In the latest New Yorker George Packer has a very interesting piece on the rebuilding of Dresden. The fire bombing of the city on February 13, 1945 has become an iconic event for anti-war westerners, a way to insist that even wars against Hitler are suffused with evil. I just learned from Packer that much of the standard story of the bombing began with propaganda put forth by Joseph Goebbels himself: that Dresden had no armaments plants or defenses, that hundreds of thousands were killed, that there was something about this attack that made it different from the bombings of other German cities. Actually Dresden had lots of factories, including armaments plants, somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 were killed, and the raid was little different from dozens of others. Goebbels' last propaganda coup was picked up by the Soviet authorities after the war, who made February 13 into a day devoted to remembering the attack on the city by "British American Air Gangsters," a phrase they took from Goebbels' own press releases. Now "February 13 has become an annual occasion for thousands of extremists to converge on the epicenter of German victimhood, the Altstadt," to rail against foreigners.
The East German gov- ernment did not have the money to rebuild the city center, so they left much of it in ruins as a monument to American and British perfidy. Now, though, it is being painstakingly rebuilt to look as much like the prewar city as possible, bringing back a place that considered itself "Florence on the Elbe." This makes many people uncomfortable, including those rigorously guilt-ridden Germans who have made much of Berlin into a sort of monument to Nazi evil and want all new construction to mark a radical break with the Nazi past. (In the 1930s Dresden was one of the most pro-Nazi cities in Germany.) The biggest supporters of the reconstruction are ordinary Dresdeners, who are more interested in making their city a pretty place to live than in what sort of ultimate evil it represents.
I find all of this intellectually interesting but can't muster much passion on either side. I think that Dresden's fate ought to be left up to the people of the city, and if what they want makes Berliners or Americans uncomfortable, too bad. How to feel about the bombing itself is more complicated. Many people seem to think that to protest any action taken by the Americans and British in the war is somehow to take the side of the Nazis. I don't see it that way. I think the firebombing of German cities was a crime. That does not mean, though, that I have any interest in making that and other Anglo-American crimes into the central point of how we understand the war. Churchill and Roosevelt were imperfect men charged with what may have been history's most important mission. They did the job they were asked to do. That they made mistakes, some of them horrible, is only natural. Those mistakes, or crimes, or whatever you want to call them do not change the basic facts of the war: they fought on the right side and won.
I do think, though, that it is important to remember the bombings of cities, the shooting of prisoners, the internment of Japanese Americans, and so on. We should never forget that war is an awful thing. Sometimes the advocates of war make it sound like their war will be clean, neat, almost pretty; the way Bush and his friends described their planned invasion of Iraq is the most recent major example. ""Casualties?" said Bush. "There aren't going to be any casualties." He lied. War is never neat and clean. In war, people die horrible deaths, many of them people who had nothing to do with the war's causes. Our bombs killed plenty of anti-Saddam Iraqis. In war, young men are placed in horrible situations that require split-second, life or death judgments. Many of them will judge wrongly and be haunted thereafter by the faces of the civilians they shot. In war, people are tortured. In war, children become orphans, historic buildings are pulverized, and the ground is sewn with unexploded bombs that will kill and maim for decades to come. You don't have to believe that, as Packer formulates the view of contemporary Nazis, "Auschwitz + Dresden = 0", to believe that even the best men fighting the best war will do horrible things, because war is a horrible thing.
I am a little dubious about extracting "lessons" from history. History is a very messy thing, and circumstances never repeat themselves. One of the few lessons I am willing to draw is the one I have sketched here: war is hell. I am not a pacifist, and I think that some wars are necessary. But every war is a terrible thing, and before we enter one, we ought to think long and hard about the horror we will bring into the world.