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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2001
A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist
This book explores the history of bombing with a focus on those who were bombed, and the attitudes of those who did the bombing. It is not a technical history, but rather a moral history, along the lines of Jonathan Glover's book Humanity, although their emphases and styles are very different.
He draws from many sources to put together a view which is very unique, combining military history, literary history, and political history (especially of European colonies) with analyses of the development of international law regulating warfare and of politicians and officer's views of war. He also adds in autobiographical elements of his fear of attacks as a child during WWII. He follows the development of technologies of bombing, and the techniques of bombing that came along with them (localized to strategic to area bombing, with nuclear bombing of civilians being the culmination of this). He looks at many futuristic novels to see what people's attitudes were toward war and the massive annilhilation possible through bombing, and finds much racism, and also many predicitions of how destructive bombing would become. He looks at many military theoreticians and shapers of international law, both before and since the advent of planes and bombing, to see what has formed our views of what is acceptable in warfare, and how these laws have been bent and broken.
One of Lindqvist's main points is the element of racism in bombing, and how bombing was initially acceptable only when conducted against those who were not civlized, or less than human. Europeans became used to the idea of bombing in the colonies, and this paved the way for the massive bombing which first took place in "civilized lands" in WWII.
He does not shy away from criticizing those groups who are supposed to be the vanguard of civilization, such as the British and Americans. He discusses colonial interventions, and how bombing was integrated into the general program to civilize the "savages" of Africa and Asia. He points out how little value was given to the life of one of the colonized as opposed to one of the colonizers. Only with this inequality could bombing could be used as a police action (i.e., to put down rebellions) which was cheaper, in terms of money and lives--but only in terms of lives of the colonizers. This inequality also comes up when looking at international law. The laws concerning warfare, such as the Geneva conventions, were shaped during the period when Europeans held colonies. Even though these laws were put in universal terms, in practice they were only thought to apply to fighting between "civilized" countries, and not to what goes on in the colonies. Again, this inequality comes up with regard to national sovereignty, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
A large part of the book focuses on WWII, and he criticizes many of the choices of the Allied powers, such as area bombing and firebombing in Germany, firebombing and nuclear bombing in Japan. Some people may therefore find this book one-sided, but remember that this is the side that historically has not been heard. Also, he places WWI and WWII against the history of imperialism, of the Europeans and the Japanese, which makes it clear that he is not a supporter of any specific country, but concerned with the effects of warfare on people at large, whoever and wherever they may be, and even if they are citizens of an enemy country.
P.S. The structure of the book is really interesting. It is split into many short sections that have more or less a single point, and are centered around an event or person. These are placed in chronological order, but the book only makes sense if you read it following one of 23 strands he identifies, each focusing on different aspects of the history (i.e., "Bombing the Savages", "Hamburg, Auschwitz, Dresden", "Massive Retaliation", etc.). In this way, as you move through history, forward and backward, you flip through the book, which helps emphasize the historical placement of the events and ideas, and allows him to touch on a lot of different topics without the book becoming a mess.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2007
