Category Archives: Minipax

Bulletins from the Ministry of Peace

Never say never

Today is VJ Day (in Japan and the UK, the US marks the anniversary on 14 August due to time zones).

Unlike this iconic pair, not everyone got to celebrate. Contemplating the numbers who died in the war which ended 67 years ago is staggering, as historians have only been able to agree that the final count is somewhere between 62 and 78 million people.

Perhaps it is too much to hope for that the best way to honour the memory of all those lives lost would be a pledge by all sides to make damn sure it never happens again, instead of using it as an opportunity for sabre-rattling. Tempers have frayed following the decision of a Japanese Cabinet member to visit the controversial war shrine at Yasukuni – resting place of 14 convicted war criminals – which will today become a place of pilgrimage for peace marchers, veterans and right-wingers, some wearing Imperial Army uniforms.

Encounters at the shrine in the heat of August usually become fraught, with violence directed at foreigners, as reported by photographer Damon Coulter, or at left-wingers and peace marchers by some unsavoury characters encountered by the photographer, Adrian Storey, being the norm. It is a long way from last week’s more somber memorials for the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at which civic leaders spoke of their hopes for peace and a nuclear-free world.

While it is tempting for some to keep fighting that conflict it is difficult to see what doing so achieves. The stated aims of many of our grandfathers in fighting was less for a political ideology or a country than for their hope that we wouldn’t have to do the same. They had seen their fathers return from another ‘war to end all wars‘, be told ‘never again’ and watched as that promise of peace was betrayed. Their generation fought for us to be able to enjoy a better future.

The promise of peace is not guaranteed, however, not unless we remain vigilant. ‘Never’ looks like a short time when Europe has seen an increase in violence against immigrants, particularly in economically ravaged Greece. In Asia, relations between South Korea, Japan and China are strained over control of a number of small islands and the natural resources which lay within their territorial waters. In the Middle East, despite denials, things again look ominous.

The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance.

- George Orwell

Yet there is another way. Not everyone at Yasukuni shrine today will be there to promote a right-wing ideology. Some will attend to march for peace, others to release doves. Even some of the nationalists, such as this one who spoke to Adrian Storey, can behave in a way that encourages a ‘faint flicker of hope’. If those of us who believe in peace, who know that what we have in common is greater than our differences and that those differences can be better overcome by diplomacy than by fighting, continue to guard that flickering flame, one day we will be able to say we have finally fought the war to end all wars.

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If ye break faith with us

So Remembrance Sunday has passed, when the UK spends two minutes quietly remembering its war dead, before returning to the usual business of adding more names to memorials.  The event was originally conceived to honour the now long dead young men of that most futile ‘war to end all wars‘, but its motives seem to have been lost recently in a fog created by a bitter war of words over the poppy.

It is as if pinning one to your jacket and thereby supporting the work of the Royal British Legion has become akin to joining a kind of ‘all war is good’ chorus, instead of the charity appeal for a soldier’s welfare and campaigning movement which is what it really should be.  This is especially sad, as all this chatter about paper flowers drowns out the essential conversation we ought to be having about the lives our wars are damaging today.

These include, but are not limited to, the soldiers who are taking their own lives after returning from combat or others suffering the effects of mental illness alone.  The UK’s Mental Health Foundation reports that:

What is known is that only half of those experiencing mental health problems sought help from the NHS, and those that did were rarely referred to specialist mental health services.

Wearing the poppy should always be a matter of individual choice, after all, there are as many reasons to wear one or not to as there are people.  For some it might be a memory of those they have known personally, for others a matter of respect or gratitude.  For those who do not, it could be for based on their pacifism, or a reluctance to be seen to support the motives of recent wars.  On this, I agree with the Independent’s leader of last week:

The moment that someone feels obliged to wear the symbol for fear of looking out of place or disrespectful is the moment we forget what our servicemen and women actually fought for.

I would also love to see a moratorium on starting the next one (Iran) until all the damage caused from the last few (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) has been cleared up.  I would like to see an end to politicians wielding huge wreaths at the Cenotaph while slashing the support available to serving and former services personnel.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I hope I’m not the only one…

Here are two war poems, perhaps the most famous of all and a more recent addition, Adam Ford’s prize-winning entry to the ‘Dulce et Decorum… Next!’ competition.

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A hanging?

From Mussolini to Hitler to Ceausescu, history is littered with examples to the effect that, if you are a murderous son-of-a-bitch who has rejoiced in the suffering of your own people, chances are a death from old age in an easy chair by the fireside is not on the cards.  Perhaps Colonel Gaddafi wouldn’t have been surprised at his fate, and perhaps we shouldn’t be either – even when pictures of the mangled corpse of a man whose regime we were once happy to do business with turn up on the evening news.

