As it was

Essen, after 5/6 March 1943

Don Charlwood's No Moon Tonight has a reputation as one of the best Bomber Command memoirs. Charlwood was a Victorian who joined the RAAF in 1941, trained as a navigator in Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme, and then flew in Halifaxes and Lancasters with 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds. Having survived his tour of 30 ops in 1942 and 1943, he stayed in aviation after the war, albeit on the ground as a civil air traffic controller. No Moon Tonight was originally published in 1956 and was the first of more than a dozen books by Charlwood, some memoirs, some aviation history, some Victorian history. In 1986 he wrote that the book was 'kindly received both in Australia and Britain', and that 'letters from ex-aircrew men of various nationalities began to tell me I had not been alone in my response to the Bomber Command experience'.1 It's one aspect of that response I'm interested in here: his feelings about the morality of area bombing.

Charlwood wrote himself that this had been one of his reasons for writing No Moon Tonight:

I wanted to give some thought to the morality of the task we were called upon to do -- something that after the war led to widespread condemnation of the bomber offensive.2

It's not a question that he ever gives a final judgement on, or even really tries to weigh up; but it does from time to time puncture the narrative with great force. Often it is tied up with the fear of death, his own and that of his comrades. This is a theme which is much in evidence throughout the book, much more so than the morality of area bombing per se, as he notes the loss of other members of his squadron and, which touched him more deeply, of many of the 'Twenty Men', as he called them, his fellow Australian classmates from Canada: twelve were killed flying for Bomber Command.

Charlwood initially questions whether area bombing was just enough to justify the deaths of so many good Allied airmen, not enemy civilians. For example, shortly after joining 103 Squadron, before starting on ops himself (apart from one during operational training), Charlwood learns that another Halifax crew has gone missing after a raid on Cologne. Although he only knew their navigator, Munns, slightly, he knew he was a family man and he starts to brood over the loss (I've added the bold emphasis in all the quotations which follow):

In ten years, would the loss of his [Munns's] life appear justifiable, or would it be evident that he had been led into a wrong or unnecessary course, that he had cast the pearl of his life before swine? Perhaps the only man who should go to Bomber Command was the man who had seen for himself that mass killing was the only way to a better world.

I knew, that day, that I had no such conviction. I felt in need of it. I wished that I could believe that we were bombing evil and making way for good. I wished that I could feel this with the intensity that a father would feel in defending his family with no thought of himself. The only alternative was not to think. We had committed ourselves and could now do nothing. If our service life conflicted with our thinking then our thinking must cease. We could not afford to fritter our strength on endless questioning, or in the luxury of frustration or sorrow.3

Similarly, being on ops didn't change his feelings about bombing, but being part of a crew did change how he dealt with them: essentially, he had to suppress them. Late in the winter of 1942-3, Max Bryant, one of the Twenty Men, is posted to Elsham. After talking to Max about squadron life, Charlwood realises that he has found what he never had before, something he calls 'enthusiasm':

I still had little belief in the rectitude of our war or any other war, nor could I believe that more good than evil would arise from our mass bombing. That Keith [Webber] and Wilf Burrows and Col Miller and now, probably, Max himself should die, was still something too ghastly to contemplate. And yet, on the squadron one could not for long admit cynicism, or pessimism, even in the face of the worst. Whatever my frame of mind had been when we had come to Elsham, I realized that now it had changed. Then I had been alone; now I had become one with a crew and a squadron. To demean them was impossible.4

Thoughts of what they were actually doing to the people below sometimes intruded during operations. Sort of. Here is Charlwood on an attack on Essen, I think on the night of 13 January 1943. (The photo above was taken of Essen's centre after a raid on 5 March.)

I would try to tell myself then that this was a city, a place inhabited by beings such as ourselves, a place with the familiar sights of civilization. But the thought would carry little conviction. A German city was always this, this hellish picture of flame, gunfire and searchlights, an unreal picture because we could not hear it or feel its breath. Sometimes, when the smoke rolled back and we saw streets or buildings, I felt startled. Perhaps if we had seen the white, upturned faces of people, as over England we sometimes did, our hearts would have rebelled....5

That last sentence suggests that, in fact, their hearts did not rebel. They were still troubled, though. Of a raid on Turin on the night of 4 February 1943, Charlwood wrote:

We looked down incredulously. Under the light of the moon the city was mercilessly exposed -- houses, churches, gardens, even statuary along the streets. The crews wheeled and dived, exulting as the Germans exulted over lightly-defended Britain in 1940. And yet, perhaps the minds of the attackers would have been easier if the Italians had attempted to defend their city. As it was, we blew women and children to pieces, unopposed by their men.6

To say 'we blew women and children to pieces' is quite explicit. It's almost self-incriminating, except that the blame is displaced onto Italian men for failing to defend their women and children. If it wasn't for that, Charlwood seems to say, he would have felt much better about blowing the women and children of Turin to pieces.

After completing his tour, Charlwood was posted to Lichfield as a navigation instructor. From this period, early summer 1943, he quotes a letter from another of the Twenty Men, Johnnie Gordon, who also has finished his first tour. Gordon is even blunter about his qualms:

'Sometimes my conscience troubles me about the blind mass-murdering of the "main force". I think Bomber Command's policy is fixed too relentlessly on mere victory by annihilation. That is impossible. Britain at present seems to lack men who can look beyond the victory. I think Bomber Command's policy, though it makes the victory more certain and earlier, may make a real peace impossible.'7

Here, the 'blind mass-murdering of the "main force"' (the heavy bomber groups which comprised the bulk of Bomber Command), which used area bombing tactics, is implicitly contrasted with the precision bombing of the Pathfinders and, even more, 617 Squadron, which had spectacularly broken the Ruhr dams only a month or two before. In fact soon afterwards, Gordon turns up in Lichfield on leave and tells Charlwood that he has volunteered for another tour, this time with the Dam Busters. Charlwood asks him straight out what he thinks of area bombing (which he usually refers to as 'mass bombing'):

'What is your opinion of the mass bombing the main force do?' I said.

'I don't like it,' he answered. 'I suppose it achieves its purpose, but it's wrong. Now it has reached fantastic proportions and we haven't anyone big enough to stop it. I suppose it will go on until all the beauty and culture are bombed out of Europe.'8

Later Gordon asks Charlwood why he thinks he volunteered for 617 Squadron:

'[...] Why do you think I volunteered for special duties? Tell me honestly now. I have such a poor opinion of my own motives that I won't mind what you say.'

I said, 'It might have been because you believed mass bombing to be wrong and this move was perhaps a sort of atonement. That and the fascination of ops life.'9

Nowhere in this section does Charlwood indicate his own opinion of area bombing, whether he agreed with his friend's critique or not. He himself tried unsuccessfully to get back onto ops with a regular squadron, but tellingly only as part of his old crew: comradeship was more important than life or death, his own or others.

Because No Moon Tonight was written in the decade after the war, it is difficult to know to what extent Charlwood's memory of his thoughts and feelings during it might have changed by the time he came to set them down in writing. 1956 was not 1943 and, whether consciously or not, events in the years in between might have introduced biases. As noted above, he himself referred to 'widespread condemnation of the bomber offensive' after the war as a reason why he discussed the morality question.10 That could have led him to give more weight to it in his book than he had done during the war itself. (Though 'widespread condemnation' strikes me as more characteristic of the 1980s, when he wrote those words, than the 1950s, and more of Britain than Australia.)

The passage about 617 Squadron and the suggestion that it carried out a less morally suspect form of strategic bombing is also interesting. The film version of The Dam Busters came out in 1955, the year before Charlwood's book, and was a big success in Australia as in Britain. Perhaps, just as Charlwood suggested Gordon joined the Dam Busters as an atonement, the success of the film functioned as a sort of atonement by proxy for him. But he doesn't mention the film (or Paul Brickhill's book) so that's only speculation on my part.

Finally, one postwar context which can be glimpsed in No Moon Tonight is the Cold War. Of the briefing before his crew's final op, Charlwood writes:

Burton and Harding his Canadian navigator peered at the screen, listening to the usual recitation of defences, Pathfinder plans and weather. So it would go on after tonight had passed; so it might go on for another generation in another war against another enemy.11

In 1956, 'another war against another enemy' was very much a possibility. The wartime alliance had fractured into opposing camps. The former enemy had itself been split into two: in May 1955 West Germany was admitted into NATO and the same month East Germany became a founding member of the Warsaw Pact. A war would have been fought with new weapons: both the United States and the Soviet Union now had hydrogen bombs, the latter first testing its version in 1955. But Charlwood's intuition that the same scenes he had witnessed would be reenacted probably wasn't too far off the mark: the year before Sputnik, nukes were still carried by bombers. Not long after Charlwood's No Moon Tonight was published and not many miles away, Nevil Shute would have been writing On The Beach. Is it fanciful to suggest that in his own way Charlwood was responding to the same existential threat to civilisation as Shute?

