|St. Lawrence Institute|
for the Advancement of Learning
Critical reviews, at least in academic journals, are usually written in the third person, with its implication of impersonality and neutrality. I am abandoning this convention here, in a reflection on Brian McKenna's widely-celebrated and widely-condemned television film The Valour and the Horror. I cannot claim to be an entirely detache observer; I had some correspondence and discussion with McKenna about both of his films dealing with Canadians in the two World Wars. Furthermore, McKenna himself has explicitly rejected the idea that his personal character and motives -- and that of his critics -- can or should be separated from the content of his film, and how it was received. The same holds true for the most important national magazine story attempting to explain the controversy about the film.
So I will also declare my own reactions in equally personal terms. I intensely disliked The Valour and the Horror, especially the central episode that dealt with the aerial bombing offensive on Germany in World War II. I can at least agree with McKenna that it is precisely the nature of his personal interpretation that is the central problem of the film. I hope to explain just why our interpretations are so different, but also why there is more involved than a clash of purely subjective opinions.
Before the film, Brian McKenna's name was less widely known to most of the Canadian public than that of his younger brother Terry, who appeared as a regular reporter on the CBC's nightly Journal. But he was by no means a daring young independent unknown. He had been a CBC researcher and writer for two decades, for As it Happens, The Fifth Estate, and The Journal. He had been co-author of a lively journalistic biography of Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau. His documentary work, adversarial in tone, had displayed plenty of substantial research and intelligent observation. In addition, he is known to many Montrealers as a gregarious and convivial journalist. I often encountered him in downtown nightspots as a companion of Nick Auf der Maur, Gazette columnist and colourful city politician; I assume he has an additional network of friendly colleagues in Ottawa and Toronto.
When the CBC announced, in the weeks before Remembrance Day of 1988, that the occasion would be marked with a film on the Canadians in World War I prepared by the McKenna brothers, I awaited it with considerable apprehension. My father and his brothers and sister had all served in the First World War. The sister, who served as a nurse, died in the great influenza epidemic at the end of the war. My father, a medical orderly for the PPCLI, had received gunshot and shrapnel wounds, mainly at Vimy Ridge, and these were almost certainly a major contributing factor to his death, while still in his forties, a quarter of a century later. A doctor by that time, he was ready to go and serve again in the Second World War, in which I also had uncles and cousins involved; one of the latter was a Mosquito pilot who was shot down over Germany in 1944. I had done my own graduate research in history on the involvement of British scientists in the Second World War, and I had taught college and university courses in the history of twentieth century Europe for many years. I will openly admit that I did not look forward to a CBC treatment of either war, by the McKennas or anyone else they would be likely to call upon. I thought then, and still do, that most television documentaries, on almost any vaguely "historical" topic, were preposterous confections. Even those I had seen produced for the much lauded BBC included an immense amount of what might be called misrepresentation by selective interviewing, usually to push some completely zany idea.
The advance TV advertisements for the McKenna film, The Killing Ground, stressed that it would contain shocking revelations. I wasn't looking forward to these. I did not expect to be shocked, or even surprised, just irritated. However, I watched it anyway. To my considerable surprise, I thought that, by and large, it was a powerful and moving tribute to the Canadian soldiers who served in the First World War. That did not mean that I was entirely persuaded by every particular argument in the film. On some details, I would not claim enough historical expertise to be sure whether or not they were accurate; on others, where I knew the story well and would have told it differently, I still thought the difference lay within the legitimate bounds of historical interpretation. For example, the film dealt harshly with General Philip Haig, the British Supreme Commander. Haig has been a frequent target ever since the 1920's, and this is hardly surprising, given the terrible human cost of the major offensives he ordered. But attacks on him also have involved a great deal of hindsight generalship, and of underestimation of the problems that he and other Allied generals faced.
The Killing Ground made no such allowances; nor did it do so much for the Canadian commander, Sir Arthur Currie. But in comparison with many of the previous treatments of the First World War, it was only conventional, and even perfunctory, in its condemnations. It was not a Canadianized All Quiet on the Western Front, much less a Canadianized Paths of Glory, or Oh, What a Lovely War! The latter, a pacifist British musical of the Vietnam war era, portrayed Haig as an outright buffoon. The Killing Ground took a different approach; it was a "docudrama," using actors to read actual diaries and letters of Canadian soldiers. This technique was used very effectively, and I thought the whole film was actually more successful in conveying both the awful nature of the First World War, and the human face of its participants, than many of these more famous fictional accounts in novels and films. Since I had often written newspaper columns chiding the CBC for its many trendy and dubious enthusiasms, I felt I had a certain moral obligation to give them credit when I thought they had done something right. So I wrote a letter to Brian McKenna in which, while I included some mild reservations, I told him I thought he had done a very fine job. He wrote a friendly answer from the University of Regina, where he was taking a leave from the CBC as Max Bell Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism. He was using the time to begin research on his next project, which would be a much more ambitious film dealing with Canadians in the Second World War. He told me something of his reading, and asked for some additional suggestions. I sent a brief bibliography, and also noted some difficulties that his project would probably encounter. When he returned to Montreal some time later, we met and talked, and I took up these difficulties again. He remained pleasant and amicable, but I made no impression. Furthermore, when he volunteered his own ideas on what he was doing, I reluctantly concluded that he was bound for disaster. When I expounded this unwelcome prophecy, McKenna stayed polite, but grew less amicable; we had no more meetings.
When The Valour and the Horror was released a couple of years later, it was just as unsatisfactory as I thought it would be, and I was not surprised by the public response, especially from the veterans. I also found much of the commentary in the media on the subsequent controversy equally unsatisfactory. But the whole episode has been a very instructive one: not about World War II, but about the relationship between history, its interpretation in the media, and the way these are projected to the mass public.
