“It began on Saturday
7th September 1940 at around tea-time… That Saturday was a warm, sunny Autumn
day. In the late afternoon we of the Auxiliary Fire Service, stationed at the
London Fire Brigade Station … [were] watching from the window towards
Greenwich, across the Thames, we suddenly saw aircraft approaching, quite low,
their shapes black against the bright sky. We watched, mesmerised, until
someone said, uneasily, ‘I think we’d better go downstairs, these blokes look
like they mean business’ They did. We closed the window and were walking,
unhurriedly down the stairs when suddenly came loud rushing noises and huge
explosions. Bombs! we were being bombed! “ ~ Doris
Lilian Bennett


This month
marks 70 years since the German Luftwaffe began its systematic bombing of
English cities, killing 43,000 Britons in
nine months of bombing.
Nazi Germany adopted this tactic after failing to
gain the air supremacy needed for a full scale invasion of Britain, and in
retaliation for earlier limited bombings of German cities. “The Blitz” failed
to defeat British morale; but the tactic of “terror bombing” became a central
feature of the Second World War.

From 1942 onward,
Britain’s Royal Air Force began the systematic bombing of German cities, under
the direction of Air
Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris

“Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable
unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified
in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied
soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is
certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the
whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British

Harris’ rationale is the epitome of “whatever it takes”, the
principle of military expedience. But there is also a hint of vengeance in his words:
“The Nazis entered this war under the
rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody
was going to bomb them… They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the

of German civilian casualties suffered under Allied bombing range from 300,000
to 600,000 killed. The RAF were far more effective than their German

In the Pacific
region the Japanese military made no secret of their contempt for the rules of
warfare. The numerous war crimes and atrocities committed by Japanese forces
were more like natural extensions of the perverse Imperial ideology, rather
than concessions to military expedience.

But the US firebombing of Tokyo
from February 1945, and finally the use of nuclear weapons on the cities of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are the epitome of doing “whatever it takes” to shorten
the war, forestall invasion, preserve the lives of Allied soldiers, and let
enemy civilians “reap the whirlwind”. The lessons of military expedience
culminated in the most direct and effective violence ever inflicted upon an
enemy population.

In the past few decades, Western democracies have shied away
from the targeting of non-combatants. A narrative has emerged affirming the “exceptional”
nature of World War II, that increased civilian mobilisation according to the
principles of “total war” removed the distinction between civilian and
military. Yet this “straw man” argument does not tell us why it should suddenly
become morally licit to intentionally target enemy non-combatants; for it is
the “combatant/non-combatant” distinction that determines the moral use of
force, not the “civilian/military” dichotomy. Medics and chaplains may be
military non-combatants, while civilians will become legitimate targets if they
enter into combat.

The value of this distinction is most apparent in the two
wars that have engaged Western democracies this past decade. In Iraq and
Afghanistan, the enemy is not “military”, yet he is most definitely a
combatant. At the same time, the enemy has embraced whole-heartedly the
principle of expedience, doing “whatever it takes” to achieve his goals. This
principle is made explicit in the self-serving justification of al-Qaeda:

scholars have issued a fatwa [a religious order] against any American
who pays taxes to his government. He is our target, because he is helping the
American war machine against the Muslim nation.”

al-Qaeda leader offered
for the killing of non-combatants that read almost like a
parody of arguments for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

“The citizens in democratic Western countries become full participants in
governmental decision-making by voting in elections and therefore they are no
longer considered ‘non-combatants’ as in past wars.”

Islamic terrorists and “insurgents” have even displayed an astonishing
degree of callousness toward the lives of their fellow believers:

killing of infidels by any method including martyrdom [suicide] operations has
been sanctified by many scholars even if it means killing innocent Muslims… The
shedding of Muslim blood… is allowed in order to avoid the greater evil of
disrupting jihad.”

We have returned to a point where Western nations uphold the ethics of
warfare, while our enemies will do “whatever it takes” to win. Yet the
temptation will always exist for us to abandon our self-imposed rules of
warfare for the sake of a quicker, easier, or more vengeful victory.

To avoid this temptation, we must confirm that we are truly acting in
accordance with the ethics of warfare, and not simply responding to the demands
of the present era. It is clear, for example, that domestic and international
politics will not condone the targeting of non-combatants as it did in the
past. But is this opinion based on the fact that it is always wrong to target
non-combatants? Or is it based on a pragmatic sense that such actions are not
yet justified? We do not know what challenges the future holds, so we cannot
predict how our judgment will be tested and warped by coming events.

Many people believe that war with Iran or North Korea are very real
possibilities, and the threat of nuclear weapons from these nations cannot be
ignored. How would we respond in such a terrible scenario? Would we view their
non-combatant populations as worthy of protection? Or would we find some
rationale to let them “reap the whirlwind”?

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide,
South Australia.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...