Goodbye to all that

I’m sorry to say it, but I’m glad to see the back of the poppy season. The omnipresence of poppies on television, the competitive patriotism of the tabloids and the increasingly reflexive tendency to refer to all servicemen as ‘heroes’ has made me a bit twitchy over the past few years, but it was really brought into focus by the ludicrous storm in a teacup over FIFA’s refusal to let England team wear shirts with poppies on them. Perhaps most creepy was hearing that both the sports minister and David Cameron had described the poppy as ‘a symbol of national pride’, which I found genuinely unnerving.

Unnerving because when you come from the same culture as someone, you assume that there are some basic cultural touchstones whose meaning is well-established and uncontroversial. I thought everyone brought up in this country agreed that the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for those killed and injured in war; David Cameron saying it is a symbol of national pride is as unexpected as if he said that on a traffic light, red means go.

The whole thing would make me even more uneasy if I thought there was any chance that all this very public symbolism had much chance of turning into anything more sinister. Because if Britain had a history of military coups, I would be wondering if we were heading for the point where we wake up one morning to find a tank parked on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street and a TV bulletin with a man in uniform announcing that, for the sake of national stability, the army had reluctantly found it necessary to install themselves in a transitional government which would of course be strictly temporary.

But we are not that country, and I don’t think that all the slightly shrill rhetoric about sticking up for our boys is really militaristic in origin. It’s that ‘our boys’ have done an awful lot of fighting over the past few years, in wars which no one is very enthusiastic about any more. Thankfully they’re out of Iraq, which started to seem stupid, ill-conceived and counterproductive almost immediately, but Afghanistan just keeps grinding on for year after year and it becomes harder and harder to see what the point is. And on top of that, although it’s something the the tabloids are unlikely to say out loud, there’s the sense that the British forces haven’t actually enhanced their reputation; that they went in with a lot of big talk about their professionalism and expertise in counterinsurgency, and ended up having to be bailed out by the Americans.

So there’s a deep well of anxiety associated with the subject of our armed forces. And if it was a conscript army currently fighting in Afghanistan, that anxiety would probably be expressed directly as anti-war protests. Instead it gets manifested as an insistence that all our fighting men are ‘heroes’ by definition, and as ever more elaborate public displays of support.

However, even if the whole business is, in the end, mostly harmless, it still makes me twitchy. Hopefully now Remembrance Sunday has passed for another year, the press will at least turn down the intensity a couple of notches — although the Mail and the Mirror both have front page headlines about ‘our heroes’ today, so perhaps I’m being too optimistic.

» The photo, Fading Beauty, is © David Maitland and was Specially Commended in the ‘In Praise of Plants and Fungi’ category in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition 2011.

Culture Other

Notes from the war

Not the current debacle in Iraq, the ’39-’45 war. I’m reading the second volume of the Mass-Observation diaries (see my post about the first one here), and I thought I’d just pick out a couple of quotes. After the battle of Alamein:

The newspapers are in ecstasies. There are more maps than ever, showing arrows pointing in all directions, arrows inside arrows, arrows straight and arrows coiled and curving like snakes, and various other wonderful symbols. It is a military map-makers paradise. As Mr H said, ‘You’d think the war was over from the Daily Express headline.’

From a different diarist, this made me laugh:

A neighbour called and left us a Homeopathic tract, and a report on the analysis of some other neighbour’s urine. The latter was probably an oversight.

wartime tram in Glasgow

A wartime tram; picture from The Glasgow Story. You can see a bigger version on their site.

And here’s a woman who has just started work for the United States War Shipping Administration in Glasgow:

I don’t get told much in my new job. At first I thought my new boss Captain Macgowan did not intend to give away secrets till he knew me, but there are many indications that he trusts me – I have a key to the safe where all the private papers are put away. A reserved disposition is a big element, coupled, I think, with a belief that I should be upset if I knew ‘all about’ submarine attacks and the like.