II. From Ophuls to McKenna.
Brian McKenna began to work in television journalism about two decades ago, so that his own career and that of his contemporaries spans the years of steadily increasing power and prestige of television. This rise began with the reporting of the war in Vietnam, and was climaxed with the reporting on the war in the Gulf. The steadily increasing impact of television on all aspects of modern existence came about mainly through technological improvements at both the sending and receiving end; the actual quality of programmes seldom showed a corresponding improvement, and in the production of dramas or series features has actually deteriorated. Both developments have enhanced the importance of the kind of journalism done by McKenna: documentaries and "docudramas" on matters of greater substance than the usual evening fare.
The Vietnam war provided material for many such documentaries, most obviously because television cameramen were on the scene while the war was being fought. That development undoubtedly had a very great influence on journalists of the post-war generation in shaping their ideas of what war was about in general, since most of them were historically illiterate. But to attempt documentaries on any earlier period, various different methods of visual recreation would be necessary, not only because old newsreels gave much thinner visual coverage of events up until the 1950's, but because even the available footage had usually been shot for very different purposes than those usually animating documentary makers: in the case of wars, usually either straight military information or propaganda for the home front.
So the model for "historical" documentary of the post-Vietnam era was not a traditional celluloid celebration like Victory at Sea, but the internationallycelebrated film by Marcel Ophuls about France under the Occupation in the Second World War, The Sorrow and the Pity. The title of McKenna's work obviously evokes comparison between the two films; such a comparison also highlights his intentions and ambitions. But more than that, a comparison of the two very different historical contexts, of both the original events and their depictions, also explains the very different reception given to the two documentaries.
Like McKenna, Ophuls was sharply criticized for producing an account that lacked completeness and balance. More precisely, Ophuls belonged to the French left, and he was a great deal more generous to the French Communist Party than he was to anyone on the Centre or Right. But while this led to a certain amount of uproar in France, The Sorrow and the Pity was both a critical and popular success internationally, and not just with people who shared Ophuls' political preferences. However, the reason for this had very little to do with its strengths or weaknesses as an historical account. It has far more to do with the fact that Ophuls provided the first detailed, visual interpretation of the central French experience of the Second World War -- which was the experience of defeat.
Anyone who has ever lived in France can testify to the profound effect the collapse of 1940 had on Frenchman, even decades later, and the limited extent to which the 1944 Allied Invasion -- or "Liberation" -- nullified this earlier effect. Their 1940 catastrophe had no exact counterpart elsewhere: they knew this, the Allies knew this, and they knew the Allies knew this. The other conquered European nations were small powers, whose citizens knew that, whatever the bravery of their armed forces or underground fighters, their fate would be ultimately determined by the outcome of the struggle between the great European powers. But France had been one of the great European powers. It had entered the war with one of the largest armies in the world, far larger than the army of either their German conquerors or their hold-out British ally. Furthermore, it was not bested in a long and ferocious struggle, as Germany was in both wars, but toppled in a five week Blitzkrieg.
French weakness in 1940 had not only been a matter of inadequate generalship but a consequence of political division. Detested and sneered at by the extreme Right, the Third Republic, in the era of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, had also been undermined on the Left by its large and powerful Communist Party. There were good enough reasons for uneasy consciences all around. Most of the French sat out the greater part of the war, watching the fierce contest between Nazi Germany and the Anglo-American alliance on one side, Soviet Russia on the other. In these circumstances, the Gaullist and Communist Resistance Movement, supported and aided by the British and Americans, came to assume a "mythic" importance, both during the war and after, far greater that it ever had as an actual irritant to the German war machine. This was not a closely guarded secret; many of the British and American military leaders privately regarded DeGaulle as "a glorified radio announcer," and even the genuine heroes and heroines of the Resistance could see perfectly well that their most daring escapades of espionage and sabotage were scarcely comparable to the larger battles of the time.
The actual frequency of collaboration was a commonplace to historians, and given the total savagery with which Nazi Germany avenged any European underground activities that caused the death of even one or two German soldiers, it was not even all that reprehensible - although the energetic co-operation in the rounding up of French Jews for deportation and murder certainly was. But even the tiny number of citizens with impeccable records of dangerous underground activity included few who wanted to dwell too long on even the most morally offensive aspects of collaboration. Both Communists and Gaullists were major postwar political forces, and had a mutual interest in playing up the Resistance as the symbol of French honour, complemented and completed by the arrival of Free French troops in France after the Normandy invasion.
The consequence, however, was that France became a country in which there was a much wider gap between the myths of public celebration on one side, and the testimony of history and memory on the other, than could be found for any other major democracy involved in the Second World War. That is why Ophuls, even while suppressing the importance of Communist collaborationism until June of 1941, could have a unique impact. The Sorrow and the Pity, which pounded home the story of extensive collaboration a full three decades after this collaboration took place, was an immensely effective shotgun blast to a particularly vulnerable sacred cow. The size of the worldwide viewing audience made it impossible for the French to continue to minimize or ignore what was simply the central aspect of national experience from 1940 to 1944, three-quarters of the duration of the War.
A whole series of European and American "historical" documentaries appeared in the 1970's and 1980's, showing signs of the Ophuls influence. Ophuls had shown how it was possible to escape the constraints of authentic old film footage, such as newsreels of clips from combat photographers. The Sorrow and the Pity demonstrated that the attention of audiences could be held with lengthy but carefully edited interviews with eyewitness par-ticipants or articulate academic commentators. To these devices could be added more and more "docudrama": using actors to re-create historical figures with varying degrees of fidelity. Thus television journalists and producers almost casually assumed the mantle of historians. But most of them scarcely considered that their own intense and lengthy involvement in present myth-making is hardly an ideal preparation for understanding the past. In particular, there is little recognition by journalists that sacred cows find as comfortable a home in editorial offices and television studios as they do in corporate boardrooms or legion halls. The overwhelming tendency of mass media journalism is to adopt an adversarial stance toward "privileged elites" and "authority figures," while blandly ignoring the combination of privilege and authority that journalism has itself acquired. Applying the same approach to the past provides an unlimited supply of past topics on which to lavish lamentation and indignation, and an unlimited supply of Dead White Males to be delegitimized and pilloried. But such a process can easily do great violence to historical truth, because the amount and type of myth surrounding past events can vary spectacularly. Historians have to try to disentangle themselves from some of the myths of their own era, and to disentangle the record of actual past events from the myths of that period, to consider how these myths were formed, and to examine the extent to which belief or faith in them shaped human action. When this is not done, depictions of the past become little more than disguised celebrations of present prejudices.
