Saturday, June 9, 2007

Ian Patterson's "Guernica and Total War"

Ian Patterson teaches Modern English Literature at the University of Cambridge, where he is a Fellow of Queens’ College.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Guernica and Total War, and reported the following, starting with the text from page 99:
...potent term in the argument against bombing in the 1920s. The most widely-read attack on the official policy, The Great Delusion (1927) by 'Neon' (Marion Acworth), denounced the idea that the British should simply 'take frightfulness as a matter of course'. Was there any moral difference, the author asks, 'between the killing of British women and children by the bombing of London and the recent bombing of totally defenceless women and children [by the RAF] in their native villages in Waziristan?' But in the end the word was used so much that it lost any residual sense of horror it may once have had and became just another technical term, as in this 1938 comment: 'A further development of aerial frightfulness recently perfected in Spain and China is the machine gunning of civilians from the air.'

This impersonal use of language was central to the need that military strategists and some politicians felt to distance themselves from the moral consequences of their policies. Ways had to be found of policing the Empire without bankrupting the armed forces, and the air force seemed to offer the best answers. Not only could it cover more ground more quickly than infantry, regardless of the terrain (as long as it wasn't mountainous or heavily forested — deserts were best), but their real effectiveness was believed to be moral: the fear induced by single acts of violent destruction would, they were confident, have long term intimidatory effects. It was not usually couched in clear terms, though. The public perception of this exemplary violence had to remain politically acceptable. Indeed the very 'impersonality' of air operations (or their 'inhumanity', depending on one's point of view) made them more vulnerable to criticism than the army, which for example used gas shells extensively in 1920 in what is now Iraq. (Many prominent figures supported the use of..."

Ford Madox Ford is quite right, up to a point. Page 99 points to some of the central issues in the book and also, I hope, gives a taste of the moral argument. Although the book is partly about the bombing of Guernica in 1937, that account provides the opportunity to question why the bombing of civilians from the air has been so widespread a weapon of war or 'pacification' for the last century. Influential early enthusiasts and military strategists believed that the unparalleled destruction such bombardment could unleash would destroy civilian, and therefore government, morale almost immediately, making wars extremely short. Despite all the evidence to the contrary — even the most terrible bombing seems to strengthen rather than weaken the determination not to give in — this view is still widely held (and underpins the concept of 'shock and awe' so favoured by the Bush and Blair governments). The book examines the cultural presence of these and other ideas, in popular and serious fiction, poetry, film and a variety of writings about the future of 'civilisation' that appeared in the years between the first and second world wars. Why, I ask, did the fate of that small Spanish town Guernica become such a potent symbol? Not just because of Picasso's painting. The painting became the shorthand symbol of the event, but the reasons for the significance of the event run very deep, and bring together a surprising number of elements. As well as describing the events in Guernica, the book traces the story of bombing from 1911 through two world wars, Abyssinia and Spain, to Iraq, focussing mostly on the first 45 years (limitations of space prevented much discussion of the impact of the atomic bomb, for example). It is a book about the ethics of war, its effects on those who have no interest in it, its place in culture and civilisation, and the creation, through bombing, of a new kind of fear.
Visit the Harvard University Press website for more information about Guernica and Total War and read an excerpt.

--Marshal Zeringue