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Bomber Harris A Hero Or A Mass Murderer History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

On the 13th of February 1945, a firestorm was directed on the city of Dresden in Germany (Oestreicher 2004). Over 500 bombs were released in two days, virtually destroying the city and killing an estimated 24,000 people, a great proportion of whom were German civilians (the damage made it impossible for an actual count to be made). Sir Arthur Harris was the man responsible for this attack, so horrendous that it has now been dubbed a “terror killing” (i.e. killing just for the sake of terror) (BBC History 1989). Here we will look into why attacks such as these occurred and whether they were necessary or simply inexcusable. This will focus on deciding if Harris was guilty of mass murder, whether his mindset was “mad or bad” and study different theories which can be applied to the situation. Additionally, the vast amount of controversy surrounds the Harris bombings will be explored.

Firstly faulty image and the “moral panic theory” will be discussed. The moral panic theory implicates the media in creating social disorder (Morrall 2006). This will relate to the time period after WWII when the actions of Harris had been brought to light. Faulty society is highly relevant as at the time Harris was beginning his career; the majority of healthy males were being recruited into the military due to the first and second world wars. If Harris had, for example, been born into this present day and age, it is likely that he would have gone into a completely different career. The theory of “social ecology” may be relative to some aspects of the Harris case; the theory (Godsi 2004) implies that the meaning of “violent acts” depends firstly on culture and secondly the time period in history in which they occur. War for example allows violence to be decriminalized and brutal killings may in fact be seen as heroic. Finally there will be a brief look into madness in relation to whether authority status can lead individuals to power driven madness. There is no theory which applies directly to this but it can still be hypothesized.

Mass murder is defined as the unlawful killing of a large number (usually four or more) of people either over a relatively short period of time or at the same time (Payne-James 2005). The term is usually associated with individuals who kill families, students or coworkers with a variety of motives and unlike serial killers (those who commit multiple unlawful killings over a longer period of time).

The modern definition of a hero (Farnell 2001) refers to those who, upon facing danger, exhibit courage and self sacrifice to the extent of moral excellence. Soldiers who fought in WWII are known to the British as heroes of war for the bravery displayed in standing in the way of Hitler and his visions of world domination (Tweedie 2010) After the war, 440 Medals of Honour were awarded to soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen for their service (WWII reference library 2003). Every year, Remembrance day is held in memory of the armed forces and civilians who made huge sacrifices during WWI and WWII; these people are considered national heroes.

Although the “Hague Conventions,” which addressed the codes of wartime conduct regarding land and sea existed before WWII, aerial warfare was not updated in the law until afterwards. This means that rather than aerial warfare not being covered by the international humanitarian law, there was in fact just no agreement on how the law should be interpreted. Nevertheless, the Hague Conventions (1907) did contain two treaties directed at bombardment, stating that the bombardment of undefended habitations, villages, towns or buildings was prohibited and during a bombardment everything should be done that was necessary to ensure that places devoted to art, science, charity and hospitals should be spared (unless they were also being used for military purposes) as also stated in the Hague Conventions 1989. After WWII, treaties on the laws of war considering aerial bombardment were adopted from 1949. These came into action because of the reaction against practices occurring in WWII (Goldman 1939).

Between 1943 and 1945 under the instruction of Sir Arthur Harris, the cities of Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Essen, Leipzig and Dresden were bombed killing thousands of civilians (the exact number is unknown but estimates are in the high thousands). At the end of WWII, the men who flew for the Bomber Command did not receive any recognition (unlike for example the Fighter Command) and they were not given a campaign medal like everyone else. In 1992, a statue in tribute to Harris was constructed in London, however it was under 24 hour surveillance for months due to continuous protesting and subsequent vandalism (Frankland 1998). Harris’s “war crimes” never caught up with him; he was never brought to trial.

Sir Arthur Travers Harris (April 1892 – April 1984) was born in India where he lived with his parents until he was five when he was sent to England to gain his school education, from then on having barely any contact with his parents. Harris did not initially set out on this path; instead, on finishing school he made his way Rhodesia to try his luck in the tobacco industry (Probert 2003). When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany in 1914 Harris was totally unaware and instead signed up to the 1st Rhodesian Regiment. It was then he got his first experience of bombing; a German aircraft began dropping artillery shells on them, an experience he never forgot. Due to the intense amount of marching in South Africa, on his return to England Harris became a second lieutenant in the Royal flying Corps. As Harris excelled, his reputation mounted and by World War II he had become the Marshal of the Royal Air Force (the Chief of Bomber Command).

