Saturday, April 30, 2005

JORG FRIEDRICH, from Berlin, writes in "Sign and Sight," an online German publication, about the road from Dresden to Hiroshima. The very names of these cities -- Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki -- are now shorthand for massive, overwhelming human devastation on what used to be an unimaginable scale.

But familiarity with the descriptions of Dresden and Hiroshima after the bombings does not lessen the horror of reading them again.

Between February and August 1945, in Dresden, Pforzheim, W├╝rzburg, Halberstadt, Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, Tokyo etc., a total of 330,000 people died in conventional incendiary attacks, 120,000 in nuclear ones. Four fifths of Japanese victims were buried without being identified. Dr. Shigenori, military air defence commander, wrote: "Countless bodies, clothed and naked, black as coal, were floating in the dark waters of the Sumida River. It was unreal. They were dead people, but you couldn't tell if they were men or women. You couldn't even tell if the objects floating past were arms, legs or burnt wood." Before they died, they had jumped into the water to escape the fiery air which braised their lungs and set their clothes alight. People ran from the burning zones with their belongings strapped to their backs, failing to notice when these caught fire. One mother slung her baby over her shoulder and only noticed when she stopped to catch her breath that the child was engulfed in flames. Those who jumped into the water were no better off. The liquid was bubbling like the air, and the swimmers cooked in it.

The deadly irony in all this, of course, is that in defeating Hitler, a man who for the first time in human history harnessed science and technology to the cause of murdering millions of innocent people, the Allies opened the door to a new era of using civilian casualties to wage war. Although the military necessity justification is still invoked for attacks like Dresden and Hiroshima, even historians like Frederick Taylor -- who has argued that Dresden had real military significance and might have seemed like a logical war target to the Allies at the time -- point out that, whatever the rational argument might have been for massive bombing raids in World War II, the fact is that now, six decades later, the world's sole superpower is still relying on bombing to wage war, in the full knowledge of the enormous human cost that bombing exacts.

There is something inherently fascistoid in air warfare -- you don't see the person you are bombing and killing or injuring and you have this sort of psychopathic gaze from above. The air war is the only part of the war where the Allies, leaving aside the Russians, seriously ran the Axis powers a good race in terms of ruthlessness. But it is now 60 years after the fact, most people involved are dead and we shouldn't start pointing fingers except for in the case of the Holocaust. But the English and especially the Americans have continued since World War II to rely on bombing as an instrument of policy and that really concerns me.

In other words, maybe back in 1945, when the era of air attacks was still relatively new, we could think that military necessity trumped civilian casualties; but now, in the 21st century, when we've had 60 years to figure out that massive bombing kills thousands and thousands of innocent people, we should know better.

But in fact, our thinking has gone in just the opposite direction; and as a result the very way we conceptualize civilian casualties has shifted. More and more, I hear the argument that there are no civilians in war -- that anyone who is part of the "enemy" country and who does not actively oppose or fight that country is an enemy, too; regardless of specific military status. In this definition, even women and children lose their civilian status. This change in the degree to which "innocent civilian" even exists as a concept anymore probably is the consequence of half a century of growing reliance on a vast array of bombs that kill huge numbers of civilians by definition. Civilian carnage is now a given in war; and that has to be psychologically processed somehow. From the perspective of those who want to wage war, the best way to do that processing is by denying that anyone in the enemy country is a civilian.

This kind of rationalizing is not new. It started in World War II, in response to the massive civilian casualties caused by ... firebombing German cities and dropping nuclear bombs on Japanese cities.

When soldier Jack Couffer walked among the houses of the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah in 1943, which, according to the Air Force "correspond to the type of housing in which 80 percent of the German industrial population lives", he started imagining things. "I looked in the empty windows and imagined with terrible clarity that the houses were inhabited, bursting with life, with people walking through the narrow alleys on their way to and from the factories, street traders, shoppers, children playing. It is easier to set a sterile place like that on fire if you whisk such fantasies away". The coming air war was no longer to be won with scruples. Five years later Curtis Le May, warhorse in the campaigns over Germany and Japan and then head of the US Strategic Air Command, comforted himself with the thought that as there were no longer any civilians, there was no longer anyone to protect. Otherwise he could not have run the office that developed the "Reaper" and "Trojan" plans in 1949 – 1950, in which 100 atom bombs were to be dropped on 70 Russian cities causing 2.7 million deaths. The plan was based on assessments General Le May had brought home from Japan. "We knew when we burned a city back then, that we would kill many women and children. The aim of the strategy is to destroy the enemy's war-making potential. All that had to be obliterated." The Japanese had a complex and broad-based manufacturing system. "You only needed to walk through one of our roasted targets and take a look at the ruins of the countless tiny houses. Some kind of drill press stuck out of every pile of rubble. The entire population was involved in building aeroplanes or war munition. Men, women and children." That’s why they were slaughtered in the Second World War. "There are no innocent civilians. Nowadays you fight a people, not armed forces."

Reading this, I can't help feeling that we have learned from the mass murder and carnage of World War II -- but it's the wrong lesson we've learned.

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