While reading W. G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, I was especially struck by his account of the Allied bombing of Hamburg, Germany. The devastation of that one city alone was incredible: a wasteland that, by one account, took a full fifteen minutes to travel across on a very silent train. There were rumors of mothers, cast adrift by the loss of their homes, who arrived in distant towns with the shrivelled corpses of their children packed in their suitcases.
"And what of it?" you might say. So thousands of people perished in a small letter holocaust. See also: justice. The capital letter, definite article Holocaust. And perhaps you and I would be righteous in our judgment. Sebald himself noted a peculiar unwillingness on the part of the Germans to dispute the ethics of the bombing. Perhaps they felt it was what they deserved.
Of course, the Germans were also bombing England, as I have recently been reminded while watching every single season of Foyle's War on Netflix (I'm so uncomfortable with binge-watching things--I have serious anxiety every time I go to watch it. It's kind of hilarious...). Hundreds upon thousands of people fled London for the countryside, some to work in various organized efforts like the Women's Land Army, others simply to hide. The blitz was a huge part of the English experience of the war, from blackouts to air raid shelters to the ongoing discovery of unexplored mines as the country repaired itself.
What intrigues me about the air raids featured in Foyle's War is the unreflective quality of the characters' response to them. Of course, I'm not expecting a thoroughgoing critique of the morality of war in a well-written but entertaining television show. But in light of the fact that the English were doing the exact same thing in Germany, to even more devastating and ultimately pointless effect, it's a little hard to see how they get to take the tone of injured outrage.
Ah, but I said something about hypocrisy, so I should probably explain myself now. In some part of the back of my mind, I've been wrestling with the question of whether the Syrian air strikes are the right course of action, in part given what I've written before about a concern for basic human rights to physical security. Surely if any war is justified, it's war on behalf of others, for their protection.
A few days ago, I read Tom Engelhardt's article entitled "War, What Is It Good For?" and I was struck specifically by what he had to say about the air strikes. Certainly, we've managed to use such tactics to take out strategic leaders, but for that handful of people, we've also taken out a large number of civilians, many of them women and children. If this doesn't sound like a perfect perpetuation of a cycle of violence bred from historic grievances, then perhaps you should re-read that last sentence.
I suppose why I'm calling myself out for hypocrisy is simply that I was willing to condone the air strikes as an unfortunate necessity, even having drawn some conclusions on the morality of massive, sweeping, air-driven warfare from reading Sebald. It's so easy to draw a line between then and now, to think in different sets of terms depending solely on the decade and which side of history the actors have fallen on.
The Germans lost, so the bombing of London = bad. The Allies won, so the shattering destruction of largely civilian areas (with comparably minimal impact on the intended targets: munitions factories, supply lines, etc.) can be excused because the Jerries were the bad guys and they needed to be taught a lesson for their sins. People in the Middle East are used to destabilizing cycles of violence, and we need to stamp out extremists by whatever means possible short of visibly placing troops on the ground because politics, so we'll send in planes and kill whomever we must to get to those bad olive-skinned men. But if they retaliate, hurt us on our soil, let God rend the heavens and come down, for His chosen, white, manifestly-destined race has been desecrated and cisturbed from its somnolent, stupid, peaceful prosperity. How dare they do to us what we have, for the past thirty years, done to them across nations and continents?
Sebald observes that the English initiated their bombing of German factories and rail lines in part because it was the simplest solution proposed among a plethora of complicated and potentially ineffective suggestions. That it quickly proved to be effectively useless was irrelevant, because by then the machines of production had been set in place and the financial investment, coupled with the propagandistic impact on national morale, was already enormous.
I believe that this is still very much the case: that we have a hard time proposing concrete, non-violent alternatives to war, in part because it sounds like such a simple solution (we've done it before, so all the machinery is in place) and in part because we're familiar with it, and familiarity, as advertisers know too well, inclines us to be more comfortable with the thing in question.
If we push back against our habitual ways of thinking, however, and try to take apart the "simple" monoliths in our midst, we may find that we've been accepting a fiction to disguise from ourselves the questionable of morality of what we're engaged in. Hopefully, through that process of unveiling, we may at last became sufficiently candid with ourselves to admit that we've been wrong and that we need to invest the time and energy that it takes to find better alternatives and to implement them in a conscientious and forward-looking way.