A History of Bombing

Lindqvist has amassed a body of evidence in this enlightening history of bombing warfare, making use of a huge range of historical sources. He arranges them in a somewhat unique way, so that they can speak for themselves and, through the course of the book, Lindqvist allows the sheer weight of the evidence to draw his reader along the many possible paths through his book toward the one inevitable conclusion. Lindqvist examines bombing as military strategy, considers its cultural context and, most powerfully, takes on the oft-touted concept of 'Precision bombing'. Some readers might find it interesting to also know that Lindqvist was himself bombed as a child. This doesn't so much skew the writer's arguments as, from time to time, lend him a unique perspective on them.

By the end of Lindqvist's book we are left with the realisation that the term 'Precision bombing' has been so misused as to be virtually redundant, little more than the PR-speak governments over three generations have used to forestall objection to bombing campaigns conducted, in effect, against civilian populations: 'precision bombing' has been the catch-all moral and political get-out clause. Lindqvist traces so-called 'Precision bombing' campaigns throughout human history and it quickly becomes clear that from the deliberate WW2 strategy of area bombing in key german towns to the 'shock and awe' tactics in Iraq, 'precision bombing' has more often than not turned out to be straightforward area bombing, intended to crudely terrorise and cow the general population, rather than anything else. 

Further to that last point, in terms of the long term effectiveness of bombing as a military strategy, Lindqvist makes a good case for bombing being premised on two fundamentally faulty beliefs:

1. That human beings will be cowed and supplicant to the bombers, rather than united in common cause against them;

2. That bombs can and will differentiate, except in extreme instances, between the target and the innocent. Lindqvist's evidence is: they won't. Bombs are by very definition a crude tool. Even with the most modern technology, the 'target' and the innocents are living side by side, harm done to innocents is an intractable and inevitable part of bombing which no talk of 'Precision' can erase. 'Collateral damage' is the military term for the women, children, infants and other innocents, young and old, who are killed, maimed, crushed, burned or buried under the rubble. 'Collateral damage' makes the child amputees in the nearby hospital sound secondary to the main point. Makes all that damage seem containable, clinical, emotionally safe information for military personnel and the public to handle.

Lindqvist considers the cultural milieu of bombing: often noting how bombs and bombing, by all and any sides, are tied up irrevocably with notions of manliness. He traces the ways in which this supposed interconnection between bombing and manhood is much ramped up in much of the story, film, propaganda and public debate predating the most brutal bombing campaigns; Lindqvist also traces racism as having a direct relationship with bombing (the unconscious or consciously expressed idea that 'they', i.e. the bombing victims, are 'not like us', different, making it possible to detach ones familiar moral judgments and act more inhumanely toward them, or enabling a dangerous tribalism which allows a military operation to prioritise the lives of 'our' servicemen over those of even children from the opposing side, so long as they live in remote areas and there are no cameras present); Last of all, and perhaps most terrifyingly, his evidence shows that in the run up to bombing campaigns there are idealised notions about what technology may deliver. In the popular novels and stories predating Hiroshima, for instance, the bomb takes on semi-magical properties in the narrative. It can make all bad things go away in one cool, clean stroke. An infantile idea, of course, when put forward so straightforwardly, but a much more powerful and insidious one when imbedded as a message in a hundred different art forms to which the public are exposed in the years preceding a brutal bombing campaign against a civilian population. To give you a real shudder, Lindqvist effectively demonstrates that all three elements: machismo, racism and 'magical thinking' were present in popular novels about bombs and bombing in the period leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima.

The last piece of the puzzle is perhaps most relevant to the empathy library: the inescapable fact that a bomb kills from a distance. There is no human eye appraising a complex and moving situation, no interaction: even today there are only shadows on a screen, very much like a video game, in fact, of the kind now often used to recruit and to train armed personnel. Empathy and compassion, humanity are of course entirely absent from this detached place.

