Oh, come on!

From a recent review in Technology and Culture:

Torgovnick devotes two chapters to Eichmann, the architect of the plan that moved millions to the death camps and the Holocaust, but she should have also considered the man behind the massive bombing of German cities, the Royal Air Force's General Arthur Harris. If she had devoted less attention to Eichmann -- simply another German robot -- and examined Harris's conscience, her argument could have been taken down some very interesting roads. Harris knew that his bombing campaign killed millions of innocents; it also left a cultural memory of the vast efficiency of air power that carried into the cold war, Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq, even posing a temptation to use nuclear weapons once again.1

There's more than one thing wrong with this paragraph, but by far the most objectionable is the highlighted part. Millions of innocents? MILLIONS? That's a gross distortion -- even if you accept the identity that civilians (including workers) = innocents. I don't think any serious scholar would place the figure at that level. R. J. Rummel, who likes to add up death statistics in search of "democides" (and so I would guess has little incentive to underestimate), lists a range of figures from the literature for civilian deaths in the Allied bombing of Europe. He finds a range of 300,000 to 600,000, settling on 410,000 as the most likely, of which he attributes 378,000 to British bombing (lines 182-216). That ought to be a huge enough figure to be getting on with -- but it's almost a factor of 3 smaller than even a single million, let alone 'millions'.

PS Thanks to Gob and Lleyton for this post's title.


  1. Neil M. Cowan, review of The War Complex: World War II in Our Time, by Marianna Torgovnick, Technology and Culture 47 (2006), 835. 

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://airminded.org/copyright/.

36 thoughts on “Oh, come on!

  1. ...

    Where do you start?

    This is verging on holocaust denial, by implying that Eichmann didn't know that his plans would lead to millions of deaths and wasn't responsible for his own actions!

    And hadn't Guernica already created a cultural memory of the power of bombing?

    And isn't Harry Truman more responsible for the temptation to use nuclear weapons?

    And the final insult is that he can't even get Harris's rank right!

  2. Christine Keeler

    General? Well I certainly think Air Marshall Montgomery might have had something to say about that.

    It's a neat bit of revisionism though, isn't it, placing Harris on par with Eichmann? As I recall from Hannah Arendt's account of his trial he was still busy fiddling about with timetables and commandeering trains even as the Russians rolled through Prussia.

    You could say a lot about Harris, but this comparison is despicable.

  3. Chris Williams

    Bloody hell - this half puts me in mind to write to T&C and say "Don't bother reviewing that article I just sent you - can I have it back, please?" If you're going to argue that area bombing is the moral equivalent of the Holocaust (which it isn't, crime though it was) then you at least ought to get your facts right.

    In any case, I have very little time for book reviews that go "This book wasn't about what I wanted it to be about and hence it is Bad".

    And another thing - it wasn't Harris who was behind it. Harris only became AOC Bomber Command in 1942, when area bombing was already accepted doctrine.

    And another other thing - the Bomber Offensive has not left a cultural legacy of the effectiveness of bombing. If anything, its failure to win the war in a weekend gave the lie to the Douhetian fantasies of the previous two decades.

    Another^3: "Simply another German robot" is oddly similar to the very brand of cod-sociology with which the British architects of the Bomber Offensive convinced themselves that the over-drilled Germans would keel over instantly if bombed. We know how that turned out.

    From a swift Googling it seems that what I like most about Neil Cowan is his girlfriend, who appears to be the very same person as the author of the excellent _More Work For Mother_.

  4. Christine Keeler

    You'd really have to argue the toss on that point about "cultural memory" and the "vast efficiency of air power" wouldn't you?

    What cultural memory? The almost complete absence of popular books and films about the bombing campaigns in Europe and Japan (with the possible exceptions of 12 'Clock High, and the Dambusters, which doesn't really count) since the end of the war, coupled with post-war official discomfort about the work of Bomber Command has pretty much ensured there is no cultural memory.

    And the statement about the "vast efficiency of air power" is just mind-blowing in its vapidity.

  5. Post author

    Well, I'm glad it wasn't just me! Between you, you've picked up on all the other things that annoyed me about this review, and a couple of more besides.

