‘From Russia’ at the Royal Academy

This is a seriously impressive exhibition. The full title is ‘From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg‘. It starts with a little room of Russian paintings from the start of that period; then you get a whole load of French paintings that were collected by two Russian art collectors, Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, and are now divided between various Russian state museums; then the rest of the show is of Russian paintings again, which are more or less heavily influenced by the French work.

The French section includes major works by most of the biggest names in French art — Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Bonnard — whereas with a couple of major exceptions in Chagall and Kandinsky the Russian artists are less familiar. It makes for a good combination; the French artists are immediately enjoyable while the Russians, simply because they are less familiar, require a bit more evaluation.

My favourite painting was probably Matisse’s Harmony in Red:

Harmony in Red by Matisse

Apparently, when the collector bought it at a Paris show, it was all blue instead of red, but Matisse asked to hang on to it for a few weeks because he wanted to tweak it. It must have been a bit of a shock to open it up and find it had completely changed colour.

Of the Russians: there were lots I quite liked including, unusually for me, the two Chagalls. Among the people I was with the most popular choice for a painting to take home would be Altman’s portrait of Anna Akhmatova. I think I’d probably take one of the three Malevich paintings called Black Square, Black Circle and Black Cross which are just black shapes on white backgrounds. That kind of geometrical minimalism is a bit mysterious: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Those ones worked, for me, though I’d be hard pressed to explain why.

This exhibition has an obvious relevance to the whole modernism and politics discussion, since Russia went through an immensely creative period in art and architecture for the first two decades of the C20th, and for a while after the revolution this radical art was embraced by the party; but then the regime ruthlessly crushed it. Artists may have supported radical politics, but politicians didn’t necessarily support radical art. A dislike of ‘decadent’ art was one of the things Hitler and Stalin had in common.

» The Matisse image is from the Artchive.

Modernism and politics

A discussion of modernism and politics starting at Alfred Corn’s, then Baroque in Hackney then George Szirtes here and here.

Salvador Dalí, Mi esposa desnuda, 1945

I suppose we tend to associate modernism with left-wing politics because we feel that people who embrace radical and new aesthetics would probably have radical instincts in politics as well: whatever else modernism was, it wasn’t a conservative movement. To reduce so much in art and politics down to one binary personality trait is very simplistic; even so, there’s probably some truth to it.

But left-wing politics doesn’t have a monopoly on wanting to change the world. Fascism was a radical movement; perhaps it’s not surprising it should attract its share of radical artists.

» The painting is Mi esposa desnuda by Salvador Dalí; an artist who started on the left and later supported Franco.

1984 by George Orwell

I picked this up to read again because I’ve just read a biography of Stalin. I think I first read 1984 when I was really quite young — certainly no older than my teens; in fact I may have made a point of reading it in 1984, when I was nine or ten — and though I was precocious and superficially well-informed for my age, I didn’t really have much sense of the reality of what life under totalitarian regimes could be like. In fact even when the Berlin Wall came down, when I was fifteen, although I knew intellectually that it was an incredibly important event, it didn’t have the emotional resonance you might expect. Knowing the basic facts isn’t enough; it’s the cumulative effect of finding out about a subject bit by bit over a period of time, of encountering lots of details and seeing it from different perspectives, that makes it seem real.


So back then I read it almost as straight fiction: dystopian and science-fictiony, and with limited relationship to the real world. I wondered if the older, better-informed me would find it more evocative and more powerful as a book about totalitarianism; I’m not sure it does quite work that way. The society Orwell creates is too highly fictionalised. One thing in particular, I think, is that the Party is just too good at what they do: the Thought Police come across as infallible and all-knowing, the Ministry of Truth manages to maintain total control of all information. To have the ring of truth, I think it needs to be a bit more capricious and random; the organisation itself, the Party, needs to have more of an edge of craziness and paranoia to it. I appreciate that it isn’t supposed to simply be a portrayal of Stalinist Russia, or any other particular regime; it’s an extrapolation of that kind of regime into something different. But even so.

One thing it did make me think of, not surprisingly in retrospect, was Guantanamo/Abu Ghraib, just because that’s what torture reminds me of at the moment. It’s a depressing thought that the Ministry of Love should remind me of US policy.

Big Brother

The least successful part of the book seems to be the romance. I didn’t find Julia to be believable: she’s just too good to be true. She seems to be completely untouched, psychologically and ideologically, by having grown up under IngSoc. In fact at times her dialogue makes her sound like she’s just wandered into the novel by mistake, having taken a wrong turn when leaving a gymkhana in 1940s Surrey. And she’s too good for Winston. Nothing we learn about him suggests he might be an attractive character, physically or in personality; so the moment when this young, sexy woman spontaneously declares her love for him at the risk of her life seems completely implausible.

As long as we’re dealing with Winston’s interactions with the Party, the bureaucracy, his neighbours, even the proles, there’s a certain kind of cohesion to the world he’s moving in. It occasionally hits a false note — the dialogue, particularly the working-class dialogue, is often a bit strained, and I’m not sure his portrayal of the proles, or the whole class system of the book, is convincing — but it’s all part of the same overall vision. The relationship with Julia seems to be happening somewhere else altogether.


