Mike Davis on bombshell art

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I well remember my first air flight. I was ten or eleven years old, being rushed back to New York City from Maine due to a modest medical emergency. The plane was a DC-3, a stubby little thing by today’s standards, but a sleek, silvery wonder to me. I approached it, I imagine now, much as an Inuit in Greenland approached the English explorer John Ross’s sailing ship in 1818. (“It was apparent that he still believed the vessel to be a living creature, as he stopped to contemplate her, looking up at the masts, and examining every part with marks of the greatest fear and astonishment; he then addressed her with the utmost solemnity, pausing between each question, and crying out in words perfectly intelligible to [the translator], ‘Who are you? What are you? Where do you come from? Is it from the sun or the moon?'”)

I, of course, rose for the first time in my life toward that sun and moon, rose in fact right into the low cloud cover of a Maine morning. Sitting in the window seat and staring out — even in moderate pain –, while flying through those clouds, and later viewing my own city from the air, was an experience that, in this age of air travel, is probably impossible to reproduce.

But, of course, I exaggerate, for I was by no means the modern version of that Inuit. After all, by 1955 I had already been inside all-too-many planes — in every movie theater in town. I had stared down from various cockpits with another kind of wonder as we bombed Japanese cities, or flew perilously over German ack-ack fire. I had been pilot, bomber, navigator, had undoubtedly flown blinded by my own blood, directed by a pal on my wing, back to my aircraft carrier and miraculously landed. I had watched Kamikazes fall into the sea, shot down by our men. I had probably broken the sound barrier in an Air Force jet. I had joined the Strategic Air Command (or at least would soon do so), nuclear armed and ready to protect our skies from the Reds. I had, in short, been to war in the air.

Each of these experiences – the real flight and the many ersatz flights of destruction — was a wonder of my young life, as it would be for so many young lives then. As my wife, who grew up in El Paso, Texas, recalls, the airport itself was a place of some wonder across America. The simple sight of those powerful, sleek machines landing and taking off was magnet enough to draw a restaurant and a crowd. That was where you went on a special Sunday evening, not to fly off yourself or even to see a friend off or greet a relative on landing, but to see the planes themselves — to eat in comfort so close to techno-wonder, to the cutting edge of where our world was heading.

All this came back to me because of the piece by Mike Davis that follows about a Mexican artist who did a conceptual work of art, a prospective billboard to be set up in Reading, Pennsylvania – about the history of American bombing (or to be more accurate, since the artist includes two nineteenth-century events, bombardment) — and ran into trouble. I was thinking, in fact, how appropriate it is to create what might be called bombshell art, since in some ways the wonder, even horrifyingly enough the beauty, of not just plane and sky, but of war from the air is almost unavoidable as anyone who has ever looked at the drawings in the book Unforgettable Fire, Pictures Drawn By Atomic Bomb Survivors, none of them by artists, can attest. Or, as anyone who has ever seen (and who hasn’t) the eerie, ethereal beauty of atomic bomb tests, films or photos of which seem to exist in a spectrum of brilliant, coherent colors that doesn’t quite seem to match what we might normally consider the colors of reality.

Take, for instance, the following descriptions of one of the more truly horrifying events in history, the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945. Here is a composite description from the ground, taken from Michael Sherry’s monumental scholarly study, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon:

“In daylight raids, the B-29s had appeared ‘translucid, unreal, light as fantastic glass dragonflies.’ Now, at night, flying low and catching spectral colors from flak bursts and searchlights and explosions below, they evoked more menacing images, one moment, ‘their long, glinting wings, sharp as blades’ as they caught the light [of a city burning], another appearing as ‘black silhouettes gliding through the fiery sky,’ only to reemerge ‘shining golden against the dark roof of heaven or glittering blue, like meteors, in the searchlight beams spraying the vault from horizon to horizon.’ With each flash of light, the bombers would be momentarily frozen in the sky like giant insects caught in amber. Then, as the fires spread and coalesced to produce a steadier glow, ‘ghastly reflections of the fire’ were seen ‘on the wings of those silvery ghosts.'”

