War is hell. It’s a statement we’ve heard so many times we tend to take it now as an axiom, a truism that is so obvious it serves as a giant, bolded period in any conversation. It’s all that needs to be said – war is hell. But in the ensuing silence lies what I feel is a monumental failing on our part to properly acknowledge just what that statement means, a failure to speak a hard truth about the true nature of war and its consequences, intended and otherwise.
The late American author and satirist Kurt Vonnegut wrote a good deal about what he saw as the horror and irrationality of war; nowhere more to the point than in his writing about the carnal aftermath of the Allied firebombing of Dresden near the end of WWII. A prisoner who was being held in an underground slaughterhouse, (the experience would be the inspiration for his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five) Vonnegut – from his essay “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”- describes the particularly appalling scenes of Dresden’s destruction. The Allied air forces had “reduced this treasure to crushed stone and embers; disemboweled her with high explosives and cremated her with incendiaries.” A city that was once a beautiful sight to Vonnegut was now one of “jagged building shells, of splintered statuary and shattered trees; every vehicle stopped, gnarled or burnt” with the survivors making their way from the rubble with “blackened faces streaked with tears, some bearing wounded, some bearing dead.” Tasked with recovering remains, there is a particularly haunting scene in which he discovered the basement of a building with the “reeking hash of 100 human beings,” their burnt flesh resembling the “texture of prunes.” The city was targeted because of its strategic location along German transportation and shipping routes.
The number of dead in Dresden is thought to be somewhere in the 20,000-25,000 range. Vonnegut concluded, albeit a little begrudgingly, that this was murder, plain and simple – the bombing was responsible for killing an “appalling number of women and children…Burnt alive, suffocated, crushed – men, women, and children indiscriminately killed.”
O Lord our Father, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire.*
This is the unmentioned and uneasy pregnancy of war’s hellish nature. We are, at most times, unwilling to discuss the people that die (both soldier and civilian). We are convinced our goals are right and just, that our defense and welfare are at stake, and that some collateral damage is necessary to achieve a greater good. Saying that war is hell and then leaving it at that is tantamount to admitting that awful things have to happen to some in order for good to happen to others. We may tacitly concede but are unable to openly admit that in war, urging for one man’s safety and success means the death of another, and if the man’s wife and children also die in the struggle, those are just the unfortunate circumstances of armed conflict. War is hell. There is no power more awesome than that over life and death, yet in war, it is democratized and delegated under the guise of a political ideal, or even as a matter of strategy, as was the case at Dresden. The ends are seen as justifying the means.
Therein lies the malignant and senseless nature of warfare. It is hell, and what is benignly referred to as collateral damage is so commonplace that although it is an unintended consequence, it’s very nearly unavoidable and now taken for granted, swept under the rug as a necessary evil. We live in a world where the deaths of innocents at the hands of a state are insignificant, and that’s something I refuse to accept. Moral culpability should not disappear with an official seal of approval. The relativism inherent in this notion of perpetrating seemingly “small” evils for greater goods is a false choice in which the so-called good simply a less tarnished ill. It may seem that I’m overly dogmatic and some would say unrealistic in these viewpoints. But recognizing that war is both the strong hand and health of the state – the most totalitarian of all programs – and the terrible atrocities committed just in the last 100 years, mostly in the name of militaristic ideologies, should be enough to give anyone a little bit of pause.
*Taken from The War Prayer, by Mark Twain.
Jerrod A. Laber is a freelance writer based in the Washington D.C. area. He is a graduate of Marshall University and an intern at the Institute for Humane Studies.