On War and Dehumanization

Phantoms slid imperceptibly from nightmare to reality and back again, the terrestrial and psychic landscapes were now indistinguishable as they had been at Hiroshima and Auschwitz, Golgotha and Gomorrah.

– J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World

Dressler at boulevard Kurfürstendamm, being close to my hotel, became a regular late stop after long city trails – my turn to lean back into the shadows and watch wanderers from the vantage point of a pavement café table. As did the impassive immortals of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire – those curious Crombie-coated angels perched on the Brandenburg Gate – I peered hard into the faces of passers-by, trying to tune in to their thoughts. Everyone has been drenched in accounts about the people in this part of the world, few of them good, and dark imaginings undoubtedly surface in the mind of every tourist wandering the city. The Wall crumbled, but barriers persist. The immortals had to give up their wings and fall to Earth if they desired to fully understand those ordinary humans living ordinary lives in the ordinary streets below. I wondered what it would take should ordinary others desire to do the same. 

Bertolt Brecht is buried in Berlin. I fell upon his grave quite by accident one morning among the stylish, avant-garde headstones, and it was clear I had hit a lucky run when I happened upon Hegel, Fichte and Schinkel soon afterwards. The graveyards were high on my to-do list on this visit to Berlin, but the plan ended there and I didn’t know who I might find, or what to expect. I knew the boneyards of Paris well enough, though it took me several visits to find Beckett in Montparnasse. Being near the front gate, Sartre and De Beauvoir were easy to find – people throw Metro tickets on Sartre’s grave (an ironic twist on a spent journey), with words written on them like ‘see ya’. Hell really is other people. Serge Gainsbourg has a decorative display of floral bouquets, photographs, cards and letters – some Christmas tree lights would give the perfect finishing touch. But just the bare bones for Beckett: plain, polished plinth, grey granite grave.

In Sandy Bell’s Bar in Edinburgh one night, a guy started talking to me about Beckett – how he changed his life, that sort of thing. It was like listening to Beckett’s sixteen minute monologue, Not I – that mouth in the darkness – on a loop. His hand hit the bar emphatically like a meat chopper with all the Becketts. The Beckett brain of Britain. I had had a bucketful of Beckett, but felt the need to ask, nonetheless, if he had met the man. This triggered the recollection of a long and arduous journey that had consisted of hitched lifts from Edinburgh to Paris.

On arrival in Paris, he stood to compose himself – he stood for a long while – outside Beckett’s apartment block. He slid the palms of his hands down his sides and set off on the climb upstairs, studying every step, experiencing every footfall. He stood quietly at Beckett’s door, and closed his eyes to summon calm. His heart was pumping as he revisited the entire journey, relaying it back to the moment when Beckett beckoned, the moment when he turned from living in one reality to worshipping another, the moment that brought him to Now. Now, he breathed in, he breathed out. No greater sense of nowness had he ever experienced.

It cost me yet another drink to reach the final instalment – maybe I mean obstacle – on his pour la gloire: a solid art nouveau door with ornate brass fittings…or so he said. Just as the tree that once lifted its leafy arms to pray had been sliced, diced and reconstructed as a door, the Beckett brain of Sandy Bell’s bar was reconstructed as a stranger – perhaps a stalker. This realisation arrived as might the ground rushing up to meet someone who had stepped out of a high window in sleep. But it had been a long journey, and what’s the worst that could happen? And so he fired off one little message from a remote part of his brain, an energy impulse – like a firework launched from a tiny island in a vast ocean – and somehow it made a connection that put into operation an array of neuroelectrochemical pathways that in turn powered up a complex motor coordination system to raise his arm, contort his hand into a fist position and apply it to the heavy wooden door in three short knocks. There was no one in.

Brecht’s burial place in Berlin was bright and beautiful. A slice of stone in a restful spot – restful for me at least. I have always been drawn to graveyards; we all are in one sense, of course, though some in the most extraordinary ways – one might even say pushed. I once read a horrific item about a man who had been walking his dog in a graveyard in Scotland when a sudden downpour washed him into a freshly dug grave. The grave rapidly filled with water and he drowned. I mentioned it to someone and they asked what became of the dog. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but it struck me as odd. Then I, too, began to wonder what happened to the dog – did it drown alongside him?

