03 November 2004
Apologies for historical events are often ridiculous. Remember Tony Blair saying sorry for the potato famine, or Bill Clinton's expression of "regret" for slavery? Official apologies are only worth something when they signify a determination to behave differently. The only reason for an Irishman to go without potatoes today is the Atkins diet, and African-Americans long ago cast off their chains. These apologies were empty gestures and nothing more.
So why do I believe that Elizabeth Windsor should apologise - during her state visit this week - to the people of Dresden for the destruction of their city in 1945? Even the lunatic fringe of UKIP do not actually want to bomb Germany again. But the levelling of Dresden was a symptom of something much larger - a belief in the doctrine of total war - and that belief is creeping back into the practice of Britain and her allies today.
The doctrine of total war is simple. It is the belief that when you are at war, anything and everything is a legitimate target. Target civilians in enemy countries? No problem. Blow up reservoirs and destroy the means for civilian life? Bombs away. There are no rules and there can be no restraint.
Dresden was the marriage of this doctrine to vast air-power. When Air Marshal Arthur Harris launched the assault on Dresden, he knew it was a city of 600,000 ordinary German civilians and at least 250,000 refugees. The historian John Black explains: "There were no military objectives of any consequence in the city. Its destruction could do nothing to weaken the Nazi war machine."
Many of the RAF pilots were horrified when they were ordered to kill 40,000 women, children, old people and refugees as an end in itself. Roy Akehurst, a wireless operator who took part in the killings, explained: "We were just flying for hours over a sheet of fire. I found myself making comments to the crew. 'Oh God, these poor people.' It was completely uncalled for. You can't justify it."
The son of one late serviceman, David Pedlow, has explained: "Normally, crews were given a strategic aiming point - anything from a factory to a railway junction - to target. Only at the Dresden briefing, the crews were given no strategic aiming point. They were simply told anywhere within the built-up area of the city would serve. [My father] felt that Dresden's civilian population was the target and their deaths served no strategic purpose, even in the widest terms. It was a significant departure from accepting civilian deaths as a regrettable but inevitable consequence of the bomber war."
He was right: there is a clear moral line between the civilian deaths that occur in the pursuit of any just war and deliberately slaughtering them for its own sake. The destruction of Dresden crossed this line. Don't take my word for it. Winston Churchill later issued a memo to Harris questioning his Dresden strategy, describing the bombings as "mere acts of terror and wanton destruction". When shown aerial photographs of the bomb sites - images that resemble the surface of the moon - he expressed his fear that we had become "beasts".
Yet in this country, whenever we try to discuss anything about Europe - never mind Germany - our brains melt into a gooey Euro-hating sludge. So it's no surprise that the difficult moral debate about Britain's bombing of Dresden in 1945 has been immediately misrepresented. One right-wing newspaper declared on its front page this Saturday: "The Queen refuses to say sorry for war."
Let's get this clear: only a neo-Nazi or an extreme pacifist would suggest Britain should apologise for the war. It is a wild distortion to suggest that the German press today is calling for it. The Second World War was one of the most morally necessary wars ever fought. The German people feel this - if anything - more strongly than the British.
Is it really so hard to understand that you can support a war while objecting to some of the individual war crimes committed during the course of the fighting? Does anybody seriously think you have to defend Dresden to defend D-Day?
An apology on behalf of the British people will only be worthwhile if it is an apology for the idea of total war - and a declaration that we will never return to it. Even in war, there must be rules. Even when you are acting in self-defence against a serial killer, you can't torch his children and parents in order to demoralise him.
Yet, with the reluctant acquiescence of the British government, the idea of total war has been on a comeback tour over the past three years. For example, one of the most basic rules of war concerns captured or surrendering enemy combatants. The Geneva Conventions lay down the rules. They should be "treated humanely... until their final release and repatriation without delay after the cessation of immediate hostilities". Guantanamo Bay trashes the Geneva conventions, and encourages other countries to ditch the rules too.
There was another serious step in the direction of total war during the recent conflict in Iraq. An elementary rule of war is that reasonable efforts must be made to minimise civilian casualties. In at least one crucial respect, this rule was ignored by the British government.
This is difficult for people like me who supported the war in Iraq, but it must be faced honestly. The American and British governments used Depleted Uranium (DU) in Iraq in 1991 and again last year. It will be used soon in Fallujah. DU is the metal that is left over after uranium is enriched for use in nuclear reactors. It is hard and heavy, and when it is made into shells and bullets it can punch easily through tank armour. It's a very effective military tool - but it is highly ethically questionable.
DU leaves behind a toxic radioactive dust. The award-winning US reporter Scott Petersen took Geiger countings at several locations in Baghdad where it is suspected that DU was used - including sites where children were playing and food was sold. Radiation levels were 1,900 times higher than in your home or mine. There is a very strong chance that this nuclear material now scattered across Iraq will cause an epidemic of cancers.
The British government insists that the evidence about DU is unclear, and - since they will not commission serious research into it - they're right. But what we know is highly suggestive. A BBC report by Rageh Omaar, for example, found that in Iraqi areas where DU was used in 1991, the rate of cancers was 20 times higher than the Iraqi average. And worse, if it is not dealt with, DU remains toxic for more than a million years. Nothing has been done so far to clear away the DU we blasted into Iraq. When I asked a senior government source during the conflict how he could justify this, he said: "We're in a war. Wars aren't pretty. The generals tell us this is how we win."
This is a step closer to the logic of total war. Ditch a rule here about the treatment of POWs; ignore a rule there about minimising long-term harm to civilians; and a few rules and a few wars down the road, we find ourselves back to Bomber Harris and the firebombing of cities crammed full of refugees.
The destruction of Dresden stands as a warning of where we are heading if we continue on this rule-destroying road. It's time to say sorry - and to choose a different path.