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On Giving a Dog a Bad Name: The Battle for History on Film

he Dam Busters: retelling a heroic story

It is a plausible criticism of those of us who have worked as paid, campus-based academics in the Western world that pressure to publish research of “utility” obliges us to make judgments in matters about which we are poorly equipped by life experience.  Pertinent examples occur, for instance, in debates relating to the political significance of memories and representations of the Second World War. Thirteen years ago, Professor Norman Davies suggested that a generation that had experienced the war directly, and often lost relatives therein, would cease to dominate the formation of public opinion in Britain as it had done since 1945. Davies suggests the decline of this influence would herald the rise of sentiments more amenable to British involvement in closer European union.[1]

Davies appears to have been mistaken, and ostensibly, the late John Ramsden seems to suggest part of the reason why in observing the ongoing centrality of British films about the Second World War, such as Michael Anderson’s The Dam Busters (1955), to “British” national identity, and particularly manifestations of that identity antithetical to a European identity, transcending generations that can remember the events described. Ramsden indeed intimates that this significance has increased, as is represented in bizarre manifestations such as brand-naming and advertising (exemplified by a television advertising campaign associated with the brand name Carling in the 1990s), nationalistic private or public outbursts by government ministers, gratuitous references in newspapers and other media, and even provocative behavior and chanting by soccer supporters.[2] However, both Davies and Ramsden seem to have erred in suggesting that there must necessarily be a strong connection between prominent and powerful expressions of public opinion and the lived experience of members of the general public. There is a conscious decision by lager companies, political leaders, or media outlets making use of certain symbolism which can have a performative and political power: in other words, there is a decision which involves powerful people telling less powerful people what to think (and think about). In the case of both Davies and Ramsden, the distortions involved are perhaps linked to the fact that ongoing processes in the formation of public opinion overrepresent the same social groups—white, male, middle-class (or above), and on the whole privileged—who predominate in powerful positions on British and American university campuses, and who are most likely to identify with features of such films: most professional historians (a category which included, formerly, the present writer) are also relatively privileged men telling people what to think. The challenge is to increase one’s self-critical awareness of the distortions occupying such a position.

The Dam Busters describes a true story, a famously ingenious raid undertaken by the British Royal Air Force’s (RAF) 617 squadron (including pilots from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and one from the United States) attached to Britain’s Bomber Command on the night of 16 May 1943, successfully targeting German dams, at great cost to the air crews themselves.[3] The film is underappreciated in the United States, a fact doubtless linked, as Ramsden suggested, to the initial hostile reaction to British war films made around this time of American audiences influenced by heroic narratives of American war experiences, and thus unreceptive to suggestions that America’s victory in this conflict was substantially assisted by any ally; he noted an anecdote in which one American viewer reacted with hostility to a bunch of men “with Limey accents” acting in The Dam Busters as if they had saved the world.[4] More pertinent criticisms of war films of this era however concern the unequal representation of contributions to the war effort within societies such as the British.  The Dam Busters’ cast is almost entirely male,[5] women not even appearing in the “romantic interest” roles, and barely in the supporting roles, in which British and American films routinely cast them. Although key scenes were filmed and set in the north of England, the working classes, and individuals from that region, are only represented briefly and negatively in the film, and only the English among the constituent nations of the United Kingdom are represented (whereas historians such as Tom Devine have strongly emphasized the impact of both world wars on, for instance, Scotland).[6] There is also an argument that British cinema of the era overrepresented the personnel of the RAF compared to the other branches of the British armed services.  As a genre, indeed, Ramsden describes these films as “socially conservative.”[7] It is thus clear that notwithstanding the significance of the events described, emotional investments in the film cannot be equally shared, even among those with direct connections to the war or wartime military experience.

A remake of the film has been mooted within Britain for some years, a prospect which has been a source of concern or regret, for a variety of reasons, for some of those of us who, whatever its faults, admire the original. In June 2011, this prospect created public controversy on account of an aspect of the film and of the underlying story which seems at first sight trivial, but which has in fact been a contentious issue for some time.[8] This subplot concerns the pet labrador of the film’s central character, Wing Commander Guy Gibson (played by Richard Todd in the original film). The dog’s death in a car accident, shortly before the raid, is treated with great sensitivity in the original film as a poignant symbol of the sacrifice offered by the young British and Commonwealth pilots in Gibson’s squadron, by Gibson himself (who died shortly afterwards in further military action), and by the entire generation that resisted tyranny and fought for subsequent generations’ freedom in the Second World War. Gibson’s labrador was named “Nigger,” as was accurately portrayed in the original film[9]: it was indeed not uncommon for jet-black pets in 1940s and 1950s Britain to be given this name. Producers of the planned remake however are reported to have decided to change the name of the dog in the second film.  Commentary in the conservative media in Britain has received this with hostility, charging the producers with “political correctness,” as well as tampering with history for the sake of ingratiating themselves with a lucrative American market.[10]

Some may regard this debate as unimportant. From one perspective, media objections to the proposed change are vague, which may indeed be a politically motivated intention: reputedly, some years ago a prominent conservative campaigner suggested one of the political benefits of right-wing campaigning targeting “political correctness” was that “voters can’t define it, but they don’t like it.[11] Another liberal British columnist has suggested: “Accusing someone of political correctness is a meaningless insult, thrown into conversations in the same way that a child who’s lost an argument may say: ‘Well anyway, you smell.’”[12] An alternative possible response, which could be shared by white and black viewers of the film, is that while “the N-word” is clearly unacceptable in some contexts, an accurately recorded name for a pet is a question of little significance.

