Between Dresden and Gaza

All of the IDF's efforts to protect civilians are virtually unheard of in the history of wars of other nations.

The IAF drops warning leaflets over northern Gaza (photo credit: IDF)
The IAF drops warning leaflets over northern Gaza
(photo credit: IDF)
It is the appropriate time to acquaint some readers with, and remind others of, events that took place 70 years ago. On February 13 and 14, 1945, three months short of the end of World War II in Europe, British and American air forces carried out a massive bombing of Dresden, a German city known as a major center of art and culture, famous museums and beautiful architecture, but lacking nearly any military significance.
The enormity of this operation can be appreciated by the sheer quantity of bomber airplanes deployed, a total of 1,250 British and American planes, as well as by the approximately 4,000 tons of explosives and incendiaries (an estimated 700,000 phosphorus bombs) dropped onto the city. There was no air defense for even minimal protection.
Unlike the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the recent operation in Gaza, the British and American forces did not provide advance warnings of any kind, nor did they aim the bombs at military or potential military targets. To the contrary, all effort and planning of the attack on Dresden was aimed to maximize death and destruction, not sparing hospitals or schools. Numerous incendiary bombs were planted around the city center as part of a carefully designed plan to create a huge firestorm, that literally engulfed Dresden, with temperatures rising to almost 1,000 degrees Celsius.
The effect was so strong that according to reports, melting road surfaces burned people’s feet as they were fleeing. As planned, as the fire grew, more oxygen was sucked in from all around, further increasing the storm and creating updrafts of intensity described as “hurricane-like speed” that blew super-heated, poisonous air. According to various sources, the upward draft created such a strong vacuum in the city center that it not only depleted oxygen but literally sucked people, cars, and other heavy objects into the fire. Those hiding in over-crowded cellars could barely breathe; many suffocated to death.
To inflict maximum casualties, the air raids were executed in three waves, a few hours apart, so as to “catch” in the open people who had escaped the first raid and arriving rescue teams attempting to pull out survivors.
Whereas the first two waves attacked at night, the third attacked in the daytime, enabling pilots to easily machine-gun civilians running in the street. As nurses dragged thousands of patients from bombed hospitals to the banks of the Elbe River, they and the patients were also mowed down by the low-flying airplanes.
Conservative death toll estimates range from 25,000 to 35,000. Witnesses wrote that weeks later, the streets were still covered with so many bodies that it was difficult to walk through. Nearly 90 percent of the over 28,000 houses in the inner city were destroyed. As can be clearly seen in photos, that area, about four square miles, was completely obliterated. The wider area of destruction was several times larger.
What has made the Dresden bombing so infamous and controversial was the fact that it was so specifically intended to inflict maximum death and destruction on a crowded civilian population in a location of minimal significance to the Allies’ war effort, as well as the choice of killing methods: burning alive, carbon monoxide poisoning and asphyxiation. These methods were selected after observing the effects of the 1943 bombing of the city of Hamburg that killed an estimated 40,000 or more Germans within a very short time. (In comparison, a total of 60,000 British civilians were killed during the entire war). Richard Crossman, then the assistant chief of the British Psychological Warfare Department, who conducted extensive research, pointedly stated that all consequences of the Dresden bombing were “foreseen and planned with meticulous care.”
In addition to a visceral desire to retaliate for the Nazis’ bombing of Britain, a frequently cited motive has been that Dresden served as the Allies’ show of force, warning Stalin against grabbing territory as the Red Army advanced into Germany. Crossman, however, presented a more complex picture: Winston Churchill, recalling the horrors and huge number of casualties inflicted on the Allied troops manning the European front line during World War I, was reluctant to again pursue a land operation against the German forces.
Hence he was very receptive to the “area bombing” of cities as opposed to precision bombing, as a way to force Germany into submission by saddling it with a devastated, homeless and demoralized civil population.
