O Captain, My Captain (Part 2)

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.

Captain America #2. Cover art by John Cassaday. Copyright Marvel Comics.

Patriot Acts

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.

Steve Rogers compares two terror attacks. From Captain America #5. Written by John Ney Rieber and drawn by John Cassaday. Copyright Marvel Comics.

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 Allied bombing of Dresden was part of a campaign of terror bombing that was the official policy of the Royal Air Force at the time. As RAF Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris put it:

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.

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Richard runs a blog called Comic Book Justice, where he shares his thoughts on social justice issues as they are presented in comic books. From January 1999 to September 2006 he served as Director of the non-profit Comics for Compassion program, which sought to produce and distribute comic books that promoted humane values to children. His writings on comics have been published in the International Journal of Comic Art and Satya magazine.

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1 Comment

  1. David Balan says:

    It’s worth noting that Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden (Saddam Hussein another good example) were not madmen in their own eyes, and in the eyes of some of their followers. They responded with what they thought was right. In the case of Hitler, it was unprovoked in his generation, but the Treaty of Versailles was the only real reason he came to the kind of power that he did – it created a German economic collapse and triggered national unrest. Hitler could not have risen to power without it – in a sense, his aggression was hardly unprovoked. That does not make it right, but it does make it unprovoked.

    And what’s more mad? Someone who is clearly insane or operating on highly warped logic (which, by the way, I think only applies to Adolf Hitler. Considering the United States’ actions in the Middle East, I can see why backlash occurred.) ordering a terrorist attack on his sworn enemies? Or an otherwise generally upstanding individual rationalizing that such a thing is needed and allowing it to occur?

    Is there even a difference? I would say no. Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Joseph Stalin, Osama Bin Laden… None of these are stupid men. None of them had no conviction. None of them thought they were evil. They operated on a form of logic (warped, yes) that justified their actions. Though of course, Winston Churchill never committed genocide, he did use warped logic to justify his actions when he implemented (or okayed) the bombing tactics.

    Of course Churchill was a better leader – but in this particular action, he was no different from those he fought.

    We must hold all to the same standard – we can’t say the Allies were more right because they thought they were doing it for “the good side” – so did everyone else.

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