Charlwood did keep a wartime diary, which he quoted from occasionally, both here and probably in Journeys Into Night (which I haven't read, but is based on the diaries and letters of The Twenty). The State Library of Victoria holds a copy of his diary; if I'm there with a spare hour or two I must have a look at it.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

  1. Don Charlwood, No Moon Tonight (Ringwood: Penguin Books Australia, 1991 [1956]), xi. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid., 59. []
  4. Ibid., 119. []
  5. Ibid., 111. []
  6. Ibid., 120-1. []
  7. Ibid., 171. []
  8. Ibid., 172-3. []
  9. Ibid., 173. []
  10. Ibid., xi. []
  11. Ibid., 156. []

19 thoughts on “As it was

  1. Jonathan Burne

    In speculating on Don Charlwood's attitude to mass bombing the most interesting comments, to me at least, are on how time and circumstance could colour recollections of events and thus of the historical record generally.
    From the quotes from Charlwood's book it would appear that comradery played a big part in keeping the aircrew sane or at least away from deeper contemplation of the morality of the bombing. There was also the threat of a charge of "Lack of Moral Fibre" (LMF) to discourage disenting thoughts or actions.

  2. Post author

    I should stress that I am just speculating about how time and distance may have coloured Charlwood's memories -- there's nothing to say that his memories are inaccurate on this point and I never got the feeling that any postwar agenda drove the narrative. It probably says as much about my own hesitation when it comes to using non-contemporary sources such as memoirs. That said, we all know that memory is a malleable thing, and what we remember today is not necessarily what we experienced yesterday. Subsequent events can make certain things loom larger in retrospect than they did at the time; conversely things which were once critically important can be completely forgotten years later. Besides, it's the memoirist's privilege to choose what to keep in and what to leave out, what to emphasise and what to minimise. It just makes the historian's task a little harder!

    You're very much correct on the role of comradeship, at least as portrayed in No Moon Tonight. In its various aspects it's very much the core of the book. I would guess that it is this which other Bomber Command veterans were responding to when they wrote to Charlwood to say how much they appreciated his book. There isn't much about the threat of disciplinary charges, though his skipper, Geoff Maddern, does get raked over the coals a few times by a wing commander for cowardice when he returns early because of engine trouble -- and then turns around and recommends him for a DFM at the end of his tour! Surprisingly few aircrew seemed to have been disciplined in this way. Intriguingly Charlwood mentions somewhere (sadly I neglected to note the page number) that one crew refused to fly, but I don't think he says why and he never found out what happened to them.

  3. Post author

    Unfortunately I haven't read very many! I'd like some recommendations myself. Geoffrey Wellum's First Light was good -- a Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot writing sixty years after the event. One I must get is Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy, similar subject though it was published in 1942 (and made him famous before his death in 1943). Also Cecil Lewis's Sagittarius Rising (1936), an RFC fighter ace.

    In different sorts of fighting, Frederic Manning's The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929) would have to be one of the great depictions of WWI trench warfare. There's also Alan Moorehead's African Trilogy, though he was a war correspondent not a soldier so perhaps that doesn't count.

    Perhaps it's my own national bias, but four of the names I've mentioned here are Australian: Charlwood, Hillary (though he spent most of his life in Britain), Manning, Moorehead.

  4. What people chose to talk about (or consider) in what contexts (diary, mess, family circle) and when (then, or later) is a tricky area to evaluate with any expectation or reliability. A fascinating thoughtful post, Brett, to hopeful open a debate on the topic.

    As to war memoirs, in the arena of fighter pilots, there's piles of endlessly thoughtless Spitfire and Mustang driver stories, most well worth avoiding (Wellum's already mentioned being a remarkable exception).

    Ironically sometimes fiction is of greater value. And sometimes there is a bridge. Bomb aimer Miles Tripp tackles the exact questions Brett's asked in his fictional Faith is a Windsock, which he later wrote another, non fiction work on which Windock was based, called The Eighth Passenger.

    A contemporary fictional account (valuable for that, as well) would be the excellent Stories of Flying Officer X written by the well-regarded writer H.E. Bates, and based on first-hand experiences on a Stirling bomber base. More recent is Len Deighton's Bomber, which, ironically by going into the minutiae and detail of the jobs of an RAF Bomber Command aircrew gives an insight and (I think) understanding of what life was like and what - therefore - were some of the things they faced and felt, simply because of the common human denominator in that.

    Bomber is also available as a BBC real time radio programme which, like the Australian War Memorial's son et lumière Striking by Night with Lancaster G for George delivers in a fictionalised but fact based structure some impression of those experiences - though we remain at a huge social and safe distance to the actual reality of course.

  5. Post author

    I agree there's value in fiction, but I find it difficult to get over the fact/fiction divide. I can handle it with contemporary (i.e. with the period in question) stuff but postwar fiction is a step too far for me: the distance in time added to the fictionalisation makes it too unreliable a source for me in general. As a historian, anyway -- history is not the only reason for reading!

    I'll have to look up Tripp though, thanks. I knew of Flying Officer X but had no idea that he later went on to write The Darling Buds of May! (Not that this necessarily recommends his work to me...) And Deighton's Bomber -- I think I last read that in high school. It was certainly an eye-opener for me then, not just for the account of a bomber crew's experience but for what happened where their bombs fell.

  6. Miles Tripp would be an interesting case study in the factual versus fictional accounts of history - and a rare one in the same person writing about what he knew and did in Bomber Command in both forms.

    Another case study to counter your reasonable reservations re- more modern fiction is the contrast between Paul Richey's contemporary 'Fighter Pilot' and Derek Robinson's modern fictional 'Piece of Cake', both views of Hurricane pilots and a unit in the Battle of France. I would submit that Richy's work, while valid at the time, is both of little use for history and sits better on the jingoistic Boy's Own Adventure genre shelf. Conversely, under the mantle of fiction and with hindsight and later knowledge, Robinson's book is an infinitely better account of how squadrons and airmen worked and acted in 1930-40. As the discussion around the pending court case by Richy showed, Robinson was unshakeable on his facts including things like the Battle of Barking Creek, and many of the then-secret or unpalatable technology and behaviour of the time. (To clarify - for all of the controversial episodes in the book, Robinson was able to delineate a real event or events it was based on. His research, like Deighton's, is first rate.)

    Conversely, if you were to evaluate Richy's work as a fictional account, it falls down on numerous factual details - not Richy's fault, the product of self (and state) censorship and culture and institutionalisation of a young fighter pilot.

    Which rather neatly brings us back to the crux of the original discussion, which is how can we build a reliable understanding of what these young men thought or did? Given that some simply were not very reflective or articulate, while most had to manage what they articulated (and to some degree, even thought) - and all that before you get any records being created, even private ones like diaries.

    The more I've read and learnt, the more I think you can't. Maybe a book like The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force 1939-1945 which I've just stumbled over online may tackle it?

    Fiction provides a framework where topics and thoughts can be discussed that would not be allowed in a factual form - however generally aircrew were either not allowed, encourage or likely to record many of their innermost thoughts and moral* dilemmas in either form, although we are lucky in the exceptions we're discussing.

    I think it is possible to evaluate the quality of the account on other qualitative and accuracy criteria, and interestingly many factual accounts don't score very well, while a few fictional ones are - as art's supposed to (we get told) - a better insight. Certainly we shouldn't count fiction as fact, but a first rate fiction account is sometimes of more value than a third-rate potboiler hack-ghosted aircrew book.

    Its hard enough to gauge public and individual feelings about war and bombing at the best of times (as Brett well knows!). I'd be wary of eliminating a tranche of source material on a normal - but here perhaps inappropriate - academic criterion.

    [*The irony of the dis-honourable removal from flying duties, reduction in rank and stigmatisation being called Lack of Moral Fibre (LMF) has a particularly grim irony in this context.]

  7. Neil Datson

    In the body of Charlwood's writing that Brett quotes here I find that one sentence leaps out at me:

    Perhaps the only man who should go to Bomber Command was the man who had seen for himself that mass killing was the only way to a better world.

    That goes so much further than simply saying that it's necessary to do evil in order for good to triumph. It even goes further than the advocates of, and apologists for, Nazism and State Socialism who said that - in Stalin's euphemism - 'you can't make an omlette without breaking eggs'.

