Review: Bomber Command ~ Max Hastings

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The timing on this one is perfect*. A couple of weeks ago, they finally unveiled the memorial to RAF Bomber Command on Green Park. Hastings’ book is from 1979, but feels like it could have been written last year. Interestingly, and I’d like to be able to investigate this, he claims at the start that “it is unlikely that important new evidence will be found about the nature of what was done to Germany by the bomber offensive”, which seems like an awfully risky thing to say.

I’m a big fan of military history books, especially World War Two ones. However, I had my doubts going into this one. The impersonal nature of a bomber offensive would seem to lend itself less well to the emotional narratives that can make military history so powerful. Furthermore, the terrible grey area Bomber Command inhabits would make it all much harder to identify with. I was wrong on both counts.

Max Hastings portrays the live of the aircrews, their leaders, and also, in one excellent chapter, their victims, in moving detail. The astonishing casualty rate – 55, 573 dead out of 125,000 air crew – is an ever present reality. Many of the chapters focus on one squadron, with its aircrews as minor characters in the book. But George R.R Martin himself is more sparing on character death. The troubling thing is, for the most part, how casually the deaths are described, both by Hastings and the men he talks about. It’s understandable, in a way – you couldn’t really have a ceremony at Wooton Bassett for every casualty when a few men died every week. Come to think of it, 55,000 over 6 years is just under 10,000 a year, so 200 a week? It hardly bears thinking about.

Yet every now and then, a death really slaps you in the face, as they should. Hastings quotes at length one pilot writing to his fiancée. He very calmly discusses the possibility of his own death and his wish for her to move on after he is gone. Immediately after the letter, Hastings writes

“John Bufton never married, for he was killed a month later.”

And I nearly cried.

Beyond the personal stories, there’s everything else that makes WW2 history so fascinating. The colossal scale of everything. Tragedy, heroism, cruelty, kindness, ingenuity, sacrifice, they are all here in buckets.

It’s worth reading simply to be able to fully grasp the Bomber Command debate.             While I don’t know that it is of any value to sit in 2012 and shake our fists at the decisions made 67 years ago, it is certainly a bad move to do so on the basis of a sketchy understanding of them.

The strange thing about WW2 is that the scale of it does tend to play havoc with any moral judgements. It’s almost too big to understand, let alone condemn. At the end of the book, I’m left with the sense that the firestorms of Cologne, Hamburg, (perhaps not Dresden) were utterly horrifying, yet it’s hard to say how I would have done differently. For this sense of moral unease alone, Bomber Command is well worth reading – I think it’s really refreshing not to know where you stand and maybe to be OK with that. 

*This was perfect timing – I started reading the book the day after the memorial was unveiled, finished it a week later, and then sat on the review for a week. I was considering bundling this post up with another Max Hastings review and a general post on WW2, but decided they’d largely stand up as three separate posts.

“Refuser d’être avec le fléau” (Review: La Peste ~ Camus)

Albert Camus reading a newspaper

Add a trilby and a double of bourbon and it could be Draper himself.

I think watching Mad Men vastly improved my second reading of Albert Camus’ La Peste, not for its commentaries on 60s sexism or corporate America (it’s set in 1940s Algeria), but for its style. One of my favourite aspects of the book is the idea of the central characters being a group of stoic men doing their best against the plague and not really achieving much but just doing their best. That was already cool, but when every single one of those men is Don Draper? Perfect.

La Peste is a very powerful novel. The descriptions of the plague and its ravages are harsh, and in a couple of scenes, Camus describes the sufferings of victims in drawn-out detail as the Don Drapers look on, powerless. The prose isn’t overly lyrical, and the characters aren’t prone to wailing and beating their chests in frustration, which makes the whole thing more moving – it’s understated.

Interspersed with the plot, the narrator discusses at length the effect the plague has on the city and its inhabitants, not just on its victims, but as the city is quarantined, on all those who are cut off from their loved ones. The reflections on separation and exile are brilliant, which I hadn’t noticed before.

On the other hand, what I had always remembered about La Peste, however, was this quote:

“Dans la vie, il y a des bourreaux et des victimes, et tous ce qu’on peut faire, c’est d’être à côté des victimes.”

(“In life there are executioners and victims, and all one can do is be on the side of the victims”)

It’s actually better than that.

