Dresden, February 1945: Our parents and grandparents received the news of Dresden's destruction with equanimity. We were at war. By 1945 the civilian population of Germany had ceased to be "collateral damage", they were now regarded as legitimate targets. Israel's deliberate targeting of civilians in Gaza is not without precedent.
SUCH A BRIEF RESPITE. Barely time to find water – let alone food. And all around the shelter fires blazing unchecked. She did not tell her children what she had seen in the streets. Could not admit, even to herself, what lay there. Where was God, she wondered, amidst all this death? As if in answer, the sirens wailed again, their harsh note of alarm rising and falling like the cry of some gigantic beast in pain. In the shelter they could already hear the ominous drone of the bombers. And then, the thud, thud, thud of the bombs.
God may have been absent from Dresden on St Valentine’s Day 1945, but the Devil was there and he had brought the fires of Hell with him.
My wife and I have been arguing about Gaza. She demands to know what benefit Israel could possibly derive from deliberately bombing and shelling innocent women and children? I asked her what benefit our grandparent’s generation derived from ordering the bombing of Dresden – a city packed with refugees posing no threat to either the British, the Americans or the Russians? By February 1945 the Allies were driving Adolf Hitler’s battered armies before them and in less than three months the war in Europe would be over. Why unleash a firestorm on one of Germany’s most beautiful cities? Why kill 25,000 people, most of them women and children, needlessly?
Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris justified the Allies’ terror bombing of German cities in explicitly biblical terms:
“The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”
Those words may sound harsh to New Zealanders living in the twenty-first century, but in the ears of our parents and grandparents they sounded both true and just. In the eyes of Hitler’s enemies, Nazism was an unmitigated evil which had to be destroyed – by any means necessary.
Once a nation thrusts itself into the unrelenting horrors of war, its over-riding priority is to end them, on the most favourable terms possible, as quickly as possible.
Almost exactly 100 years ago, at the outbreak of the First World War, Great Britain’s first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill, ordered the Royal Navy to institute a complete naval blockade of Germany. Of this ruthless strategic decision he would later write: “The British blockade treated the whole of Germany as if it were a beleaguered fortress, and avowedly sought to starve the whole population – men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound – into submission.”
These are not pleasant facts to dwell upon. The terror-bombing of civilians. The deliberate starvation of whole populations. And yet, these were, indisputably, the tactics employed by “our side” in both world wars. Unsurprisingly, when paying our respects to “the glorious dead” on ANZAC Day, we prefer to draw a veil across the inglorious death we inflicted in return.
I wonder, were it possible to travel back in time and confront our parents’ and grandparents’ younger selves about these measures; if we could demand to know their justifications for acquiescing, without protest, in these crimes against humanity: how would they respond?
I think they would look at us strangely. I think they would shake their heads in disbelief. I think they would reply, simply: “We are at war.”
That same incomprehension is similarly imprinted on the faces of Israelis when the world demands to know why their jets and artillery are pounding Gaza until the rubble bounces; why the whole of the Gaza Strip is being treated, in Churchill’s words, “as if it were a beleaguered fortress” and why “the whole population – men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound” are being ruthlessly bombed and shelled and starved into submission.
“Does the world not understand that we are at war?” Israel asks.
“They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.” So said the Prophet Hosea. If Bomber Harris could quote the Bible, can Israel not quote the Torah?
Gaza, July 2014.
Such a brief respite. Barely time to find water – let alone food. And all around the UN school fires blazing unchecked. She did not tell her children what she had seen in the streets. Could not admit, even to herself, what lay there. Where was Allah, she wondered, amidst all this death? As if in answer, the sirens wailed, their harsh note of alarm rising and falling like the cry of some gigantic beast in pain. In the shelter they could already hear the hideous screech of the jets. And then, the thud, thud, thud of the bombs …
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 August 2014.