How war dehumanises everyone it touches

All acts of mass murder are crimes against humanity, and require a gross debasing of other people.

Paul Tritschler
19 October 2016

Dresden 1945, view from the City Hall. Credit: By Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA 3.0 de.

On a recent visit to one of my favourite haunts in London, Gloucester Books, I flicked through the secondhand paperbacks and old magazines that were fading in the sun. The leading article in a National Geographic Magazine commemorated the crews of the US Eighth Army Air Force for their forbearance and sacrifice during WW2. Nothing unusual in that, but the honour extended to their bombing raids over German cities. The story focused mainly on the former pilots and had photos of young men running towards their planes, waves and smiles as they climbed in, each touching for luck an illustration painted on the side of some forties' pin-up girl with red lips.

The men, who were now grey-haired, appeared kind and benevolent, all the more so through their understandably emotional reunion. The editorial, too, was kind. It claimed that German civilians were regrettably but justifiably killed during 'surgical' bombing raids owing to legitimate enemy targets being situated near built-up residential areas. It sounded familiar, and sadly all too recent. I dropped the magazine into the pile in disgust.

I thought about the Lancaster bombers thundering through the night sky, wave after wave disgorging an evil alchemy over hundreds of thousands of civilians—the elderly unable to run, the children clutching toys, all bursting into flames. And I thought about the campaign of dehumanisation that continued into the last days of the war that portrayed all our enemies, and even their children, as less than human.

This campaign was hardly subtle, with the enemy depicted as bugs. Magazines carried cartoons showing Italians, Germans and Japanese as part cockroach, and prior to the mass incendiary bombing of Japanese cities, the US Marines' magazine Leatherneck displayed a cartoon of a half-human, half-insect creature entitled Louseous Japanicas to accompany an article that called for "enemy breeding grounds to be completely annihilated."

In the month following the article—March 1945—seemingly endless waves of B-29s roared across Tokyo, dropping one million bombs containing 2,000 tons of incendiaries. In under three hours, over 100,000 people lay dead and one million were homeless. The firebombing of 67 cities over the following five months resulted in the further deaths of at least half a million people—a deliberate policy of wiping out civilians living in the densely populated poorer districts. With no remorse, US Air Force General Curtis LeMay openly declared, "They were scorched and boiled and baked to death." Although it didn’t dampen their enthusiasm, bomber crews said that the stench of burning flesh rose high into the air, forcing them to use oxygen masks to keep from vomiting. At the end of that five month period came atomic destruction.

The writer Kurt Vonnegut—an eyewitness to the Dresden raid and deeply troubled throughout his life by what he described as ‘the greatest massacre in European history’—said that from what he had picked up the USAAF did not enjoy bombing German towns, unlike their British counterparts who saw some sport in it. Nonetheless, they carried out the raids, and far from attempting to ‘precision-bomb’ military targets the Americans played a key part in RAF Bomber Command’s drive to terrorise populations by round-the-clock bombing.

Over 1200 Allied bombers dropped more than 3,000 tons of incendiaries over Dresden, a thousand tons more than were dropped in the Tokyo raids in the following month. The official line was that the war would be cut short by demoralising the enemy, achieved by firebombing civilians and destroying their entire socio-cultural life: hospitals, libraries, universities, houses and schools. Whilst some influential figures such as George Orwell called for the bombings to continue, many in Britain empathised with the German civilians and protested, including the people of heavily bombed Bethnal Green: it didn’t work in the Great War, it didn’t work in the London Blitz, so why would it work now? The bombing continued regardless.

Hamburg, described as Germany’s Hiroshima where more people were killed in one night in July 1943 than in the whole of the London Blitz, was bombed a total of 69 times before the end of the war. The allies stepped up the level of bombing after the war was as good as won, with a thousand planes at a time flying over towns. Over a million bombs were dropped on Germany in the final months of the war, and the intensity continued even into the last weeks. Many of the bombing raids were conducted on towns with high cultural but low military significance, including small cathedral and university towns such as Freiburg. Some indication of the ferocity of the attacks is given by the writer A.C. Grayling:

"Phosphorous, magnesium and thickened or gelled petroleum (the best example of which is ‘napalm’, invented at Harvard University in 1942 and used by the USAAF in Japan later in the war) were almost impossible to extinguish, splashing viscously and adhesively over buildings and people like lava, and burning at ferocious temperatures. People who leaped into canals when splashed with burning phosphorous found to their horror that it would spontaneously reignite when they got out of the water. Among the incendiaries were scattered 2-kilogram ‘X’ bombs with a delayed fuse, designed to explode later when fire-fighters and other emergency workers had arrived on the scene."