“Je dis seulement qu’il y a sur cette terre des fléaux et des victimes et qu’il faut, autant qu’il est possible, refuser d’être avec le fléau. Cela vous paraitra peut-être un peu simple, et je ne sais si cela est simple, mais je sais que cela est vrai.”

(“All I am saying is that there are on this earth plagues/scourges and there are victims, and one must, whenever possible, refuse to be on the side of the plague/scourge. It may seem simple to you, and I don’t know if it is simple, but I know it’s true.”)

Which could be my motto. While obviously, it’s one of those things that does feel a bit self-evident – I’d be surprised if there was anyone who chose to side with the plague/scourge –it comes in the context of one of the characters talking about the death penalty, and it becomes clear that while not many people would set out to be with the plague/scourge*, there are plenty who don’t take side of the victims, which comes to the same thing. All very black-and-white, and I love it.

Also, not that I tend to try and ‘justify’ my  atheism, seeing as it just is, but upon being told by the (brilliant) priest character that in such trying times, one either has to lose faith entirely, or love every part of God’s creation – even the death of a child, the main character snaps, “je refuserai jusqu’à la mort d’aimer cette création ou les enfants sont torturés.” (“I will refuse till the day I die to love this creation where children are tortured”). Which, again, is just all kinds of fantastic.

It’s like that all the way through. Almost every other page there’s a killer observation, a heartbreaking scene, an inspiring idea. It’s just consistently bloody brilliant. Oh, and that dovetail with Candide I mentioned yesterday?

The character’s determination to fight the plague – the narrator makes it clear it’s no more heroic to fight evil than a schoolteacher teaching that 2+2=4 (Hello Orwell), it’s just what needs to be done. Since evil* is, it must be fought.

*I’m quite annoyed that I’ve struggled to translate these words, since they’re kind of key. Fleau is often used in reference to the plague. Google gives me scourge, which seems alright. Mal apparently is evil, but evil seems a) necessarily human in source in a way that a plague, for instance, isn’t it, and b) kind of cartoonish. Make of them what you will.

Review: Candide ~ Voltaire

While I think everyone should read everything I ever review (I rarely read books I don’t like, set texts aside, and I only really feel the need to review very interesting or very good books), I especially think no-one should not have read Candide. That’s partly because fucker is less than a hundred pages long, and written with all the dense prose and complex imagery of a picture book. It’s not one of those must-reads like Ulysses or Capital. And it is an absolute blast. People tell me ‘bimble’ isn’t a word (dictionary aside, they’re wrong). From now on, I think I’ll just point them at Candide. It is very much the tale of characters bimbling around the world. I remember our teacher drew us a map of the adventure – it goes from Westphalia to Bulgaria to Holland to Portugal to South America to France to Venice to Turkey at a rapid pace. Characters return to life more often than the Daleks. But the cheerful absurdity of it all is laced with venom, and it’s the irony that makes this book. Voltaire seems to lash into everything he saw, and every other chapter, something new is getting it in the neck.

I should probably declare an interest – the town I lived in for six years, Ferney-Voltaire, was almost a product of Voltaire. After he was [ejected?] from Geneva in ?, Voltaire took up residence in the commune of Fernex, and set about improving it, building homes, draining swamps, starting workshops to provide employment, etc. He also changed that hideous name, reasoning that there were too many –ex’s in the region (I feel much the same way). This is important beyond it simply being a cool thing he did. While there are a variety of nice little insights and quotes throughout the book (the main character’s dismissal of optimism is a favourite of mine*), the conclusion is what really bears taking away.

“Cela est bien dit, mais il faut cultiver son jardin.”  “Well said, but one must tend one’s garden.”

I’ve left the original quote there not out of a desire to show off (although I think that was a lost cause once I set about reviewing two French books), but because I have no idea how to translate it. It’s often quoted without the “Well said” part at the start, which seems to me to utterly miss the point. At the end of the tale, Candide’s friends are discussing their situation and providing elaborate justifications and reasonings for it, much as they have done throughout the story. The main character, having travelled the world and put his childhood teachings to test and found them wanting, does not disagree with their speeches – “well said”, but sets them aside, because (and I have never known quite how to translate “il faut” – something along the lines of “it is necessary to”, I suspect) there is a garden to be tended.

