Are bombs in the American dream?

Writers on the War
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SOME YEARS ago, an ill-informed reviewer, attempting to comment on my novel about the Japanese rape of Nanking in 1937, chided me for not having experienced bombing at first hand. Actually, I had, for four years, when the Nazis tried to obliterate several British industrial cities.

I will never forget our family of four leaping under the dining-room table and, later, as we became wiser, heading for the cellar at midnight before the bombers arrived. I slept beside my sister on the huge cardboard box our billiard table had arrived in. We were lucky, although one salvo hit our village, only seven miles from the city of Sheffield.

As I bicycled to school each morning (life went on, of course), northward, I saw the sun rising where it should not have been. It was the city burning on the horizon from the previous night's bombardment. So the fury of aerial attack was not unknown to me, and it remains vivid in memory, always stirred up when bombs begin to land elsewhere.

We learned not only how to take proper shelter, but how a city manages to come through all this. Hitler had changed his policy during the preparations for Operation Sea Lion, meant for the invasion of England. Wisely, for him, the Nazis began by pulverising radar stations and RAF airfields, but then shifted their attack to London and other cities.

What we then discovered, as I think the ophidians of Belgrade have discovered, was that resolute humans can withstand almost anything. Smashed nightly, with huge casualty lists, London endured on a mix of stoicism and fatalistic banter. I doubt very much if bombardment of civilian centres works unless ground troops follow immediately.

In bombing Belgrade, the USA operates from a privileged position: it cannot be bombed in return (in World War II only one Nazi bomber got within reach of New York, and then flew back).

I wonder if the USA would be bombing Belgrade at all if it were only a few hundred miles away from New York, so there is something privileged about these daily attacks, a carte blanche that would otherwise be soaked in American blood.

Does anyone remember Operation Rolling Thunder, the carpet bombing of North Vietnam, which did nothing to demoralise the people of the North? Does anyone recall the Ho Chi Minh trail, never destroyed from above; if it had been, the war would have been over, as North Vietnamese ex-generals readily admit.

My point is that, per se, bombing may be good propaganda, at least if it is accurate, but useful only as a prelude. It is both impractical on its own and tainted - is there not something of costly luxury in this activity, maybe part of the American Dream predicated on winning and being "king of the hill"?

My own sense of American bombing is that it is symbolic: a sort of clean- hands auto da fe akin to the demolition, the profoundly effective demolition, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps American generals always think in huge images, preferring the apocalyptic to the commonplace.

The domestic problem with all this is that Clinton no longer has the public trust. Bombardments sanctioned by the fellatio White House have an oddly testosterone aura to them and should themselves be cleansed, or at least made to seem reliable and wise.

A shadow-boxing sensualist, passionately addressing the meaning of the verb (to be) in a country where schoolchildren machine-gun one another and policemen pour bullets into an innocent man on a doorstep, fumbling for his key, must rank as one of the saddest scarecrows of the century.

I wonder at the vaunted capacity of the US to remove undesirable leaders, which they only seem to be able to do to their own.

Way back when, one bungling CIA operative was sent to hear Werner Heisenber lecture in Switzerland and, if he said anything vicious or about a Nazi atomic bomb, to kill him. The operative, a total amateur, actually accosted the German, walked outside with him and strolled, wondering what to do. He did nothing.

I wonder about Milosevic: is there an ethical difference of any strength between killing him during a speech and killing him, by ostensible accident, in his pyjamas while he sleeps?

My final impression is that, with a little realistic thinking, the whole "war" could have been averted or at least curtailed, at minimum cost by somebody more successful than poor Stauffenberg, who came close to killing another dictator.

I entertain the thought that, if retaliation were falling nightly on New York and Washington and (for good measure) Gettysburg, we would be living in a wholly different world.