Wednesday, September 10, 2008

War - What is it good for?

Peter Hitchens on ariel bombardment in general and Dresden in particular:

"Personally I am against this kind of war, which may achieve victories in the short term, but damages those who use it in the long-term. For it is the long-term that matters. Using bombs knowing that they will kill innocents is a deliberate act, and it is silly to pretend otherwise. Britain's decision to embark on the even more explicitly deliberate bombing of German civilians, taken in May 1940 and intensified hugely afterwards, is a serious stain on our national record. I think the knowledge that we used such methods has done serious damage to our general moral state ever since, and contributed to our post-war decline and diminishing self-respect, even though we have tended to try to deceive ourselves about what we did. It is still thought to be pretty bad taste to talk about this.

The whole business is made somehow worse by the fact that the bombing was carried out with selfless courage by some of the bravest young men who ever lived, the bomber crews themselves, who believed they were helping to win the war and had quite enough to think about without wondering what their incendiaries and high explosive were doing, thousands of feet below. Their contribution to defeating Germany is debatable. My own view is that it probably did not shorten the war at all, but I doubt if this can ever be resolved. The casualties among those flyers were appalling, the worst since the mass human sacrifice of the flower of British youth on the Somme in 1916, and just as wasteful of young talent and hope. As for what happened when their bombs hit the ground, most people prefer not to know.

And who can blame them? The details (unhinged mothers carrying the shrivelled corpses of their bomb-baked children around the country in suitcases, immense clouds of bluebottles gathering on the rubble as the thousands of dead decomposed) are beginning to be published in mainstream histories and they are deeply distressing to anyone who possesses an ounce of human sympathy. The fact that most of the victims were the German urban working class ( who as Social Democrats had been Hitler's principal democratic opponents) makes it difficult to claim that the bombing was some sort of judgement on the Nazis. I'd like to see how much courage most of us would have shown faced with a similar regime, and how we would then have felt if we'd been bombed to bits, or baked and suffocated in cellars, for the misdeeds of a government we loathed and feared.

The protests of George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, against this method of warfare were sneered at, at the time, but seem to me to have been both honourable and right. Bell was no simpleton pacifist. He was a long-term friend and contact of German Christians who opposed Hitler, and if the British government had taken more notice of him and of what he told them, the July plot against Hitler, or something like it, might have succeeded and saved us a year of bloody war, as well as preventing Stalin taking over much of central Europe."


SG said...

A German historian, Alexander Demandt, who "specialised" in falls or empires through history, wrote a book a decade ago, "Vandalismus/ Gewalt gegen Kultur", in which he also touches this part of history, pretty much similar in a way P.Hitchens approaches it. However, this attitude - critical of "over-bombing" of Germany, no matter how humane and noble seems to us now (with a temporal distance, not to be forgotten), has its other side. When millions of people are (were) mislead, or manipulated, or call it how you like it, actions taken had to be of massive extent. Over-bombing and later other actions and events served the purpose of repealing of the German culture, in a systemic way, even in those areas that had nothing to do directly with the Third Reich and its politics and policies. At a symbolic level it would be a literal sacrilege for many - such as a jazz orchestra playing on the Wagner's grave. Still very interesting topic. Probably will be for many years, not only for Germans and English.

JP said...

I think Hitchens is wrong, but you have to sit up when someone like him makes this kind of point.

Includes the great line: "Baker is a pacifist, a silly position open only to citizens of free countries with large navies"

Was World War Two just as pointless and self-defeating as Iraq, asks Peter Hitchens
Mail On Sunday
21 April 2008


The Poles were crushed and murdered, and their country erased from the map. Hitler's eventual defeat left Poland under the Soviet heel for two generations.

We then embarked on a war which cost us our Empire, many of our best export markets, what was left of our naval supremacy, and most of our national wealth - gleefully stripped from us by Roosevelt in return for Lend-Lease supplies.

As a direct result we sought membership of a Common Market that has since bled away our national independence.

Would we not have been wiser to behave as the USA did, staying out of it and waiting for Hitler and Stalin to rip out each other's bowels?

Was Hitler really set on a war with Britain or on smashing the British Empire?

The country most interested in dismantling our Empire was the USA. Hitler never built a surface navy truly capable of challenging ours and, luckily for us, he left it too late to build enough submarines to starve us out.

He was very narrowly defeated in the Battle of Britain, but how would we have fared if, a year later, he had used the forces he flung at Russia to attack us instead?

But he didn't. His "plan" to invade Britain, the famous Operation Sealion, was only a sketchy afterthought, quickly abandoned.

Can it be true that he wasn't very interested in fighting or invading us? His aides were always baffled by his admiration for the British Empire, about which he would drone for hours.

Of course he was an evil dictator. But so was Joseph Stalin, who would later become our honoured ally, supplied with British weapons, fawned on by our Press and politicians, including Churchill himself.

By Christmas 1940, Stalin had in fact murdered many more people than Hitler and had invaded nearly as many countries.

We almost declared war on him in 1940 and he ordered British communists to subvert our war effort against the Nazis during the Battle of Britain.

And, in alliance with Hitler, he was supplying the Luftwaffe with much of the fuel and resources it needed to bomb London.

Not so simple, is it? Survey the 20th Century and you see Britain repeatedly fighting Germany, at colossal expense.

No one can doubt the valour and sacrifice involved.

But at the end of it all, Germany dominates Europe behind the smokescreen of the EU; our Empire and our rule of the seas have gone, we struggle with all the problems of a great civilisation in decline, and our special friend, the USA, has smilingly supplanted us for ever. But we won the war.

JP said...

This only happened 2 years ago!!

1945 war debt to US 'almost paid'
BBC News
3 May 2006

The UK will repay debts owed to the US dating from the World War II by the end of this year, the government says.

Under the lend-lease programme, which began in March 1941, the then neutral US could provide countries fighting Hitler with war material.

The US joined the war soon after - in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbour - and the programme ended in 1945.

The final payment of £45m will be made by the 31 December, meeting a 1945 obligation to repay the debt in full.

"Repayment of the war loans to the US Government is expected to be completed on December 31 2006," the Treasury's Ivan Lewis said in a written commons reply.

Andy said...

The Hitchens piece on the WW2, posted by JP, certainly challenges a lot of deeply cherished beliefs.

I still don't know where I stand on the question of whether we should have (or could have) bidded our time like the Americans.

I found this section on Hitchens' experience of living in the USSR strangely touching:

"When I lived in Russia at the end of the Soviet era, I found a country that made even more of the war than we did.

I even employed a splendid old Red Army war veteran to help me set up my office there: an upright, totally reliable old gentleman just like my father's generation, except that he was Russian and a convinced Stalinist who did odd jobs for the KGB.

They had their war films, too. And their honourable scars.

And they were just as convinced they had won the war single-handed as we were.

They regarded D-Day as a minor event and had never heard of El Alamein.

Once I caught myself thinking: "They're using the war as a way of comforting themselves over their national decline, and over the way they're clearly losing in their contest with America."

And then it came to me that this could be a description of my own country."