Trevor Corson | The Nation

Trevor Corson

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Trevor Corson

Trevor Corson is managing editor of Transition, a magazine of race and ethnicity based at Harvard University.


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After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, some have asked whether the West hadn't sown the seeds of its own destruction. That's not a new idea: A hundred years ago, Robert W. Coles wrote a novel called The Struggle for Empire in which Anglo-Saxons conquer the world by destroying or absorbing all other races. Triumphant and enraptured by technology, the Anglo-Saxons invent flying machines and encounter a race of aliens called Sirians. The Anglo-Saxons bomb Sirian city after Sirian city until the aliens surrender unconditionally. In 1923, Anderson Graham's novel The Collapse of Homo Sapiens has Africans and Asians stealing atomic secrets and bombing the Anglo-Saxons back to the Stone Age.

It's suddenly difficult to dismiss such predictions from fantasy novels. The West has bombed Arab lands, not to mention African and Asian, and is doing so again. Arab militants have meted out what they may or may not see as a first strike, and will doubtless try for more, maybe next time with true weapons of mass destruction.

In A History of Bombing, published before the September 11 attacks on America, we learn that the first time airplanes were ever used for a bombing mission, they were used by Europeans to bomb Arabs. In 1911 Italian aviators dropped grenades on nomadic camps in the desert of Tripoli, in North Africa. Newspaper reports recorded the effect on the ground: "Noncombatants, young and old, were slaughtered ruthlessly, without compunction and without shame." The Italian air command reported that the bombs had "a wonderful effect on the morale of the Arabs." Seeing the effectiveness of aerial bombardment, other European powers quickly followed suit. Between 1915 and 1920 Britain bombed Arab towns and villages in Egypt, Transjordan, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan--all this three-quarters of a century before the Gulf War. So perhaps it shouldn't be a big surprise if the morale of the Arabs has returned to haunt us.

But what does this prove? For Sven Lindqvist, the author of A History of Bombing, it suggests that white Westerners were the first to use airplanes and bombs for terrorism, and that racism was the reason they did. Lindqvist is partly wrong about this. But in a more horrifying way--which has nothing to do with racism--he's also partly right.

Most people blame the Germans for the Holocaust. Lindqvist, a Swedish scholar and journalist, first made a name for himself by pointing the finger elsewhere. In a short travelogue called Exterminate All the Brutes, penned from the Sahara Desert and published in English in 1996, Lindqvist leveled his gaze in an unexpected direction--at the British, the Americans, the Spaniards, the Belgians. Lindqvist noted that these countries were the first colonial expansionists, the first to invent the idea of inferior races. They condoned genocide in Africa and the Americas well before Auschwitz. The Germans didn't have much in the way of colonies abroad. When the Germans started exterminating a local gypsy tribe called the Jews to make room for German expansion, they were just trying to keep up with their European neighbors, at least according to Lindqvist.

In A History of Bombing, Lindqvist makes a related argument about warfare waged from the air. He wants to show that bombing evolved because of racism. When white people realized they could drop explosives from planes, they also realized it was an inhumane thing to do--not fit for other white people. They started bombing anyway, because dark-skinned natives in the colonies were considered less than human. But then, as white people became inured to bombing, they unleashed this brutality on themselves as well.

Lindqvist also argues that bombing natives in the colonies wasn't really about achieving military objectives. It was mostly about terror and extermination, about killing African, Arab and Asian men, women and children where they lived in camps, villages and towns. To bomb was to bomb civilians. It was the white man's savagery, at first reserved for savages.

Lindqvist is on to something. Fantasy novels at the turn of the century predicted the extermination of Asians and Africans with bombs, and the inhabitation of their lands by whites. Like The Struggle for Empire and The Collapse of Homo Sapiens, J. Hamilton Sedberry's 1908 novel Under the Flag of the Cross has a haunting prescience. Here the weapons that white men drop from their flying machines are "electrobombs," which unleash the forces of raw matter. And the enemy isn't an imagined alien race but a real one: yellow people. Here, the atomic bombing of Japan has already happened, before bombing was even invented.

Science fiction writers soon foresaw an even more ghastly future: The combination of racism and bombing might come to haunt Europeans at home. If the terrorists who carried out the airliner attacks against America last month saw their actions partly as revenge for the US bombing of Arab lands in the Gulf War--a supposition hardly farfetched--H.G. Wells predicted something similar after the European bombing of North Africa ninety years ago. Lindqvist notes that in Wells's 1914 novel The World Set Free, a nuclear war starts in Europe, but the pilot who launches the first atomic bomb against whites is dark-skinned, with "negroid" features. In 1926, Irish author Desmond Shaw's story "Ragnarok" depicted France arming a genocidal army of Africans and dispatching them to murder the citizens of London. To stop the savages, the British bomb themselves. As Lindqvist paints it, the creeping recognition in fantasy literature that the white man had, by bombing, become more savage than the savages brought a horrifying realization: When whites began bombing themselves, it was in a suicidal effort to obliterate their own savagery.

