Richard Dawkins on collateral damage

While perusing the new Richard Dawkins website a while back, I came across an article that, if you know my interest in World War II, you’d know that I couldn’t resist commenting on, and it’s been in my “to write about” queue for a few weeks now. In it, Dawkins discusses the aerial bombing campaigns of World War II and contrasts our acceptance of such carnage then with our revulsion at the thought of inflicting so many civilian casualties now. His point is that the moral zeitgeist changes with time, which is something it would not do if religion’s claim of unchanging morality were truly at the root of how we form our moral values. Sadly, he undermines his otherwise valid argument through a rather facile understanding of World War II, and, unfortunately, he overlooks other factors that could help to explain such a shift. Even though I tend to agree with the general thesis, this is the very sort of thing that irritated me about parts of The God Delusion, such that even when I agreed with Dawkins’ I was annoyed with him.

Dawkins begins:

In warfare, public opinion is now prepared to tolerate far less collateral damage than used to be the case, and this is a revealing symptom of a more general and heartening trend. Not only are the civilian casualty rates in Iraq and Lebanon far lower than those in the bombing raids on Dresden, London or Hiroshima . Of greater moral significance, there was nothing collateral about those civilian casualties in 1945. In Dresden and Hiroshima, civilian casualties were part of the plan. Maybe there were military targets in Dresden but, on that terrible night of Feb 13th 1945, the theory of the British bombers was that of the firestorm – and you don’t use a firestorm to disable a factory or a railway marshalling yard. A firestorm is designed for the specific purpose of burning people. As many people as possible. . .

Now, contrast the fire storms of 1945 with the smart bombs of today. It is not just that modern electronic technology makes it possible to guide bombs, by satnav and other clever techniques, literally to a particular street address and not the house on either side. Such sophisticated targeting systems cost money, and it is spent specifically to avoid civilian casualties. Smart bombs are designed, at least in part, to minimize collateral damage. Obviously Air Marshall Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, architect of the Dresden raid, didn’t have at his disposal the technical know-how to make smart bombs. That’s not the point. My point is that, even if he could have used smart bombs, he wouldn’t have wanted to. The whole rationale and purpose of Bomber Harris was to kill civilians.

I’ve written about Dresden before, as longtime readers might remember, and Dawkins’ treatment of the Allied bombing campaign in general and the Dresden raid in particular is distressingly simplistic. There were indeed deeply disturbing moral questions regarding the entire concept of bombing cities to force the Germans and Japanese to surrender, and it does not require misstatements like the ones above to appreciate them. For example, contrary to Dawkin’s thesis, the bombing of Dresden was indeed primarily directed at the industry and railway stations of the city, and in the first bombing run more high explosives were used than incendiaries. A secondary aim of the raid was to cause a lot of disruption of transportation and communication, for which incendiaries are useful. Third, the aim of many of the bombing raids against German cities was to “de-house” industrial workers, destroy civilian morale, and thus decrease the effectiveness of the war effort. The primary intention was not to kill civilians, although it is was obvious to the Allied high command that such a strategy could not help but result in large numbers of civilian casualties.

It’s impossible to ask Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris his opinion now because he’s long dead, but Dawkins is almost certainly incorrect when he states that Harris would have eschewed the use of precision smart bombs if they had existed during the War. Harris was perhaps the foremost disciple of the “bomber dream.” Between the World Wars, there developed a contingent of military men who became fervent believers in the concept that air power alone, specifically strategic bombing, could win wars, and Harris was among these believers. In fact, some went so far as to claim that air power would ultimately render ground forces necessary only to move in and take over territory after strategic bombing had defeated the enemy. Thus was born the “bomber dream,” which, boiled down to its essence, is the belief that wars can be won by bombing alone. Indeed, the concept behind it was that strategic bombing actually saved lives in the long run by degrading the enemy’s ability to support its armies and destroying civilian morale, thus shortening the war. We now know that the bomber dream is just that–a dream. In general, air power alone doesn’t win wars. (The sole possible exception was the campaign in Kosovo in 1998.) But back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there were a number of fervent and influential believers that bombing alone could win wars with minimal casualties by destroying the enemy’s industrial capacity and “de-housing” armaments workers. Indeed, the very development of strategic bombing was at least in part a reaction to the horrors and mass slaughter that characterized trench warfare during World War I.