However, something much bigger is at stake than either of these perspectives suggest, pertaining to not only the film’s significance in British culture, but also broader issues regarding public memory and representation of the Second World War in Britain and the United States.[13] The outraged criticisms of the remake’s producers seem to be based upon the assumptions that “the N-word” was in accepted usage in and before the 1940s and 1950s, and that historically true representation of this usage is belatedly being challenged in both countries by an effete and hectoring puritanical minority, whose churlish tampering with history has reached the stage of violating a treasured narrative of national heroism, thus showing insulting ingratitude towards the sacrifice offered by Gibson’s squadron, and hundreds of thousands of others who fought and died at this time. It is the mistakes in these assumptions, not the dog’s name, which it is important to address.

The archaeology of a word

The common media representation of those involved in remaking the film seems very unfair. Whatever criticisms can be made of Stephen Fry and director Peter Jackson, who are closely involved with the film, irreverence towards the narrative of the dam busters, and the original film, or an intention of tampering with either for political motives, should not be among them.[14] Their considerations about Gibson’s dog suggest that objections in Britain and the United States (and elsewhere) to “the N-word” in this and other contexts, not least among white people, are much more complex than is widely suggested.

Many who appear most strongly to object to hearing it (even in reported speech or quotation) seem to share one thing in common with those who lament such objections and deem them “politically correct”; they have difficulty understanding what is objectionable about the term. In my time as a history teacher, when white students from North America (and many other locations) came across nineteenth-century texts in which “the N-word” was used, I was struck by the fact that their sensitivity about this term (and similar pejoratives) was based on an intuition that they were rude. The students had no understanding that what was really objectionable comprised not the language itself, but what people who used it suggested should be done, or suggested it was appropriate to do to African Americans (or other groups) in the moments when they used it. In contrast for instance, in February 2009, when the New York Post published a notorious cartoon mocking new President Obama’s policies, featuring a chimpanzee being shot, I found it totally beyond even intelligent white British students at the time to understand why this might be objectionable.[15] I have also found elsewhere among white North Americans and British people a sense that they did not like hearing “the N-word” without really understanding why, or because it reminded them of discreditable episodes in how white people had acted in their own and other countries, subjects about which they might otherwise feel awkward on an ongoing basis. By avoiding a certain language, in at least some cases, they were reassuring themselves that all of that nasty business was done and dusted, that they had proved their attitudes had “advanced” from those of their guilty forebears, and thus, logically, that they had little to learn and no need to engage with the ongoing and inherited nature of disadvantage.

In whose interest does policing the language in this way work? There is a sense among some people that if they just avoid using certain words at certain times, they have done all that be can reasonably expected of them in understanding the problem of racism. Apparently intelligent individuals in both Britain and the United States who avoid using “the N-word” in polite company thus effectively deny that black people continue to suffer disproportionately globally from ongoing levels of inequality; indeed, it is clear that some such people even believe, in the face of all evidence, that black people have too many advantages. Policing the language and confronting racism do not comprise the same thing; the former may help the latter if it is used to help people address and think about the past and its legacies, but not if it is used to help people avoid thinking about any such issues.

American readers will be aware that “the N-word,” and more significantly the attitude of contempt for African Americans that often accompanied it, in fact never went unchallenged, even in the eras of slavery and Jim Crow.[16] Crucially, the word’s usage, like race and racial identity themselves, has a subtly different evolution in Britain. Around the time of American Civil War and Reconstruction, this contempt, and the political and sometimes sexual anxieties behind it, struck a chord in Britain with some engaged in political debates regarding the British Empire, then close to its territorial zenith.  Sympathetic attitudes to non-white people, which had previously seen middle-class British opinion figure prominently in pressing for the abolition of the slave trade, and then slavery itself, had been weakening.[17] Britain’s most famous newspaper, the Times, used “the N-word” in its support of the South and ridicule of British support for emancipation around the start of the American Civil War;[18] others scathingly accused radicals such as critics of British colonial administrators’ repression of the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica of 1865 of “Nigger philanthropy.”[19] Proponents of what was called a “forward” policy in late nineteenth-century southern Africa used similar terminology.  During the Anglo-Zulu war of the late 1870s general Garnet Wolseley lamented in these terms that British-based liberals might frustrate his desire to exact retribution on his Zulu opponents via their virtual extermination.[20] Fresh from the massacre of the Matabele warriors after their revolt in 1893-4, when Cecil Rhodes found his plans for further annexations in southern Africa opposed by a small party from an indigenous elite lobbying the British press, he similarly expressed his frustrations.[21]

