Saturday, June 28, 2014

Chekov's Gatling Gun

It's a grand irony that in the UK, Armed Forces Day coincides with the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The murder of a whiskery Austrian princeling is commonly held to have been the proximate cause of World War I, and the New York Times today asks what would've happened if Ferdinand had lived.  To which the answer is surely - they would've found another excuse to have a massive war, probably within months, because the odds on a bunch of extremely belligerent militarist empire-builders playing nice with their massive armed forces were somewhere around zero.

Homer* had this one nailed in circa 800 BC - "The blade itself incites to violence", ya dig?  That is, the mere existence of the weapon is usually enough to ensure that some use will be found for it... And there sure were a shitload of weapons lying around Europe in the age of empire, and plenty of men with heads full of creative excuses for using them on each other.

That's how it's gone, right through history until the present day, from the shores of Troy to the streets of Kabul.  In all these fun marches and shiny buttons and fancy epaullettes, I hear Madeleine Albright asking - what's the point in paying for this massive military, if you can't use it? 

Well, what indeed, Maddy?

So it's probably apt to hold Armed Forces Day on the twenty-eighth of June, of all days.  With one weepy turn of the page, we flip from the fateful shots in Sarajevo to the unanimous valorisation of soldiery, perfectly encapsulating the reason why we seem to barely understand our own species' most terrible errors or why we're doomed to repeat them indefinitely.

Because really, affairs like this are bizarre historical outliers.  Crack open a military history book or two and read between the lines, and it should be obvious that events like Armed Forces Day are vanishingly rare over the millennia.  From Peru to Persepolis, people have seldom greeted the approach of several hundred soldiers with cheers or flags.  In fact, for the majority of humanity, the arrival of an army on their doorstep almost certainly heralded an imminent beating, looting and/or raping for them, their family and their friends, if they were lucky.

That's how it used to go and how it often still does, in some parts of the planet.  It's notable that roughly half the time throughout history that people have showed up to cheer and shower soldiers with praise and gifts, it was likely because they were marching the fuck away from their city, to go and stab some misery into the tribe in the next valley.

And you might say, well, surely not our army, but I say to you - yes, our army, and everyone else's too.  In these post-Hitler days, in most of the world's nations, it's become fashionable to join in a general pretence that armed forces exist for "defence", when even a cursory glance at the last few decades neatly demonstrates that for real, the purpose of those armed forces is almost always conquest. 

It's usually when I'm making this point that a throat is cleared, a finger wags and some roaster delivers a stentorian lesson in how Some things are worth fighting for.  And indeed, that's true - some things are worth fighting for.  And yet, I notice that this point is most commonly made to me by people who at heart believe that pretty much anything and everything is worth fighting for, and quite often by folk who seem to believe that fighting is worth it in itself, even if only for the fighting alone.

You might say Well Mr Rodent, this is a rather childish worldview that you have here.  And I like to think that it is - children have a simple, black-and-white moral outlook and are considerably less inclined towards inventing and refining convuluted excuses for cruel deeds.

Put it this way - a child knows immediately that it's wrong for Linda to hit Susan, and is capable of maintaining that belief even if they're also aware that Susan had called Linda a bad name first.

You can guarantee that this child won't tell you that e.g. Linda was morally compelled to hit Susan in order to reassure the rest of Primary Four that Linda is committed to their struggle against an outbreak of Susanic profanity, and to demonstrate in no uncertain terms to Billy and Morag her willingness to fight for her beliefs and interests.

For that kind of logic to prevail, we need the assistance of adults.

So anyway, on a less tut-tut note, I'll confess that I'm deliberately over-egging all this to make a point. I guess we can all agree on the armed forces as a necessary evil, and even I'd admit that the odd event full of deep-throating patrio-bollocks isn't exactly Red Square on Victory Day.  And I suppose that it's probably pretty difficult to find a single day of the year that doesn't clash with some huge army or other rampaging its way across some country, somewhere.

But for as long as I'm extolling the virtues of children's morality, I'd offer this take on Sarajevo's International Excuse To Have a Big War Day - that at brass tacks, it would've been really quite difficult for Europe to fall into a continent-crushing disaster after the murder of an Austrian aristocrat if the concerned nations weren't already heavily-armed and highly aggressive.

