Why did Dresden happen?

Daniel Larison's critique of my post makes even less sense to me.

McArdle uses an unusually bad example to back up an unfortunate position. Of course, it is true when you opt to bomb civilian centers, especially in an indiscriminate, fire-bombing way, that you have at that time chosen to commit war crimes, and it is also true that people who have reconciled themselves to the mass slaughter of civilians have chosen to justify pretty much anything in the name of fighting the enemy. It does not follow that because you have gone to war against another state that you have therefore necessarily embarked on a course that requires you to engage in those war crimes. The choice to commit those crimes comes later, and that choice becomes inevitable only if those crimes are absolutely necessary to achieve victory. In fact, such crimes tend to stand out for just how utterly unnecessary and excessive they are. If you accept the inhuman calculations of total war and unconditional surrender, you might say that war crimes are inevitable, but if you really accept the logic of total war you don’t believe that there is anything done in war that violates morality or law, because total war is the practical negation of both. The category “war crime” presupposes a distinction between combatants and non-combatants that total war effaces, so one either repudiates total war as immoral and an invitation to the commission of war crimes as a matter of policy, which it is, or one should cease to speak of war crimes.

Even so, the example is almost uniquely bad to make McArdle’s case. Dresden was not an effort to try to “save Allied soldiers,” the dubious justification that is also usually given for the vaporisation and incineration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese, but was very definitely and consciously an exercise in inflicting terror on the civilian population and was purely a punitive raid conducted under the catch-all of “strategic bombing.” No strategic goals were advanced in burning the people of Dresden alive (not that this would have made it less of a war crime had some such goal been advanced in some way), and we should never pretend that Dresden was anything other than a bombing carried out to satisfy a vendetta in the most horrifying way imaginable.



I am not arguing that what the Bush administration did was inevitable, only that at the point when you decide to commit atrocities, the nation is almost never thinking of how the war started, but of the suffering that has come since. We did not firebomb Germany because "they started it"; we firebombed them because they'd killed a lot of people since then.

As for the second half, while I agree with Mr Larison that a lot of the motivation behind Dresden was sheer revenge, my understanding is that in fact it was argued for on the basis of the idea that terrorizing the civilian population would help shorten the war. I'm pretty skeptical of the notion that it actually did so, and at any rate I don't think saving the lives of some of your soldiers is a terribly good reason to set fire to tens of thousands of women, children, and old men. But the war had gotten the high command, and much of the population of Britain, to the point where they cared so little about German civilian lives that this made moral sense to them. They could have chosen differently, and I wish they had. But I don't think that the character of the war's beginning--which, let's not forget, revolved around the invasion of a country that very few Britons cared about--had much to do with that decision.