    Taken literally it really is a total condemnation of Bomber Command. And it loops in and reinforces Charlwood's general thesis; if you were in Bomber Command you couldn't retain a human conscience. There was not, and there could not be, a moral justification for what you were doing. A bleak thought.

  8. One has to weigh that Charlwood seems to feel (in hindsight?) that victory would not be achieved by bombing - which was the stated official intent throughout. In that, I suggest he's an exception. Most believed (at the time, it seems, assuming they thought about it) the task was necessary and could result in victory. Charlwood also seems to be an exception in regarding the bombing as self-evidently inefficient. Other accounts seem to point to the belief that the bombing was costly, but would achieve a result, in itself, something we now believe not to have even been likely. (We must remember that it is hindsight to believe it couldn't have won the war - that is, however debatable, only possible to know after 1945.)

    (It is interesting that unlike those who did not come back, or have died since W.W.II Don is still with us, and in theory at least these questions could be discussed with him - the answers might not fit with extracts from his earlier writing.)

    How much a crewman on a bomber would have felt he knew how their campaign was going, is a critical question here - as against a researched, postwar autobiography.

    From Dr Peter Stanley's essay 'The Roundel', link below:
    "...airmen’s letters and diaries display little explicit interest in the Allied cause and even less in the morality of the bomber offensive. Don Charlwood explained, 'We could not afford to fritter our strength on endless questioning'."

    The main focus of most of these men seems to understandably have been to avoid thinking too deeply about their own chances of survival, through various strategies to 'improve' the chances (by superstition or honing skills) and the complex emotional and practical elements of making sure their crew was a team - which gave the incredible weight to the close knit nature of the resulting teams. It appears (to me at least) that while most grumbled about those in charge, strategy and moral decisions were rarely considered, and were thought best left to those who were responsible for those decisions. Of course those are generalisations, but the primacy of a focus on survival certainly pushed more abstract thinking back.


    There are some relevant essays on the AWM website, including some elements by Don. The 2003 Conference is an excellent starting point, where I found the quote above - IIRC, there's more by Don Charlwood on the AWM's site elsewhere.

  9. Post author


    I'd be wary of eliminating a tranche of source material on a normal - but here perhaps inappropriate - academic criterion.

    I think it's a critical criterion, though. It's a question of primary and secondary sources, as well as of fiction vs non-fiction. (See here for a related discussion, though in the context of poetry.) To take the Richey and Robinson examples, Richey is a primary source for WW2, and Robinson a secondary source. But Robinson's book is also a novel, no matter how insightful and well-researched. This makes it difficult for him to weigh competing narratives, to cite sources, to review the historiography, and so on. And, as fiction, by definition parts of it are made up. I'd be interested to read it and might well benefit from doing so (history is not the only way to approach the past), but I can't use it as a source for WW2. It's historical, but it's not history.

    But just because a source is primary doesn't mean it is automatically trustworthy. I haven't read Richey's book either, but I wouldn't treat it as a necessarily reliable account of WW2 (particularly after what you say about it!). But it is necessarily of its time, as all books are. I would probably use it as an example of how the air campaign in France was presented to the British public. Martin Francis's The Flyer, which you mention, has a number of references to Richey's Fighter Pilot (the first one, for example, is as an example of a public discussion of the RAF's drinking culture). He doesn't use Piece of Cake as far as I can see; though I have read discussions of it (and more particularly the TV series) in relation to the postwar memory of the air war (that is, where it can be treated as a primary source).

    But to get back to the question of memoirs, that's a bit of a grey area. They're not quite primary and not quite secondary. Using them as primary sources is legitimate but one needs to be extra careful, as they are also products of the time in which they were written. That's why in the blog post I wondered whether the discussions of the morality of bombing in No Moon Tonight were influenced by the Cold War. And really I can't know unless I go back to primary sources for the war (e.g. Charlwood's diary) or maybe for the writing of his memoirs (correspondence, perhaps). As you say, Charlwood is still alive and could be asked (in fact, it turns out a friend on Facebook lives near him and has known his family for years!) but that also has inherent problems to do with the reliability of memory. Again it can be done but oral history is a specialised field and it's not what I do.

    Francis's The Flyer is an excellent book, by the way, and does have a useful discussion (pp. 173-6) of the morality of bombing civilians in accounts by and of aircrew -- not only wartime ones, but memoirs and even fictionalised memoirs like Tripp's. He also uses wartime films and novels (e.g. Nevil Shute's Pastoral) but postwar ones only when discussing memory. Anyway, although Charlwood is not among his sources he does note some other examples of wartime disquiet about area bombing among Bomber Command aircrew.


