Tag Archives: Iraq

We don’t need to escalate

Here we are again, looking for a target for all that stockpiled ordinance we have that’s sitting around not being useful and blowing people apart. As with Afghanistan in 2001, drawing up a list of targets when much of Syria is made of rubble will not be easy. But still that brave Mr Cameron is prepared to give it a go.


He claims that doing so will prevent an attack on UK soil, when – as with Iraq – all those remaining capable of rational thought and not so maddened by the scent of blood in the air must know that it makes such an attack more likely.

Then there is the question of exactly which faction of murderous nutters we will be bombing in support of. The likely beneficiaries, according to Patrick Cockburn in the Independent, are going to be groups dominated by fighters affiliated to Al-Qaeda. You will have to forgive me if I don’t break out the Victory Gin in response.

The only thing that is going to resolve Syria to the extent that refugees might consider returning is a political resolution. All sides know this but as all sides hate all of the potential outcomes, we are supposed to stand aside again as the war drums take another pounding and be painted as naive idiots for not wishing to jump into what Cockburn rightly describes as,

a civil war of great complexity and extreme savagery.

Those reasonable voices, by the way, do not all belong to the left, although the usual suspects in the media are doing their best to paint those lacking a lust for cluster bombs as sandal-wearing peaceniks. Tory MP John Baron has stated:

Air strikes will only reinforce the West’s failure in the region generally at a time when there are already too many aircraft chasing too few targets.

He noted recently in an article on Conservative Home (yes, I know. Not my usual choice of reading material either…) that there can be no realistic resolution without involving Iran and Russia. Or accepting the unpalatable spectre of Assad remaining in power for at least a time. Otherwise what comes after him will almost certainly make Libya look like a smooth transition to democracy.

Syria at this point is all grey area. There are no good or easy paths out of this quagmire. Any attempt to make it into a battle between ‘our’ good guys and ‘their’ bad guys will end in the arming and assisting of some truly awful people, leading to the same unintended consequences, heightened terror alerts and traumatised children who develop into tomorrow’s suicide bombers on the streets of another capital city. Instead of doing the same thing and expecting a different result, I wish we could take the road less travelled and, in the words of a song written for an earlier, far-off, yet too-similar war:

We’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

Let’s hope (against hope) that this time, we get it right.

Picture of Homs in 2011 and 2014 from the Guardian

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I felt numb all over. Not this. Not again. Nothing original to say. Too many words getting thrown around elsewhere, why add to them? As the numbness wore off, it was like coming round from an anaesthetic, the pain starts again and the thoughts start to whirl. Why is it more shocking when it is Paris? Is it because it is happening on streets you have walked down, somewhere you could have been, somewhere you recognise, somewhere close. Not so easy to dismiss as when it happens in unfamiliar surroundings.

We have to face that our machinations over the past few decades have caused this to happen many, many times. We helped turn Afghanistan from a place where travellers arrived in the Sixties via the hippy trail, to one whose most recognisable public figure is a schoolgirl who got shot in the head. We turned Beirut from – ironically – the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ into a byword for chaos and death. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya. Were our rulers really arrogant enough to think the bloodshed on their streets wouldn’t eventually spread to ours?

Religion is, I think, only a hook. Wars are fought for influence, land and power, as they always were. So in the name of any particular god that can be invoked, hospitals are bombed, children driven into the sea, families walk unimaginable distances towards a European winter. There has to be a better strategy than this. There has to be a way to find resolution that doesn’t involve another retaliation, followed by another, followed by another. We have to find that difficult path and then keep to it, however easy a swift and vengeful ‘justice’ appears to be. It never is.

I can’t remember exactly where I saw this, [EDIT to say it was here! In the Independent] but a few commentators have mentioned it so it bears repeating. Apparently one of the things that annoyed the living heck out of IS was the warm welcome shown to the refugees when they arrived in Germany. They want to see mistrust and hatred, fear and attacks. They want people to flock to them and their idea of the Caliphate, not turn away towards freer societies. They want their message that Muslims and Christians can’t leave together peacefully, that their war is the only way, not to be challenged.

So keep sharing this one. Don’t give in to fear of the other. Love is all we need.

