Anitra Hamilton’s Bomb Ride is a decommissioned and disarmed American-made MK-82 aerial bomb mounted on a children's coin-operated mechanical riding amusement like those found at the local supermarket or shopping mall. She has painted the bomb with stripes of red, blue, orange and white – colours that make the bomb look fun and festive but which also allude to the colours of military insignia. Put a loonie ($1 coin) in the machine and you can ride it for three minutes.
A bomb is an explosive filler enclosed in a casing. Bombs are generally classified according to the ratio of explosive material to total weight. The principal classes are general-purpose (GP), fragmentation, penetration and cluster bombs. 1
The image of an adult riding a bomb recalls the comically patriotic Major T. J. "King" Kong (played by the actor Slim Pickens) in the satirical anti-war movie Dr. Strangelove. The image of a child riding a bomb produces more disturbing associations. Images of children burned and mutilated and orphaned by aerial bombing have become icons of the cruelty of modern war : a crying Chinese baby abandoned in the bombed out station during the Japanese rape of Nanjing in 1937; the image of the naked Kim Phuc, her clothes burned from her body, frantically running to escape the inferno of an American napalm attack during the Vietnam war. In 2003, the image of the orphaned, armless and severely burned twelve-year old Ali Ismail Abbas became the most recent symbol of aerial bombing’s cruel and indiscriminate victimization of children. 2
Approximately 50-percent of the General Purpose [GP] bomb's weight is explosive materials. These bombs usually weigh between 500 and 2,000 pounds and produce a combination of blast and fragmentation effects. The approximately one-half-inch-thick casing creates a fragmentation effect at the moment of detonation, and the 50-percent explosive filler causes considerable damage from blast effect. The most common GP bombs are the MK-80 series weapons. 3
Grocery store riding amusements seem to have been a rite of passage for many children growing up in post-war North America. The rides are aimed at pre-school children and their parents and feature cast fibreglass images of saddled horses, lions, tigers and giraffes, miniature cars, boats, airplanes, rockets and trains. Many parents obtain great pleasure in plopping a barely walking one year old child on a gently rocking airplane or mechanical horse. Often, the toddlers are terrified and have no interest in the ride – mostly they tentatively smile back at the their greatly amused parents. Following the initial Kodak moment, the kids gradually loose their fear of the rides and begin to look forward to the prospect of another three minute riding adventure. Parents, on the other hand, regret their initial enthusiasm in promoting these amusements to their children and grow weary of the prospect of spending another dollar on such an underwhelming adventure.
Blast is caused by tremendous dynamic overpressures generated by the detonation of a high explosive. Complete (high order) detonation of high-explosives can generate pressures up to 700 tons per square inch and temperatures in the range of 3,000 to 4,500º prior to bomb case fragmentation. It is essential that the bomb casing remain intact long enough after the detonation sequence begins to contain the hot gases and achieve a high order explosion. Approximately half of the total energy generated will be used in swelling the bomb casing to 1.5 times its normal size prior to fragmenting and then imparting velocity to those fragments. The remainder of this energy is expended in compression of the air surrounding the bomb and is responsible for the blast effect. This effect is most desirable for attacking walls, collapsing roofs, and destroying or damaging machinery. 4
The storybook image of the pre-schooler riding off into dream-land on an affable tiger is soon enough replaced by an active fantasy life of power and conquest. Pre-adolescent children act out these fantasies in the form of magic wands, ray-guns, swords and pistols as well as becoming fervently engaged with super-hero comic books, action movies and violent video games. 5 T he dream resides in almost every school-aged child of possessing god-like powers of life and death. Little boys especially like to pretend that they can fly like Superman, be impervious to assaults like Ironman, and possess super human strength like the Hulk. This childish dream of flying, shooting, killing and pretend-dying has been identified as a way in which children act out and deal with anxieties and fears. 6
The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited.” 7 Hague Convention, 1907.