But then the strength of book is not really as narrative at all: it’s a combination of atmosphere and ideas. The atmosphere is in all the details: the griminess, the smell of cabbage, the physical jerks in the mornings in front of the telescreen, the red sash of the Junior Anti-Sex League, the Two Minutes Hate, the relentless drinking of Victory Gin. What really lasts about the book, though, is the ideas, and I was surprised how often they seemed topical and relevant: the citizenry under total, constant surveillance, a state of continual war maintained to keep the people fearful and patriotic, the finessing of political rhetoric, the politically motivated drive to change the very vocabulary people use. None of these are part of modern society in quite the forms they take in the book, but there are continual resonances and parallels and points of friction. Not bad for a political novel which is sixty years old next year.

Tibet and the Olympics

It’s going to be really interesting watching the Olympics unfold. There had already been rumblings, with the protests last year in Burma and pressure over Darfur, but protests in Tibet bring it that much closer to home. And as the Olympics get closer, and more and more media attention is focussed on Beijing, the Chinese government are only going to find it harder to control the news agenda. Though I’m sure they’re going to put a great deal of effort into the attempt.


They have a knife-edge path to walk: they have no chance of getting through the games without at least a few difficult moments, but probably it will be no more than that. Western governments are not keen to start a confrontation, and while there will be a lot of media there, most of it will be the well-oiled machinery of bland, upbeat sports coverage, with its emphasis on lap times and human interest stories about plucky Britons just failing to win bronze medals. As long as the games themselves are running smoothly, Steve Cram and Sally Gunnell are not going to be spending much of their time in the BBC studio talking about China’s human rights record.

But with all that attention, there’s always that sneaking background knowledge that, thanks to the oxygen of publicity, if something does spark off, it could be very explosive indeed. I suppose the doomsday scenario would be something like large scale pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square during the games themselves. If I was a Chinese government press officer, I think I’d be quite tense already.

» The defecting Tibetan Antelope mascot is from here.

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Yay for Blasphemy!

Or, to be more exact, yay for legal blasphemy. We’re not quite there yet, but the House of Lords has voted to abolish the offence of blasphemy in British law.

Virgin and cat

The current situation, with special legal protection for the Church of England, was obviously ludicrous in a modern multicultural society; but then in a country where bishops have seats in parliament and the Archbishop of Canterbury is chosen by the Prime Minister, ludicrous can never be ruled out.

» Paintings by Cranach and Rousseau.

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar is a biography of Stalin, focussed on his domestic life and the tightly-knit group of people around him: his own family, and politicians, bodyguards, and their families.

As a piece of history, it’s very impressive. It’s clearly the result of a huge amount of research by Montefiore: he seems to have personally interviewed just about every living relative of the major figures, quite apart from the endless reading of archives and memoirs that must have been involved. As a casual reader I found it slightly hard going at times. I didn’t do it any favours by largely reading it in bed at night, but even allowing for that, I found it hard to keep track of all the people involved. I found I was having difficulty remembering which was which even of the most important figures, like Molotov, Mikoyan and Malenkov.

I don’t know if that’s an inevitable result of a book with quite so many people in it — it’s not a subject I’ve read about before, and all the unfamiliar Russian names didn’t help — or if it’s my fault for reading it while drowsy, or if there’s more Montefiore could have done to fix the various people in my mind. I didn’t find I got much sense of their various personalities that would have helped me keep them separate. Still, what I did get was a strong sense of Stalin himself, and his trajectory from a charming (though ruthless) young man living an almost campus lifestyle at the Kremlin, surrounded by the young families of his colleagues, to a sickly, garrulous old despot wandering nomadically from dacha to dacha and living in a vortex of terror and awe.

But even a sense of what Stalin was like to live and work with doesn’t get you much closer to understanding his motivations and the motivations of people around him. Was it just about power or did he believe to the end that he was acting in the interests of Russia and the party? The inner clique around Stalin clearly knew at some level that all the denunciations and show trials were arbitrary and could attach to anyone: they saw the process happen over and over again. And when colleagues they had known for years confessed to ludicrously unlikely accusations, they surely can’t have believed it. But the things they said and wrote suggest that at the same time they sort of did believe it, and remained theoretically committed to the ideology to the end. It made me inclined to reread 1984, because the concept of ‘doublethink’ is so startlingly apt.

In some ways the Stalinist purges are even more incomprehensible than the Holocaust. The Holocaust at least has a kind of simple central narrative: an attempt to exterminate the Jews. It fits into a thousand year history of European anti-Semitism as well as a broader human history of racism and genocide. The purges don’t offer any kind of similarly clear story: at different times they focussed on different things. It might be a whole social class, a profession, an ethnicity, or it might start with one or two individuals that Stalin was suspicious of and spread out through their colleagues and families to take in hundreds of people. Targets included kulaks, engineers, doctors, army officers, Poles, Jews, ethnic Germans, Chechens, Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Koreans: in fact any ethnic minority that could provide a possible focus for dissent. The total number of deaths, including not just those executed but those who died in slave labour camps or famine, is disputed; but 20 million is apparently a plausible ballpark figure.

At one stage Stalin was setting two quotas for the different regions: the number to be shot and the number to be arrested. These numbers were in the tens or hundreds of thousands, but the regions were soon writing back and requesting that their quotas be extended — out of ideological zeal? In an attempt to demonstrate their loyalty? Or just because these things have a momentum of their own?

It’s a staggering story and despite the slight reservations I expressed earlier, this is a very impressive book.

» The photo, Posing for communisim, was posted to Flickr by famous boxer and is used under a by-nc-nd licence. It was taken at the 2006 May Day protest in London and shows members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). The CPGB-ML website has a link to the Stalin Society, “formed in 1991 to defend Stalin and his work on the basis of fact and to refute capitalist, revisionist, opportunist and Trotskyist propaganda directed against him.” Which just goes to show… well, I don’t know what, really.

