I am become Freeman Dyson, the destroyer of worlds
December 8, 2006 8:21 PM   Subscribe

...For a week after I arrived at the ORS, the attacks on Hamburg continued. The second, on July 27, raised a firestorm that devastated the central part of the city and killed about 40,000 people. We succeeded in raising firestorms only twice, once in Hamburg and once more in Dresden in 1945, where between 25,000 and 60,000 people perished (the numbers are still debated)... Every time Bomber Command attacked a city, we were trying to raise a firestorm, but we never learnt why we so seldom succeeded.
Part I: A Failure of Intelligence  &  Part II: A Failure of Intelligence
Prominent physicist Freeman Dyson recalls the time he spent developing analytical methods to help the British Royal Air Force bomb German targets during World War II.    FYI: It's about more than just the firestorms...
posted by y2karl (24 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Good fucking lord. And these were the "good" guys. Compared to that an atyempt at "precision" bombing is an improvement.

Of course I feel the answer is not to do that bombing shit at all, but then what do I know?
posted by davy at 9:51 PM on December 8, 2006

Did the Brits run out of smallpox-infecting blankets?
posted by davy at 9:52 PM on December 8, 2006

Davy would it be safe to say that neither you nor your family were in Britain during the blitz?
Bomber Harris was not popular for a variety of reasons - most of them made quite clear in this post. But by '44 the milk of human kindness had pretty much dried up in England and bombing the snot out of the Germans was widely supported.
Were Dresden and Hamburg justified or justifiable? Many, perhaps most, thought not - but there weren't many tears left to shed for them at the time.
posted by speug at 11:00 PM on December 8, 2006

the cold blooded description of science used as a destructive force reminds me, yet again, of just how shallow our social development has been relative to our technological development. and just how scary that is ...
posted by altman at 11:30 PM on December 8, 2006

Fascinating stuff. I've got this book somewhere, buried in my shelves, about the 'technological war' — things like radio guidance systems for bombers (Wotan, Knickebein), Wallis' bouncing bombs etc. The science of Operational research was invented by Dyson's ORS in World War II.
posted by matthewr at 11:42 PM on December 8, 2006

But by '44 the milk of human kindness had pretty much dried up

As Dyson pointed out at the beginning, the horror of trench warfare was still heavy on people's minds. Dyson suggests that an invasion of the Continent might have happened sooner if they hadn't wasted all that metal and industrial capacity on bombers, but there was great reluctance about the invasion regardless. The British Expeditionary Force had been kicked out of Calais at great cost, and almost the entire Dieppe Raid force was killed or taken prisoner.

An additional point which Dyson doesn't specifically address is that the constant bombing of Germany, whether it killed German people or obliterated industrial capacity or not, meant that Germany had to defend itself against these attacks. That defensive effort, from the planes they built to the bullets they shot to the pilots they trained, was effort that was sapped from all other fronts of the war. In a sense, strategic bombing didn't need to "work" in order to work.

It's hard to grasp the sheer scale here, but one comment he made may help: "Each bomber carried a crew of seven, so WINDOW that night had saved the lives of about 180 of our boys." Every night they would send out so many bombers knowing that such-and-such many would not return -- about 200 men every single night. You develop a tolerance because you must. You begin to think not in terms of the survival of individual crews, but in massive efforts and the broad statistical illustration, which is where Dyson came in: The industrialization of war. The literal application of modern industrial techniques -- efficiency, sunk costs, return on investment -- to the activity itself.

I was struck most, though, with his side comment about his colleague Smeed, the expert in traffic studies. It seems like just another anecdote, but the subtle (or, indeed, unconscious) point may have been an analogy:

Smeed interpreted his law as a law of human nature. The number of deaths is determined mainly by psychological factors that are independent of material circumstances. People will drive recklessly until the number of deaths reaches the maximum they can tolerate. When the number exceeds that limit, they drive more carefully. Smeed's Law merely defines the number of deaths that we find psychologically tolerable.

I hope that something similar Smeed's Law doesn't determine the human will to war.
posted by dhartung at 12:17 AM on December 9, 2006

The mammoth force of heavy bombers that he commanded had been planned by the British government in 1936 as our primary instrument for defeating Hitler without repeating the horrors of the trench warfare of World War I. Bomber Command, by itself, was absorbing about one-quarter of the entire British war effort.

Even if you can't appreciate the atrocity on a moral level.. Strategic bombing had virtually no effect on the progress of the war, but it took up a quarter of the resources.
posted by Chuckles at 12:19 AM on December 9, 2006

One day at Bomber Command, he said, "In this business, you have a choice. Either you get something done or you get the credit for it, but not both." Bas's work was a fine example of Smeed's dictum. He made his choice, and he got something done. In later life he became a famous plasma physicist and ran the Joint European Torus, the main fusion program of the European Union.

posted by Chuckles at 12:48 AM on December 9, 2006

He said that the average speed of traffic in central London would always be nine miles per hour, because that is the minimum speed that people will tolerate. Intelligent use of traffic lights might increase the number of cars on the roads but would not increase their speed. As soon as the traffic flowed faster, more drivers would come to slow it down.

Apparently induced traffic is a much older notion than commonly believed.
posted by Chuckles at 12:59 AM on December 9, 2006

the constant bombing of Germany, whether it killed German people or obliterated industrial capacity or not, meant that Germany had to defend itself against these attacks. That defensive effort, from the planes they built to the bullets they shot to the pilots they trained, was effort that was sapped from all other fronts of the war.

By this logic, not only did strategic bombing deplete British resources that could have been used to liberate European territory, it also kept German forces away from the Russian front, allowing the Russians to move through Europe more quickly.
posted by Chuckles at 1:11 AM on December 9, 2006

Strategic bombing had virtually no effect on the progress of the war

The Krauts prolly wished all those flak guns pointed skywards coulda been redeployed to the East in 1944.

It required 2-3 years, and some warm-up actions in Africa & Italy, before the US Army was ready, more or less, to take on the Germans in France. The bomber offensive, while of questionable morality on one level, was something to do in the interim, not to mention giving the Germans a taste of their own medicine (cf. Warsaw in 1939, Amsterdam in 1940, and the Blitz).
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:33 AM on December 9, 2006

This post is particularly well-timed, considering that this book is just out in English.

The thing about the bombing campaign however, was that not only was it cruel and of questionable military use. It was also extremely costly to the Allies and particularly to Britain. At some moment, over 60% of the British war effort went into Bomber Command. Its own casualties were also enormous: over 55,000 dead. The statistical chances of surviving the whole 30-mission tour were nearly nil. So, it wasn't exactly a risk-free alternative to trench warfare.

Apart from that, Heywood, you've got your Dutch cities confused (it was Rotterdam, not Amsterdam).
posted by Skeptic at 3:26 AM on December 9, 2006

A major problem in discussing such things is that we have been kept from a lot that woulddeconstruct the heroic views we are supposed to have, and we are told stories that are not true, or we are never told the true stories of many things that have in reality taken place. One quick example: Colin Kelly, we know, is a heric pilot who crash dived hisplane to take out anenemy ship. Not true.
In any case, to read up on WWII (and WWI) by a guy who is an outstanding writer, has written about the war (3 books) in additin to many other books on various subjects, and who, a very young Lt in WWII got 40% disability when he gotshot up,read Paul Fussell, WARTIME. His object over and over seems to de-romanticie war. He shows how ineffective bobming truly was; he shows how a courteous and pleasant batch of British folks early in the war were gentlemany toward their enemies but how that all changed. As for the Pacific arena, we learn that to wear a Red Cross as a medic was to give the enemy a target to aim at!
posted by Postroad at 5:39 AM on December 9, 2006

Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form is really good too.

