Russell and Duenes

Memorial Day: The Death Toll Staggers the Mind and Heart

with 5 comments

My interest in World War 2 goes back a ways, and, thus, I occasionally take in some kind of documentary on it. This past week I happened upon an “American Experience” documentary entitled, “The Bombing of Germany.” (You cannot watch the last 5 minutes of this documentary without being profoundly moved.). It tells the story of America’s gradual change of heart about the ethics of wartime bombing. At the outset of our entry into the war with Germany, the U.S. held to the view that bombing of cities was unethical, and that we were only going to bomb military targets. The British had already attempted such a policy and abandoned it as futile. We somehow felt that we could succeed where they hadn’t. Thus, in bombing missions over Germany, we allowed the British to continue the bombing of civilians while we sent our bombers in, unprotected, in daytime, to hit military targets. As you might imagine, such campaigns brought losses of up to 20% for the United States. As such, these bombing missions could not be sustained. And over time, we too abandoned these “precision” strikes, and joined Britain in bombing cities, most notably Berlin and Tokyo.

But what boggles the mind is the human toll brought on by the WW2 fighting. I’ve heard it all before, but to be reminded again, slapped me into mute stupefaction. One cannot contemplate the reality of such a war without also meditating on the meaning of human existence, the evil of men’s hearts, and the reality of God.

One’s mind is concentrated by the pictures of charred, mangled, dead bodies, and the walking wounded amidst the rubble of bombed out Berlin. To see the now elderly German man in the documentary, who was a child in Berlin under the bombing, weeping as he recounts the events. To think of the numbers: 200,000 Russian soldiers killed in the final assault on Berlin, more than 100,000 British and American airmen killed, 500,000 German civilians killed by Allied bombing, more than 20 million civilian deaths in Europe alone, almost 100,000 killed in the bombing of Tokyo, roughly 90,000 killed in the bombing of Hiroshima, and likely over 50,000 killed in the bombing of Nagasaki. And this does not include other fighting and the millions upon millions of Soviet deaths in the war. I cannot get my heart around it, nor, in all honesty, do I truly want to. It means too many things that I would rather deny. Are there any more horrifying realities?

Is it more terrifying to consider how easily we have forgotten the human idolatry, wickedness, folly, and pride that plunged us into such global death and destruction? Is it worse to delude ourselves, as we do today, into thinking that humans are born morally “neutral” or “good” so that we can attempt to comfort ourselves with this lie, because to tell ourselves otherwise, and to consider the results of such human wickedness, is emotionally unbearable? Are we afraid that looking at such reality is like staring into the sun? We don’t want to think that we too “are like those people” do we? We cordon off Hitler, Stalin, Hirohito and their minions into a separate moral and spiritual category and reassure ourselves that they are aberrations. But can one look into the abyss, not just of WW2, with its vast and high-powered killing machines, but into the gaping maw of human conflict from time immemorial, and sustain such an infantile belief in humankind’s “innate goodness?” And if it’s all just a part of some godless, “red in tooth and claw,” evolutionary process, then why the horror at such killing?

G.K. Chesterton aptly wrote that the Christian doctrine of original sin “was the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved…If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.” Yet God gets more to the point, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things and desperately wicked; who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

Yet there is hope, even in the face of such human evil. There is a goodness and light which has the power to change human hearts. One man alone has this glorious, sovereign, transforming power. His name is Jesus of Nazareth. He is the hope of the nations. He is the Prince of Peace. In His coming kingdom, the lamb shall lie down with the lion, and men will beat their swords into plowshares. Let us not hope in anything or anyone less. Lord, have mercy.



Written by Michael Duenes

May 26, 2012 at 8:22 am

5 Responses

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  1. I’m currently reading Defying Hitler, a can’t-put-it-down page-turner if you like this sort of thing. In brief, it’s a very insightful account, written in 1939, of German sociology and how exactly Hitler succeeded to power.

    The thing that always strikes me is not that it’s hard to understand why people were attracted to Nazism, but that it’s easy. Jeremiah 17:9, indeed.


    May 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm

  2. I didn’t know that we (Allies) took such pains to avoid civilian death at the beginning of the war. I wonder, had any army ever attempted to do so in any previous war? Or, have any non-western armies ever attempted to do so?

    On a few occasions, the Israelites were commanded to kill the women and children of their enemies, ie, civilians. Most modern Christians have to struggle with this.

    Our modern sensibilities are horrified at civilian death in war. But our modern sensibilities are horrified by many things that were completely common, all over the world, for all time- slavery, poverty, child labor, illiteracy, etc, were all, until recently, been the norm, not the exception.


    May 29, 2012 at 10:27 am

    • I agree, and one of the commentators in the documentary remarked that wars “spin out of control.” I think that’s a way of saying that nations get a taste for killing. As Churchill said, in one of his more powerful speeches, “We will mete out to the Germans the measure, and more than the measure, they have meted out to us.” I take it, to his shame, that the fire-bombing of Dresden was part of keeping this promise. On the other hand, another commentator remarked that the most unethical thing the Allies could have done in WW2 would have been to allow Germany and Japan to win. With this, I agree. That the Germans fought so tenaciously and wickedly to the end bespeaks the horror of our human sinfulness.


      russell and duenes

      May 30, 2012 at 6:52 pm

  3. I lock my doors at night. If that doesn’t speak to my belief that man is sinful, I don’t know what does. As for myself, without the light of Christ I think I would write off my sin as somehow benign or understandable, instead of seeing it for the out and out rebellion it is. God’s character and authority is the frame of reference here.

    Andy M

    May 30, 2012 at 8:30 am

    • Indeed. I would think similarly, and all too often, I do. Oh, for a deeper conviction that my sin is abominable and worthy of divine retribution, but for Christ taking my place.


      russell and duenes

      May 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm

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