Monday, 30 March 2009

How many did you kill today?

Wars today, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, with all the media coverage surrounding them, are hotly debated and all the pros and cons picked apart. People aren't prepared to accept unchallenged what the politicians tell us. We discuss, argue and debate, and want to know every detail.

As a child I thought things were much more black or white. I was taught to believe that the Allies in WWII were in the right, so much so that I don't recall there being any discussion about alternative points of view. So when I went on an exchange to Austria as an immature 14 year old, probably the first time I'd ever been away from home alone, I was taken aback when the father of the family said to me "Of course you think everything you did during the war was a little bit right, but we think the things we did were a little bit right". I was so startled I couldn't reply. I assume, now, we were talking about bomb damage to Vienna but the lasting memory is the shock of what he said. I hadn't heard about Dresden in those days. I didn't for a long time.

Most of you know that I travel frequently between the UK and France, so I'm very familiar with the channel ports. Many towns and cities along the south coast of England suffered heavy bombing during the war, and as a result they have little left by way of historic buildings and have been rebuilt often without much thought for architectural merit.

The other side of the Channel, in France, is much the same. Le Havre is not a pretty place, either while approaching by road or by sea. It is a very industrial area, but if you go into the centre you find it has been completely rebuilt in a modernist style. It was declared one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites in 2005 for being an exceptional example of post-war town planning.

So why was Le Havre rebuilt? Because it was heavily bombed, by the Allied Forces. What I hadn't realised was that 85% of the city was destroyed between the 5 and 11 September 1944. According to some research done by the University of Reading, there was "a willingness by the British to ignore previously agreed principles about not targeting civilians in circumstances when military necessity appeared to require it." Apparently Churchill thought that killing a maximum of 10,000 French civilians might be acceptable leading up to D-Day, and sent out memos asking how many so that he could keep a running total. "How many Frenchmen did you kill?" was the question he asked Air Chief Marshall Tedder on 10 July 1944.

St Joseph's tower, over 100 metres high, seen on the skyline from the docks. St Joseph's Church is dedicated to the people killed during air raids, .

The city hall pictured on a stamp issued six months ago.

If the blurring between right and wrong seems bad enough there, we also need to consider that the French population being bombed had to have help from the German occupying forces. One of the organisations that helped was funded by the confiscation of Jewish goods.

We may often think things are worse today than they have ever been, but remember: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

University of Reading
London Review of Books

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  1. Everything would be simpler if we just have black and white but more often than not, there are a lot of gray areas. You writing reminds me of what I read in the book, 'How to Win Friends and Influence People.' Most people wouldn't think that they are in the wrong and wouldn't put themselves in others' shoes. And yet again, the question is, "what is right?" Especially in time of war, whether it is ally or enemy, each is protecting their countries from the enemy. And who is the enemy or ally; you ally or my ally?

  2. I guess a lot of it depends on perspective. I guess Robert Mugabe thinks he's in the right.

    I sometimes wonder about this species of ours. So much intelligence, but also so little.

  3. The alternative in 1939 was to let Hitler, and Japan, do what they liked. I think we chose the correct option.
    In war things go wrong and hard decisions must be made. Churchill it must be remembered is seen as a 'war monger.' In fact he was very conscious of the dead, and unlike any general he worried about it. Generals expect casualties and get on with the job, Winston found this hard.

  4. Slightly off topic, but of relevance. 20-30 years ago when we started building airplanes with the French, the first of many British Families moved over here. On looking for a house they were accosted by the homeowner who pointed to holes in the walls and the barn roof. "That was you bastards". The stiff upper lip response came back, that if you will build Messerscmidt 109s we will bomb the c*** out of you! Germany has re-examined its history, we have to a certain extent, we recognise that colonialism wasn't the best thing since sliced bread, (though ex-pats here tend to act as if they're in the raj), France hasn't. The BBC recently did a series about the Channel Islands which is the only time we've been invaded since " " and all that.

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  7. Nee How Liwo, anyone read chinese? Tsai tzen!

  8. It's all spam links, so I'm deleting the comments above, and turning on moderation before anything more happens.
    **** off Liwo.

  9. I always wonder about the ability of human nature to kill and destroy!


Forethoughts, afterthoughts, any thoughts. Tell me.


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