Just as when reading Brave New World I applied my airminded filters and extracted Aldous Huxley's vision of future warfare, I'm going to do the same for that other great British dystopia, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Which is what passes for summer reading for me. Quotes taken from this version.)
War is much more important in Orwell's novel than in Huxley's: it's constantly referred to throughout the novel, and it turns out to be a crucial part of the Party's method for maintaining its control of Oceania. Assuming that there actually is a war, that is, and the whole thing isn't just fabricated for that very purpose. War is peace, after all.
But let's assume that Winston Smith's memories and experiences of war reflect some objective reality. Then there are two phases, the war of his youth, and the current, never-ending war, with the Revolution in between. Smith was probably born in 1945, presumably named after Churchill in that year of victory. There were some years of peace, and then a war in the mid-1950s, probably with the Soviet Union and its satellites. Britain seems to have been the only the country in Western Europe not conquered at this time, and absorbed into what was to become Eurasia. But it — renamed Airstrip One — became part of Oceania, along with the Americas, southern Africa, and Australasia. A third power, Eastasia, emerged after the end of the civil wars in China.
Smith remembers an air raid on London when he was young:
one of his early memories was of an air raid which appeared to take everyone by surprise. Perhaps it was the time when the atomic bomb had fallen on Colchester. He did not remember the raid itself, but he did remember his father’s hand clutching his own as they hurried down, down, down into some place deep in the earth, round and round a spiral staircase which rang under his feet and which finally so wearied his legs that he began whimpering and they had to stop and rest. His mother, in her slow, dreamy way, was following a long way behind them. She was carrying his baby sister—or perhaps it was only a bundle of blankets that she was carrying: he was not certain whether his sister had been born then. Finally they had emerged into a noisy, crowded place which he had realized to be a Tube station.
There were people sitting all over the stone-flagged floor, and other people, packed tightly together, were sitting on metal bunks, one above the other. Winston and his mother and father found themselves a place on the floor, and near them an old man and an old woman were sitting side by side on a bunk.
Very Blitz, except for the nuking of Colchester. Many cities around the world were atom-bombed in that war, but London itself apparently was not, nor are any other targets in Britain mentioned. (Winston and Julia have an assignation in a ruined church 'in an almost-deserted stretch of country where an atomic bomb had fallen thirty years earlier', which could well have been near Colchester. Sounds dangerous, but remember this is pre-thermonuclear.) After this initial spasm, the combatants mutually conclude to forego nuclear warfare, though of course they continue to stockpile atomic bombs.
The bombs apparently weren't carried by bombers, as in the Blitz, though: Orwell only speaks of rocket bombs. So, something like the V-2. In 1984, twenty to thirty rocket bombs fall on London each week. Smith is involved in two such attacks during the course of the novel. The first is in a prole area:
Suddenly the whole street was in commotion. There were yells of warning from all sides. People were shooting into the doorways like rabbits. A young woman leapt out of a doorway a little ahead of Winston, grabbed up a tiny child playing in a puddle, whipped her apron round it, and leapt back again, all in one movement. At the same instant a man in a concertina-like black suit, who had emerged from a side alley, ran towards Winston, pointing excitedly to the sky.
‘Steamer!’ he yelled. ‘Look out, guv’nor! Bang over’ead! Lay down quick!’
‘Steamer’ was a nickname which, for some reason, the proles applied to rocket bombs. Winston promptly flung himself on his face. The proles were nearly always right when they gave you a warning of this kind. They seemed to possess some kind of instinct which told them several seconds in advance when a rocket was coming, although the rockets supposedly travelled faster than sound. Winston clasped his forearms above his head. There was a roar that seemed to make the pavement heave; a shower of light objects pattered on to his back. When he stood up he found that he was covered with fragments of glass from the nearest window.
He walked on. The bomb had demolished a group of houses 200 metres up the street. A black plume of smoke hung in the sky, and below it a cloud of plaster dust in which a crowd was already forming around the ruins. There was a little pile of plaster lying on the pavement ahead of him, and in the middle of it he could see a bright red streak. When he got up to it he saw that it was a human hand severed at the wrist. Apart from the bloody stump, the hand was so completely whitened as to resemble a plaster cast.
He kicked the thing into the gutter, and then, to avoid the crowd, turned down a side-street to the right. Within three or four minutes he was out of the area which the bomb had affected, and the sordid swarming life of the streets was going on as though nothing had happened.
The second is while walking with Julia:
They were passing in silence down a side-street (Julia would never speak when they were away from the main streets) when there was a deafening roar, the earth heaved, and the air darkened, and Winston found himself lying on his side, bruised and terrified. A rocket bomb must have dropped quite near at hand. Suddenly he became aware of Julia’s face a few centimetres from his own, deathly white, as white as chalk. Even her lips were white. She was dead! He clasped her against him and found that he was kissing a live warm face. But there was some powdery stuff that got in the way of his lips. Both of their faces were thickly coated with plaster.