As the translator of the book, I probably don't count as an unbiased reviewer. But I learned a great deal in reading and translating it, and I think it is quite ingenious and also devastating. An important book. I wanted to say that the book's English title is considerably more sedate and formal than the Swedish title. Readers like the ones expecting a traditional military history might have been misled by the publisher's decision to omit the Swedish title: "Bang! You're Dead! The Century of Bombing" in favor of a more graspable "The History of Bombing." You may judge for yourself the impact of the original title versus the changed one.
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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2001
Lindqvists work a history of bombing is a major achivment of the human mind. The greatest about Lindqvists books is his use of such an wide perspective and view on history from so many different perspectives. Many regular historians are so caught up in their own subject and narrow perspective, that they don't see beyond the narrow limits of the traditional role of the academic historian. Lindqvist use fiction littature to give us a view of how ideas of extermination and mass destruction was widley spread and a part of the basis of western thought in the period 1850-1950. This is a powerfull insight, becuse many of us today deny this and say it was just a minority who shared those beliefs, when in fact it was the opposite, the majority accepted those ideas only a tiny minority spoke out against them. By using fiction littature Lindqvist shows that the ideas of genocide was not anti-western, it was an integrated part in the western civilization. With his different perspective and use of fiction, it is always refrhing to read his books. In a history of bombing you follow the terrible history of bombing from its beginnings in colonial warfare, by those who set out to civilize inferior peoples. But in Europe it was still taboo to use the same methodes of warfare against civilized europeans. But then those ideas who came from the subjection of non european peoples around the world, arrived to Europe. In the ultimate nightmare of modern warfare, in the second world war, bombing of civilians became a legitimate form of warfare. Hitlers new empire was ruled on the basis of a colonial empire, racial imperialism. Germany would use eastern Euroe as a vast colonial empire, were racially inferior people would work for the new masters.
Hitler was crushed in with him the idea of racial imperialism. But as Linqvist shows in the enviorment of the escalating cold war, and the colonies struggle to gain independence barbarious acts of bombing continued. Mass bombing continued in the colonies, but was stopped when the public in the western world realized its horrors. As Lindqvist writes, bombing of civilins could not stand the view of the public eye. In Korea and Vietnam, mass bombing of civilians became a way for the US to contain communism. But as protests agiainst the bombing in Vietnam intensified the United States lost its public support abroard and at home.Now with recent events in the Gulf war and after, Lindqvists survey of bombing history is needed. Today, as in the the old days there are those who once again claim that bombing could be an efficient way to wage low cost wars wihout casulties. A view of the history of the horrors of mass bombing should be a refreshment to the memory, and will hopefully put the supporters of the bombs in minority status, should they gain momentum once again then you are dead, like the millions before you.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2008
This is a book I read a long time ago and it stuck with me afterwards - it's got an unusual nonlinear structure (the short segments are arranged roughly chronologically, but you read them non-sequentially as the author mixes history, personal anecdote, etc). This structure could be seen as a gimmick, but I felt it worked well to create a work whose whole felt greater than the sum of its parts. Other reviewers have faulted the book as a "History of Bombing" - but the intention was not to write a history as such. As a rumination on the human predilection for war, past, present, and (sadly) future it's a worthwhile journey.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2010
This is a great book, but very hard to take. I found could only be swallowed in small doses. But I promise you, no matter how much you think you know about the military history of the 20th century, you will be faced with a lot of new, and very disturbing material. Probably should be required reading in the US and UK.