An obvious point, perhaps, but probably the most important one to bear in mind.

*No, not that Homer.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away

I guess the thing I've enjoyed most about the Tony Blair "We didn't cause Iraq crisis" row is the scope.  I mean, sure, there's been at least a vague reckoning with the 2003 invasion and occupation and their terrible consequences, but even that vast, idiotic catastrophe isn't really the whole story, is it?

The fact is, the US and the UK, with sundry hangers-on, have been bombing Iraq on and off since 1991.

Can I put this in perspective?  I'm 36 years old, so I was 13 when we first started blatting Iraq with missiles.  When the first new drone strike hits Iraq, we'll have been attacking the place for almost two-thirds of my lifetime.

When our long war on Iraq began, Queen were still releasing records featuring a Freddie Mercury who was actually alive at the time.  Nobody had yet heard that hideous Brian Adams song.  Norman Lamont had just been made Chancellor.  People were eagerly anticipating Ghost being released on VHS, and a sequel to The Terminator at the cinema.  

Or to put it another way - when we started bombing Iraq, the very oldest player at the current World Cup had only just moved up to high school and around half of all the players you've seen so far were either toddlers, babies or unborn.  Czechoslovakia were still playing internationals and would for another two years.

I mean, perhaps it's a coincidence that Iraqi society is in a state of utter collapse after 24 years of foreign bombing, sanctioning, invasion, occupation, market experimentation and partition.

Or, you know, maybe there's a link.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Oor Referendum, A Continuing Series

The last time I wrote anything about the referendum, some took it as sympathy for the Nationalists, so let's now redress the balance.

First, the good stuff about the Nats.  Their recent fortunes aren't well understood outside Scotland, but let's start by noting that the SNP has profited in a big way from the New Labour government's mis-steps, successfuly riding a wave of resentment against Tony's mob and squeaking the narrowest of wins in the 2007 election. 

They then followed that by pulling off one of the toughest tasks in government, running the country quietly and effectively with no grand plans, a couple of populist moves, and only the one major controversy that I can recall.

And the sky didn't fall; the crops did not wither on the vine and the lion did not lie down with the lamb.  The electorate noticed that things pretty much just ticked over inoffensively, broadly approved of it, and thus the Nats duly hoovered up a lot of votes that would otherwise have gone to Labour, the Lib Dems or the diddy parties, landing an astounding, thumping victory

But the key to understanding the upcoming referendum is that despite that triumph, most Scots aren't Nationalists or, indeed, even nationalists.  The SNP's current success was born of New Labour's many failures and while they've seized their opportunity with admirable skill and precision, their 2011 win won't automatically translate into an Indy Ref rout.

(And indeed, the referendum almost never happened, as it was a very late addition to their 2007 manifesto.  They even pushed it back past the 2011 election, hoping that they'd be able to change the lie of the land in the intervening period and unexpectedly, they've pulled it off).

In 2007, the idea of Scottish independence was still really only properly popular with the Nats themselves.  Their tireless plugging and continued success has now pushed what was a fringe idea into the mainstream, mainly by repeatedly asking the question -

Well, why shouldn't Scotland be independent?

And indeed, that's resonated with a lot of people who wouldn't otherwise have been much bothered either way.  Scotland's a country much like any other, so why couldn't it govern itself?

The Nats deserve a lot of credit for their success here, from a purely political standpoint.  Bringing a once-lunatic idea into common consideration isn't easy, and it's a huge achievement for their movement.

That's their good points.  Now, for the bad stuff. 

More so than most other major political forces in the UK, Scottish nationalism is an almost entirely faith-based operation.  Sure, the movement's leaders make the odd economic-sounding noise here and there but at heart, it's pure Caledonian Lysenkoism.  Like Don Rumsfeld casting about for weapons intelligence, they're only interested in the data that tells them exactly what they want to hear.

If you showed Alex Salmond some kind of Piketty-esque report that categorically proved beyond dispute that an independent Scotland would be a lot worse off than it is now, he'd still favour independence. Because that's just how he is - that's how they all are.  The policy comes first, and the supporting evidence will be found thereafter, although it's only needed to help rope the rest of us in.

Because Scottish nationalism may be less malignant than other nationalisms, but it still holds only a passing acquaintance with empiricism.  If an independent Scotland will be poorer, then surely the natural zest and industry of self-rule will spur us to make up the deficit and leap forward to a bright, new dawn.

And sure, you can throw that allegation at the unionist parties as well - God knows, their hysterical, trouser-browning displays of fake terror have been a sight to behold, this last year, and they all have similar glaring ideological flaws - but the bottom line is this... 

Will Scotland be better or worse off, on its own?  Alex Salmond doesn't know, and he doesn't much care*.  He believes it will be better, and thus it must be, and so it is with almost all of the SNP's supporters.

Ultimately, it's really a question of faith.  I think it'd be fine for the Nats to say well, we can't predict what's going to happen post-independence, but self-rule is its own reward, so why not just go for it?   

That is the question people are going be voting on, come September.  I think a majority of Scots have the savvy to spot that this is so, and will take that assessment with them into the polling station and que sera, sera.

But it's hardly a surprise that a movement that's so strongly rooted in heart and spirit rather than rationality goes absolutely fucking bananas when, for example, the writer JK Rowling chucks a few quid at the No campaign and announces that she's all for the union.

All Scottish politics is parochial**, and the Nats are more petty and suspicious than most, more even than our cranky local Labourites.  For a movement with almost eight years of government behind it, they're still incredibly paranoid, with an unshakeable conviction that the nation's institutions and its movers-and-shakers are all instinctively against them and their cause.  Thus, they habitually perceive slight and bias in every issue and article.

And sometimes they're right, but more often, they're embarrassingly wrong.

Scottish nationalism generally seems to be far more benign than most of its European equivalents - more tolerant, more welcoming of immigration and difference, more positive.  The SNP mean it when they say that they're multiculturalists, welcoming anyone who wants to help contribute to oor rich tapestry... But it's still nationalism, with all of nationalism's manias and quirks, and when you cut nationalism in any form, it bleeds defiance and resentment.

Which is why we so often wind up with, for example, lots of otherwise sensible people hurling insults at a children's author... Because dissent from the great project can't be rational or well-meant, and must instead be something else, be it bad faith, or malice, or - whisper it - treason.

And that sucks from a Nationalist perspective because, when you find that you've been reduced to hurling insults at Harry Potter...  Well, you've probably already lost the argument.

(For more on this topic, also see Shuggy on what happens when left wing movements yoke themselves to nationalist causes).


A note here, to fend off some of the more obvious complaints - I'm neither a nationalist nor a unionist.  I'm mainly a smartarse, one who concocted a nice, touchy feely global Benetton advert We Are The World mentality, which means that I'm pretty much required to dish out scorn to all nationalism everywhere, insofar as it manifests itself beyond putting on a Scotland strip during our many fruitless qualifying campaigns.

*Neither does e.g. Alasdair Darling or any other No campaigner, for that matter, but they at least have a functioning example to point to. 

**Most British politics usually is too, but that's a post for another day.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Pre-emptive Strike

And so our once-promising Arc of Democracy in the Middle East is threatening to become a full-blown Arc of Murder-Crazed Executioners.

As always, you'd be best to check with other, better sources for background and analysis, but I'm always happy to hand out free inoculations for the inevitable viral outbreak of bullshititis that huge, horrible catastrophes like this always cause.  

I'm already hearing coughs and sneezes about how this latest disaster is e.g. Barack Obama's fault for being a great simpering jessie, or that Isis have annexed a huge chunk of Iraq because of a sudden outbreak of western isolationism and so on and as ever, the parts that aren't wishful thinking are just plain old magical-thinking, or naked opportunism.

With that in mind, let's check a few of the common assertions about how Everything Would Be Better With Much More War that we'll be hearing over the next few days off the list...

The US restored peace and order to Iraq...

A quick one here - there's a major difference between restoring peace and order and Putting almost all of a country's murderous militias on the payroll, arming them to the teeth and then having them root out the very worst of the head-chopping nutters with extreme violence, all the while presiding over a vast programme of terrorisation by the same militias, resulting in a religiously segregated population across many of Iraq's urban areas.