This was exactly the reason that I began to think Brian McKenna's film on the Second World War was going to go wrong, even while it was only in the stages of germination. Consider The Valour and the Horror even as a title. Titles are no minor factor in any examination of the intent or the reception of a book, play, article or film. In some cases they leave a stronger imprint on public consciousness than the actual entity they are supposed to identify; recall The Two Cultures, Future Shock, Small is Beautiful. I suspect that veterans, historians, and members of the general public in Canada, whether or not they liked McKenna's film, would have reacted to it a little differently if he called it, say, Sir Arthur Harris and Me. The title he did choose actually contains several pretensions at once. "Valour" has almost disappeared from everyday English, surviving almost exclusively in its narrow military sense: it is a word listeners and readers expect to encounter at a Remembrance Day service, or when reading something like a regimental history. It therefore immediately suggests a film celebrating the courage and heroism of Canadians in battle, as McKenna indeed still insists was his intention. "Horror" is a much vaguer and more general term: few are ever called to show valour, while horror is an easy and universal possibility. In the context it is given here, in this era, it is most likely to recall the final word of Kurtz, not in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
So the title announces from the outset that McKenna proposed more than a simple narrative; he was undertaking an exercise in philosophical and dramatic historical reconstruction, an attempt to give meaning to the Canadian effort and sacrifice in the Second World War. But this immediately raises much larger and much different problems than he had to deal with in his film about World War I. For one thing, while the actual scale of the Canadian contribution to the Allied cause was much larger than had been the case a quarter of a century earlier, it was for that reason also more diffuse, and was made even more so by the different nature of the war. World War I was not all Flanders Fields: there was a Russian Front until 1917, an Allied struggle with U-boats and German surface raiders, and an air war that grew more important each year, and in which Canadians also were significant participants. But the battles and trench warfare of the Western Front were the central focus of the war, so that a portrayal of what happened to the Canadians there also directly encountered the most important issues the war involved. In fact, it is arguable that the Canadians, in one or two instances like Ypres and Vimy Ridge, had a kind of "world-historical" importance of a kind they never exactly duplicated at any point in the Second World War, since the valour they showed in 1914-18 may have changed the actual outcome of the whole war.
In addition to that, while all wars produce horror, the Western Front in World War I was, for all the rest of this century, the remembered and imagined arena of battle horror par excellence. There had not been a general European war in a century, and no major and bloody struggle since the Franco-Prussian War, half a century earlier. It was the first general war fought with the new high explosives, machine guns, and road and railway systems of supplies and reinforcements. The war not only devoured the young men of Europe, but of the colonial nations of the European powers, and eventually the United States. It produced an immense body of memoirs, war poetry, literature, academic historical study, philosophical and political reaction, and cinematic depiction. This intense reaction to the war did not merely take place in the years immediately following 1914-18, but continued up to the outbreak of the Second World War and was occasionally still resumed afterwards. This long look back differentiates all current attempts to interpret the two World Wars far more than is suggested by the short time span between them. For example, to most members of the Canadian public, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 is now as psychologically remote as the Napoleonic wars. But this is not the case for World War I, even though only a tiny number of people remain who were old enough in 1914-18 to have been veterans or eyewitnesses. For everyone who reads seriously, and even for those who draw their ideas of the past entirely from films and television, World War I is more psychologically "alive" than the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 or the Korean War of 1950-53, despite the fact that both these wars have plenty of living veterans, including Canadian ones.
Providing a "revisionist" account of any really major aspect of World War I is by now as difficult as the creation of a new school of painting that could shock and disgust the patrons of modern art galleries. Portrayals of the war by angry pacifists, using every device from showing the politicians and generals as evil clowns to depicting surrealist battle scenes, have not only been appearing for over sixty years; they have come to constitute an interpretative tradition that is actually much larger than any one of militarist or nationalist celebration. It is possible to make a bad film about World War I, but very hard to make a surprising one.
This is especially bound to be the case for a film which makes Canadian participation its central focus. The great issue of the cause of the war, with its attendant implications of guilt and responsibility, was long an obsessive issue to the great powers, since at least some kind of case could be made that any one of them, not just Germany, had indulged in various follies that had helped bring on the catastrophe. But this debate meant less to Canada, which entered the First War automatically, as a British colony, and with a volunteer army; the only great Canadian issue was whether the army should be supplemented by conscription. Even if it could be argued that deficiencies of British or Canadian generalship raised the terrible toll of Canadian casualties, this could only appear as one aspect of a much larger tragedy. Canada had 60,000 dead, while still a country of a few million people. But Britain and France, while they had a combined population over ten times as large, had forty times the number of dead.
I thought that The Killing Ground did a reasonably satisfactory job of integrating the actual historical context with the more mythicized World War I of modern memory. But the written and verbal exchanges I had with Brian McKenna convinced me that he vastly underestimated the huge difficulties of carrying out a similar exercise for World War II. He gave me a striking example at one point, explaining that he proposed to "cover World War II as an honest modern journalist." I maintained, and still do, that this was almost like declaring that he proposed to cover the battles of Napoleon from the viewpoint of a jet fighter pilot.