Irony of the week

The Chinese government expressing their sadness and shock at the idea that anyone would be crass enough to sully the Olympic spirit with the grimy taint of a political agenda.

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Primarily peculiar

Is it just me or is the American system of state primaries really bizarre?

And I don’t just mean the Iowan ‘we don’t believe in the secret ballot’ thing. The very fact that the results in Iowa and New Hampshire take on great significance is a clear sign that something isn’t working properly. I mean, no disrespect to those two states, but they account for less than 2% of the country’s population between them. And yet if Clinton does badly in New Hampshire, her two losses will be seen as seriously damaging her chances.

And indeed they probably will affect her chances, because there will be a storm of media coverage which will have a psychological impact on voters elsewhere in the country. I know it would be too much to expect that the pundits might treat these early results with the lack of interest they deserve, since it’s their job to express opinions and they’ve been dying to actually have some scores to report on from months now, but it just seems like madness.

I don’t know. I’m only seeing it from outside. Perhaps I just don’t get it. Perhaps there’s some reason why it’s actually a brilliant idea.

» The Purple Finch and American Goldfinch are the state birds of New Hampshire and Iowa respectively. The photo was posted to Flickr by Grant Leavitt.

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Those crazy Brits!

There’s speculation that we might have a general election soon; November 4th was a date I heard suggested on the radio today. Which means, since we don’t have any kind of hand-over period, that we might have a new government and a new Prime Minister on November 5th.

Guy Fawkes and cronies

To those of you who live in countries with less impetuous political systems, it might seem surprising that we don’t know yet. Well, in the UK, the Prime Minister can dissolve parliament and so trigger an election any time s/he feels like it. It’s a minimum of 17 working days from proclamation to election, according to Wikipedia. The maximum term is five years; we’re about half way through that, but since Tony Blair stepped down and Gordon Brown took over (without an election) their approval ratings have gone up, and there’s speculation Brown might take advantage with a quick election.

Despite having lived here all my life, I find it all rather extraordinary. At the very least, if the government had to give slightly more notice—three months, say—it would seem more sensible. Still, if we do have an election at the start of November, it means only a month of campaigning. Which is a bonus.

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China, the Olympics, and antiquity diplomacy

I was just watching Question Time on the BBC, and the panel were asked what ‘we’ should do about Burma. Simon Schama was on the panel, and he suggested that, if China was stubborn about blocking any action via the UN, we should have a mass boycott of the Beijing Olympics, since Burma is a client state of China and the Olympics is one of the few pieces of leverage we have. I’m not going to offer any opinion about Schama’s analysis; I was just struck by something one of the audience members said: ‘What does sport have to do with politics?’

Because my immediate reaction was that this Olympics, the 2008 Olympics in China, is intensely political. I say that without knowing anything about the current state of Chinese politics; I don’t think you need to. The 2008 games just has a frisson around it, an aura. It’s the amount the Chinese government is spending, and the way they’re spending it. I mean, have you seen the stadiums they’re building? They are incredible: huge, dramatic, glamorous. Gesture architecture on the grand scale. It’s not enough for the Chinese to show they can put on a successful Olympics; they want to appear dynamic and, above all, modern.

Beijing National Stadium

It’s no coincidence that the British Museum has an exhibition that includes some of the warriors from the Terracotta Army. Or that last winter there was a huge show at the Royal Academy of work from the C18th Chinese court. It’s all surely part of a concerted effort of cultural diplomacy, an attempt to engage with the world and establish Brand China as sophisticated, exciting, a modern nation amongst modern nations. While, I’m guessing, fighting tooth and nail to keep a rigid grip on the levers of power.

Which isn’t to say that the people running China’s PR department are magicians. The insistence on using every opportunity to assert Tibet’s place as an integral part of China’s heritage seems like a bad idea to me; it just reminds people of the issue. Next year there will probably be literally millions of people who will experience a twinge of hostility, or guilt or whatever, at the moment in the opening ceremony when the mascot representing a Tibetan antelope appears. It would probably have been a better idea to avoid the negative vibes.

This isn’t particularly intended as an anti-China screed; trying to project the right national image is something all governments do, after all, it’s just that big totalitarian governments do it in a big, sweeping, control-freak manner that makes it more obvious. I guess it’s just a feeling that every so often you have to say these things explicitly because, after all, you’re kidding yourself if you think that propaganda doesn’t affect you. I’m planning to see the terracotta warriors; I’ll be watching the Olympics; it will all, inevitably, have some impact on my perception of China. The least I can do is remind myself from time to time that it is propaganda.

» the picture of the stadium is from Wikimedia. The terracotta horses are by molas on Flickr and are used under a by-nc-sa Creative Commons licence.

Politician of the day…

Anna Lo

… is Anna Lo, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, about whom I know nothing except that she was on the radio today and has the most extraordinary accent I’ve ever heard. I remember hearing a Swede who had lived in Liverpool for some time, and that was quite something, but I think a Sino-Ulsterian accent tops it.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran has the subtitle ‘Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone’; the Green Zone being the seven square mile compound in Baghdad centered around the Republican Palace, where the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under L. Paul Bremer III attempted to rule Iraq for about 12 months after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Chandrasekaran paints a picture of a little American bubble where the water and electricity are always working and the air conditioning is on high, the buffet is piled with pork, there are bars and bible study classes, no-one speaks Arabic, and the huge blast-proof walls keep out the noise of gunshots and the call to prayer. Even the food, down to the water the hot-dogs were boiled in, was all shipped in from approved suppliers outside Iraq.