Creating a war-ravaged country full of heavily-armed lunatics who all hate each others' guts but are willing to keep the atrocities a bit below the level of a full-blown national emergency, out of mutual self-interest, is certainly one way of restoring peace and order.  But it's not exactly like inventing Switzerland on the Tigris.

...And so a US military presence would've prevented these Isis victories.

 Again, let's deal with this quickly - the Americans offered to keep a substantial military force in Iraq to "maintain order", or whatever, and the Iraqi government politely invited them to fuck off, please.

The alternative to leaving would be to turn an army of occupation by a kind-of-mutual-consent into an actual army of occupation by accept-it-or-face-the-consequences.

Try as I might, I can't see how the situation would've been improved by, say, Obama forcing the Iraqi government to comply by sticking 20,000 US troops up its backside.  And this is all before we ask how, exactly, another big Fallujah-style combined arms barbecue in e.g. Mosul would be received.

If you think "joyfully, with open arms, because of all the extremists", no cookie for you.  Staying in Iraq to help Iraq even though the Iraqis don't want the American military to stay and help them was not a particularly sane or practical plan but then, neither was invading in the first place.

And now over that porous border to Syria, where 

We should've intervened!

Which is a polite way of saying, We should've reacted to the Syrian meltdown by blasting hell out of the loyalist areas and flooding the country with even more guns and artillery.  

Notice though that the only "intervention" that was seriously proposed was this - basically, hurling a bunch of cruise missiles at Damascus like some kind of expensive, more professional Hamas halal picnic day-out or something.  I think we can guess how effective that would've been in preventing further chaos in Iraq.

But no!  We should've intervened properly! 

And this one is always vague, but we'll have to assume that "intervening properly" probably means at very least smashing fuck out of the Syrian army with a massive military invasion, toppling the Syrian government and destroying its entire political and security apparatus in the name of freedom and democracy, while keeping our fingers crossed that the nation's armed nutters don't start wiping each other out.

You may notice that this plan is quite similar to the one that we previously tried across the border in Iraq, and that it didn't work out very well the last time...  And that's only how it would go if you assume that any invasion came soon enough so that there was only one huge, well-armed opposing force who hates our guts, rather than two.

And let's not forget that all this time Iraq, far from agreeing with us on Syria, has actually been on the other side, supporting the Assads.

So yes, I suppose we could've repeated the Iraq invasion in a larger country in the face of determined resistance from almost every other nation on Earth, including Iraq, so that we could save the Iraqis from the fallout of the Syrian catastrophe, even though the Iraqis absolutely didn't want us to... But I'm not sure that this really helps.

Which leaves us with

Oh no, you are all evil isolationists who turn a blind eye/let people get killed etc. 

Which is a pretty ballsy statement to make, when your preferred policy has probably kickstarted not one, but three hideous sectarian bloodbaths, but the UK's warfans are nothing if they're not strident, swinging colossal sets of steel balls.

But it sounds like you're saying this is all our fault! 

And well, in large part it is, although neither Iraqis nor Syrians have ever really needed our assistance to rub each other out in vast numbers.  So no, it's not all our fault that the region has gone haywire, but that crazy invasion sure didn't do anything to dampen it all down.

Basically, I'm expecting quite a strong pushback against the idea that today's events are in any way linked with any previous insane invasions to promote democracy in the region.  And hey, it's possible that they aren't linked at all. 

I mean, it's possible that this bloodcurdling sectarian war, which arose from an ongoing bloodcurdling sectarian war in a neighbouring state, is wholly and entirely unconnected to Iraq's previous bloodcurdling sectarian war... Of which, the invasion of Iraq and subsequent near-destruction of its entire political and security apparatus was the proximate cause.

But you know, it is a bit of a coincidence that these wars have in large part been fought by similar - and often the same! - factions and people, using the same weapons and tactics, across much the same battlefields.

Which is all worth bearing in mind, next time some roaster starts wibbling about cowardly foreign policy, and so on. 

Saturday, June 07, 2014

My Mark-Off-Peep-Show Shame

With the D-Day memorial marked again this year, a few thoughts on that war and how we memorialise it: 

- It's right and just that we as a nation continue to honour the men who fought in these battles, and with the maximum fanfare.  You don't need to be Robert Harris or Philip Dick to imagine what a world in which Nazism was allowed to triumph or even simply to survive would look like, and it's thanks to all those Allied troops that were willing to get shot to bits that we haven't had to experience it ourselves.  Very good work lads, and thank you all for risking your hides on our behalf.  We hope to see those of you that didn't get killed next year for more of the same.

