07 December 2009
Was the bombing of Dresden justified?

Writing about the actions of democratically-elected leaders in wartime with particular reference to the bombing of cities such as Dresden, Robert Higgs says:

Killing the innocent, for example, carries no stigma; nor does wanton destruction of property, unjust punishment or imprisonment, and a thousand other actions that would be regarded as flagrant crimes during peacetime.

Now Higgs doesn’t quite say that Dresden was a war crime but he comes close enough to make me think that he probably does.  Which makes my hackles rise as I’ve never really seen the issue.

Anyway, the only way to work out whether it was justified or not is to work it out from first principles.  So, let’s have a go:

Someone bombs your house.  Are you allowed to defend yourself? 
Yes you are.

Someone bombs your neighbour’s house.  Are you allowed to defend him? 
Yes you are. 

Do you have to? 
No, you don’t.

The enemy drops his bombs on your house and returns to base.  Are you allowed to attack the bomber, the base and its staff? 
I suppose it depends on the threat.  If there are reasonable (I know horrible, slip-slidey term) grounds to believe that you are going to be attacked again, then you have the right to attack the base.  If, on the other hand, he or his representatives immediately apologize and offer compensation, then no.

But if he doesn’t and you choose to attack him the situation we have here is a war.  And oddly enough, a war without a state.

What about the factory where the bomber’s plane is made?  Are you allowed to attack that? 
Well, if you are allowed to attack the plane at the base why shouldn’t you be able to attack the plane at the factory?  Now, if the factory owner has said that he was no longer going to supply bombers to your enemy and he would accept whatever fine was coming his way for breach of contract then maybe you would be wrong to attack the factory.  But if not then I don’t see a problem.

What if the enemy forces the factory owner, his employees and contractors to build planes? 
Intuitively, one feels that anything you may do is the enemy’s responsibility.  He, after all has created the situation.  Not pleasant for the civilians involved, for sure, but an argument for resisting state coercion at all costs.

What if your means of attack aren’t very accurate?  What if those means might mean not only the destruction of the base but also the destruction of the local town? 
I think you can reasonably argue again that this is the enemy’s problem.  He’s put his base near a centre of population.  He has chosen to start a war.  He has to accept the consequences of his actions.

Let me put it another way, if it were wrong under all circumstances to kill civilians what would there be to stop the enemy driving civilians in front of his forces at gunpoint?

Getting back to the collateral damage issue, does the same apply to the factory? 
In that case it has not been the enemy’s decision where to site the factory but the factory owner’s.  But it has been the choice of the inhabitants of the town to live near the factory.

[As an aside, it occurs to me that exactly the same arguments could be made about gun sellers.  So, if you sell a gun to someone you suspect to be planning a murder then don’t be surprised if someone blows up your shop.]

What if you don’t know where the factory is and your enemy won’t tell you?
I think under those circumstances you can pretty much bomb anything you like so long as its either on enemy territory or associated with his war effort.  Which in the case of a total war is pretty much everything - dams, houses, flocks of sheep, marshalling yards, take your pick.

Right, now the fun part.  How, in any way does this differ from the situation surrounding the decision to bomb Dresden?  I am damned if I can see a difference.  Poles were attacked, Britons came to their defence.  Factories were bombed as accurately as they could be (which wasn’t very).  The enemy declined to tell the Allies where their factories were and so the Allies were allowed to bomb just about anything they chose.  Which included Dresden.

There is, however, one difference.  The Area Bombing Directive ordered Bomber Command to attack areas of population.  This was wrong.  But it didn’t make much difference.  Had Bomber Command been ordered to attack factories or likely factories it would have ended bombing almost exactly the same targets.

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