Friday, February 01, 2019

Illustrating one aspect of morality regarding Allied aerial bombing in WW II: The case of Dresden

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Responsibility for a direct wrongdoing is not diluted simply because there are more people doing it. — Chiara Lepora and Robert E. Goodin 

General Background—
“As in World War I, at the beginning of World War II, both Britain and Germany initially refrained from aerial attacks on civilians. However, in a repeat scenario, both sides deliberately increased their revenge bombing of civilian quarters in major cities following inaccurate bombings of military targets. The German forces conducted Operation Blitz for almost nine months from September 1940, attacking London, Conventry, Birmingham, Manchester, and many other English cities, killing 60,000 civilians and destroying more than 2 million homes. On September 11, 1940, Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that this aerial bombing operation would be decisive in forcing the British government to surrender. 

In revenge, the RAF [British Royal Air Force] started night raids on industrial cities in the Ruhr region in October 1940. However, aerial attacks on German civilians really expanded in February 1942 when Arthur Harris took over the RAF Bomber Command. Lübeck, a cultural city with no military importance, became the first target of Harris’s new strategy, ‘area bombing.’ Cologne was then attacked with more than 1,000 planes. Other cities, such as Essen, Kiel, Stuttgart, Mannheim, Rostock, and Berlin, were also targeted. In February 1943, Harris pronounced that the morale of the German population in the bombed areas had reached an all-time low and that, if the RAF continued bombing, surrender could be expected in the very near future. Night raids continued on many German cities, including Hamburg, where 7,000 tons of bombs were dropped and about 45,000 people were killed. Yet there was no sign of surrender by the Nazi regime.

The RAF then began to target Berlin, bombing the city sixteen times between November 1943 and March 1944, while continuing to bomb other German cities. Still Harris’s expectation of Nazi surrender was not fulfilled. On the contrary, the Germans started employing new weapons of indiscriminate killing—V-1 and V-2 rockets. More than 9,500 V-1 rockets were launched killing about 6,200 people. About 1,100 V-2 rockets reached various parts of England, killing 2,700 and injuring 6,500 people. Claiming again that the Germans were on the verge of a collapse in morale, Harris stepped up aerial attacks. In February 1945, the Bomber Command flew 17,500 sorties and dropped 47,750 tons on German cities. Between February 13 and 15, Dresden was heavily bombed for the first time by the RAF, this time together with the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF). During the fourteen-hour raid, massive quantities of incendiaries burned large areas of this city, which housed no military facility, and killed an estimated 25,00 to 30,000 people [the figure was probably closer to 35,000 people].

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The USAAF, led by Ira Eaker, entered the bombing campaign in Europe in August 1942. Despite repeated requests to join in low-altitude night bombing, the USAAF adhered to its traditional strategy, i.e., so-called precision bombing in daylight from a high altitude, using the Norden bombsight. In reality, ‘precision bombing’ was a euphemism, as the bombs regularly fell at least a quarter mile from the target. It is not surprising, therefore, that the USAAF killed not only German civilians, but also many Allied civilians of German-occupied cities such as Paris, Nantes, Lille, Lorient, and Amsterdam. From November 1943, U.S. bombers started ‘blind bombing,’ by which was meant that advances in radar technology would enable even a blind bombardier to accurately hit the desired target. In fact, due to technical limitations, the bombing became yet more random and indiscriminate. Eaker shared the optimism of Arthur Harris that the British and U.S. cooperative bombing campaign was destroying German morale. Dissatisfied with the results of precision bombing by the 8th U.S. Bomber command, however, General Henry Arnold reorganized the USAAF in Europe and set up the United States Strategic Air Forces in December 1943. Eaker was demoted, and Carl Spaartz became head of the USSF. 

U.S. strategy moved steadily from precision bombing to blind bombing throughout the years 1943 to 1945, i.e., to bombing that was increasingly indiscriminate in practice. In the four months between September 1 and December 31, 1944, the USSF dropped more than 140,000 tons of bombs on ‘major targets,’ 60 percent of them in blind bombing. Only 674 tons were used for precision bombing in the strict sense. Blind bombing increased to 80 percent of the entire U.S. bombing campaign between October 1944 and the end of the war in Europe in May 1945. In February 1945, U.S. forces, together with the RAF, conducted Operation Clarion, in which numerous German towns and villages were bombed from a low altitude in order to demoralize the populace. It was an operation totally devoid of tactical value. In short, U.S. air attacks in Europe had become mostly ‘area bombing,’ with no serious attempt to limit damage to military targets. [….]

… [B]y the end of the war, 131 German towns and cities had been bombed, and approximately 600,000 German civilians had been killed by ‘strategic bombing.’”

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“… [In early 1944 the British Air Ministry conceived of a plan code-named Thunderclap], aimed at saturating the core of Berlin with so many bombs that the raid would utterly destroy the administrative center of Germany and at the same time make an indelible impression on millions of people nearby who would witness the attack, which was to be made in daylight. American aircraft, using precision bombsights, were to concentrate 5,000 tons of bombs in two hours in a two-and-a-half-mile area. This would be followed by a British area attack. Bomber Command expected the operation to kill or seriously injure about 275,000 persons and might even precipitate German collapse—or so it was hoped. [….] The Thunderclap proposal elicited considerable controversy among lower-ranking AAF officers in the United States Strategic Air Force (USSTAF), especially among a group of intelligence officers who questioned the morality of what one of them called ‘baby killing schemes.’ [….] 

