Friday, 31 October 2008

Dancing delicately around a dilemma

The Daily Telegraph is backing a campaign to set up a memorial to airmen of Bomber Command from World War 2. The Torygraph, as many of us think of it, is the paper of Queen, Country and the greater good of the Conservative Party. Picture a middle-aged cardigan-wearing man complaining about the behaviour of the kids outside his comfortable suburban house; add as subtext that he finds their behaviour all the worse because they’re probably black; that’s the model Torygraph reader.

The BBC interviewed Tony Iveson who, among other missions for Bomber Command, helped sink the German battleship Tirpitz. He spoke out against the nation’s failure to recognise the role of the airmen. Even Churchill, he said, had refused to give them credit for the part they’d played in achieving victory.

My father was a bomber navigator. He flew in Stirlings. The Stirling had short wings which meant that itcouldn’t fly high enough to keep out of the worst danger. He repeated to me the story that the wingspan had been shortened so the plane could fit into RAF hangars, although I now believe this may be a bit of an urban myth. The upshot was that the Stirling was principally used for transport after 1943. So my father was never in Bomber Command.

He wasn’t at all sorry about it. Not because flying in transports was a safe option: it wasn’t. My father towed gliders to the failed assault on Arnhem, where the British First Airborne Division was all but wiped out. It was on the return from one such flight that he was shot down himself. He also carried paratroops or flew on single-aircraft missions, dropping supplies to the French resistance or bombing precise, small targets. He told me about the bleak sense of isolation on that kind of mission, alone against the night sky, above countryside held by an enemy. They were the occasion of some of the best moments of his war: someone in a French house forming the curtains over a lighted window into a ‘V’ for victory, someone with a torch in a garden flashing a ‘V’ in Morse. Small signs saying ‘you’re not alone, we’re on your side.’

He was glad to have missed the mass bombing raids against German cities: Cologne, Berlin, Pforzheim, the long litany culminating in Hamburg and Dresden. Between 300,000 and 600,000 dead civilians. The Air Force commanders and the politicians claimed they were targeting industrial complexes that happened to be in cities so the civilians were just collateral damage. However, I’ve seen estimates of the impact on the Germany economy that placed it at no more than 1%. What’s more, the raids on Germany diverted resources from the North Atlantic convoys and it was their losses that brought the country closest to defeat as food and fuel ran perilously low. The raids took place because they were an easy way, for a long time the only way, to hit back at Germany, and because the Allies hoped it might break the German will to fight.

Killing civilians to destroy your enemy’s morale has a name. We call it terrorism. Many people get upset if you use that term for the carpet bombing of German cities. But isn’t it curious that over sixty years on we don’t have a memorial to the young men of Bomber Command? If Churchill failed to congratulate the bomber crews, wasn’t it because underneath it all his conscience was uneasy? He sent them but he didn’t like what he’d sent them to do. It’s like rubbish collectors, sewage men, anyone who does our dirty work. We need them to do it but we don’t invite them in for a cup of tea afterwards.

We may know today that Bomber Command didn’t really help the cause of victory, but the airmen thought they were because that’s what they’d been told, and they risked their lives for it: 44% of them were killed. And like it or not we’re as indebted to them as our parents or grandparents: for better or worse, our lives today are possible because of the victory in 1945, and the boys who died gave their lives to win it – however misguided the strategy they’d been ordered to carry out.

Today we’re doing it all over again. We send young people to Iraq and Afghanistan. We give them defective equipment and they get killed or hurt, physically or mentally, and when they come back they get little gratitude and less help.

At this time of year Britain is awash with people selling paper poppies to commemorate our war dead and to help support today’s veterans. I always disliked the sentimentality of the poppy pushing and distrusted the implicit glorification of war and nation, causes that did so much damage to so many who stood to gain so little. Wearing the poppy also struck me as a pressure to conform as well as a rather creepy display of self-righteousness. So I never bought any.

Last year, though, I changed my mind. I bought a little poppy-shaped lapel pin, though because I still felt bad about the exhibitionism angle, I didn’t actually wear it. But we’re being so miserly to our soldiers that I felt I had to make some gesture for them.

I’ll do it again this year. Because however awful what they did was, the boys who flew out over Germany on those night-time raids did what we asked, and in 55,573 cases paid for it with their lives. They deserve their memorial. On the other hand, I can’t bring myself to support a cause backed by the Telegraph. So instead I’ll buy a poppy in their honour and then hide it in a drawer.

Funny old thing an uneasy liberal conscience.

Wouldn’t give it up for anything, though.


Mark Reynolds said...

There was a minor controversy in Canada when the War Museum in Ottawa opened last year on this very issue. The exhibit on the air war in WWII made exactly the same points you did. The Veterans association freaked out, claiming somehow that they were being slandered and insisting that the wording of the display be changed. As Canadians put a higher value on politeness than truth, the powers-that-be folded. And now their pusillanimity is enshrined in a museum, to lie to the generations to come.

David Beeson said...

It is extraordinary that it does look as though we shall be leaving a legacy of history containing a lot of distortions and half truths. You may have noticed that a general in the Japanese air force has had to resign over published comments denying that Japan behaved as an aggressor in the war it waged in the east Asia in the 30s and 40s. Certainly, it's right that he should go: you can't have a senior soldier publicly contradicting his civilian bosses. But it frightens me that there are those who would say he shouldn't say these things at all: after all, if you want to deny that Japan behaved aggressively, that's just a point of view and in my view complete rubbish, but I don't see what's wrong with your saying it. I have to say that I feel the same about Holocaust denial: denying the Holocaust may be stupid but that shouldn't make it illegal. But in any case the Japanese claim though fundamentally misguided contains one element of truth: there was an aspect of the Japanese war effort which represented a liberation. It was the first time that Asian soldiers had beaten the white Soldiers of the French army, and more important still, of the British army, unbeaten for centuries. Denying that, like denying the shamefulness of the carpet bombing of Germany, strikes me as a refusal of historical truth.

On the subject of censorship of history, the following is an excellent study:

David Beeson said...

The end got chopped off the link on my previous comment. The whole link is: