Author: Thomas James Martin
Published on: March 26, 2003
And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those
people and their homes had been [in Sodom and Gomorrah]. But she did look
back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. ~Kurt
Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
I read a lot of science fiction, and years ago became enamored with the
short stories and novels of Kurt Vonnegut, especially Mother Night,
Galapagos, and Slaughterhouse Five. I noticed that he always
included in the short biography at the end of his books the statement that
he ". . . witnessed the destruction of Dresden."
Vonnegut was an infantry scout during World War II and was captured on
December 22, 1944 by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Taken to
the city of Dresden as a prisoner of war, his captors put him to work in a
plant that made malt syrup for pregnant women.
The firebombing of Dresden, Germany on the night of February 13, 1945
which Vonnegut references, is one of the most controversial acts of the
Allies during World War II. Dresden manufactured no munitions, was not an
industrial or commercial center for the Nazis. There were no anti-aircraft
emplacements to speak of.
The city was not even defended by the Luftwaffe at the time, as the
German airplanes in t he vicinity were grounded due to lack of fuel. Yet, on
this city renowned as a center of German architecture and culture, the
Allies unleashed one of the most relentless and destructive air raids of the
During three waves of attacks, over 1,300 British and U.S. bombers
dropped more than 3,300 tons of bombs on Dresden. Many of these bombs were
incendiaries, filled with highly combustible chemicals such as magnesium,
phosphorus and napalm. These incendiaries started a firestorm that sucked
the oxygen from the air, causing temperatures to soar as high as 1,800
Strangely enough, the only likely military targets, some barracks in the
city's north side and the rail yard (sometimes used to transport troops and
materials to the Eastern Front) were left untouched.
Depending on whose version of the events you read, the raid killed
anywhere from 35,000 to 135,000 civilians though some studies indicate the
death toll may have been in excess of 250,000, more than were directly
killed at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, more than were killed during the days of
the Blitz in Britain. The influx of refugees that had fled into the city as
the Red Army marched into Germany from the East in the months prior to the
bombing had almost doubled the population and makes it difficult to derive a
better estimate of civilian deaths.
What is certain is that there is little chance of escape from a
firestorm, especially if there is a concentration of buildings and bombs to
set off many huge fires rapidly. The air becomes super-heated and the rush
of heated air upwards produces the characteristics and power of a tornado.
Horribly, the winds are strong enough to pick people up and suck them into
From the eyewitness account of Margaret Freyer, a survivor of the
To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and
shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She
runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire. Suddenly, I
saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with
their hands, and then - to my utter horror and amazement - I see how one
after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground.
(Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of
oxygen). They fainted and then burnt to cinders.
We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small
children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to
death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian
refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for
their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all
the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning
houses they were trying to escape from.
If Vonnegut had not been a prisoner, he might not have survived, but
somewhat ironically he sheltered that night of the firestorm with other POWs
in an underground meat locker. Vonnegut emerged from the locker to find that
Dresden looked as he later described it in Slaughterhouse 5, "like
He found the historic city pockmarked by bomb craters; its populace
utterly decimated. According to Vonnegut, the city had the desolate look of
the surface of the moon, barren and wasted, void of anything redolent of
human life. Vonnegut, along with other prisoners, was forced to dig through
the rubble to find the bodies of Dresden's men, women and children and carry
them off to mass funeral pyres.
Vonnegut struggled for years to write about this event that he
experienced as a young man. He was only 22 years old when it happened.
Finally he returned to Dresden 23 years later in 1968 with a fellow former
POW and found himself finally able to come to terms with that experience
which he used in his landmark novel,Slaughterhouse Five.
Yet, this is not an assessment of the literary importance of Kurt
Vonnegut though he is a fine novelist and original thinker in my estimation.
Rather, it is a brief examination of the nature of war that leads to such
excesses as the bombing of Dresden. . .what we now so pretentiously label
Of course, it can be argued that the destruction of Dresden is not
collateral damage as the civilian population was bombed deliberately. In
researching the history of this incident, one learns that the Allied High
Command thought there were several strategic reasons to bomb the city.
Apparently, the leaders of the Allies, especially Churchill, feared the
growing power of Soviet Union, who was invading Germany from the East, and
thought that Stalin would be duly impressed with the firepower that United
Kingdom, the United States and the other Allies could unleash. Thus, the
Allies sacrificed the people of Dresden to throw a warning at Stalin and the
feared menace of international Communism.
From an Internal Royal Air Force Memo from 1945 concerning Dresden:
The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel
it most, behind an already partially collapsed front, to prevent the use
of the city in the way of further advance, and incidentally to show the
Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.
I personally do not believe that the end justifies the means, and I do
not believe in killing several tens of thousands of innocent people whatever
the motive, even if they were citizens of a regime that engaged in the worst
of war crimes, inhuman experimentation and mercilessly bombed London and
other European cities.
I do not believe in the Old Testament's "eye for an eye" mode of human
interaction, realizing that such behavior just makes everyone blind and more
angry. That said, I do believe that if actually attacked, one must defend
However, my beliefs about the futility of war are not the point here. My
point is that regardless of your view of war, whether you see a proper
motive behind the firebombing of Dresden or not, whether you view any war
(including the Gulf War II) as necessary or not, we must not forget just how
horrible the reality of war really is. War usually represents a failure of
nations to deal realistically (and firmly sometimes) with their conflicting
interests and problems.
War is not just another violent video game as the images of bombers and
missiles and explosions seen during television coverage of recent wars would
seem to indicate. Screaming mothers and burning children sucked into the maw
of a raging inferno, bombs falling on desperately fleeing civilians,
metaphors of the enormity that was Dresden, that is the real war.
Like Vonnegut's insightful interpretation of the behavior of Lot's wife
during another time of destruction, perhaps to be human is to look back and
remember the destruction and loss of wars past. I like to think that Lot's
Wife looked back in empathy as guided by the two angels, she and her husband
and two daughters climbed into the mountains, with a heart heavy with
concern for the people burning and dying in the desert below.
Perhaps, that Pillar of Salt that she became is really a monument to
Author's Notes: Vonnegut has written such powerful often serio-comic
novels as Mother Night, God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater, Galapagos,
Timequake, Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse Five, and many other
noteworthy books. You may read more about the author—who is also quite an
important visual artist—at The Official
Website for Kurt Vonnegut.