As so trenchantly noted by the Flying Rodent, when we were not protecting Libya ‘to fucking rubble, house-by-house’, we were carrying out an operation that:

may just reek more of a hitjob than a humanitarian enterprise.

The agendas at play have now become more dangerous to civilians than the dictators could have dreamed of being, especially now as they are being taken down one by one.  We are moving into a new reality, where the bounds of what is possible and justifiable in international law get stretched ever thinner in the race for results.  It wasn’t always thus.

Although the suicides of many of the Nazi high command put them out of the reach of justice, the instinct at the end of the Second World War was to follow a kind of due process before sentencing the captured leaders to death.  More recently, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic were both put on trial, although some of the difficulties in trying the Serbian leader – coupled with the inconclusive end to the trial following his early death from a heart attack – may have convinced the authorities that a swift bullet is the preferred outcome.

Yet however slowly justice moves, I believe there must be an advantage to the victims in such a measured reckoning.  Beyond the soothing vengeance of a quick and ignoble death is the removal of the opportunity for a proper post-mortem for tbe Libyan people.  Perhaps I am being too cynical in wondering if that will cause a few less sleepless nights in London, Paris and Washington this week.  It must also be causing a certain amount of restlessness in Iran and Syria too.

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‘No pasaran': Cable Street 1936-2011

Anniversaries always offer good opportunities for the reinterpretation of past events according to modern sensibilities.  With each passing year the memories get polished, the myths build and the truth becomes that little less easy to establish.  75 years have gone by since a diverse population of East Enders – among them dockers, Jews, trade unionists and assorted left-wing groups – gathered to stop Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts goose-stepping through the neighbourhood and ended up fighting the police sent in to clear a way for the fascists.

That is more than enough time for the stories of what happened in a now fairly anonymous street in E1 to get lost in a fog.  Enough time for historians to look at the events of 4 October 1936 and question if the Battle even made things worse for the local Jewish population:

Far from signalling the demise of fascism in the East End, or bringing respite to its Jewish victims, Cable Street had quite the opposite effect. Over the following months the British Union of Fascists was able to convert defeat on the day into longer-term success and to justify a further radicalisation of its anti-Jewish campaign.

This is a dangerous argument, if seen through to its logical conclusion, that fascists are best not resisted.  With the world mired in economic crisis and racists targetting areas with concentrated immigrant populations once again, it is tempting to wonder what, if anything, we have learned since the Thirties.  Even this writer has indulged.  And as Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti commented:

No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges.

The truly fatal myth is the one that tries to encourage us to ignore fascism in the hope it will go away, when even a brief look at history shows this is not an effective strategy.  As this excellent article argues,

it was not “objective conditions” that stopped the police forcing a way for the British Hitlerites into Jewish East London: it was a quarter of a million workers massing on the streets to tell them that they would not pass, and making good the pledge by erecting barricades and fighting the BUF-shepherding police. A year after Cable Street, it was the working class and the socialist movement which again put up barricades in Bermondsey to stop the fascists marching.

Remembering that may be the best way of marking today’s anniversary.

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Egyptians are in the street looking for a brighter day

No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges

- Buenaventura Durruti

With these words ringing in our ears, it is hardly surprising that a number of governments, ours included, usually so gung-ho about exporting democracy to other parts of the world – particularly the Middle Eastern bits – seem to be remaining tight-lipped about the uprisings in Egypt.

Of course, as Justin McKeating notes, America and Britain have a many different reasons not to be pushing Egyptian President Mubarak out of the door too swiftly, at least not until they have safely recovered the keys to the filing cupboards (you just know there are paper records somewhere…) containing details of all the War on Terror detainees renditioned to the country to be tortured on our behalf.

And via Truth, Reason & Liberty we learn that even if the Western leaders wanted to share in the glow of their very own Berlin Wall moment, they have the restlessness of the international markets to consider first:

A one-dollar, one-day increase in a barrel of oil takes $12 million out of the U.S. economy.  If tensions in the Mideast cause oil prices to rise by $5 for even just three months, over $5 billion dollars will leave the U.S. economy. Obviously, this is not a strategy for creating new jobs

- Jason S. Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington research group, quoted in the New York Times

Difficult to ignore the not-so-veiled threat to workers in America contained in the last line.

So, while it is tempting to get carried away by the romance of soldiers and protesters embracing, hard-headed realism is required.  As the regime rounds up journalists and seeks to prevent pictures being taken of Tahrir Square, as more protesters are shot, it is essential that we stand in solidarity with the people of Egypt as they struggle to make their society more as they wish it to be.  Even if they get their wish and see Mubarak removed, what follows may be far from the envisaged democracy, as vested interests seek to protect their privileges.