By Lindqvist's accounting this didn't take long, thanks to the likes of Arthur "Bomber" Harris, who was a British squadron chief in Iraq in the 1920s. Keen to prove the worth of the fledgling Royal Air Force (RAF), Harris built bigger bombers and perfected the targeting of Iraqi dwellings. His reports of massacring natives were so graphic that they were censored back in London, but his enthusiasm for bombing gave it an aura of efficacy. Harris is a pivotal character in A History of Bombing, because he embodies the psychological and moral turn from civilization to savagery that Lindqvist is trying to track.

Harris had some help, too. In the 1930s, inspired by his successes in Iraq, British military theoreticians finessed the ignominious fact that bombing was, in practice, a terror weapon by inventing euphemisms like "civilian dislocation" and "morale effect"--sadly reminiscent of the "wonderful" effect on morale reported by the Italian bombers of Tripoli. In theory, these new military techniques would be more humane because wars could be won more quickly (the same argument applied at Hiroshima and Nagasaki). In reality, it meant that where in the past soldiers died to protect women and children, now women and children would die to protect soldiers.

By 1940 the RAF was ready to attack civilians across the Channel--Britain was bringing the cruelty it had learned in the colonies home to Europe. The speed with which ethical considerations were sidelined is staggering. In May, Churchill authorized the RAF to hit German military targets. By June "military targets" included the neighborhoods where industrial workers lived. Hitler retaliated with the blitz on English cities in September, and by Halloween the RAF had orders to firebomb more than twenty German cities. In early 1942, the "morale effect" was declared official RAF policy for winning the war, and Arthur "Bomber" Harris was named head of British Bomber Command. Soon Harris would orchestrate the death of nearly 100,000 of his fellow Europeans--many of them women, children and the elderly--in the firebomb attacks on Hamburg and Dresden.

When the United States entered the war its air forces were committed to precision bombing. Lindqvist writes that Americans preferred military objectives and wouldn't target civilians, unlike Harris. That is, until the US commander Curtis LeMay arrived in Europe, just in time to witness the firebombing of Hamburg. LeMay studied Harris's bombing techniques and was then transferred to the Pacific. For Lindqvist the connection is clear: Within weeks, LeMay began firebombing Japanese cities, including the massive firestorm attack on Tokyo that killed 100,000 civilians. After that, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were easy.

By the early 1950s, LeMay had full autonomy to direct an atomic strike force that could kill tens of millions of people in minutes. By 1970, LeMay's legacy was a nuclear arsenal that could destroy the entire population of the earth--700 times. Apparently, bombing still wasn't about achieving military objectives directly: It was about terror and extermination. But LeMay had at least achieved a certain equality of the races. He could kill them all.

To Lindqvist's credit, he's trying to illustrate what should be one of the less subtle truths of racism: that racists hurt themselves as much as they hurt the objects of their prejudice. But there is a big problem with Lindqvist's book: His argument may have it backward. History suggests that white people first developed aerial bombing in earnest as a weapon against other whites, not against their dark-skinned colonial subjects. Only after Europeans conceived of terror-bombing each other and enacted this horror during World War I did they unleash it in scale elsewhere.

In the wake of the terrorist actions against New York and Washington, the United States has suddenly recognized its vulnerability to attack. The message has been conveyed with devastating effect using airplanes. The similarity to Britain on the eve of World War I is uncanny. Lulled into complacency by the protection of its surrounding seas, Britain was jolted to panic by the arrival of planes. And contrary to the story Lindqvist tells, the fearful savages that occupied the English mind weren't off in the far reaches of the empire. They were the Germans.

As early as 1891, the military inventor Sir Hiram Maxim had warned of Britain's susceptibility to airborne assault from the Continent, and took it upon himself to construct a steam-powered aircraft to counter the threat. Maxim showcased his unwieldy machine in 1893 for a crowd of political and literary luminaries, including H.G. Wells. The plane managed only a few hops, but within months a novel called What's the World Coming To? featured Maxim's work to illustrate how a European enemy could use airplanes for a devastating attack. The book, with its theme of whites bombing whites, comes too early to fit neatly into Lindqvist's narrative, as did two novels published in 1895: George Griffiths's The Outlaws of the Air and E. Douglas Fawcett's Hartmann the Anarchist. Both depict the unthinkable: destruction of London by air attack, and the gory deaths of English women and children on home soil.

