Zeppelins over your town

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

IWM PST 12249

Above is a poster printed in Australia during the First World War. It very strikingly shows a Zeppelin caught in searchlights (with an aeroplane just visible at the top) over what looks like a town nestled in a valley beside a river. The text reads:



No Charge

It was pointed out to me by Peter Taylor, who found it in the Imperial War Museum’s collections and noted that it seems unusual for a Zeppelin to feature in Australian propaganda. So what’s going on here?
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Columbus Day


christopher-columbus (2)Today the U.S. government officially observes Columbus Day.  But of course Columbus Day traditionally falls on October 12, the date on which the expedition under Christopher Columbus first touched land in the western hemisphere (by most reckonings at San Salvador Island in the Bahamas). Although the United States began to observe Columbus Day regularly in the years following 1892, the 400-year anniversary of the (European) discovery of America, it was only In 1971 that the Nixon administration made the day a federal holiday, to be observed on the second Monday in October.

Back then, the pop duo Seals & Crofts, two Texans who happened also to be adherents to the pacifist faith Baha’i, could still reach for Columbus when they wanted their lyrics to challenge listeners to find the best in themselves:

Like Columbus in the olden days, we must gather all our courage.
Sail our ships out on the open sea.
Cast away our fears
And all the years will come and go, and take us up, always up.
We may never pass this way again.
We may never pass this way again.
We may never pass this way again.

“We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” appeared on the album Diamond Girl in 1973. There’s no way Seals & Crofts would–or probably even could without inviting howls of protest–use Columbus as imagery again. Indeed, when they performed the song in concert in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage, they substituted the less inflammatory name “Magellan,” for by then Columbus and his holiday had become controversial, to say the least.

Indeed, invite a Native American to celebrate Columbus Day with you and see what response you get. People are not stereotypes and I imagine if you invited enough Native Americans you’d find some takers. But for the most part their appraisal of the holiday and what it really commemorates is probably well epitomized by Transform Columbus Day.Org, whose statement of principles reads in part:

Columbus Day is an inherently racist statement of cultural domination. Celebrations honoring Columbus reinforce a historical process of racism, theft, lies, murder, slavery and the destruction of the environment. Individually and collectively, we reject Columbus as a heroic personality, and we reject holidays, celebrations or other expressions of adulation for Columbus.

That sure puts a different perspective on the Seals & Crofts song. The contrast between their original intent and the TCD.org statement of principles becomes even more pronounced when you consider that the lines quoted above are preceded by this one:

Peace, like the silent dove, should be flyin’ but it’s only just begun.

Even so, Seals & Crofts eventually went back to singing “We May Never Pass This way (Again)” in its original form, probably because their fans found it jarring to hear the lyrics altered. Maybe the duo should have kept at it, though: I heard Rod Stewart at a 1993 concert start to sing his pre-AIDs era hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” only to halt just as the crowd began to get into it. He didn’t sing that song any more, Stewart explained. Which was as good as a sermon on safe sex.

Of course, even if they had stuck with “Magellan” the change would have been cosmetic rather than substantive. In and of itself, Magellan’s voyage was less lethal than the ultimately four voyages of Columbus, though Magellan himself was killed during a pitched battle with Filipino natives after siding with one tribe over another in a local dispute. But it was very much part of the larger European project of colonization and domination. Seals & Crofts would have run into the same problem with “Da Gama,” which also fits the rhythm. Da Gama’s three voyages were punctuated regularly by violence, including acts of piracy and at least one major battle at sea. They were also crucial in laying the foundation of the European enclaves in Africa and southern Asia from which the slave trade and, eventually, large-scale colonization would result.

Basically, Seals & Crofts couldn’t win for losing if they chose a European explorer on the historical merits, for virtually every one of these expeditions was a military expedition, carried out by armed men aboard armed vessels.

I still like the song, though. We may never pass this way again.

Douhet and the Singularity

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

In Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, Thomas Hippler describes what he calls Douhet’s ‘ahistorical historicism’:

His thinking is ahistorical to the extent that it poses a concept of history (‘everything has changed’) that simultaneously cuts off history itself. His thinking is historicist, because this absolute beginning not only occurs as a break within history, but also to the extent that it gives way to a technology-driven teleological understanding of later historical development. In other words, it gives way to interpreting the development to come in the sole light of the imagined essence of this beginning.1

That is, Douhet asserted that warfare in the future is going to be utterly different to warfare in the past, and that we can only predict it by looking at warfare in the present, which itself does not resemble warfare in the future either.

Douhet, of course, was not alone. Airpower prophets routinely asserted that the past was no guide to the future, and that the present was not much better, but it was all there was to go on. So Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper wrote in 1917 that

In viewing the lessons of this war, as they are likely to throw light on the future of the aeroplane, either as a vehicle for transport or as a weapon, it must be understood that this campaign by air, in the sequence of its phases, offers little or no guide to the trend of an air war of the future. The next great war, should it come, will begin where this leaves off; and all its subsequent stages, so far as any one air service is concerned, must be governed by the success or failure of that service in its first offensive by air — an offensive which, following instantly on a commencement of hostilities, will need to be delivered with a maximum possible force and speed.2

The paradox is that as the last war receded and the next war, presumably, approached, airpower prophets had to continue to rely on that last war for their evidence, as it was the only example of large-scale application of airpower to date. Their futurism became increasingly historical, in other words. To take a random example, in 1937 Frank Morison devoted three quarters of his book to recounting the experience of London and Paris under aerial bombardment two decades previously, and the final quarter to showing how this experience gave only a hint of what was to come. Recalling the ‘hectic days of excitement and warlike preparation’ before the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, he suggested that

Surely few historical parallels could be more misleading, because the march of science has destroyed in advance that indispensable time-lag upon which the successful deployment of our military, social and industrial resources mainly depended.3

The reason, of course, was the march of technological progress:

It is practically assured that the speed of a long-distance bombing squadron, sent against London in the next war, will not be less than 250 miles per hour and may conceivably be in excess of that figure. This means that a formation sighted at Beachy Head, say at 11 a.m., if not intercepted and driven off, will reach the suburbs at 11.12 a.m. and be over Central London about one minute later.4

Hence the teleology, with war, and thus all of history, marching towards its inevitable fate of domination and even determination by the bomber. Of course Morison was not to know that within a couple years Beachy Head itself would be the site of a Chain Home Low radar station, and hence part of the solution to the bomber threat. But then, by definition believers in the bomber never had faith in the fighter.

Douhet, Grahame-White, Morison and the rest were essentially military mini-singularitarians. According its adherents, the Singularity is the point in the not-too-distant future when technological changes, especially in artificial intelligence, will accelerate and converge such that they will so utterly change society and humanity itself that it will be practically unrecognisable. But like the airpower prophets before them, singularitarians like Ray Kurzweil extrapolate wildly from the past — CPU speeds, increasing lifespans — to predict that the future will be nothing like it — uploaded personalities, immortality.5 They too are ahistorical historicists, and if the past is any guide to the future, just as likely to be right.

  1. Thomas Hippler, Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 75.
  2. Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper, Air Power: Naval, Military, Commercial (London: Chapman & Hall, 1917), 1.
  3. Frank Morison [Albert H. Ross], War on Great Cities: A Study of the Facts (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 186, 187.
  4. Ibid., 189.
  5. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Viking, 2005.