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`A History of Bombing'

by Bradley Winterton Thursday, Feb. 28, 2002 at 10:29 PM

An explosive account At times hard to read, `A History of Bombing' tells us not only of the tools of warfare and their use in history, but the darkness at the heart of nations bent on using them.

An explosive account

At times hard to read, `A History of Bombing' tells us not only of the tools of warfare and their use in history, but the darkness at the heart of nations bent on using them

By Bradley Winterton


A History of Bombing is an anti-war book to beat all anti-war books. And although it was written before events in Afghanistan, reading it now gives on an overriding sense of deja-vu.

Last week, for instance, I was sent a fax by the Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan asking me to join a protest against the current use by the US of cluster bombs. These, known in Chinese as "mother-and-son bombs," also appear in Sven Lindqvist's history. Aiming to spread death and injury to as many living targets as possible rather than damage a specific installation, they consist of a canister that opens in the air and disperses smaller bombs over a wide area. These then explode throwing some 200,000 projectiles in every direction.

In Vietnam B-52s often dropped explosives on military structures, napalm to scorch out their contents, then cluster bombs to kill people trying to help their burning comrades. Sometimes time-release cluster bombs were dropped to kill people who emerged when they thought the danger was past. Small wonder some people are protesting, even in pro-American Taiwan.

But these are not the only things that will be familiar to readers of today's news reports. In a book focusing mostly on 19th and 20th-century history, there are also Muslim extremists, letter bombs, carpet bombing, plus almost routine claims to be trying to avoid civilian casualties, limit attacks to military objectives, and use minimum necessary force.

In essence, A History of Bombing argues that aerial bombardment is most often used by a developed power on technologically less-sophisticated people, though using the word "developed" to describe nations that research, produce and use such things as napalm, landmines, cluster bombs and nuclear weapons is hard to do without irony.

Lindqvist's main perspective is that racist attitudes marked the early use of bombing. Before everything was changed by Churchill's decision to bomb German cities in 1940, bombing from the air was only thought permissible in colonial actions. The British, for example, bombed Somalia following the rebellious activities of a "Mad Mullah" in 1920. The French bombed residential areas of Damascus in 1925, saying they were dealing with bandits. And in 1923 the British bombed Baghdad, then part of a British protectorate, following a "rebellion" stirred up by a new sheik.

"Was it right for an entire city to suffer for one man's crime?" wondered a senior British official in a report back to London. He was rewarded for his worries by enforced early retirement.

It takes a Swede, no doubt, to write a book of this sort. The British, Americans and Japanese, he asserts, all still refuse to admit to atrocities committed during World War II. Only in 1995 the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum had to abandon a planned exhibition because of protests by veterans at any depiction of the human suffering caused by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is no reference in any museum in Britain, Lindqvist claims, to the wartime bombing of German cities. And Japan's Yasukuni shrine, which premier Koizumi visited earlier this year, continues to glorify the actions of men intent on patriotic self-sacrifice rather than unprovoked attack.

Much of the detail Lindqvist offers -- of the attack on Guernica in 1937, the fire-bombing of Hamburg and Dresden in 1943, the fire-bombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities in 1945, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- is too terrible to read for more than very short periods.

Lindqvist mixes autobiography with public events. He recalls how, when as a student in England he mentioned the attacks on Hamburg and Dresden to the family he was staying with, his outraged hosts refused to believe him. But he also records telling his Chinese friends, when he was studying Chinese in Beijing in 1961, that the US would never repeat their experience in Korea, and fight a similar war in, say, Vietnam.

Nevertheless, it is the racial element in murder from the skies that preoccupies Lindqvist. In his view, the WWII allies considered the Japanese guilty as a race, but saw the Germans as victims of their Nazi overlords. Why, he asks, were Americans of Japanese ethnicity interned but not those of German origin? And why was napalm used on Japan but not on Germany? The official US government texts of the period that he cites, and that quickly answer these questions, nowadays appear too blatantly racist to be quotable. At least there has been progress in some areas.

Lindqvist also makes extensive use of apocalyptic novels from the 1890s to the 1930s that predict pointless mass destruction and the militarization of space, both of which have already come to pass.

The book is unconventionally arranged. There are no page numbers, and instead each of 399 sections, typically a few paragraphs long, is numbered. Arrows refer you to other sections, so that you can in theory follow various threads diagonally through the book. Lindqvist calls this his "labyrinth" method. Unfortunately it proves very unsatisfactory, and is no doubt more attractive to a writer than a reader. The actual organization of the book is chronological, and that is still the best way to read it. But this doesn't detract from the important and terrible material presented.

Sven Lindqvist is the author of 29 previous books. He's known to oral historians as the man who, in Dig Where You Stand, urged people to investigate the history of their own workplace. He's also written on the residue of colonialism in the African landscape and, in Exterminate All the Brutes, on the use of air power against colonized peoples.

The final impression you gain from reading this nauseating account is that the real horror is human nature itself, especially male human nature, which technological advances continue to arm with ever more destructive power.

Lindqvist believes that, in the last analysis, the present world economic order is unjust in a way that is impossible to sustain. "The injustice we [the developed countries] defend forces us to hold on to genocidal weapons" is his intransigent and provocative conclusion.

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