Paul Gilroy and Les Back: A Hundred Years of Aerial Bombing

Roundup: Talking About History

Paul Gilroy is Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University and author of Between Camps (published in the USA as Against Race) and The Black Atlantic. Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His books include The Art of Listening (Berg, 2007), Theories of Race and Racism (Routledge, 2001).

One hundred years ago this November, the world was irrevocably and significantly altered. The development of aerial bombardment, initially over Libya by an Italian pilot, would create and routinise a new kind of warfare. The character of violent conflict was transformed along with the legal and moral systems that made it intelligible.

Though fire and rocketry were old weapons, the risks of warcraft were acutely redistributed in the novel discrepancy between bombers and bombed. Terror itself became a weapon. Attackers from above were virtually inaccessible while those they attacked beneath were rendered absolutely vulnerable. Any distinction between combatants and non-combatants, civilians and soldiery was rapidly outmoded. It is our contention that development of aerial bombardment was more than just a military revolution.  Through a careful examination of its history we can understand differently the history of empire, nationalism and the racial ordering of humanity.  

These airborne technologies of mass death manifested an imperial drama. The world it revealed, exhibited all the necessary Darwinian discrepancies in the value accorded to different, contending forms of life visible along racial and cultural lines. The imperatives of nature combined readily with those of linear, progressive history. Vertical, technologically-mediated relationships overdetermined the encounter between civilised and savage, altering the sense of scale involved. It would now be much easier to extinguish distant, infra-human shapes remotely, as if they were nothing more than insects or vermin. A critical assessment of bombing reveals more than just a hidden history of empire but reveals similarities between this past and contemporary military interventions that are made in the name of freedom and liberty. Today’s operators of automated, aerial weapons are said to refer to the results of their global work as “bug splat”... ...

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