A hundred years of bombing: what has it done to us? by Paul Gilroy

By Wednesday 19 October 2011 No Comments

November 2011 marks the centenary of a world-historic event. An Italian pilot, Guilio Cavotti dropped the first bombs from an aeroplane on to the oasis of Tagiura outside Tripoli. The development of aerial bombardment was more than just a military revolution. It changed both war and peace. openDemocracy is the media partner for Shock and Awe: a hundred years of bombing from above and this is an invitation to a debate.

´Today, the fantasy of clean warfare has lost none of its power. Indeed, the militarization of social and cultural life in the overdeveloped countries is accelerating´


One hundred years ago this November, the world was irrevocably and significantly altered. The development of aerial bombardment, initially over Libya by an Italian pilot, would create and routinise a new kind of warfare. The character of violent conflict was transformed along with the legal and moral systems that made it intelligible.

Though fire and rocketry were old weapons, the risks of warcraft were acutely redistributed in the novel discrepancy between bombers and bombed. Terror itself became a weapon. Attackers from above were virtually inaccessible while those they attacked beneath were rendered absolutely vulnerable. Any distinction between combatants and non-combatants, civilians and soldiery was rapidly outmoded. It is our contention that development of aerial bombardment was more than just a military revolution.  Through a careful examination of its history we can understand differently the history of empire, nationalism and the racial ordering of humanity.

These airborne technologies of mass death manifested an imperial drama. The world it revealed, exhibited all the necessary Darwinian discrepancies in the value accorded to different, contending forms of life visible along racial and cultural lines. The imperatives of nature combined readily with those of linear, progressive history. Vertical, technologically-mediated relationships overdetermined the encounter between civilised and savage, altering the sense of scale involved. It would now be much easier to extinguish distant, infra-human shapes remotely, as if they were nothing more than insects or vermin. A critical assessment of bombing reveals more than just a hidden history of empire but reveals similarities between this past and contemporary military interventions that are made in the name of freedom and liberty. Today’s operators of automated, aerial weapons are said to refer to the results of their global work as “bug splat”.

It is hard and currently becoming harder not to see these epochal developments as part of a narrative that reaches down the years into our own time, shaping the practice of statecraft and institutionalising particular ways of looking at the world and acting upon it with violence. Aerial war conducted without the anxiety-inducing necessity of “boots on the ground” has lately become part of the repertoire of humanitarian intervention. Yet, while people remain intimidated by the accusation of political correctness, there is great resistance to the suggestion that racial hierarchy was integral to the deployment of these mechanized killing technologies.

As Sven Lindqvist  and others have demonstrated, Europe’s air-forces proved their viability and strategic worth in colonial settings that consolidated imperial power and brought alive the idea that war might be practiced in a cleaner, more modern and surgical, hi-tech manner. The idea that killing natives was of little consequence because they were already doomed by nature and history, was brought to its terminal point.

World war two saw these processes augmented in myriad ways. Seemingly endless ingenuity was brought to bear upon the techniques involved in dealing out death from the sky. Today the names of Hiroshima and Nagasaki supply the watchwords for these general tendencies which were refined systematically in a host of decolonizing conflicts from Kenya to Algeria. The lives and lands of many indigenous peoples were poisoned and laid waste by the testing of ever more powerful and awful weaponry.

Today, the fantasy of clean warfare has lost none of its power. Indeed, the militarization of social and cultural life in the overdeveloped countries is accelerating. Britain’s official patterns of commemoration and remembrance specify narrow priorities that do not include the colonial histories of these crimes.

Instead Britons are once again growing used to the rumble of vintage bombers overhead. Earlier this year the military spin operation reassured its online readers that in the 68th anniversary year of “Operation Chastise” the Dambusters of 617 squadron – now based in Kandahar – are once again “doing what they do best; taking the fight to the enemy in the hot and dusty environment of Afghanistan”. Popular appreciation of the royal wedding was enhanced by the information that the duchess of Cambridge’s grandfather, Peter Middleton, had been an RAF instructor at a Canadian base in Calgary where RAF flyers were trained. We learned that he gave service later in the war as a fighter pilot who was notable for bravely using “the wing tips of his Mosquito warplane to divert deadly German ‘doodlebug’ flying bombs away from London. Middleton was among a group of elite RAF ‘top guns’ used to push the V1s off-course.”