    That is a good quote, I forgot to highlight that one! I don't really read Charlwood as saying that conscience must be discarded though, only that it has to be set to one side for the duration (like so many other wartime sacrifices, I guess). Though maybe I'm being overly pedantic and it amounts to the same thing -- a morality which can be suppressed when convenient isn't much use.

  10. "a morality which can be suppressed when convenient isn't much use"
    Ah, it's the choice of words, isn't it? 'when convenient' rather than 'when necessary'.

    Surely society licences certain people, particularly including military personnel, with exceptions to certain normal rules and morality, particularly the "not killing people" one. The debate is, of course, how far that goes, and the Nuremberg question of how much following orders is an acceptable defence.

    While we might (and should) argue those points, we must be careful not to initially overlook that the men of Bomber Command were following legitimately issued orders of a democratic government, and that accusations of the bombing being a war crime are regularly waved about, but as far as I'm aware, there's never been any serious attempt to bring that as a genuine charge. Also the view that the bombing was not a potentially effective means of ending the war is also hindsight, though more complex than that of course.

    Any front-line combatant has to put certain moral strictures on ice. Neil's last paragraph in that context, I think, overstates the potential moral compromise of a basic requirement. The debate is, of course, what is morally acceptable in war, and what is also (a separate question) going to be effective (or not).

    It's ironic that there seems to be more agonisation over the actions of Bomber Command while British (and other colonial powers) doing some pretty awful tings under the headline of 'punitive actions' and expeditions aren't regarded in the same moral compromise, though 'making them sorry' was the primary aim in those colonial actions, explicit in the title.

  11. Post author

    accusations of the bombing being a war crime are regularly waved about, but as far as I'm aware, there's never been any serious attempt to bring that as a genuine charge.

    Depends what you mean by 'serious attempt', of course, but there's A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime? (London: Bloomsbury, 2006) and of course Jörg Friedrich's The Fire. In terms of actual legal charges, no, I don't think there have been any attempts to lay them but that's victor's justice for you.

    Also the view that the bombing was not a potentially effective means of ending the war is also hindsight, though more complex than that of course.

    I wouldn't quite call it hindsight; it probably wasn't the majority view during the war but at least from the Blitz onwards there was a significant fraction of the population who did not think bombing civilians was moral and/or effective (that's the flip side of my reprisals article). It was arguable at the time, and to me that makes the case that it was a war crime more plausible -- people were saying it was wrong at the time, not just after the event. (Only some, though, and usually not very loudly.) But sure, it was certainly only after the war (or maybe right at the end) that it became so terribly distasteful to most people.

    It's ironic that there seems to be more agonisation over the actions of Bomber Command while British (and other colonial powers) doing some pretty awful tings under the headline of 'punitive actions' and expeditions aren't regarded in the same moral compromise, though 'making them sorry' was the primary aim in those colonial actions, explicit in the title.

    A very good point!

  12. Neil Datson

    To start at the end of this interesting thread. Surely there is no discernable moral standard against which posterity judges 'state power' or 'quasi-state power' crimes against people? Or against which contemporaries judge them? What is more, there really can't be. If you try to line up the Rwandan genocide, the Clifford's Tower massacre of the York Jews, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, the St Bartholomew's Day massacre, the Ukrainian famines, the Sack of Magdeburg, the Congo Free State, the Holocaust, the suppression of the Indian Mutiny, the Rape of Nanking, Wounded Knee (that's far more than sufficient examples) into some formal order of wickedness you'll only go bonkers. And surely, no one of them is morally worse than the deliberate killing of one innocent person.

    But those in power are obliged to make moral judgements in pursuit of state aims. It is worse to determine to kill a thousand people when the aim can be achieved by killing a hundred. A keener dilemma arises when you have to choose between slaughtering a large number of the enemy - especially enemy civilians - and losing a relatively small number of your own people - especially of your own combatants.

    Which leads me on to some of JDK's observations, firstly:

    the men of Bomber Command were following legitimately issued orders of a democratic government,

    The reference to 'a democratic government' makes me uneasy. If 'I was only obeying the orders of an autocratic tyrant' is no defence, why on earth should 'I was only obeying the orders of a democratic government' be one?

    Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience.)