A similar situation arose when I was a child; a policeman on his horse was hit by a bus at Glasgow Cross, opposite our house. A neighbour came across the stair landing to report the incident to us and was shocked when my mother asked if the horse was alright. I didn’t see the victims, but I distinctly remember the blood pool in front of the lifeless bus. It must have been very early evening in winter, for it was dark and yet I was still up. Illuminated by the streetlight and the shop window of Golumb’s guitar shop, the blood – belonging to the man or the horse – appeared black and shiny, and I had to get very close before I saw it as red. The crowd gathering behind pushed me off the pavement, and I almost stepped in the pool. An adult pulled me away, but that stain never dissolved in my memory. I don’t suppose it will, not until the rain is lashing my headstone.

When my mother quit her cleaning jobs to return to nursing school after a twenty-five year break (people said she must be mad, a married woman in her late forties going back to books!), talk at home turned medical. I once heard her describe the circulation system as the river of life, and whilst blood is of course a gummy substance and quite impossible to wade through – wade as you would in a river – this lyrical metaphor was sufficient to entice me to read up on the subject – a task I set about at Gorbals library. The Greeks believed arteries to be transporters of air to the throat: when you die the heart stops and the blood is no longer pumped through the arteries – the blood simply drains away from them like water when the plug is pulled in a bathtub – and should you open the artery of someone pronounced dead, therefore, you will find only air. One benefit of this mistaken assumption on the part of the Greeks is that we can be absolutely sure someone is dead by simply opening an artery. 

Blood also circulates in language, often simply to connect us to each other, to who we are and our native land. We are sometimes asked to spill our blood on soil for the sake of soil, native or otherwise, but it brings no guarantees and it is not uncommon thereafter to be evicted from it, alive or dead. My English teacher at school, Old Chic, occasionally attempted to force-feed his pupils a diet of Scottish patriotic verse by that poet of monumental fame, Sir Walter Scott, the chief being “The Lay of the last Minstrel:” 

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land’

Scott started out in professional life not as a writer of literature or poetry, but as a writer to the signet (i.e., a solicitor), and one of his first commissions was to execute a highland clearance – an eviction of crofters from their own native land. When I was young I learned how victims of the highland clearances were shunted in large numbers to Glasgow then hounded to the grave, whereupon many were evicted once more – this time by a railway company that wanted to lay tracks through a graveyard. Graveyards filled fast across the city when major epidemics such as cholera broke out. Attempts to contain the disease led to ‘quick burials’, but some of the pronounced dead – having very shallow breathing and an imperceptible pulse – revived sometime after they were hurried and buried in a box, and perhaps just as the soil was tossed on top. Once disinterred for the railways, the diggers discovered they had died with their arms in an upright position trying to push up the lid. My mother enjoyed conversations about the rivers of life and of arteries, but like many who learned of such stories she dreaded the thought of being buried alive, and so she asked that I ensure an artery is sliced open once she is pronounced dead. When the time came it was mad to think it.

When I returned from Berlin I found ants had moved into the kitchen. I knew to watch my step, having received a warning from a solitary soldier some years before. It happened when I was resting my bones on a bench on the Walter Benjamin Trail near the Spanish border. The heat was intense, and I could do no more than watch ants at work – there was an entire army of them, hundreds, maybe thousands (impossible to count with all those jerky legs) in two long supply lines. Benjamin, escaping the Nazis, may himself have rested somewhere around there and watched the ancestors of those very same ants. A thought. Having nothing better to do, I laid a twig across the supply lines, between the legions: would the ants instantly climb over the stick, the shortest route, or walk around? Shortly afterwards, an ant – some sort of army scout  – appeared on my shoulder. It stood there staring at me, motionless and menacing. I wondered if it was aware of what I was up to, if it was giving me the option to back off or be bitten. Small but deadly serious. I withdrew and he fell back to his ranks.

