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.
Was that worth reading?
Then why not: