Bravely Bombing the Boche: On the Morality of Killing Civilians in Time of War (2012), by Sean Gabb

Bravely Bombing the Boche:
On the Morality of Killing Civilians in Time of War
By Sean Gabb
(Published in The Libertarian Enterprise, October 2012)

I have just read a story in The Daily Mail about Bomber Command – that is, the RAF unit responsible for levelling much of Germany in the second world war. Apparently, the surviving veterans aren’t able to pay for the monument they put up this year to commemorate their efforts. The members of the relevant committee may be personally liable to cover these costs.

It that doesn’t get us shouting for taxpayer funding, the newspaper article tells us that “[t]he bravery of Bomber Command can be summed up by a single, miserable statistic: almost half did not survive the war. No other unit could claim such a deplorable life expectancy. They’d have been safer sitting at home playing Russian roulette with a loaded pistol.”

Well, I’m sick of this endless war porn. Bravery is not in itself praiseworthy. It takes bravery of a sort to go about strangling little girls, and none at all to hang the swine afterwards. We have it on judicial authority that it takes bravery to burgle a house. I think Himmler said something about the bravery of his execution squads in Russia – and it does take more than average firmness of mind to murder people in cold blood. Bravery is not the same as heroism. The men of Bomber Command might have brought less discredit to this country had they stayed at home and played Russian roulette.

I don’t regard showering enemy civilians with high explosive as a particularly heroic act. I think far better of one of my grandfathers. He volunteered for the Navy in 1939, and was at the Dunkirk Evacuation. He went missing for several days, after he’d given up his place in a boat to a wounded soldier. That was heroism. He helped scuttle the French fleet, and killed a French sailor who tried to put a knife in his back. I suppose that was heroism, and it was in the glorious tradition of Trafalgar and the Nile. He sowed the Atlantic with depth charges, and tough luck German submariners. He spent time in the Eastern Mediterranean, though doing what I never did learn. He did convoy duty to Murmansk – which involved heroism, whatever you may think of our Soviet allies. His ship went down at the Casablanca Landings, with him still on it, which was simply unfortunate. But he deserves to be called a hero. If he did his bit in a questionable war, those he killed were all in uniform, and they could and would have killed him had the fortune of battle gone differently. And thanks to some loophole in his terms of service, my grandmother had to take the British State to the very courthouse steps to get her war widow’s pension.

Now, there are two standard arguments against this view. The first is that terror bombing broke German morale and ended the war early. The second is that, regardless of how it made them feel, the Germans “had it coming to them.” They voted for Hitler. They fought in his armies and staffed his concentration camps. They looked forward to running the world if he had won. Or, if they didn’t give positive support, they failed to overthrow him. They deserved those Hamburg firestorms.

The first argument is easily dealt with. Given a just cause, it is not wrong to kill men in uniform. It is regrettable but perhaps not wrong to kill limited numbers civilians when they stand in the way of a legitimate military target, hitting which will – reasonably considered – shorten the overall sufferings of war. This does sort of endorse what is nowadays called “collateral damage.” We can only denounce this in principle if we also denounce war itself. If, though, we accept the need for war – subject to various limitations too long, and also perhaps too obvious, to list – we must also accept the fact of civilian casualties. But what I have in mind here is, in traditional terms, the civilian population of a fortified town under siege: these will be starved by the siege, and sometimes hit by stray projectiles intended for the walls or citadel. In modern terms, I mean the drivers and staff of railway trains when their line is bombed, or perhaps the French civilians who found themselves in the way of the D Day landings. I do not mean the deliberate – or at best callously negligent – disregard for civilian life shown in our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya. Looking now at the terror bombing of Germany, it is absolutely wrong to target civilian populations for the purpose of breaking an enemy’s will to continue fighting. That is barbarism. It is something denounced by Christian and Islamic theologians, and by natural law philosophers. Most of the time, even the more gloating and unpleasant neoconservatives avoid making their dissent from this position too plain.

The second point is worth some examination. The claim that the German people deserved punishment for having supported Hitler is based on the assumption that they were all in it together. This is untrue. The majority of Germans didn’t vote for Hitler even in the partly rigged election of 1933. Indeed. Hitler got about a third of the possible German vote. Why these people voted for him is hard to say, but probably had something to do with a hope that the Nazis would be less awful than the Communists, and the fact that the respectable parties didn’t know what to do about the economic collapse. At most, that third of adult Germans might have hoped for a revision of the Versailles Settlement. No posters went up saying: “Vote Hitler for Another World War.”

We can suppose that many of those third changed their minds afterwards. Perhaps many of the other two thirds also changed their minds. But no one was ever fairly asked after 1933 what he thought about Hitler’s performance. Anyone who did grumble too loud in public soon learned to keep his mouth shut. The concentration camps were open to all.

We also need to bear in mind that, by 1939, no one under the age of 28 had ever been given a chance to vote for or against Hitler. By 1945, it was no one under the age of 34. And many of the children incinerated in the big Hamburg raid may not even have known exactly who Hitler was.

Even assuming the rightness of holding a population responsible for its government’s actions, it’s hard to show that Hitler enjoyed the solid support of anything like the majority of Germans.

And, if he had, the doctrine of collective responsibility still stinks. It was probably right to punish individual concentration camp personnel, and other Germans who had taken part in or ordered atrocities. Perhaps not enough account was taken in the trials of duress. But obedience to lawfully given orders was rightly held to be no defence. But holding every German responsible for Hitler in general is as outrageous as holding every Jew now alive responsible for the Crucifixion.

