Among the Dead Cities The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan

Bloomsbury Revelations

A C Grayling

Walker Books




400 Pages



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In Among the Dead Cities, the philosopher A. C. Grayling asks the provocative question: How would the Allies have fared if judged by the same standards of the Nuremberg trials? Arguing that the victor nations have never had to consider the morality of their policies during World War II, he offers a reexamination of the Allied bombing campaigns against civilians in Germany and Japan, in light of principles enshrined in the postwar conventions on human rights and the laws of war.

Intended to weaken those countries' will to make war, the bombings nonetheless destroyed centuries of culture and killed some 800,000 noncombatants, injuring and traumatizing hundreds of thousands more in scores of other cities. "Was this bombing offensive justified by the necessities of war," Grayling writes, "or was it a crime against humanity? These questions mark one of the great remaining controversies of the Second World War." Their resolution is especially relevant in this time of terrorist threat, as governments debate how far to go in the name of security.

Grayling begins by narrating the Royal Air Force's and U.S. Army Force's dangerous missions over Germany and Japan between 1942 and 1945. Through the eyes of survivors, he describes the terrifying experience on the ground as bombs created inferno and devastation. He examines the mind-set and thought process of those who planned the campaigns in the heat and pressure of war, and faced with a ruthless enemy. Grayling chronicles the minority voices that loudly opposed attacks on civilians, exploring in detail whether the bombings ever achieved their goal. Based on the evidence, he makes a meticulous case for, and one against, civilian bombing, and only then offers his own judgment. Acknowledging that they in no way equaled the death and destruction for which Nazi and Japanese aggression was responsible, Grayling nonetheless concludes that the bombing campaigns were morally indefensible, and that accepting that responsibility, even six decades later, is both a historical necessity and a moral imperative.


Praise for Among the Dead Cities

"Despite the vast and growing library that is accumulating on the subject of World War II, this is a book that cannot be skipped. A. C. Grayling has tackled a subject overlooked until now—the morality of the Allies' bombing of civilians—and written about it with grace."—Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt: A World History and 1968

"A philosopher seeks to determine whether Allied area-bombing during World War II was a moral wrong. Lost amid the incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust, says Grayling, is a lesser, though still unforgivable, WWII transgression: the Allied forces' indiscriminate bombing of densely populated urban areas with little military significance, such as Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Examining the physical and psychological effects of the bombings and public perception at the time, analyzing the stated and off-the-record intentions of the politicians and RAF and USAAF officers who ordered the attacks and comparing them to similar events (including 9/11), the author attempts to ascertain whether the bombings constitute a "moral crime" and what should be done if they do. He demonstrates the ineffectiveness and heavy cost of area-bombing in terms of money, materiel and Allied lives lost, not to mention the deaths of German and Japanese civilians and the destruction of untold cultural landmarks and treasures. In contrast, he points to the efficacy of precision bombing, particularly in the USAAF attacks on German oil refineries toward the end of the war . . . Well-argued and persuasive."—Kirkus Reviews
"The Allied bombing of Axis cities, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and made smoking ruins of Dresden, Tokyo, and Hiroshima, remains one of the great controversies of WWII; this probing study does the issue full justice . . . Grayling scrupulously considers the justifications for area bombing and finds them wanting. Drawing on firsthand accounts by theorists, architects, victims, and opponents of area bombing, Grayling situates a lucid analysis of the historical data within a rigorous philosophical framework."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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  • A C Grayling

  • A.C. Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of the acclaimed Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius, Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggles for Freedom and Rights That Made the Modern Western World, and, most recently, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible. A former fellow of the World Economic Forum at Davos and past chairman of the human rights organization June Fourth, he contributes frequently to the Times, Financial Times, Economist, New Statesman, and Prospect. Grayling's play "Grace," co-written with Mick Gordon, was acclaimed in London and New York. He lives in London.