By Vincent Lyn
War has long been recognized as a destructive force that brings about significant suffering and loss, not only for those directly involved but also for society as a whole. One of the most disturbing aspects of war is its dehumanizing effects on both individuals and entire communities.
The brutality and violence inherent in war can erode people’s capacity for empathy. When individuals are exposed to extreme situations, such as witnessing or participating in acts of violence, it can desensitize them to the suffering of others. This loss of empathy can make it easier for individuals to inflict harm on others, viewing them as less than human.
In war, it is common for opposing sides to dehumanize one another. The enemy is often portrayed as evil, subhuman, or deserving of punishment. By reducing the enemy to a faceless, dehumanized entity, it becomes easier for soldiers and civilians to justify acts of violence and cruelty.
During wartime, propaganda is frequently used to manipulate public opinion and generate support for the conflict. This can involve portraying the enemy as monsters, savages, or terrorists. By dehumanizing the enemy through propaganda, it becomes easier to rally people to the cause and justify the often devastating consequences of war.
War inflicts profound trauma on individuals, both physically and psychologically. Witnessing and experiencing violence, loss of loved ones, displacement, and other horrors can have lasting effects on mental health. This trauma can lead to a breakdown in social bonds and a sense of dehumanization, as individuals struggle to cope with their experiences and may disconnect from others as a defense mechanism.
In war, violence becomes normalized as a means to an end. Killing and destruction are seen as necessary and even heroic acts. This normalization of violence can undermine the basic respect for human life, leading to a devaluation of individual worth and an erosion of moral and ethical considerations.
War disrupts social structures and institutions, leading to chaos and a breakdown of the normal functioning of society. This breakdown can further contribute to dehumanization as people become focused on survival and self-preservation, often at the expense of others. The lack of basic necessities, such as food, water, and shelter, can reduce people to their most primal instincts, eroding their sense of humanity.
During a recent visit to Gloucester Books, a beloved spot of mine in London, I perused the collection of pre-owned paperbacks and vintage magazines, their pages weathered by the sun. Among them, I came across a National Geographic Magazine where the main feature paid tribute to the resilience and sacrifices of the personnel from the U.S Eighth Army Air Force during World War II. However, what caught my attention was the honorable mention of their bombing missions over German cities. The article predominantly focused on the former pilots, accompanied by photographs capturing young men eagerly sprinting towards their aircraft, exuding waves and smiles as they embarked on their missions. Each of them would lightly touch an illustration of a forties’ pin-up girl with luscious red lips, painted on the side of their planes, seeking a stroke of luck.
The elderly men, their hair now tinged with gray, exuded a sense of kindness and compassion, which was even more evident during their heartfelt reunion, understandable given their shared experiences. The editorial, in a similar vein, expressed a certain gentleness. It argued that German civilians, though regretfully, were deemed justifiable casualties in “surgical” bombing raids due to legitimate military targets being located near residential areas. The sentiment struck a familiar chord, evoking a sense of sadness as it mirrored more recent events. Overwhelmed by disgust, I disdainfully discarded the magazine onto the stack.
The image of Lancaster bombers resonated in my mind, their deafening roar piercing the nocturnal heavens as they unleashed a malevolent sorcery upon countless civilians. Wave after wave, this sinister procession brought forth devastation, consuming the lives of hundreds of thousands — the elderly, unable to flee; children, tightly gripping their toys — now engulfed in flames. It compelled me to reflect upon the relentless campaign of dehumanization that persisted until the final moments of the war, where our adversaries and even their innocent children were depicted as subhuman, stripping them of their intrinsic worth.
The campaign employed a crude lack of subtlety, reducing the enemy to mere insects in its portrayal. Cartoons in magazines depicted Italians, Germans, and Japanese as grotesque amalgamations, partaking in a vile fusion with cockroaches. As the mass incendiary bombings of Japanese cities approached, the magazine Leatherneck, aimed at US Marines, featured a cartoon entitled “Louseous Japanicas,” depicting a grotesque creature embodying a half-human, half-insect form. This disturbing imagery accompanied an article advocating for the utter annihilation of the so-called “enemy breeding grounds.”