It is important to highlight Crossman’s point that this was not a one-man decision. He stated that, “Eagerly Sir Winston Churchill accepted the advice with the backing of his whole Cabinet.” Consequently, at the demand of Air Marshals Arthur Harris and Charles Portal, priority was given to the production of nearly 35,000 bombers, taking resources from other military branches. The claim that the bombing was urged by Stalin is believed to have been invented by the US Air Force, reacting to public outcry when details of the Dresden operation became known.
To be sure, the Allies’ strategy – killing as many enemy civilians and destroying as many cities and homes as possible while minimizing their own military casualties – did not begin or end with Dresden. The cities of Cologne, Essen, Bremen, Kessel, Darmstadt, Pforzheim and Swinemuende were bombed from 1941 on, each with a civilian death toll ranging from 15,000 to 30,000. And, just a few days after the Dresden operation began the bombing of Tokyo, with fires covering 16 square miles, resulting in approximately 260,000 buildings destroyed and 80,000 to 100,000 civilians killed. Hiroshima and Nagasaki came next.
The tactic of achieving military objectives with minimal military casualties via inflicting suffering on civilian populations was used again in 1999 by NATO forces, mainly the US Air Force, in a two-month bombing campaign over several former Yugoslavian states, especially Serbia. Over 2,000 missiles and more than 10,000 bombs were dropped over the region, including populated cities. Although the stated intent was to damage military installations, civilian structures such as power plants and factories were also targeted.
The “collateral damage” included over 500 civilians deaths, among them nearly 100 children, as well as several thousand seriously injured. A good number of schools, libraries and hospitals were badly damaged or destroyed. So were historic and architectural monuments as well as several thousand homes. US drone attacks continue these days in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other areas, claiming hundreds if not thousands of civilian lives by some accounts.
EPILOGUE: In the summer of 2014, the Hamas terrorist organization controlling the Gaza Strip a significant area of Israel with rockets. Following the Allies’ model, Hamas specifically targeted a civilian population. In sharp contrast, the IDF went out of its way to minimize civilian casualties while attempting to eliminate enemy positions from where rockets were launched. Prior to bombing, the IDF made warning telephone calls directly to Palestinian homes identified as military installations about to be destroyed, dropped printed messages by airplane advising people which buildings to evacuate, and often dropped “cold bombs” as the last warning. Furthermore, wounded Palestinians who crossed over were treated in Israeli medical facilities. All of these efforts to protect civilians are virtually unheard of in the history of wars of other nations.
And what did Israel get in return? A hypocritical slap in the face. The US State Department declared that the “US is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling” of Gaza by Israel and that “It remains the broad view of the entire Administration that [the Israelis] could have done more and they should have taken all feasible precautions to prevent civilian casualties.” The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, condemned the Israeli response to the Gaza missiles as a “moral outrage” and a “criminal act.” The British prime minister, David Cameron, endorsed the UN’s criticism of the IDF; his deputy, Nick Clegg, stated that Israel’s airstrikes against the Gaza Strip were “deliberately disproportionate” and constituted “collective punishment.”
Such baffling expressions are also mirrored in statements offered by two European diplomats. In December 2013, Frans Timmermans, then the Dutch foreign minister, said in Tel Aviv: “Even if Europeans do not say so, they judge Israel by different standards than they would judge other countries in this area. Why? Because deep down, Europeans see Israel as a European country. So they judge Israel in the same way they would judge other European countries... It means you are part of a community of values, whether you like it or not.”
Most recently, the current Danish ambassador to Israel, Jesper Vahr, had the temerity to advocate a European double standard applied to Israel when judging its actions against other Middle Eastern nations. Said he: “So I think you have the right to insist that we apply double standards and put you to the same standards as all the rest of the countries in the European context... You are one of us.”
Conclusion: One wonders if it has occurred to these hypocritical gentlemen and their ilk that, observing the lofty modern “standards” demonstrated by Western nations in Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Serbia and elsewhere around the world, Israeli enthusiasm to become “one of them” must have been greatly diminished. Perhaps, or even likely, Israelis, and Jews in general, would be better off sticking to the Ten Commandments.
The author is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois.