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Editorial View: Destroying a way of life in the insane fog of war

While our war-torn cities can be rebuilt, their fraught social linkages will never be the same

At the height of the Cold War, the US developed the neutron bomb, an extreme and more ‘advanced’ type of nuclear weapon that could kill people but theoretically leave buildings intact. Described by both the Russians and Americans as the ‘capitalist bomb’, it was eventually sidelined but became emblematic of the crazed Dr Strangelove ingenuity that underscored the time.

Yet as history shows, you don’t need a neutron bomb. In real-life World of Warcraft, it’s just as strategically effective to blow stuff up. Marwa Al-Sabouni’s compelling account of conditions in the Syrian city of Homs gives a sense of the horrific realities of a present-day war of attrition. ‘Our way of life has been demolished along with our buildings’, she writes. ‘The wounds opened are deeper than bullets’.

From the indiscriminate razing of cities to more forensically targeted assaults against specific buildings and monuments, Homs joins an ignoble litany of violence, terror and displacement. Blowing stuff up usually involves the loss of human life, which naturally trumps any considerations of architecture. Yet buildings, places and people are indelibly linked through experience, history and memory. As Robert Bevan writes in The Destruction of Memory, an excellent history of man’s inhumanity to man and architecture, ‘The link between erasing any physical memory of a people and its collective memory, and the killing of the people themselves, is ineluctable. The continuing fragility of civilised society and decency is echoed in the fragility of its monuments.’

From the Sack of Rome to the bombing of Hiroshima, if you want to crush your enemy, destroy his buildings. In the fog of modern war, ‘legitimate’ targets might include docks and factories, but not cathedrals and museums. Where do you stay your hand? The Nazis stopped short of putting Florence to the sword, but Dresden’s charm counted for nothing once it was in the sights of Bomber Command.

In a postwar Europe traumatised by devastation and genocide you might reasonably conclude that civilisation’s low point had been reached. Yet memories are still vivid of the fracturing of the Balkans and the systematic shelling and ethnic cleansing that followed in its wake. Towns that had happily accommodated mixed Croat, Serb and Muslim communities over centuries were physically ripped apart and their populations annihilated or dispersed. The map was redrawn at the point of a gun.

Syria is descending into a similar hellish chaos of internecine factions. In Homs, Muslims and Christians peacefully coexisted in the intimate network of streets, squares and souks that made up the Old City. As Al-Sabouni reports, this living armature is now a bombed-out ghost town presided over by the pitted ruin of its Ottomon era mosque.

We know that ruins can be rebuilt, but cauterised social linkages are much harder to restore. Nothing is ever the same. Homs may survive and rise again, but the relationship between people and place will have been marked and changed for ever.

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