In the month that followed the publication of the article, March 1945, an unending procession of B-29 aircraft thundered through the skies above Tokyo. The relentless bombardment unleashed a torrent of destruction, as a million bombs, weighing a total of 2,000 tons, rained down upon the city. In a span of fewer than three hours, the horrifying aftermath revealed a death toll exceeding 100,000, leaving a staggering one million people displaced and homeless. The subsequent firebombing campaigns targeted 67 cities over the course of five months, leading to the deaths of no less than half a million individuals. It was a deliberate strategy to eradicate the civilian population inhabiting the densely packed, impoverished districts. Unburdened by remorse, U.S Air Force General Curtis LeMay openly proclaimed, “They were scorched and boiled and baked to death.” Despite the unyielding enthusiasm of the bomber crews, the nauseating odor of burning flesh permeated the air, necessitating the use of oxygen masks to prevent them from retching. And at the culmination of that five-month period, the era of atomic devastation descended upon the scene.
Renowned author Kurt Vonnegut, who personally witnessed the devastation of the Dresden raid and carried the weight of that experience throughout his life, referred to it as “the greatest massacre in European history.” He noted that, based on his observations, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) did not derive pleasure from bombing German towns, unlike their British counterparts who seemed to find a certain sport in it. Nevertheless, the American forces still carried out these raids, and rather than focusing on precise strikes against military targets, they played a significant role in RAF Bomber Command’s relentless campaign of terrorizing civilian populations through round-the-clock bombings.
In an unprecedented display of destructive force, over 1,200 Allied bombers unleashed a barrage of devastation upon Dresden, surpassing the scale of the Tokyo raids that followed by an additional 1,000 tons of incendiaries. The official justification behind these operations was the belief that by demoralizing the enemy through the indiscriminate firebombing of civilian areas and the obliteration of their entire socio-cultural infrastructure — including hospitals, libraries, universities, houses, and schools — the war could be brought to a swifter conclusion. While influential figures like George Orwell advocated for the bombings to persist, a significant portion of the British populace sympathized with the plight of German civilians and voiced their protests. Even the people of Bethnal Green, who had endured heavy bombardment themselves, questioned the effectiveness of such tactics. They argued that such methods had proven ineffective in the Great War and during the London Blitz, leading them to question their efficacy in the present conflict. Despite the mounting opposition, the bombings persisted unabated.
Hamburg, often referred to as Germany’s equivalent of Hiroshima due to the staggering loss of life in a single night in July 1943, surpassed the casualties endured throughout the entire duration of the London Blitz. Astonishingly, this city was subjected to a total of 69 bombing raids before the war’s conclusion. As the Allies gained the upper hand and victory seemed imminent, the intensity of the bombings escalated, with up to a thousand planes flying over towns simultaneously. In the final months of the war alone, more than a million bombs were dropped on Germany, and this relentless onslaught persisted even into the last weeks. What is particularly notable is that many of these raids targeted towns with limited military significance but held significant cultural value, including small communities adorned with cathedrals and universities like Freiburg. A.C. Grayling, a writer and philosopher, offers some insight into the sheer ferocity of these attacks:
“Phosphorous, magnesium and thickened or gelled petroleum (the best example of which is ‘napalm’, invented at Harvard University in 1942 and used by the USAAF in Japan later in the war) were almost impossible to extinguish, splashing viscously and adhesively over buildings and people like lava, and burning at ferocious temperatures. People who leaped into canals when splashed with burning phosphorous found to their horror that it would spontaneously reignite when they got out of the water. Among the incendiaries were scattered 2-kilogram ‘X’ bombs with a delayed fuse, designed to explode later when fire-fighters and other emergency workers had arrived on the scene.”
Cities were mercilessly reduced to rubble as a result of dropping an immense number of “Blockbuster” bombs upon entire residential districts. These formidable explosives obliterated entire blocks, ripping apart buildings and stripping roofs from their structures, thus allowing the subsequent deployment of high-intensity incendiary devices to penetrate the interiors, even reaching the basement shelters. The objective was to engulf the entire city in a tempest of unrelenting fire. Among the ruins, heart-wrenching scenes unfolded, as families were discovered huddled together in the center of rooms, their arms intertwined, bravely making their final stand. Their figures appeared eerily akin to wax. The city streets themselves became engulfed in flames as the asphalt ignited, while vast regions were starved of oxygen due to the raging firestorms racing at speeds of up to one hundred and fifty miles per hour. In such dire circumstances, civilians were faced with the harrowing choice of suffocating in their cellars or attempting a desperate escape — an endeavor that involved traversing what could only be likened to an open-air blast furnace, a perilous journey inevitably leading to almost certain demise.