Before and during the early phase of World War II, bombing was even viewed as less horrific than battles like the Battle of the Somme, with its hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded in a single bloody battle. Unfortunately, as first practiced during an actual war, strategic bombing in Europe failed to live up to the bomber dream. It was incredibly wasteful, inefficient, and bloody. Hundreds of bombers dropping thousands of tons of bombs and killing thousands of civilians as “collateral damage” were needed just to destroy a relatively few strategically important targets because bomb accuracy was so poor. In addition, the Luftwaffe remained a formidable force until mid-1944, producing casualties among bomber crews so high as to be unsustainable until the advent of long-range fighter escort allowed protection of bombers all the way to and from their targets. No, Harris was no fool; he would have leaped at a chance to use a more efficient weapon if only because it would have decreased the horrific casualties among his bomber crews (in which crews were being killed as fast or faster than new crews could be trained) by eliminating the requirement for such massive, expensive, and risky raids.

Dawkins is also missing the entire context behind strategic bombing as it was practiced during World War II. Precision bombing versus area bombing was an argument that went back and forth between the Americans, who tended to advocate daylight precision bombing in order to target industry and avoid as much as possible civilian casualties, and the British, who advocated night time bombing raids, mainly because without long range fighter cover bomber crew casualty rates and bomber loss were unsustainably high during daytime raids. The problem, of course, is that it was difficult given the technology of the time,even to find targets, much less hit them accurately at night. Indeed, bombing accuracy wasn’t so hot during the day, either, making most American daytime “precision bombing” raids for all intents and purposes area bombing. Thus, in practice, the reason the strategic bombing strategy adopted was not so much to target civilians intentionally, but rather because the technology of the time was so crude that large numbers of bombs had to be dropped to have any chance of destroying important military or industrial targets at all. In essence, the only thing that bombers of the time could be reasonably assured of hitting was a city, and sometimes even then their bombs fell on farm fields miles away. Thus, the use of area bombing and incendiaries was adopted because of the inadequacy of the technology of the time, and the collateral damage was rationalized as an acceptable cost. Even so, it’s rather hard to imagine that even a bomber dream true believer like Harris would not have enthusiastically embraced a technology that would have allowed the high precision targeting of industrial and military targets that his bombers could not achieve.

Dawkins goes on:

I am not arguing that Bomber Harris was morally inferior to Donald Rumsfeld. Judging each by the moral standards of his own time, they might come out as roughly equivalent. The interesting point is that the moral standards change on a timescale of decades. The moral Zeitgeist shifts as the years go by. That is the first of my two points, but why is it interesting? It is interesting because it forms part of a powerful argument against the proposition that our morals come from religion. Here’s what I mean.

Religious apologists will try to persuade you that, without scriptural texts, we’d have no moral compass, no guidelines for what is right and what is wrong. Anybody who advocates basing our morals on the Bible has not read the Bible with sufficient attention. It is, of course, true that you can find verses of the Bible, and the Koran, which we today might regard as moral, for example the Sermon on the Mount. You can also find verses suggesting that the worst thing you can do is make a graven image or break the sabbath. Both deserve the death penalty, as does cheeking your parents. The Bible is an ethical disaster area with islands of decent morality dotted about here and there.

