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Bombing & the Ethics of War

Modern warfare raises ethical questions about how the enemy’s soldiers and citizens should be treated. How should prisoners of war be treated? When they are interrogated, what sort of methods can be used to extract information? Is it ever legitimate to use force against prisoners – for instance, to secure information that will save the lives of your country’s soldiers? Are civilians legitimate objects of war? Is it ever acceptable to kill civilians in the course of battle? What difference does it make if that killing is incidental rather than intentional?

The National Film Board’s Death by Moonlight deals with many of these issues. As the documentary shows, bombing played a central part in the British (and therefore Canadian) and American war against Nazi Germany. Between 1939 and 1945, some 2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Germany. Many of these bombs destroyed oil facilities, railways, aircraft factories and other industrial targets, but many also fell on heavily populated German cities. Particularly under Sir Arthur Harris, the Commander-in-Chief of British Bomber Command (which took the bombing war to Germany) from 1942 to 1945, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force dropped bomb loads on the centres of German cities. The United States came to the war committed to bombing only industrial targets. As the war progressed, they too dropped bombs on cities because poor weather made industrial targets hard to find and because, in the latter stages of the war, they became frustrated with bombing’s failure to force the German army to capitulate. In both the American and Canadian/British bombing war (but above all in the latter), civilians were knowingly and willingly killed. By the end of the war, bombing had destroyed some 60 German cities, killed 593,000 people (most of them civilians) and cost the lives of 80,000 airmen (55,000 from Bomber Command, 36,000 from the United States). Most people were killed and cities destroyed in the last year of the war, when the capacity to bomb precisely was at its peak.

In the decades after the war, there has been an enduring controversy about the bombing, and above all the area bombing, of Germany. The debate has focused on two questions: 1) Was area bombing effective, i.e., did it undermine Germany’s ability to wage war? and 2) Was it immoral? The moral question is this: is it ever acceptable to deliberately bomb civilian populations? There are essentially four answers to this second question.

a) An absolutist answer holds that civilians are never just objects of war, since this position would violate both international law and the demands of morality. By this logic, the deliberate death of one civilian would not be justified even if it shortened the war drastically and saved many lives. Consequently, in this view, the city bombing of Germany was thoroughly unjustified.

b) An extreme relativist answer holds that in conditions of total war (as some say existed during World War II), there is little distinction between a soldier and a civilian, and any civilian whose efforts somehow contribute to his country’s war effort is a legitimate target for war. According to this standard, a campaign that ignored an enemy’s armies and targeted only its citizen would be just. Therefore, the entire World War II bombing campaign – including the destruction of Dresden – was wholly justified.
Between these two extremes, there are two positions that relate the morality of the bombing to the reasons for its adoption and/or to its consequences.

c) An instrumental or utilitarian approach argues that bombing civilians is just if it saves other people’s lives (both civilian and soldier). This is often the justification invoked for bombing Hiroshima: it saved up to a million or more soldiers and civilians who would have been killed in battle or through conventional American bombing of cities. The difficulty with this theory is that it favours some people’s right to live (those who are spared the invasion) over that of others (those who are killed by the atomic bomb).

d) The final approach (that of the political philosopher Michael Walzer) relates bombing to necessity. In this view, bombing civilians is only acceptable if there is no alternative: that is, if it was the only way to wage war against Nazi Germany. Based on this last view, the area bombing of German cities was only justified when there was no other way of hitting Germany: at the start of the war, before the United States and the Soviet Union entered the war.

One’s view about the ethics of bombing civilians depends largely on one’s moral point of view. That said, only the first and most extreme version would justify the bombing of civilians right through to the last year of the war. By any other standard, area bombing was, after some point in the war’s evolution, immoral.

Further Reading

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Randall Hansen, author and political scientist, considers the ethical issues raised by the bombing of Germany during World War II.
Randall Hansen is an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is author of Fire & Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942-1945 (Toronto: Doubleday, 2008) and has written on the topic for the National Post and Globe and Mail.