Don’t let’s be beastly to the RAF — I

Kim Wagner pointed out an article in Providence ('A journal of Christianity & American foreign policy') by Nigel Biggar, entitled 'Thank God for the Royal Air Force!'. Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, has attained some notoriety for his 'Ethics and Empire' research project, which seeks

  1. to trawl the history of ethical critiques of ‘empire’;
  2. to test the critiques against the historical facts of empire; and thereby
  3. to garner possible ethical resources for contemporary deployment

in order

  1. to develop a nuanced and historically intelligent Christian ethic of empire;
  2. and so to enable a morally sophisticated negotiation of contemporary issues such as military intervention for humanitarian purposes in culturally foreign states, the cohesion of multicultural societies, and settling imperial pasts

That's according to Biggar's website. According to his critics (i.e. scholars of empire and colonialism), this

'balance sheet' approach to empire is rooted in the self-serving justifications of imperial administrators, attempting to balance out the violence committed in the name of empire with its supposed benefits. It has long since lost its scholarly legitimacy, as research has instead moved to trace the actions which occurred in the name of empire in their complexity through time.

An opinion piece written by Biggar for The Times was headlined -- whether he approved or not -- 'Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history'.

So what's Biggar's argument about the RAF? He gives three reasons:

  1. The Berlin Airlift
  2. Its role in 'the military defense of the West' over the last century
  3. Richard Hillary's famous 1942 memoir The Last Enemy

The first, the RAF's role in the Berlin Airlift, I'll accept, more or less:

if we think of love less in terms of warm, subjective sentiment and more in terms of hard, objective commitment and action, then it makes sense to view the RAF’s airlift (together with the USAF’s) as a magnanimous expression of love by victors toward their recently defeated enemy.

Though the airlift can also be seen as a hard, objective commitment and action in defence of a small but symbolic Western outpost against an equally hard (etc) Soviet Realpolitik, but certainly it was unambiguously good for the people of West Berlin.

Skipping over the second point for the moment, the third is on the basis of the RAF's 'contribution to the classics of combat literature' in the form of Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy. This, the story of Hillary's account of a week fighting in the Battle of Britain, and three months in hospital undergoing experimental treatments for terrible burns to his face and hands, is indeed a classic of combat literature. But it seems unlikely that Biggar is particularly interested in 'combat literature' per se, rather only that which speaks to a Christian justification for war. He argues that The Last Enemy shows Hillary as moving from being 'a rather cynical, left-wing agnostic' to his 'Christian friend’s idealism' (Peter Pease, who Biggar describes as 'a socially conservative Englishman inspired by Christian ideals'). After all, as Biggar points out, 'The last enemy' is taken from the Bible.

Biggar has somewhat compressed Hillary's account of this conversion process from a devil-may-care golden boy to a crusader for civilisation. In particular, he leaves out the parts played in the final chapter by David Rutter, a conscientious objector who is beginning to think he made the wrong choice, and, especially, a dying woman who he helps dig out from a bombed-out house in London, next to her dead child, who, upon seeing Hillary's scarred face, exclaims, 'I see they got you too.' Fair enough, given his purpose (and space considerations).

Yet these encounters reveal the artfulness of Hillary's account, for both Rutter and the dying woman were made up. 1 Pease, on the other hand, was certainly real; but he was killed in the Battle, and we don't seem to know what his account of his relationship with Hillary was. (Hillary himself was killed in a crash in 1943, after returning to service when he shouldn't have.) Martin Francis notes that

A fellow patient at East Grinstead, Geoffrey Page, tersely told Hillary that, while: 'You write of being an irresponsible undergraduate before the war, then, as a result, you change, and, presto, here you are, a different person... In my opinion, you're still as bloody conceited as ever. 2

This is not to suggest that Hillary's attitudes to the war didn't change; it is to suggest that, as Francis says, 'Hillary's conversion was less straightforward than The Last Enemy would have us believe'. 3 After all, it was the self-consciously literary product of a writer of some talent who, in the aftermath of an abortive propaganda tour of the United States and unsure if he would ever fly again, still wanted to do something. We shouldn't expect it to be any less constructed than, say, Mrs Miniver or the works of Noël Coward, so we shouldn't take it at face value. But this more ambiguous Hillary would probably be less useful to Biggar here, who needs 'his Christian friend’s idealism [to have] won over Hillary before he died'.

I did say I'd get back to Biggar's second point on the RAF's role in 'the military defense of the West'; I'll do that in another post.

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  1. Angus Calder, 'The Battle of Britain and pilot's memoirs', in Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang (eds), The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain (London: Pimlico, 2000), 202, 203; Martin Francis, The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 141. See also David Ross, Richard Hillary: The Authorised Biography of a Second World War Fighter Pilot and Author of 'The Last Enemy' (London: Grub Street Publishing, 2008).[]
  2. Francis, The Flyer, 141.[]
  3. Ibid.[]

2 thoughts on “Don’t let’s be beastly to the RAF — I

  1. peter hyde

    The most interesting part of the last enemy was the chapter on Peter Pease whereby Pease declares himself a christian by faith and that christianity means to him ,on a social plane ,freedom ,mans humanity to man .He also says that Hillary,s lofty political irresponsibilities are exactly what the Nazis are drilling into the German people .You must remember the young age of RAF personnel in WW2-my father (who was a Guinea pig)was severely burnt after a training flight at 21 yrs of age before which he had completed a full tour of duty with Bomber command ie 30 ops .My father volunteered for the RAF and believed the same reason as Peter Pease-he also demonstrated a respect such as when luffwafre pilots were invited to the GP Lost weekend in the 1960s"they were doing the same job as us -its the politicians who are to be brought to account"

  2. Post author

    Yes, men like your father were terribly young, and had to face things I've never had to deal with at twice their age. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean we don't get to make our own judgements about what they did or did not do. That's the privilege, and the burden, of hindsight -- we have it, we can't not use it. I've written a bit more about this, in the Australian context, here.

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