Contemplating Death From Above

In World War I, it was the trenches that captured the imagination of poets. In World War II, it was aerial combat.

American B-29s bombing Yokohama, Japan, in 1945.

Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is one of the few poems of World War II to have achieved wide renown. It reads in its entirety: “From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, / And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. / Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, / I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. / When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

As we are reminded in “Bomber County,” Daniel Swift’s eclectic account of World War II in the air and the poetry it inspired, Jarrell was moved by the fetal image of a machine gunner hunched in the belly of a B-17. With brute concision he captured one of the two great ironies of airpower: Airmen don’t fight in a war-scarred battleground but in an untouched cloudscape, and the lucky ones return to home base after each sortie. The remains of the gunner in Jarrell’s poem are washed away by ground personnel—who likely have never heard a shot fired in anger—no doubt while the dead man’s crewmates are off dressing for a meal. The interludes of comfort are incongruous with a combat airman’s life expectancy: a mere six weeks in the European theater during World War II.

The other irony is harsher: that warriors engaged in advanced and skilled air combat were pummeling a helpless (and mostly noncombatant) enemy many miles beneath them. Strategic bombing—aimed at civilian targets more than military ones—is a form of justified massacre. In June 1943, Winston Churchill was shown films of the five-month bombing campaign known as the Battle of the Ruhr, and, in his official biographer’s words, he “suddenly sat bolt upright and said to his neighbour, ‘Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?’ ”

It is a question that Mr. Swift asks repeatedly in “Bomber County.” The U.S. and Britain dropped 1.6 million tons of bombs on Germany, causing civilian casualties of more than one million and rendering as many as 7.5 million people homeless. The seven-month B-29 firebombing campaign against Japan organized by Curtis LeMay is estimated to have killed a half-million people and to have left five million more homeless. It was so successful that the Air Force had trouble finding suitable targets for the atomic bombings at the end of the war. The Japanese, it should be noted, had used strategic bombing as early as 1938 in China, and Germany launched its own vast air assault on England in 1940.

Whether World War II’s strategic-bombing campaigns were justified remains a source of profound disagreement. In 1997, the German novelist W.G. Sebald delivered a series of lectures—published in English as “On the Natural History of Destruction” (2002)—about the absence of the Allied blitz from postwar literature and, as he saw it, the absence of a much-needed moral debate. His lectures caused a furor in Germany and elsewhere. While few take the extreme position of Eric Markusen and David Kopf in their 1995 book, “The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing”—that the Allied bombing campaign amounted to genocide—most commentators these days come down against the Allies.

In “Bomber County,” Mr. Swift tries not to takes sides. He is more interested in conveying the influence of airpower—the most glamorous and technologically advanced action of the war—on poetry. Remembering how important verse was to our understanding of World War I, he surveys the ways in which bombing and flying played out in contemporary poetry, both British and American.

Not every “war poet” was himself a soldier or airman. C. Day Lewis, Mr. Swift notes, viewed himself as heir to the trench poets of World War I, yet he did not fight—serving instead in Britain’s ministry of information—and his perception of the bomber war as a new version of World War I’s trenches was not based on personal experience. This is true of Jarrell, too, who served in only marginal roles on stateside bases, inventing the images and events of his bomber poems.

T.S. Eliot, too old for service, was a fire-watcher during the Blitz, scanning from a London rooftop for bomb damage that might spread. What he saw invigorated his last great work: the final of the “Four Quartets.” (“Dust inbreathed was a house— / The walls, the wainscot and the mouse, / The death of hope and despair, / This is the death of air.”) Stephen Spender was in the National Fire Service, having failed his medical exam when he tried to enlist at 35. His war poems focus on the destruction of bombing, seeing both poet and bomber similarly bound up together as creator and destroyer.

The American poet John Ciardi, by contrast, was a gunner on B-29s hitting Japan and worried in his diary that he would never reach the 35 missions that made a tour. Three missions before his plane would be shot down, he was reassigned to write official condolence letters—”We need somebody with combat experience who can write,” an officer told him. And so literature saved one life at the expense of another.

