A famous quote from the Vietnam War, alleged to have been made by a U.S. pilot but actually uttered by journalist Peter Arnett, was: “…it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” I was reminded of it when Bill O’Reilly on Friday May 8th destroyed Churchill in order to save him.
Intent on disproving Barack Obama’s non-quote of Churchill (“We don’t torture”; see “Obama, Churchill and Torture”), the Fox News Channel commentator, conducted an “investigation,” which turned out to be a phone call to a professor at Boston University, whose name I forget. Well, said the academic, Churchill wanted to use poison gas on the Germans in World War II, so….
The connection was not precise but the implication was clear: If Churchill was willing to gas the Wehrmacht, he would not have balked over waterboarding the odd terrorist. (O’Reilly did mention the British wartime “London Cage” detention facility, noted last week on this and about 100 other websites.)
Churchill published and archived 15 million words, and very occasionally even he chose the wrong one. Like many of his generation, he often said “poison gas” when he meant any one of a variety of gasses, some considerably less fatal than poison.
On 12 May 1919, faced with rebellious tribesmen in Iraq, Churchill wrote from the War Office:
I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas.
“Lachrymatory gas” is of course tear gas, but critics usually edit Churchill’s last sentence out, along with this later sentence in the same memo:
It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.
Likewise in World War II (1943) Churchill minuted his military chiefs:
I should be prepared to do anything that might hit the Germans in a murderous place. I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention. We could stop all work at the flying-bomb starting points.
Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life explains what the Prime Minister was talking about:
What he had in mind in this memo was mustard gas, “from which nearly everyone recovers.” He would use it only if “it was life or death for us” or if it would “shorten the war by a year.” To this end it might even be used on the Normandy beach-head. “It is absurd to consider morality on this topic,” he wrote, “when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course.”
It would be several weeks or even months, Churchill added, “before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas.” In the meantime he wanted the matter studied, he wrote, “in cold blood by sensible people, and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across, now here, now there.” The enquiries were made. It emerged that the Air Staff had already made plans for one-fifth of Britain’s bomber effort to be employed on dropping gas, if such a form of warfare were decided on. But the military experts to whom Churchill remitted the question doubted whether gas, of the essentially non-lethal kind envisaged by Churchill, could have a decisive effect, and no gas raids were made.
I note in Sir Martin’s next paragraph a poignant reminder of just who the real killers were at that time, and their gas of choice was Zyklon-B:
News had just reached London of the mass murder in specially-designed gas chambers of more than two and a half million Jews at Auschwitz, which had hitherto been identified only as a slave-labour camp.
Now mustard gas is pretty rough stuff, as a reader reminded me. According to Wikipedia,
…victims experience intense itching and skin irritation which gradually turns into large blisters filled with yellow fluid wherever the mustard agent contacted the skin. These are chemical burns and they are very debilitating. If the victim’s eyes were exposed then they become sore, starting with conjunctivitis, after which the eyelids swell, resulting in temporary blindness.
But Churchill was right when he wrote that this particular “poison gas” is one from which “nearly everyone recovers.” Of 164,612 British mustard gas casualties on the Western front, only 4,086 or 2.5% died. Chlorine in its later “perfected stage” killed nearly 20%.
Churchill had an abhorrence of torture for torture’s sake. Larry Kryske reminded me of Churchill’s remark about World War I in The World Crisis, vol. 1, page 11: “When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and these were of doubtful utility.”
In World War II, with London bombed by pilotless missles and the invasion of Europe an inevitable necessity, things evidently looked grimmer. “He would have done anything to win the war,” his daughter told me, “and I daresay he had to do some pretty rough things—but they didn’t unman him.”
Churchill said, “I like a man who grins when he fights.” O’Reilly grins, and some of his issues are worth considering. I do wish he would stop abbreviating his verbose book title as “Bold Fresh.” (Did Margaret Mitchell ever refer to her Civil War classic as “Gone With”?)
But please, Messrs. Obama and O’Reilly: if you’re going to quote Churchill or represent his thought, do a little research first.