Let’s imagine this possible communiqué from al Qa’eda: “The Infidel population and the politicians they elected knew well the likely response from within the House of Islam. Yet, swollen with pride, they unleashed their bombs and their mercenaries upon our lands. They had ample chance to pull back afterwards, and to make amends. They had seen the hopelessness of their defences against our just revenge. Yet, wilfully believing their lies, the Infidels still voted for their politicians. What right, therefore, have they to bleat when our Brothers filled the London Underground with poison gas?”

Most people would call this terrorism. But the principle is exactly the same as blaming the Germans for Hitler and endorsing the terror bombing campaign against German cities. Or the principle may be less absurd in the hypothetical case. In England and America, we can at least complain about what our governments are doing in our name. We don’t get put in concentration camps, or beaten to death in a police cell, if we denounce our rulers as murderers and call for them to be driven from office. We have no effect on what our rulers do, and cannot be held responsible for what they do. But al Qa’eda has a better point than the defenders of Bomber Command.

For the record, no criticism of our own side excuses the German ruling class in the second world war. But I do think it’s time to give up on the sophistry of a “war for civilisation” that left two atomic rubble heaps and most of the Eurasian landmass under Marxist tyranny. We didn’t even save the Poles in the end.

© 2012 – 2017, seangabb.

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One thought on “Bravely Bombing the Boche: On the Morality of Killing Civilians in Time of War (2012), by Sean Gabb

  1. seangabb Post author

    If only the moral character of the strategic bombing offensives undertaken by the Allies during World War Two were that simple.

    Whenever I read second-guessing about whether there had been justification for the indiscriminate aerial attacks upon civilian populations during that conflict, I know for certain that the authors of these exercises in after-the-fact hand wringing know nothing whatsoever about the realities of warfare, particularly as these realities manifested in the 19th and 20th Century guerre à l'outrance involving the mobilizations of whole nations in arms.

    There's truth in the old saying that amateurs consider warfare as tactics while professionals focus on logistics.  Let's try to rise above the question of whether the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian population centers is moral and ask instead to what extent the actions of Bomber Command (and the strategic bombardment assets of the U.S. Army Air Forces) had any effect upon the outcome of hostilities in Europe from 1939 through 1945. 

    The war-waging assets of the Luftwaffe were of enormous importance to the military success of Nazi Germany and the Axis powers subordinate to NSDAP operations and objectives.  In every theater of action where those men and machines were able to function without effective opposition, ground warfare was conducted to the overwhelming advantage of the German Wehrmacht

    To resist Nazi attack and to defeat Axis arms in the field, the aerial combat capability of Germany and its allies had to be engaged, countered, degraded, and destroyed.  No question about that.  But how to do it?  Particularly in the years immediately following the fall of France, there was no way for the Western allies to engage land warfare that posed a direct danger to the Nazi heartland, and therefore bring the Luftwaffe to battle.

    This gave German (and other Axis) military aviation assets the liberty to attack and defend wherever needed.  Historically illiterate hand-wringers have no goddam idea how mobile were tactical air forces during World War Two.  The flexible firepower conferred by the German Luftflotte was an advantage the German general staff officers again and again proved themselves capable of leveraging.

    Leaving the Wehrmacht commanders the freedom to shift the bases of these bombers and fighters from one point of attack or defense to another was simply not an option.  They had to be fixed in place, forced to fight, and if not utterly destroyed, they had to be prevented from making their impact felt against Allied offensives elsewhere. 

    And offensive warfare against the Axis had to be undertaken. The strategic defensive can't win a war.  You must attack. 

    Military aviation is over a century old, and throughout these decades, combat fliers have understood the concept of "the Golden BB."  Every aircraft is vulnerable to a single projectile properly placed.  One bullet, one scrap of shrapnel, one goddamned bird hitting an airplane in one key location can and will bring it down. 

    The Nazi Luftwaffe was a hideously potent tool at the command of the Axis military, but it was relatively fragile and it was unspeakably expensive to build and operate, both in terms of material resources and skilled personnel.  Force the Nazi high command to commit those men and materiel to defensive operations in areas far removed from the battlefield, put enough "Golden BBs" in the air against them, and it becomes possible to deprive the Nazi war machine of that deadly capacity.

    The strategic aerial offensive against the Axis wasn't simply engaged against the enemy's industrial war-waging capabilities but also to compel the diversion of aircraft, guns, technical expertise, and manpower to increasingly costly defensive operations.  Every gun crew member manning a Flak battery throwing shells at Bomber Command aircraft, night after night, was not available to support an artillery unit in the field, firing howitzer shells at attacking Allied ground troops. Every German fighter pilot engaged against Lancasters and Liberators over the Fatherland was not available for battlefield air superiority missions anywhere else. 

    Axis combat air power could not be left unengaged.  Bomber Command had to cross the Channel and the North Sea, night after night, to slaughter and be slaughtered, just as the men of the Eighth and Ninth and Fifteenth U.S. Air Forces had to go forth by day.  They had to draw the Luftwaffe into a defensive fight, giving the Nazi generals no choice but to expend their material and human resources, to feed their combat strength into the fire over their homeland, both to prevent its use against the Allied armies and to destroy it by attrition. 

    The Luftwaffe had to be drawn into battle, and the only way to accomplish this was to make of the entire Nazi homeland – all their cities, all their industries, all their transportation net, the whole of their power grid, everything – Sun Tzu's "deadly ground."

    As for "morality," well….  Inter armes, silent leges, and there's an end to it.

    Win and you can wring your hands afterwards.  Lose, and the enemy will leave no eye open to weep.