Historians who ignore history
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, September 8, 2007
It’s a large reception hall in central London where the buzz of conversation over glasses of whisky and sherry subsides and the roar of low flying Lancaster bombers slowly envelopes the room. We catch our breath and look upward, instinctively, before turning our eyes to the winding staircase where Sir Arthur T. (“Bomber”) Harris descends to applause that cannot quite overcome the sound of the bombers on loudspeakers.
That was some 30 years ago. Working in British television at the time, I was accompanying a friend to an RAF Bomber Command reunion dinner. Born and raised in western Canada, one of the first of the Baby Boom generation, I had no experience of war. Yet the impact of that event - which included having the legendary Leonard Cheshire as a dinner companion - would last a lifetime.
I don’t recall Sir Arthur’s speech but to my surprise I found one dated April 30, 1977, online. Replete with flattering testimonials from German and American generals, it details the achievements of Bomber Command – a nuts and bolts tale of how 37 divisions chased 60 German divisions “clean across Europe … (and) totally destroyed the German army of half a million men …” How was this possible? Because of two things, Sir Arthur explained. “… the Germans’ lack of anti-tank defences and the … absolute air supremacy of our fellows (who had) forced the German airforce to spread nearly all its efforts on a failed attempt to defend their own country.”
More than a factual rendering, the speech was a pep talk, too, as the Air Officer Commanding-In-Chief and, later, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, now grown old, bolstered squadron morale and fortified it for one last battle. Except now the battleground was the historical records where yet again Bomber Command was being shot down.
By 1977, the controversy over the morality of bombing civilian populations and its effectiveness in winning the war was well advanced. It reached its Canadian zenith when the CBC broadcast Brian and Terence McKenna’s television documentary series The Valour and the Horror in 1992. Its sorry depiction of Bomber Command being led like lambs to the slaughter by an incompetent and wicked leadership embroiled the nation.
The controversy is documented in a 1994 publication entitled The Valour and the Horror Revisited. Edited by historians David J. Bercuson (University of Calgary) and S.F. Wise (Carleton University), it dismisses concerns about the right of veterans to complain (no one owns history, the book argues) and instead concentrates on historical accuracy. In the case of The Valour and the Horror, it concludes the history was “badly flawed”, particularly in the area of historical context. Good history, after all, must include all sides of the debate.
That those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it is a truism but when it is historians and museum curators who do the ignoring, you have to wonder what is going on. Given The Valour and the Horror experience, the recent Canadian War Museum imbroglio makes no sense. Having accurately identified the controversy surrounding Bomber Command, it had a duty to tell both sides of the story.
A mere mistake? That’s David Bercuson’s gracious assessment but Sir Arthur’s instincts may be closer to the mark. A new battleground has emerged. Call it the post communist culture wars, if you will, whose combatants are those who would control the ideological mindset of our age. As British commentator Theodore Dalrymple observed at a Civitas conference in Halifax recently, both world wars started a “reassessment of the moral worth of the civilization that brought them about”. Bomber Command, the most conspicuous example of a generation willing to do what needed to be done against a ruthless enemy, was only an early casualty of this kind of thinking. Others would quickly follow, among them Empire and Christianity, to name two. “The test of virtue,” says Dalrymple, “became the degree to which one was prepared to reject and revile one’s own society.” In other words, the western world was/is always wrong.
Nearly 10,000 Canadian aircrew died in Bomber Command for our freedoms, including the freedom to criticize. But how long before criticism undermines the freedoms that protect it in the first place? Never mind being saved from our enemies, who today will save us from ourselves?
MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.