'In the future, every historian will be relevant for 15 minutes', as somebody once said. Here's my 15 minutes, an interview with journalist Connor Echols for Responsible Statecraft on the parallels between the 1913 phantom airship panic and the 2023 spy balloon panic. As I've been busy with other things and have had to watch take after hot take flash by (most interestingly from my point of view was Jeff Sparrow in the Guardian invoking another interest of mine, balloon riots), I appreciated the opportunity to think about what I do think (if that makes sense!)...continue reading
Thoughts on war in somebody else’s air raid
Last night I had my first full-on anxiety dream about nuclear war since the 1980s. As ICBM trails arced across the blue sky overhead, I ran for the safety of a nearby shelter -- and confirmed that the Third World War had started by getting out my phone to check my social media feeds.
Of course, I'm quite safe here in Australia. It's not my home town which is being shelled by Russian artillery, not my family which is being killed in Putin's unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine. The risk of escalation is not non-zero, but would be increased dramatically if the calls from some quarters for a no-fly zone -- in some ways, an ad hoc kind of international air force -- were heeded. But, despite the dreams of liberal militarists, airpower is not a bloodless panacea; air war always has been real war. It's not a cheap way to avoid fighting. Fortunately everybody with a direct say in the matter seems to be well aware that a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine would be a very bad idea indeed. So, I probably should be able to sleep easier than I am. But there's a very interwar kind of trauma involved in reliving an existential fear all over again. We've all been here before, again....continue reading
Thank u, NHS!
Exactly six months ago today, I posted about some aerial theatre in the time of coronavirus. That was the first time I mentioned the pandemic on Airminded, and it is, of course, still here (Victoria is -- hopefully -- nearing the end of its second wave, with 42 new cases reported today, down from a peak of 686 on 4 August, and a total of 737 deaths), but so is the aerial theatre. The Aircraft Restoration Company's NHS Spitfire Project evolved out of the Clap For Our Carers social media movement to support NHS health workers. That ended back in May, but the NHS Spitfire is still flying around the UK (and is still looking for sponsors).
History from below, looking up
On Wednesday, 27 May 2020, I was privileged to give a seminar to the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University on my aerial theatre research -- via Zoom, as is the current fashion. I really enjoyed giving it, and I think it was a great success (and thanks to everyone who listened in and especially those to took the time to ask questions). Because the seminar pulls together some of the different things I've been working on in some kind of coherent way, I wanted to make it available to a wider audience, and so yesterday I post-tweeted my own seminar. And to make it less (?) ephemeral, now I'm embedding the entire 51-tweet thread here in a blog post. It is of course very much a condensed version of what I said, but it's always surprising how much of the essence gets through in tweet form. (Well, I understand what I'm trying to say, but then I would, wouldn't I?)
The seminar title is 'History from below, looking up: aerial theatre, emotion and modernity'. The abstract is:
In the early 20th century, the aeroplane was the symbol of modernity par excellence. Technological change is an essential part of this sense of modernity, and few technological changes have been as dramatic or as unmistakable as the conquest of the air. For the first few decades of the twentieth century, flying was the object of intense popular fascination, and yet few people actually flew themselves, even as passengers, before the tremendous expansion of aviation during and after the Second World War. Even so, their experience of flight was often intensely exciting, since one of the most common ways to encounter flight was through seeing it, as an aviation spectacle in the form of aerial theatre such as air displays and air races. People flocked to aerodromes in their cumulative millions to watch aircraft in flight, performing aerobatics or fighting mock battles. This was a mass form of popular culture, which explicitly and implicitly made claims about the present and -- even more so -- future ability of technology to change the world, for better or for worse. In this talk I will sketch out an emotional history of aerial theatre, focusing on how it helped to construct popular ideas about modernity, primarily in Britain and Australia.
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Don’t let’s be beastly to the RAF — II
In the previous post I looked at Nigel Biggar's use of the Berlin Airlift and Richard Hillary in his paean to the RAF. Now I will look at his other argument in Providence, that 'In the past 100 years then, the Royal Air Force has made a vital contribution to the military defense of the West'. By this he means the Battle of Britain, of course:
The early phases of the battle saw mere handfuls of fighters throw themselves against hundreds of German bombers. Without their victory, Hitler's military would have probably overwhelmed Britain's resistance, and America’s subsequent struggle would have been immeasurably more difficult. Fighting for Europe from England proved hazardous enough in 1944; trying to retake it from the far side of the Atlantic would have been almost impossible. Hence Winston Churchill's famous remark, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
Again, it's easy to quibble (Fighter Command was hardly down to 'mere handfuls' of aircraft, for example, and whether Britain could have been successfull invaded is extremely doubtful), but I absolutely agree that the British victory was a Good Thing.