Back in the kitchen I looked under the sink for something by way of gentle discouragement (I imagined lemony things might work), but I found instead some deadly options that had been left by the previous – possibly psychopathic – tenants. The death spray: from the comfort of your breathing apparatus, watch your fellow creatures writhe in agony. The house of ghastly glue: a seductive scent attracts the ants into a place of pleasure, an enclosed dish with an arched entrance, where they stick to the floor and starve to death. I didn’t fancy using either of these slaughter options, nor did I like the idea of the final solution, exterminism: a deadly dust is passed from ant to ant and spreads throughout the entire nest.

That was August, the weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival. Midmorning the house and everything within began to vibrate when massive speaker systems, stacked precariously outside my window on equally massive amplifiers, began pounding out the basal pulse of a grotesque giant – dishes fell off the shelf. I decided to get out for the day and leave the ants to it. When I got back they had gone. 

Earlier, during that long walk through the London streets, I had stopped at Gloucester Books and flicked through the secondhand paperbacks and old magazines fading on racks in the sun. The leading article in a National Geographic magazine commemorated the crews of the US Eighth Army Air Force for their forbearance and sacrifice during WW2 raids. Nothing unusual in that, but the honour extended to the bombing raids over German cities. The story focused mainly on the former pilots and had photos of young men running towards their planes – waves and smiles as they climbed in, each touching for luck an illustration painted on the side of the plane of some forties’ pin-up with red lips. The men, who were now grey-haired, appeared kind and benevolent, all the more so through their understandably emotional reunion. The editorial, too, was kind. It claimed German civilians were regrettably but justifiably killed during ‘surgical’ bombing raids owing to legitimate enemy targets being situated near built-up residential areas. It sounded familiar, and sadly all too recent.

I dropped the magazine into the pile in disgust. I thought about the Lancaster bombers thundering through the night sky, wave after wave, disgorging an evil alchemy over hundreds of thousands of civilians – the elderly unable to run, the children clutching toys, bursting into flames. And I thought about the campaign of dehumanisation that continued into the last days of the war portraying all our enemies, and even their children, as less than human.

This campaign was hardly subtle: the enemy were depicted as bugs. Magazines carried cartoons showing Italians, Germans and Japanese as part cockroach, and prior to the mass incendiary bombing of Japanese cities, the US Marines’ magazine Leatherneck displayed a cartoon of a half-human, half-insect creature entitled Louseous Japanicas to accompany an article that called for “enemy breeding grounds to be completely annihilated”. In the month following the article, March 1945, seemingly endless waves of B-29s roared across Tokyo, dropping one million bombs containing 2,000 tons of incendiaries. In under three hours, over 100,000 people lay dead and one million made homeless. The firebombing of 67 cities over the following five months resulted in the further deaths of at least half a million people – a deliberate policy of wiping out civilians living in the densely populated poorer districts. With no remorse, US Air Force General Curtis LeMay openly declared, “they were scorched and boiled and baked to death”. Although it didn’t dampen their enthusiasm, bomber crews said the stench of burning flesh rose high into the air, forcing them to use oxygen masks to keep from vomiting. At the end of that five-month period came atomic destruction.

I noticed AC Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities on the shelves in the book department of KaDeWe in Berlin just a few days before. I noticed it because I had only just finished reading it before I left London, and now here it was in translation, confirming what many Germans already knew: the terror bombing, as it came to be known, of German towns and cities was a crime against humanity, and Allied air crew declaring they were only obeying orders was no excuse. The writer, Kurt Vonnegut – an eyewitness to the Dresden raid, and deeply troubled throughout his life by what he described as ‘the greatest massacre in European history’ – said that from what he picked up the USAAF did not enjoy bombing the German towns, unlike their British counterparts, who saw some sport in it. Nonetheless, they carried out the raids, and far from attempting to ‘precision-bomb’ military targets, as documented in National Geographic, the USAAF played a key part in RAF Bomber Command’s drive to terrorise populations by round-the-clock bombing missions.

