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Monday, PBS’s American Experience series broadcast a documentary titled The Bombing of Germany, about the strategic-bombing campaign carried out against the Nazis by American forces in World War II. Coming from the liberal-leaning PBS and in an era where denunciations of American military actions — even in the “good war” against Nazi Germany — have become commonplace, it would have been no surprise if the film had proved to be yet another revisionist attempt to decry Allied tactics as immoral. This impression is reinforced by the introduction to the film on PBS’s website, which highlights the number of German civilian casualties incurred by Allied bombing and the “defining moments that led the U.S. across a moral divide” that would make it easier to drop a nuclear bomb on Japan. Indeed, the narration heard during the opening moments of The Bombing of Germany goes straight to this conclusion when it says that by the time the war ended, the bombing left “both German cities and America’s lofty ideals in ruins.”
But, fortunately, there was more to this documentary than the facile conclusion that the bombing of Germany was so immoral that it cannot be defended even in a war in which the future of civilization was at stake. By the time the 50-minute film was over, liberals expecting another trashing of America were left with some conclusions that not only reinforce the morality of American tactics during that war but also could affect the way we think about contemporary conflicts.
The story of the bombing offensive is complex. During the war, Britain’s Royal Air Force believed that the key to knocking German war industries was to burn down the cities where the factories existed. From their frame of reference, there was no moral distinction between the factories themselves and the homes of the defense workers who created the material that enabled the Nazi regime to commit the crimes against humanity that made the war a matter of life or death for the free world.
But the United States Army Air Force, equipped with more sophisticated planes and bombsights, as well as a more romantic notion about the distinction between government and civilian targets in a totalitarian state, disagreed. The Americans believed that by flying during the day when visibility was obviously better (the British flew at night), their planes could knock out strategic targets without having to attack entire cities. The results produced by this theory were not that good. Much damage was caused to the German war effort, but the losses of American planes (especially before the introduction of a long-range fighter plane in 1944 that would make it safer for U.S. bombers to fly over Germany) made it too expensive to continue. By contrast, the British weeklong raid on Hamburg in 1943, in which the entire city was hit, was a major blow to the German war effort. At the time, Nazi armaments minister Albert Speer told Hitler that a few more raids like Hamburg would bring the German war effort to a halt.
It is telling that the documentary treats the achievement of air superiority over Normandy before the D-Day landings in France as the Allied Air Forces’ greatest achievement. But it does not mention that both American and British air commanders bitterly resented being distracted from their plans to level Germany in order to support the landings by softening up military targets in France. But that is just the prelude to what the filmmakers and some of their consultants see as the moral turning point of the war for America — the bombings of Berlin and Dresden in February 1945 in which there was no pretense that the attack was anything but an attempt to destroy the city. The Dresden raid, immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, has been widely represented by many American, English, and German historians as immoral because the beautiful medieval city was not considered a military target and heretofore had been spared the devastation that rained down on other German cities. It is here that author Don Miller, one of the prominent voices heard in the film, describes the raid as the crossing of “a moral threshold … that we will not deliberately bomb civilians … once we crossed the moral divide in Berlin, it made everything else, including the atomic bomb, a little bit easier.”
But Miller is not the only voice heard about the raids against Berlin and Dresden. The film goes on to credit these devastating attacks for helping to make the Soviet assault on Eastern Germany, including the conquest of Berlin, easier. Moreover, the film points out that in a total war against a ruthless foe, half measures are of no use. After all, the ordinary Germans who served in Adolf Hitler’s army and worked in the factories that produced the weapons and other material that made his crimes possible never wavered in their loyalty to the Nazi regime, even as the Reich was reduced to ruins around them. This fact undermines the notion that Allied air-war theorists fervently believed in: that bombing could break the will of a nation. But Allied bombing attacks that literally destroyed the physical structures of the enemy’s war effort did work and, in fact, helped shorten the length of the bloodiest war in history.
The most devastating line of the film is its last, in which historian Conrad C. Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, confronts the moral dilemma of killing civilians in a righteous war against an immoral opponent. While the question of the deaths of civilians is one we must ponder, Conrad insists, “The most unethical act for the Allies in World War II would have been allowing themselves to lose.”
This is a concept that applies not only to the war against Hitler but also to the one that America is currently fighting against Islamo-fascists. We have heard a great deal in the past few years about unethical tactics both in terms of attacking terrorist strongholds and in dealing with prisoners who possess information about future threats. As the Obama administration tries to avoid further debacles like its reaction to the Christmas Day bombing attempt over Detroit and to maintain pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the conclusion of The Bombing of Germany should haunt them. It is all well and good to try to earn applause for being more moral than our opponents. But when facing an enemy whose goal is the destruction of our society and the murder of countless innocents, the prime objective must remain the same as it was in World War II. Allowing ourselves to lose such a war is the most unethical act imaginable.