For the past few years I have been teaching Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing (2001) in a first year narrative class. The book is comprised of 399 distinct passages, presented in chronological order, tracing a history of bombing, and primarily aerial bombardment, from 762 CE to 1999. While the passages are presented in chronological order, they are organized as a series of 22 arguments, as Lindqvist describes them, which guide the reader back and forth in time to trace a particular historical narrative. For instance, some narratives focus on the way in which bombing and “superweapons” were imagined in literature long before they were technologically possible, while others focus on particular wars, such as the Korean war, or the use of aerial bombing to assert control over European colonies. Lindqvist describes the form of the narrative as a labyrinth, requiring readers to move back and forth in time: “Wherever you are in the text, events and thoughts from that same period surround you, but they belong to narratives other than the one you happen to be following. That’s the intention. That way the text emerges as what it is – one of many possible paths through the chaos of history.”
For many students it is a difficult book. Because there is no argument per se, but a series of passages grouped together and juxtaposed against one another, it is difficult to make sense of; the text is fragmented, polyvocal, and interdisciplinary, and so it is radically different from the literature and history they have become accustomed to. The text’s content is also difficult. Students are disturbed by the testimony of survivors of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, the science fiction that demonizes and dehumanizes all Asians as a threat to Europe, and the callousness of the planning of aerial bombardment. As one student this past term identified, the representation of the horrors of bombing is not as disturbing as the quotations from those who devised the strategies of killing human beings on a mass scale. Further, every year there are a few students who express their frustration, or even anger, that after 12 years of schooling, and annual Remembrance Day ceremonies, it is only in university that they learn of the events and perspectives that Lindqvist presents.
The text, then, provides a counter-narrative to the dominant narratives of war, both in terms of form and content; in other words, the text uncovers the project of forgetting that is integral to the way in which we commemorate war and remember the past. For instance, the cultural memory in the U.S. and Canada of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it was a last resort, designed to end the war quickly and save American lives; Lindqvist quotes U.S. government documents showing that this was not the case. Arthur Harris, the commander of Allied bomber command proudly asserted that the aim of the bombing offensive was “the obliteration of German cities and their inhabitants as such” (Lindqvist #205); this reality was excised from the official rationale and is not included in British and Canadian war museum exhibits. We remember bombing and warfare as a means of liberating the oppressed and destroying tyranny, but Lindqvist traces how historically the position of “civilian,” protected from bombing, has always been reserved to people categorized as “white”, and the development of bombing technology was fostered by a desire to protect the “white race” from the perceived/manufactured threat of racial Others. Apart from the 1939-45 war in Europe, bombs have almost always been dropped by white people on people racialized as “not white” and so not quite human. A History of Bombing disturbs by remembering what remembrance forgets.
In class, and on past exams, I have asked whether it would be appropriate to read passages from A History of Bombing at a Remembrance Day ceremony. While this question often leads to some very thoughtful and engaging debate, more often than not, students contend that the text would not be appropriate. The imagery – whether it be survivor testimony, political rationale for bombing, or descriptions of the physics of what shrapnel does when it pierces skin and enters a body – is not consistent with the purpose of this national day of mourning. After the so-called Great War in Europe, the testimony and poetry depicting the battle of the Somme, for instance, showed the horror and futility of war. The war was deemed the war to end all wars; to remember was to prevent war from happening ever again. This determination was shortly replaced by the phrase “Lest we Forget.” But what is it that we are not to forget?
This past Remembrance Day, I spoke on the morning programme for CBC Radio One in the British Columbia southern interior to discuss the history and rationale for the white poppy. The Canadian Legion has threatened legal action against the distribution of white poppies and has condemned the white poppy campaign for denigrating the memory of Canadian soldiers and infringing on the Legion’s copyright. Each year this controversy seems to arise anew despite the fact that the wearing of white poppies has occurred for nearly as long as the red poppy. The Co-operative Women’s Guild in the United Kingdom started distributing white poppies in 1933 and since then they have been produced by the Peace Pledge Union in the UK. In Canada, individuals and groups get white poppies from the PPU or make their own. The primary reasons that people choose to wear white poppies instead of red are that the white poppy is meant to commemorate and mourn all who have died in warfare, and not just British/Canadian soldiers, and to signify the commitment to fostering alternatives to warfare.
