Assertion, unsupported by fact, is nugatory. Surmise and general abuse, in however elegant language, ought not to pass for truth. Junius

2006/11/29

The Uses of History

Truth is the first casualty of war, and sometimes the last. Or so it would seem. Veterans in Calgary are incensed about a display at the Canadian War Museum which they describe as "offensive" and "hurtful." The curious thing about the display --- part of a series of panels describing Canada's effort during the Second World War --- is that it's essentially true.

The offending panel reads:

The value and morality of the strategic bombing offensive against Germany remains contested. Bombers command aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although bomber command and the American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than 5 million homeless, the raids resulted in only a small reduction in German war production until late in the war.

Untrue, says Art Smith, veteran and former Tory MP. "Our targets were not cities," he says. "They were military objectives . . . such as busting dams or (hitting) munitions factories. The only exception in my 34 tours was Berlin which we were sent out to do as best we could to destroy it because we were getting the same in Britain."

Well perhaps, but the boatloads of archival footage of German cities devastated by Allied bombing show a slightly different picture. Or consider the words of Air Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris: "In Bomber Command we have always worked on the principle that bombing anything in Germany is better than bombing nothing."

The objection from veterans seems to be that the display imples Allied bombing of Germany was futile and that veterans were complicit indiscriminate bombing of German civilians. The efficacy of the Allied bombing of Germany has always been a source of heated debate (hence the word "contested".) German war production was scarcely affected by the bombing, and even rose in some instances, but it has been argued that the cumulative affect of the bombing was sufficient in its drain on resources and on civilian morale to hasten Germany's defeat. The morality of killing civilians is, of course, another question. One premise is that in total war, everyone is a combatant. The difference between the civilian who makes the bullet from the soldier who fires it is more apparent than real. It's a premise, I might add, I find repulsive as a general rule of warefare, a justification for mass slaughter.

In context, a couple of points are to be made. As the last veterans of the Second World War die out, there seems to be an effort in popular culture to ensure their legacy. A flurry of documentaries has come out: programming at TVO and the CBC seems to be littered with them. But they all tell a common story: the Second World War was the "last good war," a "necessary war," fought by the "greatest generation" for liberty and democracy. A whole mythology --- coloured by high emotion, sentimentality and notions of duty and sacrifice --- has been created and facts and history be damned. Especially if they are uncomfortable and detract from the myth. In truth, any realistic or accurate appraisal of the Second World War, will have to wait until the last veteran dies.

It probably isn't a coincidence that the legacy-building provides a gloss to the present war on terror, complete with nostalgic pointers to patriotism and solidarity minus the blood, the filth, and the civilian casualties. In an era where we're told that we must fight the good fight on the war on terror, what could be more apt than references to that other good war?

Whitewash included.

2 Comments:

Blogger Bill Longstaff said...

The firebombings of cities such as Dresden were designed to intimidate the Germans into submission. In other words, they were classic terrorism. Many people like to think of terrorism as something bad guys use for wicked purposes. Actually, it is simply a tactic, often used by good guys for good purposes. (Used misguidedly perhaps, but effective, nonetheless - witness the atom bombings of Japan.) In the age of "war on terror," this awkward truth is, indeed, a casualty.

Wednesday, 29 November, 2006  
Blogger Alison said...

I heard the eminent scientist Freeman Dyson lecture about this once. He explained his complicity in inventing bombs for Britain that would wound a higher number of Germans in WW2. He was most dispassionate, even dignified, in his delivery. When asked if he did not feel shame, he answered - of course but nothing like the shame he feels regarding the current hypocrisy of pretending that wasn't the objective.

Saturday, 02 December, 2006  

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