Likelihood of Success

Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog

We’re all sorry now

Posted by Ron Coleman on January 11, 2008

Most valuable commenter Ara Rubyan writes in and asks:

Given that you’ve written about how all politicians from FDR through Obama have failed to adequately respond to the Holocaust and genocide, could you be persuaded to address President Bush’s latest comments after visiting Yad Vashem?

And if you do, could you please include the comments of Sen. McGovern :

Former U.S. Senator George McGovern piloted a B-24 Liberator in December 1944, and his squadron bombed Nazi oil facilities less than five miles from Auschwitz. In 2005, he said “There is no question we should have attempted…to go after Auschwitz. There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the Earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to thos death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.” Reflecting the ongoing controversy, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum historian Peter Black’s response to McGovern’s argument was that had the rail lines been destroyed, the Nazis might have shot the Jews instead. He also said the government couldn’t pinpoint where the gas chambers were and would have had to carpet-bomb the camp.

Yes, I can, Ara. What McGovern says is (as usual) not all that interesting. But I’m surprised at what Black says. I am not a Holocaust expert, but the reason the Germans didn’t shoot the Jews wasn’t because they were shy about using bullets. In the early days of the extermination policy, when German forces sliced through Eastern Europe, they killed Jews the old-fashioned way — drowning them in marshes, burning them up in synagogues, and of course, shooting them. (Incidentally, the trick of making them dig their own graves and then kneel before them for execution was invented by Lenin’s boys.) They switched to gas for efficiency. Obviously they could always have switched back to less efficient methods, but that would have slowed the killing machine — and diverted manpower, and also ammunition.

But regardless of the incremental effect on the genocide — and that is nothing to sneeze at; he who save a single life saves an entire world — knocking out the gas chambers would have been the moral thing to do. Naturally we should be leery of symbolism as an engine of policy, much less military tactics. But destroying an actual genocide factory (if actually feasible — we now know that World War II bombing missions were far less accurate than propaganda suggested) would have been of profound moral significance, both to the outside world and to those who lived in it — who, I am sure, would not have been heartbroken by collateral damage. They were, after all, profoundly, tragically doomed.

There was no acknowledgment of the existence of the gas chambers, though, so that moral victory could not happen, and pressure could not be brought to bear to make it happen. For this we have not only the callousness of the Roosevelt Administration and the New York Times to thank, but Jewish “leaders” such as Stephen Wise as well.

As I said in the post that inspired you to write your note, Ara, I don’t think — President Bush’s heartfelt statement notwithstanding — that much would be different today. Even Darfur does not generate interest among African Americans, so it is hardly surprising that those in power are not galvanized into action. Indeed, as I (and many others) said, the leading African American in the world right now, and a large part of the country, said last year that if leaving Iraq to limitless butchery would be the result of our exit from there, well, then hell with Iraq.

It’s much easier to wait and express regret than to lose votes and regret expressing humanity.

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12 Responses to “We’re all sorry now”

  1. Even Darfur does not generate interest among African Americans…

    While everyone should be concerned about Darfur, why would African-Americans need to be especially so? Or more so than, say, the DRC, where far more have died?

  2. Darfur is in Africa. People who call themselves “African Americans” can be expected to have more interest in Africa than people who call themselves “Americans,” just as “American Jews” are more interested in what happens in Israel than most Americans.

  3. Darfur is in Africa. People who call themselves “African Americans” can be expected to have more interest in Africa than people who call themselves “Americans,” just as “American Jews” are more interested in what happens in Israel than most Americans.

    Well, the DRC is in Africa as well, and about four to five times as many have died there in the same timespan as the Darfur crisis.

  4. I’m sorry, DPU, your point is that the DRC is more deserving of attention than Darfur?

    Oh, okay. I agree.

  5. I’m sorry, DPU, your point is that the DRC is more deserving of attention than Darfur?

    In terms of the point you were making, I didn’t understand why you were using Darfur as your example. There is a misconception by many that blacks are being massacred by non-blacks there, and I was wondering if that was your point behind your statement about African Americans. Apparently, it is not.

  6. Ara Rubyan said

    Thanks for the follow-up.

    I’m bemused by your take on the event, however. A US President observes that we should have bombed Auschwitz (somehow, even today, a controversial stance) and it turns out that his political opposite (someone who called for his impeachment) believed the same thing and said so a couple of years ago. Bonus points for his being, you know, a bomber pilot at that time and place in history.

    And you still believe that this is indicative of … nothing whatsoever? Go figure.

  7. We all feel bad about Holocaust. I give McGovern credit for saying what he said, but I don’t see why it’s all that remarkable. Same thing with Bush, although he at least is a sitting President, so that is of some historic significance. But not much. Tell me why I’m wrong (but not on Shabbos).

  8. Ara Rubyan said

    Well, Shabbat doesn’t begin for us down here for a couple of more hours so here’s my take on it:

    In a time when we are hugely polarized, in a time when both sides are pretty much totally engrossed in winning at all costs (and destroying the enemy), when finding common ground is nearly impossible, when no Republican can find a good thing to say about any Democrat (and, frankly, vice-versa) I think it might be a good idea to go against the grain when the situation calls for it.

    I’m just saying.

  9. Ara, some comments from the “Third Way” here. First, McGovern is mostly incorrect when he claims that “There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the Earth.”

    Historical examination will show that rail systems proved to be remarkably resilient over the long run. About the only time that transportation-net damage proved to be strategically effective was during the Normandy invasion, and that was due to several thousand instances of damaging critical points across the country in a short period of time, supported by tactical air attacks intended to keep those critical points cut.

    Further examination would show that most of the time, most rail damage would have been repaired before the next “strategic” strike occurred. I have to conclude that, as a bomber pilot, Senator McGovern makes a poor transportation analyst. That said, I have to take my hat off to the man, and his service, no matter my disagreement with his policies. Bomber pilots were lousy actuarial risks over Europe. I thank you for that, Mr. McGovern.

    One might object to the above observation as a nit-pick. I would offer another observation. Perhaps the FDR administration resisted the idea that the only way they could save the Jews would be by “destroying the village.” In context, at the time, I doubt they appreciated the heartfelt prayers of those in the camps that they would be bombed.

    If one follows Ara’s link to the McGovern comment, we find the link “Could The Allies Have Bombed Auschwitz-Birkenau?” My main point here relates to the dates involved. The first link (of five) is the one Ara has already provided. The other four contain specific dates as they relate to discussion of policy at the time. The second link includes the date Nov 18, 1944. The third is dated Sept 2, 1944, the fourth June 26, 1944, and the fifth Aug 9 & Aug 14, 1944. Or in chronological order: June 26, Aug 9, Aug 14, Sept 2, and Nov 18; 1944.

    Recall that June 26 was only three weeks after the original Normandy invasion, and the success of the operation was still in doubt. In fact, by the August dates listed above, the invasion timetable was nearly a month behind schedule. Please recall that -even by September- virtually all supplies for the Allies still came via that Normandy beachheads. The Allies had yet to capture a major port, which was absolutely vital to the success of OVERLORD.

    I might interject here that this is a classic case of “amateurs study tactics, while professionals study logistics.”

    The Allies considered Antwerp a vital part of their logistical base for conquering Germany. The port was not captured until late November. I might add here Canadian First Army gained that honor, so hats off to our neighbors to the north!

    Let us return to the above linked pages. #4, the War Department refused the operation as “the suggested air operation is impracticable for the reason that it could be executed only by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.” Recall this is only three weeks into the Normandy Invasion. Also recall this was a full month before the St. Lo carpet-bombing mission, which assisted in the American breakout at the end of July.

    Next we have link #5 (Aug 9 & Aug 14). This is a bare few weeks after the American breakout of the Normandy beachead. While it may not be evident to the typical modern reader, the Allies were very much engaged in a life & death struggle at this point in northern France. A careful reading of link 5 reveals the motivations of the War Department:

    The War Department had been approached by the War Refugee Board, which raised the question of the practicability of this suggestion. After a study it became apparent that such an operation could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would in any case be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources. There has been considerable opinion to the effect that such an effort, even if practicable, might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.

    The War Department fully appreciates the humanitarian motives which promoted the suggested operation, but for the reasons stated above it has not been felt that it can or should be undertaken, at least at this time.

