29 August 2007

A victory for propaganda?

The news is that the controversial Bomber Command panel at the Canadian War Museum is to be changed after a long campaign against it by the Bomber Command Association. I had planned to return to the subject, but my lethargy and events have made my original plans moot.

Here's a quote from Cliff Chadderton, chairman of the National Council of Veterans' Associations, published in the Ottawa Citizen:
To see (the exhibit) cheapened by terrible errors, which cast our most heroic people in a most unflattering light ... it was just patently wrong.

Now, I'm not arguing about heroism. It took heroic people to fly bombers against the Germans. But to say that the exhibit was cheapened by errors is wrongheaded. The news report focused on one particular panel. Let's see how many errors it had:

The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested.

Well, I think it remains contested, although perhaps now it is no longer bitter. I can assure people it was a lot more bitter in the middle 1980s, when I first encountered it. The last paragraph of this little summary for students concerning Air Marshall (sic) Harris, illustrates the continuing controversy.

Bomber Command's aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations.

This, I think, is where the 'error' creeps in. The Bomber Command lobby prefers to regard all these targets as military ones, and to regard any effects on civilians as the tragic collateral of living in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, I quote from the official history itself quoting from a memo prepared by Air Marshal Arthur Harris for the Air Ministry: 'It is not possible to dogmatise on the degree of destruction necessary to cause the enemy to capitulate, but there can be little doubt that the necessary conditions would be brought about by the destruction of between 40 percent and 50 percent of the principal German towns.' Well, that sounds like destroying cities and crushing morale to me.

Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions of German war production until late in the war.

The only 'error' I note in this passage is the vague term 'late in the war'. But here's an indisuputable fact. In the week ending 19 August 1944, there 899,091 railroad car loadings in the Reich, and that ending 23 December only 547,309. I don't know what they were before August 1944, but prior to March 1944, German rail transport was not a major target of Allied bombing. (Figures from John Ellis's excellent book Brute Force.)

Mr Chadderton has a track record of vigorously opposing anything that doesn't agree with his own interpretation of the historical record concerning the operations of Bomber Command. The Ottawa Citizen article indicates that a panel of historians did not find the panel 'in error'. When the pressure of private interest groups sets aside the consensus view of historians, it's difficult not to wonder if this is a victory for propaganda, and that truth is not only the first casualty in war, but a constant victim buried together with the dead.

26 August 2007

Hollywood notices Iraq

A long article in The Guardian, a British newspaper that editorially positions itself on the liberal left, attempts to illustrate the thesis that Hollywood has been unable to tackle the War in Iraq until the 2006 Congressional elections gave a green light to release some nervously pessimistic films. The key passage appears over halfway through the article:
Since the onset of war in Iraq, many movies have fallen into a similar category. The Eastwood movies, Jarhead, the HBO prelude-to-Vietnam movie Path to War, Mel Gibson's Vietnam battlefield movie We Were Soldiers: these all wanted to be Iraq movies, but they didn't quite dare.

Ya think? I can't agree. I sense the wishful thinking of the politically powerless, a kind of projection on the film-makers of what the article's author, John Patterson, would like to believe.

Current conflicts have a way of leading to a reinterpretation of past ones, and I think that's what's going on in the movies listed. We Were Soldiers in particular is an attempt to retrieve the reputation of the U.S. Army from the mire of Vietnam, where the ugly mess of Apocalypse Now is the more common interpretation in the popular mind. Gibson's character is the model of the virtuous soldier. His politics are so deeply muted as to be almost imperceptible. His focus is on the technical requirements of fighting a battle, including applying a newfangled technology to battles that ultimately rely on the traditional tactical lessons that have been relevant since Marathon. The context of American intervention is irrelevant because the movie is about soldiers in battle, which is an existential subject. Combat is a moment when "why" is irrelevant. Only once the combat ends and the dead must be buried and remembered can we safely ask why; or else we join them in the earth.

War films released in time of war are a valid opportunity to reinterpret the past using the context of the present. This is not the same thing as wanting to be about the present. For your average U.S. army officer sent to Vietnam in 1965, I would guess that Gibson's portrayal accurately captures how they saw themselves approaching their new mission. It is not the portrait of a villain.

20 August 2007

Fallen Timbers

Today is the 213th anniversary of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, part of a conflict between the United States and a confederacy of American Indians who lived in the Great Lakes region. My home town, Detroit, was still at that time occupied by the British, who exploited the opposition of the sovereign Indian peoples of the region, such as the Wyandot or the Shawnee, to accepting American control of what became known as The Old Northwest, but which in 1774 was part of Qu├ębec.

The conflict deserves to be better known than it is, for it was crucial to the future development of the United States’ Army. Consequently, there isn't much on the Web to direct you to, apart from Wikipedia. However, this little note from the Quartermaster Corps museum, highlights how military historians ignore logistical issues at their peril.

14 August 2007

Geographer Marine

The partwork The Elite effectively became the official publishing house of Falklands' War British officers during 1985-6. One of the more obscure (at that time) who emerged at this time was Hugh McManners, a Royal Marine who’d written a book entitled Falklands Commando about his experience in the conflict. (The editorial staff on The Elite valued this book quite highly for conveying the experience of training and the Falklands weather and landscape.) McManners was from a more academic background than I would expect of British Marines, and he very kindly gave the editorial team three or four tickets to a lecture he was giving at the Royal Geographical Society one evening. (He read Geogaphy at Oxford.) In a good example for freelance writers of how everything is material, we sat through a description of the Falklands from a geographer's point of view - topography, flora, effects of human and animal activity on the natural habitat. It was a refreshing alternative to the tactical approach we'd been focusing on during the day.

McManners subsequently eluded obscurity, perhaps more than any other of the officer-writers, and became a defence correspondent for the Sunday Times, and wrote several other books, the latest of which is Forgotten Voices of the Falklands War.

13 August 2007

Explaining My Hiatus

I've been away from my blog for quite a while during the summer. There were two causes, both related to my love for baseball. Mainly, I spent two weeks in the Midwest, combining a trip to the Society for American Baseball Research's annual meeting with a visit to my family in Michigan. You can see photographic evidence here (scroll down to the July 31 entry), taken during a game at new Busch Stadium in St Louis. I'm going to tie up a few loose ends over the next few days.