Robert Fisk: Battlefield stereotypes that were fed to young minds

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The Independent Online

In the late 1950s, my father would drop by Reynolds paper shop in Maidstone High Street to buy pipe tobacco for himself and comics for me.

War comics, 64 pages of pocket-sized violence in which heroic Brits shot, stabbed, strangled or bombed Germans and Japanese. Skyraiders, Burma Patrol, Stalingrad, Sons of Glory, Armoured Punch, The Burning Sky, all avidly digested by 12-year-old Robert.

There on page five of One Man's War was a boastful Rommel in 1940, telling his officers that the French army had collapsed. "Excellent," says one of them. "And those British dogs will be wiped out." A Tommy shoots down a Stuka with a rifle as the pilot rants: "Cringe beneath the Luftwaffe, you English ... AAAAGH!" "Those British pigs have used up their ammunition," another Nazi cries. "Sweep this English offal into the wadi," shouts a soldier in the Afrika Korps. "Grind the English pigs into the dirt," orders a German officer after D-Day. "Donner und blitzen! It is the Americans! ACHTUNG!" This was always my favourite. "Go to sleep, squarehead," mutters Lance Corporal David Fisher as he breaks a German soldier's neck.

I dug these shilling dreadfuls out the other day from an old cardboard box which my mother had kept – she was, like me, a magpie – and stored in the loft of her home half a century ago. Only now, 12 years after her death, have I found the box in my garage, containing dozens of volumes published by the Amalgamated Press (now IPC), in which a generation of schoolboys learned that Germans and Japanese were subhumans, and that we, the Brits – and occasionally Frenchmen and Americans, even Soviets – were fighting courageously against these "hordes".

The illustrations were painstaking, many of them drawn by men who had been fighting in the real war. Bullets were straight lines passing through German heads and stomachs, lacerating the Nips in Burma Patrol, smashing into our chaps, too, who died crying "UGH!" rather than "AAAAGH!". German half-tracks and Panzer tanks, Mustangs and Russian Yak fighter bombers were depicted with almost obsessive accuracy. Most of the conflicts in the Picture Combat Library were real – El-Alamein, Dieppe, the Battle of the Bulge, the Bismarck, Stalingrad, the Blitz, the Battle of Germany – and thus added a ghost of authenticity to the oh-so-clever remarks of these impossible British giants. "You really should look where you're going!" a Spitfire pilot remarks as a pursuing German crashes into the white cliffs of Dover. "Have a drink on me, you guys," says a Canadian officer just back from Dieppe. Golly, I hope we can be together on the next job. You're a swell bunch." The Dieppe raid, the author's caption adds, was "a magnificent feat" but "failed". Not least because the Canadians lost 3,350 men killed or wounded in Mountbatten's vainglorious operation.

Civilians – British in bombed London streets, Russians in the steppe, Malaysians under Nazi occupation – are sympathetic figures, but German and Japanese non-combatants don't exist. "Mike Thompson pilots his Lancaster on the first thousand bomber raid to Cologne, a highly important industrial centre," the author of Wings of War informs his teenage readers. No word of the 411 civilians killed. When Thompson bombs Hamburg, The Pathfinders's author admits that "there followed two and a half hours of terror for those (sic) on the ground" and that a 150mph firestorm created "a typhoon such as had never been witnessed". Five faint, tiny black figures running through the flames of a burning street are the only clue to the 50,000 civilians who died that night.

The RAF attacks on Nazi-occupied Caen are "to devastate the Nazi defences" – again, no mention of the 1,150 dead French civilians – and when the Allies destroy the 10th-century monastery of Monte Cassino, we are told that "bombs crashed on the startled monks" of this "fabulous monastery". But "were the Germans (still) in possession? It will never be known". In fact, the only Germans left were the badly wounded who looked, in the words of a real soldier (a Pole) "like wild animals". We do not see them in the comic version.

Very occasionally, the Germans become human, their doctors caring for British wounded or – in Scramble! – a German pilot from "the Abbeville boys" inviting his RAF opposite number to a duel over the channel. "Let us drink to the age of chivalry," the German announces in the mess. The "Abbeville boys" really existed, the duel – in which the two men shoot each other down but survive – did not. At their most racist, the comics cover the Allied-Japanese war. "The Emperor ... has ordered us to show these low-natured curs ... that we are the sons of Japan," a Jap says of the Brits in Malaya. But fear not, a plucky Tommy is there to "mow down the oncoming Japs" while screaming: "Come and get it you grinning little monkeys."

Oddly – for the Cold War was at its height when when the comics began in 1958 – "Comrade Stalin" and the Soviets are treated with respect, Stalingrad including a love interest (a nurse, of course), although it seems improbable that a Red Army soldier would encourage his comrades with the invocation: "By Saint Nicholas!" Perhaps running out of Second World War bloodbaths, Picture Combat Library went on to include later wars. The "gallant Chinese soldiers" fighting the Japanese in The Flying Tigers transmogrify into "the little yellow devils" when they attack US forces in Korea. In Dien Bien Phu, a Viet Minh gunner shouts: "Hospital target! Fire!" to his artillerymen. "Those swines keep firing," observes a French medical officer. "It's a crime against humanity to fire on the wounded like this."

War is terrible but war is glorious. Biff the Huns and the Nips. Don't worry about the enemy's civilians. Yes, I know, the Nazi and Japanese were evil personified. But I'm struck by the thought that other teenagers who read this nonsense might include a few of the senior officers and diplomats who sent us off to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003. Does this stuff leave its mark on young people? Does this account, I wonder, for Saddam's re-branding as "the Hitler of the Tigris" and why the Taliban became "the Nazis of Kabul"?