A.C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities means to offer something like a formal moral and legal judgment on the (largely British and American) policy of using area bombing to destroy German and Japanese cities and kill their residents during World War Ⅱ.

Grayling meticulously describes how the policy of destroying cities developed and what goals it was meant to serve and how technology, the progress of the war, bureaucratic infighting, war theory, propaganda, and international posturing shaped and drove the policy.

He looks both at the reasoning applied by the policymakers during the war, and at subsequent actual and possible defenses and justifications for the policy. Against this he looks at the rather inchoate laws of war of the time, at the norms that though not formally coded into law were considered to be sufficiently self-evident to serve as the basis for the Nuremberg trials, and at subsequent attempts to formalize international law concerning the protection of civilian populations during war.

He also takes some time to describe what the area bombing campaigns looked like from the perspective of the crews that flew the missions and of the victims who lived in the cities being bombed. And he spends some time looking at the contemporary debate about the policy, and the work of some groups and individuals to temper it while it was being developed and deployed.

He concludes that by even the minimal legal standards and norms of just conduct during war, this policy was criminal and morally repugnant. Of the justifications offered for it, many are not justifications at all, while the ones that might be valid (largely variations on “the Allies were obligated to do whatever would be most effective to defeat such an evil threat”) fail on factual grounds: in particular, the area bombing campaigns were objectively ineffective failures at their ostensible goal of striking blows against the Axis war machines, particularly in comparison to other uses that could have been made by the Allies of the personnel, technology, and armaments involved.

Here he stops, with little more than a trite “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”-style reflection on the project. He addresses the culpability of the non-policy-making individuals who carried out the bombings in a single paragraph, says little to nothing about the larger public in its support for the campaign (or its ongoing justification of it), and only briefly nods at the fact that the major theory behind the area bombings — that anything that degrades the morale of the enemy’s civilian population is a valid war aim — is the same theory that animates the grandchild of Dresden and Hiroshima: “shock and awe.”

What must be done after this indictment has been handed down? Lots of passive voice stuff, sadly: a more honest appreciation of the character of the war needs be infused, a fact should be profoundly and frankly regretted, moral atrocities ought to be recognized, points should by now be maturely and dispassionately accepted, records should be gotten straight, and so forth.

That seems mighty weak stuff, considering that policies and weapons of mass destruction are far from things of the past, and individual decisions whether to support or oppose these policies are available to all of us. It will not be enough for us to wait until after the next war and then profoundly and frankly regret the massacres we ordered ahead of time.

Thanks to Kate Bondareva at Blog für die Wissenschaft for translating this review into French.

A reader has kindly translated the introduction to The Picket Line into Belorussian.

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