James Dickey saw aerial bombing up-close as a pilot. His great (if not well-known) war poem, “Firebombing,” imagines a middle-age suburban householder wondering if he can really be the same man who spread destruction and saw the terrible beauty of napalm igniting beneath him. (“Reflections of houses catch; / Fire shuttles from pond to pond / In every direction, till hundreds flash with one death.”)

Though the aerial war and its poetic legacy are Mr. Swift’s central concern, he adds yet another theme to “Bomber County.” The author’s grandfather, who worked in a rubber brokerage before the war, died flying a Lancaster bomber after a raid on Dusseldorf on June 12, 1943. Each of the book’s chapters has episodes of Mr. Swift and his father visiting the sites associated with the dead man’s life and attending reunions where former airmen look back on their experience with a mixture of sadness and longing.

The book’s multiple parts do not to fit together neatly. Mr. Swift’s grandfather was not a poet, and the author’s memoir episodes seem far removed from his passages about poets and their attraction to the aerial war. Yet “Bomber County” is never less than interesting.

Mr. Swift gives W.H. Auden the final word. He was skeptical of the special value of war experience to a poet. In “Memorial for a City”—a poem inspired by a 1945 visit to the bombed out cities of Bavaria—Auden noted how little the modern technology of killing changed the inherent facts of battle: “Plum-blossom falls on the dead, the roar of the waterfall covers / The cries of the whipped and the sighs of the lovers / And the hard bright light composes / A meaningless moment into an eternal fact.” Auden was struck less by the destructiveness of modern war than by the eternal ordinariness of its barbarism. But then he never saw combat.

Mr. Messenger is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard.

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‘Bomber County’

12 June 1943

After the air raid, Virginia Woolf went for a walk.’ The greatest pleasure of town life in winter -rambling the streets of London,’ she had written, a decade before. She called it ‘street haunting’, and in the essay of that title she gives instructions on how this should be done.’ The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful,’ she wrote: ‘The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.’ Picture her, then, stepping out into the bombed city. It is perhaps a little earlier in the day than she might have liked, this afternoon in the middle of January 1941, and in less than three months she will be dead, but today she is here to take a quiet pleasure in the ruins.

[BomberBookcover]

‘I went to London Bridge,’ she notes in her diary: I looked at the river; very misty; some tufts of smoke, perhaps from burning houses. There was another fire on Saturday. Then I saw a cliiff of wall, eaten out, at one corner; a great corner all smashed; a Bank; the Monument erect; tried to get a Bus; but such a block I dismounted; & the second Bus advised me to walk. A complete jam of traffic; for streets were being blown up. So by tube to the Temple; & there wandered in the desolate ruins of my old squares; gashed; dismantled; the old red bricks all white powder, something like a builders yard. Grey dirt & broken windows; sightseers; all that completeness ravished & demolished.

She is watching carefully, making her way north and then west, through traffic jams and rubble, and she pauses for a while in ‘my old squares’, the wide and orderly spaces of Bloomsbury where she used to live. But then, quite simply, life interrupts: ‘So to Buzsards where, for almost the first time, I decided to eat gluttonously. Turkey & pancakes. How rich, how solid. 4/- they cost. And so to the L.L. where I collected specimens of Eng. litre [English literature].’ From Bloomsbury, she walked past the Air Ministry on Oxford Street on her way to Buzsards, a café known for its wedding cakes and before the war its tables out on the street. After lunch, she goes on to the London Library in St James’s Square. The fastest route is straight down Regent Street, and she had work to do on a new book.

