Anthony Grayling: Why 'Bomber' Harris was wrong in every way

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Anthony Grayling is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He believes that bombing is morally wrong and does not work.

Area bombing during the Second World War was a moral crime. We were fighting a good war but we did one thing that was wrong: indiscriminately targeting civilian populations in order to terrorise the enemy.

The bombing of German cities was the same as the September 11 atrocities in the respect that both were trying to kill a lot of people to coerce their government into something. If you think the attacks in the US in 2001 were terrible, then area bombing is terrible.

What's the difference between looking at women and children and shooting them, and bombing them? The difference is that you don't get blood on your hands. The fourth Geneva Convention recognised that, as a consequence of war, civilians would be hurt. From that you get the idea of collateral damage, but this has been used as a fig leaf. When you see what Israel did to Lebanon, bombing civilian areas with huge collateral damage, it poses the question: if one or two civilians get killed, it's a tragedy, but what if a thousand civilians get killed?

Area bombing also destroyed a culture. There was something deliberate about that in the Second World War; there was a belief that Prussian militarism had to be pulled up by the roots. But Churchill saw that if you destroyed Germany's cities and re-agrarianised it, as Morgenthau planned, it would be like a huge corpse attached to Western Europe.

There was a belief that bombing would win wars. It was true in the case of the atom bombs; if you could destroy enough, it became true. But conventional bombing doesn't do the trick. In the Second World War, 1.7 million tons of high explosive were dropped on Germany, killing 350,000. It was completely useless. Arthur "Bomber" Harris believed that if you bombed civilians they would rise up and force their leaders to sue for peace. They didn't.

Bombing is intrinsically an immoral activity. When you bomb a city you will kill babies, old people, people on your side. It's the worst indiscriminate weapon. "Smart weapons" are based on the premise that, in conventional war, bombing is not acceptable. The hope was that you could do things with laser precision, but we've seen that fail.

The lesson is that bombing as a weapon of war is utterly counterproductive. When it does work, you have a radioactive country you can't go into. Bombing doesn't work.

Among the Dead Cities by Anthony Grayling is out now (Bloomsbury, £20)