagine maybe Hitler says no negotiations, we publish our offer, some german generals who see how things are headed kill Hitler and accept the offer, and maybe a lot of germans feel like they got betrayed a second time. They might try to take over again and attack. There's no certainty about such things.

But suppose we tried negotiating and the result was the war ended 50 weeks early. How many lives would that have saved? The 200,000 a week estimate was not a hard one; what about the east european civilians who got rolled over by the front once again? What about the death camp victims? It would have saved somewhere around ten million people, and it might possibly have cost us another world war. I think it was worth the risk, but apparently nobody important wanted to try it at the time.

So we fought them all the way across france and halfway across germany, while the russians fought them all the way across eastern europe and halfway across germany, spending something like 200,000 lives a week, lengthening the war. And even then how could we be *sure* that a secret nazi cabal wouldn't take over germany? The only way to be *sure* was to kill them all.

Posted by: J Thomas at January 24, 2005 11:24 AM

Sorry I missed that, J Thomas & enfant. I think I know enough about the war to say that a conditional surrender was HUGELY unlikely. In WW1, the German conditions for an early peace were outrageous, Belgium annexed, France crippled, Brest-Litovsk essentially affirmed. And that's when they weren't being led by a genocidal megalomaniac.

(N.b. that the German people, including the professoriat, in WW1 heartily endorsed their leaders' wild demands; Gordon Craig has the sad story in his "Germany 1866-1945.")

A serious push for negotiations might've encouraged a kill-Hitler plot, but more likely I think it would've been taken as a sign of weakness. I'm not saying that's what people always take such an offer as; I'm saying that's what WW2 German officers & leaders would have taken it as.

For the reasons you suggest, ending the war early didn't seem like an option at the time. We had done this all before, and didn't want to be doing it again. I don't question the need to push the war until Hitler was caught in his bunker with Berlin falling in over his head. I just question deliberate targeting of civilians, and I think we agree on that issue.

Posted by: Anderson at January 24, 2005 11:38 AM

Dennis, one time I needed two wisdom teeth pulled, and my dentist sent me to a specialist. The dental assistant did the anesthetic andcxhecked that it worked. The dentist came in, checked the x-rays, reached into my moutyh with pliers and pulled the teeth. It must have taken about ten seconds. I said, "I've never seen somebody make 900 dollars so fast." And he said, "If you'd told me you wanted them pulled slower I could have done it."

Once we assume that our side is completely right and the other side is completely wrong, and we assume that both sides are utterly opposed and will not stop fighting until one is completly defeated, then we cannot win until the other guys are reduced to total bleeding exhaustion, until they cannot do anything further to fight.

Things that slow the war are just prolonging the agony. There's a place for rules of war. For example, taking care of a wounded soldier costs the enemy more resources in the short run than burying a dead soldier. And there's a fair chance that the wounded soldier will not get rehabilitated and reach the front again before the war is over. So it doesn't really help the enemy to let them gather their wounded and take care of them. It only helps the wounded. So this is the sort of thing that even deadly enemies might agree to.

Similarly, they might agree to outlaw weapons that wouldn't help either side win but that would only increase casualties on both sides. What good does it do anybody for us to take 90% casualties while the enemy takes 90% casualties and after that no one is any closer to winning? It only helps the other enemies who are waiting to take on the winner.

And if the generals on both sides think they're smarter and their better tactics will win out, then they should agree to avoid things like poison gas. If the results depend on which way the wind happens to be blowing, why let the outcome happen by chance when it can depend on your superior tactics?

I think it's better to look for negotiated settlements in general, particularly when your side is stronger. You may not win as much, but it won't cost you as much either. Other nations might be more likely to start wars assuming that if it goes badly they can negotiate soft terms. But they won't fight so desperately in the belief that a defeat loses them everything. The easier war merges back into diplomacy the better. If nothing else, lots of little abortive wars will help keep armies from being surprised by new technology. Get a better idea how the new systems work before millions of lives are bet on them.

Posted by: J Thomas at January 24, 2005 12:12 PM

Arguing about the moral correctness of other people's past or present actions really doesn't get us anywhere. Two things are important:

1) To ensure that our own actions now and in the future are morally acceptable (and also effective)

2) Understanding the reasons for the actions of others. So for example, to say that Palestinian suicide bombers are "wrong" seems massively unhelpful; to discuss *why* they choose to undertake suicide attacks is much more interesting and relevant.

