A failure of the imagination.
Describing the World War II bombing of Dresden in “Air War and Literature” (On the Natural History of Destruction, 2003), W. G. Sebald wrote:
“The death by fire within a few hours of a whole city, with all its buildings and its trees, its inhabitants, its domestic pets, its fixtures and fittings of every kind, must inevitably have led to overload, to paralysis of the capacity to think and feel in those who succeeded in escaping.”
There were few outside witnesses to the destruction of Dresden. Such news reports as there were gloated over another victory for the allies. A couple of pages later, Sebald writes an almost cinematic account (Yeats’ overused poetic line “A terrible beauty is born” comes to mind) of one night’s bombing of Hamburg:
“A firestorm of an intensity that no one would have thought possible arose. The fire, now rising 2,000 metres into the sky, snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force, resonating like a mighty organ with all the stops pulled out at once. The fire burned like this for three hours. At its height the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising hoardings through the air, tore trees from the ground and drove human beings before it like living torches… The glass in the tramcar windows melted; stocks of sugar boiled in the bakery cellars. Those who had fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions, in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt. No one knows for certain how many lost their lives that night, or how many went mad before they died.”
That was over sixty years ago. Today the world is witnessing the blow-by-blow destruction of Aleppo and its people. But even with graphic media coverage by foreign journalists (which was impossible in Nazi Germany), we cannot begin to imagine what is happening at ground level, the terror and chaos, the lacerating, wounding, maiming, and tearing apart of human bodies. Worse, if worse were possible, the assault on children and babies who, if they survive, will face permanent psychological trauma.
Speaking to the apparently impotent UN Security Council on 29 September 2016, the UN’s chief humanitarian official Stephen O’Brien said: “Let me be clear: east Aleppo this minute is not at the edge of the precipice. It is well into its terrible descent into the pitiless and merciless abyss of a humanitarian catastrophe unlike any we have witnessed in Syria. Syria is bleeding. Its citizens are dying. We all hear their cry for help.”
And yet, like the “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” in Robert Burns’ poem, the UN Security Council fails to act and, by failing to act, betrays its mandate and the people of Syria. In an opinion piece for Deutsche Welle, “Aleppo a disgrace to the international community” (28 September 2016), Rainer Sollich wrote:
“Aleppo is being bombed, ground troops are advancing and entire residential areas have been flattened. Nobody is rushing to actively help the people. No one is intervening. No one is protecting some 100,000 children who UNICEF believes are in danger in the rebel-held part of the city alone. Residential districts, hospitals and even humanitarian aid convoys have apparently been targeted by bombs and not just hit accidentally. War crimes are obviously being committed there while the rest of the world watches.”
War crimes. Separated by more than seventy years, Dresden and Aleppo embody the evil that human beings are capable of inflicting on other human beings. Embodying is precisely the right word, because it is on the bodies of ordinary women, men, children, and babies that the war is being carved. Have we learnt nothing? As human beings who share a common genetic heritage, who have struggled to attain utopian heights, we are condemning ourselves to endless barbarity. As individuals and communities that claim values and beliefs, are we not capable of rising above primitive passions and deadly animosities? Tragically, both for ourselves and for others, the answer appears to be no.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” yet we seem incapable of dreaming or realizing a world in which children do not die in agony and despair.