    Democracy is to be preferred to monarchy and aristocracy because, in broad terms and general experience, it is more likely to serve the interests of the governed. It not intrinsically morally superior. I would like to add that, in broad terms and general experience, it is also better for its neighbours, but recent history may suggest otherwise. The price of it being more protective of its own people - including its own combatants - than other forms of government is not infrequently paid by the people - including the civilians - of other countries.

    I must agree with Brett's implication that the main reason that the architects of allied bombing were not tried was 'victor's justice'. I'd also point out that democracies tend to use law to legitimise what they do. Other forms of government may, to some extent, do likewise. But they're less particular about it. Had the Nazis emerged victorious in WWII they wouldn't have troubled to put Churchill and Harris on trial.

    Incidentally, I'm now inclined to think I went too far in my earlier comment, and was taking Charlwood's words a little too literally. I suppose the sentence could be rendered:

    Perhaps the only man who should go to Bomber Command was the man who had convinced himself that mass killing was the only possible way to end the war.

    Still not a very cheerful thought, as he should surely be restrained by those men who had not convinced themselves that mass killing was the only possible way to end the war.

  13. Sorry Neil, you've got my point about the democracy the wrong way around. A democracy can (and does) change aims by the will of the majority of the people - in this specific case, there were mechanisms available to the people and government of Britain and the Commonwealth to decide that bombing was not the answer. Each citizen is a player in the conscience and morality of the state; acquiescence is agreement.

    (I think it worth mentioning that one of my grandfathers was a conscientious objector in W.W.II, yet saw no compromise working for an aircraft manufacturer - and not because it was a safe berth, as he was one of the most morally uncompromising people I've ever known.)

    Ultimately the rebuttal to Brett's point of 'there was dissent' is simply that 'there was not enough dissent'. In that sense a democracy has access to better moral decisions than a totalitarian state (leaving aside the thing about absolute power) because there are more people with some say and opportunity to convince others of the rightness of their cause - totalitarian states don't. In that sense the opportunity for better moral decisions means that ~ all other things being equal, which they aren't ~ a democracy's opportunity for more moral approaches means that they are by their mechanisms potentially more moral.

    There's also an equivalence here. The Axis powers were totalitarian dictatorships, yet the Italians showed what could happen when the people decided that the war aims of the leadership were no longer acceptable. In contrast, we don't like to face that it was ultimately the will of the people to not call a halt to the bombing. It would have been a huge and difficult step, yet the Italian case shows there was a more extreme comparison in reality. There were mutinies and refusals of allied combatants to follow orders or act, so again, there is precedence, within the military structure.

    Most of our agonisation is to do with looking back and the absolute knowledge that bombing alone did not bring the war to an end in Europe - but the people of the time didn't know it wasn't going to do so 'tomorrow', as they had been told it would for a decade or so previously, and, I think, in the context of 'punitive' diplomacy as the Empires had cheerfully practiced for a century or two as well. I'm sorry, but I think it is a classic case of us projecting our morality back in time.

    And it is 'a war crime' issue we are arguing here. As soon as you call something a crime, you are putting it in a legal context, rather than specifically a moral one alone. If we are to take the charge of the bombing being a war crime, then legally, there has to be a law to answer, a case and an action. None of those things has ever been undertaken, I understand, so it's as simple as there's 'nothing to answer'.

    In this context I'm thinking of the question of genocide as a legal concept, and it would serve as as exact comparison as (in this case) there is a legal structure, it is a nightmare to get to grips with, and as Neil's spotted, it's a moral quagmire of trying to being legal justice to mass killing.

    Well worth a read, and especially for this thread if you think of 'area bombing' being the subject instead:

    I think Neil's restating of the reading of Don Charlwood's statement is a lot more viable - and again we are, I suggest, forgetting that this was a war in which they did not know they would prevail; that many normal restraints needed to be cast aside to secure a future avoiding that 'new dark age' which was a real enough risk. In that sense I think through the bombing was awful, and truly regrettable (and we now know may have been often murderously unnecessary) the people of the democracies actually did a lot better than they might've. I'm thinking that the bombing was not practiced as revenge or 'punishment' much as some read it so then and many do now, but as a particularly brutal form of wrecking the enemy's ability to wage war, with a (they thought, and some hoped) a chance of bring the enemy to sue for peace.

    But I'm not a philosopher, moral guide or historian, so that's just an opinion of some factors I feel we don't weigh right.