Swimming pool at the Republican Palace, 2003

Swimming pool at the Republican Palace, 2003. Image taken from Wikipedia, and used via a GFDL licence.

Here’s a story which captures some of that disconnection between the people inside the compound and the world around them. It takes place at a farewell party about six weeks before the handover of sovereignty:

It had been a quiet night. No mortar thunderclaps. No messages from the Giant Voice warning people to take cover.

Then came the gunshots. A pop-pop-pop in the distance. Alex Dehgan, a State Department employee at the pool party, dismissed it as a firefight between soldiers and insurgents. So did his colleagues.

But the popping grew louder, more intense. It seemed to be coming from every direction. Orange tracer rounds arced into the night sky. Bursts of AK-47 fire echoed across the Tigris.

Dehgan began to panic. This is it, he thought. The full-on assault. They’re going to crawl over the walls.

He and everyone else by the pool scurried indoors. Some ran into the basement shelter. Others retreated to their offices but stayed away from the windows. They began to wonder if they’d have to leave by helicopter, like the last staffers at the American embassy in Saigon.

Hours later they heard the news: Iraq had defeated Saudi Arabia 3 to 1 in a soccer match, earning a berth at that summer’s Olympics in Athens.

Baghdad was celebrating.

As I hope that story shows, the book is a great read and full of good anecdotes. It would be funny if it wasn’t so incredibly depressing.

Ham station, originally uploaded by Kjirstin. Used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. This picture was taken in the Green Zone, but it’s from after the CPA period; the Green Zone is now the US embassy compound.

If these people had some other, less important job, this might not matter very much. But they were supposed to be running the country. Here’s another quote that seems typical:

Agresto [senior adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education] knew next to nothing about Iraq’s educational system. Even after he was selected, the former professor didn’t read a single book about Iraq. “I wanted to come here with as open a mind as I could have,” he said, “I’d much rather learn firsthand than have it filtered to me by an author.”

In fact Agresto turns out to be, relatively speaking, one of the good guys. When he got to Iraq and encountered the reality of the situation there, he was adaptable enough to set aside his grandiose plans for Iraq’s university system and focus on the pragmatic business of trying to help the universities recover from the damage done by sanctions, war and looting. He didn’t actually manage to achieve much, because he didn’t have the staff or money to do it, but at least he responded to the situation by changing his plans. Most of his colleagues seem to have ploughed on regardless. Still, that mindset, that a career in American academia and an open mind were all the preparation he would need, seems typical of the overconfidence and naivety of the CPA.

Also typical was the choice of a Republican loyalist rather than someone with specific experience of the Middle East or reconstruction in a war zone. Not, I think, out of simple corruption or nepotism, but because it was an operation being run by ideologues from the White House downwards; people who seem to have believed that democracy, privatisation and a free market were some kind of magic wand, and if they could just pass the right laws, the recovery of Iraq would take care of itself. The problem wasn’t so much the fact that they were trying to impose their own political beliefs on the Iraqis, but that they were focusing on theory while Iraq was lawless, unstable, and suffering 40% unemployment and shortages of electricity and fuel.

And that’s just the start of it. There were failures of communication—or overt hostility—between the Pentagon and the State Department, between the CPA and the Iraqis, and between the CPA and the army. They were more worried about how news would play in the US than in Iraq. They didn’t trust the Iraqis to do things for themselves. They didn’t have nearly enough money or enough staff. They allowed the timetable to be driven by the American elections. Over and over again, it all seems to come back to the looting which was left to go unchecked in the week or so after the fall of Saddam, both because it established a pattern of lawlessness and because it crippled half the institutions in Iraq. Hospitals, universities, ministries, schools and businesses lost the equipment they needed to function.

My impression is that the White House and the Pentagon simply didn’t take what they were doing seriously enough. I don’t care how confident they were that, with Saddam out of the way, the Iraqis would gratefully embrace freedom and democracy: they still needed to make plans. Even with the best possible outcome, they would still have been running a whole country, and they seem to have thought they could just wing it.

Anyway. From a British point of view, I would have liked some kind of indication of how my own government fit into the whole situation, but this is a very good book: vivid, thorough, funny, and deeply sad.

Yay for Salman

Some of the response to Rushdie’s knighthood has startled me. Take, for example, this letter to the Times:

Sir, Did the genius who recommended Salman Rushdie for a knighthood not realise the offence that it would cause to the Muslim world after The Satanic Verses debacle or was this calculated? And exactly why did he get a knighthood – he has done nothing for Britain other than cost the taxpayer a fortune in police protection for writing a book the majority never read?

I genuinely didn’t expect to see so much of this kind of thing, although in retrospect, I obviously should have. It’s not surprising that Iran and Pakistan should complain, and since it would perhaps be unnecessarily undiplomatic to tell them to mind their own fucking business, I don’t even mind the British government being mildly conciliatory in response.

But letters like the one above are just extraordinary. All questions of free speech aside, surely providing protection for people whose lives have been threatened by dangerous extremists is exactly the sort of thing the police should be doing? And the idea that we should not give a knighthood to someone because we want to avoid giving offence to the kind of people who issue death threats to novelists is horrifying. It goes so clearly against what I would hope were the core values of our society—freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the rule of law, for a start—that I can’t quite believe that I have to actually say so. I vaguely feel that I’m contributing to the kittens are cute and Scarlett Johansson is hot school of blogging the bloody obvious; but apparently there are people who disagree.

