As I Please
Tribune, 19 May 1944
Miss Vera Brittain’s pamphlet, Seed of Chaos, is
an eloquent attack on indiscriminate or ‘obliteration’ bombing. ‘Owing
to the R.A.F. raids,’ she says, ‘thousands of helpless and innocent
people in German, Italian and German-occupied cities are being subjected to
agonizing forms of death and injury comparable to the worst tortures of the
Middle Ages.’ Various well-known opponents of bombing, such as General
Franco and Major-General
Fuller, are brought out in support of this.
Miss Brittain is not, however, taking the pacifist standpoint. She is
willing and anxious to win the war, apparently. She merely wishes us to
stick to ‘legitimate’ methods of war and abandon civilian bombing, which
she fears will blacken our reputation in the eyes of posterity. Her pamphlet
is issued by the Bombing Restriction Committee, which has issued others with
Now, no one in his senses regards bombing, or any other operation of war, with anything but disgust. On the other hand, no decent person cares tuppence for the opinion of posterity. And there is something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features. Pacifism is a tenable position; provided that you are willing to take the consequences. But all talk of ‘limiting’ or ‘humanizing’ war is sheer humbug, based on the fact that the average human being never bothers to examine catchwords.
The catchwords used in this connexion are ‘killing civilians’, ‘massacre of women and children’ and ‘destruction of our cultural heritage’. It is tacitly assumed that air bombing does more of this kind of thing than ground warfare.
When you look a bit closer, the first question that strikes you is: Why is it worse to kill civilians than soldiers? Obviously one must not kill children if it is in any way avoidable, but it is only in propaganda pamphlets that every bomb drops on a school or an orphanage. A bomb kills a cross-section of the population; but not quite a representative selection, because the children and expectant mothers are usually the first to be evacuated, and some of the young men will be away in the army. Probably a disproportionately large number of bomb victims will be middle-aged. (Up to date, German bombs have killed between six and seven thousand children in this country. This is, I believe, less than the number killed in road accidents in the same period.) On the other hand, ‘normal’ or ‘legitimate’ warfare picks out and slaughters all the healthiest and bravest of the young male population. Every time a German submarine goes to the bottom about fifty young men of fine physique and good nerves are suffocated. Yet people who would hold up their hands at the very words ‘civilian bombing’ will repeat with satisfaction such phrases as ‘We are winning the Battle of the Atlantic’. Heaven knows how many people our blitz on Germany and the occupied countries has killed and will kill, but you can be quite certain it will never come anywhere near the slaughter that has happened on the Russian front.
War is not avoidable at this stage of history, and since it has to happen it does not seem to me a bad thing that others should be killed besides young men. I wrote in 1937: ‘Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet hole in him.’ We haven’t yet seen that (it is perhaps a contradiction in terms), but at any rate the suffering of this war has been shared out more evenly than the last one was. The immunity of the civilian, one of the things that have made war possible, has been shattered. Unlike Miss Brittain, I don’t regret that. I can’t feel that war is ‘humanized’ by being confined to the slaughter of the young and becomes ‘barbarous’ when the old get killed as well.
As to international agreements to ‘limit’ war, they are never kept when it pays to break them. Long before the last war the nations had agreed not to use gas, but they used it all the same. This time they have refrained, merely because gas is comparatively ineffective in a war of movement, while its use against civilian populations would be sure to provoke reprisals in kind. Against an enemy who can’t hit back, e.g. the Abyssinians, it is used readily enough. War is of its nature barbarous, it is better to admit that. If we see ourselves as the savages we are, some improvement is possible, or at least thinkable.
A specimen of Tribune’s correspondence:
THE JEW-PAID EDITOR, TRIBUNE, LONDON.
Typed on a Remington typewriter (postmark S.W.), and,
what is to my mind an interesting detail, this is a carbon copy.
The Estate of Eric Blair
Reproduced here under educational Fair Use law