Significantly, however, historians suggest that what really brought “the N-word” into currency in Britain was not any issue directly involving Africans or African Americans, but British people’s and British administrators’ understanding and experience of the symbolic keystone of the British empire, India.[22] In the aftermath of the political repercussions of the India mutiny of 1857, British entrepreneurs and administrators in India applied derisive terminology to both the indigenous population, and what they saw as ill-informed proposals to share administrative power more widely.[23] An Indian writer complained of his countrymen being subjected to insults “in language worthy only of Billingsgate” by “rude and rough planters, and miners.”[24]

But echoes, and even anticipations, of such attitudes were also found in Britain itself in press coverage of the debates in India (including high-profile media support for attitudes associated with Anglo-Indians),[25] and in linked responses to Indian presences in late Victorian Britain, even at the highest levels of British society. In 1888, then Prime Minister Lord Salisbury dismissed the candidacy of Dadabhai Naoroji (a relatively fair-skinned Parsi from Bombay) for election to the British parliament on the grounds that “however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt if we have yet got to that point of view where a British constituency would elect a black man,” later elaborating “such candidatures are incongruous and unwise,” the U.K. parliament being a “machine too peculiar and too delicate to be managed by any but those … born within these isles.” As Rozina Visram notes: “the noble lord … forgot … that whites born in Australia, and the United States, not to mention India, were in Parliament at the very moment he was speaking. The “incongruous” aspect of Naoroji could only have been his colour. The term “black man,”[26] as used by Lord Salisbury, thus implied a different citizenship, defining the colonized as second class.” Salisbury’s motivation thus seems similar to that of those who have obsessively recently pursued the question of President Obama’s place of birth. But Salisbury was doubly wrong: Naoroji’s election in Finsbury a few years later demonstrated an “advance” further than he had estimated, and Salisbury’s own party secured the election of another “black man” (an individual of Asian descent) to parliament, while Salisbury was still the party’s leader.[27] Critically, the history of “the N-word” in Britain pertains to empire at least as much to slavery, and certainly more so than to any domestic experience of slavery.

It is thus clear that a key point about prejudice and the associated language is not that the words are bad in themselves: it is important to recognize that their purpose was functional and highly political, and the linked political agendas were often a matter for contention, not just for those targeted by the terms, but also at the highest levels of government. Queen Victoria herself, in an 1858 proclamation after the Indian Mutiny (rather like a proclamation emanating from Lincoln, her American equivalent as head of state, when also faced by a conflict a few years later), promised more freedoms for non-whites within her sovereign rule. In both cases the promises were followed through ineffectually and without conviction; but this demonstrates that “the N-word,” and far more importantly the attitudes behind it, never represented a hegemonic discourse or mindset, were heavily textured, and require careful reading.

Since then, “the N-word” has not been effectively policed. Even apart from the efforts of African American performing artists and others to utilize and invest it with new and different meanings,[28] one would need to be very reclusive, or unobservant, not to recognize that derogatory manifestations of the term are still in usage in casual (and online) conversation in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. Predominantly white individuals today, in comfortable circumstances, urging the use of the term to refer to a dog, even a dog regarded with affection (as were some slaves), surely accords more closely to the latter pattern of usage than the former. The pattern of observable derogatory usage of the term, and the evidence of where the term is deemed acceptable in the British media provided by The Dam Busters controversy, suggests that this particular usage is still found disproportionately among those on a global scale in relatively privileged positions.

In one sense at least, so far from a politically correct minority rapidly erasing the past and imposing itself in order to outlaw the term, little has changed in relation to the way “the N-word” has been used for over a hundred years. Consideration of recent historiography and high-profile efforts in recent times to defend attitudes associated with Anglo-Indians suggests also that one should not assume that adjustments in popular discourses and attitudes have only ever taken place in the direction of prohibition of racist attitudes and language.[29] It is complacent or inaccurate, especially at times of perceived national or imperial crisis, to assume or lament that controlling discourses and attitudes are necessarily, in Salisbury’s terms, “advancing,” or being managed by the “politically correct.”[30]

Manipulating the history

As one scholar has observed: “History co-opted by heritage exaggerates or denies accepted facts to assert a primacy, an ancestry, a continuity. It underwrites a founding myth meant to exclude others.”[31] This suggests why even to query tiny details of heroic narratives in Britain and the United States is to arouse outrage: what is at stake is not history, but an emotional investment in perceptions of history which is impermeable to academic exercises. Observations and perspectives are widely resisted or silenced in public debate in the United States. and in Britain, largely from a sense, both among those who might make them and those who are outraged by hearing them, that there is something ungrateful about them being advanced, comprising a libelous abuse of the very liberty in defence of which so many sacrifices were made. In Michael Laffan’s words, “history is often seen as far too important a matter to be left to historians.”

It is crucial to understand, however, that more than some esoteric ideal of academic freedom is at stake. Powerful taboos and inhibitions arise because “our sense of present identity and future direction are conditioned by the past” or “by our interpretations of it.”[32] In their ongoing cultural strength, however, relevant acts of censorship (of self or others) pertaining to this particular historical terrain involve three very considerable sleights of hand which perpetrate injustices against a large number of historical actors, and may serve to exacerbate ongoing injustices.

