I take second place to no one in my admiration for George W. Bush. But there are times when he comes out with something so obtuse, so ill thought out, that it simply grates on the brain. Remarks of the "I have gazed into Putin's soul" variety. (I gazed into Putin's soul too. I needed two weeks of electroshock to straighten me out afterward.)
Last week gave us yet another example. Visiting Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum and memorial, a deeply moved Bush was heard to say, "We should have bombed Auschwitz."
That is to say that the Allies, the United States chief among them, were remiss in not bombing the camp, an omission that cost the lives of a million and a half Jews and hundreds of thousands of other victims.
This interpretation has been floating around long enough to acquire the patina of historical truth. Back in the 80s, the BBC produced a two-hour documentary on precisely that subject. It was well-researched enough, but this was the era (not yet ended, sad to say) when conclusions were drawn first and the facts then artistically arranged to obtain the best effect. As I recall, the filmmakers discovered that the U.S. secretary for air had once made an anti-Semitic remark, which naturally suggests that he forbade the bomber units from making such a strike.
The problem with this inference is that armed forces secretaries generally have little to do with operations.
The man in charge of that aspect was Gen. Hap Arnold, commander of the AAF, one of God's gentleman without, as far as I've ever been able to discover, a single prejudiced bone in his body. The actual answer must lie elsewhere.
(We may as well note that an American network bought the BBC film and, mainly by cutting out all ameliorating material, ended up with an hour-long show that made it appear that the U.S. almost was a full partner in the Final Solution, an impression underlined by Ed Asner's narration, an hour's worth of growling about what a rotten country the U.S. is. Not television's finest moment.)
The thinking behind this interpretation appears to follow this template: using our Predator drones, we should have reconnoitered the camp closely, locating all the SS barracks, administrative offices and so forth. Once this was accomplished, we would then send out several hundred long-range bombers fully supported by AWACS, escorts, and aerial refueling tankers. Arriving over Auschwitz, we would then use our precision-guided bombs to wipe out the SS staff and guards, while leaving the Jewish prisoners untouched, at which point they'd flee the camp, and...
Well, we'll skip that part for now. As a matter of fact, let's skip the whole thing, since it's complete fantasy from one end to the other, made up of equal parts technical ignorance, chronological confusion, and wish fulfillment. (Something that Bush, as an ex-fighter pilot, should have known.)
We're talking about the mid-40s here. There were no Predators. There was no aerial refueling (the British experimented with it in the late 30s, but application was limited). There were no PGMs. Technology was, by our standards, incredibly primitive, which lays down certain distinct and unavoidable limitations.
The two major American heavy bombers of the European theater were the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. They had four propeller engines. They could carry 5 - 6,000 pounds of bombs, but often flew with half that load. Their cruising speed loaded was under 200 mph. Their range - our primary interest here - with combat load, was on the order of 2,000 miles. (Sources that say 2,800 or 3,200 miles are accurate enough, but they're referring to maximum range, with no bomb load, excess equipment removed, and extra fuel taken on.) The B-17's operational range was about 1,800 miles, while the B-24 could eke out about 2,100 miles.
Raids into Central Europe were generally not carried out from British fields in East Anglia because that would have required battling across Germany itself, the most heavily-defended country in the world. Such operations were flown from the Mediterranean, originally from fields around Benghazi, Libya, and finally from Foggia, Italy, about a quarter of the way up the boot. From Benghazi to Southern Poland, the location of Auschwitz, is roughly 1,800 miles, well beyond the range of the bombers available. (They've got to come back too, remember!) Auschwitz came within range after Foggia was opened, but that didn't occur until 1944. By that time, the Final Solution had been in operation for two years. Most of the people who were to be murdered at that camp were already dead -- about a million up to that point. So any idea that the Holocaust could have been altered in a meaningful way before 1944 has to be put aside.
But plenty of people were still alive. Tens of thousands in the camp complex, and many others scattered around the Third Reich. (The Hungarian Jews were not sent to the camps until the summer of 1944.) So what's the problem? Brief the boys at Foggia, load up the planes, and head north to bomb...
To bomb what, exactly? The main camp at Birkenau (which is what people think of when they think "Auschwitz"), was a warren. It's next to impossible to figure out what a building is and who's in it from the reconnaissance photos of the period. Examine the one that appears in all the histories, taken by an USAAF photo plane (and which may be the same one that Bush saw), and you'll see what I mean.