For example, if he were to try to imagine himself in the shoes of the war correspondents or periodical journalists of the period, he would have to allow for the fact that what they mainly did was write and radio broadcast their observations about the war, a very different thing from trying to convey it in visual images. Not only that, the"media people" of half a century ago, even the most famous ones, neither saw themselves, nor were seen by anyone else, as having anything like the power of their modern counterparts. Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, and their top military commanders, were not only the men who decided on the campaigns, battles, and overall strategy of the war, they were largely its most important interpreters as well. The journalists scarcely even saw themselves as independent observation posts; engaged in what they saw as a total struggle for command of the world and its future, they were open partisans and frequent propagandists.
On the other hand, if what he was imagining was a kind of conceptual "time travel," taking himself and his crew into the bomber cockpits and Normandy battlefields of half a century ago, then, I maintained, he could not do so simply by swotting up memoirs and biographies and finding eyewitnesses. He needed to learn -- if he wanted to make a genuine contribution to popular history -- something of the larger context of the Second World War and also to take a close look at the myths in his own conceptual baggage.
III. The Jet Pilot's Battle of Waterloo.
McKenna eventually decided to represent the story of Canadians in World War II, or rather the "untold" story, as the $30 coffee table spin off book by Merrily Weisbord and Merilyn Mohr is subtitled, in three episodes: the Japanese defeat and imprisonment of the Canadian garrison at Hong Kong; the Canadian part in the night aerial bombing of Germany; and the fighting between the Canadians and the Germans after Normandy, especially the slaughter of the Black Watch troops at Verrière Ridge.
"Untold" is another revealing word choice, since these are all sets of events that are a great deal more familiar to many Canadians -- not veterans exclusively -- than, say, any of the important battles of the Korean War. The word carries the usual irritating trendy implication: that which is not familiar to the baby boom generation, and that which is not televised, can only exist in darkest obscurity. But it also has the additional one: even those who imagine themselves in any other category do not know what really happened in each case, either because we have been lulled by comforting myths, or because political and military leaders, and even historians, have actively conspired to conceal blundering and ineptitude at the top, of criminal proportions. This conspiracy-mongering is found throughout the script and later book; for example, the adjective "secret" is constantly used to describe memoranda and correspondence on the matters concerned, without any reference to the fact that all such wartime documents were secret, but have been open to public inspection in the British and Canadian archives for many years.
There is thus a common thread that runs through all three episodes; they deal not only with the actual terrible sacrifices of Canadian servicemen, but explicitly link these sacrifices with mistakes, even crimes, of leaders at a higher level. The centrally important episode is the second one, on the aerial bombing offensive, since it is the only one that deals with a major strategic aspect of the Second World War. This episode also gives comparable emphasis to the hundreds of thousands of German civilians who were killed or injured by this bombing, and to wartime and postwar criticisms of its actual military effectiveness. So in this case the argument is not only that the head of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, was regularly giving orders that brought about the needless sacrifice of the lives of English and Canadian airmen, but was also making them the accomplices -- most strangely of all, in McKenna's account, unwitting accomplices -- in a great war crime.
That such an interpretation greatly offended veterans is hardly surprising, and their barrage of protest led to the nervous backtracking of the CBC, and the publication of the Ombudsman's Report in major Canadian newspapers on November 12, 1992. The Report drew on the advice of distinguished Canadian historians, who identified a number of factual errors, especially in the second and third episodes. McKenna, when stung to reply, continued his preoccupation with attributing motive. For example, he dismissed the views of Professor S. F. Wise as those of someone who had been a "Bomber Command Pilot." Professor Wise responded that he had been a staff pilot with Eastern Air Command, a quite unconnected part of the Air Force. But even if McKenna had not been mistaken on the facts, his comment would still be startling. He was maintaining that the comments of a leading historian on a television journalist's version of past events should be discounted, because the historian participated in the events. This position has ludicrous consequences: imagine army recruiting officers trying to dismiss the worldwide impression created by All Quiet on the Western Front with the argument that its author had actually been a soldier in World War I. For that matter, it could just as well be argued that McKenna should have dismissed many of the World War II eyewitnesses he drew on for his own film.
McKenna did find a couple of historians to support him; but neither really backed up his interpretation. One was a kindred spirit, who knows little of the Second World War. The other, while not a historian of the War, is more distinguished, but I think he was more alarmed by what he saw as a threat to freedom of expression, in the pressure applied to the CBC, than he was concerned with defending the film itself. This latter issue, even though I am one of the many Canadians who took pleasure in watching the CBC squirm, made me feel uncomfortable as well. As a general rule, I don't like the idea of elaborate inquisitions on television programmes, including ones with which I vehemently disagree, not only because of the possible chilling effect on art and ideas, but also because of the backfire effect.
The backfire effect was bound to be powerful, especially since the whole story would be largely reported by journalists who would be almost inevitable McKenna partisans; the Senators and the organized veterans' groups, while I believe they were justified in their outrage, made McKenna look like just one more victim of special interest group heat and pusillanimous CBC management.
But I could not help sympathizing with them, just as an individual Canadian. A "storm" or "uproar" from elements of the public is the only way that ordinary citizens or even academic authorities can do anything at all about "TV history." Writers of books or articles, for both specialist and mass markets, have to show their credentials, cite their sources, compete with rivals, brave the critics, and expect their best work to be revised and superseded. A television film that is actually released, and thereafter converted into a network's library standard and future VCR product, is itself an historical artifact, an almost indestructible one, unlikely to be revised and corrected in a later edition.
Furthermore, I had good reason to be appalled by The Valour and the Horror. I can not claim any special knowledge about the Hong Kong and Normandy episodes, but I do know a considerable amount about the bomber offensive. I read the major primary source documents in the War Cabinet and Air Ministry files in the Public Record Office in London years ago, and the collections of private papers in Churchill College, Cambridge. I interviewed many of the top British scientists who took part in the war effort, including both those who gave advice on bombing, like Solly Zuckerman, and those who were most critical of the strategy of the aerial offensive, like A. V. Hill and P. M. S. Blackett. I also read most of the postwar analyses that were published in Britain and the United States.