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The Assault by Harry Mulisch

harry mulisch the assault

I am not quite sure by what happy chance Harry Mulisch’s novel The Assault arrived on my ‘to read’ list, but I am profoundly glad that it did. If it was via your recommendation then please accept my unending gratitude. Although it seems premature to crown ‘the best work of fiction I have read all year’, so it must be.

Anton Steenwijk is an ordinary boy – keen on planes and cars, arguing with his older brother – living in the extraordinary time and place of Occupied Holland at the tail-end of the Second World War. Perhaps slightly more thoughtful than some of his peers, with a love of and keen eye for nature which will later see him publish poems on the subject. He is happy to spend time watching the wave patterns created by the motorboats on the canal outside his Haarlem home. He recalls ‘branches… bleached by the sun’, notices ‘bare, ice-coated, impassive trees that were totally unaware of what wartime was all about’, while damaged railway lines stand ‘upright like the horns of a snail’.

The War’s major intrusion into his life is via the hunger of a growing lad, although he also takes a stand for a classmate – perhaps saving a life as he does so – but he acts impulsively, without too much reflection on his motives. The incident remains unrecalled and unremarked upon until one winter’s night, when he is engulfed by terrible events that he neither fully witnesses nor understands, yet which leave him – the only survivor – with the revelation:

Fire and this steel – that was the War.

Despite this knowledge, as he matures he is successful in pushing away his memories in order to survive, before a series of chance encounters force him into unravelling the fate of his family. The secrets of one night of Resistance assassination and SS reprisal are imparted to him throughout his life, in a series of episodes from young student to middle-aged father, shocking Anton out of his attempt to live as passive a life as possible.

It is difficult not to think, on reading this book as we reach the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, of the consequences for the innocent caught up in war; the apparently small events sparked by unseen actors which rapidly take on greater significance. Chasing the tangled stories leads Anton to a semblance of an answer to the question why? as well as a realisation that the answer is both more and less important than he could have guessed. In the end, as the Resistance fighter Takes tells him:

everyone gets killed by whoever kills them, and by no-one else.

Mulisch’s book is a clever blend of taut thriller, historical mystery and psychological study, with plenty to show the reader about reactions to traumatic events experienced by the young. We see how assumptions about the past can colour someone’s thinking so completely, yet later be exploded as resting on a false or misunderstood reading of those events. What appear to be key conversations and actions slip out of the memory, making a nonsense of any attempt to create patterns out of random events. This failure recalling Anton’s doomed attempts to figure out the complexity of the crossing, interlaced waves created by the motorboats passing him by on the canal.


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Manituana by Wu Ming

Having been bowled over by ’54’ from the four writers who make up the Italian collective known as Wu Ming, a book which weaves a tale around the defeats and compromises of post-war Italian politics via a supporting cast including Cary Grant, Lucky Luciano and Tito, I was keen to get my hands on the English translation of their latest, Manituana.

As ambitious in scope as their earlier novels, expertly translated by Shaun Whiteside, Manituana concerns itself with a period of history I was shamefully ignorant of until reading this novel, the bloody birth of the United States and the unravelling of alliances between the British Empire, its colonists and the Six Nations of the Iroquois.

Again weaving the histories of real people – such as the Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant and his supernaturally gifted sister Molly – into those of an array of allies and enemies, Manituana moves from the ancient forests of America through dank and dangerous London streets to Westminster audiences with British Royalty, before returning to the land so filled with opportunity that it seems it cannot be left in the control of its original owners for long.

‘Fire gives life, and yet it consumes’, remarks Joseph Brant’s friend and ally Philip Lacroix, and those who set the fire are not always saved from the flames. As war becomes inevitable, no side escapes unharmed, atrocities and betrayals are met with fierce reprisals until the soil of the new country runs red. No hand remains unstained. The parallels between this beginning and more recent episodes of nation-building by Americans in Iraq have been commented upon by the writers. Promising to be the first of a trilogy of books to explore this neglected or airbrushed period of history, Manituana manages, despite achieving its epic ambitions, to be a fast-paced and entertaining read, one not to be missed.

Now the only thing to do is to see if I can wait patiently for the next part.

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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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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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