NS Essay - 'If we did anything questionable in the war, we should have the maturity to admit it and learn from it'

The area bombing of civilians by the Allies in the lead-up to 1945 went beyond the limits of a just

Did America and Britain commit a war crime by bombing civilian populations in the cities of Germany and Japan during the Second World War? I examine this question in my book Among the Dead Cities, and unequivocally answer "yes". This has caused a predictable outburst of controversy among historians who believe they own the war and who, besides resenting any trespass on their terrain, are not predisposed to thinking in these terms about any aspect of our endeavours in 1939-45.

I have always accepted this was a just war for the Allied side, against dangerous and wicked aggressors. Losing it would itself have been a crime, as well as a disaster. And yet, if we did do anything questionable in the course of that war, we should have the maturity and courage to acknowledge it, and learn from it, because we are still fighting wars, and may have to fight yet more.

My critics focus on three areas. They defend the bombing campaign against Germany by saying that it hampered the Nazi war effort because it kept troops, guns and aircraft on the home front, thus weakening the eastern and western military fronts, and slowed industrial production. Second, they say that to describe area bombing of civilians as a war crime is to make a judgement of hindsight, using concepts - particularly that of the "war crime" - which did not come into existence until later. Third, because most of them have touched on the bombing controversy in their own books, they say that my discussion contains nothing new.

They are wrong on all counts. Consider the last point first. A vigorous debate about bombing had started as early as 1899, when the Hague Conference outlawed throwing grenades from balloons - even before manned flight began. The experience of the First World War, in which German Zeppelins and Gothas bombed a number of English towns, made international fears about bombing so acute that during the Geneva disarmament conferences of the 1920s and 1930s some delegates went so far as to suggest banning flight itself. Historians of the Second World War ignore this background, because it places Allied decisions taken during the war in an exposed position: the planners of area bombing well knew what they were doing.

The historians also often ignore the fact that during the first three years of war the British government publicly forswore any plans to bomb civilian populations, and changed tack only in February 1942, when whole urban areas were nominated as primary targets. They ignore the Morgenthau Plan for a divided, de-industrialised, wholly rural postwar Germany. The bombing campaign served this aim by destroying the libraries, schools, universities, archives, concert halls, art galleries, studios, monuments and architectural treasures that sustained German culture. They also ignore the popular anti-bombing campaign in Britain itself, and play down Winston Churchill's own ambiguous attitude - and his eventual serious doubts - about its legitimacy.

My book is the first to bring these points together.

Now to the first question: that the bombing kept substantial German forces stuck on the home front. This argument is a fine example of why historians need logicians to get among them. The claim is true, but the same effect would have been achieved if, instead of being targeted indiscriminately at cities, the bombing had been directed at transport links, major factories, air- fields, harbours and, above all, oil plants. This is just what, in the European theatre, the United States Army Air Forces did, and it was USAAF tactical (as opposed to area) bombing that had a real effect on Germany's war effort, as the postwar bombing surveys of the UK and US governments found. Moreover, area bombing of cities did not harm civilian morale in Germany: it strengthened it, an effect that many in Britain recognised from their own experience of the Blitz.

Those who manned the searchlights and 88mm anti-aircraft guns in Germany were boys and older men; on the day Berlin fell in 1945 Germany still had ten million men between the ages of 18 and 35 booted and fully armed in service on the eastern and western fronts. Yes, the Luftwaffe had been defeated by US daylight forces principally, but indiscriminate bombing of cities had given Germany more reason to fight to the end than otherwise.

As to the other point, about my judgement resting on hindsight, this is irresponsible. For one thing, there is the 40 years of pre-war debate about the morality and legality of bombing already alluded to, and the fact that Neville Chamberlain, while prime minister, twice told MPs that bombing civilians was not government policy because (his words: read Hansard) it would be a crime in international law.

One scarcely needs hindsight if one knows anything about the St Petersburg Conference of 1868, or has read Hugo Grotius's 1625 book on the laws of war, or Thucydides's account of the Mytilenaean Debate, in which the Athenians discussed a plan to put to death the entire population of an enemy city. The place of civilians in war has been debated in the western tradition for 2,500 years, and for the past 300 years has turned on the notion of international norms. How, therefore, can assessing our deliberate mass bombing of civilian populations for its morality and its status in international law be considered as mere hindsight? By this reasoning, we would be obliged to say that the Nazis did not commit horrendous crimes against humanity because the concept of crimes against humanity was not defined until the postwar Nuremberg Principles.

Until now, discussion of the Allied bombing campaigns has focused on a few egregious events, such as the attacks on Dresden and Hiroshima. Among the Dead Cities puts the morality of the entire bombing war under scrutiny, and I bring into relief not just the forgotten great pre-war debate about bombing, and the Morgenthau Plan, but also the nature of the attacks and the weapons used in them, such as an early form of napalm and the phosphorus bombs whose use was recently condemned in Iraq.