Dawkins is correct that the moral zeitgeist evolves, and that the very fact of that evolution argues against religion as the source of all morality. However, in this article Dawkins’ choice of example is not the slam dunk that he seems to think that it is. Besides his glossing over of the context in which strategic bombing became the policy of the air war from 1941 to early 1944 (after which bombers were diverted to soften up targets for D-Day) and then after the D-Day invasion, Dawkins left out some major factors about our seemingly decreasing tolerance for collateral damage that makes me think that perhaps the zeitgeist with regard to collateral damage hasn’t changed as much as we would like to think. First, consider the fact that, as a result of World War II, nuclear weapons were developed and used for the first time. Once the Soviets also had nuclear weapons, mutually assured destruction was the policy of the United States and the Soviet Union, in which if we were attacked we promised to unleash death and destruction upon the attacker on a scale that would far dwarf the entirety of the bombing campaign of World War II. This is to this day in essence the policy of the United States. Indeed, it is the policy of the U.S. to reserve the right to use preemptive nuclear strikes against nations or groups threatening us with weapons of mass destruction, and nuclear attacks on Iran are openly discussed. In the event of a successful attack on the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction, does anyone doubt that the public would overwhelmingly approve of retaliation in kind against whatever nation was involved, especially if that nation were Iran or North Korea? In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we were somehow persuaded that a preemptive invasion of Iraq was justified to prevent what we now know to have been nonexistent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists. What further actions would the public see as justified if terrorists ever succeeded in detonating a nuclear weapoin in an American city? Although I like to think that we would behave otherwise, after such an attack, I fear that our vengeance would make Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo look like the height of restraint.

Another aspect that Dawkins neglects as a cause of this changing zeitgeist is that it may well be the public’s access to information more than anything else that has led to this decreasing tolerance for civilian casualties. During World War II, information was tightly controlled, and the pictures of piles of bodies of the victims of area bombing were not seen for the most part until after the war. Now, we find out about military attacks within hours after they happen, and pictures of the carnage are shown in the media and posted on the Internet. I’ve often wondered if the public would have been as tolerant of the casualties of mass area bombing in Germany and Japan if pictures of the carnage could have been beamed into the homes of the American and British public every night, as such pictures have been for every war since Vietnam. In fact, I could cite the very examples of Hamburg and particularly Dresden. Even with the technology of the day (newspapers and newsreels), the British and American public were so dismayed and disturbed when news of the destruction of Dresden and the massive casualties due to the bombing raid reached them that there was considerable political fallout and Winston Churchill felt obligated to chastise Harris for the raid. (This chastisement infuriated Harris.) Going even further back, when Mathew Brady put on an exhibit of his photographs of dead soldiers at Antietam, there was considerable shock. It’s just as true now as it was then that it is easy to be tolerant of casualties, whether soldiers or “collateral damage,” when you are blissfully unaware of what they really look like. True, it may be the increasing graphic knowledge of just what collateral damage means (the violent and bloody deaths of civilian men, women, and children ) that has contributed to a change in the zeitgeist, but Dawkins completely ignores this aspect of history.

Finally, I would counter that our tolerance for collateral damage tends to be in direct proportion to the seriousness of the perceived threat of the enemy and justness of the war and in this the zeitgeist probably hasn’t changed all that much. During World War II, the British public, for example, knew that the war was a battle for survival of their nation, and perhaps this to some extent explains the different philosophy of bombing adopted by the British. Similarly, there is the revenge factor, which might go a long way towards explaining why the British were so enamored of area bombing against Germany compared to the U.S., while the U.S. was much more willing to mete out even more horrific destruction upon Japanese cities to the point of dropping two nuclear bombs. The same reason applies to the U.S. public and its lower tolerance for collateral damage in the first and second Gulf Wars and Kosovo, none of which have been widely perceived as wars in response to direct threats to our nation.

So, in the end, although Dawkins is correct in pointing out how morality changes with time, particularly when he points out to our increasing intolerance of racism in the decades since segregated bathrooms and restaurants in the South or our increasing acceptance of homosexuality (or stem cell research), and how that change undermines the claims of religion as the sole source of human morality, his discussion of decreasing public tolerance for collateral damage, while probably correct when taken as a whole, treats such a complex topic in a maddeningly simplistic manner that leaves out a number of other factors. When it comes to violence and a tolerance for collateral damage in war, I’m not sure that our morals have changed quite as much in the last 60 years or that our tolerance for collateral damage has decreased nearly as rapidly as Dawkins argues.

