Totten has been out there in the Middle East, at the sharp end. So have lots of people I realise, but whilst well travelled, I wouldn’t necessarily include various presidents, prime ministers, secretaries of state etc in that category. The article is terrific.
Second up is an oldie. A very oldie, from Frederick William, The Great Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, in his fairly famous Political Testament, 19/05/1667. It is veryrelevant:
“One thing is sure. If you stand still and think that the fire is still far from your borders, then your lands will become the stage upon which the tragedy is performed”
They didn’t have airports or ISIS back then, but the Thirty Years War was about as bad as it gets. We seem to have tried complacency on the domestic front in the last 10 years or so, and I don’t think it’s working out too well.
It would be entirely reasonable to extrapolate from the Twitter and media hysteria of the last 24 hours, that the deaths of numerous civilians in Boston, Florida, California and elsewhere recently, notwithstanding the lineage that stretches back more than 15 years to 9/11, are only so much collateral damage.
That is to say that in some way, they are painful and regrettable, yes, but also acceptable. Acceptable if the alternative is taking some steps – which by necessity will have to be through a process of partially informed trial and error – which may curtail in varying degrees things that people have been taking for granted. In this case that means getting rid of a managed free-for-all in entering the United States, which is what we’ve had until yesterday, by and large.
It’s not an original observation, but everyone remembers and brandishes the names of Anders Breivik (massacre more than 5 years ago) and Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma bombing 22 years ago), yet who can name the Nice lorry mass murderer only 6 months ago? Who is sure about the names of the Berlin lorry attacker, or the murderers of Jacques Hamel? The truth is that as a society – in the US, Europe and the UK- we happily obsess about the evil people ‘like us’ perpetrate, and weirdly almost accept the regular violence of the ‘other’. We have become inured to the reality of Islamic fundamental terrorism – until it hits someone that we know.
As renowned sage Kevin D Williamson of National Review Online put it yesterday:
Particularly when there are all the usual clues – migrant background (often the parents), minor criminal record, affinity with violence, dubious web browsing etc etc. Well Trump is ‘doing something’. In fact, he’s doing slightly less than he said he’d do, but no-one could say they weren’t warned. That fact in itself might explain the suspiciously large and well organised mob that descended on JFK in a very short space of time. It’s not that easy to get to in a hurry.
Whether it will help I don’t know. It is after all trial and error , and might take a long time before any benefits – if there are any – will emerge. But to quote @KevinNR again:
People have occasionally lost sight of what an elected government’s primary duty is – the safety of its citizens. After that, other people’s citizens, if one can. They usually go together, but not always. Supranational bodies and the whole globalsim thing have blurred this essential definition.
That said, I can sympathise with people who argue their corner in disagreeing with this immigration policy, but I didn’t come across any such rationalists in the last 24 hours. In fact if you want rational (I do), then it’s back over to NRO, for two superb pieces dissecting the policy, the background and the government actions (1,2). Remember, NRO famously didn’t support Trump, and they still don’t, by and large.
Nash is primarily famous for his brutal war art, such as The Menin Road, strangely elegant though that painting is. He was actually out there in Ypres, amidst the bombs, mud and carnage, ending up with an official war artist role. He became disillusioned quickly: “It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”
He died in 1946. After WW1 he got into illustrating, often with a surreal, abstract or expressionist edge, and painted plenty of rural scenes, of which this is one. In WW2 he was back as an official artist for a while, and all of his work is of great quality. As you can see, Shell liked it so much (they commissioned it) that they continued to use it for a funky travel advert 37 years later. Anyway, the great man is currently the beneficiary of Tate Britain exhibition.