Again, these could be describing 1944 (perhaps via 1946), not 1984.
There's also a twist on the Battle of Britain, which we learn about when Smith goes to Victory Square (i.e. Trafalgar Square) to meet Julia:
Winston was in Victory Square before the appointed time. He wandered round the base of the enormous fluted column, at the top of which Big Brother’s statue gazed southward towards the skies where he had vanquished the Eurasian aeroplanes (the Eastasian aeroplanes, it had been, a few years ago) in the Battle of Airstrip One.
So Big Brother has knocked Nelson off his perch. It's not clear whether the Battle of Airstrip One is the same thing as the Battle of Britain; given the Party's constant rewriting and obliteration of history it could easily be the case.
Orwell mentions jet planes in one or two places, but was evidently more impressed by the possibilities of the helicopter, which had also entered military service in the Second World War. The word 'helicopter' appears in Nineteen Eighty-Four fifteen times, most memorably when Smith describes a newsreel he had seen of a helicopter attacking a ship full of refugees, and in particular a woman and the boy she tried, unsuccessfully, to protect from its bomb. There are also mentions of helicopter raids on villages. My feeling is that to Orwell, helicopters are less impersonal than rockets (or bombers), their operators have to get up close to their victims. The rocket bombs on London seem to be just a fact of life, whereas helicopters are seen to be inhumane (a prole woman even protests that children shouldn't be shown such violent images as in the refugee film, a scene which contrasts with both the general lumpenness of the proles in the rest of the novel, but points to the desensitised nature of children under Ingsoc).
Having said all that (and not yet having mentioned the giant Floating Fortresses, stationed in key sealanes), Orwell's 1984 is not overly futuristic. He's quite upfront about this, or rather Emmanuel Goldstein is:
And meanwhile the art of war has remained almost stationary for thirty or forty years. Helicopters are more used than they were formerly, bombing planes have been largely superseded by self-propelled projectiles, and the fragile movable battleship has given way to the almost unsinkable Floating Fortress; but otherwise there has been little development. The tank, the submarine, the torpedo, the machine gun, even the rifle and the hand grenade are still in use. And in spite of the endless slaughters reported in the Press and on the telescreens, the desperate battles of earlier wars, in which hundreds of thousands or even millions of men were often killed in a few weeks, have never been repeated.
There's a reason for this, and it goes to the deeper importance of war in the world of 1984. The purpose of the war between Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia — which is mainly confined to equatorial and northern Africa, the Middle East, India and south-east Asia — is not to win, so new weapons are actually pointless (besides which, they involve empirical thinking, which is doubleplusungood). As Goldstein explains in his book on oligarchical collectivism, war provides two things: a way to dispose of surplus production; and objects of hate. The latter is almost self-explanatory: in a permanent war there is always an outgroup to solidify the cohesion of the ingroup (even if you have to switch the names around sometimes). Us vs Them is such a useful tool for repressing diversity of opinion and behaviour that it's appeared time and time again, even in democracies. Why surplus production is a bad thing (according to Ingsoc, at least) is a bit less obvious. I'll let Goldstein explain again:
From the moment when the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared. If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease could be eliminated within a few generations. And in fact, without being used for any such purpose, but by a sort of automatic process—by producing wealth which it was sometimes impossible not to distribute—the machine did raise the living standards of the average human being very greatly over a period of about fifty years at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.
But it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction—indeed, in some sense was the destruction—of a hierarchical society. In a world in which everyone worked short hours, had enough to eat, lived in a house with a bathroom and a refrigerator, and possessed a motor-car or even an aeroplane, the most obvious and perhaps the most important form of inequality would already have disappeared. If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which WEALTH, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while POWER remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.
In short, people needed to be kept on the poverty line and in the factories, so that they would have no time to think for or educate themselves. The surplus wealth they created therefore had to be destroyed, and war is the easiest way to do that — with the additional effect of making people accept that they had to make sacrifices for the war effort. This was the only way to make sure a revolution from below could never happen again: to make the oligarchy permanent. Orwell was evidently impressed with what people put up with during wartime in terms of privations due to rationing and so on, all the while expanding production to make things which were either destroyed or which destroyed other things. There's a war on, after all.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was not meant as prediction. I doubt Orwell thought such a society as he describes could work. But as an exploration of why we fight, and why we lie, it's not so far off. And that's pretty scary. For historians, though, Nineteen Eighty-Four is ultimately very validating. 'Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past', runs one of the Ingsoc principles. Historians don't control the past, but at least we've got a say in it.
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