Slaughterhouse Five


WASHINGTON—The enormous “shock and awe” bombing campaign against Baghdad, now being carried out by the U.S. military to ensure there is no safe place left to hide in the capital city, will inevitably recall the Allied firebombing of Dresden during World War II. U.S. military planners don’t want anything like this to happen, but there is always the possibility that things can get out of hand.

So far while the images look like a city fire-bombed, journalists in Baghdad this morning say electricity is still on. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said there was no comparison between shock and awe and World War II terror bombing of cities like Rotterdam and London. In Europe at that time, Rumsfeld said, “dumb weapons were widely distributed across large areas,” Shock and Awe is meant to create a “non-nuclear equivalent” of Hioroshima. Rumsfeld has said repeatedly that every effort is being made to avoid civilian areas.

Dresden was firebombed by the British Royal Air Force and U.S. planes near the end of the war, February 13-15, 1945. Not considered of any great strategic importance, Dresden was best known as a cultural and architectural center in German. Eighty-five percent of the city was destroyed.

The city was bombed, according to RAF notes, to show the advancing Red Army “what Bomber Command can do.”

At the time of the bombing, Dresden was crammed with refugees fleeing the advancing Russian army. The RAF Bomber Command had been ordered to attack Berlin, Dresden, and Leipzig, along with other cities in the eastern part of Germany, to “cause confusion in the evacuation from the East,” according to RAF records. The evacuation referred to the fleeing refugees, who had little to do with the Nazi war effort but were viewed as legitimate targets because bombarding them and causing chaos might delay Hitler from reinforcing his eastern front. British and U.S. planes reportedly also strafed the fleeing refugees.

The firebombing involved first dropping massive bombs to expose the timbers of houses and then dumping incendiary devices called “fire sticks” on top of them to set them on fire. More bombs were dropped to prevent fire departments from reaching the flames. This eventually created a self-sustaining “fire storm” with temperatures over 2700 degrees Fahrenheit. The air above the bombed area became extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside, and people were sucked into the fire.

The figures were staggering. According to one account, almost 4000 tons of bombs were dropped. Another account talks of 600,000 individual bombs being dropped. Out of 28,410 houses in the inner city of Dresden, based on one reckoning, 24,866 were destroyed. A 15-square-mile area of complete obliteration had included 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 19 churches, 5 theaters, 50 banks and insurance companies, 31 department stores, 31 large hotels, and 62 administration buildings.

Perhaps the best known portrayal of the Dresden bombing is in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut had been captured in the Battle of the Bulge and was near Dresden when the firebombing occurred.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 25, 2003

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