For the Allied area bombing, I think we understand why it was done in considerable detail: a lack of precision bombing capability, a strong desire to do *something*, an optimistic guess of the effect on civilian morale. You can label it right or wrong, but it won't make a damn bit of difference now.

On the other hand, if we can convince people that our current actions are "wrong", maybe we can change them. I sure hope so.

Posted by: Richard Cownie at January 24, 2005 12:15 PM

Anderson, I agree that we would have thought at the time that a conditional surrender would be unlikely. And furthermore we didn't want one. We wanted a complete unconditional surrender. We wanted Hitler hanged. Negotiating wasn't in our mindset at the time.

I think if the german leadership refused to negotiate, it wouldn't much matter whether they interpreted an offer as a sign of weakness. If it led them to discount D-Day that would be just fine. If they got encouraged into some stupid mistake that would be acceptable also. And there was no way they could improve their position if they felt encouraged that they weren't already doing.

The soldiers facing the russian hordes were stuck. If they surrendered they could expect to be killed. If they lost they could expect to be killed or put into a gulag, and the german women raped and maybe killed. No matter how bad it got they had nothing to lose by fighting except the chance to rest while waiting death. If they knew there was a solid offer to get them home, to protect their (old) borders from the soviets, to keep their women unraped -- it would look a lot better to them than to just keep losing. And things do start to filter up the chain of command, in time.

The most important problem is negotiation would be unpopular among our own people. Never mind the russians and the british, we wanted to crush the germans utterly. Never mind if it means an extra ten million or twenty million deaths. It was what we wanted.

Posted by: J Thomas at January 24, 2005 12:33 PM

From the perspective of someone who is born a Chinese, Hiroshima was the right thing to do -- every thing I read suggested that without the neclear bombs, the Japanese surrender would have needed at least same amount of Japanese casulty, plus roughly the same magnitude of American casulty, plus a bigger magnitude of Chinese and other Asian casualty.

War is hell ...

p.s. I am not very sympathetic to Japanese reminding the world about Hiroshima when they continue to elect leaders who still visit that shrine worshipping all those war criminals, not just the WWII ones ...

Posted by: pat at January 24, 2005 02:43 PM

From the perspective of someone who is not born Chinese, I have no sympathy for Chinese nationalists who complain about Japanese war deaths in China. Considering the Japanese killed far fewer Chinese than Mao did, it would be nice to see some Chinese nationalists comdemn him as well and the current Communist party, which is a direct descendant of Mao and still venerates him, not to mention the butchers of Tiananmen square.

It would also be nice if people who decried the Japanese invasion of China had some tears to shed for Tibetans and Uighers invaded by China. It might also be nice if they bothered to worry about the huge death toll a PRC invasion of Taiwan would entail.

Posted by: Hektor Bim at January 24, 2005 02:52 PM

The Kuomintang were defeating the Communists when the Japanese invaded in 1931. The 1% fo the Communist party that got away by the skin of their teeth to the east when the Kuomintang had to send their armies to the west to fight the Japanese were the ones responsible for Mao's famines.
On the other hand, the Kuomintang famines killed as many people. But they were children of peasants instead of landlords, so you probably consider them 'increased child mortality' instead of murders.

Posted by: walter willis at January 24, 2005 10:59 PM

Are you out of your mind!? Wouldn't there have been other targets than civilians that would have locked up German firepower!? Outrageous!

Posted by: Mats at January 25, 2005 12:14 AM

"Are you out of your mind!? Wouldn't there have been other targets than civilians that would have locked up German firepower!? Outrageous!"

Mats, the problem was that with the bombers we had, there weren't really other targets. Pick a small target and almost all of the bombs miss. So if we attacked a specific target in a city we'd probably miss the target but we'd bomb the city. Or if we attacked a specific target in the countryside we'd mostly miss the target but we'd bomb the countryside. (A partial exception was fuel storages and refineries, where a single bomb that hit might cause a great big fire.)

So we made a plan we could actually carry out, since the most obvious alternative was to disband the airforce which we were not willing to do.

"When your only tool is a strategic bomber, every problem looks like a city."

