The Ethics of Terror Bombing: Beyond Supreme Emergency

Journal of Military Ethics 7 (1):41-65 (2008)
Recent years have seen a revival of interest in Michael Walzer's doctrine of ?supreme emergency?. Simply put, the doctrine holds that, when a state confronts an opponent who threatens annihilation, it can be morally legitimate to violate one of the cardinal rules of the war convention ? the principle of non-combatant immunity. Walzer cites the case of Britain's decision to bomb German cities in 1940 as a case in point. Although the theory of supreme emergency has been scrutinised, the historical case that Walzer refers to has not been looked at in depth. This article seeks to remedy this problem by asking whether the principle actors involved in the decision to bomb German cities understood themselves to be in a supreme emergency. It argues that the British leadership never openly admitted that they were in fact targeting German civilians, and that the principle reason for this was a widespread belief that the British and American publics would not support such a campaign. As a result, throughout the war, the British government publicly maintained the fiction that the devastation of German cities was a collateral product of attacks on its industrial infrastructure. This, in turn, suggests that liberal societies ? even those facing imminent destruction ? do not tend to support a relaxing of the rules of non-combatant immunity, suggesting that the prohibition on deliberately killing non-combatants may be more embedded than has hitherto been thought
Keywords 160607 International Relations  9403 International Relations  C1  Supreme emergency   non-combatant immunity   World War II   RAF   strategic bombing
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