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Death from Above: How Aerial Bombing Changed the World

Viewing history from the skies.

Dresden, 1945, view from the town hall (Rathaus) over the destroyed city (Photo via Deutsche Fotothek‎)

When man stopped believing in God he started sending his own messages from the heavens. The 20th century, Thomas Hippler contends in his new book Governing from the Skies, can be read through the technology of the aerial bomb. Whether it's dropped indiscriminately from a shuddering aeroplane over the desert or remotely triggered by an unmanned drone, aerial bombardment reveals something about the power doing it and the people enduring it.


Hippler begins by observing a neat historical coincidence. The first recorded instance of aerial bombing occurred in Libya, in 1911. "I decided that today I would try to drop bombs from the aeroplane," wrote Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti in his diary, having been posted to North Africa to help secure Italy's victory over the Ottoman Empire. His mission was reconnaissance, but buzzing through the bright blue sky some 15 kilometres from Tripoli, he happened upon "a troop of Arab fighters" near an oasis and decided to seize the initiative. Carefully balancing the plane's joystick between his legs and using his free hand to take a bomb out of a small box, he removed the safety pin with his teeth and lobbed it out the window. He didn't just kill soldiers and civilians, but destroyed the oasis too: "a social and economic system" far removed from the front lines of traditional conflict.

One hundred years later Nato launched a bombing campaign on the very same country to establish a No Fly Zone, thus framing a century of death from above. Nato changed its mandate to regime change – Gaddafi was assassinated by rebels greatly assisted by the bombardment – and "by a strange historical and geographical coincidence, the bombs launched… fell in the same places as those Gavotti [launched] a hundred years earlier".

When the Italian chancer threw a bomb out of his window he inaugurated a novel way of thinking about war that would define conflicts to come. It was no longer a pitch battle between the armies of sovereign states: a new matrix of conflict opened up in three dimensions. Military strategies would be forced to "mingle civilian and military objectives", leading to the "asymmetrical wars that have been an obsession ever since". These continuities and discontinuities run throughout Hippler's book, slowly forming a global history of the bomb.


US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons at Aviano Air Base (US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Tierney P. Wilson, via)

Speaking to Hippler – a historian and philosopher who teaches at the University of Caen in France – over email, I asked why he found aerial warfare an interesting lens through which to see history. His first book, he responds, was about conscription – something both democratic, because it extends warfare to the civic population, and anti-democratic, because it forces the conscript into obedience. This contradiction alerted him to an idea, which he wanted to develop, that if conscription means everyone – i.e. male citizens – must fight in war then "this logic implies almost inevitably the contrary: everybody can become a victim of war". With the democratisation of countries came "the democratisation of death". Everything, from homes to city centres, was fair game.

When Gavotti improvised aerial warfare over Tripoli it was at a time when the potential of aviation was weighing on the minds of the West. Louis Blériot made the first airborne crossing of the Channel in 1909, prompting H.G. Wells, who was writing a report for the Daily Mail, to reckon with this revolutionary technology. He wrote that the ability to cross the Channel in minutes rather than hours could lead to a fundamental blow to the British Empire, with its unrivalled control of the seas: "Our manhood is now defective." But within a few years the utopian potential of flying was appearing in the fascist fever dreams of the Italian Futurists, who saw the fusing of man with machine, "a composite monster", as the pinnacle of human achievement. But it also figured in the ideals of cosmopolitan liberals. Aviation would mean the end of borders and a free movement of goods between all countries of the world. The fact that it could also bring about utter destruction was all the more reason that it would secure peace.


As Hippler shows, this "peace" was based on a racist reading of humanity: it would be safety for the coloniser "and bombs for the colonised". In fact, when most historians write about aerial bombing they focus on the Second World War and ignore the attacks on colonised populations in the inter-war years, seeing them as a mere "dress rehearsal" for the real thing.

We learn of Britain's pioneering bombing campaigns in the Horn of Africa in the 1920s. Mohammed Abdullah Hassan – dubbed the "Mad Mullah" by the British for his crazy insistence on independence – was the first victim of an organised, sustained campaign of bombing by the newly formed Royal Air Force. Shouldering the white man's burden later in the decade, the RAF developed this form of "imperial policing" in Iraq, which allowed the British to reduce the ground costs of empire while totalising control from the air. Rather than killing particular insurgents, "the objective was to break the social and economic life of rebel populations, to destroy their homes and villages, to kill off their cattle and ruin their agriculture".

Theorists like Aimé Césaire and Hannah Arendt argued after the Second World War that "the basic features of totalitarian rule were first implemented in the colonies before being re-imported to the centres of the world system".



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One of Hippler's central ideas is that "strategic bombing" – the kind of brutal air power that flattened Coventry and Dresden – was a way of reducing a "people" into a "populace". I ask what he means by this. "Since the end of monarchies, politics is essentially 'by the people, for the people'… the war-effort of modern states consists basically in strengthening the unity of its own people through various means, like the construction of air-raid shelters to social welfare, while simultaneously trying to undo the unity of the enemy nation, turning the enemy people into a disorganised populace." So the act of bombing doesn't just destroy individual lives; it changes the way we conceive of people themselves.

Today's aerial warfare is different. Instead of a war of unity between national populations, the enemy is a networked "terrorist" organised around disparate nodes. As Hippler tells me, "The whole political philosophy of targeting is very different." The pre-eminent bomber of this age is the unmanned drone, which, covering much of the same terrain over Mesopotamia as the RAF did in the 1920s, engages in a kind of perpetual, low-intensity policing. In Hippler's striking formulation, the bomb has "become the deadly truncheon of a global cop".

So while domestic police forces have turned into something resembling armies – engaging in pitch battles against urban rioters with armour-plated tanks – the military has become a global police officer, seeking out individual terrorists no matter the country they happen to be in. It's neither war nor peace, but something in between.


For all the talk these days of an impending World War Three, Hippler's book gives the impression that we're already living inside it: a perpetual, asymmetric conflict between state and non-state actors. It seems impossible, I suggest, to imagine the old imperial centres like London or Paris being bombed today from the air, with their working classes and energy routes dispersed across the global south.

Hippler agrees, but adds a caveat: "The most plausible scenario for a future major conflict is what strategists call 'hybrid war', which includes terrorist and guerrilla operations… but also financial operations. The boundary between war and peace is increasingly difficult to draw. A plausible worst-case scenario is perhaps no direct bombing, but rather a massive cyber attack on the electricity supplies, which would lead to a massive social breakdown within a couple of days."

The bomb might have exhausted its use, but its progeny will be even more deadly.


Governing From The Skies: A Global History of Aerial Bombing is out now through Verso.

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