Posted by: J Thomas at January 25, 2005 05:53 AM

Anderson and J Thomas:

I was responding to the discussion as a whole, as much of it seemed to me to see just trees and not the forrest. I agree with much of JT's reasoning, except that I believe that Germans were so profoundly brainwashed by nazism that nothing short of a total and horrible defeat of the nation as a whole (not just its military) would have led to a peaceful and stable Europe. And, while we can't know what would have happened in an alternative universe, we do know one thing: that the 60 years since WW2 have been a historically unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in Europe.

Anyway, Richard is right: what counts is not how moral those bombings were, but what we have learned from them and how we can minimize recurrence of wars.

Posted by: enfant terrible at January 25, 2005 06:49 AM

But "the bombers [you] had" were deliberatly built for the missions you flew them on. The purpose, it seems, was to kill civilians. Would the objective have been to win the war, targets and weapons would probably have looked differently (you mention oil facilities). The point of trying to make up far fetched excuses after more than half a century seems as pointless to me as denying the holocaust.

Remember that the bombers you had did the same thing in Vietnam. Over that rural and underdeveloped country, most bombs fell on the countryside i guess, where one target was the irrigation system. Successful in making people starve to death, but did it help win the war?

Posted by: Mats Lind at January 25, 2005 08:10 AM

Mats, yes.

For a long time we've had a dream of winning wars with air power. I remember when I was a little kid I saw a prewar film on TV where at the end the good guys from the good country came in to clean up the mess. Suddenly the sky was full of airships and they dropped gas canisters and everybody settled gently down to the ground and went to sleep or something. I wanted to think they were sleeping and when they woke up the good guys would have diarmed the bad guys and made everything right. But I think the film ended at that point (or at least there was a commercia break) and I didn't see any more.

We tried using just airpower in china. It turned out that in those days airstrikes weren't enough to stop an advancing army. They could cause causalties but the army kept advancing. So when the enemy army got too close to the airbase the airbase had to be moved back, and then moved back again, and airpower wasn't decisive.

In vietnam the airforce thought they could interdict NVA supplies. But it turned out they couldn't destroy all the supplies; enough got through. Maybe if we'd been doing an aggressive campaign it might have worked. If we were attacking and they had to get so many tons of supplies to the front before we overran them the air force might have interdicted enough supplies for long enough.

Then we wanted to use strategic bomging as a bargaining chip. "If you stop attacking we won't bomb your cities." They responded by telling their people how to build bomb shelters on the assumption we were going to bomb them. We told our own people we were going to bomb their industry etc, not their civilians. I don't know what we actually did.

Now we have both cruise missiles and PGMs. Both let us get much more accurate bombing without risking human pilots. Both are somewhat expensive. If you use a hundred-thousand-dollar cruise missile you want to hit something that's worth what it cost, so that usually implies a minimum payload of explosive. You have a reasonable hope of hitting a particular building or even a particular part of a building. Something like half the time it goes off course and lands wherever, but that's a lot better than the WWII goal of landing within 5 miles of target. So we can attack specific targets even in cities and hope to hit them -- we don't have to target civilians. This was a big deal back when we had US arms inspectors traveling wherever they wanted in Saddam's iraq. Whenever they found a military target they took a GPS reading so it would be easy to send a cruise missile to it. Saddam naturally objected. We said he was violating the UN agreement unless we could go anywhere we wanted and sight our attacks. The UN agreed to do the inspections without US inspectors.

Sorry to be so wordy. I had a point in there somewhere. Here are a few points:

If you want a nice clean victory you need nice clean goals that you can achieve without using brutal dirty tactics.

If you pick on somebody your own size you usually can't expect a nice clean victory, and if each of you retaliates when the other fights a little dirtier you can expect it to get real dirty.

The more precise your weapons the better you can avoid killing innocent bystanders, but only when your targeting is very precise also.

Posted by: J Thomas at January 25, 2005 10:09 AM

Venturing a little off-topic, but relating to the question of how we value lives, I just read about the Gates Foundation's funding of vaccination programs. With $750M of BillG's money + $580M from other sources, they have achieved vaccinations estimated to save roughly 670K lives. That's a cost of $1985 per life saved.

At this rate the roughly $200B spent in Iraq would correspond to saving 100.8M lives with preventive health care (or 4x the population of Iraq).