As one reviewer pointed out, it is a bit like bull fighting from behind the barricades, but that really only applies to the first couple years of WWII. Admittedly Churchill was faced with an almost hopeless situation in 1939-41, and probably gets a pass on his decisions in that window, but that is a very small portion of the material covered in this book.

Those interested in the question of how Britain and Germany initiated bombing of one another's cities, should read RV Jones great book The Wizard War: British Scientific Intelligence, 1939-1945 (titled The Most Secret War in UK), which gives a somewhat different take on how that decision took place. In his telling Hitler made a terrible mistake in shifting from tactical bombing of British airfields, which was taking a serious toll on the RAF, to bombing London and other cities. If he had kept pounding the fighter bases, he might have won the Battle of Britain.
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15 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2003
... That such people disapprove of this book makes me proud to number it among my favorites. Alright, alright, I WILL focus on the book but I'm allowing myself some potshots.The book is unabashedly pacifist but not so at the expense of intellectual rigor. It is a fair critique that the author has an anti-war bias, so S.O.F. types need look no further unless they are interested in, God forbid, understanding a point of view that might disagree with their own and learning a thing or two. Rather than prattle on in the usual bleeding heart hyperbole the author presents an almost legalistic case for his ideas. He is anti-war, but it is important to note what KIND of war the he inveighs against in this book, namely, the large-scale killing of civilians from the air simply because they ARE civilians, not merely of the other side, but of a lesser, somehow inhuman, group of beings. This is where the author's chilling insight into the strategic bombing mindset is most profound. A previous reviewer implies that though large-scale bombing of civilians began in WW1 it should be exempt from the book because it was only "white on white." What this fails to recall about the actual point of the book is: the author argues that such a thing happened precisely because the European powers were able to think of each other in an almost racist fashion. Racism, or more accurately, dehumanization, is the necessary step in this scenario. He presents evidence that this process with had begun with the pre-WW1 use of bombing against civilians in colonial uprisings and was only accelerated between the wars and afterwards.The author's main premise is that an inhumane mindset, be it racist, colonial, or what have you, is a prerequisite for the acceptance of the bombing the civilians by governments or by individuals, whether passively or actively. I don't think the author would argue with the assertion that 9/11 was a direct consequence of such a mindset, further, that Gen. Curtis LeMay and Osama bin Laden might have something in common: they both showed complete disregard for the lives of innocents in the accomplishment of their strategic goals. What is most compelling about the book is the way it demonstrates thoughout history the temptation to use bombing simply because one can; how early Science Fiction racist pulp novel fantasies had an ugly way of coming true, in some form, all through the 20th century, much the same way "The Turner Diaries" were horrifically actualized at Oklahoma City.Apart from all the rubarb of whether any of this is gospel truth, the author has a fascinating and truly poetic way of trying to prove a point. The book flows in fragments and you are forced to read it in pieces by jumping around from numbered section to numbered section instead of page by numbered page, like you were reading random articles from a newspaper. I have'nt read it yet "out of order," that is, by page number in sequence, but I think it must be something like a vast version of "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot, only much more heart- breaking and closer to home.If you are interested in an invigorating, disturbing (no matter what side of the political fence you read from) and thought-provoking read, give this book a chance.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 2012
The print size of the Granta issue of A History Of Bombing is unconscionably small, readable but painfully so for someone who otherwise has no problem with relatively small print. If you have any issues with small print stay away from this edition. I intend to do so.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2003
As far as I can tell, all the reviewers agree that sven lindqvist has done some incredible research for this book. He does envision a world without war. While most people cannot imagine such a world, this book is written in a way that encourages the reader to see that history unfolds in unpredictable ways. Things that once seemed commonplace now seem CRAZY, and ideas that once seemed crazy now seem commonplace. I think that the reviewer who says that the white on white bombing of WWII contradicts Lindqvist's ideas about the racialism of aerial bombing's social history has missed the point. Lindqvist shows that history only reached this point because earlier europeans who were using bombs to subdue their colonies could not really IMAGINE white on white bombing, so they did not support laws that would outlaw or regulate aerial bombing. A lack of imagination can be a terrible thing. Although all of us suffer from a lack of imagination at times, this book gave me hope. I hope that future generations will see war as an absurd and antiquated phenomena. That would be cool, don't you think?
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on September 16, 2015
This book was the most confusing and poorly constructed that I have ever tried to read. Don't waste your money.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2013
Sven Lindqvist's "A History of Bombing" is a commentary on the social, historical, political and military developments that led to the rise of aerial bombing in the 20th century. Lindqvist's pastiche of historical sources, literature, and his own autobiographical story is a terrific alternate vision of the 20th century and the powers that dominated it, with bombing the main power they used.

The first thing you need to know about "A History of Bombing" is about the way it is written: it is a unique format of different threads that weave and connect through the 186 page frame. The book itself is divided into 386 short sections, entangled and jumbled throughout. After you read Section 1, it directs you to Section 166. So you flip there, read that section, then continue down the line. The reason is to show all the twisted strands of logic: political and military, social and literary, that led to the acceptance and development of brutal aerial bombing as the status quo. You could also just read it back to front, which is what I did the second time because I missed several sections.

