Neither an industrial center nor a wartime hub, a defenseless Dresden, Germany, was firebombed by Allied aircraft mere months before German surrender, between Feb. 13 and 15 in 1945. A firestorm caused by the thousands of tons of explosives engulfed the city, consuming the very oxygen in the air. Secondary bombing of infrastructure led to a final death toll of 135,000, a number deemed by many to be inaccurately low.
This tactic, called “area bombing,” was used by both Allied and Axis forces in World War II against civilian populations. The ghastly images of Dresden, Tokyo, London, Berlin, Hiroshima and countless others remind us of the deadly power humans unleashed on one another.
The Second World War ushered in a new era of warfare that prevails in modern combat, one including far too many civilians. In 1900, civilian casualties comprised 5 percent of total wartime casualties. In World War II, 65 percent of deaths were civilians, and in modern warfare more than 90 percent of victims are noncombatants.
The official reason for the Dresden bombing was to hinder Nazi communication to the Eastern front, but the unrelenting intensity of violence on a nonmilitary city implies motives of vengeance and efforts to force an early surrender.
Dresden is shocking because of the “good versus bad” framing of WWII, a thematic element continually used in contemporary warfare. Japan and Germany are portrayed as lacking morality — as brutal and vicious armies that terrorized occupied territories. We cannot deny nor ignore the atrocities committed by them, but Allied propensity to retaliate and even initiate such violence is appalling.
Winston Churchill, British prime minister during the war, ordered the first area bombing against Mönchengladbach on May 11, 1940, months before the Luftwaffe raids on London. Churchill himself called the action “terror bombing,” recognizing its intention to intimidate civilian populations. Breaking civilian morale became a legitimate reason for attacking urban centers, a notion staunchly rejected by British and American leaders as late as 1937. This shift has influenced military policy to the present. Today, we must confront the same divide between the simple appearances of “us” versus “them” and good versus evil. We must confront a complicated reality.
Improvements in technology and precision weaponry were supposed to spare citizens at greater rates. Laws, including those in the Geneva Convention, were written to shield the masses. Advancements would help soldiers complete missions without collateral.
Instead, the opposite has happened. In today’s war zones, civilians bear the brunt of the violence. America is not the only perpetrator of this type of violence either; while many noncombatants were killed by the U.S. military in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, similar findings in Chechnya, Rwanda, Bosnia, El Salvador, Angola and many others reveal a much deeper global failure. In distant, developing nations, civilians have not been exempted from the horrors of war, instead suffering greater harm than before.
One of the reasons for this trend is the blurred line between civilian and combatant. Most modern wars, including those in Cambodia, Colombia, Algeria, and Sri Lanka, have not been fought by standing armies, but by pseudo-guerrilla groups based in ideology or ethnicity. Unable to fight the overwhelming power of modern militaries, they hide among the population, forcing enemies to interact intimately with civilians.
Using war to implement a certain lifestyle brings violence to noncombatants as well. In genocide, for example, the warring sides seeks to exterminate the other, regardless of characteristics such as age or gender. Uniform blocs develop quickly and easily. In the post-9/11 United States, many see all Muslims as anti-American; this stereotype excuses anonymous killing of Arab civilians.
The use of overwhelming air power, namely drones, is an important factor in the growth of civilian casualties. Because the military strategy of bombing civilian cities has become acceptable, the skylines of Mosul, Aleppo, Sanaa and Baghdad look eerily similar to those of Japanese and German cities during World War II. These technologies have led to indiscriminate bombing of cities, contributing in part to massive refugee crises and the deaths of innocent people. Pushing a button or flying thousands of feet over is almost incomparable to stabbing or shooting a child at point blank, which unfortunately still occurs. When warfare kills randomly and imposes fear on civilians, it creates more enemies. It creates a tragic, unwinnable situation.
Partially because of technology, war has become disconnected from individuals in powerful nations. The disconnect, present among even informed citizens, has allowed for the continuation of war waged on civilians. In Syria, for example, increased American air strikes since Donald Trump’s inauguration have led to a “staggering loss of civilian life,” according to an independent UN study. The expansion of U.S. involvement has gone almost unnoticed by the American public.
The daily targeting of civilians is greatly saddening. For such actions to continue after Dresden is unbelievable. These senseless calamities have been experienced by too many already.
Technology was hoped to be the saving grace of humanity, a way to mitigate the unintentional effects of war. It continues to promise more accurate, targeted, transparent warfare and a future without civilian casualties. However, if the past has taught us anything, new weapons will be used with the same boundlessness of old ones. In the hopeless words of Kurt Vonnegut, survivor of the Dresden bombings, “And so it goes … ”
Nabil Kapasi is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. This Week in History appears online every other Thursday.