Over 1200 Allied bombers dropped more than 3,000 tons of incendiaries over Dresden, a thousand tons more than were dropped in the Tokyo raids in the following month. The official line was that the war would be cut short by demoralising the enemy, achieved by firebombing civilians and their entire socio-cultural life: hospitals, libraries, universities, houses and schools. Whilst some influential figures, such as George Orwell, called for the city bombings to continue, many in Britain empathised with the German civilians, and protested, including the working class people of heavily bombed Bethnal Green: it didn’t work in the Great War, it didn’t work in the London Blitz – why would it work now? The bombing continued regardless.

Hamburg, described as Germany’s Hiroshima, where more people were killed in one night in July 1943 than in the whole of the London Blitz, was bombed a total of 69 times before the end of the war. They stepped up the level of bombing after the war was as good as won, with a thousand planes at a time flying over towns. Over a million bombs were dropped on Germany by the Allies in the final months of the war, and the intensity continued even into the last weeks. Many of the bombing raids were conducted on towns with high cultural but low military significance, including small cathedral and university towns, such as Freiburg. Some indication of the ferocity of the attacks is given by A.C. Grayling:

“A rustle like a flock of birds suddenly taking off represented a stick of incendiaries breaking apart as it neared the ground, sending individual incendiaries in all directions. An explosion like a sudden crack was a 12-kilogram firebomb, shooting out flames to a distance of eighty metres. A big splash was a 14-kilogram firebomb, which spread rubber and benzene over a radius of fifty metres. The sound of a wet sack flopping heavily down was a canister containing twenty litres of benzol. A sharp explosion heralded a 106-kilogram bomb that ejected a thousand patties of benzol and rubber over the surrounding area. Phosphoros, magnesium and thickened or gelled petroleum (the best example of which is ‘napalm’, invented at Harvard University in 1942 and used by the USAAF in Japan later in the war) were almost impossible to extinguish, splashing viscously and adhesively over buildings and people like lava, and burning at ferocious temperatures. People who leaped into canals when splashed with burning phosphorous found to their horror that it would spontaneously reignite when they got out of the water. Among the incendiaries were scattered 2-kilogram ‘X’ bombs with a delayed fuse, designed to explode later when fire-fighters and other emergency workers had arrived on the scene”.

The routine was that of reducing the cities to kindling by dropping thousands of Blockbusters on entire residential districts (bombs that blasted whole blocks apart and tore the roofs from buildings), so that the high intensity incendiary devices that followed could reach the building interiors, the basement shelters. The idea was to engulf the city in a hurricane of fire. Among the fallen ruins families were found huddled together in the centre of rooms with their arms around each other, their last stand. It appeared as though they were made of wax. The asphalt in the city streets caught fire, and large areas were deprived of oxygen by the howling urban firestorms that raged at one hundred and fifty miles per hour, leaving civilians the option of suffocating in their cellars, or trying to make a run for it – this meant running through the equivalent of an open air blast furnace and almost certainly being consumed by fire.

Eyewitnesses spoke of adults cremated to the size of small dolls, of arms and legs everywhere, of whole families burnt to death, and of people on fire running from burnt coaches that were filled with civilian refugees and dead rescuers. The rapidly rising hot air above the bombed areas caused cold air to rush in, drawing people into the escalating tornado. Survivors reported people dropped on the spot from lack of oxygen, like a device unplugged, others were seen to be hysterical, dragging off their clothes as they burst into flames, and everywhere people were helplessly, and what must have seemed inexplicably, pulled backwards and upwards into the raging fire winds. 

One spoke of her mother’s bid to get her family to safety. In the race against the firestorm she lost her older sister and the baby twins. Like many others, they looked for them in vain, and spent the last hours of the night in a hospital cellar among people who lay dying in agony. They went back to the tenement house the next day, but everyone was dead. There were so many dead in the cities that disease was the next major threat, resulting in thousands of bodies being heaped and set ablaze. Was this what Churchill had in mind when he called for “an exterminating attack on Germany”? It was hard to connect all this, the unspeakable cruelties, with the gentle-faced elderly men pictured in National Geographic. Yet Grayling contends such men obeyed the orders and are therefore as morally guilty as those who issued them. 

