Monday, 30 November 2015

A good book prompts a trip down memory lane

What could be better than a book that offers a quick burst of pleasurable nostalgia? Especially if it’s a good book.

It was years and years ago – perhaps as many as fifteen – that I first travelled to Toronto. It was February and I’d been given to understand that the winter was cruel in that part of the world, with eight-foot snow drifts and most of the life of the city taking place underground. Imagine my delight when I turned up to blue skies and balmy temperatures, with only small traces of snow still lying around. Why, I even went for a walk along Lake Ontario (OK, not in shirtsleeves) and I think the word to describe it is charming.

Funnily, I’ve been back once more since, again in February, and again to the same weather. So I enjoy informing Canadian friends of the pleasure I’ve had enjoying the mild winters of Ontario.

At that time, Borders had opened few I any bookshops in England – certainly I hadn’t come across any. Later of course they mushroomed, all replete with their inbuilt Starbucks, offering a satisfying experience of being able to browse huge numbers of books and then have a coffee. Satisfying, that experience, but not sufficiently to resist the competition of Amazon – order the book from the comfort of your own couch, make your own latte and avoid all the hassle of traffic and finding a parking spot. So like mushrooms they opened, and like mushrooms they vanished, without even filling an omelette.

Since it was all new to me, I took great pleasure in spending a couple of hours in a huge Borders (with coffee, of course) in central Toronto. And inevitably bought three or four books. But considerations of economy, and luggage weight, made me put back on the shelf one that had attracted my attention.

Inevitably, once I was home, I decided that of all the books I’d looked at, that was the one I should have taken.

Now roll forward a few years, to January 2006. Danielle and I visited New Orleans, just five months after the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina. Our hotel room was up high, and everywhere we looked we could see blue sheets on roofs that had been stripped of their tiles. The streets smelled distinctly of mould, like a damp cellar that’s been neglected too long. And everywhere one could feel the shortage of people – restaurants all had signs up, “looking for cooks – se busca cocineros” or similar.

New Orleans, returned to life
There was also, however, an atmosphere of staunch resistance. The city had been struck. But it was going to re-emerge, and do so with all the beauty and charm for which it is famed.

A little way from the centre, we found a pleasant bookshop. Not a huge affair like the one in Toronto, but something much more comfortable and human in scale. It suddenly occurred to me that they might have that book I’d failed to buy.

There were two women in their thirties running the shop. All bookshops, at one time, seemed to be run by two, sometimes three, women aged something between 30 and 60. They were always polite, friendly and fiendishly well-informed.

“I was looking for a book,” I started, always an intelligent way to open a question in a bookshop, “and I don’t remember what it was called, but it seemed to be contrasting the lives of Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall… I’m sorry, I know that’s pretty vague…”

“Do you mean James F. Simon’s What kind of nation?” asked the thirtyish woman, in her glasses and cardigan (did I say they always wore glasses and cardigans?) “I think we have it in stock.”

She marched me over to the other side of the shop and knelt at a low bookshelf.

“Yes, here it is,” she told me as she handed over a copy of the very book I was after.

Now, last month I finished listening to, rather than reading – I’m into audio books these days: they’re great when walking a dog or vacuuming a floor – Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney which, like the earlier book, compares a president with a Supreme Court Chief Justice. It’s an interesting formula, because we tend to know a little about Presidents, but usually next to nothing about judges. And yet they can fundamentally mould the direction of a nation.

That was certainly true of John Marshall, a last minute appointment by the last Federalist President John Adams before he handed over to his nemesis (but also friend – yes, it’s a great story) Thomas Jefferson. By naming Marshall, Adams hoped to leave some Federalist influence to reign in the Republican Jefferson, whom he regarded as dangerously radical. Marshall made a great many key judgements, not least one of his first, which established that the Supreme Court could carry out judicial review – specify, in fact, whether a law was actually legal – a pretty key power.

So it made for a good book. But so was Lincoln and Taney. Lincoln was, of course, the President who won the Civil War and outlawed Slavery. On the way to that happy outcome, he encountered one of the most significant, but infamous decisions of the Supreme Court, made by Roger Taney: the judgement of the Dred Scott case buttressed slavery and, worse still, authorised the principle that blacks in the US could never be citizens and ““…had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Strong stuff, and well handled by the author. Who turned out to be James F. Simon.

I should have guessed, of course, since the formula was so similar. And Simon has the rare distinction of being both a fine historian and a lawyer. So this approach works particularly well for him.

Both books were a pleasure.

But the greatest pleasure of all was to be reminded of the conditions in which I first discovered their author. In the pleasant winter weather of Toronto. And the charm of a stricken city that was quickly emerging from its pain – with intelligence, grace and elegance.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Syrian air strikes, or the British call for gesture politics

If a group declares war on us, we have every right to take military action against it.

Only a convinced pacifist could think otherwise and, while I have considerable admiration for pacifists (and vegetarians), I can’t follow them in writing off all resort to military action (just like I can’t resist the occasional bacon roll). ISIS has certainly declared war on the West. Not just any war, but one of the most loathsome, directly aimed at civilians. It’s entirely legitimate for the Western powers to respond militarily to that threat. Well, as long as three conditions are met.
  1. There must be legal authority for the war, and broad consensus – which are pretty much the same thing, since both would come through the United Nations. 
  2. There must be parallel diplomatic activity to bring a satisfactory outcome that will end the fighting as quickly as possible.
  3. The military action must be effective, again to keep it short.
On the first two points, there has been a little tentative progress. The UN has backed action against ISIS, with no veto by Russia, which is now involved in the conflict. Discussions in Vienna may lead to some movement over the internal politics of Syria, though past experience gives little grounds for optimism.

It’s on the third point that there’s most to be done.

Firstly, effective military action means action to achieve specific, stated goals. In this context that’s action to defeat ISIS. Not to meet some politician’s hidden agenda.

Secondly, winning a war means taking and holding the territory of an enemy. Consequently, the only branch of the armed services that ultimately matters is the infantry. Air strikes not followed up by infantry achieve very little. The best example of that kind of warfare? The charge of the light brigade, where the cavalry played the role of air strikes today. They charged and took the Russian guns but, without infantry to hold the position afterwards, all the small number of survivors could do, was limp back.

