The Folly of Certainty
On A.C. Grayling's Among the Dead Cities
This essay originally appeared in the New York Observer in 2006.
In some contexts, the good, decent humanist approach seems more callous than sheer bloody-mindedness. Here’s how A.C. Grayling, a professor of philosophy at the University of London and nothing if not a good, decent humanist, defines his objective in Among the Dead Cities: “[D]id the Allies commit a moral crime in their area bombing of German and Japanese cities? This is the question I seek to answer definitively in this book.” He thereby declares himself inadequate to the task. The question of what is permissible to defeat a barbarous enemy is one that resists moral definitiveness; it requires a capacity for ambiguity, uncertainty, irony.
This book is the work of a man done in by adverbs: Mr. Grayling will “answer definitively” whether or not civilian bombing was immoral; by late 1944, the Allies had “already won”; the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki took place when the war was “effectively over.” Pretending to the concrete while allowing a sliver of contingency, those words let Mr. Grayling gloss over any unpleasant facts that complicate his case. Knowing that the war is going to end is very different from knowing when or how it’s going to end. That the Allies had “already won” by late 1944 did not prevent horrendous fighting in places as far-flung as the Hurtgen forest (33,000 American casualties) or Okinawa (123,000 American and Japanese casualties).
But, Mr. Grayling insists, it’s the Allies who “kept the Axis powers going until the last drop of fuel” by insisting, at the Casablanca Conference in early 1943, on unconditional surrender. Mr. Grayling seriously believes that Hitler and Hirohito would otherwise have considered a negotiated surrender. The facts tell another story: Even with his defeat certain, Hitler expanded the draft to include boys of 16 and men of 50; Japan planned to conscript women from the ages of 17 to 40 to fight the expected land invasion.