Tag Archives: perpetual war

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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Did you care about Beirut as well?

The online landscape has been akin to the shifting sands of the desert in the days since the attacks in Paris. As also happened after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, many of the initial responses were graphical, with a very striking image of the Eiffel Tower looking like a CND badge by Jean Jullien quickly being shared far and wide. Facebook, which had initially offered a service to Parisians to let friends know they were safe, also rolled out a feature which allowed users to superimpose the French flag over their profile pictures, akin to the rainbow flags which did the rounds after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling earlier in the year.

This wave of virtual tears then crashed on the shores of ‘whataboutery’, when other similar yet less prominent killings in other countries and cities around the world were invoked, culminating in a debate about whether higher prominence should have been given to the 43 people killed by a bomb that went off in Beirut the day before the Paris attacks. Did you care about Beirut? And did you do it quickly enough? Before or after this prompting?



As one article pointed out, sharing a link from the BBC News website and complaining that the media is ignoring a story you feel should be receiving greater attention shows you the limitations of this argument: The media did cover the attacks, you just weren’t reading it. The writer notes:

“Why didn’t the media cover *insert country here*?” appears to actually be shorthand for “Why wasn’t this story shared extensively on my Facebook feed?”

Increasingly we are taking our news via the social media sites and the way in which such stories reach us – via the algorithms which determine which friends’ posts we see the most of and which kinds of stories ‘pop up’ – is anything but random. Facebook is in the business of generating engagement and it is enhancing that by learning about our habits. That function on Facebook for Parisians to show they were safe that I was so impressed by was perhaps in response to a ‘person finder’ function that Google enabled after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011. There are social benefits to these initiatives, of course, but the sites are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, remember. They want our engagement and they generate that partly by linking us with our global communities as well as by making themselves invaluable to us.

You could call me paranoid, I suppose, but the way that the Tricolore spread across the profile pictures of friends around the world and how that change was prompted by Facebook itself does make me wonder. Were we the guinea pigs in another behavioural study similar to this one on the Diffusion of Support in an Online Social Movement, as mentioned in this Washington Post story about the rainbow flags? Facebook was not particularly subtle in its prompting: a story about a friend’s updated profile picture with a button below to allow you to change yours. I am sure that they would never in a month of Sundays admit to using this kind of news story in such a way, but it does make you wonder. Or perhaps I need a tinfoil hat…

If, as this intriguing read from the New Statesman on PETA, Ferguson, jihad, Doctor Who, rape and kitten pictures (honestly, it’s great, give it a read) suggests:

Anger online is a cyclical parasite

then it stands to reason that online compassion or empathy is too. If you are pissed off that *insert location here* is not getting the right amount of attention, you must share more stories about that place in such a way that encourages your friend group to share those stories. Maybe then we will soon see the option to superimpose the flag of Lebanon over our profile pictures.


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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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Hurma by Ali Al-Muqri

From viewing the cover of Hurma you might not expect a darkly comic sex romp. You might make some guesses as to the content and expect an illicit ‘peek behind the veil’ for Western audiences in this, the first of Yemeni author Ali Al-Muqri’s books to be translated (by Thomas Aplin) into English. Especially when the tabloids in the UK are equal parts fascinated and horrified by girls running away from home to marry IS fighters, you might expect a tale of misery, beatings and death – and while all those elements are present – what I wasn’t expecting was the laughter.

hurma ali al-muqri

There are so many beautifully-realised moments in this tale, some more poignant, some that will have you shaking your head with disbelieving laughter. The strict family patriarch who beats Hurma for drawing a heart in class but tells the rest of the family to allow older sister Lula complete freedom after her sex work pays for his heart operation. Raqeeb the secret drinker and public Marxist who nicknames his younger sister ‘Ruza’ and tells her:

‘Be free and wonderful like Rosa Luxemburg!’ he would say, ‘Read her book and you’ll learn what really matters in life.’

Raqeeb is scornful of religion until he transforms himself into ‘Abd al-Raqeeb, holy warrior, as he prepares for marriage to a neighbour’s daughter.

He encourages Hurma to attend Islamic college, where she too becomes more devout. Although, in the manner of girls’ schools the world over, her classmates are boy-crazy and the pleasures of the flesh can’t be shut out completely: even when the male instructors give lessons via video links that only show their hands. With her siblings pulling her in two opposing – both extreme – directions, Hurma decides to marry one of her brother’s co-conspirators. She daydreams of a happy, contented life with her husband and pictures herself performing heroics on the battlefield, but the experience is as unsatisfying as her marriage. Her husband is more turned on by martyrdom than anything else, including a Lula-supplied Viagra, and her role more akin to a mule than a freedom fighter.

Hurma’s story unfolds as she is listening to a tape made for her by a male neighbour and passed to her via his sister. She is looking for meaning in the lyrics of the songs by the singer Om Kalthoum as she also looks for meaning in the events of her life. She realises that she can interpret the songs as love songs, songs of desire, or with a more religious aspect and it is those two influences – which should be able to coexist instead of being in opposition – that keep pulling and pushing her along.

I prayed to God, but He didn’t answer. I became more and more frustrated as the days went by – in fact with every hour and every second. I tried to get my life in order. I asked myself: What do I want, and how am I going to get it? But my inner turmoil made it impossible… how could there be inner peace with the unquenchable flames of desire?

The more that something is forbidden, the more alluring it becomes. Once Hurma doesn’t have the war as a distraction, it isn’t long before the drive towards sex completely overwhelms her. Her lack of an outlet leaving her contemplating tunneling into the house of the neighbour who made the tape to jump him after a second unconsummated marriage to an impotent man. For all that this is a novel awash (sorry) and dripping (sorry) – one might even say stuffed (sorry!) with sex, for its heroine it is a messy, frustrating, unsatisfactory endeavour. Luckily, that isn’t true for the reader, who will find much to enjoy in this tale. I look forward to reading more of Al-Muqri’s work in English!

Thanks to Darf Publishers for sending me a free copy of this book.

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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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