Why We Need to Remember that War Is Hell

As British bombs fell on the German port city of Kiel, Karl Berchim scrambled with reckless self-abandon to usher as many women and children as he could into a schoolhouse that had been converted into a shelter. Berchim was a member of the Luftwaffe, the aerial warfare branch of the Wehrmacht during World War II.

Just as he secured a group of civilians in the bomb shelter, a massive piece of ordnance dropped by the Royal Air Force found its mark near Berchim, killing him instantly. Because of his actions and sacrifice, a little girl named Elise was saved from obliteration. Because Elise lived, she grew up, married, and had a son. That son eventually had a daughter who is now expecting her first child—my child, by my wife, because of the heroism of her great-grandfather, Karl Berchim.

I don’t care that Karl stood “on the wrong side of history” in life; he died a hero, striving to protect the life and liberty of civilians. For all we know, he was an American born in the wrong place.

According to Dennis Saffran, however, Karl and the rest of the war dead cannot be regarded except with scornful indifference. We may as well strike his name from the memorial book in the townhall of Kiel.

“I have absolutely no problem with the killing of German civilians in World War II,” wrote Saffran as the United States toed the line of war with Iran, urging Americans to get over their queasiness at the thought of killing civilians, “even in cases where hindsight may see it as ‘unnecessary.’” In other words, even if you could prove to Saffran that civilians were needlessly slaughtered, he would have absolutely no problem with it.

Thucydides quipped that he wrote his history because, “given the human condition,” “what was done in the past” almost certainly “will recur in the future,” and thus the only way to learn from our mistakes is to “look into the truth of what was done in the past.” Though Saffran is altogether unconcerned with reflection, the rest of us would do well to revisit Dresden, the “unnecessary” slaughter of which Saffran cites with indifference, and other cities bombed by the Allies during World War II.

What Separates Us From Our Enemies?

“War is Hell,” as someone said, and Karl had the misfortune of being stationed in a strategically important city at a time when the British were in a particularly bad mood. The British made no bones then about avenging themselves beyond the Biblical prescription of sevenfold.

In Hamburg, my wife’s native city, 45,000 souls perished in the flames of a single bombing run. In Leipzig, Jörg Friedrich, a German historian, uncovered photographs of a “petrified corpse of mother and child collected in a bathtub, and the bleached skeleton of a baby killed during an air raid” on the city.

Kiel, Hamburg, and Leipzig, were home to strategic targets, that much is true. But the sheer number of civilian casualties per military target was so disproportionate that it essentially amounted to indiscriminate slaughter of noncombatants. “Discrimination,” writes Angelo Codevilla, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and a regular contributor to American Greatness, “means that armed forces should fight armed forces and not ravage the enemy’s countryside, cities, or economy.”

The prosecution of a just war, according to Codevilla, demands that “the means must not be allowed to dishonor the ends.” Prudence, then, “is governed by simple, straightforward rules,” that, though rarely observed as a result of the hate that arises in the hearts of men, nevertheless ought to be our aspirations. The simplest one being: do not deliberately or indiscriminately kill civilians. This is part of the long tradition of jus in bello, crystallized in Augustine and Aquinas, that supposedly separates the West from the “barbarians.”

What the Allies did to the city of Pforzheim, however, and though it was later dwarfed by their actions at Dresden, offers an example of imprudence in this regard.

“On February 16, 1945,” Jörg Friedrich recalls, “British bombers attacked the tiny town of Pforzheim, killing one-third of its 63,000 inhabitants.” Pforzheim was among many strategically irrelevant towns cratered for no reason, other than Churchill and Roosevelt’s willingness to satisfy Stalin’s thirst for blood, and, as English historian Paul Johnson writes, to “prove to Stalin that the Allies were doing their best to assist the Russian effort on the Eastern front.” But the greatest monument to unnecessary mass killing by the Allies was built with the blood and bones of Dresden, what Johnson calls “the greatest Anglo-American moral disaster of the war against Germany.”

“Over 650,000 incendiaries were dropped, the firestorm engulfing eight square miles, totally destroying 4,200 acres and killing 135,000 men, women and children,” writes Johnson. Many of those children died wearing the costumes they wore to carnivals, as the bombs fell on the evening of Shrove Tuesday.

According to Codevilla, those 135,000 people, mostly civilians and numerous refugees “who were fleeing in front of the advancing Soviet armies,” were killed in just over 24 hours.

“The policy of strategic bombing,” as Codevilla notes, “which meant the outright murder of millions, was ordered by the same President Roosevelt who at the outset of World War II had written to all combatants asking them not to bomb cities.”

After the bombing, British and American forces forcibly repatriated millions of prisoners of war, including displaced persons, and anti-communist Yugoslavs and Hungarians, placing them all in the hands of Stalin—that is, sending them off to slavery and almost certain death.

“There is no clearer example in history of two sets of murders,” writes Codevilla of Dresden and the forced repatriation of survivors, “executed to achieve the same end.” Dresden was “undertaken as an act of war,” Codevilla adds, while repatriation was “a peace offering” by Churchill and Roosevelt to Stalin. “But murder delegitimizes peace just as much as it delegitimizes war.” In all, the war consigned some 76,000 German children to the ashes of oblivion.

Still, tens of thousands more Germans perished as prisoners of the British, Americans, and Soviets after the end of hostilities. These were not all Eichmanns; many of them were Karls.

“Herded into cages along the Rhine, with no shelter and very little food, they dropped like flies,” writes Nigel Jones, a British historian. All the while hundreds of thousands of German women and girls—as young as 8 and as old as 80—were brutally and repeatedly raped by the Red Army. As the ticker tape fell in New York, so too did the Iron Curtain drape across Europe, consigning millions of Christians from Berlin to Budapest to the barbarous reign of Bolshevism—a regime singularly devoted to the annihilation of Western civilization.

Learn From the Past Rather Than Be Shamed By It

The point of all of this is not to shame Brits, Americans, or Russians. No one living bears any responsibility for the actions committed by others in the past, least of all for the folly of the world’s elites. It is, however, our duty to remember the real cost of war.

What the Iran debacle revealed is that so many of the current president’s supporters, in particular the self-appointed “experts,” seem to suffer from amnesia when gazing at that graveyard of empires, the Middle East. Now they want the rest of us to forget what they did, but we would be remiss to do so.

The real cost of war is distorted by individuals like Saffran appealing to the spectacle of victory and the patriotic instinct. More often than not, the loudest battlecries come from the mouths of those who will never bear the burden of killing, or have the courage to look slaughter in the face for what it is, regardless of who is behind it.

This we ought to remember above all. “Because no battle is ever won,” as Faulkner wrote. “The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” That Saffran only speaks of the dead to spite them tells us that not even the dead have seen the end of war. We would be wise to remember what was done in the past.

About Pedro Gonzalez

Pedro Gonzalez is assistant editor of American Greatness and a Mount Vernon Fellow of the Center for American Greatness.

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