Firstly, these acts of censorship overlook differences between ordinary service personnel (and others) involved in the Second World War, and senior allied administrators. Secondly, differences are further occluded between both of these parties on the one hand, and, on the other, individuals from later generations (particularly in privileged locations) who have no direct connection to the events described, but who seek on the back of an asserted connection to pursue political agendas which, in their effects, are sometimes highly unjust. Thirdly, the charge of ingratitude can only apply to certain perspectives: there are other perspectives against which the charge of abusing liberty cannot be leveled, since, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, the liberties of all were not affected equally by actions in the Second World War.

Crucially, all of these three factors arise because in Britain and the United States, perceptions were and are underwritten with assumptions regarding racial inequality, which congenitally distort (and distorted) perceptions about what liberty comprises, and who were and are its deserving recipients. Recognizing the presence of racism is thus relevant to consideration of Second World War history, and its assessment in this context is not an ungrateful abuse of liberty, as some may assume, but a contribution to the ongoing work of expanding the vistas of liberty in which so many great sacrifices have been made by so many before, during, and after the Second World War. The key consideration is not whether language should be policed, but the purpose of the language used and whether it assists in making possible new versions of liberty.

Governments’ objectives

Individuals who fought in Gibson’s squadron—as well as those who fought in other services, and in the name of other governments and countries, whose stories will never be retold with anything like the frequency of the dam busters’ story—made terrible and altruistic sacrifices for a variety of motivations, including defending their families, homes, and countries, and fighting tyranny and fascism. Great and disinterested sacrifices were also made by those who struggled to supply and assist the war effort, or who heroically resisted enemy occupation or bombardment. For a current British or American citizen in particular to doubt any of this truly would comprise ingratitude.

However, British historians, including the most high-profile and influential current British historians, have gone on to suggest that British administrators also perpetrated at this time “the most romantically noble gesture of them all; the climax of British altruism in foreign policy”: “for much (though certainly … not all) of its history, the British Empire acted as an agency for imposing free markets, the rule of law, investor protection and relatively incorrupt government on a quarter of the globe.”[33] Where the country’s imperial past is acknowledged in Britain today, particularly in the popular press, it is perceived in these terms, in addition to pride that small islands could have had such global influence.

When one considers the wider context of the dam busters raid, however, there is surely abundant evidence that government policy in both Britain and America was neither disinterested nor altruistic, in so far as policies were motivated by perceived national and imperial interests, even at times in collision with each other.[34] Bombing raids on German targets in and around 1943 featured as part of what was a rational strategy from a British and Commonwealth (and, belatedly, American) point of view; but alternatives did exist. Charles de Gaulle of the Free French and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union had for instance pressed for the earlier opening of a western land front, the strategy eventually instituted on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944. Delaying this invasion meant that casualties increased on the eastern front, where Soviet forces and the Soviet civilian population faced the full brunt of a Wehrmacht distracted only in the North African and Mediterranean theatre, in a war waged with an almost unimaginable ferocity.[35]

When British and American popular and media discourses compete in boasting of their countries’ military contributions during the Second World War, it is worth remembering that Russian military and civilian casualties dwarfed those of both countries combined.  However, from a British and American perspective hesitation about opening a land-based campaign on the western front made sense. Firstly, waiting until Hitler’s Germany had been weakened probably saved British and American lives. Secondly, given that Stalin’s regime had few admirable qualities, hopes that this system might be weakened in conflict with Hitler’s Germany, even if it emerged victorious, had much to recommend them, at least from a point of view indifferent to the Soviet population’s suffering. However, even conventional historians[36] criticize British and American strategy on the grounds, not of bad intentions, but that it did not work. The botched British-American invasion of Italy of 1943 left Allied land forces bogged down in a two years’ conflict in the peninsula, enabling the Soviets to occupy most of eastern Europe and leading to the decimation of pro-Western resistance movements in countries such as Poland. None of this was the fault of the dam busters pilots; but it would materially affect the next forty years of eastern European history.

An alternative mission for allied bombers such as Gibson’s squadron from around this time would have comprised raids to damage the machinery of the holocaust (such for instance as bombing concentration camps such as Auschwitz). Again, the decision not to undertake these activities did not rest with the pilots themselves, and not all historians agree that such alternative raids would have been feasible or desirable, or that the non-pursuit of this option was rooted in anti-semitism among Western administrators.[37] It seems less questionable however that Jews in central and eastern Europe were exposed to more dangers as a result of restrictive policies adopted across the political spectrum towards Jewish immigration before and during the war in Britain and the United States, restrictions utilizing the pretext that Western public opinion would not tolerate anything more than a miniscule Jewish presence, and symptomatic of the influence of racist ideologies at the time throughout the Western world.[38]

In any case, what objectives did British policy-makers in particular have in mind in 1943?  Was their careful marshalling of British military personnel and of British military and economic resources directed to some “romantic,” “altruistic” end? By 1943, India’s ultimate independence had been accepted by many policy-makers: but the attitudes which had helped to import “the N-word” into Indian politics and British political and social discourse were dying hard. Without Indian nationalist resistance and the weakening of Britain through the Second World War, British policy-makers would have regarded independence as a far more distant prospect.[39] Conservative political criticisms in Britain of the measure of local autonomy ultimately embodied in the Government of India Act of 1935, and ultimately of the post-war Labour government when full independence came into effect in 1947, indicate the strength of these attitudes.