A Brazilian aviator in France named Alberto Santos-Dumont built and flew Europe's first true airplane in 1906. His flight lasted all of twenty-one seconds, but it shocked Britain's great newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe into action. Realizing that Britain wasn't prepared to deter a German air assault, Northcliffe launched a propaganda offensive for the establishment of a British air force. At least one of his papers, the Daily Mail, whipped up ethnic hatred for the despicable "Huns" across the Channel. By the time H.G. Wells's novel The War in the Air appeared in 1908, the stage was already set for his depiction of a massive air battle between England and Germany. Much of the fantasy literature in Britain prior to the outbreak of hostilities had a similar theme, intended to galvanize the nation for a bombing war with the Kaiser and his villainous henchmen. Certainly by 1912, German strategists considered terror bombing to be a legitimate technique of war, and had developed plans to attack British civilians.

Lindqvist writes that militarily, air power in World War I was indecisive and not terribly lethal. Fair enough, but he underreports the psychological and strategic milestones passed in the European theater then. Within the war's first weeks, Germany bombed Paris, and Britain bombed German zeppelin hangars. Soon the Austrians and Italians were trading bombing sorties against each other's civilians, and before the war was over, bombs would strike every European population center save Rome. The first attack on England, by a German zeppelin, came in 1915. The English were outraged and called for retribution.

By 1918, Hugh Trenchard, Britain's first air commander, had devised a new theory for winning the war. Trenchard reasoned that by bombing German workers directly, he could destroy Germany's economic and psychological capacity to wage war. Lindqvist gives credit for this method primarily to Harris, who perfected it in World War II after pioneering it on dark-skinned natives in the Middle East in the 1920s. But as historian of British air power Michael Paris points out, the idea had been home-grown in Britain by Trenchard two decades earlier: Not until the British had already bombed Germany did they institute aerial attacks in the Middle East and Africa.

The war ended before Trenchard could massacre enough German civilians to test his theory fully. But when Churchill cut military budgets back to peacetime levels, Trenchard chanced upon a new mission. Far cheaper than sending ground troops into the colonies, Trenchard's airplanes became the perfect long-distance imperial police force; that's when bombing in the colonies really got under way. Even Lindqvist admits that this had as much to do with economics as race. Before learning to fly, Trenchard cut his teeth as a soldier in Africa in the 1890s. Like many whites of that era, in the colonies he may have inured himself to a new brutality born of racism. But that wasn't caused by dropping bombs from planes.

The United States started bombing civilians during World War II, but this was also less clearly because of racism, or "Bomber" Harris's legacy, than Lindqvist lets on. The US commitment to precision bombing before the war was a gloss, thoughtlessly conceived to make the Air Corps's emphasis on strategic bombing palatable. The corps spent the interwar years striving to become an independent service branch, and this meant advocating long-range bombing as a new way to win wars. Implicit in that was a recognition that if attacking military targets failed to achieve victory, the enemy's civilian "morale" would come under attack. Even as early as 1926, US bombing doctrine defined itself as "a method of imposing will by terrorizing the whole population."

American commanders had yet to witness Harris's harsh techniques, but apparently US Air Corps Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold didn't need much help. On the eve of war in 1941, Arnold asserted that bombing would reduce large cities to the point of surrender, and that the "will of a whole nation" was now an objective. Similarly, the possibility of incendiary attacks against Japanese cities--tinderboxes of paper and wood--had intrigued American strategists for decades before Dresden. While an element of racism probably made such prospects easier to contemplate, plans to firebomb Japan long predated Harris's heroics in Europe.

The first half of the twentieth century marked a terrible shift in the West's methods of waging war. Lindqvist's book is about this moral collapse. But consumed by the particular evils of racism, Lindqvist passes over what was the more obvious reason, a reason just as evil. World War I convinced military commanders, after an unconscionable waste of human life, that conventional ground and naval warfare was no longer winnable. But they failed to draw the obvious lesson, which would have been to stop waging war. Instead, they settled on a solution that would entail the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in the half-century to come. "The only hope for restoring decisiveness to war," the historian Michael Sherry has written of the strategists of the interwar years, "was to cease battering at the enemy's strongest point, the surface forces now developed to defensive perfection, and attack the enemy's will behind the lines."

Few of the men responsible saw this as immoral at the time. But Europe's first airplane pilot, Santos-Dumont, didn't take it so lightly. In 1928 he returned to Brazil and soon after committed suicide.

