Richard Dawkins on collateral damage

While perusing the new Richard Dawkins website a while back, I came across an article that, if you know my interest in World War II, you’d know that I couldn’t resist commenting on, and it’s been in my “to write about” queue for a few weeks now. In it, Dawkins discusses the aerial bombing campaigns of World War II and contrasts our acceptance of such carnage then with our revulsion at the thought of inflicting so many civilian casualties now. His point is that the moral zeitgeist changes with time, which is something it would not do if religion’s claim of unchanging morality were truly at the root of how we form our moral values. Sadly, he undermines his otherwise valid argument through a rather facile understanding of World War II, and, unfortunately, he overlooks other factors that could help to explain such a shift. Even though I tend to agree with the general thesis, this is the very sort of thing that irritated me about parts of The God Delusion, such that even when I agreed with Dawkins’ I was annoyed with him.

Dawkins begins:

In warfare, public opinion is now prepared to tolerate far less collateral damage than used to be the case, and this is a revealing symptom of a more general and heartening trend. Not only are the civilian casualty rates in Iraq and Lebanon far lower than those in the bombing raids on Dresden, London or Hiroshima . Of greater moral significance, there was nothing collateral about those civilian casualties in 1945. In Dresden and Hiroshima, civilian casualties were part of the plan. Maybe there were military targets in Dresden but, on that terrible night of Feb 13th 1945, the theory of the British bombers was that of the firestorm – and you don’t use a firestorm to disable a factory or a railway marshalling yard. A firestorm is designed for the specific purpose of burning people. As many people as possible. . .

Now, contrast the fire storms of 1945 with the smart bombs of today. It is not just that modern electronic technology makes it possible to guide bombs, by satnav and other clever techniques, literally to a particular street address and not the house on either side. Such sophisticated targeting systems cost money, and it is spent specifically to avoid civilian casualties. Smart bombs are designed, at least in part, to minimize collateral damage. Obviously Air Marshall Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, architect of the Dresden raid, didn’t have at his disposal the technical know-how to make smart bombs. That’s not the point. My point is that, even if he could have used smart bombs, he wouldn’t have wanted to. The whole rationale and purpose of Bomber Harris was to kill civilians.


I’ve written about Dresden before, as longtime readers might remember, and Dawkins’ treatment of the Allied bombing campaign in general and the Dresden raid in particular is distressingly simplistic. There were indeed deeply disturbing moral questions regarding the entire concept of bombing cities to force the Germans and Japanese to surrender, and it does not require misstatements like the ones above to appreciate them. For example, contrary to Dawkin’s thesis, the bombing of Dresden was indeed primarily directed at the industry and railway stations of the city, and in the first bombing run more high explosives were used than incendiaries. A secondary aim of the raid was to cause a lot of disruption of transportation and communication, for which incendiaries are useful. Third, the aim of many of the bombing raids against German cities was to “de-house” industrial workers, destroy civilian morale, and thus decrease the effectiveness of the war effort. The primary intention was not to kill civilians, although it is was obvious to the Allied high command that such a strategy could not help but result in large numbers of civilian casualties.

It’s impossible to ask Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris his opinion now because he’s long dead, but Dawkins is almost certainly incorrect when he states that Harris would have eschewed the use of precision smart bombs if they had existed during the War. Harris was perhaps the foremost disciple of the “bomber dream.” Between the World Wars, there developed a contingent of military men who became fervent believers in the concept that air power alone, specifically strategic bombing, could win wars, and Harris was among these believers. In fact, some went so far as to claim that air power would ultimately render ground forces necessary only to move in and take over territory after strategic bombing had defeated the enemy. Thus was born the “bomber dream,” which, boiled down to its essence, is the belief that wars can be won by bombing alone. Indeed, the concept behind it was that strategic bombing actually saved lives in the long run by degrading the enemy’s ability to support its armies and destroying civilian morale, thus shortening the war. We now know that the bomber dream is just that–a dream. In general, air power alone doesn’t win wars. (The sole possible exception was the campaign in Kosovo in 1998.) But back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there were a number of fervent and influential believers that bombing alone could win wars with minimal casualties by destroying the enemy’s industrial capacity and “de-housing” armaments workers. Indeed, the very development of strategic bombing was at least in part a reaction to the horrors and mass slaughter that characterized trench warfare during World War I.