It's a really interesting subject, for many reasons. The fact is, since roughly WWI, amazing feats of battlefield prowess on the part of one person pale in comparison to what Detroit accomplished in WWII and what Silcon Valley/Bay Area will provide for this century. But you still need grunts, and you can't really inspire them by saying that even if they get a Medal of Honor it's an engineer/tech type slaving away at a desk who deserves more credit in the long run.

Simplifying a lot, of course, and then there's the issue of how home-made bombs are destroying multi-million dollar pieces of machinery in Iraq.
posted by bardic at 7:26 AM on December 9, 2006

Chuckles, are you implying that allowing the Russians in was just as much a negative as slowing the British down?
posted by jacalata at 7:58 AM on December 9, 2006

It's interesting that the title is 'I am become Freeman Dyson the destroyer of worlds', Freeman actually came over to the U.S. after WWII to finish his degree at Princeton. He worked under Robert Oppenheimer and taught him quantum electrodynamics which was at that time a new science. He worked with Oppenheimer up until the time he died.

After WWII (and before it) he became a pacifist. If you read the book Weapons and Hope, in addition to this story you will see that he and the people he worked with in D.C. in the early 60's drew up the documentation that would later be used for the SALT talks to limit nuclear weapons between the U.S. and Russia. They were ready to implement arms control in the early 1960's when the U.S. had a clear numerical advantage in weapons and the russians were willing to negotiate. Bluff and bluster on the U.S.'s part pretty much tabled that for 20 years until Gorbachev knocked down the wall and Russia's government fell apart.
posted by mk1gti at 8:52 AM on December 9, 2006

In hindsight it is clear that bombing Germany was a sub-optimal use of resources. It's hard to second-guess people who had too much conflicting information and unclear bases upon which to make a decision.

It was interesting to read the account of a very decent person who's doing the best he can to wage war. The Second World War was pretty well the last war that a pacifist could participate in -- the Nazis were very bad, they had started it, the free world really did need to be defended. It gave people the wrong idea for later pointless random wars like Vietnam or Iraq.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:46 AM on December 9, 2006

I once sat next to Freeman Dyson at a Cambridge college dinner. I was so much in awe of him that I couldn't think of a word to say. I told myself afterwards that I would regret this missed opportunity for the rest of my life. (And yes, I still regret it. How could I have been so stupid?)

(See here for links to some of Dyson's essays in the NYRB; I particularly like his reviews of Michael Crichton and Daniel Dennett.)

In hindsight it is clear that bombing Germany was a sub-optimal use of resources.

That's a slight over-simplication. (Note that Dyson chooses his words very carefully: he doesn't say that strategic bombing failed, he says that 'strategic bombing by itself fails to win wars'; my italics.) The argument is not really about strategic bombing (which almost everybody agrees was crucial to the Allied victory) but about the relative merits of area-bombing (i.e. bombing hell out of Hamburg or Dresden in the hope of destroying German morale) as opposed to precision-bombing (i.e. hitting German oil or transportation in the hope of knocking out their production). Bomber Command's big mistake was to carry on with area-bombing (which didn't significantly hasten the end of the war) when they should have switched to precision-bombing (which might have ended the war in 1944). But the whole argument is somewhat academic, now that, in the words of Michael Howard, the mass-bombing raid has joined the massed cavalry charge as one of the 'interesting curiosities of military history'.

The Second World War was pretty well the last war that a pacifist could participate in

Isn't that like saying that chicken is pretty well the only meat that a vegetarian can eat? But yes, I take your point. I suppose the moral I draw from Dyson's article -- which goes well beyond the Second World War -- is that technical experts, in whatever walk of life, have very little control over the way their information is used.
posted by verstegan at 4:02 PM on December 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

simplication, gah --> simplification
posted by verstegan at 4:04 PM on December 9, 2006

You could consider it a simplification of simplification.
posted by y2karl at 4:25 PM on December 9, 2006

As a kid I once watched a documentary on (Dutch) TV where bits of an interview with a British Air Force planning officer were cut between bits of an interview with a survivor of the Dresden bombing.

