Lines of descent - Derek Gregory @ Opendemocracy

‘It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet, which may at any moment sting you to death. It is a sound that interrupts cool and consecutive thinking about peace. Yet it is a sound – far more than prayers and anthems – that should compel one to think about peace. Unless we can think peace into existence we – not this one body in this one bed but millions of bodies yet to be born – will lie in the same darkness and hear the same death rattle overhead.’ 
Virginia Woolf, Thoughts on peace in an air raid (1940) 

The distance of death

Virginia Woolf composed her brief essay in August 1940 during the Battle of Britain. The Heinkel and Dornier bombers in the night sky over London seem a world away from the buzzing of Predator drones over Pakistan, but there are genetic pathways between Woolf’s hornets and what the Pashtun now call the machay, the bees that have their own deadly sting.  Daniel Swift, the author of Bomber County, a haunting study of bombing during the Second World War, claims that ‘We live today in a world made by bombing; Britain and America still fight wars under the impression that they may be won from the skies, and today’s Predator drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan are the direct descendants of the Heinkels and Lancaster bombers of the Second World War.’ [1]
These are very different sorts of war, but there are several senses in which today’s drone wars in the global borderlands were anticipated by the advocates of what has variously been called ‘progressive’ or even ‘beneficial bombing’ in the 1940s: ‘progressive’ because air war was supposed to be short, sharp and decisive, avoiding the protracted carnage of trench warfare. [2] In 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor, A.P. de Seversky could already see a future in which bombing would be conducted over such vast distances that intermediate bases – like the United States Army Air Force bomber stations being prepared in Britain – would be unnecessary: ‘The entire logic of aerial warfare makes it certain that ultimately war in the skies will be conducted from the home grounds, with everything in between turned into a no-man’s land.’ [3]; By the end of that year, when Germany had successfully tested its first ‘Flying Bomb’, it was even possible to imagine bombers without pilots. Soon after D-Day in June 1944, Germany launched a barrage of V-1 and V-2 rockets against Britain, and in response the USAAF toyed with Operation Aphrodite, in which hundreds of worn-out B-17 Flying Fortresses (‘Weary Willies’) filled with high explosives and a new weapon, napalm, would be directed to targets in Germany from accompanying aircraft using television cameras mounted in their Plexiglas noses and remote (‘robot’) control.  Test flights showed that the aircraft would crash at best within a mile and a half of the target, and only fifteen, unsuccessful missions were flown.  Still, General Arnold’s staff argued that robot aircraft were more accurate than radar bombing, and Arnold asked for further research into remote controlled, television-assisted aircraft that could ‘fly over enemy territory and look through the leaves of trees and see whether they’re moving their equipment.’  On VJ Day he predicted that ‘the next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all.’ [4] (...)