As I explained in part 1 of this post, Captain America was very much a product of his times. He was created to oppose the tyranny, bigotry, and brutality of the original Axis of Evil: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. But after being accidentally frozen in ice at the end of World War II and eventually thawed out and revived in modern day America, he had to learn how to fight new kinds of evil, in very different kinds of war. In addition to his unwavering sense of right and wrong — which might seem quaint or naïve to 21st century sensibilities — what makes Cap uniquely suited for this task is his past battlefield experience, and firsthand knowledge of the atrocities that humans are capable of and the slippery slope to barbarism otherwise good people — and nations — can fall down in the name of just causes.
Immediately after 9/11, Marvel Comics relaunched Captain America’s comic book series, with a focus on the Sentinel of Liberty’s fight against an al-Qaida-like group of terrorists that had killed almost all the inhabitants of a Midwestern town using hi-tech landmines dropped from the sky. In the new series, written by John Ney Rieber and drawn by John Cassady, Captain America’s hunt for those supplying the terrorists leads him to Dresden, Germany. When he arrives in the city as Steve Rogers, his mind flashes back to the nights of Feb. 13-14, 1945, during which U.S. Army Air Force and British Royal Air Force bombers dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden. The resulting firestorm destroyed 15 square miles of the city. An independent investigation commissioned by the city council in 2010 reported a maximum of 25,000 victims.
What caused public outrage among many readers when this story was published in 2002 was a scene where Captain America mentally compares the thousands of civilians who were killed in Dresden to those who had just been killed at the World Trade Center. Among the offended was movie critic and conservative columnist Michael Medved, who wrote an editorial essentially accusing Captain America, and by extension Marvel Comics, of treason. Bosch Fawstin echoed this accusation in his recent post, on the conservative blog site FrontPageMagazine.com, complaining about the un-American attitudes expressed by the director and star of the upcoming film, Captain America: The First Avenger. Fawstin implies that by showing Captain America “lamenting what America did to the city in World War II,” Rieber and Cassaday were “equating what we did in Dresden with the Jihadist attack on our country on 9/11.” Of course, the moral justification for the two attacks were not the same, and it seems clear to me that neither Captain America nor Marvel Comics were saying that they were. At the same time, history is also clear that the architects behind the attacks on Dresden and the World Trade Center had the same goal in mind.
The aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilized community life throughout Germany. It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives; the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale; and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.
After the war, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated, “It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed.” Having already used this strategy to help win the war, it was perhaps easier to denounce it in hindsight. The only reason the firebombings of Dresden — and Tokyo by the USAAF — weren’t prosecuted as war crimes is because the victims were on the losing side.
Even though the burning of Dresden, like that of the World Trade Center, was by admission of those who carried it out a terrorist attack, one passage in Captain America’s reflection does strike me as unfair and inaccurate. Referencing history repeating itself, “like a machine gun,” he thinks, “a madman lights the spark . . . and the people pay the price.” Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler were madmen. It should be obvious that the Allied commanders who oversaw the bombing of Dresden do not fall into that same category. There are clear and meaningful differences between bin Laden’s terrorist attack of 9/11 and the Allies’ bombing campaign in response to Hitler’s unprovoked military aggression. But that doesn’t mean there was anything unpatriotic in Captain America pointing out the similar tactics and intentions, lapse in moral judgment, and Machiavellian rationalizations used in both attacks.
As I pointed out in my post on comics coverage of 9/11, since al-Qaida’s attack against the U.S., Captain America’s consistent message—and that of most real world politicians and spiritual leaders—has been that the only way the terrorists can win is if we adopt their tactics and lose sight of what it truly means, or should mean, to be Americans. If we aren’t committed to holding ourselves to a higher moral standard than our enemies, what are we really fighting over?
In part 3 of this series, I examine a couple instances when Captain America’s disappointment in the U.S. government actually compelled him to become a conscientious objector.
This article was originally published on Richard De Angelis’s blog Comic Book Justice.