It was 72 years ago today, that a flight of nearly 800 heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force arrived in the early morning darkness above Hamburg, Germany and dropped 2,396 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the civilian population below. Although this was not the first attack on a large urban center, both London and Berlin had been attacked repeatedly during the Battle of Britain in 1940, this was the largest concentrated campaign ever launched with the explicit objective to wipe a city off the map.
Code-named Operation Gamorrah, the attack consisted of eight days and nights of saturation bombing by the R.A.F. and American Eighth Air Force and resulted in the deaths of just under 43,000 people. The weapons used were specifically dropped in a combination that would ensure total destruction of the city from high explosives and smaller incendiaries that set alight whatever they touched. Combined with the weather conditions and continued bombardment, the raging infernos converged into a firestorm which swept 7000 feet into the air with winds of 150mph. A. C. Grayling described the horror in his book Among the Dead Cities:
The glass windows of tramcars melted, bags of sugar boiled, people trying to flee the oven-like heat of air-raid shelters sank, petrified into grotesque gestures, into the boiling asphalt of the streets. (pg 18)
With temperatures of 1472 degrees fahrenheit, people were cremated alive within their shelters.
After this point, the R.A.F. Bomber Command would focus much of their efforts on similar attacks in Dresden and even against Berlin in the final weeks of the war. For their part, American bombers were deployed in surgical, albeit large scale, strikes against German industry and armaments with deliberate consideration to minimize civilian deaths (inversely however, the opposite is true of the US in the Pacific Theater wherein Japanese civilians were waylaid in staggering numbers culminating with the dropping of two Atomic bombs).
To this day, the moral argument continues as to the necessity of targeting civilians in conflict and indeed, one will find a visceral abhorrence to the idea as something proffered only by the most fringe, violent fanatics. Equating civilians to combatants is the worldview of the Osama Bin Ladens and ISIS; the images of Dresden and Hiroshima have been replaced by the contemporary horrors of another 9/11.
Modern large-scale military undertakings, like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan for example, are employed with a deliberate attention to minimizing the death of civilians, the term “collateral damage” a sometimes nefarious and relatively recent parlance, supplants the stark images of dead innocents with a moral ambiguity. Through this lens, the historical facts are always at risk of revisionism through euphemism and possible war crimes are exonerated before inquiry.
It is true, as is often remarked, that the greatest moral crime the Allies could have committed in the Second World War would have been to lose the conflict in the face of not only fascism but of the worst, genocidal and truly mad sort. By extension, it follows that in fighting such an enemy who demonstrates early on a disregard for all human lives which stand in its opposition, the question invariably leads back to weighing the ends against the means. Certainly once crossed there is no moral difference between incinerating a city with thousands of individual bombs versus killing just as many with one atomic weapon. Whichever side one falls on this question, neither can lay claim that such is collateral damage.
As technology races ahead of our morality at an ever-increasing rate, the questions we continue to wrestle with differ from those of WWII only in scale. Is sending a wing of 800 B-17s to strike a ball-bearing plant and in the process levelling several schools, hospitals and residences morally unjustified while dispatching a single Predator Drone to kill one or more ISIS leaders and taking out a family next door is an acceptable cost?
In this period of The Long Peace as John Lewis Gaddis called it, we have been able to use our technology to mitigate at least the scale of civilian loss of life in conflicts from 1945 onward. Outside a rogue nation or terrorist getting their hands on and being able to deliver a nuclear attack to a major urban center, destruction on such a scale remains nearly unthinkable. In 1977, Articles 51 and 54 under Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention made explicitly clear that the attacking of civilians is a war crime. Viewed through this lens, Operation Gamorrah, likewise the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaves little room for interpretation at least in a terms of international law. The struggle of those who grew up in the shattered remains of the practice and the moral responsability of those who wrought that destruction remain an enduring and ever more relevant discussion.