From one of the awesome Victor Davis Hanson‘s outstanding and very readable history meisterwerks, Ripples of Battle. Trump gets this, Hillary doesn’t, and nor does the UN. I think the US electorate are with Trump (and Heraclitus) on this, one of the reasons for my prediction of 6 months ago. Hanson, I should add, published it in 2003, two years after 9/11, and long before the Daeshbags of ISIS. A prophetic piece of work
If you want to read wondrous, effortlessly descriptive prose, then try Laurie Lee. School children often get Cider With Rosie as a set text (and enjoy it). I’ve just read, for the first time, the magical As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and in terms of evocative writing it is sensationally good. The subject is Spain, and if there is a country that lends itself to vivid writing, this is it. That in itself probably made Lee’s task a little easier. It’s entirely understandable that he wrote it more than 30 years after the events in the book – a walk through Spain from Vigo to Andalucia, in 1934. Spain stays locked in your head.
The Knife spent 4 weeks in Andalucia in the summer of 1982, teaching English in a school on a mountain top in the Sierra Blanca. The best World Cup of them all (1,2) had just finished, with tattered posters for the Mundial everywhere. The next year I spent another 4 weeks on the train around the Iberian peninsula. 3rd class carriages with no windows and wooden bench seats, remote spaghetti western towns, terrible sanitation if you could actually find los lavabos (I once had to go under a tree on a roundabout in Granada), but still wonderful. I’ve been back lots of times since then. If anyone’s interested, the best meal I’ve ever had was in the Asador Donostiarra in Madrid, and the best breakfast in the charming Venta el Buscon, also Madrid.
1983 was the year I was ‘rescued’ in Algeciras, a grubby town which judging by Laurie Lee’s affectionate description, had suffered a bit in the interim 50 years. In the early 80’s Franco (died in 1975) still cast a long shadow in Spain. Despite what you will be told these days, rightly or wrongly, plenty of people mourned his departure. That whole secular/Catholic, left/right wing, Spaniards/separatists set of dichotomies is still a key part of understanding this country. Beevor’s book on the civil war is pretty balanced, in the way that many of them are not. If you want to really understand the unique nature of that conflict and its aftermath, Javier Cercas’ mesmerising novel Soldiers of Salamis is a nuanced and compelling tale. The fact that the Valle de los Caidos is still there (1, 2 a fascinating piece), still getting many, many visitors gives a clue as to how schizophrenic Spain remains on this topic**.
That said there are plenty of standard travelogues about, but quite a few tend to fall short in some way. The highly regarded Jan Morris’ Spain is chock full of adjectives but in the end, it’s a bit dull. Older writers like the admirable and prescient Halliday Sutherland (here) and the…er…controversialHV Morton (here) do a better job in summoning up the uniqueness of the place. In the modern age Christopher Howse (1,2) with an enthusiasm for remote monasteries, back roads and railways does the best job. He completely gets the enduring religiosity which you can still see in places like Valencia’s cathedral, where pregnant women (who often seem to be with their mothers) do 9 circuits before praying at the statue of the Virgen del Buen Parto.
Which emphasises just how key the whole Spanish Catholic intensity is in understanding the place and the people. That holds today, where the counterpoint of this intensity is a suffocating and aggressive secularism. The civil war all over again. So you need to experience Zurbaran, St John of the Cross, and St Teresa of Avila (a proto-feminist, believe it or not). If you sample the origins of the much maligned Opus Dei you’ll get an idea of the rooted nature of Spanish Catholicism. In fact, if you seek the best translation of the poems of St John of the Cross, by that remarkable man of action Roy Campbell, you will be back in Laurie Lee territory, as the young writer stayed with the older man in Toledo, as the civil war was beginning to rumble, in which Campbell played a valorous role.
There are lots more: Goya, Don Quixote of course (it’s not boring), George Orwell, even the tiresome Hemingway. The latter claimed that “For one person who likes Spain there are a dozen who prefer books on her”. If he’s right, then I hope this post gives some pointers. A better quote is from the tragic Lorca, which captures that uneasy feeling you get as you descend the stairway to the royal tombs and el pudridero in the mighty Escorial:
In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.