Suggested reading:

1. Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2004.
2. Robin Neillands, The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany, The Overlook Press, New York, 2001.


  1. #1 Sastra
    November 6, 2006

    Interesting take on Dresden, which seems to be used as a shorthand image for so many things. Dawkins would have been safer if he just pointed out that average families no longer take picnic lunches to public hangings.

    Of course, even religious morality improves over time. Thomas Aquinas, the great and respected Catholic theologian, described the delights awaiting the saved by saying “So that nothing may be missing for the felicities of the blessed souls in heaven, a perfect view will be afforded them of the tortures of the damned”(Summa Theologia). Ahem. Christians today assure me that this ethical take on things was just “a product of the times.”

  2. #2 Adrian
    November 6, 2006

    Good article. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Dawkins, but this is the first that I’d describe as “educated” and which directly addresses his argument instead of a strawman. I confess I didn’t know enough about WW II to spot this problem when I read it, though it has made me a lot more aware of the differences between the recent battles. It makes me wonder how much of the zeitgeist moves with technology and information. (Of course society itself changes with technology and information, so it’s not unexpected to see moral standards changing as well.)

  3. #3 natural cynic
    November 6, 2006

    Another confunding factor is the apparent unwillingness to accept the true extent of collateral damage. The number of deaths attributed to the Iraq war [from the Lancet study] and the number of refugees from the war [from UN & IRC sources] has been pooh-poohed by many suporters of the invasion and occupation. They want to believe in the righteousness of their cause and cannot accept the consequences.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    November 6, 2006

    Best criticism of Dawkins I’ve seen in a good long while. Of course, given the low quality of criticism the Internet has seen fit to deliver to me, that sounds a bit like ruling in Hell versus serving in Heaven — but I really mean it: good job.

    Instead of raising substantive points or contributing to a worthwhile discussion, I’d like to say that this part:

    Indeed, it is the policy of the U.S. to reserve the right to preemptive nuclear strikes against nations or groups threatening us with weapons of mass destruction, and nuclear attacks on Iran are openly discussed.

    irrepressably reminded me of this:

    President Muffley: General, it is the avowed policy of our country never to strike first with nuclear weapons.

    General Turgidson: Well, sir, I would say that General Ripper has already invalidated that policy.

  5. #5 Derek Lowe
    November 6, 2006

    Very good points, indeed. There are so many levels of misapprehension out there concerning the WWII bombing campaigns that by now they can be used to buttress almost any argument at all.

    I grew up hearing about the “precision” Norden bombsight, but was much older before I realized that this instrument’s folklore could not be squared with the images of bomb crates in pastures. But the current technology for this kind of thing is rather alarmingly good, and continues to improve. Bomber Harris would have leapt at the chance to use it, after he’d been revived from off the floor at a demonstration of what would have seemed near-magical powers.

  6. #6 Frontinus
    November 6, 2006

    There were also technical reasons for the heavy use of incendiaries. One is that since the RAF was constrained by their lack of long-range fighter escort and their lack of serious defensive firepower on their bombers to attack at night, they couldn’t achieve a CEP that would make using mainly high explosives against industrial and military targets worth the likely cost in casualties. Setting areas on fire promised a higher probability of destroying important things in the target area.

    Another is that both the RAF and the USAAF learned the hard way of another drawback to attacking manufacturing facilities with high explosives, which was that the really critical part of a factory- the machine tools- could often be dug out of the rubble of the buildings that had housed them and put back into service with minimal repairs. Fire exposure was much more likely to effect long-lasting or permanent disabling than was blowing up factory buildings with explosives.

  7. #7 noself
    November 6, 2006

    I’m curious then, would you say the same argument could apply to the similar bombings of Japanese cities?

