Bruce Kent's article last week on the morality of bombing civilians is attacked this week by Commander D J Childs, of the World Memorial Fund, founded by Leonard Cheshire.
By Commander D J Childs
Independent – 1 May 1993
For several reasons it has been difficult to respond to Bruce Kent's superficially well-argued case equating the mind-set of Leonard Cheshire with that of the IRA. First, I am a great admirer of the way Bruce Kent has stood up for what he knew to be right. Secondly, I am sure that, although the article would have wounded Cheshire, he would have turned the other cheek and with a twinkle in his eye, instructed me, 'Put up again thy pen'. But Cheshire came closer to saintlihood than any other person in Britain this century, and even saints it seems, especially those recently dead and unable to defend themselves, need their reputations protected.
Bruce Kent's argument must be refuted, for, by equating the thought processes of Cheshire with those of the IRA, he helps, albeit unwittingly, both to legitimise the activities of the latter and question the integrity of the former. In the 1980s Cheshire took part in a much-publicised series of debates with Bruce Kent regarding their opposing views on nuclear deterrence. Those who heard them felt that Cheshire's transparent integrity shone out and won the day. It seems strange that Mr Kent chooses to return to the attack now when his opponent cannot defend himself; perhaps he feels that 'the ends justify the means'.If this is the case then, of course, his whole argument, based as it is on that questionable maxim rather than the human condition, falls apart.
The moral question and true comparison, which Mr Kent should have addressed, becomes clearer by debating whether the Sixth Commandment reads 'Thou shalt not kill' rather than 'Thou shalt do no murder'. Cheshire was neither a murderer nor an accomplice to murder; would the IRA and other paramilitaries had as clear a conscience.
A second difficulty arises in that Mr Kent is not comparing like with like when he links events in the Second World War with the IRA campaign. For a start everyone killed by either the IRA or the loyalist paramilitaries is an 'innocent civilian' whether they wear a uniform or not, and one is only falling for their propaganda if one thinks any differently. In their campaign there are no legitimate targets.
What is more, the IRA know that if they stop their killing and bombing, all the killing and bombing will stop. The fact that they choose not to do so is based on their certain knowledge that they cannot achieve their ends by democratic means. Their reasoning is entirely different to that which governed those prosecuting the Allied cause in the Second World War, and the response of government to their campaign must be, and is, different also.
One of the aims of IRA terrorism is to induce their 'enemy' into taking actions that, by antagonising those with republican sympathies, convinces the latter that they are under threat. They are going to extreme lengths to provoke this reaction and it is government insistence that 'the ends cannot justify the means' that frustrates this aspect of their campaign. Nor were the Allies, under greater strain and provocation, very willing to adopt this treacherous code of conduct during the Second World War. Between 1939 and 1945 Britain was fighting to defend both its shores and the free world at large in a struggle that must have been the closest to a 'just war' ever fought. Appeasement having failed, we had to fight and we had to win, but the moral high ground was seldom abandoned nor cruel decisions lightly taken.
Cheshire considered that the decision to bomb Dresden was a mistake, but could not agree with the assertion that it was a malicious act. Hindsight and re-examination are not available to those charged with trying to bring a desperate war to a swift end: wrong decisions were made. However, over Nagasaki (a raid in which Cheshire flew as an observer, not in an 'active' role, as Mr Kent knows), he admitted to a sense of intense relief because he thought: 'It's the end of the war, that's a weapon you cannot fight.'
It was this view, that the possession of nuclear weapons made future war between the great powers inconceivable, which ensured that he always remained a strong advocate of the nuclear deterrent as a means of keeping the peace.
In proposing his hypothesis Mr Kent implies that Cheshire adhered to 'the IRA doctrine exactly. Civilians are expendable: only the cause matters'. Just one example will serve to refute this innuendo. In 1944, a decision was taken to carry out a low-level bombing raid on the Gnome-Rhone aero-engine factory at Limoges. Knowing that the lives of 300 French women workers would be in danger, Cheshire, at great personal risk, flew low back and forth across the factory to warn the workers to evacuate. Not a single civilian life was lost. That is a totally different view of the sanctity of human life to the one held by the bombers of Enniskillen and Warrington.
The question 'Is the bombing of civilians ever justified?' is a trap for the unwary of the same order as 'Have you stopped beating your wife?' Aerial bombardment was in its infancy at the start of the Second World War; the atom bomb in a similar position at the end. In that violent nursery it was inevitable that new weapons grew to maturity ahead of the moral, political and strategic philosophy that should have governed their use.
Fortunately the theorists held sway throughout the Cold War that followed, not least because the horrors of inflicting massive civilian casualties were now obvious to all. In contrast the IRA, 20 years into its present campaign, have neither learnt the lesson that the bombing of civilians will not achieve their ends nor developed a philosophy to justify their means; they are both strategically and morally bankrupt.
It is possible to link the IRA campaign with the Second World War by asking two human, rather than philosophical, questions. First, presented with photographs of Belsen, Treblinka or the Burma railway camps, what means would be justified to bring such horrors to an end? Secondly, given two democratic and neighbouring nations who will inevitably be drawn closer together as Europe itself moves towards unification, what means are justified to coerce the population to hasten that time?
The World Memorial Fund was established, by Cheshire, as a permanent and living memorial to those who lost their lives in the wars of this century so that, in their memory, comfort could be brought to present and future victims of war and natural disasters, regardless of race, colour, creed, nationality or ethnic background.
At present the fund's office windows are boarded up following the IRA bombing attack on the City of London. The gloomy outlook is irradiated by the knowledge that through the life, work, faith, conviction and example of Leonard Cheshire those who need relief for their suffering will be comforted.