In an excerpt from a BBC News interview broadcast on the news of his death, Kurt Vonnegut discussed the fire-bombing of Dresden. He talked about coming home from the war and seeing and hearing nothing about the event he miraculously lived through, which made him conclude nothing had actually happened. Only later, when word of the destruction began to appear, did he begin to consider the event and how to respond to it. It was, he said, “the largest single massacre in European history.”
I thought about that a moment, shook my head over it. The comparison with the Holocaust leapt to mind, then I thought: “But the Holocaust was a genocide.” It was, but it was also a concerted effort at destruction, not a single act. Dresden burned in one night, a retaliation for the bombing of London. A generation after the “Good War,” we forget that bombing civilian targets was considered inhuman and savage, and Germany was denounced for doing it. By the end of the war, there were no “civilian targets.” I’ve been to Munich. I’ve seen the mounds in the city, grass covered knolls which are man-made, the rubble piled up to clear the way for new buildings in what is surely the newest city, architecturally, in all of Europe. We burned Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the ground with only two bombs, and justified it as the sacrifice necessary to save the lives of American soldiers. The Allies destroyed Dresden in a holocaust atomic weapons could not replicate, or surpass. I think about that every time I think about the “Good War.”
But what I thought about this time, was the odd thing that we had so many words, such careful nuance, for mass killing. “Genocide” is one thing; “massacre” another, and we mean separate things by them. But we have no words for “mass love of persons.” We can name how we dispatch our fellow humans, in terms which distinguish who did what (our enemies commit “massacres” or even “genocide”), in terms of how long it took, even in terms of how many died (“Mass murder” is less than a “massacre,” which is less than a “genocide”). But we have no terms for acts of mass love.
And it occurred to me that, in this, the Romantics were exactly right: love is individual. Love is not mass, is not directed toward a group, is not possible on a large scale. “I love mankind! It’s people I can’t stand!,” Linus Van Pelt once memorably remarked in Peanuts. Love requires knowledge of the other, and such knowledge often, we know, kills the ability to love. Abstraction, however, makes mass killing possible. Better “they” died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki than “we” did invading Japan. Better “they” died in Dresden, for what “we” had to suffer. The reason Dresden affected Vonnegut so much is that he lived through it, it happened to him; and by his art, he made us feel what he felt about that, he made it, as much as humanly possible, happen to us.
Auden was right: “We must love one another, or die,” is a lie. We are going to die anyway. Love won’t save us from death. But neither can we love in the abstract. We cannot love people; we can only love persons. Which is why war will always be so much easier than peace. But it is also why love is so important; why individuals are so important.
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