Christopher Hitchens now reconsiders the morality and usefulness of the World War II bombing campaigns that turned whole cities like Dresden, Germany, into firestorms of death, principally for unarmed civilians.
Hitchens takes on Anthony Grayling, an English moral philosopher who argues that the “area bombings” of Dresden and similar cities of little military value did nothing to shorten the war, and therefore were immoral. Grayling says the Allies might have justified the precision bombing of Germany’s oil facilities, but not much else. Bombing oil depots clearly could slow Hitler’s war machine, so that was moral.
Hitchens recognizes many truths in Grayling’s position, but as Hitchens’ “Scorched Earth” essay simmers early, you sense midway his argument is building to a blistering conclusion. He says World War II could have been avoided altogether had Britain not appeased Hitler with Czechoslovakia in 1938. But once the war began, he says, Nazi Germany had to be stomped.
The ultimate ruling. Then Hitchens rises to a boil:
I will never be one of those Englishmen who can complacently regard the years between 1940 and 1945 as a “finest hour.”
On the other hand, once the battle had eventually been joined, one has little choice but to regard it as an anti-Nazi war at last. And to me, this involves viewing it from the standpoint of a German antifascist, or a non-German slave laborer or other victim of German racism. And here, atheist though I am, I have to invoke something like the biblical. It was important not just that the Hitler system be defeated, but that it be totally and unsentimentally destroyed. The Nazis had claimed to be invincible and invulnerable: Very well, then, they must be visited by utter humiliation. No more nonsense and delusion, as with the German Right after 1918 and its myth of a stab in the back. Here comes a verdict with which you cannot argue. I choose to quote Thomas Mann, a non-Jewish German who had to decide the matter in great personal anguish. In his Doctor Faustus, the narrator calls the ruin of Munich by the bombers “a Last Judgment” and then goes on to say:
Granted, the destruction of our cities from the air has long since turned Germany into an arena of war; and yet we find it inconceivable, impermissible, to think that Germany could ever become such an arena in the true sense, and our propaganda has a curious way of warning the foe against incursion on our soil, our sacred German soil, as if that would be some grisly atrocity. . . . Our sacred German soil! As if anything were sacred about it, as if it had not long ago been desecrated again and again by the immensity of our rape of justice and did not lie naked, both morally and in fact, before the power of divine judgment. Let it come!
“Let it come!” Good grief; it is hard to think even of any non-German wishing to go that far. (Mann used to broadcast on American radio to Germany.) But anything less than the apocalyptic seems inadequate. Eva Klemperer, a staunch and principled German Lutheran, told her husband that, after what she had experienced under Hitler, she could not find it in herself to truly regret the firestorm of Dresden. And what of the Slav and Balkan and Polish and Jewish slaves in Speer’s underground hell holes, forced to dig out pits for the rocket-bombs that were being directed at London? Did they not cheer silently every time the very earth shook with revenge?
Heinrich Boell, one of the greatest of Germany’s postwar writers -- and a conscript on the Eastern front -- wrote a posthumous letter to his sons, telling them that they only needed to know one thing about their fellow citizens: Did they refer to May 1945 as the defeat of Germany, or the liberation? I shall put this tersely and take my chances: A “pinpoint” bombing of Dresden’s railheads in 1945 would still have left the Nazi authorities in power and allowed them to send the last transports to the killing fields.
A time for the ultimate ruling sometimes has to come, or else Negro quasi-serfs might even now be selling ice cream to obese children on the still-wooden boardwalks of Atlanta. If the party of Abraham Lincoln instead of Andrew Johnson could have followed the war parties of William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, think what America might have been spared. In the present case, the parties of Kurt Schumacher and Willy Brandt and even Konrad Adenauer were able to follow, and they managed their work as German democrats because there was simply no rival narrative or myth. Tabula rasa.
A kind war. In Iraq today, the liberators’ relatively restrained and precise military operations have allowed the fascist enemy to continue telling its hateful stories with pride. The U.S.-led coalition has allowed the Baathists, the Sadr mob and al Qaida to dream in comfort (with food on the table, at least) of reversing Iraq’s democratic process.
The coalition did not destroy whole cities of Iraq. It did not carpet bomb or nuke anyone. In the invasion, it bypassed many major enemy strongholds. Its targets were limited. It did not break the enemy’s spirit. It did not rub the enemy’s nose in the dirt. It fought a kind war.
Perhaps the coalition was much too kind. When a totalitarian enemy is defeated on the battlefield but not in spirit, introducing democracy on enemy territory is bound to invite chaos. Building new institutions of freedom is an ordeal when the ghosts of tyranny are allowed to stand in the way.
Firebombings effective. By the end of World War II, the fascists were humiliated, exhausted and crushed. The west Germans (and Japanese) raised no objection to forming democracies that directly contradicted the ideologies they once killed for. On that level, the firebombing of cities worked.
And yet there must be a better way.