    I actually think that it might be instructive to compare Harris and Eichmann -- if, that is, it weren't just a sandbagging exercise with the aim of showing that Harris was as bad as Eichmann. I wouldn't like to say that Cowan's inflation of the death statistics was done in the service of moral equivalency, it could just be an honest mistake (though how hard would it have been to check?) But it is something that relativisers sometimes do, because it puts it into the same numerical league as the Holocaust. So if one is going to make such contentious arguments, one should check one's facts extra-carefully, shouldn't one.

    The question of the cultural memory of bombing is interesting. I think there is a case to be made that there is a popular impression that it is powerful and effective (the accuracy of this impression is another question altogether). Mark Connelly's history of Bomber Command might have something on this for the British case. But even so, it's ridiculous to imply that you can draw a direct line between Rear-Admiral Harris and contemporary suggestions of nuking Iranian nuclear facilities, or whatever. As Gavin said, HELLO? Hiroshima?? (I'm paraphrasing!) And anyway, the primary wielder of airpower today is the United States, and Americans have their own cultural memory of bombing which, I think it is fair to say, has almost nothing to do with Bomber Command.

  6. Christine Keeler

    On reflection I'd slightly modify my comment about the vast efficiency. Even leaving aside the A-bomb, it was probably only objectively 'vastly efficient' (or vastly devestating) in Japan following Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine LeMay's assaults in 44-45.

    But just about anywhere else at anytime the claims made for airpower as a means of delivering a knock-out blow have proven patently absurd.

  7. I think there are some similarities between cultural memories of allied strategic bombing of Germany and cultural memories of the First World War. In both cases it seems like the idea of futility, suffering and needless waste of human life became dominant. That the BEF ascended the learning curve to become highly effective in 1918, and that allied strategic bombing ascended the learning curve to become highly effective in 1944-45, was generally not recognised until quite recently and still hasn't gained widespread popular acceptance.

    Whatever the general perception of the effectiveness of conventional bombing, it was arguably rendered irrelevant by the development of nuclear weapons, which have clearly had a far greater cultural impact.

    As an aside, I'd point out that US bombing of North Vietnam was undertaken as a substitute for a ground based invasion, just like Britain started bombing German cities as a substitute for a ground based invasion. In both cases circumstances prevented a proper invasion and I suspect that the military and political establishment mostly regarded bombing as a poor substitute.

  8. Christine Keeler

    Just on this question of 'cultural memory', I'm having some difficulty understanding what it actually means beyond, say, 'vague general impression'.

    For instance, I can understand that there would be a certain type of 'cultural memory' held by Germans of the Allied bombing campaign, because of the direct experience of families.

    Yet my gut instinct is that the cultural memory of the campaign (such as it is) in the former allied nations is the result of media representations which, as I pointed out above, have been fairly thin on the ground. Would the main CM of the campaign at this end be Dresden, largely because of the success of things like Slaughterhouse Five?

    And just on the question of the CM of bombing in general, thanks Gavin for mentioning Vietnam. Certainly from the perspective of the post-war generation when I think of bombing the image that springs immediately to mind is B-52s dropping racks of ordinance (onto jungle. Go figure).

    Sorry for nebbish geeky questions.

  9. Post author

    No, I think your questions are very much to the point! I doubt that the general public (in the English-speaking world at least) has any sort of coherent idea about WWII bombing, because, as you say, the sources are so patchy. It's not like WWI, where every year on 11 November and 25 April etc we hear about the mud, the futility, the lions led by donkeys all over again, with a movie, documentary or novel coming along periodically to reinforce these themes. WWII strategic bombing doesn't get such regular access to the public consciousness.