The only place where air strikes against ISIS are being followed up is in Kurdish Iraq. Unsurprisingly, it’s the only place where any territory has recently been taken back from ISIS, at Sinjar. If Iraq had an army worthy of the name, it too could be supported by air power to achieve similar advances, but it doesn’t.

As for Syria, even David Cameron admits we need support on the ground. He accepts that we can’t provide it. Western populations have had enough of sending soldiers to the Middle East, and the Middle East has had far more than enough of seeing them there. Sending them in can make matters far worse, as the disaster of the Iraq invasion has shown: it led directly to the emergence of the very ISIS we’re now having to combat.

So Cameron is relying on the 70,000 so-called moderate rebels in Syria. But as the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner has pointed out, those rebels aren’t that concerned with ISIS. Their aim is to fight the government of Assad in Damascus. Incredibly, they’re also split into 110 factions. Our new friends, the Russians, are also bombing them. Trying to work with the Russians is never easy, but trying to be friends with them and allies of the people they’re bombing would be a major undertaking. That leaves only one force in Syria that can be relied on to tackle ISIS, and hold the ground it recaptures from it: Assad’s own army.

We could, of course, support that army. It wouldn’t be the first time we’d stood with a regime we distinctly disliked in order to overcome a common foe: we supported Stalin against Hitler, for instance. Still, it would take some clever footwork by Cameron. Just two years ago, he was showing exactly the same earnest and sincere desire for air strikes on Syria as he is today – but on that occasion against Assad, rather than against his enemies in ISIS.

In fact, it’s an issue Cameron needs to confront. Why should we believe him now when he got it so badly wrong then?

All this leads to the unfortunate conclusion that there’s no prospect of viable ground forces we can support from the air against ISIS. Consequetly, airstrikes are unlikely to do any good. Indeed, the US has run 7600 against ISIS already, but that didn’t stop the Paris attacks.

US airstrike against ISIS
So why is Cameron so keen on extending the bombing campaign to Syria?

Well, destroying ISIS may be the only legitimate goal of such a campaign, but it’s by no means the only possible obective. In a telling argument for airstrikes in Syria, Cameron has loudly proclaimed that we can’t leave them to the US and France alone.

So there we have it. We’re talking gesture politics. Cameron and his supporters are worried that not taking part makes him, and Britain, look bad. He wants us to join the campaign so that any politician who lines up with him, can face the voters and say “we’re taking action.” The action’s ineffective? No matter, as long as it’s seen to be taken.

This isn’t unusual. It was certainly a major part of the motivation for invading Iraq, to be seen to be doing something, whatever its value, in response to 9/11. Britain’s involvement was down to Blair wanting to offer visible support to the US, or more specifically to Dubya.

The same is true of the plan to renew the British nuclear deterrent, Trident. It’s going to cost the earth – estimates rose recently from £25bn to £31bn – so it must be good. And not to have it would make Britain look weak. So we want to divert huge sums from conventional defence, that we need, to a colossal prestige project involving weapons it would be suicidal to use.

All gesture politics. The real question facing us in Britain today is whether we’re prepared to have more gestures. 

Specifically, how far will we stomach military decisions to help politicians feel better about themselves?

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Tory U-turns: a matter of relief, but with questions of responsibility and irresponsibility.

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain’s Tory government, produced a spending review on 25 November that does a complete U-turn on two heavily trailed and highly unpopular measures.

On his way to making those announcements, he repeated the claim he’s advanced frequently in the past, that any difficulties the economy is facing are the fault of the previous Labour government. As his opposite number, the Labour spokesman on Finance, John McDonnell, pointed out, there comes a time when you have to stop blaming your predecessors and take responsibility yourself. Osborne has, after all, been in office for five and a half years. Back in 2010, he set targets by which to judge him, in particular eliminating the structural deficit in government spending by 2015, which he spectacularly failed to hit.

At the 2015 election, he persuaded a large number of voters to give him another chance to hit his targets by 2020, though it again looks as though he won’t make it. Indeed, I believe one prediction we can make about 2020 with some confidence, is that the Tories’ woes will not have been vanquished, and they’ll still be blaming them on Labour. Osborne, it seems, is never responsible.

Part of his irresponsibility will be continued austerity policies. And that’s despite the two U-turns he has just announced.

The first U-turn concerned cutting tax credits, vitally necessary to a great many people for whom the Tories claim to speak – the striving working poor. The Opposition parties and others had mounted a major campaign against the cuts. It’s a measure of the opponents’ success that they were able to convince a great many voters of their case, and a further measure of that success that Osborne, wily politician with well-tuned antennae, simply abandoned his proposal.

Osborne: a wily politician but not so hot on responsibility
Secondly, he has dropped plans for further cuts to the police, a position made deeply unpopular by the Paris terror attacks.

Smart moves by a clever operator. And most welcome: I supported the opposition to both cuts, and it’s with sincere relief that I greet their abandonment. But there’s no reason to reduce the pressure on Osborne, all the same. For two reasons.

Firstly, it would be deeply foolish to think that he isn’t going to sneak them back in. That’s already happening with tax credits. That particular support is being phased out to be replaced by the new system of Universal Credit – which Osborne has already cut. So as people are moved over to the new arrangements, many will face cuts of £2000 a year and more – around 10% of their earned income – that we were complaining about before.

So the opposition has to continue. Otherwise all we’ll have bought is a little time.

And secondly, there’s the justification Osborne has used for his U-turns. The Office for Budget Responsibility has revised its forecasts of future government revenue. It is on the strength of those forecasts that the government felt it could afford to reverse its cuts. But the Guardian was absolutely right to quote the comment by the great American economist, J K Galbraith, on the subject:

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.

George Osborne has taken a gamble on the economy turning out as the forecasters have suggested it might. Not on money in the bank, but on money he hopes to see flow in later.

