The Colonel invited the Mayor and her staff for a day-long tour of Dugway Proving Ground. Finally, I would have the chance to pass through the heavily-guarded gates and see Utah’s legendary Area 52. “Let’s get a few things out of the way,” the Colonel began. “Yes, we have the aliens. Yes, we have the UFOs. And, yes, we have secret tunnels connecting us to Area 51.” I knew, of course, he must be joking, of course, but he was a U.S. Army Colonel, Commander of the nation’s advanced biological and chemical weapons defensive testing facility. “I’m joking, of course.”
Test Tube to Battlefield: Dugway Proving Ground tests and evaluates . . . almost all U.S. Department of Defense . . . chemical and biological defense capabilities, ensuring the equipment will work as expected and properly protect our Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Marines, and first responders. Items tested include protective masks, suits, boots and gloves, chemical and biological agent detectors, and decontamination systems.
One hundred miles south of Berlin sat Dresden, capitol of old Saxony, an artistic center, maker of fine porcelains, performer of symphonies and dramas and operas, host of high church architecture, collector of Bernardo Bellotto paintings. But in February 1945, eight hundred Allied aircraft pummeled the city with bombs, avoiding the strategic manufacturing areas and railroads, instead obliterating churches, music halls, museums, and neighborhoods. Incendiary bombs ignited thousands of tenements, and the flames raced and leapt and burst into ravaging firestorms. When the chaos cooled, rescuers stepped into a soup of bodies liquified in the kilns of brick bomb shelters. Heaps of charred corpses dotted the streets like gruesome smoking haystacks. The theory was that such punishing damage and death among the Dresden populace would cause Germany to lose heart and quit the fight. Instead, Propaganda Minister Goebbels transformed the twenty thousand casualties into two hundred fifty thousand (250,000) civilian assassinations. Germany, incensed, dug in. And a dismayed world wondered why Dresden was destroyed.
For hours, we toured the chemical weapons testing laboratories, the biological agent study facilities, and the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) hangars. I asked questions, like, “What do you see as the emerging chemical and biological threats to our nation’s defenders?” and “How does today’s state of chemical and biological readiness compare to the height of the Cold War?” We are ready, our guide summarized. And I felt enormous pride in my country and in Dugway’s defensive capabilities.
“There in the distance you can see the old German city we built in 1942 to study the most effective methods of destroying German construction.” Boxy burned-out buildings, windowless, roofless, the blackened brick still standing after eighty years. It occurred to me that bombing this pretend German city must have informed the attack upon Dresden, and without conscious intention I said the name “Dresden” aloud. The Chief of Staff whipped his face toward mine and reproached, “It is profoundly unfair to judge the actions of yesterday by the morality of today.”
“I didn’t mean to . . .” I wanted to say, but upon quick reflection, I guess I did mean to, to raise the moral question of Dresden. I thought of twenty thousand civilians scorched and melted and dead. Could he be right? I wondered. Can one’s actions be evaluated only in the context of one’s culture and time? Cannot today’s morality condemn yesterday’s atrocity?
I wondered at what millions have wondered and continue to wonder. Should we convict Thomas Jefferson, who penned in 1776 the earth’s great manifesto on human freedom and dignity and equality, because he fathered six children with Sally Hemings, one of his six hundred lifetime slaves? Must we condemn George Washington, the great General of the Revolution, because he owned three hundred seventeen humans when he died in 1799? Ought we to judge Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator of African slaves, for proposing to ship them back to Africa? Is it fair to sentence Allied commanders for exterminating twenty thousand German civilians in one day in one city in a failed bid to end the evil Nazi Reich? And what about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And, and, and . . . .
These are bedeviling questions. And all the answers are right and wrong together. In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein proposes, “We can judge yesterday’s leaders by standards that were readily available to them in their own time.” And I ruminate over Dresden and Dugway.
Images used pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine. Top image attributed to Fred Ramage/Getty Images.