I take a lot away from that. If I had only written that on the first philosophy paper I had to write last year, I could have saved myself a lot of hassle. To me, the garden to be tended is a life to be lived. But it’s not just a Theses on Feuerbach “the philosophers have interpreted the world” idea – not only is it more important to act then to speak, but unlike Marx, the point is not to aim to change the world. No one individual can realistically hope to change the world. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to change our own little gardens, our little spheres.  Maybe it’s in a “be the change you want to see in the world” vibe, but I don’t much like that saying, because it can end up a bit “RECYCLE IF YOU WANT THE MAJOR INDUSTRIAL POWERS TO STOP DESTROYING THE ENVIRONMENT”. Which, seriously. Die.

Even better, it dovetails nicely with my takeaways from La Peste.

* “Qu’est-ce que l’optimisme? C’est la rage de croire que tout va bien quand on est mal!” “What is optimism? The madness of believing everything is fine when you’re not!”

Boom.

Retreat and Rebuild

In the WW2 strategy game Company of Heroes, there’s a “retreat” button. Upon sending your infantry right into the sights of a German machine-gun nest, you can bang the “retreat” button and send them scrambling back to HQ to regroup and fight another day.

Hayek’s Road to Serfdom was, as I said here, my German machine-gun nest. Faced with a pretty depressing dismantling of what vague political certainties I had, I did the only thing I could think of – I scrambled back to 2008-10, back when I was sure of things. When I was sixteen and had all the answers. These were the days were I was a proper anarcho-communist type, when I bought myself Capital for my birthday, and my friends bought me Lenin almost unbidden. Deluded and arrogant I may have been, but I knew what I stood for.

Most of that is gone, probably for the better. I’d rather have no beliefs than a bunch of flimsy ones. However, the “insecurity period” has lasted far too long, and it’s time to rebuild.

I’m pretty sure that the foundations were all right. As far as those foundations have any form to them, I think it can be found in Voltaire’s Candide and Albert Camus’ La Peste. They were set texts in my Première Literature class, and the only one that hadn’t been a bloody chore to study. I’ll be posting reviews over the next couple of days.

From those books, I’m starting to feel a plan for a life well lived developing.

What always brought me up short with politics was change. Change is almost always the point. Even ‘conservatives’ are trying to change something, though generally for the worse and for evil, evil purposes, obviously. Yet given the enormous complexity of modern societies, and the intractability of the problems facing them, far-reaching systemic change just seems hopelessly unattainable. I can’t even imagine a different society, let alone tell you how we’d get there. When you add to that the fact that it’s an uphill struggle to protect the most vulnerable from the worst of capitalism’s side-effects, let alone remove the source of those effects, talk of the revolution and the better tomorrow just gets irritatingly meaningless. I’m sick and tired of wandering down to Westminster and shouting the same stupid chants and wandering around central London in the weird loneliness of a crowd to fuck-all effect. I’ve stopped believing in big change, especially my capacity to effect it. And it’s had nothing to do with Obama.

But this isn’t making my peace with the system. I’m still far too young for resignation. The system is fucking stupid. Making peace with a system that promises environmental catastrophe, deprivation for the majority and never-ending war would be unconscionable.

Nor is it a fatalistic thing. I, personally, don’t think I can do much to achieve systemic and far-reaching change. In the past, this has led me to just give up. Much like realising I probably wasn’t going to reach Slash-esque levels of guitar heroism gradually bled away whatever passion I had for guitar, I’m pretty sure I won’t be the Mandela of my generation, and the attention seeker in me doesn’t like that.

Now though, thanks to my main men Voltaire and Albert [Camus], I’m just reducing the scale of the change I’m after. I reckon if, when I die, I know that everything I did, I did to make people’s lives better, I think that’ll be all right. I’m ever more decided to pursue some sort of international development career, which, hopefully, would provide the means to change the world for the better, regardless of overarching despair and cynicism. In essence,

“Je dis seulement qu’il y a sur cette terre des fléaux et des victimes et qu’il faut, autant qu’il est possible, refuser d’être avec le fléau. Cela vous paraitra peut-être un peu simple, et je ne sais si cela est simple, mais je sais que cela est vrai.”

(“All I am saying is that there are on this earth plagues and there are victims, and one must, whenever possible, refuse to be on the side of the plague. It may seem simple to you, and I don’t know if it is simple, but I know it’s true.”)

-La Peste, Camus (who else?)

Words to live by, I reckon.

Sorry for the [worse than usual] navel-gazing, I’m trying to work out how to not blog self-indulgently and will get to that soon!