The captains of American vessels have instructions to look us up on arriving and most of them like being in an American atmosphere so much that they come back again and again. They talk freely enough and I am getting to know heaps about life and sea and what seamen are like on shore.

It is a novel environment for me. A woman’s woman, an ardent feminist, a patron of cultural clubs with cups of tea and little cakes (not too plentiful nowadays) me, to be suddenly plunged into a super-masculine world. I must say that viewing them at close quarters, men are getting much better than I thought them before – by men meaning American captains.

I’ve got to the point where the worst of the war, from a British POV, is past, although the diarists don’t know that. The Russians and Americans are both now in the war on the Allied side, the threat of invasion has receded, the Germans have lost the battles of Alamein and Stalingrad. There’s a long way to go, but the Third Reich has peaked.

After the 7/7 bombings, the idea of the Blitz spirit was thrown around a lot, especially by Americans: the time when the British stood alone against the world and kept a stiff upper lip. i couldn’t help feeling, though, reading the diaries of the period, that if you were going to be anywhere in Europe during WWII, Britain was really quite a good choice. Admittedly, and it’s an important point, none of of the diarists are living in the East End of London—or Coventry, or Plymouth, or any of the hardest-hit areas—but still, there were no battles fought street-by-street across Birmingham or Ipswich, no occupation, no starvation, no concentration camps.

You still sometimes see a few left-over anti-tank fortifications if you go for country walks in Kent; if they’d ever been needed, if the Panzers had ever been rolling across Romney Marsh, the pluckiness of the British would have had a real test. The fact that some of those who name-checked the Blitz a couple of years ago were probably the same people who made cheese-eating surrender monkey jokes about the French in the build up to the Iraq war is particularly nauseating.

I guess everyone tends to see world history with themselves at the centre, though. I remember someone posting a poem at an online workshop once which referred to Ireland as having a ‘blood-soaked’ landscape. Well, I know that Ireland’s history has been pretty brutal at times, but blood-soaked compared to Russia? or France? China? Poland? Cambodia? My point being… I don’t know, really. Be wary of self-mythologising, I guess.

Culture Other

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.

Culture Other

We Are At War by Simon Garfield

This is one of a trilogy of books using material from the Mass-Observation archives. To quote Wikipedia:

Mass-Observation was a United Kingdom social research organisation founded in 1937. Their work ended in the mid 1950s … Mass-Observation aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires.

We Are At War is an account of the period from August 1939 to about the start of the Blitz, compiled from the diaries of five M-O participants. It’s a simple idea and it works brilliantly. The diaries combine the texture of everyday life—people write about the weather or what’s on the radio—with the backdrop of great events happening in Europe.

barrage balloon

[photo from the Museum of London picture library]

People’s moods—not just the diarists, but their workmates and family—are one of the most interesting things: swings between optimism and pessimism about the war, including, in the early stages, whether it was even going to happen; the stress of expecting air raids for months before they actually start happening; endless gossip about German spies supposedly having been arrested after committing some faux pas to reveal their identity; a distrust of official news and an uneasy fascination with listening to Lord Haw-Haw.

One thing that’s noticeable is a gradual hardening of attitudes towards the Germans; initially people try to maintain some kind of distinction between the Nazis and the German people, and express some kind of regret at news of German casualties, but they get increasingly ruthless as time goes on and British casualties rise.

I could quote almost any chunk of this book; but this will do, from February 1940 in Glasgow:

Recently Miss Crawford saw a notice in a fish shop: ‘Fish cheap today.’ On looking closer she found the stock consisted of a few pieces of sole at 3s 4d. Since the war broke out I have stopped looking at the fish shops for I know the prices would be too high. It transpires that practically everyone has ceased to eat fish, but the price is not the sole cause. Miss Carswell said she could not bear to eat fish because she remembered what perils the fisherman had been through to get it. Then she continued that she could not bear to eat fish in case they had been feeding on all the dead bodies. Her mother had offered her tinned salmon. ‘for that had been canned before the war began’.

(As usual, this review has also been posted to my recently read books section.)

Culture Other

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.

Culture Other


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.