The fact that the sensibilities offended were religious is irrelevant, for me. If the people Rushdie had offended were political extremists instead—if, say, the complaints were coming in from the old apartheid South Africa, or China—I would still want them to mind their own fucking business. But then, perhaps if the complaints weren’t wrapped up in religion, we wouldn’t get people writing such pathetic, squirming, weaselly letters about it to the Times.

The Utility of Force by Rupert Smith

I’ve just finished The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by General Sir Rupert Smith. Rather admirably, he doesn’t actually use those titles on the cover of the book, but his military background is obviously relevant. He joined the military in 1962, and in the last decade of his service he commanded the British Armoured Division in the Gulf War in 1991, was Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff from 92-94, commanded UNPROFOR in Bosnia in 1995, the troops in Northern Ireland from 1996-8, and was NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 1998-2001. So when he says there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way the military works, his opinion is certainly worth taking seriously.

scannet bilde(59)_std, originally uploaded by Torbein.

Years ago, there was a British Army Major on a birding holiday I was on, and at the time I thought how interesting it was to hear him talk about his work, because although the armed forces aren’t exactly secretive, they tend to operate in a kind of parallel world separate from civilian life. Especially since we weren’t involved in any particularly high-profile wars at that point—it must have been just about when Yugoslavia was starting to kick off but before it had pulled in the UN and NATO. Even now, with the Iraq War the biggest political issue of the time, the military aren’t all over the media in quite the way the politicians and pundits are. We tend to get a view of them filtered through all kinds of emotive rhetoric and propaganda, both positive and negative. So the book is interesting just from that point of view, the chance to read a professional soldier’s cool-headed and analytical perspective on the business of using military force.

But the book has a rather more serious purpose than that; it isn’t a memoir, after all. He has a thesis to put forward; basically, that the military—not just the British military, but everyone else’s as well—is set up for doing one kind of job but is called on to do something distinctly different. And that no-one, whether the armed forces, politicians, media or public, has really come to terms with the change yet. So not only is the organisation, training and equipment of the military badly suited to their work, but that everyone around them is having their decisions and judgments distorted by what they think war ought to be like.

The book starts with a historical survey of the development of conventional warfare from Napoleon to the second world war, it terms of changes in tactics, organisation and weaponry, the impact of the railways and so on. War in the form it reached in the two world wars, with the entire industrial capacity of the combatant nations devoted to the war effort, and the military aim of destroying your opponent’s capacity to wage war before he can do the same to you, he refers to as ‘industrial war’.

He also traces the parallel development of guerilla warfare, revolutionary war, terrorism and other kinds of informal warfare over the same period; from Spain in the Napoleonic War, where the word guerilla originated, through the Boer War, the Chinese revolution, WWII resistance movements, Vietnam and so on. He calls these kinds of warfare ‘war amongst the people’.

His contention is that our armed forces are designed to fight an industrial war—against the Soviet Union—and in fact all the conflicts they are involved in are examples of war amongst the people. And not just since the end of the Cold War; for the past 60 years nearly all military engagements have been civil wars, (post) colonial wars, peace-keeping operations and so on; as he points out

the last real tank battle known to the world, one in which the armoured formations of two armies manoeuvred against each other supported by artillery and air forces, one in which the tanks in formation were the deciding force, took place in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai Desert.

Which hasn’t stopped armies buying tanks or even using them; but for the past 35 years, these bits of kit that are supposed to be the technological and military pinnacle of the army’s equipment have not been used to do what they were designed to do. A tank is a fine weapon against another tank, but not very appropriate against a man with an AK-47. The same applies to a modern fighter/bomber; for most contemporary wars it is at the very least hugely over-specified for the job at hand.

IMG_1825-01, originally uploaded by shish0r.

And it’s not just the equipment, but the whole balance of the army. He suggests that we have too many fighting troops as a proportion of our forces, and not enough men trained to gather information. In a situation like Iraq, with non-uniformed enemies fighting in urban conditions among civilians, there’s a limit to how much force you can usefully apply, but you can never have too much information about how best to apply it. Similarly, in an industrial war, liaising and coordinating with the civilian population and civilian organisations is a secondary task and the branches of the armed forces devoted to it are therefore small and unprestigious; in a war among the people it becomes much more complicated and vital to the success of your operations.

If it was just a book about suggested organisational reforms to the army it would still be interesting but it would have less far-reaching implications. Throughout the book the emphasis is less on the business of fighting than the use of force to achieve a goal; the relationship between the military and politics. For me, the take-home message is that war among the people is by its nature political war. I mean obviously all war is political, but in an industrial war, once it starts, the primary objective is a military one and the politics has to serve that aim. If the military is serving a political aim all sorts of things change. For example, ‘winning hearts and minds’ isn’t just a secondary focus that is important because it makes the job of the military easier; it’s the objective that everything else should be working towards. You can’t destroy a guerilla or terrorist ‘army’ by force; you have to create a (political!) climate where they can no longer operate. That means persuading the civilian population that they are better off with you than with the insurgents.

Similarly, both the military and the politicians need to recognise that the military can only achieve military objectives, not political ones. And so because the aims are political, it follows that these wars cannot be ‘won’ by force. Military and politicians need to get out of the mindset of believing that there is the possibility of a military victory that will solve their problem. That doesn’t mean the military has no role, but they have to be subservient to a political aim; they have to be used to help create the conditions for a political solution to be reached. Military victory cannot be an aim in itself.

Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough and I haven’t even touched on all sorts of interesting observations about, for example, dealing with the media, or working within a multinational coalition. I’m not really in a position to assess all his arguments, although they seem persuasive to me, but I found it an immensely interesting book. If anything I’d just say that the historical stuff about Napoleon and Clausewitz and so on in the first half of the book is relatively dry; don’t let it put you off.

n.b. A duplicate of this post appears in my ‘recently read books’ section; I’ve decided that for longer reviews like this it seems silly not to post them on the front page as well. So from now on that’s what I’m going to do.

smoke-filled rooms

I do think it’s funny that the British, so temperamentally disinclined towards conspiracy theories that they even assume that referees are incompetent rather than corrupt, seem ready to believe in a shadowy international conspiracy to fix the result of the Eurovision Song Contest.

EDIT: and after posting that I read that Richard Younger-Ross, the Lib Dem MP for Teignbridge, has tabled an early day motion calling for the voting system to be changed, with the support of three other MPs. Thus proving there’s no subject so trivial that a pathetic, desperate MP won’t wrap it around himself if he thinks it’ll get him ten seconds of media attention.

Pee Rages

I’m finding the whole ‘cash for honours‘ scandal rather surreal. And not just because there’s something odd about the idea of a sequence of Tony Blair’s close advisers being arrested and government tootling along regardless.

As long as I can remember, it has been an accepted fact of the British political system that people who donate a lot of money to political parties are more likely to be given peerages. It’s always been seen as slightly distasteful, and a cause for satire and criticism, but still: more or less normal. The only difference with the current situation is that they are accused of making the quid pro quo explicit. Now clearly the goverment shouldn’t be selling seats in the legislature, and now we’ve got rid of the hereditaries, the dodginess of that has been thrown into relief somewhat; but I just don’t believe that the current government has done anything very different to those who went before.

And the answer, really, is reform of the way the membership of House Of Lords is selected. I don’t generally worry about the fact that the UK’s constitutional arrangements are so messy and chaotic, because looking around the world for comparisons, our political culture seems pretty healthy. But having the Prime Minister able to appoint people to the upper chamber is a conflict of interest too far. Either Lords should be elected (which is what it looks like will happen) or appointed by an independent committee.

Anyway, if you’ve read this far, you deserve some comic relief in the form of a letter to today’s Times. This is the first paragraph:

Sir, Ideas to transform the House of Lords into either an elected chamber or a combination of elected and appointed members are both dangerous to the British political system. In such a fraught debate, the cry of democracy rises up, but with little thought about how such a principle works in practice. The British tradition has never been one of democracy on the model of Ancient Greece. Indeed, many societies that have taken that model to its logical conclusion have themselves come unstuck — witness the French revolutionary experiment.

Yes, you read correctly: someone is comparing an elected second chamber to… The Terror. Personally I thought it only got funnier from then on.

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Presidents and small gods

I’m always puzzled by the fact that, in discussions about abolishing the monarchy, so many people assume it would be necessary to replace the monarch with some kind of president.

To me, ‘king’ suggests a small god. A slight odour of divinity attaches to the idea of a monarch which is sets it apart from other kinds of leader. Many cultures have made this explicit: Egyptian pharoahs were believed to be reincarnations of the god Horus, Roman emperors were often declared as gods after their death, and the Japanese imperial family are descended from the goddess Amaterasu.

Christianity makes it theologically awkward to claim that the king or queen actually is a god, but much of the symbolism remains. The royal touch is no longer regarded as a cure for the King’s Evil, and you don’t often hear anyone arguing for the Divine Right of Kings, but the monarch is still anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the coronation*. For that matter, the throne, crown, orb and scepter are hardly subtle.

[Coronation portrait of Elizabeth I]

The government is known as ‘Her Majesty’s Government’, and the Queen is also Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Head of the Armed Forces and, best of all, Fount of Justice (really, I’m not making this up). So that makes her ultimate source of all power, justice, and temporal and spiritual authority in the country. And of course she’s the Head of State: the very physical embodiment of the United Kingdom. If these are not the characteristics of a god, it’s hard to know what would qualify.

Since, by convention, the Queen does not in fact attempt to govern the church, order the army around or interfere with the decisions of the government or the courts, this is all pretty harmless. What I don’t understand is why anyone feels that, if we got rid of the monarchy, all this symbolism would need to replicated.

For me, that’s what a president to act as Head of State would be: a king substitute. You can see it to some extent in the American convention that while it’s acceptable to criticise the President as an individual, you have to respect the office of President of the United States. Really, what does that even mean? If the presidency is just a (very important) job, what does it mean to ‘respect’ it in some abstract way? Things like the imperial-looking presidential seal which gets plastered all over the place, and the way that ‘President’ is retained as a title for life, suggest that it’s not just a job; that the inauguration is a lot like a coronation.†

People criticising the institution of the monarchy tend to focus on the fact that the monarch is unelected — which is, of course, appallingly undemocratic. But would an elected monarch be any better? Perhaps the problem isn’t that the Queen is unelected, it’s that she’s a queen.

I’m actually not in a hurry to abolish the monarchy, just because of the fuss that would be involved in doing it. In eight years since they got rid of the hereditary peers, Parliament still hasn’t managed to come to an agreement about the composition of the House of Lords. Can you imagine how much discussion it would need for them to decide how to replace the monarch? But if we did decide to ditch the monarchy, I can’t see any need to replace it at all. The Prime Minister can keep running the government, and we can just declare that we don’t have a Head of State. What do we need one for anyway? There’s the occasional state dinner that needs to be hosted, but that hardly requires a monarch; a maitre d’ would be perfectly adequate.