Equally important, like a large number of Canadians, Englishmen, and Americans, I have been reading and thinking about the Second World War for decades of my life. I believe the veterans spoke for most of us, not just for themselves. Furthermore, I refuse to consider the controversy as magisterially resolved in the Saturday Night cover story by Anne Collins in May of 1993, which endorsed McKennastyle "history" by treating his quarrel with the veterans and the historians as no more than a clash of two subjectivities, much as journalists report the claims of rival political candidates. Near the end of the article, Collins reported that "peace had broken out" -- between the McKennas and the CBC. Minor cosmetic changes will be added to the film "to mollify the veterans," and Ted Kotcheff has publicly declared that The Valour and the Horror was "always" seen by the CBC as only intended to cover "the darker side of the war."
This argument is as disingenuous as the film itself. Had the protest not been so powerful, and merely served to provide extra publicity, the film would clearly have become a standard, used for Remembrance Day broadcasts, school classrooms, and the like. It pretends to be mainly about Canadians, but it is really much more about an internationally dispensed pacifist myth: that the responsibility for the military and civilian casualties of war is carried entirely by political leaders (oddly enough, the democratic ones at least as much as the dictators), and by the generals and admirals and air marshals. The ordinary soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians, on the other hand, are to be regarded as almost entirely innocent, and lacking any understanding either of what they are doing, or what is happening to them. This understanding is instead assumed to be the exclusive preserve of radical journalists, creative artists, and other similar superior beings. It is a perennial fantasy that closely resembles, and often overlaps with, vulgar Marxism: the brass hats are an extension of the ruling class, the civilians and ordinary fighting men an extension of the proletariat.
Even applied to World War I, this was a mythic caricature. But in that case it was a caricature that contained enough elements of truth to gain very wide acceptance. After the long peace, the war was a shock; in the case of the old dynastic monarchies, a fatal one. Even the democracies entered the war with military conventions and social hierarchies made quickly obsolete and ridiculous by modern technology and mass warfare. The Western Allied offensives produced terrible casualties, yet seemed to accomplish nothing until the last year of the war. Major decisions were in the hands of remote and elderly men, while young men did the fighting and dying.
As already noted, many of the most educated and articulate who survived the war were determined to tell their bitter tale, and were heard with the authority of men who had spent a long season in Hell. The tale did not come in single versions. Most veterans did not become pacifists; many drew no specific political lesson at all. In some countries, no small number turned to Fascism. But a sort of impressionistic pacifism, with an attendant image of inane and hardhearted leaders sending countless young men to death, became almost a canonical interpretation.
IV. Targeting the Bombers.
McKenna seemed incapable of realizing what grotesque results he would get by applying this mythical framework to the Second World War. In terms of nationstates, the war was virtually a resumption of the one two decades earlier. Many of the combatants at all levels had even had direct personal experience in World War I; this was notably the case for both Churchill and Hitler themselves. Far from being an instance of archaic social and political structures crashing on modern technology and mass warfare, it was a `struggle that was largely brought about by the mass totalitarian systems and states born in the earlier war. On the Allied side, democratic and egalitarian political and social forces were a central aspect of the war, even in Churchill's Britain. The most common victims of the war, by a very large margin, were not servicemen but civilians, and the systematic mass murder of the latter by the totalitarian states -- in the Soviet Union's case, since the early 1930's -- caused far more deaths than those that were civilian casualties from bombing, torpedoing or ground warfare.
For the first half of the war, the Western Allies fought countless land, sea, and air actions with Nazi Germany. Some were triumphantly successful, some were abortive, and some indecisive; but there were no repetitions of the terrible battles of the Somme or Passchendaele. The largest and most decisive battles were fought between the Germans and the Russians on the Eastern Front; in this theatre, the civilian casualties numbered in the millions, even excluding the millions that were murdered in concentration camps.
The one really large split of opinion between the Americans and the British on grand strategy was over the timing of the invasion of Western Europe. The Americans wanted to go in 1943, the British only in 1944. Hindsight analysis, including that of British writers, suggests the Americans may have had the stronger case, risking heavier initial casualties for a more rapid conclusion of the war. But the British prevailed; as Lord Cherwell, Churchill's top scientific advisor, put it to a frustrated George Marshall, "you cannot argue with the Somme." It was in fact the case that the total British dead in the war, notwithstanding a massive land, sea, and air effort, came to less than half of what it had been in World War I. The time between the 1940 retreat at Dunkirk and the 1944 invasion, while it included the long desert war in Africa and the invasion of Sicily and Italy, was thus a time when the Allied bomber offensive was the main offensive weapon against Nazi Germany. Both the British and the Canadians took horrendous casualties in their nightly attacks, as did the Americans in their own attacks by day.
Not only was this a profoundly different war in fact from the one that preceded it, its interpretation was quite different, even in wartime propaganda and the criticism of left-wing intellectuals. From the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Communists and fellow travellers preached pacifism in the United States, and something close to it even in Britain and Canada, arguing that the war was an imperialist one, in which there was no reason for the masses to choose one side or the other. But this argument was so patently fatuous that even the most subservient Party members abandoned it with considerable relief, once both they and the wider public could cheer on the Russians and the Anglo-American forces simultaneously.
From the outset, it was clear that there would be no debate about which European power bore greatest responsibility for starting the war, or for escalating its level of violence, or for making it a war on civilian populations. But while the war had broad consensus political support in the democracies, from the arch-conservatives to the Communists, that did not prevent debate, surprisingly open even at the time, as to just how the war should be conducted. Debate was hot and heavy about a whole range of topics: the relative advantages of large and small Atlantic convoys, the accuracy of aerial bombing, the degree of importance that should be given to military action in the Balkans and Italy, how much help could come from European resistance movements armed by the Allies, the amount of fighter support needed by American day bombers, whether the post-Normandy forces should push forward together on a broad front or be concentrated into a spearhead drive for Berlin.