Now I’m very much in favour of seeing growth stimulating increased government revenue, so that the constant cuts associated with austerity can end. But it strikes me that a government that is constantly quoting little common place phrases of everyday life as though they constituted analysis of an economic policy for a nation – “the country has maxed out its credit card”, “we inherited an economy on the brink of bankruptcy”, “we’re fixing the roof while the weather’s good” – would at least admit that it’s taken to spending today, money it has at best an uncertain chance of earning tomorrow.

It’s particularly striking in this context that the Office for Budget Responsibility doesn’t have a good track record in economic forecasting. Of course, it doesn’t have to take responsibility for any budgetary decision taken by the government.

But then, it seems George Osborne doesn’t feel the need to either. And he’s taking those decisions. With cheerful irresponsibility.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

It's urgent to get stuck into the Syrian War. Or should we think a little first?

It’s fascinating to watch all the noise that’s been generated over whether or not Britain should take part in air strikes against ISIS in Syria. It’s as though this was becoming an acid test of one’s commitment to democratic rights and rejection of terrorism. Back the bombing of Syria or give up any hope to be taken seriously as an opponent of ISIS, that sort of thing.

No one seems to want to stop and think whether adding Britain’s really rather limited punch to what’s already going on would actually make any serious difference. After all, the US, France and some reluctant, on-off allies from the Arab world have been bombing ISIS for months. As the Paris attacks showed, that’s not really degraded its capacity to act, has it?

It’s not surprising that it’s been so ineffective. Take the French effort after the Paris attack: they flew sorties across the weekend after and announced, with pride, that they’d killed 31 militants. Since estimates range up to 200,000 in ISIS, at 31 dead ever two days, it was going to take a terribly long time to reduce its force seriously that way.

In fact, the only serious reverses to ISIS have been in places like Sinjar, where Kurdish forces have retaken the city from ISIS. Air strikes were vital to that victory, but they couldn’t achieve it alone. It took Kurdish ground forces. 

What’s true in Sinjar is true in Raqqa too. Air strikes will cause inconvenience, and will kill innocents (written off as “collateral damage”) but they will not drive ISIS from their unofficial capital.

No one’s calling for British, French or US forces entering ISIS territory on the ground. Rightly. After all, we put forces on the ground into Iraq, and look how that worked out: our actions directly contributed to the rise of ISIS. The last thing we should do now is to try that again. Far better to back local forces to recapture what is, after all, their land.

I say that though I know that even local forces don’t always do the job we want: there have been accusations of ethnic hostility directed against Sunnis in Sinjar since the Kurds took the city.

In any case, the problem is that in Iraq only the Kurds seem to be capable of putting effective forces in the field. The Shia dominated government is unable to build an army able to take on ISIS. As for the Sunni opposition, rather too many of them seem to have decided that their poor treatment by the government can only be met by backing ISIS.

As for Syria, who on earth can we put our trust in? Who can play the role that the Kurds have played in Iraq? That role may be limited, but in Syria, gripped by a three-way civil war, no one can play it at all.

Which brings us back to the question of the air strikes. Because even in the air, the situation is as confused as on the ground.

We have the US and France with occasional allies bombing ISIS positions. We have Russians claiming to bomb ISIS position but, apparently, focusing more of their action on other, non-ISIS opponents of President Assad – indeed on the anti-Assad forces that the US, France and Britain support. 

To the North lies Turkey, ally of the US, France and Britain, in NATO. But it has Kurdish opponents within its own territory – Kurdistan extends into Iraq, Syria and Turkey. So our ally Turkey has little time for the only force that is making progress against ISIS in Iraq. If the enemy of Turkey’s enemy is Turkey’s friend, one has to wonder how they really feel about ISIS.

And that takes us to the latest development, the downing of a Russian fighter on the Turkish-Syrian border. A long way, incidentally, from the nearest ISIS positions. At first Turkey claimed the strike, on the grounds that the plane had entered its airspace. But later Turkoman rebels in Syria claimed they’d brought down the plane.

Russian jet brought down probably by Turkey.
Adding to the sense of chaos
So we have Russia running bombing strikes against ISIS nowhere near ISIS positions, and we have Turkey, or possibly Syrian rebels aligned with Turkey, bringing down one of the planes.

Confused? Yes, it’s a frighteningly confusing situation. Multiple actors with different agendas, including unavowable objectives kept hidden from their allies, and sometimes running directly contrary to the war aims of those allies.

But in Britain the debate has been boiled down to just one question: when are we going to join the US and France in bombing ISIS in Syria?

Isn’t it time that we started asking a few more questions? Perhaps more sophisticated ones? And maybe do a little thinking about the complexities of the situation before we leap into action?

Especially since such action isn’t likely to do a lot of good, and could create further dangerous incidents, like the downing of the Russian jet.

PS, on a lighter note

If it was the Turks that brought down the Russian plane, it does occur to me that they might have limited themselves to issuing warnings and following up with a stiff diplomatic note afterwards. That would at least have avoided the risk of precipitating a major international incident.

All that reminds me of a story told me by my Genevan uncle-in-law. 

During WW2, British bombers attacking Italian targets would apparently take a shortcut through Swiss airspace. The Swiss were neutral, but flying around took too long and consumed too much fuel.

Every time they did it, Swiss anti-aircraft crews would radio the RAF planes.

“You’re overflying Swiss territory, you’re overflying Swiss territory.”

The RAF crews would radio back.

“We know, we know.”

The Swiss gunners would open fire and the RAF would radio them again.

“You’re firing too far to the left, you’re firing too far to the left.”

“We know, we know,” would reply the Swiss.

Monday, 23 November 2015

A TV of strong female leads. At last

It felt like a long overdue change might be taking place, as we watched episodes from three TV series this weekend, all with powerful female characters.

Amazon released a couple of episodes of The Man in the High Castle some time back, but the full series came out at the end of last week. It’s set in a parallel present (well, parallel past now, since the book appeared in 1962). World War 2 was won by Germany and Japan. What had been the United States is now split into a huge zone covering the middle and eastern states, under the dominion of the Greater Nazi Reich, a smaller coastal area in the west administered by imperial Japan, and between them a neutral zone based around the Rocky Mountains.

