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Dresden Bombed

February 13th & 14th were the 68th anniversary of one of the cruelest allied acts of World War II, which most Americans still consider our Good War. On Tuesday evening, February 13, 1945, and for much of the next day, British and American heavy bombers pulverized the defenseless city of Dresden, Germany. The destruction was complete, worse even than the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is till much dispute over the number killed in Dresden, and why it was ordered, and how it can or could be justified. Winston Churchill, who must take responsibility for the bombing, if not necessarily for its extent or precise timing, himself called it an act of terror a little over a month later, and then tried to minimize it in his memoirs of the war.

It is not, however, the destruction or the strategic considerations or the blame that should command our attention on this particular anniversary. Dresden, occurring on the 13th and 14th of February, will forever be linked with the commemoration of love on Valentine’s Day; but this year it comes together with Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, which it also did in 1945. It’s quite an image: the joy and revelry of “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras in the Latin world), the preparation for the penitential season of Lent, the exchange of the symbols of love, the ashes imposed on the foreheads of the faithful, and the tons of human ashes, too much for the remaining citizens of Dresden to cope with.

One man who had to cope was a young American soldier who was a prisoner of war in the doomed city, who had been a student at my undergraduate alma mater, Hobart College. Gifford Doxsee and his friend and fellow Hobart student Edward Crone survived the bombing, and were set to work cleaning up the human mess. Crone died, and later became the model for Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Doxsee and Vonnegut would tell about what happened there for many years. As Vonnegut said, Crone died of the “thousand mile stare.” Had he returned to Hobart, he hoped to become an Episcopal priest.

Every so often, acts of horror and terror come together with days of repentance and fasting and prayer, and force us to consider how great, and how conditional, is God’s creation. Valentine’s Day has become a silly celebration, sentimental at best. We have diminished Ash Wednesday with the commercial ugliness of mardi gras. But perhaps we can draw strength from the ashes of those children incinerated in their Shrove Tuesday costumes, and begin to ponder the mystery of the great and central event of human history, to come again in another 45 days.

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13 replies to this post
  1. London.

    Another reason for this war on civilians is that war is ended when the people no longer resist and turn against their leaders.

  2. John, this is such a sobering and yet beautiful (tragically beautiful) piece. It’s enough to make a strong man weep and the patriot reconsider a number of his assumptions. Thank you. These victims should never be forgotten. I will admit that Slaughterhouse 5 had a huge influence on me when I first read it (I was probably 15). I hope you write more in this vein–I’d especially be interested in your views of post-WWII repatriations, such as Operation Keelhaul.

  3. Yes, “most Americans still consider our Good War.” And it’s a good thing they do. For in spite of horrific incidents like these, it WAS our good war; the one that saved modern western civilization from the greatest singular threat it has ever faced. Even the good guys occasionally do bad things and war truly is, as Sherman noted, hell.

    • Even the good guys occasionally do bad things…
      Well, Craig, you and General Sherman can remain buddies. I don’t like him any more than I like the Red Army after WWI. They both had the same concern for moral purity. I hope your sons never have to get caught at Bastogne in the name of a good war. Or your relatives have to live under communism because we defeated a bad guy. If we cannot learn something from Dresden, and merely spout platitudes about war being “hell”, then we deserve the warfare/welfare state we now have.

      • Not “buddies,” John; more like acquaintances. And I don’t have any sons. But if I did, I’d surely pass along your words of wisdom.

    • Craig, that may well be true, and yet still allow for asking the question: was the destruction of Dresden in April really necessary as prerequisite for the victory that followed very shortly thereafter? Many observers felt that victory in Europe was already “in the bag” at that point, and that the killing of tens of thousands of civilians in Dresden did little or nothing to change that picture or to hasten the victory.

      • I agree, Barry. The bombing was not only unnecessary it was, quite literally, an atrocity. But, given the ultimate ends of the Allied and Axis (their reasons for fighting) that certainly doesn’t change (in my opinion) the overall verdict of history–especially given the epic scale of the conflict, and the utterly savage intensity with which it was fought–that the war was a “good” one.

  4. If we had done the same thing to the Muslims following 9/11 we would no longer have a ‘muslim’ problem and no need for 6,000 dead American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. John, the purpose for war is to destroy your enemy.

    • I was thinking a very similar thing the other day when I learned about Israel’s “Iron Dome” defensive interceptor missile capability. Here they’ve gone to extraordinary efforts and expense (the latter including a vast U.S. taxpayer input) to combat the thousands of Palestinian missiles that re fired at Israeli cities. The goal?–to shoot these things down in mid-flight over areas where even the falling shrapnel won’t hurt anyone!
      Can you imagine our response in WWII? Waves of heavy bombers would blow them into obivion. No more people, no more missiles, no more problem. QED.

  5. John, I concur with Brad. Even by your own high standards this post sings like a choir. The highest calling for a teacher must be to extract the sublime and beautiful even from out of the depths of despair. Thank you.

  6. I think it is not right to speak of “victory” in World War II. Western Civilization was not saved, it was ultimately destroyed. To view the war as a victory, it is necessary to believe that Hitler and the III Reach were demonic – but Stalin and Soviet Russia were a regular world power with whom a pragmatic alliance was possible and necessary.

    This is such a ridiculous proposition, that it boggles the mind. Churchill said that he would ally himself with the devil to stop Hitler, and that is arguably what he did. How is alliance with Satan tantamount to victory for the West? Stalinisit Russia was commiting holocaust level crimes long before the implementation of Hitler’s final solution in 1941. In 1920, the USSR invaded Europe in an attempt to support Communist revolution in Germany, and were they not stopped by Poland, most of Germany and eastern europe would have become part of the USSR, ot at least been developed into satelite states.

    NAZI Germany was a regime fueled by two causes, both just: the overthrow of a Versailles treaty that President Wilson himself lamented as unjust and the salvation of Germany from the communist revolution that would be its fate if the economic calamnity imposed by Versailles were to continue. The tragedy of World War II was a direct result of the failure of Germany, France and England to do what they did only after the war: ally themselves politically, economically and militarily against communism.

    Instead, what we got was a half-victory and 50 years of cold and hot wars with the USSR and their lackies. The XXth century was, viewed from this perspective, a moral catastrophe. The failure of Europe, a continent ostensibly Christian, to stand united against communism, was a shameful chapter of its history and no cause for celebration.

    Either evil is unequivocal, and therefore we must condemn the allies for effectively aiding the greatest mass murder machine in history, or, if we are going to equivocate and judge Dresden as a “necessary” part of a just war, then I would posit German Fascism itself was a necessary part of a just war because it was Europe’s only practical hope for an armed arrest of communism. I personally prefer to condemn the whole thing as evil, but I certainly will not join the chrous who sees in Germany a total evil, while seeimg in Stalin’s regime a pragmatic ally.

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