No part of the war effort had to deal with criticism from as many quarters, however, as the American and British-Canadian bomber offensive, only in part because of the heavy casualties involved. First of all, the three Air Forces were regarded from the outset by the British and American commanders of the other two services as overly privileged new arrivals, with huge and unceasing demands on personnel, industrial production, fuel, and ammunition. Then there was the fact that the Navy and Coastal Command desperately needed more large and long-range aircraft as the most effective weapon to use against the menace of the U-boats, and everyone in England who leaned to an essentially navalist and defensive overall strategy agreed with them. Within the Air Forces themselves, there were divisions of opinion about the best kind of targets to choose; this debate was complicated not only by steadily increasing recognition in the first three years of the war as to just how inaccurate earlier bombing had been, but by technological improvements, like H2S radar in aircraft, which could greatly reduce that inaccuracy. The actual impact of bombing was studied not only by the Air Force professionals, but by large numbers of scientists, many of them applying the new systematic methods of analysis known as operational research. Political leftists, both inside and outside the British Government, frequently saw the bombing raids as a wasteful and ineffective alternative to the Second Front, demanded and needed by Soviet Russia.
These critical views were not entirely compartmentalized, but often coalesced into each other, in the views and importance of a few individuals. For example, Patrick Blackett, one of the most influential defence scientists of the war, was all of the following: a brilliant Cavendish physicist and later Nobel Prize winner; a junior Royal Navy officer in the First World War, who maintained strong Admiralty connections; a major developer of wartime operational research; and a lifelong supporter of the left, strongly sympathetic to the Soviet Union. He liked being known around the Admiralty as the"A.L.D.," or "Anti-Lindemann Device,"for his aversion to Churchill's very different High Tory scientific advisor, Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell. Blackett was consistently sceptical about the effectiveness of aerial bombing; Lindemann wrote a famous memorandum in March of 1942 that put forward the case for area bombing of German cities. On the other hand, Lindemann himself had come to this position partly because of his own scepticism about the actual accuracy of supposed attacks on specific military objectives, and studies done over the previous two years largely showed he had been right.
But the scientists were just as divided in their views as the military professionals, for a variety of reasons. J. D. Bernal, another Cambridge physicist who was even further left than Blackett (he was a Communist supporter and Soviet apologist) was a co-author with Solly Zuckerman of a critically important research paper on the effects of German bombing on British cities, which had an important impact on Lindemann's analysis. Ironically enough, Bernal wound up being assigned this task because, since the Communists had spent the immediate preceding years by trying to scare the daylights out of the British people with the danger to them from air raids, he had set himself up as early authority on the analysis of these raids.
Everyone's calculations turned out to be wrong; sceptics and enthusiasts alike had insufficient data. For example, it later turned out that the structural strength of German houses and apartment buildings was far greater than that of the British buildings that were initially used as a basis of comparison. Shortly after the war ended, the Americans published the official, and very official-sounding, United States Strategic Bombing Survey. Its own research methods were by no means unquestionable, but it had very wide impact. It concluded that the aerial bombardment of Germany, especially the night attacks by the British, had had very little effect on German industrial production, or the general German capacity to fight the war. This argument was naturally popular with all of the different people in England and the United States who had been sceptical or openly hostile about the bombing efforts from its beginnings, and it has been restated in various forms ever since. On certain narrow criteria, decades of later research largely supported the conclusions: for example, the Germans steadily increased their aircraft production throughout the war, actually reaching a peak rate just months before their unconditional surrender. Given the hundreds of thousands of German civilian casualties, and the terrible death toll of British, Canadian, and American airmen, such critics -- Blackett himself, for example -- would argue that the whole effort had been a tragic failure, seen as such not only in hindsight, but by the most prescient even at the time.
But the whole issue is a much more complicated one than that, and one that cannot be entirely settled by quoting statistics. First of all, it can scarcely be argued that the destruction of cities by aerial bombardment could not possibly defeat a belligerent; to a very large extent, this was exactly what happened in the case of Japan. Even those who believe that the atomic bombs should not have been dropped, on the grounds that the Japanese would soon have been compelled to surrender anyway, seem to forget that the very reason this case has any plausibility was that Japan had been devastated by the massive fire-bombing B-29 raids, producing casualties in the Tokyo and Yokahama attacks that were on the same level as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For that matter, while it staggers the imagination to recall that the 1945 A-bombs had the explosive force of 10-20,000 tons of TNT, two or three 1000-plane raids on a German city could drop more than that.
The exact effect this had on Germany has never been exactly determined, even with decades of hindsight. What Bernal and Zuckerman had learned, in their study of the bombing of British cities, was pretty much what both British civilian leaders and airmen tended to conclude intuitively. That was, that quite apart from deaths and injuries, the destruction of housing was profoundly demoralizing, and could even lead to people "cracking up." Certainly, there was the quite famous counter-evidence of plucky resolve, "We can take it," and all the rest - but there was also the analogy of soldiers subjected to incessant pounding on a battlefield. In 1914-18, both Allied and German soldiers demonstrated time and again that they could "take it." But only a ruthless discipline, including the use of executions, guaranteed this by the third year of the war, when substantial mutinies broke out among French troops. The war was won, not merely by an added contingent of American troops, but by a 1918 Allied offensive hitting Germans who could no longer "take" much more.
The bomber offensive appeared in a similar light; not just as an attack, but as a battle. While the bombers killed civilians, they could hardly be described as killing "defenceless" civilians. The Germans were compelled to put a considerable amount of their whole war effort into stopping the bombers - day and night fighters, radar installations and radar-guided searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and crews, air raid wardens and fire fighters, underground construction of bomb shelters and even whole factories, allocation of precious gasoline for the aircraft. When the Allies actually landed in 1944, there were virtually no German planes to greet them, and they enjoyed total air superiority until the end of the war. The Russians, found steadily weakening aerial resistance as well. No one has ever figured out any quantitative way of measuring the contribution of bomber crews to victory, not as attackers, but as targets.