**when I first wrote this, I neglected to mention the great Stanley Payne, a true historian of Spain in every era, and an expert on the whole Franco/Civil War thing (1,2)
The spectacle of Tony Blair as an apparently sincere penitent – albeit one still laden with his predictable list of hubristic justifications – doesn’t surprise me at all, at this stage. The very first post on this blog, back in 2010 was about Blair’s apparent search for atonement in the truest sense. At that time I was confidently expecting Chilcot to report within the next year. It does surprise even me though, that Blair has ended up in quite such an abject state, when seen from the perspective of 1997.
A little context. Back in the time of John Major’s government in the early 90’s, the UK was doing quite well. After Major’s appallingly selfish and ideological pursuit of the deutschmark (a folly which doubled my mortgage briefly, in 48 hours, not that JM cared about such things), the economy was booming, relatively. It was to be a golden inheritance for Labour, the exact opposite of the scorched earth bequeathed by Brown in 2010.
In about 1993 I began to notice Blair as an unctuous and slightly cocky Shadow Home Secretary, popping up on the TV. I’d seen Gordon Brown in action at the Commons as Shadow Chancellor under John Smith, and for all his faults, he seemed then a far more substantial figure than the glib Blair. After Smith’s death it became rapidly apparent that, under the youthful Blair, Labour were going to win the next election, irrespective of the economy. I remember on election day in 1997 sitting in the operating theatre coffee room saying that Blair appeared to me to be a flighty and unserious chancer, albeit an ambitious one. The uniform response was “you can’t possibly want the Tories back in”. Nobody except me seemed to have any concerns about Blair**.
That election night I stayed up till two watching it unfold, and by then the enormity of Blair’s majority was already apparent. He would clearly be in power for years. The phrase that kept going through my head was “batten down the hatches, this will take a long time to get through”. The next day at work everyone was delighted that the groovy young Tony was in and everything would be fine.
My concerns, which were pretty much completely borne out, related to the very clear message that this administration would intentionally change the social, cultural and moral fabric of the country, and eventually, through the timeless expedient of spending money they didn’t have, they would wreck the economy too.
I usually date the completed initial phase of the first of these malign objectives to the release of the worst film ever made, Love Actually ( I’m serious), in 2003, which was basically a New Labour 90’s zeitgeist epic of the worst kind. The second objective was apparent by the financial crisis of 2008. It took them 11 years to destroy a booming economy, but they managed it. In case anyone is still spinning the line that it was all secondary to American subprime mortgage lending (Brown’s favourite excuse), then I would direct you to a prophetic book by two British hacks – the esteemed Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson – called Fantasy Island, which was published in 2007. If you don’t believe me, read the synopses (1, 2 and 3). Truly the Blair/Brown government was a disaster on a huge scale, despite their aggressive and largely successful debasement of the government spin apparatus under the enduringly loathsome Alastair Campbell, which subjugated an already enthralled media.
So I wasn’t remotely surprised by all this, it was obvious to me when I first set eyes on Blair, and I took a lot of shit for it. The endless supply of people all willing to slag Blair off now, and over the last few years, are mainly the people who voted for him in three general election victories, a point made eloquently by James Kirkup. What a bunch of hypocrites.
That said, I never thought he’d become the crazy and infantile warmonger, which role has now, finally, skewered him.
Which is why I have to laugh at the endless bleatings (eg: 1, 2,3) from Guardian writers and others now, post-Chilcot, who spent the period from 1997 to 2008 drooling over Blair and Brown. I don’t remember too much genuine opposition from them to the Iraq debacle back then. Jeremy Corbyn, Ming Campbell, the late Charlie Kennedy and Robin Cook all take credit for their stance at the time. A special mention goes to the routinely reviled George Galloway (see below), the only person who predicted in detail the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. Their reasons for opposition varied, but they have the moral high ground today.
Max Hastings neatly outlines the stage on which Blair played out his monumental and ego driven disaster: “What took place was only possible because in 2002-3 Blair was an immensely popular Prime Minister with a personal dominance that enabled him to persuade or conscript the rest of Westminster and Whitehall to support an Iraqi adventure overwhelmingly driven by his own hubris and moral fervour.”
