Saturday, 15 May 2010

The difficult sequel

If you'll forgive me I'm going to jump forwards in time from the First World War (even if you don't I'm going to anyway) to discuss the Second World War. Specifically this story that I've just read.

I don't think it'll come as any surprise that the role of Bomber Command during the Second World War is still highly contentious and has been treated as one of Britain's dirty little secrets for the past 65 years. This news that they will be receiving a memorial is, probably in its own way, more surprising than the decision a few years ago to add soldiers from the First World War who'd be executed by courts martial to war memorials. The monument to Bomber Harris didn't appear until 1992 and he was bitter for years at the way Britain had quickly tried to pretend that Bomber Command hadn't existed (or done what it had) immediately after the war.

Obviously my primary focus of study is the First World War but that doesn't mean it is the limits of my interest. I think Bomber Command and this particular memorial raise some difficult questions and divide people into an assortment of groups which are sometimes tough to reconcile.

The crux of such a situation always comes down to the issue of whether Bomber Command's assaults on German (and French lets not forget) cities was either militarily or morally justifed, and the difference between the two is often where the arguments appear.

I have to say that for most of the period 1939-1945 the term 'strategic bombing' is something of a misnomer. I don't care how good a pilot or bombadier you have, the aim of bombing missions (on both sides) involving civilian and lesser military targets was to carpet bomb the area in the hope that you'd drop enough explosives to destroy the entire area and everything within it. These heavy bombers were not Stukas, designed for a more pinpoint (but still not surgical) assault on targets. In much the same way that battleships are little more than floating platforms for the heavy guns, long-distance heavy bombers were designed to carry large amounts of highly explosive bombs to be dropped en masse.

The attack on British cities by the Luftwaffe were clearly designed to destroy the morale of the people as well as cripple Britain's industrial capacity. This was a Total War, the home front and the front line were linked (after Dunkirk they were at the same place as well). Destroying any one of; industry, military, civilian would cripple the enemy and likely lead to their defeat.

However the blitz failed to break the British people, for an assortment of reasons, and this was a lesson that was becoming apparent during the 2nd World War. Without the added threat of more direct military intervention (essentially some form of imminent invasion or capture of the city/country) bombing by itself was a limited tool. It killed people yes but it didn't capture ground. The channel and the Luftwaffe's inability to destroy the RAF meant that invasion was, at the very least, unlikely and more logically impossible.

Churchill and the War Office came to realise this as the Luftwaffe changed their focus to the USSR and the new Eastern Front. They knew that mass bombing of civilians by itself was not likely to break their spirit and lead to a defeat.

So now we come to Bomber Command. There are, in essence, 2 Bomber Commands. There is the leadership with Arthur 'Bomber Harris' and others, and then there are the actual bomber crews themselves. Identifying the difference is useful but doesn't really make it any easier to discuss the situation.

British and American bombing missions against the continent both before D-Day and then dramatically afterwards, devestated cities across Germany. The most famous of these are obviously Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin but there are just as many others.

I'm well aware of all the arguments that surround these missions. I dislike several of them, but that does not mean that I don't understand where they come from.

"The Germans had bombed our cities, why shouldn't they have to suffer?"
"The Bomber crews were following orders"
"It was a war"

You know the sort of thing I'm talking about.

To be clear there was a likely wider strategic reason for the bombing of Germany. Up until D-Day in 1944 Stalin had been demanding that the allies act to open up a second front and alleviate the pressure on the Soviet Union. Whilst the allies were either unable or unwilling to do so before 1944 the bombing of cities did show that they were doing something to take the war to Hitler. It also provided them the chance to avenge their own cities and show the British public that the Germans too must suffer the blitz.

Again I can understand the arguments, they make good strategic and military sense.

I often tell my students that one of the key skills of studying war is to learn how to suspend your 'modern morality' and to view a situation in the same context as those who were there at the time.

It is this issue that always raises the most difficult questions.

Bombing of civilian targets is wrong. We all know it's wrong. It is not civilians who make war in this way. It is leaders. Hitler was happy for everyone in Berlin to die at the end of the war for failing him. Those people had indeed reaped the rewards of the Germany's early victories, but did they deserve this other fate? Bombed from the air or left to the Red Army?

At the same time the bombing of Dresden is so contentious because the war was as good as over. The raids coming in February 1945 when the need (if there ever had been one) to destroy cities like this had passed. The battle was to be for Berlin and the German army was beaten in the field. This did not need to happen.

When people argue about things like the Bomber Command issue, I can't help but feel they're not actually arguing about the events themselves. It's not about that. It's about them as an indivudal. They are being forced to answer the question; what would you have done?

So I can only answer some of those questions.

If I'd been part of a bomber crew during the war would I have flown to Germany and bombed their cities? Yes I imagine I probably would have done.

