Humankind may not be able to bear very much reality, but fantasy has never had it so good — or so powerful. Unfortunately, fantasy is not extricable from reality, and imaginary aims can have real consequences, especially in war. I’ve been thinking about the American tactic of “shock and awe” that was going to have such a rapid and devastating effect on Iraq that it would force Saddam Hussein to capitulate within days, after which peaceful Western-style democracy would spring up like mushrooms and make the Middle East safe for corporate shopping.
Announcing the policy, an official declared proudly that “the sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before”. But of course that is not true. Apocalyptic destruction has always been part of the human imagination. What is new in the past century or so has been the rivalry between military technology and ordinary people’s comprehension of its capacities. One of the arenas for exploring this is the realm of art, especially the visual arts and literature.
With each new advance in previously unimaginable destruction, writers and artists have sought ways of extending their own range or developing their practice to apprehend and protest against the latest outrage. The history of aerial bombing provides an exemplary illustration of this. How can our powers of thought — of language, or of art — cope with the enormities of war, in particular with the terrifying force of aerial bombardment? How can they express the range of inexpressible terror, grief and fear without exaggeration, sentimentality, or simply failing to match the scale and meaning of the event? How can they find words adequate to communicate the pain it causes? There is no language readily available to express what exceeds its grasp. Susan Sontag observed after 9/11 that “all the principal figures in the American government” seemed to be “at a linguistic loss, as they searched for images with which to encompass this unprecedented rebuke to American power and competence”. This challenge to articulacy is another reason why the concept of total war — the belief that the most effective way of winning wars was by the obliteration, or the threat of it, of the civilian populations by means of an annihilating attack from the air — was one of the most fearsome ideas to emerge in the 20th century.
A threat is powerless without some assurance that it is well-founded. The first, and still in some ways the most striking, demonstration of this new power came in April 1937, when the ancient Basque town of Guernica was almost completely destroyed by the high explosive and incendiary bombs of the German Condor Legion. As the title of Picasso’s painting, the name of Guernica has become synonymous with the inhumanity of bombing civilian targets. But since then, civilians have more and more frequently been made the target of wartime bombing. Death, destruction and demoralisation have grown increasingly intertwined as military powers search for rapid victory. The fact that rapid victory has seldom been forthcoming doesn’t seem to matter.
Picasso’s painting, neither abstract nor realist, was also an emblem of modernism, its form sanctioned by its subject. But technology and art are not totally separate spheres. The imaginations of artists and writers help to create the weapons and the theatres in which they are used. Before bombing became a reality, it was an idea —an attractive, appalling, apocalyptic one, because the air had no frontiers. The threat of sudden and indiscriminate destruction from the skies reawoke and incorporated older, millennial, fears and repackaged them in fictional visions of explosives or gas or bacteria dropped on to the civilian population of cities.
A whole genre of future-war novels flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, feeding popular political moves to disarmament as well as helping to intensify anxieties about a second world war. The same key images and tropes were repeated time and again, and they reappeared in the rhetoric of politicians and in the arguments of military and airforce strategists. At its heart was the idea of calamity, the belief that a civilian population would not be able to cope with the unprecedented experiences of massive air bombardment, that they would panic, civilisation would collapse and continued war be impossible. The first to launch an attack would be the winner. What after all was civilisation? people were asking. A thin veneer of culture covering a mass of fears, desires and primitive impulses. Communists looked for security in a united future of co-operative solidarity, Freudians in increased social and self-understanding, capitalists in exploitation and control, Fascists in war. Or so it seemed. Throughout the Twenties and Thirties, debates about the nature of civilisation permeated fiction and non-fiction, painting, poetry and film.
The horrors of the Blitz and later bombings were more easily presented in their impact on ordinary life than in accurate depictions of their effects. As the anonymous fireman author of The Bells Go Down wrote in 1940: “You can’t get used to bombs and shrapnel, but you can get used to a life in which bombs and shrapnel are an everyday occurrence.” Being a participant may require a suspension of full moral attention to the pathos so you can continue to function. This, after all, is part of the point of heavy bombing, even more intensively so today. That is why the strategy of “rapid dominance”, using the tactic of “shock and awe”, achieved such a powerful hold on the imaginations of policymakers.
Hit by waves of bombing attacks, both massive and spectacular, argued its authors Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, the adversary loses the will to carry on. The assault must be so overwhelming that it “paralyses or so overloads an adversary’s perceptions and understanding of events” that they cease to be able to function effectively. It means destroying the psychological co-ordinates of the enemy by controlling not only land, air, sea and space but also the “ether” in which information is passed and received. “This requires signature management throughout the full conflict spectrum — deception, disinformation, verification, information control and target management — all with rapidity in both physical and psychological impact.” Violence and lies, as always, are hard to counter and impossible to separate. The need to know, as W. G. Sebald says, is at odds with a desire not to know, to shut down the senses.
But the ethics of spectatorship are just as problematic. Watching the air force of an advanced industrial country relentlessly bombing defenceless rural villages and killing and dismembering their inhabitants calls for something more than mere testimony. For writers and artists, the difficulty is more than just representational. The sublime of this horror, this terror, goes far beyond the aesthetic: yet the task is to use the aesthetic resources of language or visuality to create ways of seeing that transcend mere pathos or anger or critique, to recognise the extent to which our whole lives, including the language available to us, are necessarily implicated in these acts of war.
Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction is a prolonged meditation on the inadequacy of most ordinary human language to communicate the experience of bombardment of this sort. Commenting on German accounts of bombardment, he accepts their veracity: “I simply do not trust the form — including the literary form — in which they are expressed.” For him, the most precise and objective records are the most, if not the only, legitimate accounts. “The construction of aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects from the ruins of an annihilated world is a process depriving literature of its right to exist.”
This ethical problem constitutes the permanent challenge to art and writing, to find a form and a medium equal to the material or the occasion. From early imaginative attempts to weigh the moral issues involved in the new nuclear world, in novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1949) or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), either to predict the re-emergence of some unchanging and fundamental bedrock of savagery, or to propagandise against its politics, recent writing by Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Celan, Jacques Derrida and J. H. Prynne has shifted towards thinking more bleakly about politics, annihilation and the moral nature of a world that makes destructive force so central to its conduct.
There is no prospect of a let-up in the use of bombing. It does nothing to improve the plight of the civilians who are bombed, usually poor, mostly innocent, all undeserving of the long-distance acts of power that deprive them of their children, parents, limbs, sight, homes, possessions, water, livelihoods and everything except an intense awareness of the injustice of being made into pawns in other people’s political conflicts. The chief task facing writers and artists today is to apprehend and reveal the interplay of fantasy and reality in all this.
When those bombs fell on a small Basque town in April 1937, they gave reality, and ways of thinking about it, to a fear that millions felt. That poets, writers and film-makers, musicians and artists of all kinds are still drawn to the example of Guernica is a testimony to the way in which thinking about war and peace, present and future, still takes place under a sky that may one day fall on all our heads.