One of my favorite talk radio hosts recently interviewed a member of the evangelical Christian left who expressed sentiments -- to call them arguments would be an overstatement -- against the war in Iraq. The conversation, fairly typical of such exchanges, went something like this:
"When have you been in favor of the United States actually using military force?"
"Well, I guess you would have to say World War II was what you would call a good war."
"What about Dresden? You bring up Abu Ghraib all the time, are you OK with Dresden?"
"Well, horrible things happen in every war, I guess. That's the problem with Just War theory."
And on it went. Somewhere along the line, majorities on both the right and left have accepted the notion that the Allied bombing raid on the German city of Dresden in February 1945 was tantamount to a war crime. This, in turn, works for the rhetoric on both sides. Conservatives can skewer liberals who use a small incident to justify their opposition to recent wars by throwing Dresden in their faces; while the Left is all too willing to believe the worst of Western militaries in every case.
Even many conservatives who defend the nuking of Hiroshima — and not just those in the Buchanan Brigades — accept that Dresden was an atrocity. Over the years, the politically correct version of Dresden has nearly become the official story.
The rationale behind the conventional wisdom of the Dresden raid as a war crime usually rests on the following assertions:
1. Dresden was not a military target; the bombing solely targeted the civilian population. Critics note the number of museums and cultural treasures of the "Florence of the Elbe," as if the city were an island of peace and culture in a sea of Nazism. Often mentioned is the number of refugees who had flooded into a city largely ignored by bombers.
2. The war was all but won by the time of the raid, and thus was completely unnecessary. This assumes that Winston Churchill, Arthur "Bomber" Harris and Gen. Spaatz just wanted to kill a large number of German civilians while they still had an excuse.
3. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died. Taking a page from some discredited German bestsellers of the 1950s, novelist Kurt Vonnegut-- who witnessed the bombing as a POW-- famously claimed that more people died in Dresden than in atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. The raid, indeed, played a key role in his best-selling Slaughterhouse Five.
4. The Dresden raid was a unique event. Despite the Blitz and the "around the clock" bombing of German cities, critics contend that this was a cold-blooded experiment in incendiary bombing that removes it from the context of the raging "total war."
But Marshall De Bruhl begs to differ. In his forcefully argued and remarkably clear-eyed Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden. De Bruhl sifts through mountains of primary sources to vividly recreate the mission and, most importantly, puts the event in its proper context.
De Bruhl spends most of his book detailing the escalation of the air war in Europe that led to the Dresden raid. Ironically, the first blow was struck when German bombers got lost and mistakenly hit London. Churchill ordered that Berlin be struck in retaliation. Ironically, Churchill's action led to Hitler ordering the Luftwaffe to concentrate on London rather than airfields, which probably saved the Royal Air Force and its ability to defend home turf in the Battle of Britain.
This, however, does not mean that cities were not valuable military targets. As De Bruhl points out, German industry was located in cities, and the so-called "precision bombing" of targets -- with American assertions that a B-17 could put a bomb in a "pickle barrel" -- was mere posturing. In reality, American daylight bombing was only marginally more accurate than British night bombing, though it bore a far greater cost in airmen's lives.
America's celebrated Norden bombsight and advances in technique over the period of the air war merely meant that progress was made from less than one out of five bombs hitting near the target to just under half.
In short, the only way to stop war-supporting manufacturing in a German city was to bomb in such a way that the whole city paid a heavy price.
De Bruhl answers each of the major myths about the Dresden raid.
1. Dresden was a manufacturer of armaments and a communications center for the Nazis. Yes, the city was filled with refugees and museums. However, it also had many factories of war material. The chaos from the Dresden raid pulled German troops away from the Eastern and Western fronts, and no armaments were manufactured in Dresden after Feb.14, 1945.
2. The war was still on when Dresden was bombed. It's easy to say in hindsight that the Germans were all but defeated, but the Dresden raid came a few short months after the Battle of the Bulge. Before that surprise setback, "Christmas in Berlin" had been a common battle cry.
3. Civilian deaths, while numerous, are greatly exaggerated by the activists. The chaos of war makes counting difficult, but casualties have been "estimated" at up to 250,000. De Bruhl argues that 25,000 is a more realistic figure, with 35,000 the maximum. At least 50,000 residents worked in producing war material.
4. The Dresden raid was the deadly culmination of a steadily escalating air war against cities by both sides. The Dresden raid was only unique in its effectiveness, not its methodology. The Allies' air superiority had led to such a pounding of German cities that debate had begun in some quarters over the morality and necessity of "morale" bombing. However, the German V-rockets and the terror they brought ended that debate. In fact, Churchill considered "morale" bombing the only appropriate response as the German rockets had no other purpose than civilian deaths.
Far from being the cold and calculating experiment painted in some accounts of Allied generals seeing how many civilians they could kill for the sheer hell of it, De Bruhl writes that the targeting of Dresden was partially a quirk of the weather.
Operations had been planned for massive bombing to support the Soviets on the Eastern Front on the day of Feb. 13. These missions were scrubbed because of weather — but skies cleared over Dresden long enough to allowed for a rare one-two punch of American daylight and British night bombing. This doomed Dresden, which had seldom been bombed because it was in the eastern part of Germany and was known as "Germany's bomb shelter" by many of the refugees from the Red Army who were streaming into the city.
De Bruhl illustrates the uncertainties of precision bombing, and undercuts the notion that Dresden was a premeditated atrocity. For instance, the commander of the second wave of British bombers widened the target area on his own because the first wave had been unusually — and unexpectedly -- effective.
So while the wave of American B-17s, which hit the next day, might seem like overkill in hindsight, knowledge in wartime 1945 was not exactly comparable to the instant satellite reconnaissance we take for granted today. In fact, 150 of the B-17s bound for Dresden bombed another city on the bend of a river, the Czech capital of Prague by mistake.
Of course, De Bruhl reminds us that even as Lord Haw Haw's propaganda broadcast accused Gen. Spaatz of war crimes for the Dresden raid, thousands were being systematically exterminated in concentration camps in the Reich. But then as now, liberal elements in British Parliament and press picked up on enemy accusations and began wringing their hands. Their tears were shed over the abandonment of "precision bombing" — an outcry that led Churchill to begin to backtrack in private memos until Harris brought him back into line.
Bomber Harris remained publicly unapologetic. He was convinced that the bombing helped to shorten the war and save the lives of Allied soldiers."I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British grenadier," he defiantly declared.
The mythology of Dresden was solidified by Vonnegut in the liberal mind. Witnessing the awful firestorm and slaughter was a defining moment in his life -- though leftist Vonnegut ironically draws on "The Destruction of Dresden," a 1963 book by Holocaust denier David Irving. De Bruhl effectively deconstructs both writers.
To add injury to injury, De Bruhl concludes, Dresden fell into Soviet hands, and Germany's most beautiful city was rebuilt very slowly, often with "ugly socialist architecture" (what P.J. O'Rourke calls "Commie concrete") with much of the city left in rubble.
That is changing today, De Bruhl writes, as freedom is finally alive in Dresden, with surprisingly little antipathy to outsiders. On the 50th anniversary of the raid, Dresden's mayor said it best, putting the blame where it really belongs: "We started the fire, and it came back and consumed us."