Many people, including relatives of serving men and women, may object to Lindqvist's evidence  about the atrocity of much of aerial warfare, its effect on civilian populations, and I sympathise. My own maternal grandfather took part, as a WW2 Lancaster bomber, in some of the most heartlessly destructive bombing campaigns in human history (and no, it wasn't 'Just the Americans', as many Britons tell themselves). There was no 'gotcha', for him, I have to say. No 'shock and awe' or other macho posturing. Only a man who had to live out the rest of his years knowing that he'd been responsible, in following direct orders, for the deaths of women, children and infants. (He'd perhaps also saved the lives of other women, children, infants, but they were hypothetical for him, where the civilians he had killed were just all too real.) I personally believe he comprehended his predicament entirely and was destroyed by it. And of course it doesn't detract from the pain of the victims one iota to consider what is being asked of the (often young) men and women who serve to protect us. But whatever the bomber feels or doesn't feel must of course pale into insignificance when set alongside the plight of those being bombed. Lindqvist makes the point that even those not directly hit or physically hurt undergo the psychological harm of knowing that the sky/roof can fall in at any moment. One can't help but wonder at the naive brand of psychology that imagines that generating this kind of climate of fear does any good to any side in the long term. Imagine, for a moment being a child raised in such a highly strung environment, of course some children might be cowed and supplicant, and decide that when they grow up they will go the bombers way, but as Lindqvist effectively demonstrates, the evidence from much of human history suggests the other outcome entirely. That the bombed population will become desperate, extremist, united in a profound resistance against the bomber and all that he stands for. The bomber makes enemies that he didn't have before. Damaged and dedicated enemies. Setting aside, for the sake of argument, the question of compassion for the fearful child in the situation (and why would you ever set that aside?) there is still enlightened self interest for your own child. Lindqvist brings the question home, as an aid to understanding: Did bombing attacks on Britain make the British supplicant? Were the British bombed into submission? The question beggars belief, because of course history teaches that the exact opposite occurred: a deeply class-riven and divided people were united in common cause in a historically unique and profound way. Their common goal to resist their enemy together trumped all and anything else. Bombing Britain thoroughly secured Britain's unerring sense of togetherness, fellowship, purpose. Considering how our own society has felt and reacted should make it easier to understand why drone attacks might easily miss their intended target in more than one way.

The cold fact seems to be that the trajectory of modern warfare and technological development is such that wars may be increasingly waged at the flick of a button from a very great distance, and as a society it has never been more important for us to take stock, consider what it means when a button can be pushed, at no cost to themselves, by a man or woman sitting in a comfortable chair at a very great distance, having the power of life and death over people on the ground. Through their 'video game screens' they can't look into their target's eyes, see that he is ready to surrender, terrified, that he's the wrong guy, or just a child hiding under a table. We need to face this squarely and grasp it, consider what exactly it is that we are prepared to live with. Lindqvist might argue that this isn't even the real question. That bombs aren't effective as a long term military strategy at all.

It is perhaps Lindqvist's greatest accomplishment as a historian that he has taken apart, piece by evidential piece, the moral and political get out clause of 'precision' bombing and exposed it for the myth that it is. Also tracing the infantile idea, imbedded in some sections of our culture, that there can be clean and instant solutions to complex human problems in most instances. There may be exceptions that prove the rule, of course, but as an overall strategy, with each new 'collateral damage', each innocent killed, there are tens and hundreds of new recruits to the opposite side, a thousand newly-made enemies for the bomber, and a moral war being dangerously lost a little more each day.


The dark side of empathy

This is a great review by Jo Ely of Lindqvist's A History of Bombing. I'm a huge fan of Lindqvist (I've even got a picture of him on my screensaver). In a way, his whole body of work, which also includes the superb Exterminate All The Brutes and Terra Nullius, is an exploration of the dark side of empathy: the way that political ideologies have been used to erode our capacity to empathise, and with tragic consequences. I think his core message is that without empathy, the consequence can be moral collapse.

Average: 5 (1 vote)
Sven Lindqvist
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