Thoughts on war in somebody else’s air raid

Walter Bayes, The Underworld: Taking Cover in a Tube Station During a London Air Raid (1918)

Last night I had my first full-on anxiety dream about nuclear war since the 1980s. As ICBM trails arced across the blue sky overhead, I ran for the safety of a nearby shelter -- and confirmed that the Third World War had started by getting out my phone to check my social media feeds.

Of course, I'm quite safe here in Australia. It's not my home town which is being shelled by Russian artillery, not my family which is being killed in Putin's unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine. The risk of escalation is not non-zero, but would be increased dramatically if the calls from some quarters for a no-fly zone -- in some ways, an ad hoc kind of international air force -- were heeded. But, despite the dreams of liberal militarists, airpower is not a bloodless panacea; air war always has been real war. It's not a cheap way to avoid fighting. Fortunately everybody with a direct say in the matter seems to be well aware that a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine would be a very bad idea indeed. So, I probably should be able to sleep easier than I am. But there's a very interwar kind of trauma involved in reliving an existential fear all over again. We've all been here before, again.

The images of Kyiv's citizens huddling in underground railway stations to escape bombardment of course evoke Londoners doing the same during the Blitz in 1940-41, but also during the Gotha shock in 1917-18 (as shown above in Walter Bayes's The Underworld: Taking Cover in a Tube Station During a London Air Raid, 1918). Supposedly Kyiv's Metro stations were built so deep so they could be used as fallout shelters, so they should offer good protection against cluster bombs, cruise missiles, and probably increasingly, given the evident failure of the ground offensive, artillery shells and rockets. Up to a point.

Less grimly, the Ghost of Kyiv, a Ukrainian MiG-29 pilot from the first days of the war who shot down six VKS aircraft almost certainly doesn't exist. But the rumour immediately evoked for me Roland Garros, a famous French aviator who in the opening stages of the First World War was believed to have destroyed a Zeppelin by ramming it. This wasn't at all true, but the rumour functioned to reassure the French and their allies that German airpower was not invincible, and that French pilots had the skill and bravery required to overcome it. The Ghost of Kyiv clearly serves a similar purpose, but also may be an early recognition of the strange scarcity of the VKS, which massively outnumbered the Ukrainian Air Force and should have quickly established air superiority -- but didn't.

History doesn't actually repeat, of course, but the echoes sometimes are deafening, and there are unfortunately going to be more before this war is over.

Image sources: Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM ART 935); @benv_w.

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