Eyewitness testimonies depicted haunting scenes of unimaginable horror. They recounted the sight of adults reduced to the size of diminutive dolls, dismembered limbs strewn about, and entire families tragically consumed by the relentless flames. In the midst of the chaos, harrowing accounts emerged of individuals ablaze, desperately fleeing from charred vehicles that once carried civilian refugees but now became tombs for both the deceased rescuers and the unfortunate victims. The swiftly ascending columns of scorching air above the bombarded areas created a vacuum, causing frigid currents to rush in and ensnare people in an escalating vortex of devastation. Survivors conveyed the dreadful sight of individuals collapsing instantaneously due to oxygen depletion, as if they were suddenly disconnected from a life-sustaining apparatus. Others, driven to a state of sheer hysteria, were seen tearing off their clothes as they became engulfed in flames. Throughout the afflicted zones, people found themselves inexplicably and helplessly drawn backward and upward into the ferocious tempest of fire-infused winds, an unfathomable force beyond their comprehension or control.
One individual recounted the harrowing tale of her mother’s desperate attempts to lead the family to safety. In their frantic race against the encroaching firestorm, her older sister and baby twins were tragically lost. Like countless others, they searched desperately for their loved ones, but their efforts proved futile. The remaining hours of that fateful night were spent huddled in a hospital cellar, surrounded by individuals writhing in excruciating pain as their lives slipped away. With the dawn of the following day, they returned to their tenement house, only to be met with a haunting scene of death. The sheer volume of casualties in the cities reached such staggering proportions that the next looming threat became disease, necessitating the grim task of piling together thousands of bodies for mass cremation. It begs the question: Was this the envisioned outcome when Churchill called for an “exterminating attack” on Germany?
Historian Max Hastings argues that these bombing campaigns cannot be categorized as war crimes since their primary objective was to achieve Germany’s military defeat, making them morally distinct from the heinous crimes committed by the Nazis. However, is it not true that all acts of mass murder hold equal weight? A.C. Grayling posits this perspective, asserting that the British air force purposefully and mercilessly engaged in the mass slaughter of German civilians on a catastrophic scale, resulting in a death toll equivalent to the total number of British men killed throughout the entirety of the First World War. Furthermore, Grayling contends that those who carried out these acts, following orders without question, bear moral responsibility on par with those who issued the directives themselves.
This was not an isolated occurrence. The bombers returned time and again, perpetuating the cycle of destruction, leaving the remaining populace bewildered as they desperately sought to escape the city, clutching onto whatever meager belongings they could salvage. In his work “On the Natural History of Destruction,” W.G. Sebald vividly recounts the story of a homeless woman whose suitcase inadvertently spilled open on the street, revealing the only remnants she possessed — the skeletal remains of her deceased child. A review of Sebald’s book in The Guardian dismissed the woman as deranged, yet in my view, it is a display of utmost sanity to carry the remains of one’s children until a suitable place for burial can be found — a place where one may visit and honor them in the future.
Dehumanization, the process of reducing the perceived worth and humanity of others, is not limited to individuals of malevolence. It is disheartening to acknowledge that humiliation, alienation, denial of recognition, exclusion, the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, and even acts of genocide lie well within the realm of possibility for the majority of human beings. The post-World War II era has witnessed numerous instances of extreme dehumanization. Events in Vietnam, Indonesia, Rwanda, Sudan, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and now Ukraine serve as striking examples, where entire populations have been decried as subhuman and civilians have suffered tragic fates as a consequence of so-called “precision bombing” or perishing in their attempts to flee from the ravages of war and persecution.
The study of treating others as inferior beings has been a subject of investigation in social psychology for more than sixty years. While this research sheds light on our propensity for darker tendencies, the remedy for dehumanization and the prevention of eventual annihilation lie within the wider scope of history, politics, philosophy, and social activism. It is through collective efforts, in the struggles for emancipation from oppression and the rejection of dehumanization in all its manifestations, that we can aspire towards a more just and humane world.
Although dehumanization may appear to be the prevailing norm for many individuals, it is important to recognize that it is not an inherent historical inevitability but rather a distortion of our natural order. According to the teachings of Paulo Freire, a visionary educator and social activist, humanization is the intrinsic essence of our existence. Freire emphasized that oppressed groups, in their quest to reclaim their humanity, often engage in struggles against their oppressors. However, he cautioned against the potential danger of perpetuating oppression in reverse when the oppressed seize power. Instead, he posited that the true objective lies in the liberation of both the oppressed and their oppressors, enabling the restoration of their shared humanity. In essence, this notion echoes the concept of learning to love one’s enemy, which has long been recognized as a powerful starting point for transformation and reconciliation.
CEO & Founder of We Can Save Children
Deputy Ambassador of International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations (ECOSOC)
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts