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August 9, 2010

Book Review: Among the Dead Cities by A.C. Grayling (2007)

by Lane Smith

In the book Among the Dead Cities, philosopher A.C. Grayling examines the morality of area-bombing in World War II, focusing on Britain's Bomber Command and the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). A philosophy professor at the University of London, Grayling encourages his audience to consider the merit of the bombing campaigns in what can be described as a 'philosophical vacuum'. He urges readers not to compare or justify the actions of the Allied bombing against the atrocities committed by the Axis Powers, but to look at the bombing campaign alone.

Grayling begins his analysis by pointing out the irony of the war crime trials held at Nuremberg, one of the cities devastated by area bombing and considered to be 'among the dead cities'. He argues that although none of them would ever face prosecution, the architects of the Allied bombing campaign could have just as likely been the ones on trial at Nuremberg. It is after this initial analysis that Grayling introduces the main subject of analysis in his book, Operation Gomorrah in Hamburg, Germany. Grayling states that Operation Gomorrah was the best example to analyze the morality of area bombing in WWII because of a number of factors: Operation Gomorrah took place in 1943 while the war was still, for the most part, undecided. Hamburg was a mainly civilian target and actually the heart of anti-Nazism in Germany. Finally, Hamburg didn't possess any significant air defenses. All of these factors combined to make Operation Gomorrah the perfect case study for Grayling's purposes.

Constantly referring to Hamburg, Grayling proceeds to build a background of the bombing campaign orchestrated by the Allies focusing specifically on the leadership behind the area-bombing policy. For Britain's Bomber Command, Grayling focuses on Admiral Portal and Admiral Harris as the two men behind designing Britain's bombing strategy while also discussing General Lemay's role in the strategy of the USAAF in the Pacific theatre. Grayling does an exceptional job of explaining the progression of events that lead to the first implementation of the area bombing strategy. Moving to the next part of the argument, Grayling covers the alternate side of the bombing campaign in the chapter titled "The Experience of the Bombed". He makes good use of first-hand accounts from victims of area bombing in a tasteful way that doesn't stray from the main focus of his analysis. After this detailed description of being under the bombs, Grayling examines the policies and thoughts behind the men leading the bombing campaign in the section entitled "The Mind of the Bomber". This is one of the strongest sections of Grayling's work and is obviously well researched. The exploration of the policies and experiences that Harris and Lemay drew from when designing their bombing strategy is outstanding. Grayling also utilizes interviews, journals, and transcripts from Harris and Lemay to give insight to their state of mind at the time of the campaign.

In the chapters following, Grayling covers those who objected to the bombing of civilians prior to and during WWII. He sights specific examples of countries agreeing that bombing of civilians was immoral all the way back to the Hague conference of 1899 in Russia, when countries agreed that dropping explosives from hot-air balloons should be banned. Grayling also covers those individuals who spoke out against area bombing while the war was taking place. He uses the opinions stated by objectors at the time of the war to illustrate that there wasn't as much 'gray area' when it comes to area bombing as some of its defenders would argue. Grayling combines all the evidence submitted in the book to write three more sections. The first is a well thought out case against area bombing. The second section in the conclusion of the book is a well argued case in favor of the bombing campaigns.

Finally, Grayling uses the arguments made for and against the bombing campaigns to make his own assessment in the section entitled "Judgment". Grayling does such a good job presenting the evidence and building his case throughout the book that his final judgment seems spot-on. He falls back on his area of expertise, philosophy, to make a philosophical and moral argument against the area bombing of WWII. By Grayling's analyses, Operation Gomorrah in Hamburg was an immoral act. Therefore, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and all other noted area bombings were also immoral. Grayling's case is so well backed and explained that it makes it almost impossible to find any point of contention in his judgment.

Among the Dead Cities makes limited use of visuals throughout the book. There is, however, a section of photographs in the middle of the book. These photos include before and after pictures of areas significantly affected by area bombing. Also, there are photos of victims of the bombing campaigns of Hamburg and Nagasaki. Although there are not many pictures, the few provided do a more than adequate job of bringing a visual element to the horrors described in the book. Any more photos might have numbed the reader before the morality question could be sufficiently answered. Overall, the few disturbing photographs are an appropriate amount. Grayling also includes a table in the appendix of the book with statistics from every significant bombing operation by the British Royal Air Force. The table is easy to read and a useful reference tool for the reader.

Grayling's writing style is easy to follow and Among the Dead Cities is written on a level that can be understood by all. There is no need for significant prior knowledge of WWII, airplanes, or military tactics prior to reading the book. Everything is well explained and easy for the reader to visualize. If, however, the reader wishes to do further research, Grayling frequently notes recommended further reading on a variety of topics throughout the book.

Overall, Among the Dead Cities is an outstanding read for anyone interested in military history, past or present. Grayling, like a skilled mason, builds his argument brick by brick in a way that is both captivating and informative until he makes his judgment. The book is even more significant when considering the current state of war in the modern world. Whether in a fully declared war with clearly defined sides or in a war on terrorism, the targeting of civilians is a moral issue that must be addressed.

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