Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Archibald MacLeish's Air Raid and the Nature of Modern Warfare

In my research for an article that I'm trying to write, I stumbled upon a very interesting book, Off-Canon Pleasures: A Case Study and a Perspective (Goettingen University Press, 2011), by Armin Paul Frank. The author's aim is to criticize the 'deciders' of the literary canon for their lit-crit-driven choices as to which writers to include and which to exclude. Archibald MacLeish has largely disappeared from the canon, and Frank wants to bring him back.

Frank has defended MacLeish's radio play Air Raid against critics, analyzing it carefully to show its excellence as a work of art that reveals the depravity of modern warfare in bombing cities. Elsewhere, MacLeish also spoke out against chemical weapons. Such weapons were not used in WW2, though this has been attributed to the difficulty in controlling the gases, once released, as had been seen in WW1 when winds shifted and poison gas floated back toward the very ones who'd released it. I don't find this explanation entirely convincing, and I'm not alone. Some war theorists after WW1 were more 'optimistic' about the use of gases, and they wished that the war had lasted longer so that they could have tested poison gases on Germans in the cities rather than in the trenches in the countryside:
Winston S. Churchill was sure what would have happened. On 21 March 1922, he said in Parliament: "Had the war lasted a few more months, or possibly even a few weeks, there would have been operations from these coasts upon Berlin and in the heart of Germany, and those operations would have increased in magnitude and consequence had the campaign been prolonged all through the year 1919." But peace intervened "owing to our having run short of Germans and enemies before the experiments were completed." In his retrospect on the Great War, he declared that had Germany continued to fight, poison gases of "incredible malignity" would have been employed; "[t]housands of aeroplanes would have shattered their cities." [page 45]
But what WW2 showed was that similar bombing (e.g., fire-bombing of German cities) did not break the Germans' morale, so we cannot assume that poison gases would have broken that will either.



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