Friday, June 06, 2008
RUSTY MEMORIES. This morning, the AP was reporting that a very real souvenir of the Second World War is attracting serious interest in the U.K., which has lately been doing an excellent job of papering over the lessons of that fracas.
LONDON -- Military engineers were working Friday to defuse a giant bomb from World War II that was discovered in east London during construction for the Olympic Games, but the work was not going as quickly as hoped, a military spokesman said.With writers on both sides of the Atlantic exercising eagle-eyed hindsight about the unnecessary and even criminal nature of Churchill's War (or Roosevelt's, depending on the vector of your flapping), it might be educational if the Royal Engineers asked Pat Buchanan or Christopher Hitchens's brother Peter to comment on the fact "that at one point the bomb had started to tick..."
Service on two nearby subway lines was suspended Friday as a precaution.
A team of Royal Engineers, from the British Army, had hoped to render the 2,200 pound bomb safe by 9 a.m Friday, but the operation was expected to continue into the afternoon, said spokesman Simon Saunders. He would not give details of the difficulty that delayed the work.
The bomb, which Metropolitan Police said was the largest found in London in three decades, was discovered Monday by construction workers preparing a site for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Saunders confirmed that at one point the bomb had started to tick but said engineers dealt with the problem. He said he could not recall when the ticking was noticed.
Thousands of bombs fell on east London during World War II and unexploded devices are found from time to time, particularly at construction sites.
Believers in the new "blame the Allies first" argument summarize it thus, with the helpful additional context of why it's so convenient in contemporary political terms:
Buchanan cites such British notables as F.J.P. Veale, B.H. Liddell Hart and C.P. Snow to document that it was Winston Churchill who committed, in Veale's words, "the first deliberate breach of the fundamental rule of civilized warfare that hostilities must only be waged against the enemy combatant forces." It was Churchill, not Hitler, who first targeted civilian populations in World War II and caused the structure of civilized warfare to collapse in ruins.
The Americans quickly adopted Churchill's criminal policy of attacking civilians, culminating in the outrageous use of nuclear weapons against two Japanese cities, the slaughter of Vietnamese civilians, and the ongoing slaughter of Afghan and Iraqi civilians.
Slick, huh? Churchill would no doubt be surprised, at least slightly, to discover that he's responsible for imaginary atrocities committed close to a half century after his death. On the other hand, he was no stranger to the concept of being smeared by the high-toned sort of politician who excels at causing impossible moral dilemmas whose consequences he runs from like a frightened deer. Here's a reasonably factual account of how Churchill "first targeted civilian populations" in World War II:
The United Kingdom had a policy of using aerial bombing only against military targets and against infrastructure such as ports and railways which were of direct military importance. While it was acknowledged that the aerial bombing of Germany would cause civilian casualties, the British government renounced the deliberate bombing of civilian property, outside combat zones, as a military tactic. This policy was abandoned on May 15, 1940, two days after the German air attack on Rotterdam, when the RAF was given permission to attack targets in the Ruhr, including oil plants and other civilian industrial targets which aided the German war effort, such as blast furnaces that at night were self illuminating. The first RAF raid on the interior of Germany took place on the night of 15 May - 16 May.
Between 1939 and 1942 the policy of bombing only targets of direct military significance was gradually abandoned in favour of a policy of "area bombing" - the large-scale bombing of German cities in order to destroy housing and civilian infrastructure. Although killing German civilians was never explicitly adopted as a policy, it was obvious that area bombing must lead to large-scale civilian casualties.
There were a number of reasons for this policy change... [including]... The free use of indiscriminate bombing of cities by Germany - Warsaw in 1939, Rotterdam in 1940, Belgrade in 1941 and above all the bombing of British cities ("the Blitz") in 1940-41 - hardened British attitudes towards bombing Germany.
Now. Back to that "ticking" in the Year 2008. Yes, it's hard to believe that a nearly 70-year-old mechanical/chemical device could start ticking upon being disturbed, and perhaps (hopefully) it didn't. What's important is that ticking is something the Royal Engineers would be listening for. Why? Because during the Blitz, Germany didn't just drop bombs indiscriminately on residential sections of London that had no conceivable role in aiding the British "war effort." They also employed the cleverness of their munitions engineers to transform a certain percentage of their bombs into terror weapons.
