Tarzan’s White Flights: Terrorism and Fantasy before and after the Airplane

by zunguzungu

In honor of Gilad Sharon’s statement, yesterday, that the point of attacking Gaza is a barbaric display of dominance, “A Tarzan-like cry that lets the entire jungle know in no uncertain terms just who won, and just who was defeated,” I’m posting my American Literature essay on Tarzan and the deep history of aerial bombardment here:

“Tarzan’s White Flights: Terrorism and Fantasy before and after the Airplane”

The argument is built on the coincidence that Edgar Rice Burroughs started writing his first Tarzan novel a month after the first use of aerial bombardment against “primitive tribes” in North Africa, and the ways the original Tarzan’s “death from above” style blends an American enthusiasm for racialized lynch mob violence with a British desire to take gunboat diplomacy into the skies:

R. P. Hearne’s 1910 Airships in Peace and War, for example, suggested that “in savage lands the moral effect of such an instrument is impossible to conceive,” because “[t]he appearance of the airship would strike terror into the tribes.”…The airplane, as Hearne imagined it, would “enable an expedition to be made with astounding rapidity [and] create the most terrifying effect on savage races, and the awful wastage of life occasioned to white troops by such expeditionary work would be avoided.” And in 1910, Major Baden F. S. Baden-Powell had predicted that airships would be a great asset in “savage warfare” because “the moral effect on an ignorant enemy would be great, and a few bombs would cause serious panics.”…The dream was, almost without exception, that creating nightmarish terror among natives would make it unnecessary to actually exert costly military force. As a British official claimed in 1914, “[I]n a few years aeroplanes or airships will be used in West Africa . . . . They would be invaluable against the hill pagans, and the terror caused by them would probably do away with bloodshed.”

It is a fantasy that has endured; that U.S. imperial strategists in 2003 named the first bombing campaign in Iraq “Shock and Awe” only demonstrates the extent to which the utility of airpower is still, explicitly, its ability to create terror from above. However, while hopeful military thinkers in the teens created the imaginative terms through which fictions of racialized airpower would be articulated for a century to come, technologies get defined both through hopeful fantasies and also through practical use. When the RAF first deployed airpower on a large scale—in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq—they hoped it would provide the perfect solution to two different problems: on the one hand, a surge in Arab “intransigence” after World War I, and on the other, the need to quell it cheaply, since postwar demobilization of the exhausted military made resources for colonial policing extremely scarce. The fantasy, then as now, was that airpower could deter Arabs into passivity by terror, a bloodless imperial pacification that would proceed by playing on the savage inability to control their own fear, the same “wonderful moral effect” the Italians had hopefully imagined themselves to have produced in North Africa in 1912.

But the interesting part of the essay, to me, is the ways the film Tarzan’s run away from this legacy, as racial violence goes out of style in the 1930’s.

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