  14. I also wrote an (even longer!) response to Brett's earlier comment over the reluctance to use fiction and ratings of sources (the cautions of which I agree with, the elimination of fiction I don't) and showed it to Mrs JDK, who said it could be summarised in a sentence saying:

    The arts - including fiction - are just one of the many ways we can examine people's otherwise unrecorded thoughts, feelings and reactions.

    I could go on (the long post in potentia is filed!) but if you stop to think about it, much of what we know of history is through art - good and bad art, good and bad history. Shakespeare and Josephine Tey are good writing but both bad history for Richard III, yet between them they've probably brought more to the real history of that period than most carefully structured academic histories. They also tell us (Bill particularly) a lot of what people thought (and were meant to think) about all that Rosy stuff - overtly and subconsciously.

    If I want the facts I'll turn to properly footnoted history; but if I want the feeling of what it was like, what people privately thought, but daren't record, fiction - with many caveats and much caution - can provide some greater insight. Not all, and not alone, of course.

    - - - -

    (Another response to an earlier post - For a presumably intelligent man, Grayling's thesis in his book's pretty shonky - I wasn't impressed by the setting out or construction of his argument, and the conclusion was hardly a surprise, given his start. It's the kind of supercilious and partisan writing that gives philosophers a bad name - in my opinion, of course. I've not encountered Friedrich's work.)

  15. Sorry, the above should read '...probably brought more people to read the real history of that period than most carefully structured academic histories.'


  16. Post author


    In contrast, we don't like to face that it was ultimately the will of the people to not call a halt to the bombing.

    Yes, this is the thrust of my reprisals article (though it's about 1940-1 not the later stages of the bomber war). But this only displaces responsibility for the war crime (if one there was) onto the collective shoulders of the nation, it doesn't remove responsibility altogether. Of course it does make it an impossible charge to make stick in any legal sense.

    If we are to take the charge of the bombing being a war crime, then legally, there has to be a law to answer, a case and an action. None of those things has ever been undertaken, I understand, so it's as simple as there's 'nothing to answer'.

    There was no law specifically prohibiting bombing of civilians period (the 1923 Hague air warfare rules were never ratified), though there were widely accepted legal principles and precedents which could be applied (J. M. Spaight wrote widely on this topic, but the gist is: it was illegal as such but it was legal to bomb military targets in civilian areas, that is collateral damage is acceptable; also reprisal bombing of civilians is acceptable if the enemy bombed yours illegally). You mention the case of genocide. The thing is, there was no crime of genocide before 1948, so in strict legal terms Nazi Germany did not commit the crime of genocide. (Okay, I say 'strict' but I am not a lawyer!) In fact, that's why the definition and laws were developed, because there were no laws to cover in toto the monstrous deeds they perpetrated upon the Jews and others. Yet we have no qualms about retrospectively accusing the Nazis of genocide.

    I agree that imposing our moral standards on the past is undesirable. But we can say that we think that there were things done which were acceptable then but we think now are wrong (slavery is another example). I think the tricky (but most interesting!) bit comes in the period where the consensus changes, where there did start to be widespread questioning (even if only passively) of things which once were unobjectionable. The early twentieth century in Britain was such a time, when it came to mass slaughter. Of course many in Britain believed before the war that bombing was a war-winning weapon. But many also believed it was wrong to use it. And again, while you are right that the consensus of public opinion in Britain during the war supported bombing, a very significant minority still did not. Whether we should applaud them for that or condemn (most of) them for not trying to stop it... well it's probably at that point where I'd agree with you and say it's not our place to judge.

    Shakespeare and Josephine Tey are good writing but both bad history for Richard III, yet between them they've probably brought more to the real history of that period than most carefully structured academic histories. They also tell us (Bill particularly) a lot of what people thought (and were meant to think) about all that Rosy stuff - overtly and subconsciously.

    I don't think I can agree here. Shakespeare tells us a lot about the 'human condition' (for want of a better phrase!) but he does so by using characters that just happen to have the names of historical figures and are in vaguely historical situations. That's why Shakespeare is so powerful, not because it adds something to our specific understanding of a historical period but because it is universal. (Of course he has greatly influenced our subsequent interpretation of those figures, Richard III above all, but that's probably for the worse.)

    On Grayling, I was half-convinced by it, but you could therefore say I was half-unconvinced by it too! Friedrich did not convince me (see the linked review).

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