- "The Greatest Generation" is certainly one way of putting it.  "The Shit-Out-Of-Luck Generation" is another.

- And here's the inevitable But - But I will admit that I find our choice of emphasis a bit weird.   For all the weepy nostalgia, it's crucially important to remember that World War II was principally a vast human catastrophe, a hideous thing full of hate and needless destruction and carnage and casual cruelty on a global scale that killed unfortunately-placed civilians in even greater numbers than actual soldiers. 

The bravery of the men who brought this slaughter to an end, praiseworthy as it certainly is, is a pretty small part of such a bloody disaster, and it's a bit odd that it's come to stand for the whole thing.  

I could elaborate on the awful plight of people caught between Berlin and Moscow, or in the path of the Imperial Army, but won't.  However, I think it's vital to us as a species to prioritise the fact that even our noblest war ever, the most justifiable and defensible piece of industrial mass-murder in human history, involved the good guys killing fuck out of bajillions of innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I'm right up for valorising the Unknown Soldier and I'm as keen as anyone on emphasising the Noble Causeness of it all but taken in the round, the war on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was essentially necessary, rather than specifically moral.  To me, all the wavy-flag trumpet solos look suspiciously like a way of bigging up a lot of regretable but unavoidable horrifying murder in terms of a righteous crusade, and little more.

What I'm saying here is that, even when circumstances force us to ingenious forms of mass slaughter, all those dead civvies are still a horror and an atrocity, and this shit has to be apologised and atoned for.  Building massive military machines and sending them rampaging across entire continents is a hideous thing to do, even if we have no choice at all to do otherwise.  As far as I can see, it's right and correct to laud a just cause and a courageous struggle, but the only moral decision at the end of such an enterprise is to do a hell of a lot of begging for forgiveness for all the godawful things you had to do to win.

Few, if any, of our memorials seem to spend much time or energy on that issue and in my opinion, that huge blind spot has had disastrous consequences in the long run.

- Because it's worth noting that it's precisely this kind of misty-eyed, reflexively-saluting nostalgia about the heroism of the Greatest Ever Generation Of All Time Ever that's been at the root of every damnfool, murderous military adventure ever since. Without a constant drumbeat of jingo horseshit about the awesomeness of defeating the real Hitler, it's difficult to imagine the ensuing battles against e.g. all those Vietnamese Hitlers or the Iraqi one, with their attendant vast bodycounts.

- So it's this kind of flag-waving rah-rah that's left us with, for example, the utterly bizarre sight of people blaming some schlub who got himself captured by the Taliban for the deaths of soldiers sent to look for him rather than seeing it as more the fault of all the dumbasses that sent a hundred thousand troops to sit in the arse end of nowhere, Afghanistan, to do little more than hold their dicks for ten years... And nor is it much seen as also the fault of the people who allowed such a daft situation to arise, by which I mean, us.

- One of the more bizarre things you'll see every time a major war anniversary rolls around is a series of public figures lining up to complain that the current generation of fighting-age men wouldn't be willing to charge a machine gun for freedom.  "Kids these days", they inevitably announce in full-on This Is The Voice Of The Mysterons mode, "Don't have the courage or the spirit of self-sacrifice to do what their forefathers did".

To which I reply, Good.  I'm glad that this generation is averse to getting their brains blown out for Britain, not least because if they weren't, the UK would've been involved in even more insane wars since the end of World War II than the ludicrously large number of them that we actually have been.

And it's interesting to note how many people repeat this noble self-sacrifice stuff about our own fallen heroes, seemingly without spotting that the entire fucking problem presented by World War II was that German and Japanese kids were only too happy to get cut in half by a mortar shell for the glory of the Fatherland.

It seems to me that a world in which fewer people are willing to get bayonetted to death for God and country is likely to be a nicer place to live in than one with more.

But then, for a man who owns a ridiculous, Mark-Off-Peep-Show number of books and films about wars, I have always been a bit of a pinko pacifistic type.