The first ever bombing raid occurred when an Italian airman threw grenades from his biplane on to Turkish troops in North Africa in 1911. His actions were regarded as unsporting, because the Turks could not fight back. Panic set in when Germany sent its First World War Zeppelin and Gotha bombers to England, killing 1,500 people: what if thousands of bombers swarmed over a European city, dropping devastation? It seemed that the growing power of military technology threatened the end of civilisation. This was why, in the ill-fated Geneva talks, it was proposed that all flight be banned. The British and French governments, which had found that bombing tribesmen was a useful method of policing their respective empires, opposed the idea. Sir Arthur Harris, who led RAF Bomber Command for much of the Second World War, had served in Iraq, where in the 1920s he supervised the use of bombing to pacify colonial dissent.

In the early years of the Second World War, RAF Bomber Command was under strict instructions to avoid civilian casualties at all costs. Indeed, until 10 May 1940 (the day of Germany's in-vasion of the Netherlands, Belgium and France) RAF bombers were not allowed to cross the coast of the Continent for fear of inadvertently harming civilians. But on 14 February 1942 a new directive was issued to Bomber Command stating that its primary target was the morale of the enemy population. This launched the carpet bombing of Germany's civilian populations.

From then until the bombing campaign ended in April 1945 the number, size and capacity of British bombers steadily increased. In summer 1943 came the first really big-scale destructive raid: the firebombing of Hamburg, which killed 45,000 people in one night, far more than in the Dresden raid two years later. Many were asphyxiated by the heat that sucked all the oxygen from their bomb shelters. Others burned to death by phosphorus which reignited when they clambered from the canals into which they had leaped to put out the first flames.

As for the question of German war production, output increased every year of the conflict until the end of 1944, and the country's economy was never put on a full war footing. With the manpower and resources of vast conquered territories in Europe, Germany was in a position to sustain the war for a number of years. What won the war in Europe for the Allied powers was Russian infantry and tanks, and US daylight precision bombing of Germany's fuel supplies. This was perhaps the single most important factor. In Europe the Americans engaged in very little area bombing; instead, once they had long-range fighter protection, they aimed for the jugular vein of the Nazi war machine - oil - and succeeded in slashing it. When the Russians crossed the Vistula in February 1945, it was to find 1,200 German Panzers waiting for them on the Baranov bridgehead, but unable to move for lack of fuel. The Panzer force was overrun and destroyed in hours.

After US forces captured the Marianas in the Pacific, putting them within bombing range of the Japanese home islands, their air tactics changed completely. They began systematic area bombing of Japan's wooden cities, killing, on the night of 8-9 March 1945 alone, 85,000 people in Tokyo. The incendiary attacks on city after city were repeated until those fateful days in August when the atom bombs exploded. Japan had been suing for peace for months before this happened. America refused to talk on the grounds that it would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender, whereas the Japanese asked for one condition: retention of their emperor. That wish was eventually granted, but not before the atom bombs were dropped. The reasons for the delay, and the suspicions it invites, merit examination.

The vigorous British wartime campaign against such assaults was led by the Committee for the Abolition of Night Bombing, under Vera Brittain, among others. It lobbied inside and outside parliament to get area bombing stopped, and Brittain wrote a brilliant pamphlet, Seed of Chaos, setting out the case. When published in the US in 1944 it caused an outcry.

All these factors, and the debates before and after the war, force the conclusion that Allied area bombing was a war crime. Contrast it with the tactical bombing of the invasion fleet which helped protect Britain in 1940, and with the bombing on either side of D-Day in France. Contrast it also with the US bombing in the European theatre, which strangled Germany's war effort. In fighting a just war, the Allies showed that these uses of bombing were effective. In contrast, terrorising and killing as many women, children and elderly people in their homes as possible, in the hope that the population at large would beg to surrender, was ultimately useless and morally unacceptable. It also looks horrendous.

On 29 March 1945 Churchill wrote to Sir Charles Portal, head of the RAF: "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing." Bomber Command refused to accept this memo, because it constituted an admission, in effect, of war crimes. It was returned to Churchill with the demand that it be rephrased. He complied; but the memo was kept on file, and RAF official historians published it in their 1961 account of the air war, thereby acknowledging the disquiet that they and others felt about this aspect of our wartime endeavours.

In Iraq today the bombs and missiles are acknowledged to cause "collateral damage" - but without mention of casualty figures. However, one US squadron (the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing) indiscreetly announced in 2004 that since the invasion in spring 2003 it had dropped more than half a million tonnes of ordnance on Iraq. Can it be acceptable, after the Second World War, and the repeated efforts to reach international agreement on laws of war, that civilians should still be in the front line of conflict? Epictetus used to ask his students when he had taught them the principles of his ethics: how long will it take you to grow wise? The experience of Allied area bombing in the Second World War shows that the same question still applies.

Among the Dead Cities is published by Bloomsbury (£20)

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shamed