These bombs were never intended to explode on impact. They were designed to explode later on, if moved or even touched by those who might be picking through the ruins of a bombed neighborhood. Some contained intricate timing devices that were set to begin ticking when disturbed and explode seconds or days after the fatal sequence had been set in motion. (The fun was in the not knowing when.) The fuses that governed these devices were also booby-trapped, so that those charged with rendering them safe would be routinely blown up in full sight of the women, children, and other civilians into whose homes and schools the bombs had fallen.
They were, in this respect, the first civilian-targeted IEDs. Although German 'improvisation' is probably more systematic and mass-produced than what we've seen from Iran and al qaeda Iraq.
Does bombing the German military-industrial complex in the Ruhr seem as "criminal" as this calculated effort to wreak as much physical and psychological damage as possible in the civilian population of London?
Well, sure. If your only use for history is to rewrite it as propaganda for your current political posturings. But if you're prepared to think about it in somewhat more depth, there was a Brit television series that explored these antique beginnings of modern terrorism in a typically (or what used to be) understated British fashion.
The show was called "Danger UXB." It followed not the exploits, but the ups and downs of a unit of Royal Engineers responsible for defusing the unexploded bombs that fell on London during the Blitz. They weren't volunteers. They were simply assigned based on some officer's read of their mechanical aptitude and, more importantly, lack of family ties.
It's rather a sad show in two different ways. First, major characters die with some regularity, almost matter-of-factly, in the same way that the Brits of the time endured the Blitz and suffered myriad privations, large and small, to win a monstrous war. Second, the show is a period piece, excruciatingly correct about the details of wartime life and things military and ironically (almost 30 years after its production) indicative in a score of ways that the Britain which survived the darkest days of the war to join us in the D-Day invasion no longer exists. Here's a taste:
The whole series is available on DVD and can be rented through Netflix. If you need show biz type credentials to give it a look, the star is Anthony Andrews, who became famous for his extraordinary performance in another Brit drama, Brideshead Revisited.
And there's also the MG. I think it's a TA, the precursor of the MGTC which helped inaugurate the sports car craze in America. It was slow as molasses but cooler than most anything on the road today.
Which seems a fitting way to wrap up this oblique memorial to what (almost) none of you remember about the Sixth of June, 1944. Except, maybe, for one last irony. Individual days of the Blitz were certainly worse than the 7/7 terror attack, and this old bomb is probably bigger than anything al qaeda set on that day. But when you've trampled on your own triumphant past to come up with acceptable excuses for quitting today, you wind up trading your future away. Running away from Iraq wasn't just a sorry episode in Brit history. It was the last episode in Brit history.
From now on it's about fashion, gossip, sex (fading), and death (regnant).
But today let us all remember that there were Brit beaches at Normandy as well as American beaches. And hope we won't miss them too much when it comes time to storm the next beaches alone.
P.S. In fairness, Buchanan deserves a second slap that even American liberals should be remembering on a day when all are delighted to condemn the flying of the biggest Confederate flag ever constructed. Destroying the enemy's ability to make war against you by decimating their industrial and agricultural productivity as well as their military was a strategic innovation of Union Generals Grant and Sherman in the American Civil War. Sherman's March to the Sea was the Ruhr-bombing of its day, and for Buchanan in particular to concoct a case against Churchill for it is hypocrisy of the grossest sort. By the same token, I'd be delighted to hear from "progressives" any defense they might offer of the human rights of southerners to pursue their war for slavery without having their slave-dependent plantations burned to the ground. But their customary silence on such moral quandaries will probably stand them in good stead this time. Pat will probably make that argument in his next book, The Unnecessariliness of the Civil War.
I tend to stand on the admittedly reactionary cliche of Mr. Sherman, who declared that war is hell. The same Sherman who knew that some wars have to be fought anyway because some outcomes are even worse than hell. Meaning you'd be willing to spend an eternity in hell yourself rather than be an accomplice in such outcomes. Slavery comes to mind in this context. And rape rooms. And fanatical enemies who interpret your attempts at reasoning with them as invitations to wanton murder.
But that's just me. I'm sure Pat -- and probably Peter, too -- have it all worked out differently. In their wisdom.