REVIEW / He counted them all out, and counted a few in

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The Independent Culture
AT THE time of the controversy over the Arthur Harris memorial, I was rather against the notion of erecting a statue to the chief of Bomber Command - not because I thought the extraordinary courage of the bomber crews deserved no commemoration, but because it seemed slightly unfair to single out a man whose greatest wartime danger was that he might bump his shin on an open drawer. You could argue, of course, that steeling yourself against conscience when the times demand it requires a different sort of courage, but it wasn't an argument that Channel 4's 'Death by Moonlight' (a documentary about Canadian aircrews which has stirred a reprise of the statue fuss) was ever likely to entertain. The leaden sonority of the series' title, The Valour and the Horror, gave clear warning of its simple-minded piety. Intent on honouring the crews (fair enough, in my book), they had to find someone else to blame for what the crews had done and they had settled on Harris.

'Killing civilians didn't bother Bomber Harris,' the voice-over stated coldly, though the only evidence they offered to support this categorical verdict was a highly ambiguous remark. Stopped for speeding, Harris was rebuked by a policeman: 'You could have killed someone, sir.' 'Young man,' Harris is said to have replied, 'I kill thousands of people every night.' Said casually or with arrogance this would be monstrous; said with melancholy it would be no more than a recognition of a terrible irony, evidence of the burdens of command.

By using an actor to play Harris, though, the film-makers could put their own interpretation on the words. Filmed in threatening close-up, thunder- browed, their version came on like a James Bond villain, urbane and ruthless - Blofeld in blue serge. I don't care much for what little I know of Harris myself, but this seemed to fall just a bit short of a fair trial.

It's true that the moral status of targeting civilians to cause maximum terror isn't very complicated - it was wrong. Indeed people knew it was wrong at the time, which is why the strategy aroused heated debate among military planners and why it was the subject of psychological denial during and after the war. But the question of whether it seemed effective, at a time when weariness and fear had altered moral perspectives, is crucially different, and one which can only be addressed with humility.

To airmen distressed by those who now question the propriety of their actions, one can only offer some consoling paradoxes. That, in this case, it is an honourable thing to have a bad conscience and that you fought precisely so that people would be free, among other things, to question the legitimacy of your fight. In one of the more terrible moments in 'Death by Moonlight', a survivor of the Hamburg firestorms recalled seeing a road turned to flypaper by the heat. A young child and her mother were trapped by the molten tar, unable to reach each other, unable to escape. Both burned alive. If we can't, 50 years on, simply acknowledge that that was a terrible thing to have done, what exactly was the victory for?

Sunday Best (ITV), or 'The Neil and Glenys Show', was hugely enjoyable, if only for the surreal disjunction of style and content. The Kinnocks began with Article One of the Declaration of Human Rights and continued with A Midsummer Night's Dream ('directed by our friend Adrian Noble'), post-modernism, and the plight of the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin. Larry Adler made a brave stab at GMTV normality, appearing in a black silk coffin-lining to drop celebrity names, but regular viewers will have been in the ambulance by then.