SHOULD VETERANS REWRITE HISTORY?

After intense pressure from veterans’ lobby groups, the Canadian War Museum has agreed to adjust the wording on an exhibit dealing with strategic bombing attacks during the Second World War. These are the 67 words that the veterans objected to:

“The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command’s aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions of German war production until late in the war.”

These are the words the War Museum will adjust. And this despite the fact that a number of professional historians consulted by the Museum found the above words to be factually accurate. The distinguished Canadian historian, Margaret MacMillan (author of the acclaimed book, Paris 1919) says the Museum is not a war memorial. She warns that altering the text to satisfy veterans could mean that “whoever screams loudest can have their view made known.”

In other words, this is an extremely dangerous precedent. What pressure group will the Museum cave in to next? The Japanese? The Italians?

Not one word in this exhibition impugns the bravery, the patriotism or the chivalry of the young men who flew the bombers.

Isn’t it a pity that the decision-makers at the Canadian War Museum did not show half the courage and guts that those young flyers exhibited so long ago?

In my view, the Museum should stand firm in face of the veterans’ pressure.

If anyone wants to urge the War Museum to stand fast, you can say so in a short message. Send the message to info@warmuseum.ca

8 Comments »

  1. 1
    Barbara Says:

    ! strongly support your position, Neil. Perhaps history is best written after all the parties involved have passed on years ago — like canonization used to be.

  2. 2
    Cate McB Says:

    In my view also, the Museum should stand firm in face of the veterans’ pressure.

    That “the value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested” is an undeniable fact. Not only is it a fact for professional historians like Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, but also for professional moral philosophers, especially those who have spent their entire careers writing about what is usually called “Just War Theory,” otherwise known as the so-called principle of double effect used in the consideration of war as opposed to its therapeutic uses by confessors and their civil descendents (e.g., bioethicists) considering what we might call “between a rock and a hard place” cases. One such case is the line between “terminal sedation” and euthanasia, the subject of my doctoral thesis in which I had to study the so-called principle of double effect which derives from the work of Thomas Aquinas in the Catholic tradition. Interestingly enough, the question that led Aquinas down this road was the question of whether Christians could be part of the military.

    Although I did not want to get into its applications in war, I had to because I could not leave out of my thesis the groundbreaking work of British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001). One of the most distinguished philosophers of the 20th century, Anscombe was a brilliant Catholic Aristotelian philosopher who wrote the classic text entitled, Intention, and began work on “Just War Theory” from her vantage point as a philosophy prof. at both Oxford and Cambridge during World War II and long after. In a nutshell, she railed against use of the principle of double effect in its Just War clothing to justify the obliteration bombing of Germany. To make a long story short, many others joined her in this effort, and their collective work is part of the huge corpus off work constituting the Just War debate up to today.

    The museum cannot cave because of the pressure of veterans who may feel guilty about what they were involved in. I can understand their many-faceted feelings because my father was a Canadian Air Force/RAF navigator in World War II. However, there are many ways to deal with the pressures involved in being part of contested activities, and these pressures felt by the veterans cannot and should not be permitted to sway the Canadian War Museum. I think I feel strongly enough about this to write a letter to the Museum. This is an extremely serious problem! with far-reaching implications for both the Museum and Canadian society.

  3. 3

    Barbara – history has changed a lot since I did a graduate degree at the University of Toronto in the sixties. Now, partly because of advances in technology e.g. powerful search engines on the Net, we seem to require “instant history”. Although the obliteration bombing of Germany occurred nearly 70 years ago. Any of the survivors must be nearly 90.

    Cate – The theory of the “double effect” to which you are making a real contribution, is rife with pitfalls. It seems that in the context of the “Just War” theory the saturation bombing of Germany totally abandoned the distinction between military and civilian deaths.

    I sent a short note urging the War Museum to stand firm against the veterans at info@warmuseum.ca

  4. 4
    Joanne Nicholls Says:

    History is history; the good, the bad and the ugly. It needs to be preserved and maintained as it was and as it happened at the time. Revisionism is dangerous–those with the loudest voices and the most money will have history preserved the way they want it re-recorded.
    True, the victors often tell the stories but the stories should be told by everyone–in the way in which the stories occurred.

    I think Canada feels a collective guilt for some reason to elderly veterans. Yes, we do owe them a debt of gratitude for the actions they took in very dangerous situations but we should not allow them to re-write things the way they want them to be done.

    I try to have students look through the points of view to try to determine the truth. If history is being re-recorded, what’s the point? It will then just be a bunch of stories and legends with some basis in fact but no one will know exactly what.

    I remember a situation where someone’s family tree was being researched and was being edited by the elder family members to remove those who in their opinion tarnished the family name. What happened, happened. Like it or not, that’s the way it was.

  5. 5

    Joanne – I couldn’t agree more. If we allow every lobby group in the land to doctor our history, as a country we will lose our authentic family tree. So, like you, I hope the Museum stands firm.

  6. 6
    jim Says:

    Neil:
    “Should veterans rewrite history.” No they shouldn’t and they haven’t. The museum should have got it right in the first instance. Let’s ask the people who were there. Ask the citizens of the time in Dresden if it was a good idea that the nazis bomb Coventry off the map by dropping so many bombs it caused a hugh firestorm where people couldn’t breath and many died because of the lack of oxygen? The citizens would have said go fo it and they did. Ask the citizens of Coventry if we should do the same to Dresden with a caveat though that Dresden was the main centre for communications and that Dresden was the mayor major point where Hitler had to pass his troop trains from the Russian front to the beaches at Normandy, and the Coventrians would have said go for it. At this point historians should have recorded the above facts. Now let’s look at the museum’s exhibit wherein they say that the morality of the bombing “remains bitterly contested”. This term has been milked dry.It was said that the most definitive book ever written on the bombing of Dresden was by David Irving. The above quote sounds like his thinking. However he has been discredited and he got honourable mention from the New York Times for being mindless.History should record events which happened up to and including the last bomb dropped. Ironically Coventry and Dresden are now twinned cities. Irving was deported from Canada.Bomber Harris was promoted to Marshal of the Air Force. Just the facts folks. jim

  7. 7

    Jim – The fact that the Germans fire-bombed Coventry does not give us the right to fire-bomb Dresden unless the Allies were simply to take on Hitler’s morality. If we were no better than the Nazis why fight the war in the first place?

    If David Irving is who I think he is, he really is a straw man. As you say he has been thorougly discredited. However, all the recognized professional historians consulted by the Museum gave it as their expert opinion that the 67 words in the citation were factually accurate.

  8. 8
    jim Says:

    Neil:-
    Bombing Dresden saved many Canadian lives on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Morality had nothing to do with it. Stopping trainloads of Nazis being transferred from the Russian Front was what it was all about.
    Secondly,”recognized professional historians” “expert opinions” and other such terms send up red flags in my view.
    jim


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