The ugliness of war

Artillery monument, Ottawa

Today’s Ottawa Citizen has an article about how the Canadian War Museum is being pressured to change some of the text in its Bomber Command exhibit. Veterans had complained that it makes them out to be war criminals. The text reads:

“The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command’s aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions of German war production until late in the war.”

The museum consulted four contemporary historians, after complaints from the National Council of Veteran Associations, and they each affirmed the accuracy of the text. Two of them, however, lodged some complaint about the tone employed.

All this strikes at one of the tough moral questions that arises when you treat war as the subject of law. If the London Blitz was a crime, surely the bombing of Berlin, Tokyo, and Nagasaki were crimes as well. The targeting of civilians was a crime committed by those who chose where the planes should drop their deadly cargo. The dropping of the bombs was a crime committed by those who followed the illegal orders. (See: this related post) Alternatively, one can adopt the view that none of these undertakings were criminal. I suspect that neither perspective is a very comfortable one for those who were involved, but it seems difficult to come up with something both different and defensible.

In the end, it seems wrong to give anyone the comfort of thinking they were on the ‘right’ side and this somehow excused what they did. Their actions are equally valid objects of moral scrutiny to those of their opponents, though they are much less likely in practice to be thus evaluated.

None of this is to say that all the combatant states in the Second World War had equally good reason to get involved, nor that there is moral equivalence between the governmental types in the different states. What is hard to accomplish, however, is the translation of such high level concerns into cogent explanations for why former Canadian strategic bombers should be honoured while Germans launching V2’s into London should not be. The generally unacceptable character of the intentional bombing of civilians is firmly entrenched in international law; as such, the sensibilities of current veterans do not warrant changing the text.

[Update: 30 August 2007] Randall Hansen, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, has written a well-argued editorial in the Ottawa Citizen attacking the museum’s decision to change the wording.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

11 thoughts on “The ugliness of war”

  1. This is not too surprising. Look at how WWI tends to be portrayed: as a heroic sacrifice rather than an ill-managed defence of imperialism.

    States can rarely look squarely at their own role in wars. Glossing over the consequences of bombing campaigns does seem especially dubious.

  2. So does the Globe and Mail:

    Fighting words rile historians
    Museum’s decision to adapt text sets dangerous precedent
    From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail
    August 29, 2007 at 2:53 AM EDT

    That article includes mention of St. Antony’s College, Oxford.

  3. The whole thing reminds me a bit of the school yard. The veterans want the text to specify that what they did wasn’t as bad as what the Germans did, just like second graders arguing in their own defense that “he started it” or even better, “I only hit him. He kicked me.” This seems unnecessary – I don’t imagine that war museum visitors are any different from the rest of us in their ability to identify who the bad guys were.

    What scares me is that they want the numbers removed, so that it only says that “thousands” were killed and “many more” made homeless, or just replaces both figures with the wonderfully vague “numerous.” The desire to mask the facts seems sinister indeed, and suggests guilt far more than the display’s original wording, if you ask me.

  4. If the passage you quote is what is disputed, I can’t see how this complaint is justified. That seems like a pretty neutral description of what the bomber command did.

    The exhibit would probably be a more accurate record of the war if it included a few on-the-ground photos of the aftermath as well. It is only when presented with visual evidence of the ugliness of war that we really accept it.

  5. That photo really shows it all: the gun, the cross. Tiny, on the side, is the flag.

  6. He provides a harrowingly detailed narrative of the horrors experienced during the night of the raid by Dresdeners from many walks of life, illuminated by eyewitness descriptions, letters and diaries (including those of Victor Klemperer, a Jewish philologist). But he also extends human sympathy to the mostly very young men who had been sent to destroy the place, and whose chances of completing their tours of duty were slim. Of the 125,000 air crew who served in the raf’s Bomber Command, 72% were either killed, seriously wounded or became prisoners-of-war.

    Was the attack a war crime, as many believe? Winston Churchill’s omission of the bombing campaign when reeling off British military triumphs in his victory speech was telling, as was the post-war reluctance to award its veterans a campaign medal, a slight still felt deeply by their families. The campaign’s architect, Sir Arthur Harris, continued (if unconvincingly) to claim the “military necessity” of the raid—Britain’s Soviet allies had been demanding it as a way to spread chaos behind enemy lines—while insisting that he was not responsible for individual targeting decisions.

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