‘Targeting the City’

March 23, 2009

A useful, if inconclusive, survey of air war, memory and ethics: C.S. Maier, ‘Targeting the City: Debates and Silences about the Aerial Bombing of World War II’, International Review of the Red Cross, 87, 859 (Sept 2005), 429-444, can be downloaded here

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Week 10 review

March 22, 2009

This week we shifted onto looking at interpretations and representations of Bomber Command’s campaign – the final section of the course.

In the lecture, on legality and morality, I tried to do three things – talk generally about the history of war, ethics and law, talk historically about contemporary justifications and condemnations of bombing, and to try to come to my own judgement about Britain’s bombing campaign against Germany.  I suggested three reasons why we needed to think about morality and strategic bombing – first to recognise the discourse that existed at the time, second because I think there is a human duty not to disengage from the morality of military affairs, and third because we have a public duty as historians to try to make sure the past is well used. Moral philosophers will keep writing about war using the example of the bombing campaign against Germany whether we like it or not, so we might as well try to make sure that they’re well informed. Reading up to prepare the lecture, I was struck by how much of the moral philosophical writing about air war is historically garbage (much of it based on a partial, heavily filtered, overly simplistic version of the Official History).

Then I offered some ideas about whether or not conduct in war could be subject to moral and legal judgements – more as a way to stimulate thought than as a comprehensive survey of the field. I introduced students to Clausewitz’s remarkable trinity as a way of thinking about the different influences on the nature of war (Clausewitz is a good example of the inadequacy of much philosophising on morality and war. I’ve lost count of the number of times I read commentators suggesting that Clausewitz said war ‘should’ be carried to its utmost extremities – which seems plain evidence that they have either not read his work, or totally misunderstood his method of comparing theory and reality). I also introduced Michael Walzer’s notion of the ‘war convention’ – the set of culturally determined assumed norms about wartime behaviour. Using this idea, I moved on to discuss the range of opinion at the time about the morality and utility of bombing, and suggested that the way the Air Ministry ‘spun’ bombing indicated that they believed that area attacks violated the ‘war convention’ in place at the time. Read the rest of this entry »


Week 7 reflection

March 3, 2009

This week, we moved on from analysing why the bombing campaign took the form it did and what it achieved to examining the experiences of those involved. Rather than concentrating on the experience of aircrew to start off with, I wanted to begin with looking at the far larger number of those who were involved with strategic bombing without actually flying planes over Germany. In particular, I wanted to highlight the role of RAF groundcrew and MAP factory workers, and to examine some of the implications of the sort of war Britain fought 1941-1944 for contemporary representations. Read the rest of this entry »


Target for Tonight

January 26, 2009

One of the areas I’ve tried to discuss as the course moves on is the way in which the bombing campaign was represented at the time. Below is one of the key films relating to this subject, the Crown Film Unit’s Target for Tonight (1941), in five youtube clips. Further details of the film can be found at screenonline. Again, think about what this film tells us both as a source on Bomber Command itself, and as a source on how it was represented. Bear in mind the situation the Command was in when the film was made, and its reception both within the RAF and amongst the general public. Those interested could read – K.R.M. Short ‘RAF Bomber Command’s Target for Tonight (1941)’, Historical Journal of Radio, Film and Television 17, 2, 1997.

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‘Bomber’ Harris

January 6, 2009

In a famous and much quoted speech at the start of 1943, Air Chief Marshal Harris, AOC Bomber Command, makes a public statement about his hopes for British bombing. Who is he talking to? How do his words relate to the Command’s capabilities?