Thursday, 16 May 2013

Dambusters: A smart raid?

If you had to set the rules by which you conduct a war then what would you include? You come across these rules in war films when an English POW is asked for information and with their stiff upper lip give only their name, rank and number. Should soldiers be killing civilians? Well the answer should be a no. Should attacks be carried out that harm civilians? Well it should be a no again but 'collateral damage' means that sometimes these things happen, they can't be helped and sometimes they are a necessary part of war.

There is a great emphasis on targeting of military targets but if civilians are killed or harmed in any way then it may be argued that this is what you have to put up with. However I am now letting you make up the rules. Have you decided that it is alright to harm civilians if they are not the main target? Would you allow civilians to become the main target?

Now think of the Dambusters raid on the dams in the Ruhr Valley in 1943. The target was water. You could argue that military operations need water so civilians were not the main target but I don't think you would get very far as everyone needs water and that means the dams were not military targets. You could argue that the raid brought a quicker end to the war so must be a good thing. You could argue that the raid was a much needed propaganda boost for the allies. You have now torn up your rule book.

Yesterday the BBC published an article by Dan Snow in which he wrote about the bouncing bombs as 'the ancestor of today's "smart bombs" ' but smart bombs are used to limit collateral damage. The Dambusters were not aiming to minimise collateral damage but to cause it. Hundreds of civilians and POWs were killed by the flood waters. 25 bridges were destroyed. The power supply and agriculture were affected. Dan was referring to the bouncing bombs themselves when he called them 'smart' but the real destructive weapon was the water and this was certainly not selective in its target.

Dan writes that 'the skill and bravery of the pilots who flew at night, at 100ft (30m) or less over enemy territory is breathtaking'. Yes it was, but how would we view the skill and bravery of the Luftwaffe pilots if our dams had been breached? In 1977 the Geneva Conventions were amended to prohibit attacks on dams "if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces from the works or installations and consequent severe losses among the civilian population". This amendment was directly inspired by the Dambusters raid. We can't apply 1977 laws to 1943, but back then, even more so than today, I think the belief was widespread that targeting civilians was what the "bad guys" did, and soldiers should only be fighting other soldiers. So, was the Dambusters raid a 'smart' raid? What do you think?

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