Pragmatically, the only way curtail the exterminations is to wipe out the gas chambers. But which buildings are they? Spielberg showed them as eighty feet tall and a hundred yards long, spewing dense black smoke. In fact, they were among the smallest structures in the entire compound, utterly nondescript - one of them was a reworked farmhouse. Who would ever guess? So the idea of ending the gassing through precision bombing, attractive as it is, won't work either. We could do it today. Run the Predators over, have a crack photo-interpreter identify the targets using advanced image-manipulating software, and knock them down with laser-guided bombs. But not in1944.
Bomb something else? The offices? The SS barracks? Again we're undone by technology. Though the AAF boasted that it could "drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 18,000 feet", that was PR. The actual CEP (Circular Area Probable, the area hit by half the bombs dropped), was on the order of half a mile. This was excellent for the era, and not topped by any other air force, but it doesn't help us with Auschwitz. The entire camp was only a little larger than that, which means that any bombs dropped could end up anywhere. This was borne out in the BBC documentary, in which they asked a former B-24 bombardier whether he could have hit one of the main buildings. Sure, he replied, going on to describe exactly how they'd have gone about it. "Of course," he added, waving a hand across the model, "all these would go to."
"All these", as the BBC failed to point out, were barracks filled with innocent victims of the Nazis. (It scarcely need be added that this last line was cut out of the U.S. version. Why confuse the audience?)
Suppose such a raid had been carried out. Suppose everything went exactly as planned. The bombs fell, hit their targets, killed hundreds of SS men... and thousands of innocents as "collateral damage". What would the Asners of our day have made of that?
An alternative suggestion, one in fact mentioned by Condi Rice, is to have hit the rail lines leading to Auschwitz. Unfortunately, as the U.S. discovered in Korea and Vietnam, the simplest thing in the world to repair is a rail line. Far simpler than a paved road, particularly if you've got plenty of slave labor that you don't mind overworking. Fill in the craters, toss a layer of gravel on top, lay down the ties and rails, and you're back in business in less than a day. And in fact, rail lines leading to Auschwitz (though not the spurs going to the camp itself) were hit a number of times, to no discernable effect on the Final Solution.
And suppose, against all odds, we did shut down Auschwitz. Suppose the extermination ended there. What about the other camps? Auschwitz was not alone. There was Sobibor, Chelmno, Belzec, and Treblinka -- the extermination camps, set up for murder alone, where thousands arrived only to be annihilated within minutes. Bomb them too? And how long would it have taken the Nazis to open up somewhere else, in some other godforsaken village that otherwise would never have been heard of? They killed a million human beings in Russia and the Ukraine with bullets, gasoline, and bayonets before the camps were even opened.
It was an obsession, passed on by Hitler to his dehumanized cadres, a form of shared homicidal dementia that we still do not fully understand. The Final Solution was the single major program of the Third Reich. It took precedence over everything. German refugees were forced onto the roads while trains passed by full of victims. Trainloads of vital reinforcements, supplies, and ammunition waited while the death trains went on ahead.
This is not something to be stopped with a few bombs.
The final irony, clear evidence that history holds all the cards and lays them down in exactly the order she pleases and none other, lies in the fact that Auschwitz was bombed. In late 1944 U.S. bomber forces carried out a strike against Buna, a camp only a few miles away from Birkenau. It was a synthetic rubber plant, a prime target, using slave labor from the rest of the Auschwitz complex. (There were several dozen camps in the entire system.) Somehow a stack of bombs, and perhaps more than one, found its way into Birkenau, an example of the CEP in action. The bombs blew up a number of buildings and killed several hundred people. All of them Jews.
The exterminations were not delayed by more than a few minutes.
There were no shortcuts. We made no mistake. The only way to end the Holocaust was the way it was done, to seize the beaches, to battle across northern Europe, to force our way into Germany and to gut the thing in its lair. A quarter of a million Americans died in that effort. Some 60,000 of them were airmen.
Scarcely the worst among them ever voiced a sentence of regret, and it is no one's place -- not even the President's -- to imply that they did not do enough, that their sacrifice was lacking, that some imaginary flaw stains the victory they bought with their lives.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.