    What we were taught is that the cities were firebombed for the reasons you pointed out above. And the impression I always got was that the choice of weaponary was deliberate i.e. that the cities were mostly made of wooden structures close together which made it a particularly effective means of demoralising the enemy.

    So was it simply a matter of what bombs were at hand and the increased collateral damage as it were, was not that deliberate?

  8. #8 James
    November 7, 2006

    I read a fascinating book a few months ago which advanced the hypothesis that development was the key driver of value changes. This idea has been advanced before, but this book used data from the World Values Survey to show the correlation.

    To cut a long story short it found that industrialisation led to more secular-rational values (vs. traditional values) and post-industrial development led to more self-expression values (vs. survival values). Basically once you have been guaranteed a tolerable level of security you begin to look for other satisfactions. It also explains why wars can bring out a distinctly ugly streak in human nature.

  9. #9 Ronan Cunniffe
    November 7, 2006


    Reading the Wikipedia article on Curtis le May suggests that cloudy weather and effective air defence made operating in daylight too inefficient/dangerous, and night precision bombing was very difficult.

    The new logic was “if we can’t hit the military effectively, we’ll hit the civilians”, and then yes, the weaponry was chosen for maximum effect, with careful explanations from Bomber Harris on firestorms. It’s perfectly logical, just chillingly devoid of any empathy.

    Le May’s later comments in relation to the Soviet Union definitely confirm this attitude: “one bomb for all of Russia”, and “if you hit them hard enough, they stop fighting back”. This is not somebody who spends a lot of time picking his way between moral difficulties.

  10. #10 Andrew Dodds
    November 7, 2006

    With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it does appear that the bombing campaign was largely a failure, especially with regards to the huge effort spent, especially from a British perspective. Wheras the US had such vast war-making resources that overemphasis of bombers was not a problem, with the UK it’s hard to reject the idea that a few more armoured divisions would have been worth more.

    The main rationale, essentially, for the UK campaign was more a practical one – it was about the only way in 1940-42 that we could actually strike at Germany, even if it wasn’t a very effective way.

    The raids on industrial cities did have a major effect on production, forcing decentralisation and the shifting east of industrial production, but it wasn’t fatal mostly because the 1930s depression had resulted in major underutilisation in the industrial sector.

    The interesting thing is that a campaign against the electric grids/power stations, oil refineries and synthetic production, and the Rumanian oil fields could have made a much bigger impact, but Allied planners often assumed that the Germans had surpluses of energy.
    And, of course, all the bombers would have got shot down..

  11. #11 Dunc
    November 7, 2006

    I’d just like to comment on one other aspect that comes up a lot when talking about “precision bombing”:

    It is not just that modern electronic technology makes it possible to guide bombs, by satnav and other clever techniques, literally to a particular street address and not the house on either side.

    Indeed it may be. But 1000lbs of high explosive doesn’t just damage the particular object it lands on. The direct blast effects are not confined to the target, and much of the damage caused by bombing in urban environments is due to secondary effects (eg fires started by ruptured gas mains).

    Precision bombing is a myth. You may be able to target the bomb precisely, but you can’t target its effects. Compare the concepts of precision aerial bombing with those of the old standby, the car bomb. You know exactly where that bomb is going to go off, but you still end up killing people essentially at random.

  12. #12 Flex
    November 7, 2006


    Many years ago, I think I was in high school at the time, I read a book about the Crimean War. One of the points the author brought out very clearly was that it should be considered the first of the modern wars. He gave several reasons, but the one that stuck with me was the role of newspaper correspondents.

    According to this author, the Crimean war was the first war which immediately entered the British household, before the corpses were cold. Because of the time difference and the new telegraph, a skirmish in the morning in the Crimea could be reported in the morning papers of that day in England, including names of soldiers, and casualty numbers.