Tellingly, one of the most outspoken opponents of autonomy in the 1930s was Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose outspoken position on India contributed to the distrust with which he was regarded within Britain on matters of foreign policy in the later 1930s. Like David Lloyd George, his predecessor during the First World War, Churchill had a past record of willingness to use weapons of mass destruction against indigenous resistance to the empire, a willingness justified in language which might have been taken from debates of the 1880s surrounding India.[40] In debates over India, Churchill referenced the idea that the British were fitter to govern India than Indians themselves. In 1931, he stated:

At present the Government of India is responsible to the British Parliament, which is the oldest, the least unwise and the most democratic parliament in the world. To transfer that responsibility to this highly artificial and restricted oligarchy of Indian politicians would be a retrograde act. It would be a shameful act. It would be an act of cowardice, desertion and dishonour. It would bring grave material evils, both upon India and Great Britain; but it would bring upon Great Britain a moral shame which would challenge for ever the reputation of the British Empire as a valiant and benignant force in the history of mankind.[41]

These assumptions were prevalent among those Britons who had, or thought they had, experience and knowledge of India. A former Viceroy argued in 1917 “What do we mean by self-government for India?  … Such an aspiration, in the present phase of Indian evolution, is the wildest of dreams …”[42] Further, even self-proclaimed radicals around this time accepted notions of racial superiority, only disagreeing with the likes of Churchill about the extent of local autonomy which might be ceded in India.[43]

In other words, most opinion-formers accepted that without British assistance, India would not have been capable of self-government, political unity, or of defending itself from rival conquerors. These were not only assumptions similar to those that had often been deployed along with racist language in Britain and America, but also which a high-profile historiography continues to give a measure of endorsement: “how could anyone seriously claim that driving out the British would improve life [in India], if the effect would be to open the door to the Japanese[?],” asks Niall Ferguson.[44] Insofar as they can be tested, however, condescending paternalistic white assumptions, in the Indian as in the American case, have been proven wrong: in the aftermath of independence India preserved a degree of democratic self-government and unity in several ways greater than had ever been achieved by the British, notably in the assimilation of states led by native Princes which had remained semi-autonomous even at the height of empire.[45] Ferguson further asserts that: “In the end the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs.  Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s sins [?]”[46]

As Visram observes, such statements draw upon a “myth” which dates back to Churchill that “the British people ‘stood alone’ against the might of Hitler’s Germany after the fall of France and before the United States came to Britain’s aid in 1941 following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.” Yet in fact, Britain never resisted German, Japanese or Italian military leaders without very considerable assistance, some of it from sources, frequently non-white, which are still very imperfectly or reluctantly acknowledged. In addition to the contributions of the peoples of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Britain’s other colonies, continuing resistance to fascism in countries such as France, Poland, Yugoslavia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Norway (much of it carried on in unspeakably difficult circumstances), Visram observes that “the contribution made by India in the defeat of Fascism remains unacknowledged, at best, marginalized, at worst, simply forgotten”: “given India’s vast reservoir of manpower, including a standing army, its huge variety of raw materials and central geographical location in the Indian Ocean, the Indian contribution to the defeat of Fascism was pivotal, particularly in the Middle East and the Far East.” Indian contributions also included large voluntary gifts and loans to British funds such as for the formation of RAF fighter squadrons, all such contributions being offered notwithstanding friction between nationalist leaders and British administrators during the war, in part due to the latter’s foot-dragging over independence.[47]

Indian troops thus made particularly important contributions to resisting the Axis powers during the war, including Japanese advance in the East itself, which popular Western cinema has ignored.[48] But Indian demographic, financial, and military contributions to Britain’s needs were not new.  Indian soldiers had long been considered a particularly valuable military resource by British administrators, a resource so intensively exploited that revolts such as those in the Punjab in the 1840s and the Indian mutiny were the result.[49] Thereafter European troop levels in India were increased, but India still made a disproportionate military and economic contribution in the Empire’s far-flung wars, especially in Asia and Africa.[50] Administrators regularly expected Indians to fight for the Empire in Africa and Asia and then pay at least part of the costs of conflicts on the fiction that they had been fought for “India’s self-defense.”

In spite of the fact that British penetration had at least initially weakened India’s military, political and economic potential,[51] Ferguson’s counterfactual arguments could thus be inverted; one could equally wonder whether Britain could have survived without India. Many seem to have been duped by an image of a tiny minority of unaided British administrators controlling and governing well a population of hundreds of millions, a fiction which continues to be reaffirmed in some academic settings.[52] Apart from the flaws in this view (Indians themselves participated heavily in the administration of the Raj, and large areas of India, let alone the neighboring countries, were never directly ruled by the British), it is significant that admiration for the same alleged achievement was shared by leading Nazis, who found in it an inspiration for their own similarly flawed ambition to control vast territories peopled by supposedly racially inferior masses. This significant fact is not something even recent British or American cinema is keen to represent.[53]

But if one looks away from India, it becomes still more obvious that “sacrificing an empire” was not part of British policy objectives at the time of the raid, and it becomes still more obvious that acceptance of “the N-word” was no mere matter of language, but symptomatic of widespread assumptions and political intentions. Indeed, British administrators of all political persuasions aimed to hang onto as much of the Empire as possible, or at least shore up British power in the world by continuing to exercise influence over and obtain profit from former colonies.

