Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Canadian War Museum Controversy

The Canadian War Museum recently agreed to re-write a panel from one of its displays at the request of upset Canadian veterans. The panel read as follows:

"The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command's aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war."[1]

The decision by the Canadian War Museum has sparked a lot of debate, particularly in the historical field. Many people are upset that a lobby group has changed the history we will teach to our children. These same people point to the stacks of academic literature on the subject to show that there is in fact controversy over the morality of the Allied Bombing of Germany.

I support the War Museum’s decision.

Not because I think history should be censored, or that we should teach lies, or that we should let lobby groups tell us what to do, but because the panel is insensitive and it’s imbalanced.

It’s easy to be upset that a lobby group has gotten its own way on this one, but we need to remember that this isn’t the nameless, faceless tobacco industry. It’s men like this:


This is Don Elliot. He is one of the men who was involved with Bomber Command during WWII, and he is one of the men who complained about the exhibit. In an interview with CTV, he said the exhibit made him “feel very angry…It gives me the impression by the wording and photographs that they're implying I was a war criminal.”[3]

This isn’t a lobby group. This is a real man. And this exhibit is about him. In essence, this exhibit is inadvertently a biography of living persons. I’ll borrow from Wikipedia to show why this is important: “articles can affect real people's lives. This gives us an ethical and legal responsibility. Biographical material must be written with the greatest care and attention to verifiability [and] neutrality.”[4] If Wikipedia holds these standards for itself, then surely the Canadian War Museum should hold similar, if not more stringent guidelines.

But, just because someone is upset doesn’t mean they have been treated unfairly. It’s important that we determine if this passage is fair and merely shows two sides of the argument, or if it’s biased and depicts Don and his peers as war criminals, as he suggests. I think the best way to show this is to take the passage completely out of context and analyze it as a rhetorical entity:

"The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Mars remains bitterly contested. Space Laser-Squad’s aim was to crush civilian morale and force Mars to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Space Laser-Squad and Jupiterian attacks left 600,000 Martians dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in Martian war production until late in the war."


Was the Space Laser-Squad justified in its actions?

I’d be willing to bet none of you said yes.

But none of you know anything about the Space Laser-Squad. All you know about them is what you have read in this passage – in my museum exhibit. And I hope most of you can now see that my exhibit is biased. Given the information I have presented you with, it is very difficult to see the Space Laser-Squad in a good light.

This is because of emotionally charged words such as “dead” and “homeless” used to describe the Martians. These words become even more emotionally charged when you attach the numbers, “600,000” dead and “five million homeless.” And for what? “Small reductions in Martian war production.”

I cannot read this passage and come to any conclusion other than that the action of the Space Laser-Squad was wrong. There are no claims to balance the argument that might suggest – perhaps – the bombing was justified. And until it does, you are not providing insight into a controversy; rather, you are making a moral, value judgment against living persons. And that’s not what history does.

disclaimer: I acknowledge that the panel was part of a much larger display and has been taken out of context for the sake of this article.

[1] http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20070828/war_museum_070828/20070828?hub=CTVNewsAt11
[2] http://images.ctv.ca/archives/CTVNews/img2/20070418/160_museum_elliot_070418.jpg
[3] http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20070418/war_museum_070418?s_name=&no_ads=
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Biographies_of_living_persons

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Honestly, the "feelings" of our veterans are irrelevant.

That the missions, in retrospect, had little effect is also irrelevant. They were well intended, thought out strategies meant to destroy the morale of a nation. No one is comparing Allied bombing raids in the thick of the war to the Luftwaffe bombing raids on England, which were meant to soften up the country in advance of invasion. ANd no one is, either directly or indirectly, calling brave Allied pilots "war criminals".