I see this idea of just killing civilians and targeting civilians as being unethical — though the most unethical act in World War II for the Allies would have been allowing themselves to lose.
----- Conrad Crane, Historian
In beginning, both U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill shuddered at the idea of attacking civilians by air. So how did half a million civilian deaths (in addition to 20 million civilian deaths in Europe as a result of the war) come about from Allied bombing? The process is traced in “The Bombing of Germany.”
The title of this installment of PBS’s “American Experience” is a little misleading. Germany gets a good thrashing, but the title fails to mention the moral dilemma at the heart of the program, that is, the deliberate targeting of civilian populations by Allied bombers during the Second World War. The British, who had witnessed the unapologetic Nazi bombings of Warsaw, Rotterdam and then their own cities, had few qualms about bombing German cities. The idea was to get German civilians so enraged they would revolt against Hitler. When the Americans entered the war, they thought that daytime precision bombing of enemy military targets would shorten the war and spare unnecessary deaths. They believed their new long-range B-17 “Flying Fortress” bombers were superior to the planes the British were using and could easily strike targets deep in enemy territory.
One of the themes in the program is that war is uncontrollable. This is stated explicitly, but also becomes apparent when German bombers, intending to hit a military target and a harbor, accidentally dropped bombs on civilian areas in London. According to historian Jorg Friedrich, this hardly caused dismay among the Nazi high command. He quotes Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels as saying, “’Fine! We make a hell out of it.’” Friedrich concludes, “So the bomb teaches the bomber what to do.”
After an initial success on a railroad installation in occupied France that the Americans crowed about and that seemed to underwhelm the British, plans for what was called “Operation Gomorrah” were drawn up. Over roughly a week in July, 1943, the British dropped incendiary and other bombs by night over Hamburg and the Americans hit the shipbuilding and plane manufacturing facilities during the day in successive raids.
The producers were able to interview not only a British pilot and an American pilot, but also a survivor of the attacks. Their stories weave in and out of each other, giving a deftly human feel to the statistics: 45,000 people killed, 60% of the city destroyed, nearly a million refugees.
The narrative continues to the end of the war, charting the changing attitudes among the American commanders, how reluctantly they came to accept orders to bomb cities. Legendary James Doolittle, ordered to bomb Berlin, still directed his pilots toward targets of military interest. Later, he would bomb Rome, and of course, Tokyo.
Donald L. Miller, author of Masters of the Air, observes:
With [the Berlin] raid, the 8th Air Force crosses a moral threshold. And that moral threshold is, we will not deliberately bomb civilians… But I think, once we crossed the moral divide in Berlin, it made everything else, including the atomic bomb, a little bit easier.
The obvious implications for the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are never mentioned. The question of targeting civilians in ”enemy” populations doesn’t disturb the sleep of folk like the late Osama bin Laden (god told him to do it), but for people who prefer their own moral compass, it’s a bit more sticky. The first reaction is, leave the civilians out. But the world is changing and the line between civilian and combatant is not as clear as it once was.
In September 2011, an American citizen died in Yemen as result of a targeted drone strike. Anwar Al-Awlaki was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico of Yemeni parentage. He was associated with the 9/11 hijackers, the underwear bomber, the alleged Ft. Hood shooter and other terror plots. He died without a trial of his peers. Certainly not a model citizen, but an enemy combatant?
This is one I can recommend to chew over. Not one for small children, though.
Written, Produced & Directed by Zvi Dor-Ner
Narrated by Joe Morton
PBS website: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/bombing/
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Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older