Do I believe that the bomber crews were 'just following orders' in a manner that differentiates them from the SS? Yes, although it is difficult to fully explain why.

Do I believe the bomber crews deserve this new monument? Yes. They died in war doing what was perceived to be their duty. The Second World War is all of the terrible things that people believe the First to be and then many, many more. People and countries did things in it that defy explanation. We shouldn't run away from those events.

But that's not the big question. The big question is, as always, if I was in Arthur Harris' shoes, would I have ordered my bombers to raze Germany to the ground?

It's very difficult when you essentially have to try and answer a question that, in a sense, defines what sort of man you are. How good you really are. How many of your beliefs and morals are really concrete and how many you would trade away given the right circumstances. Would I trade the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children if I believed that it would end the most brutal war imaginable? Would I do the same even if I knew that it would not end the war, but would simply make a statement or give me my revenge?

Nobody ever said studying war was easy...

Monday, 10 May 2010

Gallipoli and Identity

This story emerged this week about an Australian TV Drama casting a caucasian man to play the part of a Chinese-Australian war hero in their upcoming Gallipoli production.

I can't help but find this story interesting, particularly in regards to Gallipoli'a role in Australia's national identity.

Armistice Day doesn't actually have much importance in Australian commemoration of the war. Instead there is ANZAC Day on April 25th which marks the day the ANZAC forces landed on the beaches of Gallipoli (for my New Zealand friends in the audience I must point out that ANZAC is short for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps - so the New Zealanders were there too). The Gallipoli campaign has become a key stone in the way Australia as a nation views itself and the qualities that it aims to embody.

So far so normal. Country uses brave military sacrifice as cultural transmitter. Lets all rush and hold the front page.

It is this latest story however that has piqued my interest.

Billy Sing (the character in question) was a renowned sniper in the ANZAC forces and ended the war with the DCM and the Croix de Guerre. His father was Chinese (from Shanghai) and his mother was, orignially, from Stratford in England. His nationality was, as has been mentioned, Chinese-Australian.

The justification for casting a caucasian man to play him in this television drama (actually the director's son!) is that they couldn't find a 60 year old Chinese man to play Billy's father. The initial reaction to such a thing is; bullshit.

Now we can't overlook the possibility that the director is simply trying to crowbar his offspring into the most prominent role of the prgramme. It wouldn't be the first time that sort of thing has happened (what ever happened to Sofia Coppola...?), but for me I don't think that's it.

To me, this looks like an attempt to entirely Australianise a man (and therefore an event) which is so important to Australia's cultural identity. By making Billy Sing "fully" Australian then he can become a modern poster boy for Australian martial values, in a way that he perhaps could not be if he is of mixed parentage.

Now too be honest that has sort of been going on for a while now anyways. Gallipoli has become an Australian adventure, because they were there in prominent numbers, but then so were troops from Britain, India, New Zealand, Newfoundland and French West Africa. In many ways they have been slightly forgotten (although in Britain the campaign does not have the same resonance as the Somme or Ypres campaigns to begin with) in favour of a more overt Australian image.

Perhaps therefore it is no surprise that the TV director made this decision. Perhaps he didn't think people would notice or care. He was wrong clearly, and it's a good job that it's been jumped upon. Perhaps this is the moment when a line starts to be drawn in regards to representations of Gallipoli in Australia. It'll be interesting to see if the director forges ahead with his choice anyway.

And if people will watch it anyway.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Ils ne passeront pas le tasse

Now I don't want to give the impression that there are no enjoyable WW1 games out there. This is completely untrue.

Warfare 1917 is a strangely addictive strategy game where you get to play as either the British or the Germans over a series of levels and smash the opposition forces before you.

There's no real story and, as such, no need for an excessive narrative or editing of the conflict. You just make sure you kill the enemy and take their trenches. If you're a Conan fan you might also want to hear the lamentation of their women, but that's not really for me.

Dogfight 1 & Dogfight 2 are a pair of rather joyous flight simulator type games. Although if you can get past the level in Dogfight 2 where you have to protect bombers from enemy fighters then you're clearly a better Red Baron than I.

However during the email discussion about WW1 games with the ISFWWS someone mentioned a table top game called '1914: Twilight in the East' and it's upcoming sequel '1914: Offensive a Outrance'.

Here's a picture.

Now I haven't really got the faintest idea how these indepth tabletop military games work. I know how to play Risk (and I love Risk) but this seems unbelievably indepth.

And yet I couldn't give a damn. I want it. I don't know if I'll ever be able to work out how o play it, and yet I want it nonetheless. Defending against (or initiating) the Schlieffen Plan over the course of numerous hours strikes me as a rather fitting way for me to waste time under the pretence of actually doing work relevant to my thesis.

After all, I can't really discuss the British impressions of the French Army in 1914 if I haven't tried commanding it myself can I? Thought not.