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.

1 comment:

Remo said...

Revisionist history seems all the rage here in the United States too. Unfortunately, too many people today have too little knowledge of historical fact, so they tend to believe anything the revisionists throw at them. Just recently in the New York Times the same old story was promoted that there was absolutely no need to drop the atomic bombs on Japan and one writer even had the nerve to equate the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Nazi death camps. That sort of moral equivalency is just sickening.

When I tried to explain on one blog why it was necessary to drop the atomic bombs on Japan, people simply did not believe it. I mentioned that if Japan was "beaten" and was about to surrender, thereby making the use of the atomic bombs unnecessary, then why was it that Allied casualties in battles continued to go up the closer the Allies got to the Japanese home islands? The last two major battles of the Pacific war, at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, had the greatest number of American casualties. So much for a "beaten" enemy. Those two battles also showed that the Japanese were more than willing to fight to the death and that, if asked by the emperor, they would have been more than willing to do so. The Allied cost for invading the Japanese home islands would have been horrific and historians like William Manchester, who actually fought in the Pacific as a US Marine, welcomed the use of the atomic bombs simply because it saved so many American lives.

The purpose of war is to win, plain and simple. And if massive bombings will achieve that goal, then so be it. The Germans were not too concerned about civilian casualties when bombing targets in England, Russia, or Poland, not to mention Rotterdam. They wanted to break the will of their opponents and did whatever it took to do it. But when the Allies used the same tactics to win a war, somehow it's inhuman and wrong. Somehow the idea got started that an enemy can be defeated without killing anyone. Well, if a war can be won that way somebody is going to have to show me, because history says it can't be done. What the Canadian bomber crews did was help win the war and no amount of "revisionism" can change that historical fact.