Ich bin ein Dresdner?

January 29, 2008

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“Write what you know.” Isn’t that what they say? So, Kurt Vonnegut wrote about the firebombing of Dresden in World War II in his novel, Slaughterhouse Five. Each time I read this book, I am more impressed by it. His control of tone is wonderful – the simple, repetitive phrases that give it the air of a parodic gospel. The dark satire, restrained by a fatalistic humanism. The downright horror of it all.

He didn’t write about the Nazi destruction of the Jews – he didn’t witness that. He made no grand claims, other than that in the war, tens of thousands of innocent civilians were burned to a crisp in a city that had no military value. (Some have recently claimed that this was not true, but it certainly took them a while to make their arguments! See my post on Bomber Harris.) More people died there than in Hiroshima, but who’s counting? Is the body count all that matters?

The subtitle of the book is The Children’s Crusade, a reference to the fact that the American army was largely composed of boys, barely out of childhood, hastily dressed up and shipped overseas in uniform as GI Joes. For the most part, they were woefully unprepared, a point that is amplified in a brief historical book about the US war in northern Europe, The Boy’s Crusade by Paul Fussell. (He was there too.) They were fighting a desperate and seasoned killing machine led by experienced and ruthless officers fighting for their lives, the Nazi army.

There are a lot of things in this book that may have seemed very outré in 1971. His description of the American collaborator, Campbell and his tirades against US soldiers; the way the Germans treated the Russian POWs like animals to be worked to death – right next to the Americans and British; the incompetence and chaos of the Americans fighting – their poor equipment. Lots of things that don’t accord too well with our current mythology of The Greatest Generation either.

Of course, the book had added poignancy because it was published at a time with the specter of mass incineration was hanging over just about everyone.

Requiescat In Pace

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Bomber Harris and 20th Century Friends

April 8, 2005

The esteemed blogster, Troutsky, points out that all my catalogs of 20th century industrialized killing seem to leave the western democracies off the hook – a good point. Time to address that oversight! The image above is of “Bomber Harris,” the man in charge of Britain’s air war against Germany. He’s not so well known here, but he is in the UK and the Commonwealth, and there was even a flattering statue of him unveiled a few years ago, which initiated a vigorous controversy.

A lot of folks defend him as the stalwart warrior who brough the Nazis to their knees. Some see him as simply a war criminal, a soldier bent on bloody vengeance to repay the Germans for the Blitz, and to pummel them into submission. I’m no afficianado of military history – the debate still goes on – but my sense is that it’s been pretty much agreed that his massive air raids on German cities did not hasten the end of the war, caused tremendous civilian casualties, and, in fact, stiffened the resistance of the nutso Germans. Less often mentioned is the terrific toll on allied airmen that was suffered by the attacking forces – the targets were often well defended, and we’re not talking B-52s flying high, out of sight! No, Senator George McGovern and actor Jimmy Stuart, both wartime bomber pilots, among others, have spoken of the terror of those missions.

In the July 4th parade in my town, there is always a float that has a model bomber gun, the kind that has a double-barrel machine gun and plexiglass enclosure, with a “gunner” inside. It turns around and goes tat-tat-tat. I always recall to my kids the remark my father made that the gunners who manned these positions were often “scooped out with a spoon” after the plane returned from its mission. If it returned.

In the film The Fog of War, Robert McNamara alludes to this horror: Seems that an enormous number of sorties were aborted because of mechanical difficulties. When Bob examined the data, it turned out that most of the mechanical problems were trivial, or unconfirmed. The pilots and crews were quite simply scared to go on their missions, and they grasped at any excuse to abort. When the command instituted a harsh policy against aborting missions, the behavior stopped. Well, that’s good management!, but hey, there was a war on. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Yep, and there’s Dresden, the destruction of which was witnessed and written about by Vonnegut. A recent book claims that the city was a vital military target after all: maybe so – I don’t follow these debates – but why has it taken 60 years of bad press for the allies to bring these ‘facts’ to light? I’m skeptical. Where have the defenders of the military-industrial complex’s reputation been all these years? On Tralfamadore?

Bomber Harris had his American alter-ego, Curtis LeMay, inspiration for Kubrick’s Colonel Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.


He remarked to McNamara, right after the war, that if the allies had lost, he and McNamara would probably have been brought up on charges of war crimes for their fire-bombing of several Japanese cities. Maybe they were war criminals. Was it really necessary to incinerate hundreds of thousands of civilians in German and Japanese cities to end the war? Did they even believe that it was, or were they just on a bloody roll? Easy to ask these questions now, eh? Well, some people asked them then. Freeman Dyson, the renowned physicist, was employed by the war department in England in a job that helped plan the massive raids. He has spoken movingly of his anguish over the work he did (I believe he resigned, but I’m not sure.) He suspected then, and certainly feels now that it was brutal, cruel, unnecessary, and simply criminal.

But you know, I love those planes! I spent many happy hours building models of them as a boy:

This is the age of machinery,
A mechanical nightmare,
The wonderful world of technology,
Napalm, hydrogen bombs, biological warfare,

This is the twentieth century,
But too much aggravation
It’s the age of insanity,
What has become of the green pleasant fields of Jerusalem?

The Kinks, “20th Century Man”

Good bye, 20th Century!


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