Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Talks

Secret Location near London - Lost At Sea, 29-30 August

The Lost Lectures' mission statement is to take talks out of institutions and into inspiring new spaces. The location of its upcoming event is secret, but we do know it will be somewhere wet enough to call for the audience to be seated on inflatables. The speakers will include an explorer, a photographer, scientists, puppeteers, and comedians, and the talks will be accompanied by zany interactive classes, including pigeon racing and pizza making.

Books

British Library, London - Wonderlands: Children's Literature Festival, 24 - 26 August

If one is to believe the Olympics opening ceremony, the British heritage of children’s literature is one of our great accomplishments. In celebration of this tradition the British Library is holding three days of stories, drawings, conversations and talks from big name writers including Michael Rosen, David Almond and Michael Morpurgo. Alongside the ticketed events, visitors are invited to drop into the free storytelling tent where they will be immersed in tales from around the world.

Theatre

Noel Coward Theatre, London – Julius Caeser, 15 August - 15 September

Shakespeare's famous political thriller Julius Caeser is invigorated in this RSC adaption, which transplants the action from Rome to Africa. Critics have found powerful contemporary echoes in the piece and it has already garnered several five star reviews. Gregory Doran is in the director’s seat and is complemented by a cast including Paterson Joseph as Brutus, Cyril Nri as Cassius, Ray Fearon as Mark Antony and Jeffery Kissoon as Caesar.

TV

BBC2 – Murder, 26 August 10pm

Birger Larson likes his verbs deadly. This Sunday the acclaimed danish director of The Killing brings death and intrigue to Britain with a one off program Murder. Following the death of a young girl, the action leaves the traditional grounds of court-rooms and police stations to let the viewer play jury in a series of character testimonies delivered straight to the camera. As well as being set and filmed in Nottingham, it features an impressive array of local talent including Joe Dempsie, Stephen Dillane, and Lauren Socha and is written by Bafta award-winning Robert Jones and Kath Mattock.

Film

Various Independent Cinemas – F for Fake, August

The Sight and Sound Poll might have recently deposed Orson Welles from his throne, but the critics who still toast him as the best director of all time (of whom there are many) will be pleased to hear that his last completed work is currently showing in independent cinemas across the capital. A testament to misdirection of the sort Orson was so fond of as a director, F for Fake is a ‘documentary’ about two notorious fakers, which examines the nature of artistic authenticity.

Director Orson Welles, whose 1973 classic "F for Fake" is playing in selected London cinemas this month
AKG-IMAGES
Show Hide image

High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times