When Buddhist monks take leave of one another they practice an elegant little ceremony called "asking forgiveness." The junior monk bows to the senior and chants a verse the gist of which may be rendered "venerable sir, if I have done anything to offend by body, speech or mind may I be forgiven by the venerable one." The elder replies in kind, "I do so forgive, and for my part, if I have done anything to offend, may I likewise be forgiven." To ask forgiveness is even more cleansing than to forgive, as it implies no moral superiority. To exchange forgiveness in this way allows both parties to humble themselves and to clear any old resentments.
It would be very healing if this spirit could be extended to the life of nations. This spring is the sixtieth since the end of the second world war, and the world is marking one anniversary after another. On Feb.13th one such ceremony was held in the historic city of Dresden, to mark the date of its fire-bombing by the Royal Air Force. This raid remains controversial, as it seems to have had little real military significance this late in the war, when the German armies were already crumbling. The bombing targeted civilian housing with incendiary bombs, creating a terrible firestorm which cost tens of thousands of lives and left many more wretched and homeless. British government memos of the time reveal that a major reason for hitting this target was to send a message to the advancing Soviet Army, a demonstration of the destructive power of the Western Allies. When thousands of non-combatants are deliberately and horribly killed for reasons of cold realpolitik, it seems hard to escape calling it an atrocity.
As part of the ceremony this year, a British delegation presented the town of Dresden with a cross recovered from a bombed out church in Coventry, a town hit particularly hard by the Luftwaffe. This struck me as not being the most appropriate gesture. The most charitable interpretation of the symbolism of this gift would be that the two towns were commiserating in shared suffering. However, another sub-text can be read into the gift. It could be seen as a refusal to accept full moral responsibility for one's own crimes by pointing out that the other is guilty as well.
It would have gone farther to heal old wounds if the British had had the moral strength to humbly ask forgiveness, and if the Germans had replied in kind. No one who knows the history can dispute that the greatest part, by far, of the moral responsibility for the whole awful slaughter of the war rests squarely with the German government of the time, and with the German people for letting it happen. But an atrocity remains an atrocity, and the Nazi crimes, terrible as they were, do not excuse in the least the burning alive of tens of thousands of civilians.
This may seem an issue of merely historical interest. Unfortunately, as a species we do not seem to have learnt much from our mistakes. As long as there remains a primitive ethic of the ends justifying the means, and as long as the victors in a war feel no remorse for their own misdeeds, there will be more crimes of mass destruction. The bombing of civilian targets may be euphemistically called "collateral damage" but it has not ended. Just last year we saw the near total destruction of Fallujah. It seems, sad to say, that we have learnt all the wrong lessons from world war two.