An alternative reality for the United States
The key figure is Juliana Crain, well played by Alexa Davalos as conflicted, troubled and dangerous to all who come into contact with her. Around her are some powerful characters, mostly male – including an utterly vicious bounty hunter played with deeply sinister and blood-chilling panache by Burn Gorman – and together they make for great viewing. But don’t make my mistake and read the book before watching the series: I find myself constantly regretting the series’ divergence from Philip K. Dick’s novel. It presents the Japanese as significantly less heavy handed in their oppression than the Nazis; indeed, much of the narration focuses on a Japanese character whose torment is central to the action. In addition, the book is much more about the nature of fiction and reality, far less about the top-level story. Most of that seems to be gone from the series, at least in the first four episodes we’ve watched so far. Instead, it’s more concerned to tell a tale around the theme of occupation and resistance.

It’s still gripping, though, and Juliana’s character is complex and believable.

Meanwhile, the BBC has released the latest season of The Bridge, the Swedish-Danish police series centred around the character of Saga Norén, socially awkward to the point of autism, but a thorough and gifted detective with the Swedish police in Malmo. We were a little concerned about how the story would keep going having lost Saga’s opposite number from Copenhagen, Martin Rohde, denounced by her at the end of season 2 and now in gaol. But the series keeps going just fine, with the same bewildering cast of characters, the same highly-stylised and vicious killings, and Saga driving same Porsche with its weird shade of green.

Saga Norén and her weird-coloured Porsche 911
A sub-plot’s already been announced, in which Saga’s going to have to address her own complex past, above all in relation to her parents and the death, for which she blames them, of her sister. Chickens, one feels, are going to come to roost. Meanwhile, her new Danish partner has secrets of his own, including drugs and apparently a rather unusual view of sex. Plenty of promise there, then, for more Nordic noir at its most intense.

The other series has just been released on Netflix. Even the Guardian talked about Jessica Jones as unusual for being yet another Marvel comics spinoff, but unusually with a strong female lead. The eponymous protagonist is played by Krysten Ritter, and she has real complexity. Still shaken by PTSD, she seeks solace in two activities which donplay much of a role in most comics: heavy drinking and (occasionally) casual sex. She’s a compelling character, but not necessarily a nice one.

Jessica Jones: always interesting, not always nice
The basic story line is standard for a Marvel spinoff. She’s a super-hero, though with the neat twist that she’s retired from the game, making her living as a Private Investigator. She’s up against a super villain (David Tennant) with truly diabolical powers – indeed it’s because she’s a past victim of his that she’s a PTSD sufferer – and, again in an original departure, there’s nothing of the joker about his villainy, which is quite bleakly cruel. Much more like The Bridge indeed, than Guardians of the Galaxy, say.

I didn’t expect ever to feel anything more than slightly supercilious amusement at a comic-strip spinoff, but this one’s a cut or two above that. I’m looking forward to the next episode.

PS In a piece about strong female characters on TV, you might feel I ought to have said something about Nicola Walker. I haven’t forgotten her. Watch this space.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Under attack, France unites in resistance around the Marseillaise

No words in response to the Friday the thirteenth attacks in Paris have struck me as much as the message “je suis en terrasse” – I’m on a [café or restaurant] terrace. 

As a way of expressing defiance to the terrorists who attacked, among other places, a café and a restaurant, they can’t be bettered: they say, “we’re not going to be put off, we’re going to go on living the life we choose, despite your vile actions and your threats.”

French defiance: your acts won't drive me away from the life I choose

It’s relatively unusual, since this particular attack hasn’t produced much in the way of universally appealing slogans. Nothing so striking as “Je suis Charlie” after the murders at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo or the first use of a phrase of this kind, “Nous sommes tous Américains”, we are all Americans, the day after 9/11. There has been one fine visual image, the peace symbol with the Eiffel Tower at its centre. It has power and elegance, but hasn’t had the impact one might expect.

A great symbol, but it hasn't taken of like “Je suis Charlie”
In the absence of overarching visual symbols, there’s an audible one that keeps recurring and really does incarnate French attitudes towards their aggressors: the singing of the Marseillaise.

The French are lucky in possessing a stirring anthem. One that it’s hard not to hear without wanting to sing it. Why, some of the best bits of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture are built around the Marseillaise. That’s ironic, since he wrote the piece to communicate quite the reverse message – the triumph of Russia over Napoleonic France. Sadly, the national anthem of Russia, as it appears in the same piece of music, is as dirge-like as our own anthem, here in Britain.

There was a bit of a scandal in Britain some weeks ago over the then newly-elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, failing to sing the anthem at a memorial service. He could never have said it, but I wish he’d replied that he found nothing sufficiently inspiring in that dreary tune to make him want to sing it.

I mean, compare God save the Queen with The Star Spangled Banner. All we Brits ask for is to be allowed to have the Queen reigning over for us for ages, to a stodgy tune. I prefer Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which England fans sing at rugby matches. On the other hand, given the recent performance of the team, something dirge-like is probably, and sadly, more appropriate.

The Americans, in contrast to the Brits, celebrate the continued resistance of their gallant forces to the overwhelming aggression of their dastardly (and, as it happens, British) foes.

The French call on their compatriots to rise up against the blood-soaked flag of tyranny. In passing, I have to admit that the Marseillaise also calls for the furrows of French fields to be irrigated with “impure blood”, which could lead to all sorts of racist notions of what kind of blood is pure – notions that have sadly played a role in the debate since the ISIS attacks. That’s going to be discussed repeatedly in the coming months and years, as we argue over the difference between the small numbers of Muslims behaving viciously, and the entire Muslim community.

That can wait, however. For now, let’s focus on the way the Marseillaise acts as a bond between Frenchmen in adversity.

Fans were being evacuated from the Stade de France, filing through the tunnels to the exits, spontaneously began to sing the anthem. The same scene occurred several times on the following days: the Marseillaise being sung by people gathering to mark the event. Again, on Friday evening a man, in an apartment near the Bataclan concert hall, started to sing it as the time of the attacks came round, one week on. Passers-by took it up in the street.