    My re-examination of link 3 reveals no comments from administration officials. It does reveal that civilian activist groups tout the “present air superiority of the United Nations.” I remind the reader that at this point (as mentioned above) all supplies were still ferried from England via the Normandy beachhead. Antwerp would not be captured for another six weeks.

    I also feel compelled to remind the casual reader that there was a tremendous increase in the number of available German fighters during 1944, despite the above civilian confidence in air superiority.

    Finally we have link 2, dated November 18, 1944. I’m not going to quote it in part, as the entire page is relevant. Bottom line: only the heavies from England (read: B-17s and B-24s) could do the job. The fact that the target lay east of Berlin illustrates the challenge that escort fighters could not be provided. In other words, the heavies would have to execute a very long-range raid without the benefit of fighter protection. This would involve several hours to the target, then several hours from the target, all over Germany. I’ll point out there that the typical long-range cruise speed of American heavy bombers ran about 220 MPH at the time. You do the math.

    Roll it all up, and what you get at the time, in contemporary context, is an analysis that the demands and costs of the raid (and very nearly every “worthy” target required multiple strikes to render good effect) would be used more effectively in direct 8th AF and 9th AF strikes against Germany. Or in other words, wrecking the concentration camps would not appreciably shorten the war.

    Now, perhaps, sixty years later it seems arguable that we really should have attacked the camps. It might even seem arguable that the lives saved by wrecking the death industry could justify the further loss of Allied servicemen. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that a large number of those now-elderly warriors would have gladly layed down their lives to save those poor bastiches.

    It might even mean that Bush and McGovern were entirely correct. But… We have to look at the strategic situation as it existed in mid- and late-1944, and how it appeared to those who were in charge. It’s easy to play “Monday-morning quarterback” at all times, and especially so for a war that’s over a half-century in the past, which for most folks translates to “we came, we saw, we kicked some ass!” Those who had to endure those years day by day might beg to differ…

    I suppose my take-away on this is that it’s easy to cop a pose on what should have been done, after the fact. It’s a lot harder for those on the spot, at the time, without the luxury of knowing of how the movie ends…

  10. OK, Casey, but frankly the US military and civilian leadership did know…. and did nothing.

  11. Finally back!

    Ron, if I gave the impression that I thought that the FDR administration wasn’t aware of the camps, then I wrote poorly.

    The point I was trying to get across is that you, Ara, and myself are all in our 40s and see things through sixty years of hindsight, not to mention a terrible awareness of exactly what happened in those camps. It was pure evil.

    My goal was to set the US decisions in context of the time, and underline the fact that -for the leaders in 1944- the end was in no way clear. The military leaders, especially, tended to focus very narrowly on the “overall strategic objective” without regard to the landscape in which that objective existed.

    I’ll take a moment here to point out that the range, weight of bombs, and accuracy required eliminted medium bombers or bomber-fighters such as the P-38 or Mosquito. The proposed missions would require heavies such as the B-17 or B-24; hence daylight raids. Daylight raids require escort. The only escort for missions of that range would be Mustangs. The Mustangs were being spread thinner and thinner since the the number of heavies increased faster than the number of Mustangs. And so it goes. This is not to say that the above “proves” we shouldn’t have executed those missions. What it should underline is how difficult it is to understand all the elements going into such a decision in 1944 without understanding the physical realities. Those who claimed it would have been easy to redirect medium bombers or fighter-bombers just don’t understand the logistics.

    Anyway. My point above is that -while I agree with you and Ara emotionally, that we should have bombed the camps- I can understand how they made those choices. In fact, the very narrow, nearly literally cloistered mindset of the professional military man in America at that time probably contributed very much in the decision against bombing the camps. In the narrow sense, anything not contributing directly to the military defeat of Germany in the shortest possible time was (for them) worthless. As you can imagine, this mindset proved rather frustrating for Churchill upon occasion, especially in the spring of 1945 when Eisenhower refused to advance past the allocated occupation zones. He considered going further a complete waste, while Churchill begged him to go further. Ike was concerned (again) with the narrow sphere of military operations without regard for the world in which the operations existed. To put it another way, Ike was ignoring the dictum that warfare is “the continuation of politics by other means.”

  12. […] If you want to read the whole thing, it’s here. […]

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