On February 3, 1945, General Spaatz sent 900 B-17s to attack Berlin. In less than an hour, the AAF dropped more than 6,000 high-explosive bombs, 1,000 air mines, and about the same number of incendiary canisters. This raid killed somewhat fewer than 3,000 people, and it did not produce the result that Thunderclap’s planners desired, for it did not push Germany over the brink. It did not become the best-remembered operation of the European war. That distinction went to the fire raid on Dresden, capital of Saxony.

Dresden was a great cultural center with magnificent buildings and artworks, relatively undamaged by previous bombing. Like Coventry, it contained several military targets, including a Zeiss Ikon optical factor and numerous workshops scattered among its streets, many converted from civilian production, that manufactured items used in the German military machine. How aware the Allies were of these shops is uncertain but, whether the Allies knew it or not, Dresden’s economy was woven into the Nazi system of war making and extermination. What chiefly made it a target were its railroad installations, used by tens of thousands of citizens to escape the advance of the Soviet army. [….] 

On February 13-14, 1945, two waves of British planes, dropping hundreds of thousands of high-explosive and incendiary bombs, burned out the core of Dresden. They were followed by AAF bombers that sought to attack the marshaling yard, dropping 296 tons of incendiaries and nearly 475 tons of general general-purpose bombs, often bombing blind through the smoke rising from the firestorm that had been created. Fire and explosions, flying debris, suffocation, and toxic gases killed tens of thousands of inhabitants, most of them women, children, and the elderly. While the number of deaths was nowhere near the number killed in Tokyo, a few weeks later, or in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, the death toll was nearly as great as in Hamburg, although Hamburg’s population had been much larger.
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The bombing of Dresden, known for its beauty and cultural monuments, proved highly embarrassing to people in the British and American governments. For some reason, the censors passed on an Associated Press cable, based on a British press briefing that described the February 13-14 fire raid as a decision ‘to adopt deliberate terror bombing of great German population centers.’ A few weeks afterward, Prime Minister Churchill, who on January 25 had encouraged the RAF to ‘baste’ the Germans fleeing the Russian offensive, tried to insert into the record on March 28 a document questioning area attacks and urging the British military chiefs to concentrate more precisely on military objectives ‘rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction.’ Although he had clearly encouraged the area attacks against east German cities, Churchill argued in this note that ‘the destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.’ [….] 

The incineration of Dresden was intended as an act of terror. It represented in part an attitude that the German people needed to have the deepest horrors of war ‘brought home’ to them, that they had not been sufficiently touched by the effects of World War I, which ended before ordinary Germans could experience what it was like to be invaded.”
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The above material is from a couple of chapters in Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History (The New Press, 2009). 

*           *           * 

The firebombing of Dresden to illustrate a few moral principles (in other words, what follows is far from dealing with the actual and possible moral principles that arise in this case, let alone the laws of war or international humanitarian law [IHL])—

“The notion of ‘counterfactual individual difference-making’ can … help in dispelling many mysteries sometimes surrounding ‘causation by many hands’ [and ‘causal over-determination’ generally]. Take the case of the firebombing of Dresden. Hundreds of planes were involved in the bombing, contributing to the deaths of 35,000 people. But because of the huge number of contributory actions, it is tempting to regard each pilot’s contribution to the outcome as vanishingly small—so small that we might be tempted to assume the outcome would have been the same had any one of the pilots been sick on that day and unable to fly.

In ordinary bombings, even if each pilot’s bombs contributed only a little bit, the contribution of each will have been made the outcome that much worse than it would have been otherwise. Usually, some people who died from this pilot’s bomb would not have died from anyone else’s bombs, for example.

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But let’s focus on one particular feature of the Dresden case that might seem to bracket that thought. In Dresden it was the firestorm that was responsible for the vast majority of deaths, and a firestorm can only be ignited by the detonation of a great many bombs simultaneously. In that respect, especially, we might be tempted to think that no particular pilot was causally an individual difference-maker. No single pilot could ignite a firestorm with his own bombs alone. A firestorm can only occur, let us imagine, when 1,000 bombs are detonated within 10 metres and within 2 seconds of one another. Still, the counterfactual difference-maker point remains. There is some suitably nearby possible world [thinking in modal terms] in which it is true of any given pilot that is flying in a squadron with others who have only 999 bombs on board, and had he not dropped his own bombs the firestorm would not have occurred. The contribution of each (and indeed, of all) is thus potentially essential to the firestorm occurring. 

Notice, however, that there is another way to think about the Dresden case. We could think of it instead in constitutive terms, as an instance of a consolidated wrongdoing. Thinking along those lines, the actions of the pilots all taken together constituted the firebombing …. True, their actions together ‘caused’ the firestorm—the outcome—just as we have been saying. But it could also be said that the pilots’ actions, taken together, ‘constituted’ the firebombing—the act that was wrong.” — Chiara Lepora and Robert E. Goodin, On Complicity & Compromise (Oxford University Press, 2013): 64-65.
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