From Emeralds and Ashes, a brief excerpt:
they stood ’round shivering
in worn and tattered coats
with only blackened sky to reflect their mood
warming coals commandeered by those more reckless
for it was a time of sacrifice
a time of war
in spite of chill
they knew inferno raged
on distant sun
even at night
impossible to see
impossible to sense
except through journey of the mind
which disallows consideration of darkness
or of cold
no darkness on the sun
even a child knows that
in tattered coats
the huddled ones leaned toward shelter
away from iced and chilling wind
to dream perhaps of summer’s warmth
to forget fateful thoughts and imaginings
of what might be their destiny
brought upon them by circumstance
and as they dreamed
perhaps they prayed a better life for their children
who also suffered the cold
also suffered the fears
tomorrow would be better
because the fires which rage the sun
would rise again
to warm the earth and bring forth life
of yet another day
to nurture sons and daughters of creation
as inferno maintained itself
even the children knew that
but late that night the bombers came
to demonstrate to all creation
no thing is safe or sure
downward rained the firestorms
inferno and incendiary sucked away the breath
of eighty thousands
just people in tattered coats
huddled in harm’s way
through heinous plan
night became the day of fire
flesh boiled or burned
in tattered coats
a man-made sun had come too close
as if to offer proof
that cold and dark
inhere within the human soul
though warmth and light do not
as dead and dying learned
-and children burned to ash-
february 14, 1945
Seventy-two years ago this month — in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 15, 1945 — a three day-long allied (British and American) bombing and incendiary air attack on the unarmed and non-militarized German city of Dresden came to an end. It was an attack in which incendiary bombs, dropped in the aftermath of tons of high explosives that had blown off roofs and destroyed much of the inner city, ignited the exposed remains of bombed out buildings and started a firestorm of epic proportions. The final death toll remains, to this day, uncertain. Estimates have ranged from as “few” as 15-20 thousand to as many as ten times that amount, or more. The precise number will never, of course, be known.
The reasons for the attacks were simple enough. Their combined purpose was (a) to destroy the Dresden railway yards and thereby prevent that particular transit hub from being available to allow movement of Wehrmacht troops from the collapsing Western front to the Eastern front, and (b) to debilitate existing internal German communication systems — all parcel to the task of crippling any and all German efforts to counter the westward-toward-Germany advance of Russian Armies. The allied saturation bombing of Dresden thus began on February 13th with a British raid, and was followed by a second British raid on the 14th plus a pair of American raids on the 14th and the 15th, resp.
In partial summary: “. . . February 14 from 12:17 until 12:30, 311 American B-17s dropped 771 tons of bombs on Dresden, with the railway yards as their aiming point. . . . The Americans continued the bombing on February 15, dropping 466 tons of bombs. During [the] four raids a total of around 3,900 tons of bombs were dropped.
“The firebombing consisted of by-then standard methods; dropping large amounts of high-explosive to blow off the roofs to expose the timbers within buildings, followed by incendiary devices (fire-sticks) to ignite them and then more high-explosives to hamper the efforts of the fire services. This eventually created a self-sustaining firestorm with temperatures peaking at over 1,500 °C. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area became extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire. (. . .)
“Out of 28,410 houses in the inner city of Dresden, 24,866 were destroyed. An area of 15 square kilometers was totally destroyed, among that 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 18 churches, 5 theatres, 50 banks and insurance companies, 31 department stores, 31 large hotels, 62 administration buildings, and factories. In total there were 222,000 apartments in the city. The bombing affected more than 80 percent of them with 75,000 of them being totally destroyed, 11,000 severely damaged, 7,000 damaged, and 81,000 slightly damaged. . . . Although bombing destroyed the main railway station completely, the railway was working again within a few days.” [Highlight added]
So: tens of thousands of civilians, including an unknowable but presumably large number of innocent children, were killed in the bombardments. They were either blown to bits or burnt to death in those heinous attacks even as the center of the city of Dresden was completely destroyed — but NOT because Dresden was seen as a profoundly legitimate military target. No. Dresden was never considered to be any sort of Nazi stronghold or industrial center. It was simply a rail hub. And the attacks were conceived and carried out, as noted, in order to destroy that potential rail link along a route the allies presumed might possibly be used to transport German troops from the West to the East, troops to be used to counter the Russian advance. If such transit had been allowed to persist without interruption, might Germany have been able to restrain the Russian advance? If so, for how long? A week? Or two? We’ll never know, nor will the tens of thousands of Dresden’s murdered dead.
