Myths and suffering

I have just finished reading a compelling history of RAF Bomber Command during WW2 by Max Hastings.

If you don’t yet know it, I have an abiding interest in military history, not so much the operational details and strategy, more the myths that inevitably go with it.

Bombing German cities and ‘de-housing’ the civilian population crippled their morale and helped to win the war. This is one of the myths that surrounded Bomber Command.

I don’t view a myth as something that is necessarily untrue. The importance of a myth lies not so much in its objective and accurate recording of history but in its ability to convey emotion and meaning.

In Australia, this is evident in the myths surrounding the Gallipoli campaign, purportedly the foundation stone of Australian identity.

In many ways, it is remarkable that such a tragic, unnecessary campaign could be burdened with such meaning, and that this myth moves people to shed tears a century later. Yet, that is what happened.

How so?

We, humans, are determined to wrestle meaning from suffering.

I suspect that one reason Gallipoli endures is that it discerns meaning at the extreme edge of human life, where people suffered and died (and inflicted suffering and death upon others).

The actions of Bomber Command during WW2 are another example.

By 1941, when Britain stood alone, unable and unwilling to confront the Wehrmacht in Europe, the notion of targeting German cities appealed as one way to fight back.

Earlier in the war, bomber pilots were told not to drop bombs on military targets unless they were confident of minimal civilian casualties. (Some pilots flew all the way to Germany, a hazardous undertaking, but returned to England without dropping one bomb because they were not sure enough.)

Not long afterwards, a very different view took hold, championed by ‘Bomber’ Harris, a resolute and imposing man, who led Bomber Command for most of the war.

He maintained that the intentional and indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets would defeat the Nazis by crippling German morale. (Research carried out after the war suggested that far from crippling morale, it enhanced it.) At least, in the beginning, he had Churchill’s support.

German sources estimate that the RAF bombing campaign killed 600,000 German civilians! The casualty rates sustained by Bomber Command were also very high.

Myths become even more necessary when the scale of suffering is beyond comprehension. So much suffering gives rise to stories that attempt to contain it, that at least appear to make sense of it…

One function of myths is to make suffering tolerable, and they do so by working at an unconscious level, the level of emotion.

Hastings’ history concludes with the story of a bomber pilot who for thirty years after the war thought little about his involvement in ‘area bombing,’ but then it began to haunt him. A teacher, he retrained and taught students with learning disabilities. It was a form of restitution.

It is speculation on my part, but perhaps the myth ‘held’ him until he was able to deal with the suffering he caused more consciously, albeit remaining somewhat haunted…