Review | ‘Bomber’ is one of the greatest British antiwar novels ever written

This essay is excerpted from the introduction to a new edition of Len Deighton’s “Bomber,” being published in print by Grove Press and as an audiobook by Pushkin Industries.

“We British are not an imaginative people,” the activist Vera Brittain wrote, in the opening sentence of her 1944 book “Seed of Chaos.” “Throughout our history wrongs have been committed, or evils gone too long unremedied, simply because we did not perceive the real meaning of the suffering which we had caused or failed to mitigate.”

Brittain was referring to the decision during the Second World War by Arthur Harris, head of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, to send hundreds of planes, night after night, to bomb the residential neighborhoods of German cities. Harris was resolutely unsentimental about his decision. He once wrote that it “should be unambiguously stated” that the RAF’s goal was “the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany … the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale.” His nickname was “Butcher” Harris, a sobriquet employed with a certain grudging respect, on the understanding that butchers can be useful in times of war. Harris was a psychopath. Twenty-five thousand people in Cologne once burned to death, in one night, on his orders. And Vera Brittain’s point was that the people of England acquiesced to his decision because they did not have the imagination to appreciate what those deadly bombing campaigns meant to those on the ground.

Brittain was a novelist, a prominent member of London’s cultural scene, and when she referred to the British public’s acquiescence as a failure of imagination, she was locating the failure, at least in part, with the community she belonged to: the custodians of the national imagination. This is one of the functions of art, after all: to help us envision what would normally be lost to us. If, during the Second World War, someone in her circle had written the great anti-bombing novel, it would have made her very happy. And it turns out somebody did, only not for another 25 years: Len Deighton’s “Bomber,” one of the greatest British anti-war novels ever written.

Len Deighton was born in 1929 in London, two years before John le Carré, the novelist to whom he is often compared. Deighton wrote about cooking and worked as an illustrator before publishing his breakthrough bestselling thriller, “The IPCRESS File,in 1962. He went on to write several more books involving the protagonist of “The IPCRESS File,” the truculent and cynical Harry Palmer. The early Deighton novels are very good, but they are very much genre exercises. “Bomber” was much more ambitious. Anthony Burgess named it one of the top 100 English-language novels of the postwar period, putting Deighton in the same company as Naipaul, Nabokov, Bellow, Roth and Salinger. Burgess also put Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” on his list, and it’s tempting to put “Bomber” and Heller’s classic side by side, as variations on the same theme. In “Catch-22,” John Yossarian is a bombardier in an American bombing crew, who can no longer stomach the depravity he is asked to do. But Heller was a satirist. “Catch-22,” amidst all of its bleakness, is funny. The role of Yossarian was played in the Mike Nichols adaptation by Alan Arkin, a comedian. At the heart of the novel is the moral prank played by the Air Force on its own men. (Remember? You have to be crazy to fly combat missions. Except that if you are crazy you can’t fly. You can only fly if you are sane. But if you are sane, you could never bring yourself to fly, because you have to be crazy to fly combat missions!) “Catch-22” is a war novel that isn’t really about war. It has much grander ambitions than that.

But “Bomber” is very much a war novel. In its depictions of the mechanics of aerial combat and military aviation, it is as meticulous and detailed as a work of history. “Bomber” isn’t humorous. Deighton is not a satirist — except for the occasional sly aside.

(I can’t resist quoting this little bit, where Deighton is describing an RAF intelligence officer at the base where half the book is situated: Flying Officer Longfellow, graduate of Cambridge and middling novelist. “It was a murder mystery,” Deighton writes of Longfellow’s first book:

… set in a Cornish tin mine, and although he modestly referred to it as a whodunit he had inserted the description “a psychological study in depth of the mind of the criminally insane” into the publisher’s blurb. The Scotsman found it promising, the Observer thought it had grip, but a left-wing weekly said that “handmade and thus readily identifiable cigarette ends have become a careless vice among the sort of villains who people this year’s mediocre detective fiction.”

Not enough people read Len Deighton these days. Which is a shame.)

“Bomber” is first-class mid-century realism. Deighton sets up his story slowly and carefully. One half of the novel is set at an air force base in England, the other half set in a German town that lies in the path of one of Harris’s bombing runs. We meet people on both sides, described with equal amounts of care and generosity. Deighton has no tricks up his sleeve. We can see the devastating collision between these two worlds coming a mile away — which does not, I should add, diminish its impact in the slightest.

Could “Bomber” be written today? Probably not. Some of the reasons are practical. Deighton wrote the book at a time when the people who experienced the world he was describing were still alive. You can feel that proximity in his pages: “Bomber” has the kind of granularity that comes when a novelist has living memories. At the same time, the particular absurdity that Deighton is highlighting no longer exists today. “Butcher” or “Bomber” Harris engaged in what the English military euphemistically described as “area bombing” — that is to say, the wholesale destruction of cities and towns — because the bombing crews of that era simply weren’t accurate enough to hit strategic targets. If you cannot hit power plants and weapons factories and ammunition depots with any precision, then you make a virtue out of indiscriminately leveling neighborhoods. “Butcher” Harris pretended his tactics served some greater military purpose. They didn’t. Area bombing was just a fancy term to describe what you do when you can’t do what you actually want to do.

Today, of course, we can hit power plants and weapons factories and ammunition depots with precision. And when a country — like Russia, in the Ukrainian war — hits apartment buildings and hospitals with their bombs, it’s because they chose to, and the rest of us, as a result, have permission to judge them by their intentions. But in the aerial campaigns of the Second World War, what was the value of judging intentions? Very little of what anyone intended ever happened. By the 1960s, in the UK, the full history of WWII was starting to trickle out, and it was becoming obvious that the bombing campaigns against Germany that were crowned in glory during the war were actually stupid, bloody, ill-conceived wastes of resources and human life: The efforts of Harris and his cohorts did not speed the end of the war, they probably prolonged it. Deighton wrote in the spirit of that revisionism. What he was trying to do with “Bomber” was help us imagine the human tragedy that comes out of error, incompetence and over-reach. Vera Brittain would have been proud.

There is a statue of Arthur Harris in central London, in the Strand, in front of Saint Clement Danes Church. It was erected in 1992. Harris stands tall and proud, in all his fatuous glory. The plaque reads:

In memory of a great commander and of the brave crews of Bomber Command, more than 55,000 of whom lost their lives in the cause of freedom. The nation owes them all an immense debt.

When the shrine to Harris was unveiled by the Queen Mother, in 1992, an angry crowd gathered at the ceremony and shouted “mass murderer.” I make a point of visiting Harris’s statue every time I’m in London, just to remind myself what arrogance and venality look like. The next time I go, I think I’ll leave a copy of “Bomber” on the pedestal.

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker. He is the author of “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” “The Bomber Mafia” and other books. He is a co-founder of Pushkin Industries, which produces his podcast “Revisionist History.”

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