Research Notes: Bomber Harris and the Banality of Ego (Part Two)

So, as anyone who knows me will attest, I have issues with brevity. Some people have a talent for the pithy 500-word article or post that gets right to the heart of a thought. I most emphatically do not … I am almost invariably digressive, finding my way down endless rabbit holes of thought, chasing the shiny objects of serendipity where they lead me. Some time ago I got in the habit of having at least two different-coloured pens at hand when I write in my journal; when my train of thought veers in a different direction, I switch pens. That way I have an obvious visual guide when I read over my notes highlighting where I change topics.

On the other hand, serendipity and digression have been my twin engines of discovery over the course of my fifty years, and given that I don’t have to chase large audiences, I get to indulge my tendencies on my blog, which really should have been named “Thinking Out Loud.”

All of which is by way of saying the second half of my original post has swelled to a point where I need to cut it in half, less for the sake of brevity than I pretty much move on to a new topic. So the original attempt at posting will now be in three parts.

As I said toward the end of part one of this post, I went back and forth a few times on whether to title these two posts “The Banality of Ego.” Why was I uncertain about that title? My main concern is that it will come across as a bit too cute and too clever by half; if perceived as glib it invites justifiable ire, given that it’s an allusion to the subtitle of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem. It’s also not exactly accurate insofar as that the needless death and destruction caused by Harris’ egoistic obstinance was not itself banal so much as catastrophic. On the other hand, Bomber Harris was hardly a sui generis personality. His particular blend of unearned self-assurance, cultural chauvinism, and bullying arrogance is something of which there are numerous other examples through Britain’s military and imperial history. That he rose to prominence in a system that rewards such an ego—which is not, to be clear, peculiar to Britain[1]—indicts the system as much as the individual. It is in this respect that my thinking is consonant with Arendt’s thesis.[2]

Arendt’s argument is that Adolph Eichmann—a Nazi functionary who’d escaped Europe at the end of the war only to be captured by the Mossad in Argentina in 1960 and shipped to Israel to stand trial for war crimes—embodied “the banality of evil.” Arendt, a German Jew who had fled the Nazi regime and made it to the U.S. in 1941, was assigned to cover Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker. Arendt was struck by how unremarkable Eichmann was: he was, as she described, a mediocrity of a mid-level manager who seemed befuddled by the gravity of his trial. The quotidian reality of his job was banal, a nine-to-five, paper pushing, number-crunching, form-filling job that organized the transport of millions of Jews from their homes to the death camps.[3] He seemed out of place: the antithesis of the kind of arrogant, defiantly villainous monster already becoming familiar in cinematic depictions of Nazis. What was truly horrifying was just how ordinary and unremarkable he was, how ordinary and unremarkable were the particulars of his job—in apparent contrast with the unthinkable horror he was instrumental in perpetrating. Except that, as Arendt realized in her reports, such a contrast was illusory; banality was not discordant but necessary in the organization of systematic mass slaughter.    

Her observations about the banality of both Eichmann the person and the job he had performed did not sit well with many people, who found Arendt’s thesis abhorrent. Personally, I have always found Arendt’s thesis persuasive; Eichmann in Jerusalem was for me one of those books that profoundly affected my perspective on the world. This indeed is the nub of why my mind snagged unpleasantly on Malcolm Gladwell’s breezy dismissal of Bomber Harris as a psychopath, and why I find myself writing several thousand words about his otherwise forgettable book: relegating the indiscriminate death and destruction of area bombing to the psychopathy of a single figure is too easy and exonerates everyone else.

People took umbrage with Arendt’s thesis in part because the very notion of banal evil seems a contradiction in terms. It offends the instinctive sensibility that tells us evil is necessarily exceptional. Arendt’s argument that evil on the scale perpetrated by Nazi Germany is necessarily systemic is an assertion that still offends a large number of people, not least because a corollary of systemic is complicit. The current furor over critical race theory in the U.S. is a case in point: the cynical political calculations involved with attacking it aside, it’s an easy target for conservative politicians because it is deeply discomforting for people to consider that they benefit from the legacy of slavery and the long history of racist policies designed to benefit whites. It is much more comforting to think of racism as an individual failing, especially when embodied in Hollywood’s caricatures of crapulescent chaw-chewing Southerners or hate-spitting Klansmen, who share with Nazis the cinematic appeal of being obviously evil.

I should note that I am uncomfortable with using the word “evil” in a straightforward or unproblematic way. There are a number of reasons for this, but two stand out: first, “evil” tends to connote a transcendent, otherworldly quality that identifies those it describes as somehow different in kind rather than degree.  Second, this understanding tends to eliminate nuance, as it renders evil necessarily exceptional, sui generis in its discrete instances in spite of its oft-lamented ubiquity. Arendt never downplays the monstrousness of the Final Solution and its principal architects, nor does she forgive or ameliorate Eichmann’s participation in its prosecution. Substitute “systemic” for “banal” and we begin to grasp the most instinctive objection to Arendt’s argument: not just the idea that evil could be banal, but that, being systemic, we are all potentially implicated.[4]

None of the foregoing is about equating Bomber Harris with the likes of Goebbels or Himmler, nor is it to offer some sort of twisted both-sidesism about WWII; nor is it to suggest that the greatest evils of the war were merely a function of thoughtless bureaucratic inertia. I am rather attempting to work through some of the knottier problems attached to thinking the Second World War, at least in terms of how we’ve come to represent it. I’ve fixed on Randall Jarrell’s bomber poems in part because they help elucidate the stark contrast between how art and literature grappled with the First World War versus how it engaged with the Second. To oversimplify for the sake of framing the question: why did so much great art come out of WWI and so little from WWII?

Part three will pose some thoughts in answer to that question.


[1] Whatever else we might say about Bomber Harris, he was vastly more competent than Hermann Goering.

[2] Though in truth it would be more accurate to say it is Arendt’s thesis and its influence on my thinking that shapes my own discussion here.

[3] Not for nothing, but this is what Stephen Spielberg got exactly right in Schindler’s List. The scenes of brutality and the psychopathy of Amon Göth, the commandant of Płaszów, are harrowing. But more insidiously present throughout the film are the legions of clerks with their pens and papers and blotters and portable desks, who appear at any point when a large number of Jews need to be processed.

[4] I wrote two fairly long paragraphs at this point in the post that explored this point in greater depth, but decided to leave them out, as they took my discussion down yet another rabbit hole. TL;DR: I explicated my point about complicity by way of the example of the pop cultural fascination with serial killers, both such fictional characters as Hannibal Lecter and real-world examples as Ted Bundy. They are attractive to the imagination, I suggest, because they appear to be embodiments of absolute evil, but our very fascination is an expression of complicity. Saving these thoughts possibly for a future post.

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