In her critical contemplation of the identity politics that informs the current “war on terror”, cultural theorist Judith Butler states: “The question that preoccupies me in the light of recent global violence, is Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life” (20)? She argues that certain lives can be killed without mourning or consequence because their lives were never recognized in the first place; their deaths are unmarkable (35). Inspired by her discussion of The San Francisco Chronicle’s refusal to publish either an obituary or an ‘in memoriam’ for two Palestinian families killed by Israeli soldiers, in February of this year I submitted to three Kelowna newspapers/news sites an obituary for twelve civilians murdered by NATO forces in Helmand province, Afghanistan. These twelve people “died unpeacefully by rocket attack 14 February 2010” I wrote. Only one of the newspapers I submitted the obituary to was willing to print it (or even reply to my many emails), and then took a couple of weeks, and a few requests, to post it on their online addition, which is normally standard practice. My assertion on the radio programme that we should seek to honour and grieve all who have died in war and not only Canadian soldiers (among other comments) provoked much debate and consternation among listeners, as evidenced by their phone calls and emails in response.
To prepare for the interview, I downloaded the Royal Canadian Legion’s teaching guide for Remembrance Day services, which outline the Legion’s purpose to perpetuate a tradition of remembrance (11), specifically to remember those Canadians who have sacrificed themselves in war: only Canadians. The primary themes of remembrance in the teaching guide include the assertion that: Canadian soldiers have fought and died in war “to defend the freedom and democracy that we enjoy today” (ii); Canadians have taken “up arms with our allies to defeat those that would seek to subjugate others” (2); at Vimy Ridge, Canada shed its imperial origins, as a colony, and “came of age” (5); and, finally, that we have fought wars for peace (31). This practice of commemoration, then, dehistoricizes and depoliticizes particular wars and the practice of warfare. War is normalized, and indeed it is produced as a necessary, noble and honourable institution.
I might contest these presuppositions, by arguing, for instance that women’s rights (i.e. personhood, choice), labour rights (i.e. the eight-hour workday), or the right to health care we cherish were all fostered through social justice struggles in Canada and not won on battlefields in South Africa, Belgium, Korea or Afghanistan; indeed the basic liberal freedoms of thought, speech, movement, etc., are all infringed upon in times of war, especially, but more generally then we care to admit (the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010 is a recent high-profile case of these hard-fought rights being denied). I might note that on the same page as the assertion that Canadians have always fought to liberate the oppressed, the manual identifies the history of the Northwest Mounted Police, the defeat of the Riel Rebellion, and Canadian participation in the so-called Boer War; no context is provided for these wars or acknowledgement that they each provide examples of how warfare was used by Canada to subjugate and oppress indigenous people, in Canada and in South Africa. I might note that high school students learn in their social studies classes that Canada “came of age” in the Great War, and that we fight for peace, always, while in their English classes they read Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, where the totalitarian regime proclaims, “War is Peace.” The perpetuation of remembrance, then, is not about remembering; it is more about imagining identity and justifying militarism (as democracy/freedom) in the present.
Echoing a news story in 2008 that reported how the last surviving British World War I veteran shuns Remembrance Day ceremonies because “He didn’t think we should glorify war”, this year a group of British veterans formally protested the way that Remembrance Day ceremonies in the UK are an act of forgetting. They write:
“The Poppy Appeal is once again subverting Armistice Day. A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars. This year’s campaign has been launched with showbiz hype. The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored.
“The public are being urged to wear a poppy in support of ‘our Heroes’. There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict.
“Remembrance should be marked with the sentiment ‘Never Again’.
How do we do justice to the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers in the “cause of freedom,” by limiting the narrative of remembrance so narrowly, as the Legion, and national commemorations seem to do? What kind of freedom have we won, if we foreclose spaces to discuss the horror of war, the causes of war, and the possibilities for alternatives to war?
