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February 14, 2020
This week marks 75 years since the allied bombing of Dresden. The bombing of Dresden led to at least 25,000 civilian deaths, including many internally displaced Germans who viewed the city as safe - there were no military targets there, and it had been left alone for most of the war. Among the dead were also allied prisoners of war being held in the city. The experiences of prisoners of war during the bombing was immortalized by Kurt Vonnegut, one of the survivors, in his novel Slaughterhouse 5. So it goes.
The bombing of Dresden was part of a larger campaign of “terror bombing” aimed at German cities. Between 1943 and 1945, 600,000 civilians were killed in bombardments on German cities, attacks that were explicitly aimed at terrorizing the civilian population in order to break the will of the German people. Royal Air Force commanders were very clear about the motives.
The Dresden bombing shocked the world’s conscience. Churchill, not known for outpourings of compassion, was appalled by the savagery of the attack, calling it “an act of terror and wanton destruction.” After seeing photographs of the devastated city, the prime minister asked, “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?” In a top secret memo dated March 28, 1945, he wrote:
It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land.
Others defended the bombing. “Butcher” Harris acknowledged that “the destruction of so large and splendid a city at this late stage of the war was considered unnecessary even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were fully justified.” However, he asserted that terror bombing would “shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers.” Harris infamously added: “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British grenadier.”
Three weeks after the bombardment of Dresden, the United States would unleash the largest bombardment in human history on Tokyo. Over 100,000 civilians were killed in three days of “fire-bombing” in March of 1945. As with Germany, Japan was in retreat, the end of the war was coming. Indeed, by the fall of 1944, Allies had already been plotting the post-War future, penning agreements at Bretton Woods for the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank of Reconstruction and forging the United Nations at Dumbarton Oaks.
By August, with Japan seeking a peace agreement, the United States dropped bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, killing somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 people immediately, and untold numbers in the coming years as the result of radiation poisoning. It was argued that the bombings were justified to bring about the end of the war and save allied lives. This assumes that the Allies' demand for unconditional surrender was just, or worth any means necessary to achieve. Japan was surrendering - and Truman knew it. As Guy Alperivotz argued in Atomic Diplomacy, written in late 1965, as documents from that time were first becoming declassified, the target of the bombings was in some sense the Soviet Union, in essence a demonstration of the military strength of the United States.
Of course the nationalist regime in Japan had engaged in massive violations against civilian populations in China and elsewhere, and Nazi crimes are well known. The siege of Stalingrad alone led to the deaths of over 2 million people, civilians and combatants. Nearly 70 million civilians died in World War II.
We seem to have never looked back from this destruction. During the Korean War, the U.S. military strafed columns of refugees fleeing south to prevent communist infiltration. During the Vietnam war, U.S. bombardments of Hanoi and surrounding areas obliterated the region and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The secret bombing of Cambodia created a massive refugee crisis inside the country and fomented the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
We live in the wake of this horror. The invasion of Iraq, for example, led directly to the deaths of at least 100,000 civilians, indirectly (through collapsed infrastructure, polluted water, and so on) closer to 1 million.
Elsewhere, war has proven equally deadly. From the Watson Institute’s Cost of War project:
The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Pakistan have taken a tremendous human toll on those countries. As of November 2019, 335,000 civilians in these countries have died violent deaths as a result of the wars. Civilian deaths have also resulted from the US military operations in Somalia and other countries in the U.S. war on terrorism.
People living in the war zones have been killed in their homes, in markets, and on roadways. They have been killed by bombs, bullets, fire, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and drones. Civilians die at checkpoints, as they are run off the road by military vehicles, when they step on a mine or cluster bomb, as they collect wood or tend to their fields, and when they are kidnapped and executed for purposes of revenge or intimidation. They are killed by the United States, by its allies, and by insurgents and sectarians in the civil wars spawned by the invasions.
Death can also happen weeks or months after a battle. Many times more Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis have died as a result of battered infrastructure and poor health conditions arising from the wars than directly from its violence. For example, war refugees often lose access to a stable food supply or to their jobs, resulting in increased malnutrition and vulnerability to disease.
There are 70 million people displaced by violence in the world today.
Four days ago the President submitted a budget request that would give the Pentagon $740 billion. This is roughly equal to what the rest of the world combined spends on their militaries. Congress will likely agree.
And when people come fleeing the bombs we drop with that money, we will shut the door on them.
So it goes.
Jane Bouvier (not verified)
We surely have blood on our hands. When will we ever learn?