Before and during the early phase of World War II, bombing was even viewed as less horrific than battles like the Battle of the Somme, with its hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded in a single bloody battle. Unfortunately, as first practiced during an actual war, strategic bombing in Europe failed to live up to the bomber dream. It was incredibly wasteful, inefficient, and bloody. Hundreds of bombers dropping thousands of tons of bombs and killing thousands of civilians as “collateral damage” were needed just to destroy a relatively few strategically important targets because bomb accuracy was so poor. In addition, the Luftwaffe remained a formidable force until mid-1944, producing casualties among bomber crews so high as to be unsustainable until the advent of long-range fighter escort allowed protection of bombers all the way to and from their targets. No, Harris was no fool; he would have leaped at a chance to use a more efficient weapon if only because it would have decreased the horrific casualties among his bomber crews (in which crews were being killed as fast or faster than new crews could be trained) by eliminating the requirement for such massive, expensive, and risky raids.

Dawkins is also missing the entire context behind strategic bombing as it was practiced during World War II. Precision bombing versus area bombing was an argument that went back and forth between the Americans, who tended to advocate daylight precision bombing in order to target industry and avoid as much as possible civilian casualties, and the British, who advocated night time bombing raids, mainly because without long range fighter cover bomber crew casualty rates and bomber loss were unsustainably high during daytime raids. The problem, of course, is that it was difficult given the technology of the time,even to find targets, much less hit them accurately at night. Indeed, bombing accuracy wasn’t so hot during the day, either, making most American daytime “precision bombing” raids for all intents and purposes area bombing. Thus, in practice, the reason the strategic bombing strategy adopted was not so much to target civilians intentionally, but rather because the technology of the time was so crude that large numbers of bombs had to be dropped to have any chance of destroying important military or industrial targets at all. In essence, the only thing that bombers of the time could be reasonably assured of hitting was a city, and sometimes even then their bombs fell on farm fields miles away. Thus, the use of area bombing and incendiaries was adopted because of the inadequacy of the technology of the time, and the collateral damage was rationalized as an acceptable cost. Even so, it’s rather hard to imagine that even a bomber dream true believer like Harris would not have enthusiastically embraced a technology that would have allowed the high precision targeting of industrial and military targets that his bombers could not achieve.

Dawkins goes on:

I am not arguing that Bomber Harris was morally inferior to Donald Rumsfeld. Judging each by the moral standards of his own time, they might come out as roughly equivalent. The interesting point is that the moral standards change on a timescale of decades. The moral Zeitgeist shifts as the years go by. That is the first of my two points, but why is it interesting? It is interesting because it forms part of a powerful argument against the proposition that our morals come from religion. Here’s what I mean.

Religious apologists will try to persuade you that, without scriptural texts, we’d have no moral compass, no guidelines for what is right and what is wrong. Anybody who advocates basing our morals on the Bible has not read the Bible with sufficient attention. It is, of course, true that you can find verses of the Bible, and the Koran, which we today might regard as moral, for example the Sermon on the Mount. You can also find verses suggesting that the worst thing you can do is make a graven image or break the sabbath. Both deserve the death penalty, as does cheeking your parents. The Bible is an ethical disaster area with islands of decent morality dotted about here and there.

