Dropping Their Eggs

Patrick Wright

  • A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist, translated by Linda Haverty Rugg
    Granta, 233 pp, £14.99, May 2001, ISBN 1 86207 415 1
  • The Bomber War: Arthur Harris and the Allied Bomber Offensive 1939-45 by Robin Niellands
    Murray, 448 pp, £25.00, February 2001, ISBN 0 7195 5637 6
  • Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War by Frances FitzGerald
    Touchstone, 592 pp, US $17.00, March 2001, ISBN 0 7432 0023 3

‘I cannot recall taking a single piss during my childhood, whether outside or at home in the outhouse, when I didn’t choose a target and bomb it. At five years of age I was already a seasoned bombardier.’ This is an unusual way of embarking on an analysis of modern warfare and its technologies, but then Sven Lindqvist has long been writing history in his own way. Oral historians know him as the author of Dig Where You Stand: How to Research a Job, a combined manifesto and manual published in 1978, based on the premise that no history has been more hidden or distorted than that of modern business. Shareholders and directors enjoy history in the form of capital, but aren’t in the least curious about the past itself. Researching the Swedish cement industry, for which his grandfather had worked, Lindqvist found nothing except crudely argued assumptions that management was always right and the shareholders always vastly more important than the workers, whose main contribution was to obstruct growth and progress. His response was to encourage people to research the history of their own workplaces to recover the information ignored in the managerial version. Within a few years of the book’s appearance, ten thousand researchers were using material from their own working lives to make history ‘dangerous’ again.

Lindqvist is a citizen-writer with socialist roots and an open mind. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he wrote a remarkable trilogy of books enquiring into Western colonialism. His approach was autobiographical as well as archival, premised on a rejection of the academic convention that expects writers to stay outside the frame of their own investigations. ‘I have never created a more fictional character than the researching “I” in my doctorate,’ he wrote, ‘a self that begins in pretended ignorance and then slowly arrives at knowledge, not at all in the fitful, chancy way I myself arrived at it, but step by step, proof by proof, according to the rules.’ The trilogy opens with Bänkpress (1988), so far untranslated into English, in which Lindqvist’s body-building exercises prompt him to re-examine his adolescent dreams of strength and power. For the sequels, Desert Divers (1990) and Exterminate All the Brutes (1992), he goes to Africa and reflects on his own identity, not in the context of a European homeland, but in relation to the dislodged ‘fragments of childhood’ that come to mind as he sifts his way through the eerie, intermittently beautiful Sahara desert, where the history of colonialism – adventurous, romantic, vicious, genocidal – can still be read in the lives of people and their places.

Throughout the trilogy, Lindqvist writes in short numbered passages, mostly less than a page long. Ask him about this, and he will mention various influences: Nietzsche; British Parliamentary reports of the kind that once ruled the world with their numbered paragraphs; role-playing games which give participants short specific descriptions of the situations they are to enact. He mixes geology with dreams, history with personal reminiscence, literary criticism (much of it directed at the works that first stirred visions of Africa in his adolescent mind) with the study of power and colonial administration. The result is certainly a kind of travel writing, yet it is tougher and more purposeful than Claudio Magris and more penetrating than Bruce Chatwin, who wasn’t one for burrowing in the archives.

Since completing the trilogy Lindqvist has reconfigured his interests rather than simply moved on. The Skull Measurer’s Mistake (1995) was concerned with 22 19th-century figures who resisted racist thinking. A History of Bombing is similarly related to the trilogy, and not just in the figurative sense that it shows the desert, which Lindqvist had earlier discussed as a Western creation as well as an African reality, brought to the heart of European cities or visited on Korea, Cambodia or Vietnam. In 1869 Charles Dilke wrote that ‘the gradual extinction of the inferior races is not only a law of nature, but a blessing to mankind,’ and with ghoulish eugenist fervour praised Anglo-Saxons as ‘the only extirpating race on earth’. Bombing was first thought of in these imperialist, exterminatory terms: ‘fantasies of genocide lay in wait for the first airplane to arrive,’ Lindqvist writes. ‘The dream of solving all the problems of the world through mass destruction from the air was already in place before the first bomb was dropped.’

Joseph Conrad was describing the British naval bombardment of African coastal settlements when, in An Outcast of the Islands (1896), he wrote of ‘the invisible whites’ who ‘dealt death from afar’. In Lindqvist’s history, too, aerial bombardment appears as a novel kind of punitive raid. The first bomb ever to be dropped from a plane – an Italian monoplane piloted by Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti – landed among troops encamped at an oasis outside Tripoli on 1 November 1911. It was reported to have had ‘a wonderful effect on the morale of the Arabs’. The Spanish practised the technique in Morocco, as did the French – who also dropped bombs on Syria and even designed a special ‘colonial’ plane which allowed its airmen to ‘sit in the shade with plenty of space for their machine guns and shoot the indigenes in comfort’. The British bombed revolutionaries in Egypt and Pathans on India’s North-West Frontier in 1915. After the First World War, the future of the British Air Force was guaranteed by Mohammed Abdille Hassan, the troublesome ‘mad Mullah’ of Somaliland, who was bombed into submission within a week. Arthur (Bomber) Harris was a squadron leader in the Third Afghan war of 1919, and pioneered the strategy of ‘control without occupation’ in Iraq, which entailed sprinkling fire on straw-roofed huts: ‘within forty-five minutes,’ Harris reported, ‘a full-sized village … can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target.’

Although bombing didn’t determine the outcome of the First World War, it had already become central to military thinking. In The Aircraft in Warfare (1915), the British mathematician F.W. Lanchester suggested that the critical aim of an act of warfare was to overwhelm ‘the fire-extinguishing appliances of the community’, after which ‘the city may be destroyed in toto.’ Lanchester also came up with the idea of deterrence, predicting that, where bombing was concerned, the ‘threat of reprisal’ would always be more effective than ‘pseudo-legal’ prohibition under international law. The Zeppelins bombed civilian areas, and so, too, did the British Air Force under the command of Hugh Trenchard, who once assured enquiring officials that, far from accurately concentrating on targets like railway stations, his pilots ‘drop their eggs well into the middle of the town generally’. The idea of ‘strategic bombing’, which would later support the ‘bomber dream’ of resolving wars from the air alone by laying waste civilian areas, found its prophet in the Italian Giulio Douhet, author of Dominion of the Skies (1921) – though such bombing had already been defined as a war crime under the Hague Conventions of 1907.

For General Douhet, it was crucial that war be regarded ‘unemotionally, like a science’. This, as Lindqvist says, is the approach taken by the people who have sat in their laboratories working out how to make napalm burn deeper. In order to establish his own contrary perspective, Lindqvist includes a great deal of autobiography in his history. In 1932, the year of his birth, Stanley Baldwin announced that offence was now the only effective form of defence: ‘you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.’ On Lindqvist’s tenth birthday, 28 March 1942, Bomber Harris launched his offensive against German residential areas, striking Lübeck at night with incendiary bombs. As Lindqvist turned 13, Churchill wrote to his chiefs of staff, arguing that Bomber Command’s raids should now be concentrated on ‘military objectives’ rather than on ‘mere acts of terror and wanton destruction’.

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