Bravely Bombing the Boche: The Morality of Killing Civilians


Note: I know this has been done to death already on the LA Blog. But here is the essay, expanded and republished by L. Neil Smith. SIG

Bravely Bombing the Boche:
The Morality of Killing Civilians

by Sean Gabb

Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

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

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

Well, I’m sick of this endless war porn. Bravery is not in itselfpraiseworthy. It takes bravery of a sort to go about stranglinglittle girls, and none at all to hang the swine afterwards. We haveit on judicial authority that it takes bravery to burgle a house. Ithink Himmler said something about the bravery of his executionsquads in Russia – and it does take more than average firmness ofmind to murder people in cold blood. Bravery is not the same asheroism. The men of Bomber Command might have brought less discreditto this country had they stayed at home and played Russian roulette.

I don’t regard showering enemy civilians with high explosive as aparticularly heroic act – and one of my great uncles by marriage wasin the Dambusters Raid. I think far better of one of my grandfathers.He volunteered for the Navy in 1939, and was at the DunkirkEvacuation. He went missing for several days, after he’d given up hisplace in a boat to a wounded soldier. That was heroism. He helpedscuttle the French fleet, and killed a French sailor who tried to puta knife in his back. I suppose that was heroism, and it was in theglorious tradition of Trafalgar and the Nile. He sowed the Atlanticwith depth charges, and tough luck German submariners. He spent timein the Eastern Mediterranean, though doing what I never did learn. Hedid convoy duty to Murmansk – which involved heroism, whatever youmay think of our Soviet allies. His ship went down at the CasablancaLandings, with him still on it, which was simply unfortunate. But hedeserves to be called a hero. If he did his bit in a questionablewar, those he killed were all in uniform, and they could and wouldhave killed him had the fortune of battle gone differently. Andthanks to some loophole in his terms of service, my grandmother hadto take the British State to the very courthouse steps to get her warwidow’s pension.

Now, there are two standard arguments against this view. The first isthat terror bombing broke German morale and ended the war early. Thesecond is that, regardless of how it made them feel, the Germans “hadit coming to them.” They voted for Hitler. They fought in his armiesand staffed his concentration camps. They looked forward to runningthe 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 isnot wrong to kill men in uniform. It is regrettable but perhaps notwrong to kill limited numbers civilians when they stand in the way ofa legitimate military target, hitting which will—reasonablyconsidered—shorten the overall sufferings of war. This does sortof endorse what is nowadays called “collateral damage.” We can onlydenounce this in principle if we also denounce war itself. If,though, we accept the need for war—subject to various limitationstoo long, and also perhaps too obvious, to list—we must alsoaccept the fact of civilian casualties. But what I have in mind hereis, in traditional terms, the civilian population of a fortified townunder siege: these will be starved by the siege, and sometimes hit bystray projectiles intended for the walls or citadel. In modern terms,I mean the drivers and staff of railway trains when their line isbombed, or perhaps the French civilians who found themselves in theway of the D Day landings. I do not mean the deliberate—or at bestcallously negligent—disregard for civilian life shown in ourinvasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya. Looking now at theterror bombing of Germany, it is absolutely wrong to target civilianpopulations for the purpose of breaking an enemy’s will to continuefighting. That is barbarism. It is something denounced by Christianand Islamic theologians, and by natural law philosophers. Most of thetime, even the more gloating and unpleasant neoconservatives avoidmaking their dissent from this position too plain.

The second point is worth some examination. The claim that the Germanpeople deserved punishment for having supported Hitler is based onthe assumption that they were all in it together. This is untrue. Themajority of Germans didn’t vote for Hitler even in the partly riggedelection of 1933. Indeed. Hitler got about a third of the possibleGerman vote. Why these people voted for him is hard to say, butprobably had something to do with a hope that the Nazis would be lessawful than the Communists, and the fact that the respectable partiesdidn’t know what to do about the economic collapse. At most, thatthird of adult Germans might have hoped for a revision of theVersailles Settlement. No posters went up saying: “Vote Hitler forAnother World War.”

We can suppose that many of those third changed their mindsafterwards. Perhaps many of the other two thirds also changed theirminds. But no one was ever fairly asked after 1933 what he thoughtabout Hitler’s performance. Anyone who did grumble too loud in publicsoon learned to keep his mouth shut. The concentration camps wereopen to all.

We also need to bear in mind that, by 1939, no one under the age of28 had ever been given a chance to vote for or against Hitler. By1945, it was no one under the age of 34. And many of the childrenincinerated in the big Hamburg raid may not even have known exactlywho Hitler was.

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

And, if he had, the doctrine of collective responsibility stillstinks. It was probably right to punish individual concentration camppersonnel, and other Germans who had taken part in or orderedatrocities. Perhaps not enough account was taken in the trials ofduress. But obedience to lawfully given orders was rightly held to beno defence. But holding every German responsible for Hitler ingeneral is as outrageous as holding every Jew now alive responsiblefor the Crucifixion.

Let’s imagine this possible communiqué from al Qa’eda: “TheInfidel population and the politicians they elected knew well thelikely response from within the House of Islam. Yet, swollen withpride, they unleashed their bombs and their mercenaries upon ourlands. They had ample chance to pull back afterwards, and to makeamends. They had seen the hopelessness of their defences against ourjust revenge. Yet, wilfully believing their lies, the Infidels stillvoted for their politicians. What right, therefore, have they tobleat when our Brothers filled the London Underground with poisongas?”