I suppose one worry is that in the absence of a monarch to act as a decoy, there would be some pent-up reservoir of idolatry that would attach itself to the Prime Minister by default and give him ideas above his station. But I’d like to think we could get used to the idea of living as a nation of equals.

*Bonus fact: this, too, represents a kind of divine descent. The Archbishop’s authority descends from the first Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Augustine, who was granted it by the Pope, whose authority ‘descends’ from St Peter and so from Christ. It’s not quite like being a direct descendent of a sun-goddess, but I think the parallel is interesting.

† Just as a comparison, it would be really weird to talk about respecting the office of Prime Minister in the same way. And far from having an inauguration ceremony, the new Prime Minister just moves into 10 Downing street the day after the election. I’m not claiming any kind of British superiority here, btw: we’ve still got a Queen.

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Justice, diplomacy and realpolitik

The other day I was watching some pundits punditing away about the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, and one of them, to general approval from the audience, said some thing to the effect that if the evidence did point to an assassination ordered by the Russian government, ‘diplomacy must not be allowed to obstruct justice’.

I think if I was the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary I might find that a bit glib. There must be all sorts of good reasons why it’s important to have a working relationship with the Russian government. People always bring up their oil and gas reserves in this context, but presumably there are a constant flow of issues, major and minor, where in some way or other the Russians can choose to either help or hinder British objectives. That shouldn’t be messed around with lightly.

I’m not suggesting that pragmatic politics should automatically take precedence over ethical considerations, just that the two need to be weighed against each other. And that it would be nice to occasionally have a grown-up discussion in which people openly stated as much. For example, it’s often pointed out that back in the first Gulf War, the US would not have intervened if it wasn’t for all the oil in Kuwait; that if a dictator invades their neighbour in, say, Central Africa, the West will generally keep out of it. And it’s always implied that oil is somehow a seedy, cynical and probably avaricious consideration. But access to oil is absolutely vital to the continuing functioning of the world’s economies. It should be a contributing factor to foreign policy; a government which didn’t take it seriously would not be doing their job properly.

I’m not, I hope, arguing for a less ethical politics, just a more honest dialogue about it. Politics, and foreign policy in particular, is messy and difficult. We all know that policy decisions are shaped by a mix of practical and ethical reasons and that pragmatism and ethics are often in conflict. How can we have a proper discussion of particular decisions if we pretend otherwise?

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I’m currently reading a biography of Bess of Hardwick. I’m not that far through it yet (don’t tell me how it ends!*), but one thing is striking, reading about Tudor England†: how capricious the politics is and how much it’s dependent on patronage and favour. Admittedly, the period I’ve read about so far covers the end of Henry VIII, a cameo by Lady Jane Grey, the reign of Bloody Mary and the dawning of the age of Elizabeth, so with the dynastic politics and the swings between Protestant and Catholic, it is perhaps unusually unstable. But the basic point remains that all power derives from the monarch, who can have people banished, impoverished or executed at will. At the Holbein exhibition, there were little bios of the subjects next to the portraits; it was noticeable how many of them seemed to have ended up under the axe.

It isn’t just that politics and law are unstable because of the whims of the monarch; it also creates an environment where access to the monarch is everything and where the people with access and influence don’t just get a bit of second-hand power: they also potentially get serious serious money. It breeds conspiracies, factions and coups. The stakes are so high and power is so unanswerable. Men, entire families, could be raised up or destroyed in a moment. And there were indeed plots, revolts and conspiracies; armies were raised and marched on London. And it trickles down; the great lord in favour with the monarch had local influence in their own part of the country, and used it to favour lesser lords who in turn favored their own cronies.

It’s rather like the situation in a poor country which has a lot of oil or diamonds but not much else; all possibility of wealth or success gets tied into one thing — how close people can get to the oil. The economy and politics get twisted out of shape, not because the oil company necessarily intends to be exploitative or ruthless but because the gravitational pull of the oil is so disproportionate to any other source of money.

I remember at university, possibly in my finals, there was a question which was something like: ‘Shakespeare’s tragedies are essentially political. Discuss.’ At the time I was annoyed by it because it seemed like a reflection of a certain critical tendency to find politics in everything, and to foreground politics, in its broad sense, at the expense of other kinds of analysis. Now, though, I’m more sympathetic. A play like Julius Caesar, about courtiers conspiring to kill a king, would have had immediate relevance to the original audience. Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear: all revolve around court politics. All operate in the shadow of civil war. Which isn’t to say that they are narrowly ‘political plays’, but the action does take place in a highly political environment.

It makes an interesting problem for anyone staging them. You want a setting which is contemporary enough to be immediate for the audience, but western politics these days just isn’t brutal, unstable or corrupt enough. Some kind of dictatorship seems the obvious choice, but of course that setting brings a load of baggage of its own. Hamlet set in the court of Kim Jong-Il doesn’t seem quite right somehow.

*Really, don’t: I don’t know that much about her and have no idea what’s going to happen next. I haven’t read that Wikipedia article I just linked to for precisely that reason.

and indeed medieval England, but one thing at a time.

Militant Atheism

I’ve just finished The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which I enjoyed more than I expected, since generally I prefer Dawkins when he’s writing about biology. I might blog about the book later, but for now it got me thinking about religion.