For bombing to be anything but immoral, the distinction between military bombing and terror bombing has to be clear. A History of Bombing reveals that it has rarely been so, and it's hard to fault Lindqvist here. Perhaps the best evidence of the bankruptcy of bombing is that it strengthens the enemy as often as it weakens it. Lindqvist describes how, in the colonies, whites enthusiastically took up their bombardments again after World War II. Colonized populations won their independence anyway, at horrific cost but with an ironclad determination inspired by the wrongs being committed against them. As for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many Americans remain convinced that the atomic bombs are what ended the war in the Pacific despite historical assessments to the contrary, and Lindqvist's book is unlikely to change that. Still, A History of Bombing is a profound litany of what might someday be considered among the most counterproductive military actions ever taken. Future generations may even classify them as war crimes.

But for the moment there is a new theory: "smart" bombing. As the United States again deploys B-52s and fighter-bombers in the Middle East, citizens the world over are calling for it not to kill innocent Afghans, to target only terrorists and the Taliban. The notion that this is even possible was born of the 1990s campaigns against Iraq and Yugoslavia. In these conflicts the US Air Force, armed with new technology, revived the paradigm of precision bombing that it had flirted with before World War II. Now, as then, the idea is still something of a gloss on the fact that civilians do die in war--witness new euphemisms like "collateral damage." And yet, though the bombing campaigns against Iraq and Yugoslavia were hardly bloodless, they weren't really wars in the old-fashioned sense either. In both cases, the bombing targeted neither a nation nor a people but rather the infrastructure of a particular political and economic establishment.

This is a new twist, so it's a pity that A History of Bombing includes but a few paragraphs on the Gulf War, and nothing on NATO's attacks against Serbia. If Lindqvist had been able to comment on these campaigns, he might also have noticed something familiar: They revived the colonial era. Of the Gulf War, military analyst Jeffrey Record has written that "it was a modern-day equivalent of a nineteenth-century colonial conflict." And in the war against Slobodan Milosevic, the West's demands at Rambouillet were, in journalist Michael Parenti's words, "tantamount to outright colonial domination" of Yugoslavia.

Indeed, Saddam Hussein's resilience seems to suggest a revelation: Even the success of precision bombing may prove pointless without old-fashioned colonial occupation on the ground. By contrast, what is to be learned from Yugoslavia? Maybe that the success of precision bombing doesn't even matter, as long as the enemy's territory has already been transformed into a de facto Western colony. Serbian Army forces emerged relatively unscathed, and were never a primary target in the first place.

Now, as the United States and Britain bomb again, even the air commanders may come to admit that precision bombing against Afghanistan is not especially useful, because there is so little left to bomb. Starting in 1920, when Arthur Harris dropped a twenty-pound bomb directly on the palace of the Afghan king, a roster of warmongers has insured that Afghanistan is already empty of targets. "The Taliban have an organizational structure," said one Pentagon official, "but they are not like a nation-state. It is not like going after Baghdad or Belgrade." This is true enough, and it is a good reason to question the efficacy of a large air campaign. But it misses the point. A comment by Gen. Merrill McPeak, chief of staff for the Air Force during the Gulf War, gets at the real problem. The day after the terrorist strikes against America, McPeak said, "You have to ask, 'What's the endgame?' It's not clear that a massive air attack, unleashing the dogs of hell, will result in an aftermath that's more secure." If only Arthur "Bomber" Harris could have heard such hard-won words of wisdom eighty years ago.

Herein lies the lesson Lindqvist offers. Destruction and slaughter from the air usually engender rage, not resignation, and the repercussions ramify past our powers of prediction. After the attacks against civilians in New York and the defense apparatus in Washington, Americans know this anger more than anyone. But Americans would also be naïve if they failed to recognize that their attackers may have felt the same way, and probably will again.

There is another lesson to be gleaned from Lindqvist's book: Explaining the world's ills in terms of racism can be taken too far. Though Lindqvist would surely not have intended it, A History of Bombing may lend credence to the claim that terrorism by Islamic militants is uniquely justified--a century of racist attacks by the West makes it so. But this is wrong. People of all colors and creeds have suffered from bombing; nonwhites have not been singled out. Indeed, it is a testament to the triumph over racism that people of all colors and creeds died in the hijacking attacks against the most powerful institutions in the world's most powerful country.

Much more disturbing is what the history of bombing reveals about attacks on innocent people in general. The refusal to distinguish between bombing military targets and bombing civilians is not the invention of Third World fanatics. The enlightened West bears the responsibility for this development, and for releasing an arc of airborne violence into history. On September 11, 2001, terrorists completed this grotesque circle. Before, bombs dropped from planes killed innocent civilians. Now, innocent civilians in planes were co-opted as bombs themselves. This is an occasion for epic sadness.