I doubt that there will be any article written in the aftermath of Chilcot that expresses the tortuous hypocrisy of the British public and media in all this, than Brendan O’Neill’s, in Spiked. As he rightly puts it:
The important, humane task of understanding the history and politics of that calamity in 2003 has been sacrificed at the altar of allowing a needy elite the space in which to say: ‘Blair is evil, and I am good.’
I can already sense a neat dividing line developing when considering Blair’s legacy: Iraq bad/all else good. For the purpose of clarity – and going back to where I began this post – I would refine that to: Iraq bad (Blair sort of penitent)/most of his other stuff also bad (Blair unrepentant).
The criticism rightly heaped on him for Iraq, and on his many, many aiders and abetters should be spread around on most of his other endeavours too. A messiah complex unburdened by caution and intelligent reflection is unlikely to come good at any point. This was a truly awful government, lead by a figure who since then has become more and more unhinged.
I should leave the last word to the hated yet prescient George Galloway, confirming what Chilcot meant when he pointedly said “We do not agree that hindsight is required.”
** as Stephen Glover puts it ” Only a hard core of widely disbelieved critics saw him as an untrustworthy fraud”
In a week when Barack Obama is conducting a farewell tour in the Far East, and commendably visiting Hiroshima whilst thus far avoiding the outright apology urged on him by Guardianistas (though not this one)and their US equivalents, it’s worth contemplating what an astonishing achievement the US Pacific campaign was.
This very brief introduction by the finest of popular historians, Victor Davis Hanson, gives a flavour of the challenge, unprecedented then and now.
The Knife has a particular fascination with the unbelievably intense combat of the battle on Tarawa, but really that gruelling pattern of fighting was repeated countless times in tiny islands over a mindbogglingly huge area of ocean, punctuated by occasional colossal naval and air battles. The ‘Greatest Generation‘ epithet is not remotely overstating it. They’re still out there, people like Buck Miller.
Who was responsible for the victory? Lots of people, but in terms of the actual strategy and combat, the admirals cited by Hanson take most of the credit. The more you read about them, the more in awe one becomes of their legacy. One might expect admirals, like many surgeons (this one included), to have occasional ego issues.
Which brings me to the point of this post. Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey was an unpredictable hot headed man with a very pointed degree of aggression and an ability to rub everyone up the wrong way. As his communique said at the conclusion of hostilities “Cessation of hostilities. War is over. If any Japanese airplanes appear, shoot them down in a friendly way”. However, when asked years later about the campaign he disarmingly stated:
There are no great men, just great challenges which ordinary men, out of necessity, are forced by circumstances to meet.
Not bad, for someone who had a lot to boast about.
His colleague, Admiral Raymond Spruance took it further, possibly claiming a title as the first ‘slacker’ admiral in the process, despite being a superb and calm leader in times of crisis:
“When I look at myself objectively, I think that what success I may have achieved through life is largely due to the fact that I am a good judge of men. I am lazy, and I never have done things myself that I could get someone to do for me. I can thank heredity for a sound constitution, and myself for taking care of that constitution….Some people believe that when I am quiet that I am thinking some deep and important thoughts, when the fact is that I am thinking of nothing at all. My mind is blank.“
When renaissance men of the stature of Simon Schama (who is also an idiot), Clive James and Philip Hensher (1, 2) have recently opined on the topic, it seemed only appropriate for me to add my bit. These are some of my thoughts on the book, I haven’t yet seen any of the TV or film adaptations.
1.Stick with it, the first 50 pages or so are the hardest. Use the footnotes etc if your translation has them
2. Large parts of it are essentially an upmarket soap opera. This is not intended to demean it, or the reader. It makes it a very compelling tale.
3. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina trick of being able to inhabit the female mind is a wonder.
5. It can be difficult to read in the bath, especially in hardback.
6. Having recourse to a map and historical summaries (eg. for Austerlitz and Borodino) is a smart idea. Various paintings (eg, by the mighty Vereshchagin, are remarkably vivid)
7. My translation kept the French bits (a lot), which is fine if there are footnotes on the same page. It’s actually a neat way of reutilising your school French again.