These events have become important props in the rituals and PR pageantry of an invented national togetherness that aims to sacralise today’s belligerent adventures by making them continuous with a simpler, heroic past in which Britons were righteous victims before they were plucky victors.

The bombs that Britain dropped, the firestorms that it started and the nation’s peculiar history of innovation in this dubious area are mostly forgotten. Instead, the country’s  finest hour is conjured in the story of remorseless popular resistance to Germany’s blitzkrieg. Britain’s ebbing ability to punch above its weight and justly to sit at the world’s top table is somehow confirmed by epic tales of enduring aerial power and correspondingly by melancholic and nostalgic accounts of the tarnished technological sublimity of the Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters that made it possible.

Critical judgment and a clear memory

Revisiting this history is now essential because nostalgia not only clouds critical judgment but it inhibits our ability to make connections across time.  The melancholic obsession with World War II hinders British society from developing a more complicated and honest form of historical reflection.  A good example in recent times is the widespread condemnations this summer of ‘looting’ in British cities as ‘un-British’. Gavin Mortimer pointed out that during the Blitz looting was widespread with 4,584 cases between September 1940 and May 1941.  Londoners stripping belongings and money from corpses and raiding gas meters in bombed out homes does not sit well with the image of the Blitz as exemplifying the best of ‘British values’.  Our relationship to this past must be rescued from the distorting oversimplifications that would rearrange the world in tidy, Manichaean patterns.

The chronic problem of social amnesia in public debate is not only about the relationship to the past.  Rather, part of the problem with the geopolitical interventions today often made in the name of humanitarianism is that they are presented as outside of history.  The exercise of military power today forgets its past in order to make its current operations legitimate.

But postcolonial Europe has to work through its past crimes as well as its past sufferings. In Britain, that difficult, dual process might even be used to produce a more psychological healthy national community at peace with itself and the world, which remembers the imperial and colonial period even if Europeans have contrived to erase it.

With these issues in mind we will be holding a three day conference in London to coincide with the centenary.  Shock and Awe: A Hundred Years of Bombing from Above brings together internationally renowned critics, artists, sociologists, philosophers and historians to reflect on all aspects of a hundred years of bombing. At this event the difficult agenda established by reflection on this century will be addressed from London; but those discussions will not be confined to Britain and its particular bombing histories.  In addition, through openDemocracy we hope to inaugurate a global conversation about what aerial bombardment reveals about the nature of military power and geopolitical ordering.

We invite readers to add their own expertise and local examples from the past and the present.  While not intending to limit the terms of this conversation, we propose to initiate debate by posing three key questions:

   How has bombing from the air altered the relationship between law, war and popular legitimacy?

    How did bombing reveal the ordering of humankind and how is this connected to the legacy of empire and racism?

    How are today’s aerial wars – justified as humanitarian intervention – related to a century of aerial bombardment?

We want to open up a conversation with the past but equally to question how the bombers of today are connected to this legacy of devastation from the sky.  In 1940 Virginia Wolf wrote in her essay Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid that peace required the demilitarization of European culture. “We must create more honourable activities for those who try to conquer in themselves their fighting instinct, their subconscious Hitlerism. We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun” she concluded bluntly.

It is perhaps harder still to imagine how the military machines of today might be compensated for the loss of their bombs.  The return of bomber diplomacy to Libya in 2011, where US Airforce jets drop bombs in the name of fostering democracy, makes a critical conversation about the uses of airpower all the more urgent.  Those goals cannot be accomplished unless, in the names of peace and truth, we can begin, self-consciously to build a new, worldly and cosmopolitan dialogue about the horrors of the past. That dialogue will have to connect the experiences of bombers and bombed in unforeseen patterns, not in order to render them interchangeable or equivalent but to affirm their interrelatedness and the humanity they hold in common.

About the authors
Paul Gilroy is Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University and author of Between Camps (published in the USA as Against Race) and The Black Atlantic.
Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His books include The Art of Listening (Berg, 2007), Theories of Race and Racism (Routledge, 2001)