All this reminded me of a Frenchman I heard interviewed on the radio some years ago. As a young man, in 1940, following the disaster of the French defeat in May of that year, he was one of the handful who immediately responded to de Gaulle’s call to form a resistance to the Nazi occupation. He managed to make his way to London and eventually to the building the Churchill government had made available to de Gaulle for his headquarters. There was, as yet, no accommodation for the young volunteers and so he spent the first night with several dozen others, sleeping rough on the floors of the offices.

The young men were of many backgrounds and viewpoints – poor or wealthy, Catholic, Republican or Communist – thrown together in their sleeping bags on the hard floor. The one thing they had in common was that they were French, and they were determined to start on the long, hard and uncertain road which would take their nation back from humiliation to pride.

So, spontaneously, like the football fans in the tunnel at the Stade de France, or the Parisians near the Bataclan, in the lonely dark, they began softly to sing the Marseillaise. Which so fully expressed what united them, and their will to fight back.

Harking back to that time, and the spirit of resistance it generated, is perhaps the best way for the French to react to what happened in the ISIS attacks. Maybe its appropriate that the Marseillaise should be the principal symbol of their response.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Terrorism: hardly a tactic refused by the West, and by no means an expression of power

The atmosphere today is febrile with the fear of terrorism. 

Not without reason. If the attacks on Paris prove anything, they prove that terrorists are capable of reaching right into the places we think of as safest and hit us there. That’s a prospect that makes ISIS seem frighteningly powerful.

We’d do well, however, not to be carried away by our natural fear. In particular, we mustn’t overstate the power of a terrorist movement. In reality, terrorism is precisely the opposite of the expression of power – it is a blind lashing out in impotence, by a movement incapable of exerting real power against its foes.

Nor should we make the mistake of thinking the West incapable of acting in equally terrorist ways. Indeed, we should remember that when the Western democracies went for terrorism, they wreaked incomparably more harm than ISIS ever has.

After the defeat of France by Nazi Germany, Britain was briefly left to fight on alone – although it wasn’t quite as isolated as that sounds, since it could draw on the support of a still substantial empire. However, Britain was in no state to wage an effective ground war against Germany. Indeed, when France and Britain together had decided to strike at Germany using ground forces, it was through an invasion at Narvik in Norway, designed to win access to Swedish iron ore supplies, and deny them to the Nazis. The campaign ended in the ignominious retreat of the French and British forces, and the defeat of Norway by Germany, which promptly occupied the country (as it had Denmark on the way).

At sea, British dominance was unchallenged. But Germany wasn’t fighting a naval war, apart from the submarine campaign against convoys supplying Britain – in which it was giving the Royal Navy a tough battle.

So, in its inability to achieve any kind of success on land, and fully committed in a defensive battle at sea, Britain could only turn to air power to produce some evidence to its population of effective action against the enemy. Hence was born what came to be called the strategic bombing campaign. Cutting through technical and apparently neutral terms, that was the mass bombing of German cities.

The thing about bombing cities is that the only thing it will certainly do is kill a lot of civilians. Indeed, something like 305,000 Germans were killed by this campaign. Nearly 800,000 were wounded. 7.5 million were made homeless.

Aftermath of the bombing of a German city in World War 2
Naturally, the campaign wasn’t openly described as terrorism in Britain (it was, equally naturally, in Germany). It was justified as a way of degrading German industrial capacity, in which it was a failure: production continued to grow throughout the war. However, it was also presented as a means of breaking the population’s willingness to support the war. The Area Bombing Directive of Valentine’s Day 1942 (history is full of ironies) which began the carpet bombing of cities, set as its objective “to focus attacks on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular the industrial workers.” That really is the textbook definition of terrorism: deliberate targeting of a civilian population in order to destroy its morale.

The Germans used the same approach. Over 60,000 British deaths were caused by German bombing. The Germans were just as happy to adopt terrorist tactics as the British; only lack of resources prevented them causing the same level of damage.

So a first observation: it would take over 2000 attacks like last Friday’s in Paris to inflict on the French the kind of destruction the Allies wreaked in Germany. When it came to terror, we had the resources to be a lot more effective at it than ISIS is or ever will be.

And a second observation: it was no evidence of strength on the part of Britain, and later the USA. It’s hard to point to any advantage to the Allied cause that came from bombing German cities. Indeed, it often did us harm. As military historian Correlli Barnett has argued, the campaign diverted resources from providing air cover for convoys, driving Britain nearly to starvation at the height of the U-boat campaign. When it came to depleting German capacity, far more was achieved by bombing railways and canals. No, the bombing was the reaction of a nation that could see no way to win significant victories for the time being, lashing out at its enemies in the only way it could. It hardly mattered whether it did anything useful.

The use of terror tactics by ISIS is of the same order. It had some spectacular success initially in Iraq and Syria but now it’s bogged down. Terror is a way of venting its hatred against its enemies, whether in Lebanon, at Sharm El Sheikh, or in Paris, and it matters little whether it achieves anything for its cause.

In fact, it looks strongly as though ISIS is doing itself harm. It has brought down a Russian airliner and attacked Paris. That has suddenly brought together people who were having real trouble reaching any kind of common ground. We may even see NATO and Russia finally coordinating their actions in the Middle East to defeat ISIS, before considering the questions on which they have differences.

Rather like Japan attacking Pearl Harbor, ISIS may have woken a sleeping giant. That may seal its fate.

See what I mean? The use of terrorism doesn’t show power, it shows weakness. In this case, a possibly fatal weakness.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Combating terrorism: we know what works and what doesn't. So why do we keep choosing what doesn't?

There’s no simpler solution to complex politics than war.

That’s because all war requires is the willingness to spend a lot of money, sacrifice a number of lives of your own people and, if things go to plan, a lot more lives of another people. Mostly nations of the prosperous West have little difficulty working up the necessary will. So, for instance, the Fench reaction to the Paris attacks, to mount bombing raids on ISIS in Syria, is a simple, not to say simplistic, response.

French air strikes.
Simple. Powerful. Effective? Who knows.
Almost as simple is rounding up people. It’s more difficult if you take the trouble to arrest real suspects, against whom you can mount a case. If you just go after people who might be supporters, without pedantic concern for, say, evidence, that’s as easy as bombing raids. You might, like France, just round up the perpetrators’ families.