8. Despite the book’s length, Tolstoy knows how to avoid fatiguing the reader. His chapter lengths are perfect, like Dickens. Compare that with alleged masterpieces of European literature which are exhaustingly indigestible like Broch’s The Death of Virgil. To quote DJ Enright: Could it be that what a flow of lyrical speculation needs is precisely to be interrupted from time to time by the unlyrical and the known? And can a technical advance be “genuinely” an advance if its prime effect is to produce unreadability?
9. The two consecutive chapters ( Vol IV, Part 1, ch XV; XVI ) on the effects of impending death on the dying person are quite phenomenal. I have seen variations on this many times in my career. It is simply brilliant, Tolstoy’s insight and powers of expression are so far ahead of nearly every other writer.
10. What has been described as Tolstoy’s take on ‘historical determinism’ was an unexpected feast, for me, of clear eyed thinking. The great man rips apart the idea that individuals create history according to any sort of plan, and he does it with the driest and wittiest of prose, even in translation (see 4).
Here’s a typical example (Epilogue Part 2, ch VII):
For reasons known or unknown to us the French began to drown and kill one another. And corresponding to the event its justification appears in people’s belief that this was necessary for the welfare of France, for liberty, and for equality. People ceased to kill one another, and this event was accompanied by its justification in the necessity for a centralization of power, resistance to Europe, and so on. Men went from the west to the east killing their fellow men, and the event was accompanied by phrases about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on. History shows us that these justifications of the events have no common sense and are all contradictory, as in the case of killing a man as the result of recognizing his rights, and the killing of millions in Russia for the humiliation of England. But these justifications have a very necessary significance in their own day.
You’ll find it at various points:
Vol III Part 1 ch I
Vol III Part 2 ch I; XIX; XXVIII, Part 3 ch I; II; V
Vol IV Part 1 ch IV; V; VI, Part 2 ch I; II; XVIII; XIX Part 3 ch I; XVIII; XIX
Epilogue – all of Part 2 (ch I-XII). If I had to select the single most telling and representative part of this dense and closely argued polemic, I would say it’s ch III of this absorbing afterword
You have to interpret historical writing, however brilliantly done, with a degree of skepticism after Tolstoy, it’s always “too early to say”.
Tolstoy continues this reflection in his honest and occasionally amusing appendix to the whole novel, drawing on his own military experience (which shows throughout the book) in the Crimean War.
11. Napoleon does not come out of it too well, whatever his abilities to galvanise and lead. To quote: ..that most insignificant instrument of history, who never and nowhere, even in exile, displayed any human dignity, whereas General Kutuzov is an inscrutable,unfussy Russian hero with a magisterial historical insight
12. It’s probably wise to take claims of finishing it quickly, or reading it umpteen times, with a bucket of salt (see below, from comments after a Guardian article)
13. Tolstoy is a master psychologist. Not a speculative ‘filling in the plot with the character’s thoughts’ writer: his understanding of his characters, and of humanity in general, is pretty awesome.
14. Tolstoy is not overtly interested in erotic love per se. His numerous insights into love relate to the meeting of minds and a supernatural, religious bonding with a nod to physical attraction. The most bodacious female character Princess Helene does not get a good rep. The book is not a bodice ripper, though I imagine the TV people feel they have to push that line a bit.
15. When people complain about the ending, I’m not sure what they mean. The fictional narrative ends earlier than the whole novel, but Tolstoy’s occasionally complicated discussion of necessity v freedom in defining history and historical thought is really pretty good, and relates beautifully to all that has gone before. The very last two paragraphs are truly magnificent.
16. It’s not just hype. This might well be the best novel that you’ll ever read.
Hilary Benn’s recent Commons speech has received many plaudits, and also a few cautionary comments regarding its essential obviousness. Is this what it’s come to that a basic outline of how bad ISIS are is regarded as shining political rhetoric in the remains of the Labour Party? All the same, it was a necessary moment.