And it wasn’t just once. The bombers returned to repeat the procedure, much to the bewilderment of the remaining homeless making their way out of the city with their belongings, such as they were. In his book On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald gives an account of a homeless woman whose suitcase sprang open in the street. The only contents that dropped out were the bones of her dead child. A review in The Guardian of Sebald’s book described the woman as deranged, but it seems to me entirely sane to carry the bones of your children with you until a suitable place for burial can be found – a place where you might visit them later. 

The historian Max Hastings, stated that the bombing missions could not be regarded as war crimes, for ultimately they were aimed at bringing about Germany’s military defeat, and as such the deeds had no moral equivalence with the crimes of the Nazis. But aren’t all acts of mass murder equivalent? Grayling thinks so; he maintains that the British air force was engaged in the deliberate and merciless mass murder of German civilians on a devastating scale – around as many killed by bombing as British men killed altogether in the First World War. Moreover, he contends that such men obeyed the orders and are therefore as morally guilty as those who issued them. 

It is impossible to go to Berlin and not think about the war – and of course the people who fought in it. Both my parents fought in the war – they met and married in the army – but the part my mother played only became apparent to me towards the end of her life. One evening in Edinburgh I brought to her sheltered accommodation in Leith some groceries from the local Co-op supermarket, and after stacking them in the fridge I sat for a while and talked. She mentioned that, though the flat was warm, her feet were cold. “Always had poor circulation”, she said. “I couldn’t even go to the trench during air raids without a hot water bottle. Others laughed, but I wouldn’t have made it back without one!” A door opened, she had never before talked about the war, and I seized the chance to extract as much information as I could.

My mother was twenty-one when war broke out. She had belonged to a unit that was defending the southeast coast of England in WW2. It was by necessity always on the move and frequently under attack. A feature of this set-up was a sandbag-stacked pyramid leading up to a machine gun nest. When enemy aircraft came in she was required to join a single line up to the machine gunner’s post. If the gunner was hit, the job was to pull him (or her) out by the feet as fast as possible, climb over the body, clamp hands on the gun and keep firing. There was only a window of seconds to do this as the enemy aircraft lowered into range for a duel of bullets. It very quickly became mayhem – all around flames, smoke and confusion. “Of course, if it was a dive-bomber, then we all had to take cover – no heroics. It was only when the aircraft was level with the guns that they stayed put and shot it out. I never did reach the front of the queue, but I was nonetheless trained to do it. All the women were.”

I had her in my sights, reviving memories that she had suppressed. I encouraged them to the surface with careful questions, delicately unpicking threads. Her hands were clasped over the red tartan shawl covering her knees, but the slight movements of her fingers told me she was agitated. I had brought her to a point where she was absorbed, looking into the distance. She broke the silence. “I remember once we were ordered to take cover because of a dive bomber. It was screaming down, we only had seconds, but one soldier, an eighteen-year-old, disobeyed the order. He dragged the anti-aircraft gun off its hoist and managed to position it to fire upright at the aircraft, held it right there in the middle of the open area being strafed. It was chaos. Everything around us was being chewed up and spat back out as splinters, but he kept firing. That soldier was put on a charge for that, though in truth everyone including the officers thought him terribly brave.

“I met that boy again in a speeding ambulance when I moved over to the nursing service. He didn’t know me, but I knew him. He lost his eyes in a blast and had a bloody bandage wrapped around. He sat upright on the bench in the ambulance, and I attended to his dressing. I talked to him by way of comfort. He seemed so cheerful, given the circumstances – maybe he couldn’t comprehend them. For my part, I told myself I mustn’t break down, much as I wanted to.” She broke down now. 

On my last night in Berlin I dreamt my mother was alive again and engaged in light conversation with me in the hotel room. It was one of those dreams in which I was aware I was dreaming, and throughout it I was anxious in case the scene changed, as they are apt to do in dreams – worried that something awful might happen. I remember she asked if I was frightened. I said no, but I may have been. I woke early and for a while was confused, but then I found a few familiar cues.

When Kathryn woke I mentioned to her that I had had a vivid dream, and she said she had too. “I dreamed I was wearing an eyeliner pencil that made you tell the truth”, she said, sleepily. “No, not makes you tell the truth, makes you tell people what it is they want to hear. What was yours?”

(This article first appeared in The Berlin Review of Books, January 19, 2017).