Don’t let’s be beastly to the RAF — I
Kim Wagner pointed out an article in Providence ('A journal of Christianity & American foreign policy') by Nigel Biggar, entitled 'Thank God for the Royal Air Force!'. Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, has attained some notoriety for his 'Ethics and Empire' research project, which seeks
- to trawl the history of ethical critiques of ‘empire’;
- to test the critiques against the historical facts of empire; and thereby
- to garner possible ethical resources for contemporary deployment
- to develop a nuanced and historically intelligent Christian ethic of empire;
- and so to enable a morally sophisticated negotiation of contemporary issues such as military intervention for humanitarian purposes in culturally foreign states, the cohesion of multicultural societies, and settling imperial pasts
That's according to Biggar's website. According to his critics (i.e. scholars of empire and colonialism), this
'balance sheet' approach to empire is rooted in the self-serving justifications of imperial administrators, attempting to balance out the violence committed in the name of empire with its supposed benefits. It has long since lost its scholarly legitimacy, as research has instead moved to trace the actions which occurred in the name of empire in their complexity through time.
An opinion piece written by Biggar for The Times was headlined -- whether he approved or not -- 'Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history'.
Life during wartime
Since last I posted, COVID-19 has continued its spread: the Guardian is currently reporting 378,000 cases worldwide, 16,500 deaths, and 101,000 recoveries. (I post these figures not so much for the information of anyone reading at the present time, but more as context for future readers.) Like most people, I think, I'm coping: healthy, but anxious. Reading and writing history can be a distraction, but not always. In fact, given my historical line, it's hard not to draw comparisons between the present crisis and the world wars.
Aerial theatre in the time of coronavirus?
[With apologies to Gabriel García Márquez and Ben Wilkie.]
It's not that long ago that I was posting about the Australian bushfires; now it's the turn of the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic, and it's worldwide. Social media is an essential tool in such times of crisis, but it also can be a misleading one. Here's a fairly trivial example relevant to my own interests.
Kathleen tweeted this on 13 March:
The Italian airforce gives a big emotional lift to their nation with Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma (let no one sleep)and where lyrics say venceremos(we will overcome)they have their planes dramatically facing and overpowering the single plane (virus) with their National Flag!
As of 16 March, the attached video has been viewed 10.6 million times. And why not? The display is beautiful, the music inspirational, and it fits in with other videos we've all seen of quarantined Italians singing together from their balconies. Unity and culture will defeat the pandemic! Viva Italia!
Daddy, what did YOU do in the climate emergency?
Heavy rains are finally starting to extinguish the distastrous bushfires that covered a last part of eastern Australia during the last couple of months (and of course, bringing floods). Back while they were still burning, James Raynes tweeted a series of images he adapted from Australian recruitment posters from the First World War, which I think lampoon the state of right-wing climate politics in this country rather brilliantly:
The reason why they're so clever is that they subvert denialist arguments against effective climate action by redeploying them against Australia's most sacred myth: Anzac. The above image, for example, points out that on the argument that Australia's carbon emissions are so much smaller than those of the United States or China that reducing them will make no difference, then logically we shouldn't have bothered sending our tiny army against Germany's much bigger one, either. Check out Raynes's other images below (the Boer War credits one is particularly amusing).
An Airminded #AuthorsForFireys
Australia is currently experiencing a bushfire season of unprecedented extent and intensity. (See Bodie Ashton's viral thread for some idea of the scale, bearing in mind that it was written a few days ago. Above is a satellite image from 3 January 2020 of the eastern part of Victoria and south-eastern NSW; Melbourne itself is so far largely unaffected, apart from some smoke haze.) Our firefighters -- extraordinarily, nearly all volunteers -- need support, and I'm contributing to that by taking part in the Twitter campaign #AuthorsForFireys. Reply to the following tweet (you do need to be on Twitter for this) with your proposed donation to the Country Fire Authority, the main Victorian firefighting organisation, and if yours is the highest I'll give you a copy of the hardcover edition of my book. It would currently cost you AUD252 if you ordered direct from the publisher, so this is a chance to get it at a much more reasonable price while helping a good cause.
The rules are here -- the link for donations is here. International donors are welcome (I'll cover the postage to anywhere in the world), though that might be hard as unfortunately the CFA doesn't seem to have any way to donate online, only through bank transfers/cheques/money orders. If that's a problem, get in touch and we'll work something out.