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How our rulers bomb for power

This article is over 21 years, 7 months old
SVEN LINDQVIST'S A History of Bombing (Granta, £7.99) describes a century of aerial bombardment. CHARLIE KIMBER looks at the way our rulers have ruthlessly used this method to defend their power and privilege.
Issue 1810

THE FIRST bombing from the air took place in 1911. Almost inevitably, given the history of European imperialism, it was a bloody massacre to put down colonial revolt. The Italian lieutenant Giulio Cavotti dropped four bombs on Arabs near Tripoli in north Africa who had fought back against Italian troops.

The official communique from the Italian military enthused that the bombs ‘had a wonderful effect on the morale of the Arabs’. The British were impressed. The next year Commander Trenchard offered to try and win the war in Somaliland, east Africa, from the air. The British told the Somali leader Mohammed Hassan (who the British called the ‘mad mullah’) to prepare for a visit.

He duly set up a special canopy to await the foreign emissaries. Trenchard then bombed the Somalis. The first bombardment killed much of Mohammed’s family. British bombers attacked Mohammed and his core followers as they fled through the desert. Trenchard was hailed as a hero. Here was a certain way of defeating the ‘inferior races’ without any major loss of life for Europeans.

The British quickly tried out the new methods against rebels in Iraq, Pathans on India’s north western border, nationalist revolutionaries in Egypt, the Sultan of Darfur and in Afghanistan.

During the third Afghan war in 1919 the bombardment was organised by squadron chief Arthur Harris, the man who would go on to slaughter German civilians during the Second World War. Harris later wrote, ‘The Arab and Kurd now realise what real bombing means. ‘They now know that within 45 minutes 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.’ The general concept of ‘blasting the natives’ from afar was not new. British naval bombardment reduced the Egyptian city of Alexandria to rubble and ash in 1882. The bombs transformed the city into a sea of fire.

Air war greatly extended such murder. Lindqvist shows that popular writing at the end of the 19th century was full of racist fantasies about eliminating ‘the yellow man’, the ‘African race’ and others regarded as lesser than the white Europeans.

There was a yearning for a ‘super-weapon’ that would unleash ‘a rain of awful death to every breathing thing, a rain that exterminates the hopeless race’. There were no scruples about burning black people from the air.

The British airforce headquarters in India said, ‘International law does not apply to savage tribes who do not conform to codes of civilised warfare.’ Afghan women could be killed because ‘they are considered a piece of property somewhere between a rifle and a cow’.

A Royal Air Force memorandum from 1922 lists timed bombs, phosphorus bombs, whistling arrows, crude oil to pollute drinking water and liquid fire as legitimate means of terror. The great powers then used air power against one another.

In 1932 British Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin anounced that attack was the only effective form of defence and that ‘you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves’.

The fascist bombing of Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War brought home the potential for air war to strike terror into enemy civilians. The dictator Franco ordered the destruction of Guernica. He had been part of the Spanish forces which murdered tens of thousands in Morocco during the colonial war.

Spain destroyed the sacred city of Chechaouen from the air in 1925. He used that example in the civil war. Guernica was a lesson that every power involved in the Second World War learned well. The German bombers’ destruction of Coventry and the East End of London during the Blitz is well known. What is less well known is that the British bombing of German cities was far more brutal.

In October 1942 Charles Portal, the commander of the Royal Air Force wrote to the air ministry about his plans to drop 1,250,000 tons of bombs on Germany in the next two years. He calculated this would kill one million civilians, injure another million and leave 25 million homeless.

The air ministry responded, ‘It is undesirable to emphasise this aspect of our bombing which is contrary to the principles of international law.’ They did not oppose the plan. They just didn’t want it talked about. British air attacks on Hamburg killed more people than all the German air attacks against English cities put together.

About 50,000 died on the single night of 27 July 1943 when the British dropped 1,200 tons of incendiary bombs on residential areas. Thousands of small fires joined together in one enormous inferno. The firestorm reached hurricane levels. The vast majority of the dead were women, children and old people.

The city of Dresden was full of refugees and practically undefended when the British and the US attacked in February 1945. The aim of the attack was, as the official papers said, ‘to show the Russians what Bomber Command can accomplish’.

The firestorm this created meant the temperature rose to above 1,000 degrees centigrade. Some 30,000 civilians were killed. The largest children’s hospital was hit by a blockbuster bomb in the first attack, then by incendiary bombs in the second wave and finally machine-gunned by US Mustangs in the third attack.

While the killing went on, the British and US commands refused to bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz. It was possible to do it-oil refineries and factories in the area were bombed. Lindqvist shows around 500,000 Jews might have been saved if the gas chambers had been bombed at the earliest opportunity. If they had been bombed at the time of raids on the nearby factories then 100,000 might not have perished.

Instead, Harris was determined to ‘break the morale’ of the residential areas. That meant killing civilians. British prime minister Winston Churchill decided to halt the bombing of residential areas after Dresden because he thought the raids were destroying housing that the invading allied troops needed. Hiroshima was the ultimate fantasy of the ‘super-weapon’ made real.

When the atomic bomb hit, around 100,000 people (95,000 of them civilians) were killed instantly. Another 100,000 died long, drawn out deaths from the effects of radiation. Vietnam saw the development of the air-dropped cluster bomb. Now familiar from the war on Iraq and in Afghanistan, this is a canister that opens and spreads smaller bombs over a large area.

When the B-52s bombed Vietnam they often dropped explosive bombs first in order to ‘open the structures’, then napalm to burn out the contents of an area and finally CBU-24 cluster bombs to kill the people who came running to help those who were burning.

Time-release cluster bombs wiped out people who thought the danger had passed. Between 1964 and 1971 almost 500,000 cluster bombs were dropped. They contained 285 million mini-bombs, seven bombs for every person in all of Indochina. Napalm, a sticky incendiary substance designed to burn people, was developed in the 1940s. It ‘peels human beings like oranges’.

During the Second World War the US dropped 14,000 tonnes of napalm. In the Korean War of the 1950s US planes showered 32,000 tonnes of napalm. In Vietnam the US used 373,000 tons of napalm of a newer, more terrible, kind.

Lindqvist’s book is organised in an unusual way. The pages contain 399 short passages and you have to follow signposts from one section to another by leafing back and forth through the volume. You get lost and the historical sequence breaks down in a way you can find either fruitful and enriching-or annoying, depending on your taste. This book unmasks the horror that ruling classes have inflicted on ordinary people through aerial bombardment during the last 100 years.

It shows the brutality of the armed wing of capitalist competition and the hypocrisy of Western leaders who denounce the violence of people who fight back against imperialism.

Forty years ago the Korean Pak Jong Dae, speaking through a face half burned away by napalm, said, ‘I do not think there should be any more victims like me in the world.’ After reading this you will be even more determined to make that wish a reality by mobilising to stop Bush and Blair’s planned attack on Iraq.

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