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Bombs Away

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
10.27.2002 | BOOKS

A History of Bombing
By Sven Lindqvist
Granta Books, 2002

Of all the words carved into the twentieth-century, Total War run the deepest. Within that clipped and clean little phrase echo the screams of Guernica, Nanking, Dresden and Nagasaki. Total War means exactly what it says. It means in a global conflict everyone dies, including you, your sister and your sister's friends.

The most momentous leaps in the scale of modern warfare have been made in the clouds. Total War rests on relatively recent advances in aviation and explosives, and these histories make up two of the entwined spinal cords running down Sven Lindqvist's remarkable A History of Bombing, a new edition of which has just been published by Granta.

The book is lean, muscular, angry and smart. Divided into short, numbered chunks of text, A History of Bombing is a nonlinear stop-and-go tour of industrial death by canon, bomb and missile. Like other civilian peaceniks who double as military historians--one thinks of Gabriel Kolko -- Lindqvist is a scathing and bitter guide. The result is an unapologetically personal history of bombs and the modern apocalyptic imagination, with autobiographical nuggets embedded within a hard and well-sourced historical narrative.

The story begins--to the extent that this disjointed book has a beginning--with the efforts of an 8th century Persian legal scholar to establish civilized rules of war during Islam's two-pronged expansion into Europe. It ends 1,300 years later in a world brimming with thermonuclear mega-tonnage and riddled with the bones of millions of murdered civilians.

Lindqvist is eager to show that Total War was a new concept in the 20th century only insofar as it was applied to Europe. The indiscriminate use of poison gas, bomber planes and machine guns against civilian populations was common in the colonies of the European powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Lindqvist gruesomely details the use of Total War tactics in Africa and Asia long before they visited the tree-lined esplanades of London and Berlin. (Prior to the advent of aerial bombing, European warships would fire canons into rebellious colonial cities from the sea to devastating effect.)

The purpose of these imperialist air raids on civilian targets was to terrify as well as kill, and it worked: colonial properties were terrorized into submission until the middle of the 20th century, when modern guerilla tactics proved the limits of controlling rural enemies from above. Cracks in the double-standard governing the rules of war (one for Europe, one for the colonies) appeared during the First World War, but it was only in the 1930s that the terrors previously reserved for Tripoli and Somaliland were unleashed in Europe's civilized front-yards.

In World War Two, Europe's kid gloves came off. Cities around the Continent were saturation bombed into fresh soot, and out of feverish wartime  research emerged the first missile, along with new and creatively  hellish weapons. It was discovered that by dropping enough large bombs in rapid succession, a vast fireball was formed that engulfed entire urban tracts. Thus did the British Royal Air Force lay waste to the civilian target of Dresden; thus did the U.S. Air Force reduce Tokyo to ash. The contrast of horrific survivor accounts and the boasts of Allied leaders is chilling. For the notion of the "Good War," Lindqvist has nothing but informed contempt.

The second half of the book focuses on the careers of two other children of the war: napalm and the nuke.

Napalm--an American-invented concoction of gasoline and aluminum palminate--was first used against Japan in WWII, where it was considered the perfect weapon against  non-military targets made of wood and paper. Napalm death is painful: it sends fiery globs of glutinous oil deep into muscle tissue, where it smolders inoperably for days. The original napalm recipe was refined and dropped heavily in the Korean War, then further refined again for use in Indochina. The napalm dropped by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War--373,000 tons of it--adhered better and burned more deeply into human flesh, thanks to the scientists at Dupont Chemical.

Altogether, the explosive power of the bombs dropped by the U.S. on Vietnam was four times that dropped by the U.S. in all of WWII, or the equivalent of 640 Hiroshimas. Needless to say, Lindqvist is not an apologist for U.S. action in Vietnam.

Casting a tall shadow across Lindqvist's book is, of course, the Bomb. Not the A-bomb, a relative firecracker, but the H-bomb, which holds a thousand times the destructive power  of the nuclear charges dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lindqvist draws sharp vignettes of the atomic era, including technical descriptions of the effect of a blast's shockwave  and an overview of the theoretical and economic underpinnings of over fifty years of nuclear power politics. His damning review of the American decision to drop the Bomb on Japan draws heavily on the work of revisionist scholars like Gar Alperovitz.

Like the century he tries to mirror, A History of Bombing is a dizzying and draining experience. When the reader collapses at the feet of the book's final and 399th chapter, the single cryptic line standing there almost makes sense: "And what is now yet to come."

Then you close the book and try to forget everything you just read.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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