So, throughout history war has always been really, really bad. With the USA's current focus on insanely expensive weapons and "force protection", we are incurring a truly enormous opportunity cost. With my little remaining spark of optimism I hope that the backlash against this stupidity may leave the USA with a moral foreign policy which makes a real attempt to do good with our huge resources.

Posted by: Richard Cownie at January 25, 2005 10:53 AM

Richard, if you're interested in faccines, with some risk we could vaccinate people a whole lot cheaper.

You list a cost of about $2000 per life saved. Partly that's because it's expensive to send people out to do vaccinations. The vaccines themselves are cheap in bulk, but the people are expensive. But the methods that have already been developed to build super-biological weapons could make a vaccine easy.

What you do is, you take a virus that spreads easily and you splice into it the antigens you want to protect against -- instead of the deadly virus you'd normally splice in. Then you can release it anywhere, say NYC, and watch it spread across the world. It doesn't have to infect everybody, anywhere 80% of the people are vaccinated most of the target diseases won't be able to spread. And even 40% can slow down an epidemic, which buys time to do something else.

There's the risk that the vector might mutate into something bad along the way. If you're willing to accept that risk you can vaccinate a whole lot of people very cheaply.

Posted by: J Thomas at January 25, 2005 01:54 PM

A few last remarks:

1. The argument that the bombing had a positive strategic effect is debatable, and has been challenged here by people who know the history better than I. It seems to me that, at least, if we are to undertake terrorism it is best to undertake it when we are certain of a positive outcome. Which, come to think of it is never, so I suppose we are best off simply renouncing terrorism. I hear echos of Boromir in your argument--"take the Ring and use it!" Only the price is the failure of your cause and the loss your soul.

2. "If Hitler was a monster--." Only in some metaphoric sense; he could not directly rule the hearts and minds of men. Without followers, he was a crank. Shall we say, therefore, that Germany was the monster? A defensible position, to be sure, but what people has not, in its history, committed monstrous acts? Monstrosity comes and goes, it seems.

3. As I understand it, the condition that Japan set was, simply, allowing the emperor to keep his symbolic position as divinely-descended ruler of Japan. Suppose, now, that as a condition of surrender, Italy had been asked to renounce Catholicism? Suppose the USA, in defeat, was asked to renounce its christianity? There would be many who would fight to the last man, woman, and child! All else, I believe, was negotiable; the USA could have asked the Japanese generals to fall on their swords and very likely they would have done so. The authority of the Emperor had waxed and waned throughout Japanese history; it would have been as reasonable to insist on a constitutional monarchy. But there was a failure of understanding, and the war dragged on, ending in our species's first nuclear assault.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz at January 25, 2005 09:52 PM

Randolph Fritz:

You write "As I understand it, the condition that Japan set was, simply, allowing the emperor to keep his symbolic position as divinely-descended ruler of Japan."

You are sorely misinformed (almost certinly not your fault). The minimum condition that anyone in the Japanese government actually had in mind prior to the atomic bombings was the preservation of the "kokutai" -- variously translated as "national polity", "national structure", or "the position of the Emperor". Under the Meiji Constitution this was in no way a symbolic position; by Western standards, it would be a stretch even to call it a constitutional monarchy. The Army and Navy reported directly to the Emperor, who had full power over their personnel appointments. He also had full power over the bureaucracy. The legislatures were essentially limited to voting on bills submitted by the bureaucracy, and approving budgets. You can read that constitution at http://history.hanover.edu/texts/1889con.html; it is quite brief. I recommend you also read "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan" by Bix (and if you can, "A Diary of Darkness" by Kiyosawa, translated by Soviak and Tamie).

Even after the dropping of the second bomb, the hardliners in the military insisted on the additional conditions that there be no occupation, and that Japan itself be the one to disarm its own troops and try its war criminals. Although descriptions in the popular literature make it seem that the meetings at which these issues were hashed out for the last time after Nagasaki were quick and simple, if you read the record carefully and note the start and end times, you will see that the arguments still went on for hours, through the course of several meetings.

Posted by: jm at January 25, 2005 10:56 PM

There are also territorial matters to consider. Up until the A-Bombs, the Japanese seem to have seriously believed that they would be allowed to retain possession of Korea. I recommend Edwin Hoydt's "Japan's War" for a japanese POV look at what was going on before and during the Pacific War.

Posted by: Steven Rogers at January 26, 2005 01:12 AM

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