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In Defense of Dresden
Objectivists dismiss concerns over collateral damage during wartime, considering such damage as a ‘cost of doing business’ issue, going so far as to consider it even desirable as a way of demoralizing the enemy and foreshortening a war. They rightly argue that attempts to shield civilians unnecessarily cost American lives and that the civilian population of the enemy is not necessarily innocent. They are guilty in their support an immoral government and proffer their labor to the enemy’s war effort. But, while this is generally true, it can not justify any and every action against enemy civilians It is important to distinguish between purely personal acts of vengeance and strategic military actions.
Such a distinction should be made regarding the fire-bombing of Dresden, an event that took place in February of 1945, very late in the war. Not only did this action not achieve the military objective of demoralizing the enemy (by 1945, the population was long since demoralized), but it resulted in the deaths of thousands of the truly innocent (eastern European refugees fleeing the war) and destroyed one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, a trove of historical art and treasure.
The decision to use these bombs and for the specific action against Dresden came from the very top. It was based in great measure on recommendations by Arthur Harris, Head of RAF Bomber Command during WWII. Harris’s biography is not unimportant to this discussion.
Harris was the son of a civil servant. When he was seventeen he moved to Rhodesia where he worked variously as a gold miner, a livery man, and a laborer in the tobacco fields. On the eve of World War I he joined the 1st Rhodesia Regiment and fought in the campaign that succeeded in stripping South West Africa from the Germans. He returned to England in 1915 and joined the British air force (Royal Flying Corps). By 1919, Harris was a squadron leader in the newly created RAF.
Over the next few years he served in India, Iraq, and Iran, before serving on the staff overseeing the entire Middle East from 1930-32. During this period the RAF used terror bombing, including gas attacks and delayed action bombs, on the Iraqi tribes rebelling against British rule. Harris insisted that "the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand." He was fond of a "heavy hand" and put it to better use against Germany during World War II. By the time that war began, Harris had reached the rank of Air Vice-Marshal and then, in 1942, replaced J. E. Baldwin as Head of the Command.
Harris was at best an autocrat, certainly not a diplomat. He clearly preferred getting his own way to the more disciplined process of developing the qualities of leadership required to persuade. Under his leadership of the RAF, his "heavy hand" now perfected, he fought all attempts to be dissuaded from carpet bombing in favor of precision bombing. Harris argued that the main objectives of night-time blanket bombing of urban areas was to undermine the morale of the civilian population, and attacks were launched between 1940-43 on Hamburg, Berlin, and Cologne, among others, and Dresden in 1945.
According to the Oxford Companion to WWII,
When they [Britain] reverted to the Combined Chiefs in September, it was decided to concentrate them [the bombings] on precision targets, especially oil plants. However, Harris disagreed with this approach, preferring to pursue the area bombing of German cities. It was a wrangle which remained unresolved. Attacks on German cities continued, including Dresden, though precision raids did take precedence over them when operational conditions allowed. Only the cessation of hostilities avoided the dismissal of Harris...Despite a sustained effort, which cost Bomber Command heavy casualties, little was accomplished by the offensive. Reports from Germany, including those of neutral observers, cast doubt on RAF damage claims, and the British Air Staff's own investigation, the Butt Report, demonstrated that only one aircraft in five got within five miles of its target. Over the Ruhr “only one in ten dropped within the 7 square miles surrounding the target.”
The tremendous losses suffered in these night-time raids, coupled with a suspicion that something other than military necessity might lay behind Harris’s intransigence, provoked the US to negotiate an agreement (the Eaker agreement of 1943) that established that the Brits would carpet bomb at night and the US would perform more precise targeting by day.
The Attack on Dresden
On the night of 13 February, 1945, 773 British planes bombed Dresden. During the next two days - during daylight hours - the United States Army Air sent over 527 heavy bombers to follow up the attack. They struck specific military targets and actually contributed to the war, unlike the British effort.
Harris in his memoirs described it thus: "An attack on the night of February 13th-14th by just over 800 (sic) aircraft, bombing in two sections in order to get the night fighters dispersed and grounded before the second attack, was almost as overwhelming in its effect as the Battle of Hamburg, though the area of devastation -1600 acres - was considerably less; there was, it appears, a fire-typhoon, and the effect on German morale, not only in Dresden but in far distant parts of the country, was extremely serious. The Americans carried out two light attacks in daylight on the next two days." Notice how his effort produced an "extremely serious" effect on German morale, while he characterizes the American effort as two "light" attacks. An honest account? You decide.
As a result of the fire bombings, Dresden was nearly totally destroyed, obliterated to such an extent that it was afterwards impossible to count the number of victims. Research suggests that 135,000 were killed but some German sources have argued that it was over 250,000. Whatever the figure, it was larger than the 51,509 British civilians killed by the Germans during the London air raids or the 70,000 instant deaths at Hiroshima after the first atomic bomb. The entire carpet bombing campaign killed an estimated 600,000 civilians and destroyed or seriously damaged some six million homes during the course of the war. The British Bomber Command it appears was highly dangerous to friend and foe alike, costing Britain the lives of over 57,000 airmen.
Churchill mused that the bombing of "communication centres in eastern Germany might aid the Soviet advance on Berlin, . . .cause confusion in the evacuation from the east . . ., and hamper the movements of troops from the west." By “evacuation from the east” he was not talking about retreating troops. He was referring to civilian refugees of various nationalities fleeing the advancing Russians. The refugees did not contribute to the German war effort (if anything they were a drain on it) but were considered targets simply because attacking them “might” create enough chaos to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the Eastern Front - a lot of speculation.
It is significant that only a few weeks after the raid on Dresden, on 28 March, 1945, Churchill tried to dissociate himself from the destruction. He issued a memorandum denouncing the bombing of cities as "mere acts of terror and wanton destruction." Notice that he made no distinction between cities bombed early in the war and Dresden, which was attacked in 1945. Either he didn’t understand the distinction and simply dismissed the entire action, or he never comprehended that one was justified and the other not.
The war was over and hypocrisy had reached new heights. The British lion was ready to lie down with the lamb. He was ready to cloak himself in the Christian ethic and proclaim, in hindsight, that turning the other cheek would have been the higher moral duty - clearly a case of situational ethics. The Prime Minister who had actively supported the bombing campaign all along said, "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed” - a belated affectation - and continues with “Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land” - his true feelings.
Arthur Harris became a marshal of the RAF in 1946 and soon afterwards retired from active duty. He published his war memoirs, “Bomber Command,” in 1947. In it he explains why he ordered the bombing of Dresden in February 1945:
I know that the destruction of so large and splendid a city at this late stage of the war was considered unnecessary even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were as fully justified as any other operation of war. Here I will only say that the attack on Dresden was at the time considered a military necessity by much more important people than myself, and that if their judgment was right the same arguments must apply...No pride here in his "heavy hand"; he was only following orders. If Arthur Harris was innocent so was Adolph Eichmann - since they both offered the same defense.
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