In any case, those few moments of railway destruction that were parcel to the Dresden mission might indeed still be viewed as a marginal success — IF, that is, the words “marginal success” can reasonably be used to describe the failure of any attempt at permanent tactical destruction of an officially designated target, including the Dresden rail yards on those fateful days of February, 1945.
One cannot help but wonder, however, if those tens upon tens of thousands of innocent victims who remain — still, and through this day — Dead — might not themselves, if only they could find the means, argue the tenor of the word “successful” in re any context of war, particularly when mentioned within the lexicon of those bombing raids which devastated Dresden, Germany; February 13-15, 1945.
The entire Dresden operation accomplished, in other words and in effect, only one thing: the mass murder of civilians, including children. Why? One can understand and perhaps even agree with the potential for tactical advantage implicit in that day’s strategic wartime reality. But still, the question persists: why the incendiaries? WHY THE INCENDIARIES?? And too, of course, there’s that second question, the one that still lingers even today: where’s the ‘civilized’ outrage at what happened on February 13-15, 1945? Was that event not, after all and in coldest reality, nothing other than the mass murdering of tens of thousands of innocent civilians? For NO REASON? How could such an event EVER be tolerated by those who call themselves ‘civilized’?
As of today, a full seventy-two years have passed and times have changed. Today, there has emerged a modicum of public outrage (or at least some serious questioning) regarding the ethic of using a new technology to accomplish the goals implicit in most any war. The difference today is based on the fact that back then, in 1945, the deliverers of explosive and incendiary mass death and destruction were ‘civilized’ in the sense that manned aircraft were used in defined and legitimate war zones. Today, impersonal unmanned drones are employed within (and beyond) borderless theaters of (presumed) international conflict, and they are used to kill only small handfuls of “enemy combatants” (or, on occasion, a presumed American insurrectionist or two), with minimal destruction beyond the periphery of the attack site . . . and THAT is today’s OUTRAGE?
Ah, the invariably intellectual graces of . . . Civilization . . . (?)
Civilization. Yes. Civilization is, as we all know, “An advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached.” It’s also “those people or nations that have reached such a state.”
Right. I propose a rewrite, one that reads a bit differently, one that’s a bit more truthful, more realistic, as in:
“Civilization – The bizarre, invariably nonsensical and eternally conflicting consequence of human existence, as carried forth by those people or nations that have attained such a state where the death and destruction of others is their most popular and praiseworthy goal; see also: WAR.”
And perhaps somewhere in that redefinition process, eventually, someone of fairer mind might demand an answer to the two most eternally compelling questions ever posed within the human community:
Commence the holding of the breath as ‘civilization’ continues its ever “forward” march in its eternally incessant and wearisome fashion, and meanwhile hope that never again will anyone be forced to bear witness to that moment — that moment when, for no credible or condonable reason, night became the day of fire . . . and children burned to ash.
NO MORE WARS! END THEM! ALL! NOW!
From Emeralds and Ashes, a closing thought:
One wonders if they ever heard the cry.
The sound, the summons, which to faithful says:
Your God has called, your time is come to die
And travel on – conclusion of your days
On earth, the end of all familiar things –
Your Lives, your Loves, interred now, sans the pain
Inflicted by ungodly bands of kings
Who find their purpose in despotic shame.
So now all living walk upon a cache –
Abysmal graveyards – globally extant,
Concealing flesh and bone returned to ash
From which it came. Tears want to flow, but can’t
As souls of murdered dead now roam – set free –
And living close their eyes: Afraid to see.
Special Note: Slaughterhouse Five, the epic anti-war novel by Kurt Vonnegut, is a ‘real time’ commentary based on Vonnegut’s own reflections of the fire-bombing of Dresden. He was there; he survived, and wrote of it in classic Vonnegut style.