I doubt that any invention has so combined the wonder of creation, of the defiance of obvious human limits, and of destruction so intimately and for so long. The odd thing is this: no sooner had we human beings risen above the earth in powered flight — think Icarus – than we expressed the wonder of that event by militarizing flight and dropping bombs from the planes that took us into the heavens. Then it was just a straight line up (or do I mean down?) for the next near century. In fact, dreams about staggering acts of destruction from the air long preceded our arrival there. Sherry offers this comment, “More than any other modern weapon, the bomber was imagined before it was invented.”

Look at it this way: the Wright Brothers’ “whopper flying machine” leaves the beach at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903. The first flight lasts all of twelve seconds before the plane hits the sand 120 feet away. Later the same day, the plane flies 859 feet in 59 seconds before on a final flight it totals itself and is no more. Only five years later in 1908, the Wright brothers are demonstrating their new invention in the skies over Washington for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. By 1911, two years short of a decade after its invention, the plane is wedded to the bomb – already well embedded in the fantasy imagination of mankind. According to Sven Lindqvist’s fascinating labyrinth of a book, A History of Bombing, one Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti “leaned out of his delicate monoplane and dropped the bomb – a Danish Haasen hand grenade – on the North African oasis Tagiura, near Tripoli. Several moments later, he attacked the oasis Ain Zara. Four bombs in total, each weighing two kilos, were dropped during this first air attack.” On the “natives” in the colonies, naturally enough. Given where we’ve ended up, it would be perfectly reasonable to consider this moment the beginning of modern history, even of modernism itself.

The history that led to that DC-3 of mine one morning in the mid-1950s is so wondrous, so sad, so truly horrifying, it’s almost impossible to grasp. But think of it this way: Imagine the history of the development of the plane and of bombing as, in its shape, a kind of giant, extremely top-heavy diamond. In 1903, one fragile plane flies 120 yards. In 1911, another only slightly less fragile plane, still seeming to defy some primordial law, drops a bomb. In 1945, 1,000 plane air fleets of American bombers take off to devastate chosen Japanese cities. On August 6, 1945, all the power of that thousand-plane armada is compacted into the belly of the Enola Gay, a lone B-29, which drops its single bomb on Hiroshima, destroying the city and its people. And then just imagine further that the man who commanded the U.S. Army Air Forces, both the thousand-plane armadas and the Enola Gay, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, according Robin Neillands in The Bomber War, The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany, “had been taught to fly by none other than Orville Wright, one of the two men credited with inventing the first viable airplane.” Barely more than a generation took us from those 120 feet at Kitty Hawk through thousand-plane bomber fleets to the Enola Gay and the destruction of one city from the air by one bomb. Imagine that.

Then imagine that both civilian plane flight and the killing of enormous numbers of civilians from the air (now subsumed in the term “collateral damage”) have become completely normal parts of our lives. You get on a civilian flight today and, as once happened to me, even when the Aleutian Islands are below you, jagged peaks piercing the clouds, you may be asked to pull down your window shade so that passengers can watch some retread movie on a little screen near their seats. At the same time, the American way of war has largely become war from the air — “shock and awe” as it was called the last time around. Ever greater reliance on air and missile power has become the American style.

Perhaps now, looking back, we have enough distance from some of the events to begin to imagine America’s various air wars, in Asia certainly but perhaps more generally, as if they were a single, endless war of varying intensities and with varying pauses (often short indeed), based on ever more powerful, even wondrous weaponry. Then we might begin to reassess some of what this actually means as a way of life for the world, even short of the nuclear conflagration that, ever since August 6, 1945, has always sat somewhere in the back of our minds and those of our planners, strategists, and leaders. It seems an especially good moment to do so, since air war clearly looms as a major option of the Bush administration in the near future in Iran, Syria or North Korea to name several obvious targets (and, of course, a general in charge of an air war past — a small-scale one admittedly — has just thrown his hat into the presidential ring).

