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It Turns Out The Allies Weren't Perfect

(All week, we’re dedicating On Violence to Dresden, the most famous city destroyed in Germany. Today, Michael C answers the question, “Is Bombing Civilians in Wartime Ethical?” To read all our posts on A Week of Human Tragedy: The Firebombing of Dresden, please click here.)

Of the two questions haunting the “just war”-rior debate about Dresden, I want to tackle the harder question first: should we even be asking, questioning or Monday-morning-quarterbacking the decisions of our men in harm’s way? I deliberately staged this question to try to make it seem silly.

Whether it was a year ago or seventy years ago, our actions in war consequences. Actions have impacts. Actions can be ethical or unethical, in warfare and outside it.

Like the cliche about politics, ethics don’t end where warfare begins. From the beginning of warfare, historians have written about wars and second-guessed them. We might as well discuss the ethics of warfare while we are arguing over minute tactical and strategic details. To do otherwise seems like burying one’s head in the sand; it feels like moral relativity, or a lack of moral certitude, or moral cowardice. And Americans aren’t cowards, in battle or in ethical debates.

Of course, this whole discussion of ethics and morals presupposes that wars have an ethical component. Unlike “war is war”-iors, I think that’s true.

Let’s go back to Gulliver’s “The Air Bombing versus Machine Gun Hypothetical”. Imagining some American Colonel ordering his men to line up the people of a major German city to shoot them, it feels wrong. It feels innately wrong, ethically revulsive. As a logical starting point, then, we can agree that ethics don’t end when war begins.

Our psychology often influences our morality in ways that logic says it shouldn’t. Machine gunning civilians feels more wrong than dropping bombs at thousands of feet; the first is more personal than the second. Same with using say, bayonets as opposed to firing squads. This emotional reaction influenced the political and legal debates--even if emotionally--from WWII to the present day. (See Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman’s work on the levels of killing to truly understand the difference between bayonets, machine guns, grenades, and bombs.)

This has born itself out in philosophical research. Most humans would direct a runaway train towards the track with less people on it, to minimize damage, if say one track had one person and the other had ten. But when given the choice to kill one person to save ten, most people wouldn’t conduct the murder themselves. (This example was used in both Philosophy Bites and RadioLab.) 

So psychologically, emotionally, we feel different about two cases that are remarkably similar. The difficulty with judging the actions of Dresden--and A.C. Grayling confronts this time and again in his book--is moving past our innate psychological feelings and towards raw logic. We also need to remove the gauze of patriotism from our eyes to examine this issue dispassionately, not as patriots or Americans or traitors, whatever the label.

To debate the ethics of bombing civilians, we need to ask two questions: why did they die? and was it proportional? First, motivation. In a time when bombing runs were excessively inaccurate, targeting factories was difficult. But we know, and the officers at the time admitted this, that the bombings of Dresden and other cities in Germany, then later in Japan, were not done to eliminate the means of production. They were done to destroy the cities and the inhabitants therein. They meant to kill civilians, not military targets.

(Some documents suggest the plan was to de-house all the Germans so they wouldn’t have places to live. No one told the Germans and Japanese to leave their homes, and the officers in charge knew they would be in their homes during nighttime bombing runs. Vis a vis, they knew the bombing runs would kill massive amounts of civilians.)

That makes their actions ethically unjust.

The second key element is proportionality. Perhaps firebombing entire cities was the only way to destroy factories. Just wars rely on proportionality to stay just in execution. We weigh the deaths of civilians versus the perceived military gains. Destroying whole cities did not need to happen. Proportionally, there was nothing to gain.

Is this an uncomfortable truth? Yes. Does it suck to say that America and Britain didn’t conduct WWII ethically perfectly? Kind of, but show me the military historian who says we fought those wars tactically perfect. So if we didn’t fight them tactically perfect, it makes sense we probably didn’t fight them ethically perfect either. As this Onion article makes light of, the job of history is to learn from past mistakes. If we, as a society, can truly understand why targeting civilians is wrong, that is so much the better. We will have evolved.

five comments

On the ending, if you read about the bombings and artillery used against some Iraqi cities—I’m thinking particularly of the Marines shooting 3,000 artillery shells into a city of 20,000—and conclude we have not learned the lessons of history. At all.


My personal view is that individuals are responsible for the anticipated consequences of their choice of action. So for me an important question is whether those in charge of the bombing of Dresden had reason to anticipate the firestorm that resulted from the bombing. Is there good evidence that the planners knew that a firestorm might result from the bombing (regardless of whether or not that was an intent of the raid)? As firebombing was not uncommon during the war but firestorms were, I assume it safe to say that at the very least the planners did not know how to engineer a firestorm with any degree of certainty.


I would agree, except for the sheer amount of munitions leveled on the city (In four raids, altogether 3,600 planes, of which 1,300 were heavy bombers, dropped as many as 650,000 incendiaries, together with 8,000 lb. high-explosive bombs and hundreds of 4,000-pounders.)

And I believe the city, as most preserved old cities, still had a lot of wooden buildings, or buildings with a lot of wood architecture.

It is a very good point though.


I will also say that AC Grayling ignores the issue of Dresden in favor of a different city. He makes the same argument though and argues that it applies to targeting civilian population centers.

I still believe the planners intended to level huge parts of Dresden knowing the deaths that would result. It isn’t easy to say, therefore you are ethically responsible. But. But. You have to.


While I believe that that the bombing of Dresden was unwarrented and likely contributed little to the defeat of the Third Reich, I also think that this tragic action should be understood in the context of the Second World War.

In a word, escalation is the reason for the raid happening. RAF bomber command changed from a flegeling force into an unbelievably destructive instrument by the end of the war. In general I think it can be said that the level of violence was far greater during 1943-45 than from 1939-42, and the Dresden raid, happening in February 1945, is an example of how destructive the war had become. While defeats and see-sawing successes in land warfare were the norm for the Allies up until, and even after the US entry into the war, efforts at increasing the effectivness (destructivness) of aerial bombing were one of the only ways that England could actually attack Germany.
With Germany almost defeated by February 1945, there was really little real justification for the raid.

Unlike ground troops ordered to murder civillians, such as the German Einsatzgruppen, the Allied airmen were in harms way while on bombing missions. Losses of aircrews in Bomber Command where the highest per capita of any arm of service, and this alone separates (in my opinion) aircrews on bombing raids from the German murder squads or Lt Calley’s unit in Vietnam. While they were dropping bombs on people, they were being shot at themselves.

I believe a closer analogue for Allied bomber crews would be the U-boat crews of the German Navy.
They too had a huge attrition rate, and they too, often attacked civillian merchant ships in the effort to cut supplies to England and the USSR.
Few today would call the U-Boat crews pirates or murderers.