Dawkins is correct that the moral zeitgeist evolves, and that the very fact of that evolution argues against religion as the source of all morality. However, in this article Dawkins’ choice of example is not the slam dunk that he seems to think that it is. Besides his glossing over of the context in which strategic bombing became the policy of the air war from 1941 to early 1944 (after which bombers were diverted to soften up targets for D-Day) and then after the D-Day invasion, Dawkins left out some major factors about our seemingly decreasing tolerance for collateral damage that makes me think that perhaps the zeitgeist with regard to collateral damage hasn’t changed as much as we would like to think. First, consider the fact that, as a result of World War II, nuclear weapons were developed and used for the first time. Once the Soviets also had nuclear weapons, mutually assured destruction was the policy of the United States and the Soviet Union, in which if we were attacked we promised to unleash death and destruction upon the attacker on a scale that would far dwarf the entirety of the bombing campaign of World War II. This is to this day in essence the policy of the United States. Indeed, it is the policy of the U.S. to reserve the right to use preemptive nuclear strikes against nations or groups threatening us with weapons of mass destruction, and nuclear attacks on Iran are openly discussed. In the event of a successful attack on the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction, does anyone doubt that the public would overwhelmingly approve of retaliation in kind against whatever nation was involved, especially if that nation were Iran or North Korea? In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we were somehow persuaded that a preemptive invasion of Iraq was justified to prevent what we now know to have been nonexistent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists. What further actions would the public see as justified if terrorists ever succeeded in detonating a nuclear weapoin in an American city? Although I like to think that we would behave otherwise, after such an attack, I fear that our vengeance would make Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo look like the height of restraint.

Another aspect that Dawkins neglects as a cause of this changing zeitgeist is that it may well be the public’s access to information more than anything else that has led to this decreasing tolerance for civilian casualties. During World War II, information was tightly controlled, and the pictures of piles of bodies of the victims of area bombing were not seen for the most part until after the war. Now, we find out about military attacks within hours after they happen, and pictures of the carnage are shown in the media and posted on the Internet. I’ve often wondered if the public would have been as tolerant of the casualties of mass area bombing in Germany and Japan if pictures of the carnage could have been beamed into the homes of the American and British public every night, as such pictures have been for every war since Vietnam. In fact, I could cite the very examples of Hamburg and particularly Dresden. Even with the technology of the day (newspapers and newsreels), the British and American public were so dismayed and disturbed when news of the destruction of Dresden and the massive casualties due to the bombing raid reached them that there was considerable political fallout and Winston Churchill felt obligated to chastise Harris for the raid. (This chastisement infuriated Harris.) Going even further back, when Mathew Brady put on an exhibit of his photographs of dead soldiers at Antietam, there was considerable shock. It’s just as true now as it was then that it is easy to be tolerant of casualties, whether soldiers or “collateral damage,” when you are blissfully unaware of what they really look like. True, it may be the increasing graphic knowledge of just what collateral damage means (the violent and bloody deaths of civilian men, women, and children ) that has contributed to a change in the zeitgeist, but Dawkins completely ignores this aspect of history.

Finally, I would counter that our tolerance for collateral damage tends to be in direct proportion to the seriousness of the perceived threat of the enemy and justness of the war and in this the zeitgeist probably hasn’t changed all that much. During World War II, the British public, for example, knew that the war was a battle for survival of their nation, and perhaps this to some extent explains the different philosophy of bombing adopted by the British. Similarly, there is the revenge factor, which might go a long way towards explaining why the British were so enamored of area bombing against Germany compared to the U.S., while the U.S. was much more willing to mete out even more horrific destruction upon Japanese cities to the point of dropping two nuclear bombs. The same reason applies to the U.S. public and its lower tolerance for collateral damage in the first and second Gulf Wars and Kosovo, none of which have been widely perceived as wars in response to direct threats to our nation.

So, in the end, although Dawkins is correct in pointing out how morality changes with time, particularly when he points out to our increasing intolerance of racism in the decades since segregated bathrooms and restaurants in the South or our increasing acceptance of homosexuality (or stem cell research), and how that change undermines the claims of religion as the sole source of human morality, his discussion of decreasing public tolerance for collateral damage, while probably correct when taken as a whole, treats such a complex topic in a maddeningly simplistic manner that leaves out a number of other factors. When it comes to violence and a tolerance for collateral damage in war, I’m not sure that our morals have changed quite as much in the last 60 years or that our tolerance for collateral damage has decreased nearly as rapidly as Dawkins argues.

Suggested reading:

1. Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2004.
2. Robin Neillands, The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany, The Overlook Press, New York, 2001.