The book describes - and this I didn't know much about - how after World War I the European powers bombed colony after colony to continue to assert their dominance across the globe. For example, in 1919 a British government administrator by the name of Winston Churchill was delighted to crush a rebellion in Somaliland, estimated to take a year by the army, in a week's time at the cost of only 77,000 pounds. Later, Churchill is concerned when the Air Force summarizes a raid in modern day Iraq in which they are happy that many of native families: "...jumped into a lake, thus making a good target for the machine guns." This is at the beginning of the long tradition of European using brutal aerial bombing missions to target "uncivilized" savages that happen to reside in the colonies they are desperate to keep.

From there Lindqvist continues through the 20th century, describing the theories that preceded World War II and the actions before and immediately thereafter. Here he expands his theory that aerial bombing is an extension of racist ideologies - that the horrors of bombing are normalized by making the victims subhuman: whether the uncivilized savages throughout Indochina and Africa, the Nazis bombing the subhuman Slavs of Soviet Union, Japan bombing China or the United States firebombing Japan. He continues to describes the inadequacy of bombing campaigns in the second half of the 20th century - the misery of Korea, the loss by France and England of Kenya/Vietnam/Algeria/Malaysia/et al despite very successful bombing campaigns, and the quagmire of Vietnam. Lindqvist touches on what Alistair Horne best describe in "A Savage War of Peace," that each of those bombing campaigns in British and French colonies did more to create terrorist and to counteract positive political than to "win the war." The wars had become protracted guerrilla campaigns, with military successes and political and social losses. The First World can keep bombing, and continue losing. In the background Lindqvist tracks the growth of nuclear arms to the point of Mutually Assured Destruction, and all the insanity of military planning at the heigh of the Cold War. Lindqvist ends on a warning note, that the First World lifestyle is not sustainable and the genocides of the 21st century lie in the disparities of wealth that now exist.

Some important things to mention. First off, Lindqvist is much harsher on Western powers than Eastern powers. I assume because of lack of archival information, he does not touch on bombing campaigns of the Soviet Union and Red China, and only briefly mentions the Japanese blitz bombing of Shanghai in 1933. That doesn't lend itself to a fair balanced account of the 20th century. Did the Soviet and China not use aerial bombing to put down rebellions in their own territory?

Secondly, and this is important to American readers, Lindqvist is critical of American and British military planners to the point of calling them war criminals. Specifically, he blames them for the adoption of area bombing of residential centers rather than the precision bombing of industrial targets. This led to the catastrophic destruction and decimation of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and many others. Sure, it is clear now that precision bombing of Germany's industries would have led to their surrender sooner; specifically ball bearing factories and lubricant plants that were the nuts and bolts of the Wehrmacht's Panzers. But hindsight is always 20-20; these planners didn't ask for this war, and clearly they thought what they were doing was best.

That's where my belief differs slightly from Lindqvist. If you start a fight with a stranger in a bar, can you blame him if he pulls a knife and stabs you? Obviously that wouldn't hold up in a court of law, but the idea is that once you open Pandora's Box, you can't freak out when some monsters come out. Yes, it was clear to some that area bombing civilians would not hasten the end of the war. But it's war! Things are stressful, bad decisions are made, terrible strategies are pursued. Let's not group the military planners of countries that were not the aggressors with the Tojos and Mussolinis and Hitlers of the world, that actively pursued death and destruction for material and political gain. I don't agree with the Western Power's use of bombing throughout the Third World, but who is more at fault for Tokyo being firebombed? The Americans that dropped the bombs, or the Japanese that started the war.

The other thing to mention is Lindqvist's dissection of end of the world literature. This did not do much for me, and did not interest me. I also didn't think it added much strength to any of his arguments - was much more interested in things that actually happened rather than some crazy literature from the 1920's.

My caveats aside, "A History of Bombing" is a unique treatise that breaks down the development and rise of aerial bombing from 1911 to today. Now it has become the staple of our military, possible in "Call Of Duty" and shown on CNN via cruise missile gonzo footage. Read it to learn more about the wars of the 20th Century, including the stuff that didn't make your high school history book. Lindqvist is a smart man and does a great job showing how the 20th century became a bombing century and how "global violence is the hard core of our existence."
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