Tuesday, February 16, 2010

By Request: Dresden

Someone asked me if I'd comment on the Dresden bombing, it's in the news right now, the anniversary of the February, 1945 event. It was pretty horrific stuff, the point in WWII when strategic bombing gave way to terror bombing of civilians in Germany and Japan.

All such acts of war are wrong if they are considered in a vacuum, without any historical context. Many acts of war are wrong in any context that you could think of. Would the Dresden bombing be one of those? It could be.

I can tell you that the American powers-that-be at the time were beginning to get very worried about public opinion and support for continuing the war. The stated goal was “unconditional surrender,” but something less would enter the realm of possibility if there were not the political will to accomplish the stated goal. The longer the war went on, the higher the casualty figures climbed, America casualties, that is, there had never been a shortage of casualties in most of the combating armies, and most of the involved civilian populations. American casualties affected support for the war.

So those powers-that-be were willing to try anything to accelerate the ending of the war. By 1945 the entire thing was a forgone conclusion, the loving cups had been engraved with the winners' names. But the opponents still had great reserves of military strength, and their armies were still fighting very effectively. Even if the end was in sight, the dates and exact circumstances were unknowable.

I really have two points to make about the terror bombing phase of the Allied air war:

1.It's always hard to take things out of their historical context and try to make value judgments; and
2.Of all of the millions, let's say tens of millions of people who died horribly in WWII, how much sense does it make to break off little groups of them for the purpose of moralizing from a safe distance?

Oh, three points: placed in the context of a hugely destructive, worldwide conflict of long duration, decisions to try unproven tactics (like the fire bombings), or unknown technologies (like the atomic bomb) were really very easy to cast in the affirmative. They should not now draw excessive criticism.


Anonymous said...

Suggest re-reading Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five." Written by someone who lived through it.

fred c said...

I've read a few first hand accounts, from Germany and Japan. In fact, today, coincidentally, I re-read survivor accounts from the big Tokyo fire bomb raids in Richard Franks' "Downfall."

Tokyo was worse than Dresden, but I think Nanking was worse then either of them, even with the absence of fire.

nanute said...

Here's an excerpt from Vonnegut on Dresden:In December 1944, Vonnegut was captured by the German army and became a prisoner of war. In Slaughterhouse Five, he describes how he narrowly escaped death a few months later in the firebombing of Dresden. "Yes, by your people [the English], may I say," he insists. "You guys burnt the place down, turned it into a single column of flame. More people died there in the firestorm, in that one big flame, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. I'm fond of your people, on occasion, but I was just thinking about 'Bomber Harris, who believed in attacks on civilian populations to make them give up. A hell of a lot of Royal Air Force guys were ashamed of what Harris had made them do. And that's really sportsmanship and, of course, the Brits are famous for being good sports," he concedes.

fred c said...

Harris was bad, but Curtis Le May was no slouch either, his Napalm was not loathe to burn.

These things are truly horrible. I have long said that I would much rather be locked in a room with a hungry lion, or a werewolf even, than caught out in the open in an artillery barrage, or, God forbid, a serious firebombing.

And it never even did any good! The Germans were made stoic and angry, and soldiered on; The Japanese were made more fatalistic, and determined to die gloriously, taking as many of their enemies as possible with them.