Woolf’s diaries, as the war begins, tell of a growing fascination. On the Sunday that Britain declared war, she was sewing black-out curtains at Monk’s House, the cottage in Sussex she shared with her husband Leonard, and she wrote:’ I suppose the bombs are falling on rooms like this in Warsaw.’ Three days later: ‘Our first air raid at 8.30 this morning. A warbling that gradually insinuates itself as I lay in bed. So dressed & walked on the terrace with L. Sky clear. All cottages shut. All clear.’ The bombs did not come that morning, but she waits and she watches. ‘No raids yet,’ she recorded on Monday, 11 September, but saw ‘Over London a light spotted veil’ of the silver barrage balloons on steel ropes, to defend the city from low- flying planes. The winter comes, and then the spring; a German bomber flies over Monk’s House; Holland falls, and Belgium, and Chamberlain resigns. She is always looking at the skies. ‘The bomb terror,’ she writes in her diary: ‘Going to London to be bombed.’In May 1940 there are rumours of invasion, and at the end of the month: ‘A great thunderstorm. I was walking on the marsh & thought it was the guns on the channel ports. Then, as they swerved, I conceived a raid on London; turned on the wireless; heard some prattler; & then the guns began to lighten.’ Transformed by her poised imagination, the rain becomes a raid, and then the falling bombs return to rain. ‘I conceived a raid,’ writes Virginia Woolf, the great novelist, thinking bombers where there were none.

Of course, in these fixated times she was at work on a novel. She called it ‘Poyntz Hall’ but it was published after her death as Between the Acts, and it too imagines bombers. After the country-house pageant which is the centre of the novel, the Reverend Streatfield stands on a soap box to address the audience on the subject of funds for ‘the illumination of our dear old church’, and as he begins to speak:

Mr Streatfield paused. He listened. Did he hear some distant music? He continued: ‘But there is still a deficit’ (he consulted his paper) ‘of one hundred and seventy-five pounds odd. So that each of us who has enjoyed this pageant has still an opp . . .’ The word was cut in two. A zoom severed it. Twelve aeroplanes in perfect formation like a flight of wild duck came overhead. That was the music. The audience gaped; the audience gazed. The zoom became drone. The planes had passed. ‘. . . portunity,’ Mr Streatfield continued, ‘to make a contribution.’

The duck-like passing planes gently, ironically interrupt the platitudes of village life, but they are not wholly fictional. Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, Woolf had been watching the fighters scrambling over the downs, to the Battle of Britain, and hearing the distant music as the bombers came and went. Some days that summer, her diary is little more than a war report: ‘Nightly raids on the east & south coast. 6, 3 , 12 people killed nightly.’ And even on the nights when there are no bombers – ‘Listened for another; none came’ – she begins to imagine them, to transform them into something useful. On the last Thursday of May 1940 she went out for a walk and ‘Instantly wild duck flights of aeroplanes came over head; manoeuvred; took up positions & passed over.’

So much of Woolf ‘s diaries reads as the roughs for so much of her published writing, and the notes on bombing from 1940 find their way into an essay, ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’. She wrote it in August for an American symposium on women in the war and here she returns to the moment when the bombers are above. As she narrates: ‘The sound of sawing overhead has increased. All the searchlights are erect. They point at a spot exactly above this roof. At any moment a bomb may fall on this very room. One, two, three, four, five, six . . . the seconds pass.’ Here we are, waiting and watching, as so often she was, and this time, as always before, the bombs do not fall, and she goes on:

But during those seconds of suspense all thinking stopped. All feeling, save one dull dread, ceased. A nail fixed the whole being to one hard board. The emotion of fear and of hate is therefore sterile, unfertile. Directly that fear passes, the mind reaches out and instinctively revives itself by trying to create. Since the room is dark it can only create from memory. It reaches out to the memory of other Augusts – in Bayreuth, listening to Wagner; in Rome, walking over the Campagna; in London. Friends’ voices come back. Scraps of poetry return.

In the moments after the air raid, the frozen imagination – nailed to one hard board – awakes again, and it does so by remembering, and creating; by making something new from fragments of the past, a memory of music, a line of poetry.

Excerpted from ‘Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War’ by Daniel Swift. Published in August 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703959704575453843499158862.html