    And on slow news days, the correspondants would report the conditions of the troops and how the wounded were cared for. Apparently it had quite an effect on the popularity of the war at home, as well as bringing to the forefront of the public mind the problems of sanitation, logistics, proper clothing and weapons being issued to the troops, how disease can ravage an army, etc.

    The war that brought you Florence Nightingale and The Charge of the Light Brigade, also brought you the first embedded journalists. The military has been trying to find ways to hush them up ever since.



  13. #13 Mark
    November 7, 2006

    Regarding MAD: I have seen estimates of the deaths due to a large (essentially all-out_) nuclear exchange between the US and the former Soviet Union. The losses on the US side were estimated to far outweigh those on the Soviet side, not because of a difference in population or even largely because of differences in population densities, but mainly because of the difference in accuracy and precision of targeting of US warheads against military and industrial targets ompared to Soviet warheads.

  14. #14 SLC
    November 7, 2006

    Re Junc

    The comment by Junc is somewhat misleading. Use of precision munitions allows the application of a lower yield bomb to take out the target then dumb bombs. Thus the collateral damage is far less.

  15. #15 James
    November 8, 2006

    I’m sorry, but Dawkins is almost certainly correct when he says that Harris would not have wanted precision weapons.

    His entire objective was destruction of the enemy _citizenary’s_ “will to resist”. He saw the enemy population simply as hostages to terror, and on more than one occasion dismissed the US’s focus on ‘precision’ – for the time – bombing as misguided.

    His actions condemn him. He opposed the initial Dam Busters raid which had to be planned for quite some time behind his back. He protested the switch the precision bombing in support of the Normandy invasion when the Allies had air superiority and all his objections were rendered moot. He switched his one precision squadron (617) to area bombing as soon as the initial Dam Buster’s raid was over (although their later commander Leonard Cheshire kept them close to the precision game by his personal bravery and development of close targeting techniques; they also carried out some precision raids late in the war)

    You may not be aware (being American?) but Harris is widely regarded – in *Britain* – as being a monster if not an outright nutter. He is also occasionally described as a war criminal by English citizens. Even Churchill had severe doubts about Harris and his strategy, but put up with it largely because he had nothing else to “hit the Germans with” at the time. [I can dig up the reference for this if you like.]

    To take one illuminating incident:- in 1992 a statue of him was erected in London, many years after the war, and long after what you’d expect if the nation were proud of him. But it was not funded by Her Majesty’s government who refused to have anything to do with it, and a private appeal was required.

    Even then the protests were so strong that it took the personal intervention and support of the Queen Mother to get it erected. There was no official government representation at the dedication ceremony and the Queen Mother attended “privately”. (And this is the Conservative Thatcher/Major government we’re talking about)

    Dawkin’s view of Harris is *very* widely held and no-one who has read about Harris and his maps of areas bombed/being-bombed/to-be-bombed would have any doubt.

    The man had no interest in precision bombing, and resisted it even when it was gifted to him on a plate.

  16. #16 paulh
    November 8, 2006

    A tale regarding USAAF “precision” vs RAF “Area” bombing: if you lived in a place that contained likely targets and there were bombers overhead, it was better if the bombers were American. If you were in a place that didn’t contain a likely target, it was better if the bombers overhead were British. The reason for this is that while (on a clear day anyway) American bomber crews were pretty good at hitting the target they were aiming at, their overall navigation tended to be considerably poorer than that of the British (at least until they adopted British-designed navaids) so that they would very often not be hitting the place they thought they were hitting – Harris’s lads would obliterate an entire town to take out one factory, but they were pretty good at finding the right town.

  17. #17 JS
    December 16, 2006

    It should be noted that ‘Shock and Awe’ – the modern version of the Bomber Dream – did not in fact win Kosova, although for political reasons that became the official story. In fact Milosevic was fairly unperturbed by the air campaign (he even used it as cover for his ethnic cleansings), caving only when the threat of infantry on the ground became a real possibility. At least that’s the analysis I heard.

    – JS

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