    For most of the last 50 years, I think far and away the biggest source of "knowledge" about Bomber Command comes from The Dam Busters, which Connelly (Reaching for the Stars) suggests was hugely popular precisely because it was an atypical raid: a thoroughly-planned and rehearsed precision attack on a clearly justified industrial target. (By contrast, Appointment in London (1952) is arguably more representative, but made no impression on the public mind. The few other films about BC that I can think of are essentially knock-offs of The Dam Busters.) From the 1960s on (starting with David Irving), however, there's been increasing unease over whether area bombing was moral or not (and not so much whether it was effective). Taylor's Dresden and now Friedrich's The Fire keep this debate alive. But it's a contested question (unlike the 'futility' of WWI, which everyone in the media agrees on) and so doesn't lead to a consistent picture of BC. So a mix of The Dam Busters (which still pops up in popular culture, and is of course being remade) and an idea that there are question marks over the morality of Bomber Command's (and Harris's) actions, exemplified by Dresden, seems to be about the sum of the public memory of Bomber Command. (Of course I'm mainly talking about the British case, and maybe I'm wrong since I'm not British ... Most of the Australian public would have even less knowledge than that, despite the large numbers of Australians who served in Bomber Command.)

    Interesting about the images of B-52s over Vietnam. For my generation, the equivalent would probably be those videos from the Gulf War of missiles being directed through the windows of trucks on some highway in Iraq. When it comes to popular assessments of the effectiveness of bombing, such images are probably more influential than anything Bomber Command ever did ...

  10. Christine Keeler

    "For my generation, the equivalent would probably be those videos from the Gulf War of missiles being directed through the windows of trucks on some highway in Iraq."

    Yes. The supposed perfection of 'pinpoint bombing' and yet another example of the triumph of technology which runs in a direct line from the Norden Bombsight in B-17s to the radar controlled bombs (iBombs?) of today.

    Unless, for instance, one is crude enough to mention such unfortunate matters as the the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

    And just on movie representations, you don't even get the Dambusters - with all those gorgeous shots of Lancs flying at 60ft - shown these days. Largely, I suspect, because of the name of Guy Gibson's stupid bloody labrador.

  11. Last time I saw Dambusters on TV they edited the dog's name out!

    On second thoughts you're right that the cultural memory of Bomber Command isn't much like WWI. I think I'd conflated them because I studied them both for my MA and in both cases the up to date (at that time) military history interpretations stressed a gradual improvement culminating in devastating effectiveness. Strangely that's what you could call a metanarrative of progress, but it went against the traditional views that I was familiar with. The whole BEF learning curve was new to me, and so were the oil and transport offensives. So I've tended to associate them ever since, and that's more about my cultural memories than anyone else's!

    I think the learning curve is a useful model for Bomber Command, but in this case it's not like a big revisionist idea that has to take on the whole of popular culture.

  12. Post author

    I wonder how the remake will handle the N-word -- probably by giving it a less offensive name, I guess. Or getting rid of the poor old mutt altogether. It would be hard to blame the producers if they did, because it would be guaranteed to generate negative publicity for the film and is hardly essential to the story.

    Yes, I agree that there was a learning curve for Bomber Command, and that this is underappreciated. In my own experience, one of the first things I "learned" about BC was that it was a near-totally inept failure. But I didn't get that from popular culture and the media, but from my early forays into reading popular military history, which is a step beyond the sources of knowledge most people would have access to. It was only after reading more deeply on the subject that I came to realise, like you, that there was considerably more to the story than that! So I would place the source of this idea of unmitigated failure at the level of popular military history rather than popular culture per se -- though there's no doubt some leakage from one to the other.

  13. CK

    Just get rid of the dog. I'm quite looking forward to the remake.

    Since we've been discussing 'cultural memory', I can't let the video I mentioned above go without saying something.

    Produced by the Windsor Historical Society in Canada (no immediately observable web presence) the video is about one of the two remaining airworthy Lancs.

    I'm guessing the vid may have been a student project, so can't be too harsh.

    Yet these clangers are included in the narrative (facts credited to Wikipedia):

    "This bomber's most famous use was in Operation Chastise" (Dambusters raid. Let's not mention Dresden, Hamburg etc which were all heavily publicised at the time. OK, I'm nitpicking)

    "Lancasters were also the main strength behind Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan in 1945" (!!!!)

    At 2:56 in they show a shot of a 'Lancaster'. Over the Ploesti oil facility.