Not that I’m particularly criticising France. Other nations behave as badly. Consider reactions to the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001, carried out by a team which was predominantly Saudi. The leader of the organisation behind the attack, Al Qaida, was also Saudi. Much of the funding was Saudi.

It still made some sense to attack Afghanistan, if only because the Al Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden, was living there. But it made no sense to attack Iraq next. Iraq? There was no suggestion of Iraqi involvement in 9/11. So the justification for the Iraq invasion became weapons of mass destruction. Absence of evidence, the hawks would tell us, isn’t evidence of absence. However, once we were able to establish facts on the ground, it became clear there was plenty of evidence of the absence of those weapons. And hence absence of any justification for the war.

To try to give it some kind of retrospective appeal, the invading forces decided to rebuild the country along new, improved lines. Unfortunately, they used the army to do the job. Armies are designed to destroy, not to build. So the effects were as disastrous as might – ought – to have been expected.

After years of downright oppression, the Shia majority of Iraq took power. Like most people previously downtrodden, they leaped at the opportunity to do some treading down themselves. The West, which had casually disbanded the Iraqi army with its Sunni leadership, took no steps to protect Sunnis from the rule of their enemies. New Sunni resistance movements emerged, fell under the control of religious fundamentalists, and from that toxic fusion, produced ISIS.

Doesn’t the French reaction, so far, to the Paris attacks remind you of the US/UK response to 9/11? Force first, and repression, rather than thought, self-analysis and careful consideration of the consequences of action.

Self-analysis is badly needed. It’s emerging that both Iraq and Turkey warned France of the impending attacks. That they weren’t forestalled is a major intelligence failure. Analysing that shortcoming is far harder than despatching aircraft or arresting suspects. Besides, many people – some of them individuals I’d previously regarded as sensible – are clamouring for heavy handed action. “Close the borders!” they call, “lock up the imams! Kick out the refugees!”

That last call is particularly curious. Many refugees are fleeing the onslaught of ISIS, the very foe we face in the West, and which the West created. More Syrians are killed every day than in the Paris attacks that so stunned Europe. Close the borders to them? That’s like eating a starving man’s meal and then refusing to let emergency supplies through.

What’s worst about the demand for repression is that we saw what happened when we took that approach towards Iraq. It heightened tensions. It attracted recruits to the insurgent cause. It led to the unleashing of the forces we now have to combat.

Curiously, we also know a different way of behaving and know it works. When the troubles broke out in Northern Ireland, Britain’s initial response was also repressive. The consequences were Bloody Sunday, the Guildford 4, the Birmingham 6, a whole litany of other miscarriages of justice, murders, bombings and misery.

Eventually saner spirits prevailed. They understood that an insurgency only survives with the support of a disaffected population. So steps were taken to stop the disaffection. Housing, job opportunities and education were improved for the previously oppressed nationalist communities. Military action was maintained but at a lower level, while the accent moved more firmly on effective intelligence work, until the IRA was so penetrated that its decisions were being communicated to British security services in near real time.

Out of all this came the Good Friday peace agreement. There have been setbacks, but by and large it’s held. The result, for anyone who remembers Belfast before, is spectacular. It used to be a city under siege; today it’s vibrant and exciting. 

That approach works, and we know it works. Against ISIS, we may have to use more extensive brute force, to defeat it militarily. But we’ll also need far better intelligence work than France has produced so far. And we’ll need to support the communities that produce the terrorists.

The last step’s counter-intuitive. It means investing in the very people from whom the insurgency emerges. It means making them prosperous and tolerating their cultures and faiths. For those in France who are sickened by the Muslim veil or beard, and are saying so loudly since the attacks, that will be a hard pill to swallow.

Trust me, guys. It really works. Far better than repression, which is what ISIS wants – repression generates the oppressed, disaffected Sunnis who made it strong in the first place. ISIS hates the idea of well-off Muslim communities in the West, peacefully coexisting Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. 

Because they’ll snuff ISIS out.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Paris attacks: how we might react, and how we should

Yesterday morning, 13 November, the British media were dominated by one story: the probable killing by a US drone strike in Syria of “Jihadi John”, British citizen Mohammed Emwazi. He became notorious around the world when he executed, on camera and with cruel delight, six captives of the ISIS group.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party, responded to the news of Emwazi’s likely death, with the comment, “it appears Mohammed Emwazi has been held to account for his callous and brutal crimes. However, it would have been far better for us all if he had been held to account in a court of law.”

Indeed. Being killed in the streets of Raqqa by a US weapon turns him into a martyr of the fight against imperialism; in front of a court, he could have been exposed as the cruel, small, cowardly man he really was.

The point was made more strongly still and, for me, more movingly by Diane Foley, mother of one of Emwazi’s victims, James Foley.

Diane Foley: It saddens me that, here in America, we’re celebrating the killing of this deranged, pathetic young man…

ABC (Brian Ross): It gives you no solace?

Diane Foley: No. Not at all. Had circumstances been different, Jim [James Foley] probably would have befriended him and tried to help him. It’s just so sad that our precious resources have been concentrated to seek revenge, if you will, or kill this man when if a bit of them had been utilised to save our young Americans... That’s what our country should be doing, I think, is protecting our citizens and the vulnerable, the people who are suffering, and not trying to seek revenge and bomb… I’m sorry… Jim would have been devastated with the whole thing. Jim was a peacemaker. He wanted to know how we could figure out why, why all this is happening.

ABC: For you there’s no sense of justice then, in this strike?

Diane Foley: Justice? No. It’s just sad. We have to be careful … not to glorify this deranged young man. I mean, he’s a sad individual, filled with hate for us. I hope our country can choose to lead in ways of peace and valuing young Americans who are trying to protect… our best ideals. That’s the part of America I’m proud of... I don’t like this bully part, I’m sorry, no.

She’s so right. We went to war in 2003 to wreak revenge for 9/11 on someone, anyone – after all, Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks – and the result has been twelve years of more disasters including the rise of ISIS, the ravaging of the region, a huge flow of refugees which we’re struggling to cope with, and further terrorist outrages. Twelve years, with no end in sight.

