Raf Bomber Command Memorial Address Essay

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That 55,573 men of the RAF's Bomber Command died in the second world war is one of those statistics that leaves you feeling bewildered and hollow. It is, to give some measure of it, almost as many as the total losses of all American forces in the Vietnam war. Still more bewildering is that hundreds of thousands of civilians, both German and of other nationalities, were killed by their actions. If they had been gunned down by infantry it would count as the greatest ever atrocity by the British military but, owing to a convention that still applies, death descending from above is considered less terrible than death that arrives horizontally.

It is a hard subject to memorialise – to recognise at once the courage and loss of airmen, and the awfulness of the thing they were told to do – the more so as the debate will never end as to whether bombing civilian targets was then the best or only available way of speeding the defeat of the Nazis. This is why it has required so many years since the war – and the enthusiastic support of former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft, and the late Bee Gee Robin Gibb – to get a memorial to Bomber Command built.

There is some question as to whether it should have been built at all, given that there are already eloquent air force memorials at Runnymede and on the Victoria Embankment. There is also a statue of Bomber Command's leader, Bomber Harris, erected after much debate in the Strand. If it had to be built, you might hope for some nuance, some recognition of moral complexity, some regret, some invitation to reflection. Unfortunately the memorial, which the Queen will open on Thursday, offers none of those things.

Its tone is defiant and triumphant, using quotations from Churchill and Pericles to justify the bombings. Its location in central London is explained on the debatable grounds that attacking German cities was the best way of sparing London from further bombing. It is big; bigger than, for example, the memorial to the Battle of Britain on the banks of the Thames. Its style is amnesiac classical, with ranks of Doric columns surmounted by a weirdly puny balustrade, a version of historic architecture that never precisely existed, but is also oblivious to anything that might have happened, culturally or technologically, in the last several decades.

Obliviousness, in fact, is its guiding principle – to history, but also to its setting on the edge of the lush, rolling landscape of Green Park, whose informality and lack of pomp is the opposite of the rigid memorial. By all relevant principles of planning it should not have been built here, as the erosion of the city's most important green stuff is, with good reason, usually opposed. If it had to be built, its architect Liam O'Connor should at least have fulfilled the promise he makes on his website: "We are committed to enhancing the contexts of the locations in which we build by sensitive layout and appropriate architecture." There's not much sign of such things here.

It also has trouble with something less lovely than the park: a concrete underpass that descends in front of it. O'Connor has chosen to make the memorial a symmetrical portico, a form that suggests an axial approach that immediately stubs its toe on the transport engineering. As the underpass was here first, a more responsive kind of architecture might have reconsidered its options and thought of something that worked better, but it is in the nature of this kind of classicism that it is not responsive. Rather, like a stubborn marshal, it directs its relentless symmetries into battle regardless of obstacles. It is an inadvertent echo of the fixed thinking that directed the flattening of German cities.

O'Connor is one of a group of classicising architects who blossom in proximity to royal palaces, where they are suddenly fertilised as by a rich humus by the favour of the Prince of Wales, and he is not the worst. His memorial has some kind of simplicity, at least, which compares favourably to the Gilbert and Sullivan additions recently made to Kensington Palace. But it still reeks of the application of special favours, and the suspension of judgment, that gave us the nearby Queen Mother Gates, still laughable 19 years after they were built.

The result is a work of wishing away, of ignoring time, place and moral difficulty. The possibility of achieving something even slightly like the Vietnam memorial in Washington, which also had to recognise heroism applied to a questionable purpose, was ruled out from the start. There, many veterans expressed a wish for something classical, but once Maya Lin's reflective wall of names was installed, few wished it to be otherwise. I don't want to deny old men, who endured more than we can imagine, the ability to remember. But there could have been better ways than this.

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