Book Review – Among the Dead Cities

Among the Dead Cities:
The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, by A. C. Grayling

A year ago, I was living in Hamburg, where everyday I passed by a sculpture depicting mangled and burned corpses scorched into a charred wasteland. It was a memorial that portrayed the destructive power of war, revealing the shock and horror unleashed upon a terrorized civilian population by Operation Gomorrah, the 1943 Allied bombing of Germany’s second largest city.

In Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, examines the deliberate Allied bombing of civilians, including the attack on Hamburg. He recounts how, commencing the night of July 24-25, 1943, and lasting a week and a half, over 9,000 tons of bombs reduced half of Hamburg to rubble, destroyed 30,480 buildings, killed at least 45,000 people, and produced over a million refugees. At the outset, Grayling asks whether this operation, and similar attacks on civilian targets in Germany and Japan during the Second World War, constitutes a war crime.

Towards that end, Grayling traces the history of the area bombing strategy (also known as carpet bombing or saturation bombing) before detailing its horrific effects upon German and Japanese civilians. He then examines the Allies’ objectives in using this strategy, demonstrates that it was controversial even while it was taking place, examines arguments against as well as arguments in favour of the policy, and concludes with a judgement on the morality of deliberately bombing civilian populations.

We soon learn that in the European theatre of war, Britain’s Royal Air Force Bomber Command carried out area bombing, while the United States Army Air Force, in contrast, focused its attacks on military and industrial targets, rather than the civilian population. In terms of helping to defeat the enemy, these divergent strategies were hardly comparable. US attacks on Germany’s supply of oil, for example, did much more to cripple the Nazi war machine than did Sir Arthur Harris’ strategy of intentionally killing civilians.

Although the US bombing strategy in Europe targeted the enemy’s war production, this was not true in its war against Japan. During the night of March 9-10, 1945, for example, 1,667 tons of incendiary were dropped on Tokyo, a city made of wood. Its citizens were completely unprepared for such an attack, and the number killed in that assault was even greater than those killed immediately following the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

In analyzing the bombing strategy, Among the Dead Cities provides many different perspectives, portraying those who planned the attacks, those who were opposed to the strategy, and the victims of the area bombing campaign who provided unforgettable first-person accounts. Describing of the bombing of Hamburg and the ensuing firestorm, civilians tell of charred bodies of adults shrunken to the size of infants, the bobbing corpses that filled the city’s canals, and the all-consuming fire that asphyxiated those victims who were not burned to death. The images are truly haunting:

Women and children were so charred as to be unrecognisable; those that had died through lack of oxygen were half charred and recognisable. Their brains tumbled from their burst temples and their insides from the soft parts under the ribs (p. 87).

Area bombing caused immense destruction; nevertheless, Grayling demonstrates that it was a gravely flawed military strategy. It was counter-productive, had unnecessarily caused the suffering and death of countless civilians, and may have prolonged the Second World War. Although Bomber Command had insisted this tactic would crush civilian morale, this did not happen, and ironically may have strengthened the enemy’s resolve to continue fighting. By the end of the Second World War, area bombing claimed 800,000 civilian lives, destroyed countless historical and cultural works, created monumental human misery, and yet did little to bring about the ultimate defeat of Germany and Japan.

In spite of these failures, the Allies so freely targeted civilian populations that some specific bombing missions may have been driven by a singularly pitiless and calculating objective. When the RAF bombed Dresden, it claimed that the German city was of strategic importance as a transport hub. In reality, however, the attack did not in fact target roads or the railway system. Grayling suggests that rather than disrupting transportation, the genuine intention behind the bombing of Dresden, a city of Baroque architecture packed with refugees fleeing the Soviet advance from the east, was to demonstrate to the Soviet Union the destructive power of the Western Allies. Similarly, it is possible that atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US simply to intimidate the Soviet Union.

The accumulation of evidence, including a history of diplomatic attempts to prohibit the intentional killing of civilians in wartime, leads Grayling to an extraordinarily damning judgment of the area bombing strategy. He asserts that the deliberate bombing of civilians was an immoral act of terror and would have been considered a war crime if the Allies had been judged by the same standards applied to Germany and Japan after the war. Even taking into account the horrific acts committed by the German and Japanese regimes during the Second World War, Allied terror attacks upon civilians were simply not justified. Furthermore, he suggests that the area bombing strategy is comparable to present-day terrorist attacks,

there comes to seem very little difference in principle between the RAF’s Operation Gomorrah, or the USAAF’s atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York by terrorists on 11 September 2001 (p. 278).

More than sixty years after the end of the Second World War, the Allies have yet to address the moral legacy of area bombing. Even as the US government claims to be fighting a “War on Terror,” it advocates the use of terror tactics by its armed forces. US bombing policy, Grayling informs us, still permits the deliberate targeting of civilians in order to weaken the enemy’s “will to fight.” This was the same flawed rationale used by the Allies to justify the killing of civilian populations in the Second World War.

Among the Dead Cities will disturb as well as inform the reader. This examination of the deliberate killing of civilians by the RAF and USAAF is long overdue. Without a doubt, it is one of the most important books released in the past year.

Grayling, A. C. (2007). Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan. Walker & Company.