Harris was convinced that his method of area bombing German cities (permitted by the Cabinet), which involved the aerial bombing of cities filled with civilians, railways, harbours and industrial areas, would win the war. He was instructed to bomb mainly enemy fighters and their factories but Harris strongly disagreed with this and was determined that the civilian cities, especially Berlin, were the vital targets (BBC History 1989). He was known to be extremely against precision bombing (bombing specific targets) and lied to his troops about the accuracy of area bombing. In fact statistically, only 20% of aircrafts got within five miles of their targets with area bombing and of these only a fraction still actually hit their targets. Unaware of this, an attack of 1,000 aircrafts was launched on Cologne causing maximum damage to large built up areas; the result Harris had wanted. Hamburg was the next City to be destroyed (Probert 2003). It was then that people began to question the ethnicity behind the bombings. Harris responded by claiming that he had been instructed to win the war by “all means necessary” and that “barbarianism and savagery were a unfortunate consequence.” According to Harris “war is a complete breakdown on civilization so it shouldn’t have any form of ethics attached to it.” Previously, the Nation and the Prime Minster, Winston Churchill, had been behind him, but by this point he was being heavily criticized for ignoring factories and submarine stations and was told he was “dangerously obsessed” with launching an attack on Berlin (Gilbert 1988). It was now that he gained his notorious nickname “Bomber Harris.”

As previously stated, Harris claimed that “barbarianism” was a necessary consequence in his area bombing method. Barbarity is associated with extreme evilness although it is debatable whether evilness can be connected with an individual. Examples of this are historical figures such as Mao and Hitler who, to many, are seen as “evil” but to their supporters they are heroes. This type of controversy is evident in the case of Harris and the morality of the bombing offensive (on the grounds of conscience) are still being questioned and probably always will be.

It may be a case of faulty image related to the “moral panic theory (Morrall 2006).” Moral panic occurs when a situation arises that threatens social order. The media can play a large role in heightening moral panic causing it to occur on a larger scale by exposing facts or putting a certain stance on a situation. Evans (2002) feels that much of the criticism directed at Harris has resulted from public ignorance on some of the facts twisted by the media, along with many half truths and lies, giving a flawed perception of Harris. However, although the media may have not told the entire truth, the fact still remains that Harris knowingly killed thousands of innocent civilians; a moral dilemma. The moral panic theory helps to understand that, as with the majority of major events, there are two sides to every story, however it can not be applied successfully to this case. The proven facts speak for themselves and point out a flaw with the theory; it is perhaps not always a bad thing to create a moral panic if it can aid in guiding the public towards the truth which surely they have a right to know. Faulty image is not responsible for the controversial views associated with Harris, someone does not have to look far to find out what actually happened and it is a personal opinion to how someone chooses to perceive Harris.

So is faulty society responsible for Harris’s actions? The “social ecology” theory put forward by Elie Godsi (2004) gives a good explanation for the actions of Harris. Part of the theory looks into the fact that the definitions of violence and criminal acts are not set in stone and are largely depended on the historical period they take place in and cultural circumstances. WWI is used as an example; hundreds of British soldiers were executed when they refused to kill the enemy or in some cases were too traumatized to be able to (these soldiers were killed as “traitors” when they were in fact mentally ill). Soldiers who did engage in warfare, committing what in usual circumstances are seen as the worst forms of premeditated or cold-blooded murder, were perceived as heroes and these acts of murder were “acceptable” and “necessary” under these circumstances. This relates to what Harris said about the savagery of his bombings being “necessary” and strengthens Godsi’s theory; although I have focused mainly on those who were against Harris, he did have many followers who would have agreed that the bombings were necessary.