Cities were reduced to kindling by dropping thousands of ‘Blockbusters’ on entire residential districts—bombs that blasted whole blocks apart and tore the roofs from buildings so that the high intensity incendiary devices that followed could reach their interiors, including basement shelters. The idea was to engulf the city in a hurricane of fire. Among the fallen ruins families were found huddled together in the centre of rooms with their arms around each other, making their last stand. It appeared as though they were made of wax. The asphalt in the city streets caught fire, and large areas were deprived of oxygen by the firestorms that raged at one hundred and fifty miles per hour, leaving civilians the option of suffocating in their cellars or trying to make a run for it—which meant running through the equivalent of an open air blast furnace to almost certain death.

Eyewitnesses spoke of adults cremated to the size of small dolls, of arms and legs everywhere, of whole families burnt to death, and of people on fire running from burned coaches that were filled with civilian refugees and dead rescuers. The rapidly rising hot air above the bombed areas caused cold air to rush in, drawing people into the escalating tornado. Survivors reported people who dropped on the spot from lack of oxygen, like a device unplugged; others were seen to be hysterical, dragging off their clothes as they burst into flames, and everywhere people were helplessly, and what must have seemed inexplicably, pulled backwards and upwards into the raging fire winds.

One spoke of her mother’s bid to get her family to safety. In the race against the firestorm she lost her older sister and baby twins. Like many others, they looked for them in vain, and spent the last hours of the night in a hospital cellar among people who lay dying in agony. They went back to the tenement house the next day, but everyone was dead. There were so many dead in the cities that disease was the next major threat, resulting in thousands of bodies being heaped together and set ablaze. Was this what Churchill had in mind when he called for an "exterminating attack" on Germany?

The historian Max Hastings has stated that these bombing missions could not be regarded as war crimes, for ultimately they were aimed at bringing about Germany's military defeat, and as such the deeds had no moral equivalence with the crimes of the Nazis. But aren’t all acts of mass murder equivalent? Grayling thinks so: he maintains that the British air force was engaged in the deliberate and merciless mass murder of German civilians on a devastating scale—with as many people killed by bombing as British men killed altogether in the First World War. Moreover, he contends that such men obeyed orders and are therefore as morally guilty as those who issued them.

This was not an isolated instance. The bombers returned to repeat the procedure, much to the bewilderment of the remaining population who were making their way out of the city with their belongings, such as they were. In his book On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald gives an account of a homeless woman whose suitcase sprang open in the street. The only contents that dropped out were the bones of her dead child. A review in The Guardian of Sebald’s book described the woman as deranged, but it seems to me entirely sane to carry the bones of your children with you until a suitable place for burial can be found—a place where you might visit them later on.

Dehumanisation—the process of debasing one's perceived enemy—is not the preserve of evil people: humiliation, alienation, non-recognition, exclusion, the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, and even campaigns of genocide, all fall well within the realm of possibility for the majority of human beings. There are many examples since WW2 of dehumanization at the extreme: Vietnam, Indonesia, Rwanda, Sudan, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria, where populations have also been described as less than human, and where civilians have been killed as a result of so-called 'precision bombing' or drowned in their attempts to flee from war and persecution.

The treatment of other people as lesser beings has been the subject of research within the field of social psychology for over half a century, but whilst this work helps to explain the proclivities of our darker side, the solution to dehumanization, and ultimately annihilation, lies within the broader context of history, politics, philosophy and social activism—in struggles for emancipation from oppression or dehumanization in all its forms.

Whilst it is the dominant order for many people, dehumanisation is not a historical necessity but a distortion. For radical educator and social activist Paulo Freire, humanization is the natural order. Freire was keen to point out that, in an effort to restore their humanity, oppressed groups who have been treated as less than human tend to struggle against their oppressors. But given the available role models the danger is that oppression will simply be practiced in reverse. The real task, he argues, is for the oppressed to liberate not just themselves but their oppressors, and thereby recover the humanity of both. This sounds a bit like learning to love your enemy, which has always been a good place to start.

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