A Student of History

September 25, 2006

Among the Dead Cities-Review

Filed under: New books,Wars — John Maass @ 1:47 am

I just finished A.C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities, about which I learned from Mark Grimsley’s blog.  It is one of those kind of books that I’d give 3 of 5 stars but would recomend folks read even so.  It is very thought provoking, well-written and logically organized.  Maybe that is because it was written by a philosopher, not an historian.  Anyway, the question asked in this study is whether the Allied bombing of Germany and Japan in WWII was justified, given that civilians were targeted.  The author comes down decidedly in the camp of those who conclude that the bombings were unjustified and immoral since the air campaigns often targeted cities to kill civilans who were industrial workers.  And of course, their homes, families, factories, etc.  Given the inaccuracy of the bombers, it was often the case that bombs fell very wide of the mark anyway, killing more civilians. 

Book Cover Image 

The author does summarize the opposing viewpoint, but then refutes it.  He says that the bombing of Japanese cities (esp. the firebombings of Tokyo) and German cities were continued long after the Allies knew they’d win the war and thus were not only unjustified but immoral.  He also states that in Europe, the Americans bombed military targets with percision bombing (as nearly as technology of the early 1940s allowed) while the British went on highly inaccurate night raids against cities in general, which were bound to hit civilians–and the RAF knew it.    This brings out one of the book’s most significant flaws–the author assumes that WWII leaders knew when the war was basically won at the time, rather than after the fact as post-war analysis determined (and as a philospoher in modern London can try to guess at as well.)  This is not to excuse “Bomber” Arthur Harris’ decision to resist the requests of his superiors to target more military related locations, rather than focus on cities regardless of their value to the Germans.  Many cities late in the war suffered bombings when the cities were of little value to the German war effort at all.  However, did the Allies really know, as the author seems to, when the war was over?  The author thinks they should have by mid to late 1944.  I think this is teleological, of course with the benefit of historical hindsight, and applies both to Europe and Japan.  Given the Germans’ continued work on jet planes and the V2, it is not really a given that in 1944 the enemy was down and out (witness the Battle of the Bulge.)  The case might be made more convincingly @ the war against Japan, but given the fierce resistance of the Japanese on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, maybe not. 

Photo of A. C. Grayling 

This brings me to the book’s second significant flaw: the failure to discuss the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in connection with the attempt to avoid hundreds of thousands of potential casualties in the Allies invaded Japan’s home islands.  Why the author ignored this borders of the disingenuous, and I must add that he did not answer an e-mail from me regarding this very point.  He does condem the fire bombings of Tokyo in no uncertain terms, but his lack of discussion of the atom bombs is a remarkable ommission.  Having said this, however, I do regard the book as valuable for provoking discussion, and it is nicely written.


  1. “This brings me to the book’s second significant flaw: the failure to discuss the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in connection with the attempt to avoid hundreds of thousands of potential casualties in the Allies invaded Japan’s home islands.”

    He deals with this extensively and makes the convincing and sound case that the Japanese had been desperate for peace talks and were making explicit overture through the Soviet Union. This was well known by the allies and the idea that these bombs would shorten the war or prevent an invasion was only posited after the fact as a moral justification (it is mentioned nowhere as a justification in the memos discussing this decision). The bombs were dropped 1) because it would of course destroy any possibility of a Japanese resurgence 2) to test the bombs on people and cities and study the effects (which is why two bombs were dropped while the cities had previously been primed for attack having been spared any aerial bombardment) 3) to warn off the Soviet Union.

    None of them were particularly justfiable reasons when they could have dropped a tester and achieve a similar effect (never mind two bombs on two populated cities).

    Comment by Lev — February 16, 2008 @ 6:59 pm | Reply

  2. Sorry Lev, but the book fails in dealing with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Comment by John Maass — February 16, 2008 @ 8:16 pm | Reply

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