A war for civilisation conducted by philistines

These days history mostly sleeps. But on Wednesday evening it leapt up, eyes staring and screamed. It had just seen Tony Blair cruising into the Royal Academy to escort Gerhard Schrvder, the German Chancellor, to the Dresden exhibition. The show is of 58 Old Masters left intact by the Royal Air Force in its firestorm of February 13, 1945.

Herr Schrvder hardly needed this memorial to the horrors of aerial bombardment. He and his country understandably want no part in any repetition. Yet Mr Blair bade his guest farewell and returned to join military advisers in planning Operation Shock and Awe, the forthcoming two-day air blitz on Iraq. Among the weapons proposed is the new MOAB, the “massive ordnance air blast” or Mother Of All Bombs, revealed by the US this week. It could take out old Dresden in one blow. I cannot fault Mr Blair for irony.

Wars fought to save “Western civilisation” seldom worry unduly about civilisation. Despite years of revisionism, I still regard the reduction of the heart of Dresden to a mass incinerator in 1945 as Britain’s worst war crime. It set a new standard for instant human massacre. So many refugees had crowded the city centre for protection that nobody will ever know how many tens of thousands simply evaporated.

Subsequent British war memoirs creep with “I was only obeying orders”. History now distributes responsibility equally between Bomber Command’s Arthur Harris, his boss, Lord Portal, and Churchill himself. Their later, painful excuses tend to confirm their sense of guilt. They knew what they were doing, and did it. The navigators’ target maps released last year by the British Library do not lie.

To look at the Dresden pictures is eerie. It is as if they still carried the scars of that holocaust, as if Harris’s furnace had sucked the oxygen from the lungs of their sitters. Two hundred of their fellows were burnt. The survivors were lucky to be removed in time to sandstone quarries outside the city. London has not been sent the real Dresden treasures, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter. But a superb D|rer is accompanied by Cranach, Mantegna, Rubens, Poussin, Canaletto and Velazquez. Most moving are the five great canvases by Bernardo Bellotto, of the city in the 1740s. They show a landscape of Baroque charm that survived intact for 200 years, until that February night in 1945.

The customary defence of the Dresden raid is that Britain cannot be to blame because German civilians deserved it. They deserved it for allowing Hitler to be their leader. The identical argument is now being deployed to defend the forthcoming rain of terror on Baghdad. However many people are killed and monuments destroyed, it can all be laid at President Saddam Hussein’s door. Victor’s justice applies.

I find it astonishing that Britain must employ the Dresden defence to excuse anything at all. It implies that generals must take their ethical lead not from their own rules of engagement but from the morals of the foe. This is absurd. It is also not how generals behave. Target lists are fiercely debated. Soldiers do apply moral standards to their behaviour in war. The limited military value of bombing cities is set against the political cost of so doing. Robin Neillands’ recent analysis of The Bomber War contrasts the bomb as a tactical aid to ground troops with the so-called “strategic” bombing espoused by Harris’s boss, Lord Portal, much to the latter’s disadvantage.

The destruction of Dresden was pointless. Hitler was already in bunker mode. It was not even relevant to Portal’s murderous belief that modern states would surrender if you bombed enough of their civilians. (A thesis tested in extremis at Hiroshima, where Japanese leaders were mercifully not yet in bunker mode.) As Neillands implies, the area bombing strategy evolved in part to justify the appalling casualties caused by these inaccurate weapons, casualties that would be unacceptable if committed by ground troops. Ever since Portal, airmen have been allowed to get away with murder. If today American or British land forces had killed 4,000 Afghan civilians, as have their air forces, they would be summoned before a military tribunal — as were US soldiers after the 1971 My Lai killings in Vietnam.

The impending 48-hour blitz on Iraq — 800 cruise missiles and thousands of conventional bombs — will fall not just on people but also on the world’s most vulnerable historic sites. History could hardly present a greater irony. Six thousand years ago, Mesopotamia saw the earliest manifestation of Western culture. It is now to see the latest. An estimated 10,000 archaeological sites remain, most as yet unexcavated. Many will now be excavated for the first and last time.

The destruction of cultural and religious monuments in war is explicitly prohibited by the Hague Convention (1954), which Britain and America refused to ratify for fear it might inhibit their air forces. The Sumerian city of Ur, dating back 6,000 years, was first revealed by the British archaeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley. Its great ziggurat and sacred court are now pitted with 400 shells from a misguided strafing and bombing raid by an American jet in 1991. They were intended for the nearby Tallil air-base, which the US afterwards protested should not have been sited so near the monument. Yet the base was put there not by Iraq, but by the British.

The BBC’s Dan Cruickshank recently returned from making a film about these monuments, appalled at their vulnerability. He visited Uruq, with its White Temple, mosaic court and marble carvings. He filmed King Hammurabi’s capital at Babylon, once the greatest metropolis in the world, with the remains of Nebuchadnezzar’s gateway still standing. Another Iraqi base lies near the 4,000-year-old city of Hatra. Royal Nineveh and Nimrud are in the line of advance from Turkey. So is Ashur, the ancient capital of Assyria. Just north of Baghdad is the spiral minaret of 9th-century Samarra.

Nor, says Cruickshank, is it just the bombing that those now frantically trying to protect these monument most fear. It is the collapse of security that comes in its wake. “War is chaos and chaos means looting,” he says, recalling what happened in 1991, when Sennacherib’s ancient palace was looted. “Many of these great treasures may never be seen again. They will just vanish.”

The Art Newspaper has published an awesome list of Iraqi sites near bases, factories and scientific works, some of them damaged by bombing errors in 1991. They include the world’s oldest brick arch at Ctesiphon, undermined by an earthquake bomb and now vulnerable to any further shock. Museums at Mosul, Basra and Baghdad are rushing their treasures into store. But, as in Dresden, only moveable objects can realistically be safeguarded.

I am not aware of any protest about this impending destruction. The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, has not said she will resign if her Government breaches the Hague Convention. None of those who demand war to protect civilisation will lift a finger to safeguard it in Iraq. Most are now so embarrassed as just to want the war “over quickly”, and to hell with the damage.

Geoff Hoon’s Ministry of Defence yesterday pushed the same line as it did in Yugoslavia, that it goes only for “military targets”. This is merely what convention says it must say. It disclaimed all knowledge of Hague and “reserves the right to reclassify as military any monument considered to be in military use”. Mr Hoon could not tell a Sumerian from a saloon bar. The Pentagon at least admits to liaising with archaeologists on targeting, much good though it will do on the night.

To some this is all sob stuff. War is always about killing and destruction, they say, so stop being fastidious. I am sure that is what the Condor Legion said before bombing Guernica and Harris said before Dresden. They did not see things that way later. More to the point, the Allies did not shell Chartres Cathedral or bomb central Milan. We all agree that the use of certain weapons must be restricted. It is the entire point, the essence, of Mr Blair’s campaign against Saddam.

This is not a conflict that Britain is in danger of losing. The case for treating civilian areas and historic sites with extreme care seems overwhelming. At very least, if Britain is not a pawn in Washington’s pocket, it should apply a “civilisation test” to the target lists. The planned aerial onslaught on Iraq seems out of all proportion to any threat, or to the necessities of war.