Furthermore, Allied leaders in the Second World War inevitably looked back to the nature and outcome of the First. By 1918, the Allied naval blockade brought severe privation on the German people; they were eventually aided by a gigantic American postwar relief operation. But World War I was actually fought almost entirely on French and Belgian soil, not German, and there was little physical damage to Germany. By 1924, the Germans had not only restored their industrial production to a level a full sixth higher than in 1914 - while Britain had only reached ninetenths -- a substantial and dangerous proportion of the population had already convinced themselves that they had never been defeated. They had only been compelled to surrender and submit to the indignities and injustices of the Versailles Treaty, they concluded, because they had been stabbed in the back by defeatist forces in Germany itself -- the Socialists, the Communists, the Jews.
There was surely a certain element of vengeance in the aerial bombing of Germany; not that surprising, when it is recalled that German aerial attacks on Britain caused 50,000 dead, a figure about a quarter higher than the total figure for Canadian dead from all causes in the Second World War. But even as retaliation, the bombing had a comprehensible strategic purpose. It seems quite probable that both the total immediate collapse of the Nazi German state in 1945, and the ready willingness of other nations, once the prosecution of war criminals had taken place, to readmit the Germans to ordinary life and politics, were brought about by a recognition of the physical and human devastation inflicted on Germany.
The criticism of the bomber offensive, from the time that it took place to the present, largely originated from scientists and leftist humanitarians, often the same people. There are two major difficulties with which they have never successfully grappled, in some ways analogous to the difficulties they encountered in their equally firm conviction that England or Canada or the United States would be better places, as the whole world would be, with "rationally planned economies."The first is that all lovers of planning forget that individuals, social and economic groups, and even whole states will change their behaviour as a result of the plan itself, negating its intended purpose, and launching new sets of consequences. For example, if Hitler and his advisors saw that German cities were free from attack, but that U-boats and German surface warships were in danger of annihilation by four-engine bombers diverted for this purpose, it is quite possible that the Lancaster and Liberator pilots would soon find the skies over the North Sea and the Atlantic filled with twin-engine fighters with drop tanks; the deadly 88-millimetre guns would not be used to put up flak, but to blast away at advancing Russians or guard the Normandy approaches, and so on.
The second difficulty is closely related to this first one: wars require engagement in battle somewhere. Had Churchill not possessed such an intensely activist, interventionist, and offensive approach, the constant urge to "engage the enemy more closely," there would almost certainly have been less ill-conceived and disastrously executed individual operations, most of which did little to help win the war, and some of which cost many British and Canadian lives. But it was this same temperament that not only gave him such inspirational powers as a leader, but made it possible for the British alone, then the British, Canadians, Americans, and other Allied powers, to fight a successful war to the end with the most powerful, deadly, and determined opponent imaginable. From 1942 until 1944, Bomber Command served as the strategic weapon, along with the U.S. Air Force day bombers. It was undoubtedly true that the Western democracies entered the war, and the first stages of the bomber offensive, with many widely-accepted and largely mistaken assumptions about just what the bombers could and could not do. The assumptions came not only from the elaborate but untested strategic theories of Douhet, Seversky, and Lord Trenchard, but from the agitated doom-sayings of Communists and pacifists in the latter 1930's, and probably just the novelty and fascination that aircraft had as weapons, only a few decades from the earliest flights. But just as was the case with the army battles on the ground in both World Wars, mistaken assumptions were gradually discarded as lessons were drawn from painful experience. Young men were sent into terrible battlefields in both wars, and in World War II the battlefield of the night sky was one of the most dangerous and murderous of them all; but that was ultimately the consequence of total war between major modern nation states, not the malignity or incompetence of the commanders.
It is this dimension of war which is completely lost in McKenna's film, and the reason it is mired in sentimentality and triviality. What McKenna did was essentially to turn the existing critical view of the aerial offensive into a rerun of the interwar pacifist interpretations of the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, apparently quite unconscious of the ironies of this position. He cast Sir Arthur Harris, the British head of Bomber Command, as the reincarnation of General Haig. He put together eyewitness accounts of harrowing and horrifying experiences of aircrew veterans with anguished descriptions of those who reached breaking point and no longer could fly, casualty statistics, and the sceptical comments of Freeman Dyson, one of the many scientists who analyzed bombing.
Even given his own assumptions, he used a peculiar selection of film footage. Much of the whole episode is devoted to the famous Dam Busters expedition, the use of an élite British Lancaster squadron, with some Canadian members, to try to knock out the three main hydro-electric dams powering German industry. The bombers succeeded in destroying two of the dams, with very heavy losses, but did not get the third; quick and resourceful response to the attack by Albert Speer saved the situation for the Germans, although Speer later commented that, had the raid actually managed to get the third dam, the German war effort might very well have collapsed. The story of the attack, which depended on the use of a special water-skipping bomb developed by the eccentric genius Barnes Wallis, was told long ago in a major British film.
The excellent film footage available on the raid was probably irresistible to McKenna, although he was more interested in stressing the heavy casualties and the German civilian deaths involved than he was in emphasizing its combination of strategic ingenuity and individual heroism. But he was actually undermining the general thesis he was developing, rather as if he had claimed to show the experience of regular combat infantry by providing film of a commando raid. The whole idea emerged from Wallis, who eventually got the project approved and supported by the Ministry of Economic Warfare. Harris was not so enthusiastic, partly because he correctly anticipated it would take a terrible toll in aircrew. The dam that survived, the Sorpe, was a particularly hard nut to crack, but the successes in breaching the Mohne and Eder showed that the attack was not simply crackpot from its conception.
There was nothing wrong in principle with telling the Dam Busters story again; it is intrinsically fascinating enough. But its use in this context belies the whole claim that The Valour and the Horror emerged from "bulletproof research"; rather, it arises from a sophomoric idée fixe.