My own opinions are uncompromising: I don’t believe there is anything beyond the material universe, so that means no gods, no fairies, no ghosts. I think that theism and deism are just about intellectually defensible, but the details of particular religions, whether Christianity, Islam, Scientology or whatever, are about as plausible as crystal healing; only their cultural importance gives them a spurious sense of reasonableness.

I used to enjoy arguing with believers for the sake of it, but I largely stopped that at university when I came to the conclusion that I was just upsetting them for no good purpose. And on the whole, despite the occasional internet argument, I’ve stuck to that. I tend to think of religion in much the same way as I think of the monarchy. The status of the royal family is undemocratic, anachronistic and generally intellectually indefensible, but as long as they don’t seem to be doing any harm, and as long as they keep out of politics, trying to get rid of them doesn’t seem like a battle worth having; there’s very little popular support of it, the process of working out a system to replace the status quo would be interminable and painful, and in the end I don’t think we’d have gained much.

The same applies to religion. As long as religions keep themselves to themselves and don’t obviously do much harm to others, I’m generally willing to live and let live. And in the UK, it’s pretty easy to take that attitude. Growing up as a middle-class Londoner, agnosticism was the default position, and if there was any social pressure it was that Christianity was desperately unfashionable. In that environment, rejecting belief is easy, socially and intellectually. And while London is probably exceptionally godless, especially outside the various immigrant communities, the same is broadly true of the UK as a whole. Although 72% of people identify themselves as ‘Christian’ on the census, when asked the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ only 44% of people actually say ‘yes’, with another 21% not being sure. Presumably that leaves another 7% who describe themselves as ‘Christian’ while definitely not believing in God. And even among the believers, only 10% go to church ‘in most weeks’. Fortunately, the Church of England is so theologically open-minded that it’s hardly necessary to believe in God to be a member.

Even more important, perhaps, is that enthusiastic religion is not really very socially acceptable. Certainly for politicians, being overtly religious is more likely to attract mockery than support. So there’s no prospect of anything like the American ‘religious right’ appearing any time soon over here (or indeed, the CofE being what it is, a ‘religious left’).

And yet, recently (and even before reading the Dawkins) I’ve been feeling more militant about my atheism, and less willing to be tolerant of people’s religious beliefs. Partially that’s because of the growth of extremist Islam. Not just the terrorism, which is an unwelcome development but is in the end a fairly minor threat. It’s the intrusion of Islam into politics; the prominence of Islamic organisations as a part of the anti-war movement, the protesting and flag-burning at any perceived slur, the election of George Galloway, the issue of faith schools. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with all of the politics; I’m not a big fan of the war, for example. But I don’t like to see politics infected by religion.

There’s also the increasingly religionised nature of US politics. As I say, I can’t see the same thing happening here; but the prospect of religious zealots in control of the world’s largest ecomony and military isn’t exactly reassuring either. And as worrying as both Islam and the religious right are individually, the most worrying thing of all is the idea of them validating and motivating each other. I’m deeply troubled by the idea that people who talk about a ‘clash of civilisations’ don’t mean a clash between aggressive religion and post-Enlightenment secular democracy, but between two competing religions. I’m troubled by the possibility that, in wishing to define Britishness in opposition to Islamism, people will increasingly talk about the UK as ‘a Christian country’, and Christianity will once again start to seem like a defining part of what makes Britain British. Personally, I can’t see how British history is any kind of advertisement for Christian virtues, since from the Reformation right up to the current situation in Northern Ireland, Britain has repeatedly been torn apart by violent clashes between competing Christian sects; but I know some people see it differently.

Where does this increased militancy lead me? I don’t know, really. It’s not like there has ever been a period in my lifetime when religion wasn’t a source of oppression or conflict somewhere in the world, but somehow at the moment the damage done by religious belief seems particularly vivid. It makes me less inclined to show any respect to someone’s faith just because it’s well-meaning and sincere.

And as irritating as I tend to find militant atheism in others, I have an uncomfortable feeling that I should proselytise, that it’s important to assert that religious beliefs are not simply false but harmful. Even the anaemic Christianity of the CofE represents the victory of superstition and inertia over evidence and logic, and if it does little harm it’s only because it is generally ineffectual. Forceful religion, impassioned religion, campaigning religion: these are Bad Things. Perhaps it needs to be said more often.

The ‘cricket test’

Talking about cricket and politics yesterday, one thing I didn’t mention was Norman Tebbit’s famous ‘cricket test’. Tebbit is a Conservative politician, and in an interview in 1990, he said

A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?

I actually think he’s right that it’s an interesting test, even if it’s a mistake to read too much into it. After all, if someone is from a Pakistani family and has grown up with a cricket-mad father telling them stories of Javed Miandad and Imran Khan, it’s natural for them to support Pakistan and that sporting allegiance doesn’t necessarily prove anything about their patriotism. It’s only cricket, after all. And yet you kind of hope that somewhere along the line it would seem natural for them to support England.

The reason I bring it up is that yesterday England were playing Pakistan in Leeds, a city with a large Pakistani community. Playing for England was Sajid Mahmood, and some of the crowd were chanting ‘traitor’ at him. Which seems a bit pointed. It didn’t seem to harm his bowling — the opposite if anything, he took 4 for 22 in eight overs — and he laughed it off afterwards, saying “It was probably my dad down there instigating it!” But still, it’s another example of cricket’s habit of getting dragged into the politics of post-imperial multicultural Britain.

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