Most people would call this terrorism. But the principle is exactlythe same as blaming the Germans for Hitler and endorsing the terrorbombing campaign against German cities. Or the principle may be lessabsurd in the hypothetical case. In England and America, we can atleast complain about what our governments are doing in our name. Wedon’t get put in concentration camps, or beaten to death in a policecell, if we denounce our rulers as murderers and call for them to bedriven from office. We have no effect on what our rulers do, andcannot be held responsible for what they do. But al Qa’eda has abetter point than the defenders of Bomber Command.

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

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7 responses to “Bravely Bombing the Boche: The Morality of Killing Civilians

  1. From Rich Matarese, responding to the version on The Libertarian Enterprise:

    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.

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  2. I think that Sean Gabb’s basic point, opposition the policy if “Area” bombing, is correct – the conventional bombing of German (and Japanese – it is often forgotten that conventional bombing in Japan killed more people than the atomic bombs did) cities did not achieve the results that were predicted for it, but it did kill vast numbers of civilians.Therefore the policy should not be defended – on either practical or moral grounds. This does not that men of Bomber Command were not very brave and self sacrificing (and, of course, to compare them to the cowardly sadists who made up Himmler’s Execution Squads is stupid),

    However, the article is spoilt. For example, Sean refers to “the German ruling class”, if he means the National Socialists with their ideology of world conquest and the extermination or enslavement of “inferior races” (National Socialist “social justice” being confined to members of their own “race”), then that is what he should say. Not use the waffle term “ruling class”.

    Also there is the wild language – “disregard for civilian life in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya” (or words to that effect). In reality many Western military people have lost their lives because of “rules of engagement” in Afghanistan and Iraq rules that are there because of fears of civilain deaths. In neither operation was there a policy of targeting civilians, indeed quite the contrary. In fact it is the Islamists who had (and still have) a policy of targeting civilians in Iraq (civilians are still being killed in Iraq – almost every day).

    I supported the Afghan operation (and now bitterly regret doing so), and I opposed the Iraq operation. On Libya I did not take a position – but to imply (as Sean does) that there was a policy of reckless disregard for civilian lives in the case of Libya is so wrong as to be absurd – it is the exact opposite of the truth, as the cause for the Libyan operation was the desire to protect civilians lives from attack by the socialist (Little Green Book) dictator of Libya.

    As for the attack on “neocons”……

    It is best to be specific and say something like “I oppose those who hold a Woodrow Wilson type view that war is justified by the desire to spread democracy”, just saying “neocons” or “neoconservatives” is not helpfull. Especially as the term “neocon” is used by modern socialists (both of the Marxist and the National Socialist types) to mean “jew” (“noncons” meaning “jews” – much as the Nazis and Communists used to say “cosmopolitan” when they meant “jew”). I must stress that I am not suggesting that Sean Gabb is using the word “neocon” this way – but a few words, “by neocon I mean someone who believes that war is justified by the desire to spread democracy”, would be better.

  3. Bomber Command were heroes.The enemy had it coming.I wish we’d had a lot of Atom Bombs a lot earlier-enough to hit Germany and Russia as well as Japan.

  4. 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.

    Rich Matarese appears to confuse laws with morality.

    As for the winning first point, personally I can see the force of that “end justifies the means” argument (though I’m not sure if I agree entirely with it).

    I just hope he’s not one of those commonplace whingeing hypocrite Americans who pontificate about winning being all that matters and then cry like little babies about how evil the 9/11 or Pearl Harbor attacks were……

    Let’s try to rise above the question of whether the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian population centers is moral and ask instead

    Nice try. But let’s not.

  5. Tickled to see Mr Marks criticising someone for their use of “wild language”. That is your calling card, sir!

    “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”

    What arrogant, what belligerent posturing! Whenever – that is, ANY time – the decision to kill civilians indiscriminately is questioned, Rich Matarese “knows” that those asking the questions are less in tune with Reality than himself. Can he think of a SINGLE example in which the indiscriminate killing of civilians was actually wrong? If so, what “reality” does he appeal to then?

  6. Carl I have never compared Bomber Command to Himmler’s cowardly (they never lost a single man on a killing operation – the slightest hint or rumour that they might be facing armed people and they ran away) Execution Squads (who were sadists as well as cowards).

    I said (and I still say) that the purpose of politics is to prevent enemies fighting it out with weapons (rather than votes) – that one should reject the emotional satisfaction of cutting the throat of an enemy (for example Kevin Carson). Nothing “wild” about that – and I stand by it. Although, of course, if Kevin Carson ever tried to use force to put his eat-the-rich ideas into practice I certainly would have no problem with his throat being cut – if that is what he was trying to do to others.

    Nor did I pretend that that there was a “reckless disregard for civilian lives” in the Afghan, Iraqi or Libyan operations (which Sean just has).

    That does not mean that these operations were good ideas – but one can oppose them without using untrue statements.

    Mark Taha.

    I agree that the Bomber Command were heros – but how does that make the policy of “Area Bombing” correct?

    Half of the people who went on these missions were killed – is that a good thing?

    And what about the Germans?

    Yes the Germans – including the women and children.

    Did they deserve to burn alive?

    Jewish “U.boats” (i.e. Jews hiding in German cities – who were first hand observers of the horror) did not think so – as they helped bury the bodies of those burned to death (including babies).

    Who are we to disagree with those who actually observed the results of Area Bombing?

    Or are we to pretend that Jewish observers (who would have been sent to the gas chambers if discovered) are someone biased in favour of the National Socialists?

  7. “[T]he bravery of Bomber Command can be summed up by a single, miserable statistic: almost half did not survive the war. … They’d have been safer sitting at home playing Russian roulette with a loaded pistol.”

    Not if their home was in Dresden…