V. Solipsists Go To War.
Anne Collins, in the Saturday Night article that largely defends McKenna, commented smugly:
Neither the historians nor the veterans who testified against the film seemed willing to grant that the series was popular, historical storytelling, not history, and that the medium required a sometimes alarming concision and a marriage between word and picture to get its particular truth [sic] across.
This defence is in a class with "the computer made an error" and "the dog ate my homework." What she calls "alarming concision" is not some peculiar and inexorable "requirement" of television; it is an ancient sin, longknown to historians, and committed by bad ones with the same problem she and McKenna have; it is called source mining. Source miners provide dishonest and distorted versions of historical events, not by stating what is false, but by suppressing what a wide variety of different, and even mutually antipathetic, observers would regard as true. Source miners are common in politics, theatre, entertainment, advertising, and radical journalism, and all of them contribute to various mythic representations of both the present and past. It is one of the obligations of historians, or anyone with a serious respect for historical truth, to identify and expose source mining, because it creates comfortable illusions that can have dangerous practical consequences. Source miners themselves never understand this, because they are so completely subjectivist that they assume that subjectivism is universal, and critics are just mining down a different shaft.
Consider this passage from Collins:
.. Even ten years ago, most veterans of the Second World War were still holding down jobs instead of having time on their hands to write letters. But age and its consequent illnesses, as the American psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman had written ... often brought longsuppressed memories of trauma to the surface. Some of the recreations of combat in The Valour and the Horror could have triggered traumatic flashbacks; reactions to the flashbacks would include fear and angry denial.
This is just sadistic sneering, wrapped up in psychobabble. It is a wonder she does not suggest they are also suppressing memories of childhood sexual abuse. As for the causes of angry denial, there were plenty in the film, requiring no traumas to be triggered. Collins provides an even more revealing comment on McKenna himself:
Brian's teachers at the English Catholic school in Montreal he attended as a boy had been war veterans, who beat him viciously when he tested their patience or authority. As he grew older he came to believe that their violence towards him and other boys came out of their silenced war. It horrified him that they had beaten into him a capacity for violence...
The first thought that crossed my own mind when I read this passage was that I was also frequently taught by veterans; in fact, my Grade Six teacher, in the Calgary school I attended, was a Bomber Command pilot, and my Grade Seven teacher was in Bomber Command as well. Our school was commonly regarded as one of the toughest in the city, and used frequent corporal punishment, but both these men were very mild disciplinarians, kindly and goodnatured, and more often remarked for their indifference to the school's bureaucratic rules. None of the other veterans who taught me showed anything resembling a brutal or sadistic streak, although I had several teachers who did show such a streak.
The second thought that crossed my mind was that either Collins or McKenna, or both of them, are ignoring the commonplace that physical beating simply used to be far more widely practised in Catholic parochial schools right across North America than in public ones, and largely by priests and nuns who had never been near a battlefield. I recall it being said of a footballcoaching priest at the Catholic high school in my city that he could deck any member of the team with a single punch; also that this capacity was proudly declaimed by his students, although I suppose there were also some who nursed McKenna-like rage and pain. It is not impossible that the particular teachers who taught Brian McKenna had suffered war experiences that made them brutal, but other explanations, such as alcoholic fathers who beat them, are surely far more likely.
This is not to say that McKenna is necessarily mistaken when he argues that Canadian veterans may feel that they have never really had a full opportunity to satisfactorily express the pain and anguish the war left them with. He may very well be right, at least for some of them. I have found a very wide variety of attitudes and emotions in veterans, even those who had identical searing experiences. This may also be due to experience that preceded the war itself. For example, some Canadians who fought in World War II were deeply attached to Britain; so much so, that they probably went out of their way to excuse examples of British arrogance or incompetence when they ran into it; others were anglophobes before they ever touched British soil, eager to spot such instances, and finding plenty of them. It simply is not possible to encapsulate the reactions of all of them in some poppsychology Jungianism, especially when the latter is based more on the childhood miseries of Brian McKenna than on any great knowledge of veterans.
But McKenna, when talking to Collins, was quite willing to emphasize where his arguments were really coming from:
"The fact that I was victimized by these people probably helped fuel my rage against the use of authority in this way," says McKenna. "I refuse to be victimized and I refuse to not document [emphasis in original] how people are victimized."This declaration recalls the aphorism that an intellectual is a man who turns a private neurosis into a national catastrophe. McKenna's hatred of war is genuine, but mixed with a hatred of warriors. He prohibits himself from applying this to the mass of fighting men, so he can only turn his anger on its "authority figures": hence the demonization of Sir Arthur Harris.
The result was a portrait of the Second War that was not merely offensive to most veterans, but unbelievable to anyone with any ordinary idea of what the war was about. Harris and men like him were not the men who caused the war, or even did more than a small amount to define how it would be fought. If we imagine them replaced by men of inferior abilities, or not at all, we would also have to imagine the Nazis winning the war. The purposes of Harris and the men he commanded were the same purposes. To set him in opposition to his aircrews, or even the German civilians who were bombed, as a relationship between victimizer and his victims, requires taking the war out of Europe in 1943 and recasting it in terms of Brian McKenna's unhappy school days.
Intellectuals may take the stuff of their own lives and successfully turn it into literature or theatre, but they can't turn it into history, not even good "historical storytelling," because history is not just interpretation, it is the lived experiences of other human beings, with their own influences and interpretations. The view of Bomber Command given in The Valour and the Horror is not new as subjective interpretation: it was laid out a great deal more effectively twenty years ago in Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Soldiers, which is terrible as history but effective as drama. McKenna's docudrama was a disastrous hybrid; it could at least be called truly Canadian in being neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat. A polygamous marriage of The Sorrow and the Pity, Soldiers, The Dam Busters, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Brian McKenna's school days, it is a tribute to Canadian veterans only in the sense that Das Kapital is a tribute to British industry. I don't think it should be censored or banned but just correctly identified for what it is, perhaps with a new name: Their Valour, My Horror.
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