Saturday, June 5, 2010

As He Pleased


The latest offensive in Afghanistan has produced civilian casualties due to misdirected missiles or, that old bugbear, "faulty intelligence". While some observers are insisting that such things are an unavoidable consequence of counter-insurgent warfare, others, including military leaders, are trying to assure us that there is such a thing as a "controlled" war.

Some time before World War II (it is arguable precisely when), the concept of "total war" was born when military strategists decided to cross the line that distinguished combatants from civilians. By the time WWII was nearly over, the number of civilians killed far exceeded the number of military casualties. But the issue of the morality of the direct targeting of civilians was hotly contested.

Vera Brittain (1893-1970), whose personal loss of her brother, fiancé, and two close friends in World War I made her an outspoken pacifist, published a pamphlet during World War II which George Orwell examined in the following article, published in his As I Please column in Tribune for 19 May 1944.



As I Please


Miss Vera Brittain's pamphlet, Seed of Chaos, is an eloquent attack on indiscriminate or "obliteration" bombing. "Owing to the R.A.F. raids," she says, "thousands of helpless and innocent people in German, Italian and German occupied cities are being subjected to agonising forms of death and injury comparable to the worst tortures of the Middle Ages." Various well-known opponents of bombing such as General Franco and Major-General Fuller, are brought out in support of this. Miss Brittain is not, however, taking the pacifist standpoint. She is willing and anxious to win the war, apparently. She merely wishes us to stick to "legitimate" methods of war and abandon civilian bombing, which she fears will blacken our reputation in the eyes of posterity. Her pamphlet is issued by the Bombing Restriction Committee, which has issued others with similar titles.


Now, no one in his right senses regards bombing, or any other operation of war, with anything but disgust. On the other hand, no decent person cares tuppence for the opinion of posterity. And there is something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features. Pacifism is a tenable position, provided that you are willing to take the consequences. But all talk of "limiting" or "humanising" war is sheer humbug, based on the fact that the average human being never bothers to examine catchwords.


The catchwords used in this connection are "killing civilians," "massacre of women and children" and "destruction of our cultural heritage." It is tacitly assumed that air bombing does more of this kind of thing than ground warfare.


When you look a bit closer, the first question that strikes you is: Why is it worse to kill civilians than soldiers? Obviously one must not kill children if it is in no way avoidable, but it is only in propaganda pamphlets that every bomb drops on a school or an orphanage. A bomb kills a cross-section of the population; but not quite a representative selection, because the children and expectant mothers are usually the first to be evacuated, and some of the young men will be away to the army. Probably a disproportionately large number of bomb victims will be middle aged. (Up to date, German bombs have killed between six and seven thousand children in this country. This is, I believe, less than the number killed in road accidents in the same period.) On the other hand, "normal" or "legitimate" warfare picks out and slaughters all the healthiest and bravest of the young male population. Every time a German submarine goes to the bottom about fifty young men of fine physique and good nerve are suffocated. Yet people who would hold up their hands at the very words "Civilian bombing" will repeat with satisfaction such phrases as "We are winning the Battle of the Atlantic." Heaven knows how many people our blitz on Germany and the occupied countries has killed and will kill, but you can be quite certain it will never come anywhere near the slaughter that has happened on the Russian front.

War is not avoidable at this stage of history, and since it has to happen it does not seem to me a bad thing that others should be killed besides young men. I wrote in 1937: "Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet hole in him." We haven't yet seen that (it is perhaps a contradiction in terms), but at any rate the suffering of this war has been shared out more evenly than that of the last one was. The immunity of the civilian, one of the things that have made war possible, has been shattered. Unlike Miss Brittain, I don't regret that. I can't feel that war is "humanised" by being confined to the slaughter of the young and becomes "barbarous" when the old get killed as well.

As to international agreements to "limit" war, they are never kept when it pays to break them. Long before the last war the nations had agreed not to use gas,* but they used it all the same. This time they have refrained, merely because gas is comparatively ineffective in a war of movements, while its use against civilian populations would be sure to provoke reprisals in kind. Against an enemy who can't hit back, e.g., the Abyssinians, it is used readily enough. War is of its nature barbarous, it is best to admit that. If we see ourselves as the savages we are,m some improvement is possible, or at least thinkable.


*Editorial note: I recently watched a fascinating program on the History Channel about the chemist Fritz Haber, who invented synthetic ammonia, which made mass production of explosives possible just prior to World War I, in which it was used to devastating effect. He was then instrumental in the creation of various poison gasses that were used against British, French and eventually American soldiers in the trenches. Haber's wife, also a chemist, felt so much guilt over her own and her husband's part in the mass destruction that she committed suicide in 1915. Haber, a converted Jew, had to flee Germany when the Nazis came to power. He died in Switzerland in 1934. He did not live to see the ultimate irony of his invention of the cyanide formula "Zyklon B" being used to gas Jews, some of whom were his relations.

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