Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing

by Aleksandra Priestfield

July 15, 2002


This book is a descent into the darkest of labyrinths -- the depths of depravity that one human being can sink to against another.

"What is permissible in war?" Lindqvist asks rhetorically. "When is one allowed to wage war against savages and barbarians?"

The answer, he says, is "always."

"What is permissible in wars against savages and barbarians?"

And the answer to that, he says, is "anything."

Therefore, cast your enemy as the barbarian, make your populace believe it and clamor against him, and you may do anything you choose. If your enemy should claim that you are the barbarian, of course, this just PROVES that he is the barbarian, for if he were not how could he possibly believe that you are?

Lindqvist's book is not a straightforward narrative, and this is almost scary as and of itself. The patchwork quilt that he provides and guides you through stretches from the first millennium to the second, and it is frightening to see how much pain and misery the human race has inflicted upon itself in that time.

Not only that, but we seem to have reinvented the worst of it over and over again.

The first bombs began to be used in warfare as far back in 1044, dropped from the walls of fortified cities or flung by catapults at the enemy. One of the first recorded technical descriptions of a bomb dates from 12th century China, where it was filled with porcelain shards designed to be flung out at the enemy upon impact; in 1412 so-called "fragmentation bombs" were thin iron shells, also designed to shatter on impact, filled with iron shot -- the jagged bits of metal meant to "wound the skin and break the bones." In the 20th century, we have graduated... to cluster bombs.

Why mess with a perfectly good way to kill? Just refine and improve...

The vexing question of so-called "precision bombing" or "surgical bombing" is not a new thing, either. Almost 150 years ago the British Navy arrived in Japan to exact vengeance for the murder of one of their countrymen. They shelled the city of Kagoshima until half the city, almost entirely destroyed by the barrage, was left in flames. But the leader of this expedition, a gentleman by the name of Admiral Kuper, received full and unqualified support in a debate in the British House of Commons when the matter was discussed there. Kuper would have acted improperly, a government spokesman said, if he had aimed his guns at the civilian population deliberately. But that had not been the case, the official concluded, since he had been aiming at the city's fortifications.

It was just "collateral damage."

This business of claiming immunity from charges of atrocity because a bomber didn't "mean" to drop his bomb in one place and not another continues to be the prevalent attitude. There are any number of reasons why "stray" bombs hit things like the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, or, more recently, an alarming number of Afghan weddings. The fact that the bomb is a killing machine designed to destroy whatever it hits, and that it WILL kill people whatever is done with it if it is used properly, remains an irrelevant issue to government officials of too many countries to this day.

Not only does the method and the justification remain frighteningly unchanged through the years, so do the protagonists. For instance, a 1868 book titled Modern International Law of the Civilized Nations finds cause to condemn what author Caspar Bluntschli called the "genocidal campaign conducted by the ancient Jews against the people of Palestine," cautioning against using the outdated and violent dictums as set out in Deuteronomy as incompatible with the era's more "enlightened" humanitarian rules. The era has changed, Jews and Palestinians are still at each other's throats in the Middle East, and Deuteronomy still appears to be the rulebook.

This isn't light reading -- but unless we are to endlessly confirm Santayana and his dictum that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, it is required reading.

There are obviously lessons the human race is STILL waiting to learn.

· · · · · ·

Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing; translated by Berkeley Scandinavian studies professor Linda Haverty Rugg; New Press; ISBN: 1565846257; March 2001. Get this book from your local, independent bookstore thanks to BookSense.com - Ordering through BookSense gives you two options -- you supply your zip code and city and book preference information and you'll be given the name of the independent bookstore nearest you that has the book in stock. Then you can either ask that it be held in the store for you to pick up or you can order it through the website and have it mailed to you. If you have no access to a local, independent bookstore, you can order this book from Amazon.com or Booksamillion. PLEASE, support your local and independent bookstores!


Aleksandra Priestfield is a writer and an editor. She contributes her regular columns to Swans.

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