Saturday, 7 July 2012

Arthur Harris – a response from Peter Hitchens

The author of this article ( whose name I know, though he prefers not to make it public) launched an attack on me in his article of 4th July. Most of it is answered in the postings to which he provides links in the article ( but which he does not appear to have read with any care) but also here  and here.

I will take a number of points from this attack. First is the absurdly patronising opening, in which our host writes as if to a fairly dim child that bad things happen in wars, as if I didn’t know that. Has he been in a war zone? I have, more than once, and it is because I have that I find such stuff tiresome. It is all very well to adopt a pose of machismo about conflict. Wait until you have seen what happens to someone’s head when a bullet has passed through it, or been in an overburdened and inadequate hospital full of wounded people. Then imagine these things happening to you, or to people dear to you.

This balance between the need for war and its costs is not well-understood in a culture which has for almost 70 years glorified World War Two as a ‘good war’ , often in films which of necessity conceal the horror, or attribute bad deeds only to the losers. I regard this as a gross oversimplification, and a serious and damaging self-deception.

Our host is dismissive about religion, asserting that it was ‘invented as a comforter to the hurt’. Well, that is one way of describing the self-sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, and the accompanying scripture and thought, but it wouldn’t be mine. If the author can’t grasp the significance and power of other people’s beliefs, that is his loss. But I think history shows he is unwise to dismiss them as unimportant or trivial. How many divisions has Jesus Christ? It might be too early to tell. None of us knows for certain that death is the end. If, rather than being a full stop, it is the moment at which we encounter justice and mercy (largely absent from this world), then it is at least interesting to wonder what is and is not just, and what we might do to seek mercy.

Arguments about just war have continued for many centuries. The subject is often a very difficult balance. It is possible, for instance, to argue that the *unintentional* killing of innocents, as a result of an action with a good purpose, is justifiable. But that is not the subject under discussion here. What we did in the bombing of Germany was the deliberate killing of civilians by fire and blast. You may try to express machismo about that, but it would seem to me to be a poor sort of man who exulted over deliberately and consciously bringing about the deaths of women, pensioners and babies.

Very few have sought to argue that the *deliberate* killing of unarmed women and children could come under the heading of ‘Just War’ . Indeed, Britain’s political leaders and military chiefs were filled with revulsion at such actions until well into the war. And Harris was actively annoyed that Churchill would not publicly admit the true nature of what our bombers were doing. It is fairly obvious why Churchill did not want to do so. He, an experienced warrior who was far from squeamish, was more than a little uncomfortable about it. If in doubt about the efforts made to avoid bombing civilians in the pre-Harris Bomber Command, he should read the early chapters of Max Hasting’s excellent book ‘Bomber Command’.

I am. Bizarrely, attacked here for having been a Trotskyist 40 years ago –a thing have both admitted to, apologised for and repudiated. As it happens, I imagine Trotsky would have been quite happy with this form of warfare, if his pamphlet ‘Their Morals and Ours’ is anything to go by. Is our host happy to be in the company of Lev Davidovich Trotsky, the butcher of Kronstadt?

I don’t know what he intends by referring to me as a ‘fundamentalist Christian’, though I assume he hopes to suggest some sort of fanaticism. I am, as it happens a communicant broad-church Anglican. He may regard that as ‘fundamentalist’. If so, I can do nothing about it.

He then gives a rather partial (and in my view misleading) version of the history of Sir Arthur Harris, the main object of my attack. He says Harris ‘inherited’ its area bombing doctrine (the nice way of describing the policy of deliberately killing German civilians). He also speaks of Bomber Command having had a ‘most successful period’, as if its success is a matter beyond dispute. Actually, it isn’t. he really should read A.C.Grayling’s book ‘Among the Dead Cities’.

The main suggestion here (apart from a prejudice in favour of the accepted war propaganda version of events, which I should have thought any mature person would view with scepticism even at the time, let alone so long afterwards) is that Harris was a cypher without views or objectives of his own, who took over a policy and fulfilled it, merely following orders. In fact Harris was picked by Sir Charles Portal for the job precisely because Portal knew that Harris believed in the policy. The Area Bombing Directive, which launched the policy, dates from February 1942, close to Harris’s appointment, and the policy only really reached full power in and after March 1943. By that time, as it happened, the course of the war was already decided by the Soviet victory at Stalingrad (2nd February 1943), after which Hitler’s defeat was only a matter of time.

Harris was enthusiastically in charge during the most important period of the operation of the policy, and he himself would have snorted with derision if anyone had tried to claim he was not fully engaged with it.

Our host says that ‘like most other thinking people’ ( as if numbers decided questions of right and wrong, and as if those who disagreed with him are perhaps not thinking, or even unthinking) grudgingly accept Area Bombing as ‘the best of two bad options’.

What does he mean?
What is the other option? I do not think he is referring to Sir Henry Tizard’s argument (he lost to Lord Cherwell, who preferred deliberately killing civilians) that Bomber Command should instead have attacked military and industrial targets. Is he then suggesting that in some way the Bombing of women and children in their homes was essential to our national survival? This is simply not true. After Hitler invade the USSR in June 1941, there was no existential threat to Britain (it is arguable as to whether there had been one before, as there was never any serious plan for a German invasion of this country). What is more, until the much later V-1 and V-2 offensives, German bombing of Britain (which never at any stage reached the levels we inflicted on Germany under Harris) was much reduced after Hitler turned East. The only truly severe threat (as acknowledged by Churchill) was from German submarines to our food, fuel and munitions supplies. And it is well known that the huge concentration of men, material and money on deliberately bombing civilians in their homes in the dark diverted strength away from Coastal Command, which was therefore unable to fight as effectively as it could have done against the U-boats.

The author (and this to me is a sign that he has never seriously considered the opposing case, probably because he fears to do so) wrongly attributes to me the view that ‘Not a single bomb must fall on private property’. I don’t think this and never said it. I accept that, if you bomb military targets, you are bound to hit civilian targets unintentionally. This is quite distinct form the Harris policy of deliberately bombing civilians in their homes.

The author points out (and I do not deny) that daylight formation bombing with fighter escorts is difficult. I don’t deny it. He points out (as I also do not deny) that daylight bombing does not achieve pinpoint accuracy. I never said it did. It is nonetheless both more militarily effective, and more morally justifiable, than burning German Social Democrats, Hitler’s principal opponents, to death.

Vitally, the powerful argument that the bombing campaign diverted weapons and manpower from the Eastern Front and the Atlantic coastal defences applies equally to daylight bombing. We didn’t have to bomb civilians deliberately to get the Germans to defend themselves against air attack. Actually, Harris had to be forced to divert his bombers to attacks on real targets before and during D-day ( and they were very effective), he wanted to carry on bombing houses.

I have already dealt with the weaselly smear of anti-Semitism, carefully not directed against me, but bunged in there anyway, just for luck. Shame on him. Once more, it is a sign of a person who isn’t prepared to argue seriously.

I think my critic should read more carefully, and argue more seriously.

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