We have become numb to death and destruction. News reports of deaths in the hundreds no longer evoke the reactions they once did. The massacres in Eastern Ghouta in the past week are at both shocking and shockingly ignored. The world has tired of death in Syria. For it to be a war or even a conflict there would need to have two sides, at least. This can only be described as death. Even murder requires an actual target, in Eastern Ghouta, everyone is a target. Outside of a few government-controlled areas, the remainder of the country is literally just the Syrian government targeting its own civilians. To what end? What does the Syrian regime hope to gain by killing innocent civilians?
Last week, I had the opportunity to tour Dresden and Berlin. History books and Hollywood do little justice to the tragedies that befell both cities. While the term collateral damage is cold and disrespectful to civilians who die in any armed conflict, the reality is the civilians in these cities paid for the war fought by their military and political leadership with their lives. The Allies believed Dresden to be a key transport hub. The Nazis were, of course, Nazis. It is difficult to take any of their arguments seriously, but some Germans still argue that Dresden was merely a cultural capital and in that respect the intention was to demoralize the Nazis by burning it to the ground. Official figures put the number of dead civilians at around 25,000 dead between Feb. 13 and Feb. 15, 1945. Others argue the city had been overrun by over 200,000 refugees who were passing through on their escape west and the figures are much higher. No one disputes that the civilian toll was incredible.
Some of the pre-war monuments in Dresden have been completely rebuilt. Many used the original stones of the demolished buildings where possible, but the reality is the firebombing of Dresden left nothing unharmed. Even some of the few remaining Jews who had escaped the pre-war Nazi raids and concentration camps were also killed in the raids. Barrel bombs do not discriminate.
In Berlin I saw the remnants of the Berlin Wall and encountered a U.S. serviceman who was stationed near Checkpoint Charlie during the early 1980s from Portland, Oregon. He recounted a time when he traveled with his fellow U.S. marines to East Berlin for a night out: A Russian soldier who he thought was from "inner Siberia" was checking the papers of the marines when he was shocked to see a black guy. The year was 1982 and the Russian had never seen an African or African-American in his life before and was simply surprised and stared. This story I heard from a random Oregonian in his mid-60s with curly, white hair and glasses reminded me that militaries are made up of civilians. For most of all history, conscripts were ordered to go to war. While some may believe in the ideologies they fight for, many were simply very young men who were naive. Naive enough to stare at someone who does not look like them and perhaps naive enough to commit war crimes and die if need be.
As an economist, I am always trying to assign a financial benefit and a beneficiary to events I study. What was most interesting to me during the trip was that the beneficiaries of the firebombing of Dresden, the Allies, were now foes in Berlin. It is the question why that remains. Why was a Cold War fought between two former allies immediately after they emerged victorious in defeating the Nazis? As a child of the Cold War, I often ask this question.
Many have theorized that the Cold War never actually ended and that only occasionally in places like Syria does it boil over for us all to see. Perhaps the world is and was in the midst of the post-World War II conflict. Perhaps the two superpowers are still going at it all over the world. If this is the case, then the "why" is answered, as it was 60 years ago; because the world is at war. In this context, every conflict is a zero-sum game in which one side benefits. But what about the rest of the world, the civilians in both countries, and those who merely pay for these wars with their lives?