Hitchens and Grayling debate ‘Among The Dead Cities’

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I recently placed this debate in “The Good” section of my three-part post of all of Hitchens’ formal television and radio debates, but now after a recent third viewing, I am wondering whether it should have gone in “The Great” section.  The late Christopher Hitchens, journalist, author, public intellectual and polemist, debates British philosopher and author A C Grayling on the latter’s book on the morality of deliberately aiming bombs at civilians during wartime within the context of World War II, Among The Dead Cities: Is The Targeting Of Civilians In War Ever Justified? [London: Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 2007] at the Goethe Institute, Washington on 20 April 2006.

Grayling’s argument

Tellingly, the title of Grayling’s book is derived from an Allied report at the war’s end regarding a suitable venue to hold the trials of Nazi war criminals.  While acknowledging that the Second World War was a “just war” against a truly evil enemy and the greatest mistake the Allies could possibly have made would have been to lose it, Grayling brushes aside the atrocities of the Axis that have attracted the most attention since the War’s conclusion and focuses on whether the Allies’ area bombing campaign against German and Japanese cities constituted a war crime under the guidelines set out at the post-war Nuremburg Trials.

Grayling even dismisses the argument that the Allies were justified in taking such action as a means of retaliation as it was the Germans who bombed the Allies’ civilians first.  Although he does not use the school yard retort in so many words, it is a rather apt summary of his position: two wrongs don’t make a right.  Just because the Nazis carried out a campaign of sterilisation, eugenics and genocide against peoples who were unfortunate enough not to be in their favour, the Allies would scarcely have been vindicated in taking such action against the Germans at the end of the war.

Grayling concludes that the Allies’ deliberate targeting of civilians on the enemy side by area bombing of Germany and Japan and the dropping of the atomic bombs by America on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not only a crime against humanity in moral terms, but that it did not even have the desired strategic effect of hindering the enemy war effort by destroying their workforce, supplies, munitions and lines of communication and shattering the moral of their civilian population so as to make their governments sue for peace or surrender  unconditionally.

Hitchens’ response

While Hitchens’ speech is not the kind of soaring and swirling grandstanding that we were used to from his debates on religion; repeated viewings reveal it to be among his very best.  His exposition of the Jewish-born/Protestant-convert Victor Klemperer’s diary of the Third Reich, I Shall Bear Witness, among other obscure tracts, reminds me of revealing the real joys of being a public intellectual, when commenting on the death of Susan Sontag, showing how committed, well-read and intelligent he was with his in-depth knowledge of texts that 99.9% of the population have never even heard of, much less have the time, energy or motivation to read:

Between the word “public” and the word “intellectual” there falls, or ought to fall, a shadow.  The life of the cultivated mind should be private, reticent, discreet: Most of its celebrations will occur with no audience, because there can be no applause for that moment when the solitary reader gets up and paces round the room, having just noticed the hidden image in the sonnet, or the profane joke in the devotional text, or the secret message in the prison diaries.  Individual pleasure of this kind is only rivalled when the same reader turns into a writer, and after a long wrestle until daybreak hits on his or her own version of the mot juste, or the unmasking of pretension, or the apt, latent literary connection, or the satire upon tyranny.

Although Hitchens broadly agrees with Grayling that the actions of the Allies were awful, as were some of their motives – they bombed the German cities firstly, because they could and secondly, to impress Josef Stalin whose Red Army was fast advancing on the Third Reich from the East and who could well have been the Allies’ enemy in a third world war once the second was out of the way – he stops short of calling the bombing campaign an atrocity or a war crime.  The Second World War was a truly exceptional example and Germany’s defeat had to be final, total, utter and annihilating.  There could be no repeat of what happened after 1918 with speculation about what might have happened if Germany had hung on a little longer and the Jews had not conspired against them.

Drawing on Klemperer’s diaries, Hitchens paints an astonishing image of the morning after the night of the bombing of Dresden (which, thanks to unusually favourable climate conditions “worked too well”), when Klemperer and his wife who were about to be shipped off to the death camps that very day, emerged from their shelters, saw that not one brick was piled on top of another, and so tore off the yellow stars from their clothing.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners?

