On This Day in 1938: Broadcast “Air Raid” Assaults Like Sontag’s 9/11 Tirade

Sunlight and shadows across my
copy of MacLeish’s Air Raid

Well, only yesterday I wrote about the potentialities of broadcasting and blogging as means and modes of connecting with the world. Today I am going to mark the anniversary of an execrable “disconnect” by relating it to a disturbing episode in my life, a moment of outrage in a period of confusion and despair. Ready?

On this day, 27 October, in 1938, the Columbia Workshop laid an intellectual egg of such poor taste that I sometimes felt the only proper way of connecting to it would be to hurl it right back at its author, the American poet-pamphleteer Archibald MacLeish. The play produced by and broadcast over the US radio network CBS was “Air Raid,” an exercise in propagandist verse. Like “The War of the Worlds”, which aired a few days later over the same network, “Air Raid” entered the anti-fascist debate and commented on the political tensions then mounting in Europe by exploiting and fueling the anxieties of an American public divided between battle cries and isolationism. The nation’s enemies, such plays told in the abstract language to which pre-war radio playwrights were bound to adhere, were not quite so distant as to render their attacks futile.

In “Air Raid,” MacLeish went so far as to hold civilians whose lives were threatened or lost in fascist offensives responsible for their inaction. As in the previously discussed “Fall of the City,” the audience is taken to the scene of terror, listening in as carefree women, heedless of the warnings they receive, ar e going about their daily affairs until blown to bits by machine guns fired from above. The announcer, observing the raid from a secure post, reports and comments on the execution:

There’s the signal: the dip: they’ll
Dive: they’re ready to dive:
They’re steady: they’re heading down:
They’re dead on the town: they’re nosing:
They’re easing over: they’re over:
There they go: there they—

His coverage of the event is cut short by the stammering guns and the shrieking of women and ends in a boy’s calling of my name: “Harry! Harry! Harry!” I did not require such a prompt to feel personally offended.

MacLeish intellectualizing of terror and patronizing of the terrorized is the kind of disastrous argument that reminded me of Susan Sontag’s words shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center. In an article published in the New Yorker, Sontag lamented the “disconnect” between the “monstrous dose of reality” that was 9/11 and the “self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators.”

Sontag opined that the “voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public,” a public lacking in “historical awareness” and subjected instead to the “psychotherapy” of “confidence-building and grief management.” Arguing the insistence on America’s strength to be not “entirely consoling,” Sontag concluded: “Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.”

In retrospect, I find these words unremarkable; they have been uttered many times since. Living through the terror of those days in New York City, however, I was infuriated by such ill-timed chastising from afar (Sontag lived in Paris at the time). I sat down and cried and wrote a lengthy response to let out my anger, shared with the German friend who brought Sontag’s commentary to my attention:

Sie mag aus der Ferne spotten; sähe, fühlte, spürte sie die Stadt würde sie den New Yorkern kaum “Dummheit” vorwerfen. Wenn ich ihr aus der Ferne auch weder Feigheit noch Dummheit unterstellen will, so muss ich doch feststellen, dass Abstand auch eine Freiheit von Anstand bedeuten kann. Sontag schrieb einmal ein erfolgreiches, vielzitiertes, und feines Buch mit dem Titel Against Interpretation. Sie täte gut daran, sich gegen ihre eigenen ‘Interpretationen’ zu sträuben.

In essence, I argued that Sontag should heed the words that formed the title of her book Against Interpretation, that she should have reserved her distant and distancing intellectualizing and her attacks on the supposedly infantile public and the media that pampered it for a period in which a bewildered public was more likely to stomach further humiliation and to respond with a kindness and dignity lacking in Sontag’s words to the unwise.

Attacking both the medium it employs and the masses it engages (that is, attempting to appeal to the latter by questioning the former), MacLeish’s “Air Raid,” like Sontag’s tirade, is a prime example of how not to connect.

3 Replies to “On This Day in 1938: Broadcast “Air Raid” Assaults Like Sontag’s 9/11 Tirade”

  1. You have misunderstood MacLeish\’s intent. The play is based on Picasso\’s painting Guernica, which is based on a true event. In 1937, planes bomed the civilians in the village to demoralize the people. The people were targeted because they were civilians. The world was horrified. At the time, it was thought that wars should be between armies – that peaceful villages should not be attacked for psychological effect.The women are not idle or stupid. They live in a world – a pre-1937 world – where villages of civilians are not bombed. They play does not blame the women for not evacuating. The play blames the world for becoming vicious.

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  2. I appreciate your reading of the play, but cannot subscribe to it. The women are ignorant as well as innocent. They are being alerted to the attack, but don\’t heed the warning. This serves as a message to the American listener not to dismiss the threat posed by both Nazi Germany and US isolationism.

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  3. I had to refresh my memory on this broadast by re-listening to it. I first listened to it in the 90\’s and recall that something about it didn\’t quite work for me. Listening today, my opinion is that the women in the play are described as unnaturally ignorant (sorry to repeat but there\’s no other word for it) – and I can hardly believe that these kind of viewpoints actually existed, not in that extreme and not in that unanimity. This creates an imbalance for the listener. He/she expects the women to suffer somehow for their out-of-touch views. (It\’s not even complacency that is described, which would be more deserving of a payback.) But the payback here is entirely out of proportion to the crime.

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