Another emphasis of Godsi’s theory is that the violent acts of those who are powerful are covered up whilst those of the powerless are revealed. Harris certainly had a huge amount of influence and power and although it is not a case of what he did being covered up, his role of Wartime Chief therefore means it is hard to question the bombings as he had the authority to carry them out (even though this involved disregarding orders). The social ecology theory therefore helps us to understand some of Harris’s actions and can be fairly successfully applied to his case; the main strength seen in the explanation that the historical period violence occurs in can impact upon its definition. This theory implies that in some twisted circumstances, the cruel reality is that murderers are called heroes and those who are perhaps the real heroes for refusing to kill under authority are called ‘traitors.”

The social ecology theory does however have aspects of weakness. A large part of the theory is based on the suggestion that adults who display abusiveness and commit acts of violence are likely to have themselves experienced violence as children. The idea is that, because they felt powerless as children, they try to get this power back be being violent themselves. Harris had a reasonably stable upbringing and was not subjected to anything that made him feel powerless, yet he still carried out cold-hearted acts and abused his position of power. His unsuspecting victims were the powerless ones. Therefore, although the social ecology theory may well be able to explain violence in adults who were abused as children, it cannot account for the full extent of brutality displayed by cases such as Harris.

It seems unlikely that Harris’s actions were those of pure madness. He had no known mental disorders or other health problems. Madness, when associated with mass murder usually refers to someone who is not in the state of mind to know what they are doing or does not understand that what they are doing is wrong. Although Harris was not mad in the general context of the word, he had become obsessed with launching a bombing attack on Berlin and was described by many as “power mad.” Could it be that the extreme pressures placed on him and his commitment to do what he thought crucial to end the war drove him to make the wrong choices? Perhaps this shows an element of undefined madness. Alternatively, it is far more likely that Harris was more bad than mad. It is more fitting to call Harris a Barbarian than insane.

In summary, it is know that Harris had a fairly stable upbringing, even though he was not brought up with his parents, and he was well educated. As he progressed through his military career, he eventually became chief of the Bomber Command during WWII and created an alternative method of bombing called “area bombing.” This method meant hitting targets was far less accurate; something Harris lied about to those he was in command of. Additionally, he ignored his instruction of targeting military-based areas and instead launched attacks on cities populated by thousands of innocent civilians. He went against the general laws of the time but because they were reasonably loosely based and not on aerial bombing, he was not breaking specific law. “Moral panic theory” was applied to see if faulty image could explain why Harris is portrayed badly to a large proportion of the public but this theory was not extremely successful in doing so. The theory of “social ecology’ was used to see if faulty society resulted in the bombing of civilians being deemed as acceptable. The theory gave some good explanation relating especially to the definition of criminal acts, which may depend on the time period and situation in which they are applied. Finally, it was discussed whether Harris was mad or bad; it seems more likely he was bad but it was hypothesized that his position of power and his growing obsessions may have had an aspect of madness behind them.

To conclude I feel the question of whether “Bomber Harris’ was a national hero or mass murderer should now be addressed. I can without a doubt conclude that the description of “national hero” is not one which can be applied to Harris. Harris may have believed that his actions were of good intention and his decisions justified, nevertheless, the term hero stands for courage and bravery, characteristics not to be associated with Harris. Deciding whether Harris should be classed as a “mass murderer” is a more difficult question to consider. Even in terms of the law this is controversial; the law clearly stated that bombardment of civilians was prohibited but this did not apply specifically to aerial bombing and was not strictly enforced (Goldman 1939). The fact that Harris went against his orders to bomb military areas is the most incriminating; it cannot be argued that thousands of innocent lives would not have been eradicated had this not been the case. In this sense, it is acceptable to define Harris as a mass murderer.

Unfortunately situations like the “Harris Bombings” and indeed many of the issues of war will always cause an incredible amount of controversy. The current situation of war in Iraq is a prime example of this; in 2003 troops were sent into Iraq, mainly by the USA and the UK because of Iraq’s apparent failure to disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction (Bush 2003). However no weapons have been found. Although in 2009, President Barack Obama withdrew many of the forces the death toll shows that over 650,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed during this period of warfare (Parson 2006) showing the terrible human cost of war.

Although Godsi’s theory of social ecology fits some aspects of the controversy surrounding acts of violence in warfare, a theory looking at the pressures upon the figures that must make the vital decisions during periods of war seems a logical one to be researched. The power in the hands of the World’s leader’s forces decisions to be made that can have devastating consequences and there is currently no theory based on the abuse of power or additionally that perhaps power could be a potential driving force of madness.

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