Abundant evidence for this exists in the post-Second World War world. This includes the exploitation of resources such as rubber in Britain’s tropical colonies, and the forcible repression of anti-colonial insurgency (a repression which encompassed the use of concentration camps in Kenya).[54] A less tragic but symbolically important episode at this time comprised the British deposition of Seretse Khama, the legitimate indigenous ruler of Britain’s colony of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Khama’s offense was his interracial marriage to a white British woman, which the British feared might be found offensive to the powerful white ruling minority of two neighboring racially segregated societies, South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)[55]: American readers will doubtless note that at this time equivalent “sensitivities” among dominant whites were frequently cited in defence of the lynching of African Americans in the American South. Even after the disaster for the British of Suez, projects such as the Federation of the West Indies represented an attempt to remain a paramount influence in Britain’s former colonies, and after such plans failed, commitment to global influence has continued to be evident, even among Labour governments.[56]

As Marcus Collins notes,[57] documents produced by colonial administrators around this time demonstrate that justifications for these kinds of policies were cognate to the assumption that populations such as Jamaica’s were not capable of self-government, requiring white tutelage for their own good. Such assumptions not only affected official attitudes to the distribution of liberty in the Caribbean, but also have an ongoing influence on racial attitudes within Britain itself and elsewhere. Non-white immigration to Britain after the Second World War was not officially encouraged out of any altruistic motives, but for two reasons: firstly in view of labor shortages in post-war Britain, and secondly as part of a set of transnational arrangements which it was hoped would strengthen Britain’s imperial influence in the wider world. Ex-service personnel migrating to Britain from colonies such as Jamaica expected that such recent assistance to the “mother country” in its direst need would win them greater acceptance. Logically, indeed, if sacrifice is to be venerated on account of altruism, non-white combatants from the British West Indies would seem to have a high claim to recognition: while protection of hearth and home would have pressed on the minds of many British, Indian, and U.S. military personnel during the war, neither Hitler nor the Japanese showed interest in attacking Jamaica, Trinidad, Antigua, Guyana, or Barbados.  Nonetheless such expectations would prove groundless. Articulations of hostility to non-white immigrants in post-war Britain, as Collins and others suggest, were themselves affected by assumptions of racial inequality grounded in Britain’s imperial past.[58] During a bi-election in the English midlands in 1964, notoriously, the slogan “If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour” was used to assist the campaign of a successful Conservative candidate;[59] although ironically, the defeated Labour candidate on this occasion, Patrick Gordon Walker, had himself helped to depose Seretse Khama in Bechuanaland over a decade earlier.

That racial attitudes should influence the denial of rights to allied combatants after the conflict should be of no surprise to American readers. African Americans and native Americans who had served in the U.S. forces continued to find a controlling white population in the United States reluctant to countenance improvements in their conditions. African Americans had however been allowed to bear arms during the conflict. This was effectively denied to the black population of Britain’s colony of South Africa, with British authorities’ complicity, on account of the white minority’s anxiety to perpetuate the privileges it obtained from institutionalized racial discrimination in the country.

More striking contrasts however can be observed with the treatment of white enemy combatants. In both Britain and America, German-born civilians, including Jewish refugees, were interned on the grounds that these were “enemy aliens”: in both cases, there was a contrasting indulgence of those actually complicit in the German war effort during and after the war.[60] Even during the war itself, well-treated German prisoners of war based in parts of the southern states were kept in extremely liberal conditions, allowed to venture outside their camps in enemy uniform, and even allowed to go to public areas and commercial premises (such as restaurants) from which African Americans, including serving African American GIs in American military uniform, would have been debarred.

As James L. Dickerson observes, many prominent white southerners at the time “didn’t have a big problem with the social theories associated with Nazism. They believed in the concept of a master race.”[61] In iterating a catalogue of internment in American history, episodes of which were recently also interpreted in The Straddler, Dickerson further notes how this treatment of white enemy combatants might have appeared to Americans (including those born in the United States) of Japanese descent, then interned in “concentration camps” such as those in Arkansas:

If the [Japanese American] prisoners….were aware of the warm reception that German and Italian POWs received from Mississippians almost directly across the Mississippi River from their camps, it must have baffled and infuriated them that soldiers who had killed Americans were so well treated, while they—and most of them were loyal American citizens—were looked upon as dangerous animals that could be shot down in cold blood if they ventured beyond the barbed-wire enclosure of their camps.[62]

Dickerson notes that throughout the war, notwithstanding the ostensible justification offered for their war-time internment, no Japanese-American was in fact ever proven to have been involved in any incident of domestic sabotage.