    At 2:59: More Liberators.

    At 3:11: B25

    Maybe I should take up trainspotting or knitting or something.

  14. This talk of a remake strikes me as apocryphal. I seem to recall vague rumors about such a project have been floating around for years, but nothing has ever come of them. Anyone got pukka gen on this?

  15. Post author

    Hmm, dunno why WordPress isn't rendering the link properly, the html is perfectly ok. The parentheses I guess.

    I notice that Wikipedia does mention the N*gger issue, but doesn't resolve it. See also here and here.

    Myself, I would have said that CG Lancasters (as they will no doubt be) can't possibly match up to the real ones of the original film, but if they get Tochy or reasonable facsimile thereof to do the effects, it will likely blow one's socks off.

  16. CK

    Keep the dog in and rename him Mandela. Neatly solves problem and infuses GG with mystical foresight qualities.

  17. Post author

    Oh yeah, CK, I did think the idea that Lancasters were to be the mainstay of Downfall was particularly bizarre. A garbled reference to Tiger Force, I suppose, or maybe the narrator has Assistant Patrol Leader Harris's blood running in her veins!

  18. Post author

    'What's that, Skip?' 'Tsk-tsk-tsk!' 'We should fix two spotlights at converging angles such that when they touch we'll be at the correct height to drop the bomb? That's brilliant!' 'Tsk-tsk-tsk-tsktsktsk!' 'Oh, sorry, you meant there are smugglers in the national park ... yet AGAIN ....' Nah, I'd rather the dog :P

    The representation of the raid's impact will, I'm sure, be interesting from a memory-of-the-war perspective, but I doubt it will be anything too sophisticated. I'm seeing two young lovers, widely separated in social class, on a makeshift raft being swept down the flooding Möhne ... one nobly sacrifices himself to save the other, letting go and sinking into the depths to join the broken liner ... oh, wait. Well, seriously I guess they will make an attempt to portray the effect on civilians (though not the wider war effort), because they will cop it if they don't. On the other hand, Jackson said (in the BBC link above) that it will be "as close to the spirit of the original as possible" which, taken at face value, would seem to exclude too much of that sort of thing. As the original was a childhood favourite film of his, he probably wouldn't want to change the feel of it too much anyway.

  19. Post author

    You know, upon reflection "Skippy" would be just as bad, because it too is a derogatory ethnic term, mostly abbreviated as skip, for Australians of Anglo-Celtic descent. In fact, I was often called a skip at school! Sven Lindqvist did argue that strategic bombing was inherently racist, if not genocidal; seems he was right ;)

  20. Insofar as there is much cultural memory of WW2 bombing at all, I guess it is largely promulgated by the survivors and is the same on both sides. An amalgam of gruesome statistics among air crews, a terrifying journey across Europe in freezing cold etc etc, and the nasty experience of being bombed, which was endured but was not a morale breaker.

    In no way an image of horrid relentless power.

  21. CK

    Still David, Sir Arfur lived in hope. And those BSans over Japan? I dunno. It all sounds pretty horrid and relentless to me.

    To what end is another question.

  22. Nabakov

    Harris and Eichmann!!? Ludicrous comparison. For starters Eichmann was a much better major project manager. And black humour aside, there's one major difference. The Axis started it but the Allies won.

    And don't get me started on the Nordern Bombsight. One of the most overrated "secret weapons" of all time. Unlike say the cavity magnetron.

    "An amalgam of gruesome statistics among air crews, a terrifying journey across Europe in freezing cold etc etc, and the nasty experience of being bombed, which was endured but was not a morale breaker."

    My parents were bombed by the Luftwaffe and they seem less traumatised by that experience than some members of Bomber Command were by surviving a tour over Germany. Of course on the ground, there's more of you to bond together and help eachother and you could find shelter. As apposed to being ten young men, all alone in a night sky in a plodding lurching metal container full of high explosive, very inflammable aviation fuel and several hundred pounds of .303 ammo.

    Still though, I'd have probably preferred to be with them than in Tokyo when LeMay hit his stride.

