Books - A History of Bombing

Swedish historian Sven Lindqvist on whistling while you wait.

A History of Bombing

By Sven Lindqvist

Granta Books, 2002 (second edition)

Of all the words carved into the 20th century, Total War run the deepest. Within
that clipped and clean little phrase echo the screams of Guernica, Nanking,
Dresden and Nagasaki. Total War means exactly what it says. It means that in
a global conflict, everyone dies, including you, your sister and your sister’s

The most momentous leaps in the scale of modern warfare have been made in the
clouds. Total War rests on relatively recent advances in aviation and explosives,
and these histories make up two of the entwined spinal cords running down Sven
Lindqvist’s remarkable A History of Bombing, a new edition of which has just
been published by Granta.

The book is lean, muscular, angry and smart. Divided into short, numbered chunks
of text, A History of Bombing is a nonlinear stop-and-go tour of industrial
death by cannon, bomb and missile. Like other civilian peaceniks who double
as military historians – one thinks of Gabriel Kolko – Lindqvist is a scathing
and bitter guide. The result is an unapologetically personal history of bombs
and the modern apocalyptic imagination, with autobiographical nuggets embedded
within a hard and well-sourced historical narrative.

The story begins – to the extent that this disjointed book has a beginning –
with the efforts of an 8th-century Persian legal scholar to establish civilized
rules of war during Islam’s two-pronged expansion into Europe. It ends 1,300
years later in a world brimming with thermonuclear mega-tonnage and riddled
with the bones of millions of murdered civilians.

Lindqvist is eager to show that Total War was a new concept in the 20th century
only insofar as it was applied to Europe. The indiscriminate use of poison gas,
bomber planes and machine guns against civilian populations was common in the
colonies of the European powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Lindqvist
gruesomely details the use of Total War tactics in Africa and Asia long before
they were visited upon the tree-lined esplanades of London and Berlin. (Prior
to the advent of aerial bombing, European warships would fire cannons into rebellious
colonial cities from the sea to devastating effect.)

The purpose of these imperialist air raids on civilian targets was to terrify
as well as kill, and it worked. Colonial properties were terrorized into submission
until the middle of the 20th century, when modern guerilla tactics proved the
limits of controlling rural enemies from above. Cracks in the double standard
governing the rules of war (one for Europe, one for the colonies) appeared during
World War I, but it was only in the 1930s that the terrors previously reserved
for Tripoli and Somaliland were unleashed in Europe’s civilized front yards.

In World War II, Europe’s kid gloves came off. Cities around the continent were
saturation-bombed into fresh soot, and out of feverish wartime research emerged
the first missile, along with new and creatively hellish weapons. It was discovered
that by dropping enough large bombs in rapid succession, a vast fireball was
formed that engulfed entire urban tracts. Thus did the British Royal Air Force
lay waste to the civilian target of Dresden; thus did the U.S. Air Force reduce
Tokyo to ash. The contrast of horrific survivor accounts and the boasts of Allied
leaders is chilling. For the notion of the “Good War,” Lindqvist has nothing
but informed contempt.

The second half of the book focuses on the careers of two other children of
the war: napalm and the nuke.

Napalm – an American concoction of gasoline and aluminum palminate – was first
used against Japan in WWII, where it was considered the perfect weapon against
non-military targets made of wood and paper. Napalm death is painful: It sends
fiery globs of glutinous oil deep into muscle tissue, where it smolders inoperably
for days. The original napalm recipe was refined and dropped heavily in the
Korean War, then further refined again for use in Indochina. The napalm dropped
by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War – 373,000 tons of it – adhered
better and burned more deeply into human flesh, thanks to the scientists at
Du Pont Chemicals.

Altogether, the explosive power of the bombs dropped by the U.S. on Vietnam
was four times that dropped by the U.S. in all of WWII, or the equivalent of
640 Hiroshimas. Needless to say, Lindqvist is not an apologist for U.S. action
in Vietnam.

Casting a tall shadow across Lindqvist’s book is, of course, The Bomb. Not the
A-bomb, a relative firecracker, but the H-bomb, which holds 1,000 times the
destructive power of the nuclear charges dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Lindqvist draws sharp vignettes of the atomic era, including technical descriptions
of the effect of a blast’s shockwave and an overview of the theoretical and
economic underpinnings of more than 50 years of nuclear power politics. His
damning review of the American decision to drop the bomb on Japan draws heavily
on the work of revisionist scholars like Gar Alperovitz.

Like the century he tries to mirror, A History of Bombing is a dizzying and
draining experience. When the reader collapses at the feet of the book’s final
and 399th chapter, the single cryptic line standing there almost makes sense:
“And what is now yet to come.”

Then you close the book and try to forget everything you just read.

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