Here, in a real flight of eloquence from 167 years ago, in Principles of Political Economy, is John Stuart Mill:
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, — is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.”
Which seems pretty clear. In a week where ISIS are promulgating killing Down’s Syndrome kids, amongst other things, opponents of military action – however principled in theory – begin to look more and more like Mill’s ‘miserable creatures’, likewise those such as Obama, who adopt a studied indifference and occupy themselves with ludicrous displacement activity. Mill and his wife are described as follows:
they lived in a society where bold and adventurous individuals were becoming all too rare. Critics have sometimes thought that Mill was frightened by the prospect of a mass democracy in which working-class opinion would be oppressive and perhaps violent. The truth is that Mill was frightened by middle-class conformism much more than by anything to be looked for from an enfranchised working class.
That was written in the middle of the 19th century, and it’s exactly what we face now.
You don’t have to like the enduringly controversial Henry Kissinger to realise that he’s usually worth listening to. He is, unlike many politicians (as opposed to the best international diplomats), a real student of history. He was in the news when I was a child (Vietnam), he’s still in the news today at 92.
One of his regular lessons relates to the Thirty Years War. This was, to put it mildly, a complicated conflict, with a confusing mix of religious and political allegiances. ‘Trust nobody’ might be one message from it. When a Catholic cardinal (Richelieu) is in hock with the north European protestant supremacists, you know it’s going to be a can of worms. It all eventually ended, nearly, with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which involved in varying degrees France, Sweden, the numerous chunks of Germany which existed before Bismarck, Spain, the Low Countries, Denmark, England, Bohemia, lots of smaller players and of course the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire. Complicated indeed.
The key thing was pleasing everyone a bit, and everyone having to compromise a bit, whilst noting that in terms of influence, size, location and population, Germany was the key player (but in its component parts). It pretty much has been since then too.
Kissinger states that this tricky compromise is the model of future diplomacy and international relations, if you carefully study it and extrapolate accordingly. Here is a quote from the Wall Street Journal review of the great man’s last book, World Order:
For Mr. Kissinger, Westphalia is not simply one system among many but the most morally, intellectually and even aesthetically pleasing of all such systems. The story begins with France’s Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who articulated a doctrine that “the state was an abstract and permanent entity existing in its own right,” holding interests peculiar to itself—raison d’état. When the religious wars of the mid-17th century exhausted all parties, the diplomats who gathered in the northwest German province of Westphalia in the mid-1640s agreed that they would not seek to impose their own religious principles upon one another. States would no longer interfere with the domestic order of other states. “The Westphalian concept took multiplicity as its starting point,” Mr. Kissinger writes, and thus incorporated “multiple societies” into “a common search for order.”
Here he is in an interview last year, musing on how the Westphalian system might fit with our ‘problem’ in the Middle East:
“Is it possible to create the equivalent of such a system [in the Middle East]?” asks Kissinger. “That is the challenge for the United States, and for others — we alone can’t do it. The world without a balance of power is an arbitrary world. The nature of the balance of power will change, but the principle that you cannot have one region or one country dominate the whole world will re-emerge — or should re-emerge.”
That balance, rather than world domination, seems to be the key thing. Each player depends to a degree on the other. How complicated it is in reality is shown by trying to analyse today’s news from Turkey, nobody seems sure of what their downing of a taunting Russian jet actually signifies, yet everyone seems sure it is significant.
However, if we go back to the 17th century, and seek advice from one of the beneficiaries of the Peace of Westphalia, a man charged with maintaining that elusive balance, Frederick William, the splendidly titled Great Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, here is what he recommends regarding ISIS, in his Political Testament:
“..when war arises between two others, attempt to resolve the conflict through your interposition, but always position yourself well, so that you have force behind you”
and if that’s not working
“One thing is sure. If you stand still and think that the fire is still far from your borders, then your lands will become the stage upon which the tragedy is performed”