The use of bombers like missiles has obviously been an option only of powerful nations. Who else could build fleets of them or invest in the kind of research and development that would create the fearsome weaponry they employ? Even today, perhaps uniquely in the world at this point, the Pentagon is at work designing bombers of various advanced types not due to be deployed in some cases for decades to come. Looking back, I have the feeling that, for all its horror, the deepest, unsettling horror of the September 11th attacks was the use of hijacked air planes – attack from the air being by its nature the prerogative of great powers, not small bands of terrorists. Consider, for instance, how quickly the spot of the attacks in New York became known as Ground Zero. It was a name that seemed simply to leap from the collective unconscious – and of course until then “ground zero” had been a term reserved for the spot where an atomic bomb exploded, certainly the ultimate moment in air warfare. I don’t doubt the shock would have been staggering had the two towers come down by some kind of coordinated massive truck-bomb attack (as nearly did happen to one tower in 1993), but — even given the Bush administration’s desires — would a full-scale war on terror, a war conducted in large part from the air against two nations incapable of defending themselves against such weaponry, have taken place? I’m less sure of that.

The piece that follows on the reactions of one American city to the history of American bombing as seen through other eyes – to the very idea perhaps of other eyes viewing such moments – seemed to me to offer an opportunity for a brief review of some of the history of the American way of war, in Asia in particular. Mike Davis brings up in his piece the history of American bombing in Asia, where the civilian carnage from the 1940s into the early 1970s was staggering almost beyond imagining. So I asked four historians briefly to review this record. Here are their comments on Japan-Korea-Vietnam in historical order followed by Davis’s piece. Tom

Herbert P. Bix, author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, addressed the issue of Japanese civilian casualties from the American air war in World War II in this fashion:

“In Asia and the Pacific accurate war death totals were never really calculated. It can be said with certainty, however, that China sustained the most casualties at the hands of Japan, while Japan suffered 3.1 million deaths down to August 15, 1945, of which nearly one-third were non-combatant fatalities. Yet these best figures for total Japanese civilian deaths on the home islands, Okinawa, Saipan, Manchuria, and elsewhere in Asia are imprecise, based initially on military and police estimates made in wartime and revised by postwar researchers. The reality of civilian fatalities, not to mention physical injuries and homelessness produced by the American bombing campaign was worse than numbers can suggest; moreover, included within the statistics on ‘Japanese civilian deaths’ are many thousands of Koreans who at that time had no separate legal identity.

“In violation of the Hague conventions and international law (as it existed at that time), the American air forces deliberately targeted Japanese non-combatants on the premise that killing them was of strategic value. So one may safely assume that it was the carefully calculated, indiscriminate American ‘carpet bombing’ of Japan’s cities and towns, together with President Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that took the greatest number of non-combatant lives. For civilian fatalities from air attacks just on the home islands, the best overall estimate may be 509, 469 persons. In the first massive fire-bombing of Tokyo (March 9-10, 1945), for example, 334 B-29s dropped 2,000 tons of napalm-oil-like incendiary bombs creating a fire-wall around the targeted urban areas, into which later waves of B-29s dropped approximately 190,000 regular incendiaries in a period of about two and a half hours. B-29s bombed Tokyo on 112 different occasions but that single raid incinerated more than 100,000 people; wounded another 100,000, and rendered a million homeless. Think of sixty-six cities and towns, all total, enduring the effects of such repeated strategic terror-bombing and you have a good indication of the scale of American atrocities in the war against Japan.”

Gavan McCormack, author of Korea Since 1850, whose latest book about the ongoing crisis on the Korean peninsula, Target Korea, will come out from Nation Books this spring, writes of civilian deaths in the Korean War:

“Nobody knows exactly what the toll in civilian casualties was in the Korean War. Overall casualties are commonly put in the three to four million range. Military casualties (deaths) include around half a million North Koreans, between 50,000 and 100,000 South Koreans, one million Chinese, 36,940 Americans, and 3,194 ‘other’ UN (686 British).

“Civilian casualties (deaths) include between one and two million North Koreans and somewhere up to one million South Koreans. They died either from the direct effects of military operations, overwhelmingly bombing, or from the indirect effects of the bombing — the destruction of the civilian infrastructure, cold, lack of food, shelter and medicine. The US and its allies especially late in the war deliberately destroyed irrigation and hydroelectric facilities.

“I do not have to hand the precise comparative figures, but I believe, given a total Korean pre-1950 population of about 30 million, they would mean proportionally greater Korean losses than those suffered by, say, Poland or the Soviet Union or China in World War Two. Virtually every family also suffered division, in the sense that some member of the family was cut off on ‘the other side. So far as I know, there are no figures, guesstimate or otherwise, that isolate direct-hit bombing victims from overall civilian casualties.”