    "Myself, I would have said that CG Lancasters (as they will no doubt be) can’t possibly match up to the real ones of the original film"

    The CGI action in "Dark Blue World" was pretty damn effective and believable.

  23. Dan Todman

    Woah, only just caught up with this discussion, and can't quite believe that no-one's mentioned that before Jackson got to it, the remake rights were held by Mel Gibson. Now surely _that_ is the movie we all want to see? I'm just blown away by the possibilities. Gibson as Gibson, discovering his Celtic roots and painting his arse blue? Or the Dambusters remade as evidence of evil English oppression 'They can take our dams, but they'll never take our... glug glug glug.' Or even, given his well known beliefs about who starts wars, Mel managing to blame the Jews for the bouncing bomb? Apocalypto, indeed.
    Anything the hobbitmeister produces will be sadly lacking in comparison.

  24. CK

    Maybe Mel could have played the "expert" American pilot who had to be secretly bought in to pull the whole show together, actually led the group of B17s that conducted the raid, and whose involvement remains a secret even today.

  25. Nabakov

    Michael Caine:
    Damnit man! This is the RAF. There's no room here for your sloppy freespirited Yank ways!

    Mel Gibson:
    I bet there's room for this though.

    REVEALS Nordern bombsight.

    John Hurt:
    Fascinating. It just might work. If we hook this up with my bouncing bomb, we could have something here.

    Mel Gibson:
    I don't work alone though. You're gonna need my crew too. Rizzo! Slappy! Tex! Rusty! Hank! And you, yeah the kid! C'mon, we got work to do. Beg, borrow or steal everything you can. It's gonna be another allnighter.

    Vince Vaughan:
    Like that time in Sicily skipper?

    Mel Gibson:
    Yeah but this time keep your hands off the dames till after the mission.

    Mel's crew chuckles wryly.

    John Hurt:
    Hitler is not going to know what hit him.

    Michael Caine:
    Hrrumph. I'll believe it when I see it. But good luck anyway chaps. I'm going back to my lonely quarters now to drink whiskey, look at a photo of my son shot down over Cologne and hope like hell you crazy yanks do wreck the Nazis' industrial capacity on a wing and prayer.

    John Hurt:
    Can I have another look at that marvellous piece of American ingenuity?

    Mel Gibson:
    Sure thing Prof. But be careful, we've only got 2,000 of them.

  26. CK

    LOL!

    Just pick you up on a technical point Nabs. They didn't need the bouncing bombs. All they had to do was load-up the ball-turrets with TNT and BOOM.

    Let's do it for Brooklyn!

  27. Nabakov

    "Hell! Whydja think we called it the 'Liberator'. She's seen better days but there's life in the old girl yet. Like liberty itself. Hey, Hank! put that damn Lucky Strike out. This is a 21st century film."

  28. Post author

    I'm seeing Mel as "Mad Guy" Gibbatansky as the Sky Warrior, pilot of the last of the V8 interceptors V12 heavy bombers. "But he's just a raggedy airman!" Bruce Spence would of course reprise his role as the Gyro Captain, and we'd get to see his squadron of combat autogiros in action against the Humungus Flying Circus, before Guy sets off on his mission to destroy the gas refinery at Bartertown.

    You know, I'd probably pay to see that ...

  29. Dan Todman

    John Hurt is a good suggestion, but I'd like to make an early bid for Ricky Gervais to continue his 'acting' career in the Barnes Wallis role.
    But surely you're missing out the more recent works in Mr Gibson's filmography. The key feature in his remake would be the 2 hour slo-mo of the sufferings of the crew of J-for-Jesus as it gets hit by flak and burns up, with lingering shots of St Mel of Braveheart's skin being flayed by flying plexiglass. To say thank you for saving me from this, I've just decided to buy two tickets for the Jackson movie.

  30. Nabakov

    "Ricky Gervais to continue his ‘acting’ career in the Barnes Wallis role"

    Spot on old chap! Let's do lunch.

    "And what do you call that Professor?"

    "I call it the Tallboy. Tall...boy, geddit"

    "Um no, I meant that blueprint there on your drafting table."

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