According to the United States Airforce, Lt. Myron Crissy holds the honour of being the first man to drop a live bomb from an airplane. It happened during a civilian flying meet near San Francisco on January 15, 1911. 8 The first aerial bomb was dropped in combat on November 1, 1911 by the Italian pilot Lieutenant Guilio Cavotti. Cavotti made history by leaning out of his monoplane and dropping a two kilogram hand-grenade on the North African oasis Tagiura near Tripoli. 9
Cavotti’s bomb began modern history’s dark chapter of bombing in the cause of colonial subjugation. Where previously it had been agreed upon by international convention that the bombing of non-combatants constituted a war crime, now a combination of economics and the belief in European racial superiority permitted the indiscriminate bombing of Arab, African, Indian and Asian people. Aerial bombing was literally a license to kill and contemporary European legal opinion cleared the way for bombing in the colonies that in other circumstances have been consider war crimes. 10
Reading about these historic firsts, one can’t help but sense the elation, the sense of unlimited power that aerial bombing produced. These early bomber pilots were unassailable – gods with super powers, impervious to the primitive weaponry of the colonial trouble makers and savages they were sent to sub-due. They were like children on their mechanical hobby horses, zapping and vaporizing their enemies, and never having to die – big kids playing war. War at its root, is dangerous play – thrill seeking, joy riding, hunting, fighting, wrestling, banging, screaming, flying fun.
Wars, according to Martin van Creveld, are not engaged in order to achieve goals, rather, goals are chosen in order to create an excuse to wage war.
One very important way in which men can attain joy, freedom, happiness, even delirium and ecstasy, is by not staying home with wife and family, even to the point where, often enough, they are only too happy to give up their nearest and dearest in favour of – war. 11
When Anitra Hamilton’s Bomb Ride is described, invariably what ensues is a nervous giggle – a giggle that recognizes the ironic play of associations – the adorable toddler on a coin operated riding amusement contrasted with the cruel reality of bombing. Bomb Ride punctures our idealized notions of art and human improvement to declare them a thin cover for our innate potential for violence. It is a picture of humanity, as seen by Hamilton – we are Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove. Bruno Bettelheim suggested that violent fairy tales have the purpose of guiding the child to “relinquish his infantile dependency wishes and to achieve more satisfying independence.” 12 Would it be so.
We recognize ourselves as we watch the kids jump up and straddle Hamiton’s Bomb Ride like some magic rocket. For three minutes, they are flying into a weightless space of power and unassailable omnipotence. Just like the kids we entertain violent fantasies and we allow ourselves to be entertained by fantasy violence. We are all kids at heart.
Gordon Hatt 2004
1: Bombs for Beginners, <http://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/dumb/bombs.htm >.
2: Ali Ismail Abbas has a web site dedicated to his story at <http://www.aliabbas.net>.
3: Bombs for Beginners.
4: Bombs for Beginners .
5: See Jones, Gerard, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes and Make-Believe Violence , Basic Books, New York: 2002.
6: Jones, Gerard, op. cit. , ch. III, “The Magic Wand,” pp. 45- 63.
7: Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV); October 18, 1907, The Convention, Annex to the Convention: Regulations Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Section II, Hostilities, Chapter I, Means of Injuring the Enemy, Sieges, and bombardments, Art. 25. <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/lawofwar/hague04.htm>.
8: United States Airforce Museum, http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/history/preww1/pw18.htm
9: Lindqvist, Sven, A History of Bombing , translated by Linda Rugg, New York, The New Press 2001. Pocket edition with new preface 2003, chapter 4, “Death Comes Flying,”
10: Lindquist #123 p. 52. Bombing of colonies was considered acceptable at this time because a) colonies were considered the properties of European powers and as such internal matters and, b) international law only recognized the rights of European or “civilized” nations.
11: Martin van Creveld, On Future War , London: 1991. From Lindquist, p. 185
12: Bettelheim, Bruno, Children Need Fairy Tales , 1976, p. 11.