Officer: "... and first we had regular bombs dropped, and then came... the firestorm."
Survivor: "People left their houses because they were coming down around them, then the firebombing started and we had nowhere to go. Our hair on fire we jumped into the river but even there we were strafed with bullets!"

Near the end of his interview, the officer said "I was only following orders."

One of the starkest mementos of the atrocities of war that I've ever seen. Would love to know the title of that documentary, although I shudder at the thought of ever watching it again...
posted by LanTao at 10:33 AM on December 10, 2006

Could it have been Fire Storm Over Dresden ?
Margaret Freyer was living in Dresden during the firestorm created on 13th February, 1945.

The firestorm is incredible, there are calls for help and screams from somewhere but all around is one single inferno.

To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire.

Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then - to my utter horror and amazement - I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. (Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen). They fainted and then burnt to cinders.

Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: "I don't want to burn to death". I do not know how many people I fell over. I know only one thing: that I must not burn.
Bombing of Dresden

Dresden Augustusbrücke Altstadt 1900

Dresden in ruins
posted by y2karl at 11:58 AM on December 10, 2006

dhartung, I rather hope that something akin to Smeed's law does determine the human will to war—for if it doesn't, no quantity of death is psychologically intolerable. A Smeed's Law means we may someday come to our senses. Still, I take your point.
posted by eritain at 1:35 AM on December 11, 2006

I realize I'm a day or two late to this, but I really feel it's necessary to point this out (and am rather surprised that nobody else has):

On November 18, 1943, Sir Arthur Harris started the Battle of Berlin. This was his last chance to prove the proposition that strategic bombing could win wars. He announced that the Battle of Berlin would knock Germany out of the War. In November 1943, Harris's bomber force was finally ready to do what it was designed to do: smash Hitler's empire by demolishing Berlin. The Battle of Berlin started with a success, like the first attack on Hamburg on July 24. We attacked Berlin with 444 bombers, and only 9 were lost.


All through the winter of 1943 and '44, the bombers hammered away at Berlin. The weather that winter was worse than usual, covering the city with cloud for weeks on end. Our photoreconnaissance planes could bring back no pictures to show how poorly we were doing. As the attacks went on, the German defenses grew stronger, our losses heavier, and the "scatter" of the bombs worse. We never raised a firestorm in Berlin. On March 24, in the last of the 16 attacks, we lost 72 out of 791 bombers, a loss rate of 9 percent, and Sir Arthur admitted defeat.

Apologies for snipping and just presenting the pieces that support my comment here, but I think the rest of the article more or less agrees with it. The verbiage in the article (editorial?) is remarkably reminiscent of the techniques used in our modern "shock and awe" campaign. Even with precision guided munitions, overwhelming bombing campaigns don't seem to do enough to offset a full-scale war.

What's even more worrisome about this is that the bombing carried out over Germany was intended to disrupt or destroy the leadership of the German military machine.

In the, uh, current bombing campaigns, there is no centralized structure to level. If it were as simple as levelling Fallujah or even Baghdad, I suspect it would have been done already. But there isn't a target for this sort of operation, and the tactic up until now has been -- mostly -- heavy bombardment.

While the footage (I decline to link to youtube) seems to indicate that Close Air Support works, it's entirely different than the sort of bomb-the-fuckers way the US is prosecuting this war.

I'm kind of mystified as to how modern military tacticians seem to be ignoring the utter failure of overwhelming bombardment both in North Vietnam and in Germany (or, indeed, Britain). There is ample documentation of each failure, and we seem to be inventing new ways to fail at it. Failing "very precisely" as it were.
posted by avriette at 7:13 AM on December 12, 2006

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