a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Book Review: Among the Dead Cities, A.C. Grayling

Posted by Thomas Nephew on June 18th, 2008

Among the Dead Cities, A.C. GraylingThis is a scrupulous and ultimately devastating indictment of the British RAF bombing campaign in Europe and the USAAF one in Japan during World War II. These so-called “area” or (at least in Grayling’s book) “strategic” bombing campaigns had the purpose of creating maximum deaths among citizens of the enemy nation, and of thereby breaking the will and ability to continue supporting their nation’s war effort.

Grayling contrasts these campaigns with so-called “precision bombing” attacks — however inaccurate such bombing often was in practice. Examples of the latter include the RAF’s dam-buster or Peenemunde rocket production facility attacks, the USAAF’s attacks on Schweinfurt ball bearing plants, or similarly motivated and targeted attacks on oil and gas production facilities such as those at Leuna or Ploesti.

Instead, Grayling focuses especially on “Operation Gomorrah”, the mid-1943 attacks on Hamburg, as a hard case in that the war was not yet won as it arguably was in the more famous cases of Dresden, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki. Grayling finds (and rightly, in my view) that “Gomorrah” served no useful purpose and was immoral, conducted with a view simply to maximum casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure.* The bombing raid and ones like it may well have qualified as a war crime even by standards prevailing before and after the war (including those employed at the Nuremberg trials).

Grayling conveys some of the horror and terror of that attack — streetcar glass melting, follow-on bomber crews able to feel the heat from the first attacks in their planes, at least 45,000 dead. (While Grayling draws on many sources, including W. G. Sebald’s famous “On the Natural History of Destruction,” one eyewitness account — “Der Untergang”,** by Hans-Erich Nossack — is an understated classic in its own right.) It should be noted that Grayling explicitly judges the Holocaust to be worse, but adds that has no bearing on whether “Gomorrah” and similar raids were crimes.

Not all of Grayling’s arguments are fully convincing, but to his credit he always considers and evaluates counterarguments. In the main example of this, he argues that morale was if anything hardened and war production was unaffected by area bombing. Yet he also notes that the German war economy had plentiful slave labor and had plundered Europe for raw materials, machinery, and production.*** To employ the kind of analogy Grayling frequently does, if the Nazis devised a machine that repaired factories and fed refugees, but was fueled by concentration camp corpses, would this “success” invalidate attacking those factories and cities? I’m unpersuaded in this respect; the case against “area bombing” ultimately isn’t one of efficacy, but of proportion and humanity.

Yet even by the RAF’s lights, Grayling is right to consider the pragmatic military arguments for and against area bombing; a staggering 55,000 RAF bomber crew members lost their lives in the campaign. Grayling disposes effectively of another argument — the diversion of military manpower and materiel (esp. the feared dual antitank/antiaircraft “88s”) to antiaircraft duty within Germany — by pointing out the same diversion would have happened for a “precision” bombing strategy focused on war industries.

As Grayling points out, this debate is far from academic or “merely” historical. US military doctrine still holds that economic (not merely military industrial) targets are fair game in war, and that weakening enemy civilian morale is a valid strategic goal of bombing. Both postulates appear to contravene elements of newer Geneva Conventions to which the US is not a signatory — but to which much the rest of the world is. Attacks on civilian targets, or undiscriminating attacks to which too many civilians will fall victim, may also be among the indictments of some US actions in Iraq, such as in Fallujah or Sadr City (quite aside from the necessity of the Iraq war in the first place). But those will be the topics of a different book.


* Bomb payloads were calibrated to cause firestorms (hurricane-force winds caused by combined fires, incinerating and suffocating whole city neighborhoods) by inclusion of incendiary devices — and by the inclusion of delayed action bombs calculated to injure or kill firefighters. A version of the latter “one-two punch” tactic was also adopted by some terrorist suicide bomber team attacks in Israel and elsewhere.
** The title of Nossack’s book has been translated as “The End” in English editions. Fair enough, but the word is more complex than that; the literal meaning is “under going,” and Nossack uses it the way it is generally used: for the sinking of a great ship.
*** The explanation Grayling seems to prefer for the puzzling increases in German wartime production was that the Nazi command economy may have had a good deal of slack — room for efficiency improvements — before the war.

NOTE: This review was adapted and expanded from a version published to “Visual Bookshelf”/ReadingSocial; however, I may do more with LibraryThing as I figure out ways to integrate that here.
EDIT, 6/18: “(While Grayling draws…” sentence and ref. to 2d footnote added. Thanks, Nell.

4 Responses to “Book Review: Among the Dead Cities, A.C. Grayling”

  1. Nell Says:

    Did you edit out a sentence or two? I can’t find the referent to the ** footnote, and figure that it must have originally been in a section dealing with the timing of the ‘Gomorrah’ campaign.

    Untergang is a useful word/metaphor. It conveys beautifully an inevitable doom that nevertheless takes a long time to be fully realized. Ahem.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Oops; yes I did, meant to take out the footnote as well. I’ll put something back in to support the footnote.

    Sorry for the sloppiness; we’re fighting with our internet setup at home now, so the writing process gets interrupted by frequent lost connections, “arghs”, etc.

  3. Paul Says:

    I’m developing an Air Force history podcast and this is one of the first stories I was working on (i.e., “the history and philosophy of strategic bombing”). The development of the idea and its longevity (it’s one of the pillars of AF doctrine) is a really interesting story.

    I think I might pick-up this book and see if I can include it when I produce that episode.

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I look forward to your podcast!

    Grayling’s book is quite well written, you should get it. It’s also not as long as it looks — much of the final 50 or so pages (don’t have it handy this minute) is either notes, or a raid by raid tally of tonnage, casualties, planes lost, and so forth. So I got through it in two or three days.

    Wandered by a bookstore going out of business 🙁 after the HRF event I mentioned today, and picked up “The Air War 1939-1945” by Richard Overy at half price, good condition. Wouldn’t have except for happening to read Grayling. But it looks to be quite different: more of a reference work, very nuts and boltsy.

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