ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms
Books and Musings08 Mar 2008

I’m reading “Disturbing the Universe”, the autobiography of physicist Freeman Dyson. The principle aim of the book, he says, is to “describe to people who are not scientists the way the human situation looks to somebody who is a scientist.”

Dyson came of age in the second-world-war Britain and wrote the book in America after the Vietnam war, so he’s seen a lot of the human situation, much of it ugly.

In his early twenties, Dyson worked as a civilian advisor to Britain’s Bomber Command, and was responsible for trying to improve the rate of losses among Lancaster crews who went to bomb Berlin. The odds were atrocious: the chance of a bomber crewman surviving his 30 mission tour of duty were at around 30%.

After carrying out a statistical study that showed there was no correlation between experience and survival rates (turned out the Germans had learned to attack from the blind spot underneath the bombers with special guns), Dyson and his colleagues argued for changes in how the bombers operated.

Since the number of planes lost on a mission depended largely on whether the bombers were intercepted or not, the civilians proposed removing the top and tail gun turrets and reducing the crew from 7 to 5. The reduction of weight would translate into a 50 mph top speed improvement for the bombers, giving them a better chance to get in and out ahead of a fighter response, and, most importantly to Dyson, the change would “at least save the lives of the gunners.”

The idea of sending the bombers out “unarmed” was so against the thinking of Bomber Command that they refused to even try a test with a few squadrons. Still, the anecdote is a great example of how sometimes an analytical mind can look at the numbers and come up with a solution that ends up being more humane than the one arrived at by human intuition. I’m reminded of an article I read once (sorry, I’ve forgotten where) that said Bill Gates showed this kind of thinking when he decided to funnel his charitable donations into fighting malaria. When was the last time you heard anyone appealing for donations to fight malaria? As a cause it’s a non-starter. And yet, Malaria kills as many as 3,000,000 people a year, mostly in developing countries.

Musing on how at the end of the Second World war, Bomber Command had little to fight for while the Luftwaffe were defending their own homes and cities from firebombing, Dyson has some words that George Bush ought to hear as he vetoes another torture ban.

A good cause can become bad if we fight for it with means that are indiscriminately murderous. A bad cause can become good if enough people fight for it in the spirit of comradeship and self-sacrifice. In the end it is how you fight, as much as why you fight, that makes your cause good or bad.

I don’t see how the truth of war can be told any better than that.

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