Yesterday morning, though, the talk was all about how significant the likely death of Emwazi would prove. Since he was not a significant player in ISIS, it was generally felt that his death would not be a body blow to the organisation, though it would be a major propaganda coup.

Parisian emergency services going into action
at the Bataclan concert hall, where most victims were killed
And then we had the Paris attacks. When it comes to propaganda effect, it leaves the killing of Emwazi firmly in the shade. It was a way of saying to the West:

Firstly, that we are all targets – ISIS doesn’t attack individuals like Emwazi, it attacks whole populations, with no interest in guilt or innocence (or rather, on the assumption that we are all guilty).

Secondly, the attack shows that our twelve years of fighting, with all the investment of lives and treasure, have had no impact at all on degrading our enemies’ capacity to strike us. The Paris attack is the worst France has undergone since the Second World War.

There’s quite a message behind this.

Lesson number 1 is the easy one: ISIS is a present and growing threat, and we need to combat it.

Lesson number 2 is that the approach we’ve taken so far has only been partially successful. Excellent intelligence work in a number of countries has prevented attacks within their territory. France probably needs to do a great deal better in this field. But when it comes to snuffing out the movement at its roots, in Syria and Iraq, we’ve done little more than nibble around the edges of the problem. Indeed, we created many of the difficulties in Syria and Iraq ourselves when, in our pursuit of the kind of revenge Diane Foley criticises, we incompetently waged war in the region. Remember the prisoner abuses in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and ask yourself what they did to attract recruits to ISIS.

Lesson number 3 is the lamentable one. The most common reaction to the events in Paris will probably be to want to do more of precisely the things that have proved ineffective in the past. There’ll be more Islamophobia. There’ll be more calls for curbs on immigration. There’ll be more pressure to go to war.

What there’s unlikely to be is any attempt to follow Diane Foley’s advice, to stop wasting our resources on seeking revenge, and instead focus on protecting our people and upholding our values. That doesn’t mean ducking the issue of war if military action really is necessary, but only taking it when we know exactly what we’re doing, it’s limited to necessary and defensible goals, it’s legal and we know it can achieve what we need.

If I’m lucky, I’ll be proved wrong. The West will adopt a different and far more intelligent approach to the problems that 9/11 and the ill-thought out Western reactions have caused. And at last we’ll see effective action taken.

Well, we can always hope...

Thursday, 12 November 2015

George Osborne: being buried by his own poll tax?

Tory proposals to cut tax credits, benefits to help the poorly paid survive, are “a mistake on a par with the poll tax,” according to Gordon Brown.

Brown, Labour Prime Minister until he was defeated in the 2010 General Election, tends to limit his public interventions. So it’s a measure of how important he feels the attack on tax credits is, that he’s spoken up now. And it’s telling that he compares this Tory policy to the poll tax: it was the measure that Thatcher brought in towards the end of her tenure of office, and which ultimately broke her. Unpopular in the country, it wrought consternation among her own members of parliament who saw it could cost them their seats, so they brought her down.

Gordon Brown:
elder statesman denouncing Osborne's onslaught on the poor
There are times when, as Brown suggests, it seems the tax credit cuts may do the same for George Osborne. He’s Chancellor of the Exchequer now, but has aspirations to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister. An adverse vote by the House of Lords, which usually refrains from reversing decisions of the Commons on financial matters, forced Osborne back to the drawing board on his cuts. But now even Conservatives are questioning whether they’re acceptable, even if introduced more gradually and reduced in scope.

The Parliamentary Select Committee on Work and Pensions, despite its Tory majority, has called on Osborne to consider postponing the cuts for at least a year to consider other options, if he can’t mitigate the effects of the cuts adequately.

And a Tory MP, Stephen McPartland, boycotted a visit by a Treasury Minister and fellow Tory to his constituency this week, because the Minister refused to discuss the cuts. McPartland had calculated that a family on £20,000 a year, well below the median income for the country but well above the lowest, is likely to lose £2000 a year under the proposals. The government maintains that it’s committed to supporting strivers rather than skivers, but this would be a striving family that would suffer a major blow from Osborne’s policies.

When opposition begins to build within the Conservative Party itself, it seems that as well as a rod for backs of the poor, the Chancellor may well be building one for his own. The next election is still years away, and the Tories may weather this storm and suffer no lasting damage from it. But at least they are, for now, being put to the rack for policies which are inflicting real suffering and which they clearly hadn’t thought through.

That’s another parallel with the poll tax. It was a flat rate tax to support local government. Because it was the same for all, it disproportionately hurt the poor, as the tax credit cuts will. And Thatcher didnt fully think it through: she had reached the point of believing so firmly in her political instincts that she insisted on pressing ahead with the measure, against the advice of most of her entourage. Until she paid the price.

We’ll see whether Osborne is able to show a little more flexibility. Or will pay the same price.

That will depend on whether he presses on with the tax credit changes. Ironically, most of us, including no doubt Gordon Brown, would be delighted to see the payments falling away to zero. Since they are earnings-related, they would wither away as people earned more. Brown would not doubt be keen to see wages rise in that way. Meanwhile, the Tories claim they want to see us becoming a high-wage, low-benefit economy. Indeed, that’s become a slightly monotonous refrain of theirs these days.

Well, raise the wages and the benefits will, automatically and inevitably, fall.

What’s interesting is that Osborne wants to cut the benefits by direct government action. In other words, he doesn’t himself believe in the “high wage” part of his mantra – if wages were rising as he claims to wish, he wouldn’t need to reduce the benefits himself. They would fall of their own accord.

All of which rather suggests he doesn’t believe his own words. In turn, that suggests that no one else should either. And, what’s more, if his proposals turn into his version of the poll tax, and come back to bury him – well, it could hardly happen to a more deserving fellow.

Monday, 9 November 2015

A useful anniversary, as we debate further military action

November 8 was an anniversary worth noting.

