The World War II firebombing by the Allies of Dresden began on Feb. 13, 1945, and it is believed to have killed 25,000 people, according to current best estimates. “As the incendiaries fell, the phosphorus clung to the bodies of those below, turning them into human torches. The screaming of those who were being burned alive was added to the cries of those not yet hit,” Victor Gregg, a prisoner of war in the city at the time, wrote.
The strategic goal of this hideous suffering has never been adequately explained; Dresden was not a center of war manufacturing, and the Germans were on the brink of surrender. It seems likely that the Allies hoped to weaken German morale. In other words, civilians were murdered as an intimidation tactic. If anyone else did that to Americans, we would call it terrorism.
Victor Gregg and many others have argued that Dresden violated the laws of war. Similarly, the U.S. bombing this week of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 22, has been labeled a war crime by critics. Whether it technically was, under international law, is a complicated question — which is to say, it can be litigated endlessly, and, given American influence and power, it is unlikely that anyone will ever be held accountable. Just as no one was held accountable for Dresden.
You could see Dresden, and now Kunduz, as failures of international law, and of the U.S. commitment to live up to the norms of military conflict. But perhaps it’s more useful to see them as the inevitable consequences of war.
War leads to war crimes. My Lai, Abu Ghraib, Hiroshima, Sherman’s Savannah Campaign, Andrew Jackson’s campaign against the Creeks — where can you find an American war without atrocity? Sherman said, “War is hell,” which was something between an excuse for murdering people and a promise to continue to do so. As America has.
If war is hell, then war crimes aren’t some sort of accident off to the side of war. They’re war itself. War is about killing, brutalizing and terrorizing an enemy until the enemy capitulates. Once you’ve made the decision that your goals, whatever they are, are more important than the lives of human beings, horrible things follow naturally.
The fact that there’s no firm line between war and war crimes is often used to wave away the war crimes. Maybe that hospital in Kunduz was harboring Taliban fighters, or maybe someone thought it was, or, you know, at worst, mistakes happen. Equipment fails. Humans err in pursuit of the bad guys. War is hell.
But it seems like you might also argue that, if war crimes are inevitable, and atrocities will happen, then maybe, possibly, you shouldn’t go to war.
At the very least, you shouldn’t go to war without a really good reason. Dresden demonstrates that World War II was not a “good war.” There are no good wars. But it was, arguably, a necessary war. You can at least make the case that the threat of the Axis justified taking up arms, even with the assurance, beforehand, that, as in every war, those arms would be used to commit atrocities.
But what is the necessity of America’s current military engagement in Afghanistan? In Yemen? In Syria and Iraq? Where is the direct threat to the United States? Where is the assurance that the violence in these regions will be mitigated by American participation? What benefit are we going to get from our atrocities? How, even in theory, does murdering injured children on the other side of the world make America safer? How does it make anyone safer?
As Barry Posen, author of Restraint, has said, “The United States is inherently pretty secure.” We have the largest armed forces in the world by several orders of magnitude. We have giant oceans on both sides. We have good relations with our immediate neighbors. We have numerous powerful allies. Threats from terrorism are real, but they’re nowhere near the sustained danger from Germany and Japan during World War II, or from the Soviet Union afterwards. We simply don’t need to be at constant war in multiple locations.”
And if you don’t have a compelling, desperate, thoroughgoing need to go to war, then going to war is immoral. Because if you go to war you are going to murder and torture. You are going to bomb hospitals. You are going to commit war crimes.
Whether or not the hospital in Kunduz was targeted on purpose, the bombing was no accident, just as the bombing of Dresden was not a mistake or an error. Once you make the decision to go to war, you make the decision to commit atrocities. If President Obama is not willing to drop bombs on children, then he shouldn’t drop bombs at all. If America wants to be a force for justice and peace, and to stand for human rights, then the first thing it needs to do is to stop pretending it can have noble wars without Dresdens. And the second thing it needs to do is to stop going to war.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.