In the Legion’s guide, they provide a number of poems for remembrance ceremonies. Each reflect the tradition of war poetry that contemplates and honours sacrifice, national belonging, and Christian struggle. There are no poems that depict the horrors of war the British veterans identify; for instance, poems by Rosenberg, Sassoon or Owen, or passages from Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed (1928). Among the poems the guide does include is “The Children’s Song” (the guide only provides six of the eight stanzas). The poet is not identified, which is curious. The author of the poem is the great British colonial poet, Rudyard Kipling, who coined the term “The white man’s burden” to implore the United States to colonize and subjugate the people of the Philippines. “The Children’s Song” begins: “Land of our Birth, we pledge to thee/ Our love and toil in the years to be;/ When we are grown and take our place,/ As men and women with our race.” What race is it that is referred to in these lines? What community of belonging is delineated in such a poem?
That a current teaching guide such as this should include an overtly white supremacist poem – by a poet who glorified and helped provided the cultural narratives justifying British colonialism as a project of white racial supremacy – not as a means of fostering discussion and debate over Canada’s history of warfare, but as a way to honour that history, reflects the way in which the admonishment, “Lest we forget” constitutes what Paul Gilroy describes as postimperial melancholia. Gilroy argues that Britain suffers from a melancholy resulting from the loss of their fantasy of omnipotence; such melancholy inhibits the ability to “work through the grim details of imperial and colonial history and to transform paralyzing guilt into a more productive shame that would be conducive to the building of a multicultural nationality that is no longer phobic about the exposure to either strangers or otherness” (99); postimperial melancholia “is associated with the neotraditional pathology” of what in the British setting takes on the form of “the morbidity of heritage” (99-100). Gilroy identifies, as an example of this melancholia, the chant of English football fans, “Two world wars and one World Cup, doo dah, doo dah”, a song of “fraternalistic and class-bound braggadocio” that reinforces the British national fantasy (107). This chant was used for a pre-World Cup commercial in the summer of 2010, and, in a disturbing irony, one of the few times that fan singing rose above the blaring vuvuzelas, the English fans were heard to sing, in a game against Slovenia at Port Elizabeth/Mandela Bay, the imperial hymn of British superiority and dominance, “Rule Britannia”.
Such articulations of memory are an act of forgetting, and a barrier to alternative viewpoints. Each year, Canadian school children recite John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields.” When I teach it in university classrooms, however, many respond by saying that though they know all the words and have spoken those words year after year in November, they have never actually read the poem, interpreted its meaning, or researched its history. On the ten dollar bill, the first stanza of the poem is inscribed; the sombre commemoration of those who have died in war, now resting beneath the rows of crosses and the fields of poppies. However, As Nancy Holmes argues, “in the last stanza, McCrae abandons his skilful representation of the war torn, spiritually diseased soul by applying an ideological gloss that reads like a recruiting poster. The critical silence surrounding the complexities of this poem have led to its reappropriation by the Canadian government as a symbol of the military and heroism rather than a rite of genuine war remembrance.” The poem, and its use, serves to occlude the possibility of critical reflection on Canada’s participation in warfare and the imperial aspects of those wars. McCrae’s poem ends with an appeal to take up the torch passed on by those who have sacrificed themselves, and carry on the quarrel with the foe. In the present, such a sentiment rationalizes the “perpetuation of remembrance” as a glorification of, and justification for, Canada’s wars, past and present. In contrast, the first passage of Lindqvist’s book provides a reflection on childhood, and war as play. Lindqvist remembers how by the age of five he was already a seasoned bombardier, as each time he took a piss, he chose a target and bombed it. The passage ends with the wisdom of his mother: “’If everyone plays war,’ said my mother, ‘there will be war.’ And she was quite right – there was” (Lindqvist #1).
Judith Butler. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. 2004.
Paul Gilroy. Postcolonial Melancholia. 2005.
Charles Yale Harrison. Generals Die in Bed. 1928/1974.
Nancy Holmes. “’In Flanders Fields’ — Canada’s Official Poem: Breaking Faith”
Studies in Canadian Literature. 30:1 (2005)
David Jefferess. “Responsibility, Nostalgia, and the Mythology of Canada as a
Peacekeeper.” University of Toronto Quarterly 78: 2 (2009)
Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing. 2000/2001.
Royal Canadian Legion. Teachers’ Guide. http://www.legion.ca/Poppy/teachers_e.cfm
PPU, White Poppies for Peace: http://www.ppu.org.uk/poppy/