Eric's Reviews > A History of Bombing

A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist
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's review
Nov 29, 11

bookshelves: hearts-laid-bare, history, lurid, massacres, war, historiophantasmagoria
Read in November, 2011

We cannot change the hearts and minds of those people…but we can make war so terrible, make them so sick of war, that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it. (General Sherman). That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know…

A History of Bombing is a history of aerial bombardment--the most indiscriminate, politically punitive, and frankly terroristic style of fighting—in three hundred and ninety-nine vignettes. Lindqvist calls his book “a labyrinth with twenty-two entrances and no exit,” each entrance a narrative or an argument that concludes with a vision of humanity’s certain savagery, and probable doom. “Follow the threads,” he invites us, “put together the horrifying puzzle, and, once you have seen my century, build one of your own from other pieces.”

My favorite entrances are those on the newly-invented airplane as an instrument of colonial control, and as an inspirer of European fantasies of effortless global subjection and loftily sanitary extermination (like all such colonial fantasies, they would blow back on Europe). The airplane enters warfare as a colonial policeman. “Pilot as policeman, bomb as baton.” The legality of bombing civilians was discussed only insofar as it threatened to be practiced in Europe; for the savages, wholesale chastisement. The first air raid came in 1911, when an Italian flier leaned from his fragile contraption to toss a few hand grenades over a Libyan oasis thought to conceal a fractious tribe. After World War One, aerial bombing was a relatively cheap way for cash-strapped powers to put down native rebellions—or, to at least flatten the villages where Iraqi, Indian, Burmese or Yemeni insurgents might harbor. Sir Arthur Harris flew in the Afghan War of 1919, which ended after a single demoralizing airstrike (our dronemakers can only sigh); during World War Two, as head of RAF Bomber Command, Harris would burn down Hamburg, Dresden, and fifty-nine other German cities, confident at each take-off of Hitler’s imminent surrender.

The generals liked the efficiency of air raids, colonial ministers their cheapness—while the men of letters dreamt of airships, death rays, and the immolation of the coloreds. Lindqvist is distinctive in his knowledge of science fiction, and of the casually genocidal racism therein. Dreams of a purifying fire from above predate the first military use of aircraft. “[F]antasies of genocide lay in wait for the first airplane to arrive,” he writes. “The dream of solving all the problems of the world through mass destruction from the air was already in place before the first bomb was dropped.” Almost as a rule of the genre, airpower porn of early twentieth century science fiction features the complete extermination of the Chinese—“the yellow armies of Heathendom”—from on high. The feared swamping of the white man by dusky hordes? Pow! Zap! Solved! World War One, though, makes cracks in European confidence. In many of the bestselling novels of the interwar period London and Paris are “bombed back to barbarism,” are bombed—in Anderson Graham’s The Collapse of the Homo Sapiens (1923) and Desmond Shaw’s Ragnorok (1926)—by vengeful Asians and Africans who’ve learned Western technology at wrong-headedly inclusive liberal universities and who then turn Europe's glittering boulevards into flashbacks of the traumatic trenches where giant rodents batten on heaps of dead.*

As distasteful as Lindqvist finds such writing, you can really hear the vomit rise in his throat as he describes the apocalyptic survivalist sci-fi produced by Americans during the Cold War. This sub-genre combines the traditional exterminations (America nukes Red Chai-nuh, and its own ghettos) with the joyous destruction of the West’s liberal society, from the wreckage of which lopes that fearsome and ridiculous creature, the Reinvigorated White Man. “As soon as the little wife has died in the blast, the husband is free to be Tarzan, hunting in the great luxuriant forests that soon grow up in the ruins of Manhattan.”

People between the wars had been afraid to be bombed back to barbarism—to filth, starvation, and the rats. But during the postwar period, especially for American men, barbarism began to look promising…Paradoxically, a military technology that had divorced destruction from every personal characteristic of the individual created dreams of a future where the courage, manliness, and physical strength of an already-vanished world were still decisive.

I wonder what Pynchon has to say about all this. Where I live, the season of torrential snows draws nigh, and I dream of withdrawal to a yet-more-northerly cabin, for a month, with an armful of assorted whiskies and Gravity’s Rainbow. The “tumultuous privacy of the storm” (need to read more fucking Emerson, too) is perfect for deep, hibernal reading.


* “Apart from the distraught behavior of the people themselves, the most striking change in the natural order of the cities during the weeks after a devastating raid was undoubtedly the sudden and alarming increase in the parasitical creatures thriving on the unburied bodies. The conspicuous sparsity of observations and comments on this phenomenon can be explained as the tacit imposition of a taboo, very understandable if one remembers that the Germans, who had proposed to cleanse and sanitize all Europe, now had to contend with a rising fear that they themselves were the rat people.” (W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction)

I assume Sebald wants us to recall the Jews-as-rats montage from the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew. How’s that for irony!

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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Manny (new)

Manny men of letters dreamt of airships, death rays, and the immolation of the coloreds. Lindqvist is distinctive in his knowledge of science fiction, and of the casually genocidal racism therein.

Does he mention the episode in Jules Verne's Robur-le-conquérant where Robur prevents a mass sacrifice in Dahomey by tossing a few sticks of dynamite on the newly crowned king and his court? It's interestingly ambiguous - I found it hard to decide whether this was meant to confirm that Robur was an insane megalomaniac, or, on the contrary, to suggest that he had a good side too.

message 2: by Eric (last edited Dec 01, 2011 07:32AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric Lindqvist does mention Robur and the Dahomey scene, even includes some illustrations from the first edition.

message 3: by Manny (new)

Manny My edition has the same illustration. It's about as politically incorrect as can be, isn't it?

What does he consider that Verne's take is on this episode?

Eric Lindqvist doesn't offer a reading of the novel. He simply contrasts two of Bennet's illustrations--the Albatross benignly illuminating the strollers of Paris, the Albatross bombing Dahomey--and sees an early instance of the dream of controlling savages from the air.

message 5: by Manny (new)

Manny Fair enough. I asked because Verne has this strange love/hate relationship with technology, and never quite seems to know how he feels about it. If only he'd actually been able to write, Robur-le-conquérant might have been an interesting book.

message 6: by Eric (last edited Dec 01, 2011 09:56AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric I wish Linqvist had more to say about the novel, but he doesn't linger.

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