An Anti-Imperialists Guide to Duxford
Since it is the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, I may as well mention briefly my recent visit to Duxford, a one time RAF airbase in Cambridgeshire which is now part of the Imperial War Museum and which markets itself modestly as 'Europe's Premier Aviation Museum'. If you have ever seen the 1969 film 'Battle of Britain' starring among others Ian McShane from Lovejoy/Deadwood then you will have seen part of historic Duxford being blown up for cinematic effect. If you happen to hail from anywhere within easy driving distance of Duxford then it is more than likely you will have grown up having made several visits to the place over the years, whether school trips or whatever. If you have never been to the place, which I guess is the majority of Histomat readers, then this post may give you a better idea of whether you might want to bother to make a visit or not.
I have only actually been to the main Imperial War Museum in London a couple of times I think and a very long time ago but I understand that generally speaking the impression it aims to generally rightly leave in the mind of most visitors is one of horror at the barbarism of imperialist warfare. Lets just say that I think it is fairly safe to guess that the impression that Duxford leaves in the minds of the most visitors is not quite this. Rather one is left with a kind of imperial nostalgia for the heroism displayed by RAF pilots during 1940, 'their finest hour' to quote Churchill, when 'never before in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few'. Duxford resembles a kind of shrine, a homage to 'the few'. It kind of caters for the fantasies of British schoolboys who dream of flying either Spitfires engaging in dogfights with Messerschmitt 109s - dreams that I guess some never really grow out of going by a quick look around at some of the other visitors to the place. It is not surprising that part of Duxford itself is actually an army recruitment display ill-disguised as a history of the Royal Anglican regiment.
In part this is of course inevitable, and even were a dedicated anti-imperialist placed in charge of the place it would still be difficult for it to promote any other kind of 'message'. Any museum is defined by what it has as exhibits - and Duxford has hangers full of old planes, centred around a core of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters - and my personal favourite of this ilk, the Short Sunderland, (that I even have a personal favourite is a slightly worrying tendency for any Marxist - feel free to pick me up over it in the comments box). Of course, as you might expect from 'Europe's Premier Aviation Museum', Duxford does have a whole range of planes from around the world - new and old - including Tony Benn's beloved Concorde - as well as other things such as mini submarines/tanks etc etc - which it has accumulated over the years.
However, any self-respecting anti-imperialist who found themselves for whatever reason visiting Duxford would do well to take note of three notable aspects of the 'experience'. Firstly, hidden away in the small section detailing the colonial troops at the disposal of the British Empire ( the black West Indian RAF members who fought in the Second World War for example are often forgotten - see here), there is a small tiny box that does admit that during the 1920s the RAF spent its energies er, 'Policing the Empire' which involved among other things bombing innocent people in er, Iraq and Afghanistan. I would guess about 90 percent of visitors miss this amid the general glorification of the RAF that is going on - still I guess we should be grateful it is there at all.
Secondly, largely because it is an ex- RAF airbase in East Anglia mostly centred around RAF planes, the dominant narrative one has of the Second World War itself is a quasi nationalist almost romantic focus on the British at war. Aside from a few Soviet tanks hidden away in the very farthest darkest corner of Duxford (visiting them was of course my personal highlight of the day, though admittedly a tank called 'Josef Stalin II' was less impressive sounding than the legend that is the T-34) the Russian people's resistance to Hitler's war machine which was so crucial to the eventual victory of the Allied Powers is all but absent. I would guess about 70 percent of visitors to Duxford never even find the Russian tanks, and few of those lucky few who do realise their significance.
The only other Russian artefacts I saw was a MiG fighter from the Cold War - and a rather quaint exhibit about Captain Augustus Agar, 'the Mystery VC' who it seems won a medal for torpedoing a Soviet cruiser and rescuing a British spy from Soviet Russia in 1919 - for a breathless account by the raving and rabid reactionary Andrew Roberts of the alleged 'heroism' of 'Operation Kronstadt', 'a feat out of the annals of Drake and Nelson' apparently, see here. What I liked about this exhibit was the way in which it naturally assumed that British forces had every right to be 'intervening' in the Russian Civil War as though St Petersburg was just off the Suffolk coastline or something, an assumption naturally shared by Andrew Roberts.
However, and perhaps most objectionably of all, over the last ten years or so slap bang in the middle of Duxford has appeared the American Air Museum:
The American Air Museum in Britain stands as a memorial to the 30,000 American airmen who gave their lives flying from UK bases in defence of liberty during the Second World War, and also honours those who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Libya, Iraq and other conflicts and battles of the 20th and 21st centuries. This outstanding example of contemporary British architecture houses the largest collection of American warbirds on display outside the United States, including a vintage B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B-25 Mitchell, P-47 Thunderbolt, and aircraft from the Cold War era such as a B-52 Stratofortress, SR-71 Blackbird and F-4 Phantom, with many suspended from the ceiling as if in flight.
This blog does not appreciate crude anti-Americanism. I once dug out a old pamphlet published by Ipswich Communist Party from the British Library written in about 1953 by the Marxist historian AL Morton, author of a People's History of England entitled bluntly 'Get Out!' - a litany of alleged corruption and abuses made by American service personel while in East Anglia during and after the Second World War. Naturally, I am against American military bases being in Britain and indeed elsewhere outside of well, America, (the New Statesman recently did a fascinating survey of the American bases that still exist internationally) - though the key problem is surely that they are military bases being used for imperialist purposes - rather than that they are American - something that the anti-Americanism of the old CP often didn't seem to grasp.
But that said, there is no doubt that if you happen to be looking for a celebration of the air-power of US imperialism outside of America itself, there is surely no better place to come than the American Air Museum - it truly aims to shock and awe. Throughout Duxford, of course pretty much all the exhibits are artefacts or symbols of imperialist barbarism in one way or another - yes, even the good old Soviet T-34 tank - and any decent human being often finds oneself thinking and wondering about the innocent people killed by this or that plane. Of course, the accompanying notes by each plane rarely encourage such a line of thinking but instead talk in euphemisms - 'this plane was used in counter-insurgency in the French colony of Algeria during the 1950s' - that sort of thing. In the centre of the American Air Museum is a massive B-52 Stratofortress bomber, one that was actually used in the Vietnam War. On its side are the huge number of 'successful' bombing missions marked by little bombs. Of course, I am sure there is a little sign somewhere in there retailing some of the horrors that this weapon of mass destruction inflicted upon the people of Vietnam (for 'balance'), just as they do mention in there somewhere the devastation left in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after American use of the atomic bomb. Nonetheless, it still remains that the B-52 is a symbol of actually existing barbarism and yet a whole museum is built around paying a kind of respect to this thing, as if to say 'don't mess with Uncle Sam or we will literally bomb the shit out of you'.
And yet, the contradiction stands out. The American Air Museum is full of highly technologically advanced killing machines and yet, and yet, for all this hardware they were unable to defeat the heroic ordinary peasants of Vietnam, just as Afghanistan is proving once again the graveyard of empires again today. Amid the horror and the barbarism on display at Duxford, there is at least one lesson of hope.
Edited to add: Mark Mazower on how war-time nostalgia blinds us to Britain's changed realities