Death From Above - The Democratic Way

In the 50 post-war years, liberal regimes in the West have gone on killing in conflicts, by what passes for due process, and expressing regret, but never quite saying they are sorry, writes the Rev John Kennedy.

When I was quite small, a gang of armed men in leather jackets tried to break in through the roof of our house and kill me and my mum. Nobody was ever charged with this offence. For this was Clydebank in 1940, at the beginning of the Blitz.

That crime retained ambiguous status. For when Britain armed against Hitler, its chief airborne instrument was already foreseen - warfare on civil populations. After the war, large numbers were justly convicted of war crimes. But this most terrible kind of destruction remained simply a regrettable military necessity.

None the less, we shrank from the murderous logic of our war plans until our own cities were attacked. From 1941 on the Allies wrought terrible destruction first on the Germans, and then on the Japanese. Societies committed in principle to a close regard for human life showed a fearful disregard for such life. And the use of atomic weapons, though deeply symbolic, was but a brutal coda to the main theme. By then, half of urban Japan was in ruins.

The facts of Allied strategic bombing wrack the soul, even now. Bomber crews were the least warrior-like, yet the most destructive, force in history. No force had ever inflicted such terror, nor themselves so bravely endured it; theirs truly was a heroic sacrifice.

And yet. To die in a burning aircraft was a terrible death; but more so to die in a burning city. One airman died for every 15 enemy ground casualties; but five of those enemies were women, and seven were children. And in the end our aim was not to fight for survival, nor to combat wickedness, but to conserve our own kind.

Nor, with peace, did we stop. The Attlee Government created costly and powerful armed forces. Our Air Force looked pretty good - so I joined it, just 15 years after being bombed in Clydebank. By good fortune, I seemed to be humbly engaged in the stopping of wars, in Kuwait and Borneo. It was only by accident that my generation was not complicit in the bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia. More recently in the Gulf, we laid down that terrible fire on Iraqi conscripts, and subjected the whole population to siege. That form of warfare had become integral to Western society. We have created, as it were, a slogan for the Free world: "Death From Above - The Democratic Way".

What are we to make of it? Christianity never proved able to speak decisively against that indiscriminate terror. We recall Bishop Bell's resistance to terror bombing only to remember how unpopular a voice his was. Much more typical was the ethical judgement of Bomber Harris: "No German city is worth the bones of a single British Grenadier." Churchill's judgement was more theological; he regarded the atom bomb as "The Second Coming in Wrath".

As German bombers take off once more with serious intent, it is good to feel that they are not heading for Clydebank. And something rather splendid has happened in the meantime. For all its corruption and incompetence, the United Nations has established a shaky but accepted tradition of peacekeeping. That achievement fulfils part of the old hope of Christian Pacifists. From that point of view, the public humiliations of peacekeeping echo much that is most glorious in the Christian tradition.

But the present conflict in former Yugoslavia does raise the spectral questions of 1936-45. Then we stumbled from indecision in the Saarland to Armageddon in Japan. How can democracies move when necessary from the keeping of peace to the making of war? How can a threat to our own forces justify indiscriminate death from the air? We have swept aside the old Christian restraints of Just War theory, notably that the means employed should be proportionate to the envisaged ends. We have no fear of judgement, for we are both judges and executioners; our cause is just, so their lives are forfeit.

Democracy is probably the best defence that we have against war. But it has proved singularly ineffective in containing its worst excesses. The record of liberal democracies is deeply suspect. Our past conduct lies beneath our pretension to civility like - well, like an unexploded bomb.

In our media-drenched societies, other people's civilian casualties are graphically described; but we accept the deaths of innocent thousands before moving massively to the destruction of more innocents. The Harris and Churchill texts display a terrible truth over the entry to the coming century. Our politics seem to inhibit us from making war when it could make a difference, and then catapult us into uncontrollable destruction. We kill and kill, by what passes for due process. Then we express regret, but not repentance. We need to remember what we have in common with the Japanese - we, too, never quite said we were sorry.

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