Hitchens begins his speech by applauding Germany’s courage for facing up to its record during World War II and refers to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which argued that the Germans were genetically predisposed to carry out the Holocaust, as a “defamation” to the character of the German people.   He reviewed the book in conjunction with reporting on what sounded like an intellectual public raping of Goldhagen by a pair of older and wiser historians of the period shortly after the book’s publication:

Having immersed myself in this volume for a weekend, I am eager to ask one big question that cries to heaven for an answer.  It is this: Who on earth does Goldhagen think he is arguing with?  He comes to tell us there was a good deal of state- and church-sponsored anti-Semitism in German culture.  He adds that the Nazis made great use of Jew hatred in their propaganda.  He goes on to say that many Germans took part in beatings, killings, and roundups not because they were coerced but because they liked the idea.  He announces that not many Germans resisted the persecution of their Jewish countrymen.

Excuse me, but I knew this and so did you.  Moreover, the sarcastic phrase about “obeying orders” is not even a well-known explanation, only a well-known excuse.  All the way through Goldhagen’s presentation, which is one tautology piled on another, I wait to make my point.  And then the two big scholars present come to the podium with their comments, and I realize I have been wasting my time.

Sophomoric, meretricious, unoriginal, unhistorical, a product of media hype by Knopf (the book’s publisher), contradictory, repetitive, callow…  I’m just giving you the gist of what they said about Hitler’s Willing Executioners. It must have been quite an ordeal for Goldhagen, who looks about 12, to sit through this kind of thing from revered seniors.

Ouch.

Interestingly, Grayling too commented on the “questionable character of scholarship” that was Hitler’s Willing Executioners in Among The Dead Cities [p. 166].  He mentions he reviewed the book for the Financial Times when it was first published, although I have been unable to find it online.  However, I have found that of Richard John Neuhaus, which Grayling cites in the endnotes:

After Hitler and because of Hitler, six million fewer Jews remained. In the fifty years since, many Christians and some Jews have come to understand much more deeply the sources of what Rosenzweig terms the enmity and the bond between us.  The Jewish question remains because, thank God, Jews remain. In America, too, there are anti-Semites who propose solutions, if not a “final solution,” to the Jewish question.  They are and, please God, will continue to be a fringe phenomenon.  Much more important, we in America, Jews and Christians, have the singular responsibility and opportunity to work out a way of remaining together in mutual respect and unquestioned security.  For that common task we receive no help whatever from the incoherent, hateful, and dishonest tract that is Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

Terrorism by another means?

What really makes Hitchens’ blood boil – to the extent that it “disfigures” the book – is Grayling’s comparison of the Allied bombing and the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda; having spent the preceding four and a half years quarrelling with former friends on the Left that Osama Bin Laden lead a group of people who had a legitimate grievance against the United States for their misadventures abroad.  This is the “offending passage” from Among The Dead Cities in full (Hitchens quoted the first paragraph at the end of his opening speech):

A surprise attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption, and terror: there comes to seem very little difference in principle between the RAF’s Operation Gomorrah, or the USAAF’s atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York by terrorists on 11 September 2001.  And this latter, prescinding from differences in scale and drama of the target, is no different in turn from terrorist bombings carried out in Madrid by Basque separatists or in London by the IRA.  All these terrorist attacks are atrocities, consisting of deliberate mass murder of civilians to hurt and coerce the society in which they belong to.  To say that the principle underlying ‘9/11’, Hamburg and Hiroshima is the same is to say that the same moral judgement applies to all three.

No doubt these will be unduly provocative comparisons.  It can be pointed out that the Allied bombings were carried out in time of declared war, in which offensive comparisons are in effect a form of defensive operation, given that the enemy will seek to do the same if given an opportunity; whereas Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were perfidious attacks on unprepared targets, the first military, the second civilian.

This point is a good one, for there is indeed a difference here, though some will attempt to make it a debating point whether those who carry out terrorist attacks believe that they are at war and that their offence is in the same way a form of pre-emptive defence.  Very well: grant the difference; yet focus on the net effect.  In all these cases the centre-piece is an attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption and terror.  This is what these events have in common, whether in the midst of declared war or not, and so far as this core point is concerned, adjustments of fine moral calibration are at best irrelevant.  All such attacks are moral atrocities [pp. 278 – 279].