Chris Appy, author of Patriots, The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, and Nick Turse, a Columbia University graduate student completing a dissertation on American war crimes during the Vietnam War, write of civilian air casualties in that era:

“During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military counted virtually everything. Most notoriously it made enemy ‘body counts’ the central measure of American ‘progress.’ But it also counted sorties flown, bombs dropped, tunnels destroyed, propaganda leaflets dispersed, and toothbrushes distributed. In the bowels of the National Archives you can even find out how many X-rays were taken at the U.S. Army’s 93d Evacuation Hospital in 1967 (81,700). But nowhere in this surreal and grisly record of bookkeeping can you find one of the war’s most elemental statistics: civilians killed. Civilian casualties were routinely denied, ignored, or lumped together with those of enemy combatants; thus, the infamous GI saying, ‘If it’s Vietnamese and civilian, it’s Viet Cong.’

“Mike Davis’s assertion that one million Indochinese civilians were killed from the air by the American military is a reasonable estimate, but even figures on overall civilian deaths in Vietnam alone cannot be precisely determined. The Vietnamese government believes that two million Vietnamese, most of them southerners, were killed in the American War (a figure that excludes hundreds of thousands of Cambodian and Laotian civilian deaths). The closest thing to an official American calculation of Vietnamese civilian deaths was done by a Senate subcommittee on refugees. Though relying too heavily on hospital figures (many Vietnamese casualties never made it to hospitals), that committee estimated 430,000 South Vietnamese civilian deaths.

“B-52 carpet bombings and the use of napalm were well known forms of American destruction from the air, but were only two of the many indiscriminate forms of lethal American firepower employed. All told, we used more than 14 million tons of munitions, including massive amounts of napalm, cluster bombs, and artillery shells (often fired randomly into “free-fire zones”). We endlessly strafed the countryside from helicopter and fixed-wing gunships and sprayed millions of gallons of highly toxic chemical defoliants as well.

“Despite the vast literature on the war we still don’t have a detailed study that examines the overall impact of this colossal arsenal of weaponry on Vietnamese civilians. Now, in Iraq, the U.S. refuses to count any Iraqis we have killed, military or civilian.”

Reading (PA.) by Bomb Light
By Mike Davis

The artist Marcos Ramirez (aka ERRE), whose Tijuana studio is a mere fifty yards from the nearest border patrolman, spends a lot of time staring across la linea at the strange culture on the other side. He likes gringos well enough, but sometimes is scared by our sublime ignorance of our own history (not to mention those of our neighbors).

For example, how many of us ever bother to think about the contribution of strategic bombing to the American Way of Life? As Ramirez points out, the air forces of the United States have dropped billions of bombs in the twentieth century and have killed, by the most conservative reckoning, more than two million foreign civilians. Most, of course, were Asians, including over half a million Japanese incinerated by two atomic bombs and in the B-29 firestorms that burned their cities to the ground. Another million were Indochinese killed by B-52 carpet-bombing. There were also one hundred thousand or more Koreans in the Korean War, and probably that many Germans as well as surprising numbers of innocent Italians, Rumanians, and other accidental World War II-era Europeans.

We should add to this black ledger at least ten thousand non-combatant Iraqis in two Gulf Wars, a thousand Afghan villagers and maybe five hundred Serbs as well as a few Libyans and Sudanese. In the Western Hemisphere, Presidents Harding and Coolidge sent biplanes to bomb rebellious Nicaraguans, Dominicans, and Haitians during the golden age of Dollar Diplomacy. Later the CIA bombed Guatemala (1954) and Cuba (1962). We bombed Panama in 1989 and are still bombing rural areas of Colombia today.

There is, in fact, little of the earth’s surface that we haven’t at some time bombed, or, as the case may be, bombarded. Thus when Ramirez was recently invited to participate in “Mexico illuminated,” a multi-venue exhibition (12 September to 23 November) sponsored by a consortium of arts institutions in Reading, Pennsylvania, he chose to illuminate yanqui history instead.