Still more outrageous than this violation of cherished American principles of liberty, however, was the use of summary and forcible deportation, notably in the British case of one group that had actually contributed to the British war effort, and were victimized by authorities on blatantly racist grounds. These groups of Chinese merchant navy sailors, whose efforts had helped to supply Britain during the wartime emergency (many of their compatriots dying in the process), and who had in some cases settled in British port cities such as Liverpool and started families, were secretly accosted and deported by the authorities in the autumn of 1945, many never seeing their spouses or very young children again.[63] Even those unmoved by considerations of justice might however recognize that interned Japanese-Americans (related in some cases to service personnel whose bravery in the American cause was eventually recognized and decorated)[64] could have been far more profitably employed. For the sake of racist paranoia—as well as for the sake of allowing profiteers in locations such as California to expropriate Japanese-American property (an incentive also in the UK’s deportation of Chinese sailors)—the internment of Japanese-Americans hampered the allied war effort and cost white American lives.

Ventriloquizing the heroes

Subsequent manipulation of public memory of the Second World War by those at a comfortable distance strengthens considerations regarding the importance of race and racism to understanding the contribution of episodes in the conflict to human liberty. Since the end of the war, conservative media outlets and opinion formers in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere have been very quick in foreign policy and other “crises” to castigate political opponents as cowards or appeasers and proprietarily claim ownership of the memory of heroes of Second World War combat (and thus rightful ownership of the government of their countries). Yet such outlets were often actually among those most enthusiastic for the appeasement of fascism and other systems of racist domination and oppression in Europe and elsewhere in the 1930s, and remain those often least interested in making any sacrifices to combat fascism and racism. This was and is partly because such systems were and are perceived as less dangerous than movements of the radical left,[65] and partly because they were and are not perceived as a direct threat to the British Empire, or more recently, the interests of privileged groups within the British, American, and other Western societies.

Early in George W. Bush’s Presidency, the U.S. Navy commissioned a new destroyer, the USS Winston S. Churchill. Official publicity regarding this event emphasized that a U.S. warship had never previously been named for a foreign statesperson, and closely linked Bush personally to the project, claiming that he believed Winston Churchill to be of unsurpassed importance among modern political leaders. Even before 9/11, Bush’s advisors were thus ensuring that he proprietarily laid claim to understandings of foreign affairs with a lineage of allegedly world-saving sagacity. This claim has resonated for years thereafter, with critics of Bush’s and his allies’ foreign policies repeatedly stigmatized as appeasers, cowards, “with the terrorists” (as opposed to “with us”), or friends of dictators such as Saddam Hussein. Bush’s lack of knowledge of almost any foreign country at this time, his notoriously limited military experience, his Secretary of Defence’s previous cordial relationship with Saddam Hussein, and recent previous conservative Anglo-American administrations’ lending of moral or material succor to terrorism in Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique, and Chile (among other locations), are relatively well-known.

Such breathtaking acts of imposture and hypocrisy are however not novel.  In his administration’s acts of suppression, equivocation and denial (albeit not in his absence of relevant experience), Bush did indeed embody a connection of sorts with Churchill, who, in the aftermath of the Second World War, himself broadcast a powerful and influential narrative overstating the longevity of his own opposition to appeasement, and understating his earlier indulgent attitude to fascism (notably in Italy). The key volume meanwhile asserted that “there is no need to follow in these pages” his far more long-lasting opposition to Indian nationalism and independence.[66] Hypocritical foreign policy “hawks” in comfortable locations getting away with claiming to represent the memory of heroes of the Second World War and the “lessons” they teach us and with denying contrary evidence are not new.

As historian Arthur M. Schlessinger Jr. identified,[67] rhetoric invoking the spirit of the Second World War (and those who made sacrifices in it) was exploited in support of 1960s U.S. policy in Vietnam and earlier conflicts; but this grates jarringly against U.S. (and Western) tolerance in these years of crypto-fascist or authoritarian right-wing regimes all around the world (not least, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed, in south Vietnam itself).  Indeed, crypto-fascist regimes previously linked to National Socialist Germany not only survived in Europe, and not only preserved good relations with the United States through their indulgent attitudes to NATO, but preserved undemocratic, violent, and exploitative systems of colonial rule in Africa. The Franco and Salazar regimes in Spain and Portugal had come to power in the 1930s, and Western governments (supported by Churchill) had declined the possibility of resisting the rise to power of a military authoritarian regime in Spain, transparently assisted by the German and Italian regimes. Truly altruistic support in the West for resistance to fascism at this stage had only come from a small minority of left-wing volunteers.[68] Continued Western indifference meant that the wars for independence in Mozambique and Angola were only won in part through the assistance of non-Western powers (notably Cuba), but mostly through the eventual collapse of Salazar’s system in the 1975 Portuguese Carnation Revolution. Given their long neutrality (if that), it was surely somewhat audacious of British and American governments to decide that they were then entitled to intervene in struggles within these countries about the successor regimes. These interventions, which were tacitly admitted to be unwise even by those responsible, helped to prolong conflicts which claimed over a million lives combined, and in the Angolan case lasted into the current century.[69] Little publicity has been given to dimensions of this conflict which has organic connections to the Second World War, and to Western ruling elites’ apathy about fascism, racism, and discrimination.[70]