It was the 33rd birthday of a woman whose name used to be notorious around the world, but who has faded pretty entirely from view recently: Lynndie England. She was brought up a disturbed child in a poor family in rural Kentucky. In childhood, she was diagnosed with selective mutism, a condition which leaves a sufferer unable to speak in certain situations or to certain people, even if threatened with dire consequences. At 20, she was married, but divorced soon afterwards.

Then in 2003, a decision she had taken while still not out of her troubled childhood, to join the US Army Reserve, transformed her life and that of many others. She was deployed to Iraq. A semi-educated, inadequately trained, part-time soldier, she found herself thrust into a conflict orchestrated by people she didn’t know, and who should themselves have known better.

She was presumably not a candidate for any of the war roles that attract glory, or at least honour, or at any rate respect. Instead she was sent to Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad, as a guard.

Being a prison warder isn’t an easy job. It requires training and then years of experience under the supervision of others who’ve already learned the ropes. England and her colleagues had nothing like that, and they were put to work in a prison where the number of inmates rapidly grew from 700 to 7000 with nothing like the equivalent growth in staff.

Worse still, as the US Senate Armed Services Committee report into the subsequent events claimed, guards such as England served under top leaders – right up to the level of Donald Rumsfeld, Defence Secretary – who “conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees.” Rumsfeld naturally denies the allegation, but he would, wouldn’t he?

Lynndie England fell for her section leader Charles Graner, by whom she later became pregnant. Unfortunately, in this too she was a victim: he was also in a relationship with another soldier in the section, Megan Ambuhl. Graner and Ambuhl are now married.

A very ordinary young woman, with few life skills
She cracked in a situation she was unfitted to manage
England was easily led and poorly equipped for her stressful environment. Her job was one in which it was accepted that behaviour most would find reprehensible wasn’t just tolerable, it was necessary. So she and her colleagues stepped way over the line. Not only did they engage in serious prisoner abuse, they even took photographs of themselves doing it. There could be no doubt of their guilt or of the extent of the abuse. You no doubt remember the pictures of England posing next to a pile of living naked bodies, smiling in satisfaction at her and her colleagues’ handiwork, or drawing a naked prisoner out of a cell by a dog lead.

She was eventually sentenced by court martial to three years in jail. She served half that time. She’s now back home, in her parents’ trailer, where she shares a bunk bed with her son and struggles to find work: many jobs won’t employ felons, and even in the ones that would, existing staff are uneasy about working alongside her.

I’m not attempting to excuse her actions. What she committed was a war crime, and her punishment was lenient. But it’s worth observing that her apparent inability to control base instincts has wrecked her life. That might not have happened had she not been sent to Iraq in the first place.

When it comes to wrecked lives, however, we also need to look at her victims. She, apparently, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine the state of the men she and her colleagues traumatised.

Apart from the individual psychological damage they suffered, there must have been serious consequences on Iraq generally and ultimately on the West too. How recruiters for the movement we now know as ISIS must have loved those photos. What weapons they provided to discredit America and Western commitment to human rights.

Which raises a far bigger question. What were we in the West thinking of, blundering into Iraq, knowing that we would have to rely on the likes of Lynndie England?

It seems we believe it possible to solve agonising political problems by means of military action. Indeed, we believe that the military can do far more than merely win a quick victory on a battlefield, that it can take on the task of rebuilding a civil society afterwards. So we took an organisation designed to deliver extreme violence to defeat an enemy, and called on it to – manage a prison.

By what twisted logic did we think the army was equipped for that kind of work? Worse still, that it could be safely entrusted to disturbed, under-trained individuals? And that no consequences would come back to haunt us? 

Lynddie England spent eighteen months in jail. The father of her child was sentenced to ten years and is still inside. But no one above the rank of sergeant has ever been called to account for what happened out there.

Meanwhile Dubya Bush, Tony Blair and Donald Rumsfeld continue to parade around the world arguing that their behaviour was justified. Far more serious still, their heirs – such as David Cameron – are looking for the authority to launch further military action, this time in Syria.

Well, maybe we should take such action, maybe we shouldn’t. But let’s at least make sure before we do, that we’ve fully learned the lesson Lynddie England and her ilk can teach us. 

There’s not much sign we’ve done that yet.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Getting a handle on a case of empathy

We have a curious bag of rice in the kitchen. It’s large and marked, apparently with pride, “Easy Carry Handle.”

I’m not sure what kind of handle would describe itself as not easy carry. Maybe the makers of this one thought that it was particularly good at making things easy to lug along. It’s hard to imagine, though. 

My memory of handles on, say, suitcases was that they were a real pain –literally – digging into your hand after just a few steps. These were in the days before the invention of Kindles, and I’d always pack too many books every time I went anywhere – a few I felt I ought to read, and a few more which I actually would read if I couldn’t bear the idea of reading the others.

These days, the problem has simply gone. I take practically a library with me every time I go on holiday – closing in on 200 titles now – but they weigh less than a single slim paperback. I’ve never been overweight on a holiday flight since I’ve owned a Kindle.

Meanwhile, luggage too has changed. We no longer use painful handles – or even easy-carry handles – to lift our suitcases and cart them at the risk of dislocating a shoulder. Now they always have wheels and an extensible handle to pull them by. Which rather leads to the question of why such cases weren’t invented before?

My humble suggestion? Because for a long time travel was pretty much limited to people who never had to carry their own luggage. They could either afford porters or, if they were really swanky, they had their own servants. Why bother to invent a labour-saving device if you’re not doing the labour?

A great invention, but unnecessary while people had servants
It’s a bit like slavery. The US system was so convenient, if you were unmistakably white. Not only did the wealthy have other people to do their work for them, they could be confident that they would never suffer the same fate themselves. After all, somebody accustomed to using porters might, through misfortune – a colossal collapse of share values, say – be reduced to having to cart luggage around for others. But no white could ever become a black slave. It didn’t matter how foul they made life for the blacks, therefore, they could never have the same fate inflicted back on them.

It’s all down to lack of empathy. If you can’t appreciate another’s suffering, you’re unlikely to want to do anything about it. So the roller suitcase didn’t get invented until ordinary people started to travel.

Empathy. No easy matter. Something it’s hard to get a handle on.