Then, maybe it is also time for us to stop the bar-room and blog grandstanding and learn from Egypt’s example, where people are out on the streets, trying to change their realities in any way they can.  As I sit typing in Japan’s safe commercial paradise, a country that one of my students describes as ‘slowly sinking’, unwilling to wake up to the problems it faces, I can only wish for some of what is in the water in Cairo to be transported to Tokyo and London, to help us avoid complacency, however unlikely that appears.

Egyptians are in the street looking for a brighter day.  Are we content to sit and watch it on TV, or can we be persuaded to join them?

Photograph from 3 quarks daily, via the mortal bathMore photographs of the demonstration at the Boston Globe

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Walk like an Egyptian

Events in Egypt are by turns shocking – as stories of live bullets and gas used against protestors emerge – yet encouraging, if this quote is anything to go by:

[The US has] been lulled by a pro-stability narrative that has been spun out by Mr Mubarak and other Arab autocrats. Unfortunately for Cairo and Washington, the street is saying the game is up

- former CIA director Emile Nakhleh, writing in the Financial Times,

quoted by Naked Capitalism

The message is clear: lose the streets and lose the geo-political game.  No wonder the British police are now using tougher methods against peaceful protesters.

And no, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to post this video pass by:

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WikiLeaks: the sound of a stable door slamming

Dorothy Parker, LCD Soundsystem, Paul Auster, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac, Jimmy Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Muhammed Ali, MC5, Hunter S. Thompson, Blondie, Joel & Ethan Coen, Bruce Springsteen, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp…

At times such as these, when America behaves more like a belligerent teenager than the Land of the Free/Home of the Brave, my friend and co-writer Mark Woff advises to take a minute out of your day to compile your own variation on the above list.  The aim is to hopefully cheer you up a little and remind yourself that a nation responsible for nurturing such a list of talents can’t be completely beyond hope and redemption.

I feel it is important to keep this in mind when considering what looks to be about to become the case of USA v WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.  The extent to which America is focusing on punishing the source of the information rather than addressing the more pressing concerns contained within it almost defies belief. Sure, diplomats, you got caught with your pants down.  But worrying about the secrecy of a database that can be accessed by millions of people does appear to involve a certain amount of stable door slamming post-exit by horse.

Of greater importance to this writer are the fascinating insights into the cozy pillow talk between governments and corporations as they conspire to brutally stitch up their countries’ populations and of how just how relaxed they can be when lying about details some would find electorally embarrassing:

The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European adventure in Afghanistan is doomed but, more important, that the American, British and other Nato governments privately admit that too.

The problem is that they cannot face their electorates – who also happen to be the taxpayers funding this folly – and tell them this. The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam

Also of lasting importance is the wider war being fought by WikiLeaks, alongside this particular battle, as it has far-ranging implications for the freedom of information on the internet.  As Richard Wilson writes in his excellent article:

The very existence of Wikileaks also seemed to point towards a larger question – how durable is the scale of freedom that has developed on the internet in recent years? Will the net really lead to a permanent “redistribution of data” – the mass availability of information previously so jealously guarded by the media and political elites? Or will the current era come to be seen as a short-lived blip – an involuntarily loosening of controls that lasted only as long as it took for the elites to figure out the dynamics of the new technology, devise new systems for bringing it under control, and develop the political means to apply those systems worldwide?

However, none of these arguments should be taken to imply that Assange is himself beyond suspicion, at the very least as Justin McKeating argues, he is guilty of being a ‘great honking idiot’.  While Modernity reminds us that governments are not above using indirect means such as court actions to target those they perceive as enemies, if there is a case to be answered on the charges, he should answer it.  Perhaps I am displaying a naive believe in the rule of law, but if the case is dismissed, it is rendered redundant as a tool to smear Assange and the WikiLeaks project.  Greater damage is done by declaring him to be innocent or above the law because of his actions in leaking the documents, even if, as noted by Katrin Axelsson of Women Against Rape, it does appear strange that he has been hunted across the globe for a crime with staggeringly low conviction rates in both Sweden and the UK.

To anyone with an acquaintance, either from memory or through the writing of Hunter S.Thompson and others, of those dark days at the end of the Sixties that saw a political class create the My Lai massacre, the Kent State shootings and the Watergate burglary, it must appear that this is all familiar territory, that America is indeed doomed to repeat its history having failed to learn the lessons the first time around.  In such circumstances, we do well to remember that it is better to be a Daniel Ellsberg than a Richard Nixon.

The final word goes, as ever, to this man:

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act

- George Orwell

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