Perspectives on altruism

To many the above observations will still seem ungrateful. If ongoing inequalities within Western societies and the wider world are still excused, the faults of the British Empire and British-American policy are now widely admitted. An influential historiography, and a wider popular understanding of history, still however suggests that these societies represented superior alternatives to their rivals. As Ferguson asserts: “The Rape of Nanking [in 1937] reveals precisely what the leading alternative to British rule in Asia stood for.”[71] British, American, and Western European citizens and others have many reasons to be grateful to the wartime generation of ordinary people, and even to administrators at the time. But this is still a matter of perspective, and a very partial perspective at that. No “British” government, intentionally, willingly or altruistically, “sacrificed” an empire, stopped perpetrating atrocities, or “stopped” atrocities occurring elsewhere (and certainly not “alone”). For a large number of the world’s inhabitants, 1945 was not so happy an ending.  Many the world over were not liberated, or at least not as quickly as they could have been, and faced the rapid imposition of new tyrannies, or the continuation of old ones, or, at best, their unwilling termination.  To draw attention to other stories beyond those most frequently told in the Western world is not pedantic or ungrateful. Losses of the opportunities for liberty are important aspects of the story of the Second World War, and from certain perspectives these were the most important story.  Racial attitudes prevalent at the time and influential upon governments contributed to these disasters.

A new version of The Dam Busters introduces an opportunity to engage not only with these other perspectives, but with the difficult task of representing history on film.  Contrary to the depiction of Britain in many films of this era, many Afro-Caribbean, African American, and Asian service personnel (some of them pilots) were stationed in Britain in 1943.[72] African Americans in particular interacted far more freely with the indigenous white population than would have been admitted in many of their home states (and these groups were indeed sufficiently numerous to occasion racist paranoia at an official level about alleged disruptive consequences for the nation’s sexual morals).[73 Notwithstanding Ramsden’s assertions, in this respect British war films of this era distort Britain’s past; pressures on filmmakers in 2012 to perpetuate this distortion can only be politically motivated.

And while the deaths of Gibson’s fellow pilots in the raid are treated sensitively and poignantly in the original Dam Busters, another significant hiatus concerns the lack of representation of casualties on the ground as a result of the raid. This is an important question not least because many of these victims were neither German nor willing contributors to the Axis powers’ war effort, instead comprising workers from nationalities such as the Dutch whom the Germans had conscripted.[74] The raids can still be justified in military, and, perhaps, moral, terms, and only political and military commanders, not ordinary pilots, had any choice about whether their missions compelled them to take civilian life. There is also a case for saying on ongoing grounds of “sensitivity” that images of corpses are not needed, in this or any other film. Nonetheless, if one’s concern is really for historical accuracy in cinema, the absence of recognition of the deaths of hundreds of people surely comprises a far more significant omission than one letter from a dog’s name.

Still more striking illustrations of limitations of conventional Western perspectives on the war can be illustrated. The incident associated with the greatest single loss of life on allied territory during the war, and indeed associated with a far bigger loss of life than that experienced by British civilian and military personnel in the war as a whole, or in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, was little acknowledged at the time, and is still surprisingly little known. This was the famine of 1943-5 in Bengal, still at the time part of the British colony of India.  t is not necessary here to become involved in historiographical debate regarding British administrative culpability in the effects of the famine[75]: instead of inspiring vilification of those on the scene at this particular famine, this episode also demonstrates how little has changed. This great calamity was not occasioned in military action, such as a bombing raid or an invasion—did not come in the Rape of Nanking, at Pearl Harbor, in the Normandy landings, or even at Stalingrad—but arose from malnutrition and starvation, phenomena still so routine to us that they continue to cause the biggest losses of life around the world today.

The widespread nature of racism and affinities with fascism around the time of the Second World War are far less significant than more recent noxious influence exerted by opinion-formers in present and ongoing crises. If it is naive to suppose that assumptions regarding racial inequality and entitlement did not limit efforts to alleviate the Bengal famine in 1943, it is surely also obvious that similar assumptions continue to lead many people throughout the world simply to accept similar losses of life in Africa and Asia today: British media outlets most outraged by the suggestion of altering Gibson’s dog’s name in the remake of The Dam Busters have indeed also recently been campaigning (with the support of the British Empire’s most high-profile historians)[76] for the cessation of Britain’s overseas aid budget, even notwithstanding the relatively limited nature of that budget (like the American equivalent).[77] This is a conjuncture which is very revealing regarding the alleged altruism and political innocence of British imperialism, and especially its latter-day venerators.[78]

The level of contingent indulgence which Barack Obama is prepared to offer the equivalent proposal in a U.S. context is still more alarming.[79] Changes in the type of language now deemed polite and acceptable in certain contexts should not distract us from how little we in subsequent generations have built upon the sacrifices made by individuals from the wartime generation from a diverse range of national, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, what a waste has been made of the liberty bequeathed to us at such great cost, and how the world is probably today a still more unjust place than it was. And if cinema is to be judged on the basis of the accuracy of its representation of the past, the failure of even supposedly radical Western cinema—not just in the 1950s but also today—to represent such devastating aspects of the war-time context comprises a somewhat more noteworthy omission than the accuracy of a dog’s name.[80]


G.K. Peatling, a contributing editor, worked in universities in Britain, the U.S., and Canada, before resigning his last such job to undertake volunteer work in Angola. He now works part-time with schools in eastern England.

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