Grayling gave a lengthy account of his elaborative reply to Hitchens in the postscript to my paperback edition:

The 9/11 point is a different matter.  Those who have most belligerently opposed the comparison, such as Christopher Hitchens, are right to point out that whereas World War II area bombing occurred in the middle of a declared war between states whose military forces were engaged in combat to the death, the 9/11 attacks were acts of terrorism carried out not by one state against another but an egregiously nasty private organisation with no interest in anything other than the unrestrained furtherance of its agenda.  I grant this, and indeed all other differences, and acknowledge that there is no moral equivalence between Allied military endeavours against the Nazi and Japanese regimes, and the 9/11 attacks, both taken on their own inclusive terms.  Instead I argued that in one crucial respect – one respect only – there is a dismaying similarity between area bombing and terrorist bombings: namely, that they both seek to coerce a people by blowing up as many of them as possible and thereby terrorising and demoralising the rest.  In this single respect, all acts of mass murder are indeed morally equivalent: and their equivalence lies in their being great wrongs.  That was my point; and I adhere to it, because it is surely a profoundly educative one, since it allows one to make a simple but profound emotional connection between one’s horror at the 9/11 attacks in which 3000 people died in a single atrocity, to one’s horror at the deaths of ten and perhaps sometimes twenty times as many in each of the bombings of such places as Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This way of grasping the purport of what area bombing meant, really meant, is vital to making a difference to how we behave and what we accept today in the conduct of conflicts.  There is nothing abstract or theoretical about the mass murder in which bombing consists: it is real and terrible, and anything that drives the point home has its place in the debate, for in the end the effect on victims, and the atrocity of the act, are indeed one and the same in all cases – in this one crucial, central respect [pp. 292 – 293].

I find it very difficult to take a side in this argument between Hitchens and Grayling; I can well understand both men’s point of view.  Ultimately, I am more sympathetic to Hitchens’ stance by the breadth of a cigarette paper and I am glad that Grayling ruled out the drawing of moral equivalences.  Yes, it was a truly awful thing that the Allies did to the Axis countries in World War II and I would be loathed to defend it for one moment.  However, we were fighting a truly awful enemy who would have visited the same devastation on us a thousand-fold given the opportunity and – as Hitchens pointed out in the debate – the only thing more awful than an Axis defeat would have been an Axis victory.

“Perfect weapons”

I am reminded of Sam Harris’ discussion of the philosophy of “perfect weapons” and the morality of collateral damage in The End Of Faith.  I have posted an edited version of the relevant passage in my previous post (before this post spirals even more out of control!), but in summary, Harris answers those on the Left like Noam Chomsky who compared the America to its enemies in moral terms with the philosophical device of a “perfect weapon”.  If there existed a “perfect weapon” that killed/impaired/destroyed only its intended military targets and did not cause any “collateral damage” by killing or injuring innocent civilians and destroying their homes, would America make use of such a weapon in waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st Century?  Most certainly, it would.  Would America’s enemies in the Middle East use such a weapon?  Most certainly, they would not.  This is as clear and concise a distinction between moral intentions and sheer “body count” as I have ever found.

As Harris himself said in his 2007 debate against left-leaning journalist, commentator and author, Chris Hedges, when pressed by moderator Robert Scheer as to whether there was a “fundamental moral difference” between Islamist suicide bombing and the Allies’ tactics during World War II, that we could not fight war like we did in World War II.  We have learned the terrible lessons of such actions before “going casually onto the battlefield”.

Most certainly the Allied commanders in World War II (not to mention Nixon and Kissinger in the Vietnam War) would not have made use of “perfect weapons” to wage war against the enemy.  Neither would America’s and Israel Islamic foes in the 21st Century.  However, Bush and Obama most certainly would.

And that is a good thing.

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One Response to “Hitchens and Grayling debate ‘Among The Dead Cities’”

  1. Sam Harris on ‘Perfect Weapons’ and the morality of ‘Collateral Damage’ | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] politics, philosophy, history, debate… « Die In The Summertime Hitchens and Grayling debate ‘Among The Dead Cities’ […]

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