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Views on the morality of bombing

LAURENCE REES: What were the views of the Americans and British, before the war began, about the 'morality' of bombing? 

TAMI BIDDLE: I think there was a lot of confusion and ambivalence during the inter-war years with people trying to understand how to think about this new category of warfare. How do you think about the use of the airplane and the effect that it’s going to have on civilians on the ground? And people are truly struggling with it, because it’s clear that modern industrial societies pull people into factories to produce raw materials. Does that make those people in the factories legitimate targets? They’re obviously contributing to the war effort, but they’re not in uniform. How do you make sense of that? Clearly there was an effort during the inter-war years and during the 1920s to sort it out, but there was no resolution.

I think everyone was afraid that if they signed up for anything, once the war started everyone would probably back off of those commitments and the commitments therefore wouldn’t mean anything at the end of the day. What would really mean something would be your capabilities, and if you had the capability to attack cities, to attack the places where production takes place, where communications takes place, where politics happens, what were called the vital centres during the inter-war years. If you had those capabilities, or if your enemy did, you had better have them too, because the only way you would deter your enemy from utilizing those capabilities would be to have them yourself.

LAURENCE REES: But in 1938 didn’t Chamberlain say that air attacks on civilians were against international law?

TAMI BIDDLE: Yes. People were very, very concerned about this and they were anxious to not have war disintegrate into a situation where you would be attacking women and children in cities. By the same token there’s this concern that everybody has that, my God, if the capability exists maybe the constraint won’t hold up and maybe whatever we pledge ourselves to will not be a significant barrier against actually seeing that happen in the next war. I think that lots of people were very hopeful that maybe if we pledge to it, somehow we could all adhere to it. So I think that’s partly what was going on in 1938 and partly what was going on in 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt said let’s make an agreement to not bomb civilians. I also think that in 1938 Neville Chamberlain was very concerned that the British were simply unready and he wanted to do anything to keep the Germans from attacking Britain full out, with whatever instruments they had and whatever tools they had. So obviously he was encouraging restraint at that point.

And I think also, again, to move it up to 1939, Franklin Roosevelt is trying to offer an agreement and the British are saying, by God, we’d better not do anything to alienate American opinion against us because we have got to have their help in this war effort if we have to go all out against Hitler.

LAURENCE REES: But how could the RAF, before the war, talk of it being legitimate to attack the 'morale' of the enemy by bombing without meaning that they intend to kil civilians?

TAMI BIDDLE: I think what they’re thinking is, in part, coming out of their experience of World War One. When the British were attacked by the Germans, first with Zeppelins and then with heavier aircraft, there was a great outcry. People said for heavens sakes why is this happening to us, we need to fight back, push back, and have an airforce that’s more organised and more ready to do the kinds of things that the Germans are doing to us than we are capable of doing now. So why don’t we get ourselves organised and create an RAF? Why don’t we have retaliatory raids? Why don’t we have a more robust effort in our defences? And there was actually a great public push towards what became an independent airforce. Now, this is an interesting moment in time where the public is starting to pressure for the way that something will occur in the war.

In the First World War the attacks on Great Britain had caused something of a public outcry, and I think the assumption was that if you don’t meet public expectations there’s going to be even more of an outcry and you could have potentially a very troublesome domestic political situation on your hands if you don’t respond. So, therefore, you’ve got to be ready and you’ve got to have an airforce that can go and do to your enemy what your enemy might be threatening to do to you. But I think there’s an assumption that if you simply start flying airplanes overhead and you start dropping bombs there will be enough of a public outcry perhaps that you’ll be able to push the enemy onto the defensive, and devote resources that would otherwise be going into an offensive effort increasingly into a defensive effort, and therefore you would be sort of 'pushed onto the back foot'; this is what Trenchard said. And here, I guess, I’m using a cricket term, but being pushed onto the defensive would be a tremendously risky thing to have happen to you in war.

So you’ve got to have the capability, and then you’re hoping that you won’t actually need it. What you really want is to have this deterrent force that you’ll be able to use and convince the enemy that you would in fact use, to keep the enemy in place and not doing anything really nasty. And then if you do have to use it what you’re going to do is use it in a way that will cause a lot of public disruption and cause problems for your enemy’s government and therefore you might actually have a situation where you get into war perhaps quicker or more easily than you would in other circumstances where it would drag on.

Again the model here is World War One, and they’re concerned about maybe cutting off the kind of war that you saw in the Western Front where it sort of dragged on and on and on. By using aircraft and having the public reaction to aircraft be so immediate and so profound, that I think they were thinking perhaps we can actually not go in the same direction as we did in the First World War. The problem, I think, is that you have to sort of talk yourself into some of this and you have to convince yourself that bombing is going to have certain effects, and if you start to say to yourself, well, maybe it won’t have these effects you get in trouble, because then you can’t go in the direction that you think you’re going to go in with your strategy. So what really happens I think by the beginning of the war is that people are wrestling hard with the question: what can we do, what assets have we got?

We’ve been sort of caught off guard and we’re not really ready for war. We certainly don’t want a repeat of 1914 to 1918, we want to use these new instruments in a new way, but what can we really do to be this effective? And they don’t want to do anything that’s going to alienate the opinion of neutrals, in particular the United States, so they start to think, well, either by dropping bombs or by even dropping leaflets maybe we’ll cause enough disruption and fear in the hearts of the enemy that we might be able to end the war quickly. Or, maybe under different circumstances we’ll figure out which targets are really vital to the enemy, and we’ll attack those specifically and it’ll make it very difficult for the enemy to continue to be able to fight the war, because we’ll have undone their capability to fight a war. And here’s another level of optimism, really, where you’re thinking, gosh, you know, I can sort of understand how the war economy is strung together, so if I can pinpoint this target and this target and I can hit them, I know it will be devastating to that enemy and he won’t be able to fight the war the way that he would like to fight the war.

So there’s this hope, I think, that you would be able to envision how the enemy’s going to fight the war, figure out where the weak points are, knock them out in the event that you have to fight the war at all, which you’re hoping you don’t have to because the airplanes will be a deterrent in and of themselves, but as you start to think your way into how do I fight the war, either it’ll be very frightening for people who are under the bombers and therefore you might get an immediate public reaction that’ll cause the war to end fairly soon, or if that doesn’t happen you’ll be able to use these airplanes in ways where you can go to the most vulnerable points in the enemy’s war economy and destroy those and then basically stop the war by making it impossible for the enemy to continue to fight the war.

LAURENCE REES: And, of course, the only way that you can do that is by killing civilians.

TAMI BIDDLE: Yes. That’s right. And I think, again, it’s sort of not quite facing up to what you’re really talking about, and partly that’s because you’re hoping it’ll never really happen and that perhaps the war experience of 1914-1918 was truly enough to make people think we don’t want to do this ever again. But partly, I think, it’s a use of euphemistic language: vital centres. Well, what’s a vital centre? A vital centre is a city. But when you’re talking about it in the terms of the military you’re talking about it in terms of this phrase which has meaning, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the fact that in fact if you go and hit vital centres you are going to be hitting lots of women and children and old people. And you might get lucky enough to be able to sort of concentrate your bombing in one area, maybe a factory area, but, you know, in reality this is going to have a lot of collateral effects and a lot of people are going to be injured and killed by this. And I think, again, it’s an approach avoidance problem where they really are hoping they don’t ever have to do it fully, and if they do have to do it, it will perhaps bring the war to an end more quickly than it would have otherwise.