He won the approval of his sponsors and the Reading Redevelopment Authority to mount a public-art piece on a billboard next to the busy Bingaman Street Bridge. Imitating the green background and lettering of official highway signs, the proposed billboard simply lists eight cities bombarded or bombed by the United States, their distances from Reading, and the appropriate dates.

Ciudad de Mexico 3202 km 1847
Veracruz 3040km 1914
Hiroshima 11194 km 1945
Dresden 4837 km 1945
Hanoi 13206 km 1972
Ciudad de Panama 3497km 1989
Kabul 10979 km 2001
Baghdad 9897 km 2003

Ramirez’s idea was to let commuters puzzle out for themselves the meaning of the dates and the association between cities as disparate as Ciudad de Mexico, Dresden and Baghdad. He saw the piece as a “mirror” to help us analyze our own impact on the world. He hoped that Reading residents would become active participants in the dialogue.

They have – with a vengeance. Even though the billboard has yet to be mounted, the local paper calls it “an eruption of outrage.” Letters columns and radio talk shows have been inundated with angry denunciations of Ramirez’s supposedly “obscene America-bashing.” The city of 82,000 doesn’t seem to be talking about much else.

One columnist claimed that Ramirez was trying to show “that the rest of the world hates the United States.” A city councilwoman couldn’t understand what the billboard had to do with art: “Art is art. But bombing is not Art.” Meanwhile, an unnamed “patriotic group” vowed to buy a counter-billboard that would simply boast (vis-à-vis the bombings): “We’re Glad!” Others made darker threats.

Then the display company refused to rent the billboard space to the organizers of Mexico Illuminated, issuing a non sequitur press release that “it proudly supports the men and women serving in the military.” For a moment it seemed as if Ramirez was about to join that illustrious pantheon of Mexican artists – including Siquieros and Rivera – who have had their work censored or destroyed by panic-stricken gringo patrons.

But the organizers have so far stood their ground, promising to find Ramirez a space for his billboard. And some local politicians have had the guts to point out that the supposed “anti-American” message is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Angel Figueroa, a young Latino voice on the city council, calmly observes that Ramirez’s billboard is merely “factual.” “Everyone will have their own interpretation.” ‘ Ramirez, for his part, tells me that he is delighted that the “meaning of art” is being discussed with unprecedented passion in American Legion Halls, bowling alleys and neighborhood saloons. At the same time, he is intrigued by the reaction to his historical Rorschach Test.

“It is amazing that a piece like this is so universally considered offensive. After all, the billboard only itemizes events that in their time were celebrated as victories and praised as just causes. Are people outraged because a Mexican artist has bothered to highlight this history? Or do I perceive an underlying shame?”

But Ramirez may have detonated something more than patriotic ire. Reading, a geriatric industrial city that has bled jobs and population for more than two generations, is in the midst of an extraordinary ethnic make-over. Within the next decade it will become the first Latino-majority city in Pennsylvania. Puerto Ricans and Mexican residents are already 40% of the population and have brought new vibrancy to the old red-brick town on the Schuylkill. “Mexico Illuminated” is an admirable recognition of that contribution.

But many conservative Berks county residents, including those who employ Mexican immigrants as service and agricultural workers, want only a captive labor supply, not a dynamic cultural presence or a new electorate. A recent study by the University of Michigan found that Reading was “the most segregated city in America for Hispanics.” Likewise a federal judge ruled that Berks County had discriminated against Latino voters and ordered federal observers – like those sent to the Deep South in the 1960s — to oversee last May’s local elections.

Ramirez meanwhile is turning the backlash against his piece into yet more art. Using a computer, he has defiantly inserted his bombing chronology onto (a photo of) the Bingaman Street billboard. A wall-sized print of this montage will be mounted in the annex of the main exhibition at Albright College, along with documentation of the controversy. Viewers will be invited to register their own reaction.

Nativist critics of Ramirez should be forewarned that they are dealing with a consummate magical realist. If they’re not careful, they may end up being part of the performance. Some years ago Ramirez famously erected a Trojan horse on the border between Tijuana and San Diego. When asked what was inside, he merely laughed. I suppose you either get the joke or you don’t.

Marcos Ramirez (ERRE) can be contacted directly at [email protected]. He can provide images of the work discussed in the article.

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, and most recently, Dead Cities: and Other Tales among other works.

Copyright C2003 Mike Davis