The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy Against Mike Davis

UC Irvine history prof Mike Davis cant write a damn thing without the nuts going nuts. This time, the controversys over an obscure reference to Winston Churchill.

Photo by James BunoanUntil recently, the sperm of UC Irvine professors was not among the many subjects covered in the pages of The Guardian, one of England's leading daily newspapers. But there it was in John Sutherland's Sept. 30 column: "Tell Me Lies About Iraq: Politicians, generals and authors are all fighting the fiercest battle of all—to make us believe their side of the story."

Despite the column's title, no politician's statements are scrutinized. No general is mentioned. And the examination of authors is limited to one: UC Irvine history professor Mike Davis.

Sutherland accuses Davis of aligning himself with the forces of darkness by using his new book, Dead Cities: And Other Tales, to poison the public debate in the U.K. over a "preemptive" war against Iraq. "The Iraqi lie factories are in full production," Sutherland writes. "Davis has his product out early."

This is strange because Dead Cities isn't about Iraq. But then Sutherland isn't actually attacking Davis for anything he has written about Iraq. Instead, he's infuriated by something Dead Cities reveals in passing about the late, great Winston Churchill in a chapter on the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Sutherland is so upset he uses 14 of the column's 15 paragraphs to attack Davis as a scholar and a person, in a way that is remarkable for its sneering disregard for the truth and for its incompetence.

Davis says Dead Cities is a study of "'the radical contingency of cities,' as well as the Urban West." One of the book's "dead cities" is the German Village, whose remains still stand at the Dugway Proving Ground. The U.S. Army Air Corps constructed the German Village during World War II to determine the best way to bomb Germany. "Best" in this context means "most destructive," and "Germany" means "German civilians."

And this is where Churchill enters the story.

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Winston Churchill was an enthusiastic proponent of bombing civilians, as Davis amply documents. Specifically, Churchill was a proponent of bombing poor and working-class neighborhoods. The "mansions of the Nazi political and industrial elites" were off-limits because, as Davis neatly puts it, "this risked retaliation against Burke's peerage"—that is, the British aristocracy and landed gentry, including Churchill's own family. Middle-class neighborhoods were considered poor targets because the space between the homes made it harder for bombs to produce maximum damage. But the crowded conditions of working-class neighborhoods were perfect.

Churchill even had preferences when it came to selecting the working-class targets to be bombed: he liked targeting maps that flagged neighborhoods known to have voted communist before the war. The communists were, of course, Hitler's traditional enemies, but then again, they were also Churchill's. From the beginning of his political career to the boozy twilight of his life sponging off rich friends, Churchill maintained a suspicion of and hostility toward working-class radicals. (His famously inflexible stand against the Nazis lacked that lengthy pedigree. As the historian David Dutton notes in his recent study of Neville Chamberlain, "As late as 1937, he [Churchill] even seemed willing to give Hitler the possible benefit of the doubt. Accepting that history was full of examples of men who had risen to power by 'wicked and even frightful methods' but who had gone on to become great figures, enriching the 'story of mankind,' he held out the possibility that 'so it may be with Hitler.'" Note to those of you who slept through history class: 1937 was four years after the Nazis seized power, 12 years after the publication of Mein Kampf, and 14 years after Hitler first appeared on the world scene in the infamous Beer Hall Putsch.)

Churchill, of course, didn't advocate bombing the so-called "Red Belts" out of some desire to indulge his political prejudices. But it was those prejudices—his belief in the inherently disloyal and dangerous nature of working-class radicals—that made him favor those specific targets. He was sure that a campaign of terror bombing would turn German against German and help bring down the Nazi state. He was wrong. If anything, Churchill's bombs encouraged many of the Red Belts' citizens to embrace their enemies, the Nazis.

The remains of the German Village at Dugway are an eerie reminder of that failed campaign. Dugway was the junction where the British enthusiasm for bombing civilians met the Yankee ingenuity that made the bombing ever more destructive. For the most part, the leadership of the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) was appalled by the Royal Air Force's (RAF) policies regarding the bombing of German civilians; the bombing of Japanese civilians was a slightly different matter. But the research and development projects run by the USAAC helped make that bombing increasingly terrible. The German Village was specifically designed—with the help of fire experts from Standard Oil—to help the Allies learn the best way to burn German working-class housing stock. The German Village experiment led to one conclusion: no one is better at burning cities than Americans. The British had nothing comparable to our M-69 napalm, which we dutifully supplied to the RAF.

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The incendiaries weren't Dugway's top priority among bombs. That distinction belongs to the N-bomb project. This is where Sutherland raises his objection that Davis is using Dead Cities to blacken Churchill's good name.

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