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Apr 27, 2004
Apr 27, 2004
As a 2004 biography of Gamel Abdel Nasser from a well known Arab journalist, this is worth reading for insights into events that have taken place much...more
As a 2004 biography of Gamel Abdel Nasser from a well known Arab journalist, this is worth reading for insights into events that have taken place much more recently in Egypt and the wider region.
Aburish expresses ambivalence towards this curious character, a romantic idealist whose personal conduct as a dictator was (unless you were Muslim Brotherhood or Communist) better than most.
Aburish's Arab heart seems to appreciate that Nasser represented an emotive restoration of dignity to a people who had been denied respect over a long period of Turkish, French and British imperial control.
On the other hand, although his last years showed some ability to function effectively within the rules of the game, his story is one, fundamentally, of failure and not just because of imperial opposition.
Aburish writes of him as a man 'whose heart was in the right place but whose policies were too weak to cope with the problems he faced', an autodidact small town dreamer. He is right.
But one should not be too harsh. It is unlikely that any man could have done much better. Sadat and Mubarak clearly failed to resolve any of the problems he faced, merely intensifying thuggish dictatorship.
By the end of the book, we are, if we have a heart, faced with the same ambivalence to him as Aburish. If only, if only, we say ... and then find the 'if onlys' multiply to meaninglessness.
On the one hand, the man was just another Arab dictator in a culture that has still (today) not really got past the stage of relying on pashas, tribal leaders and autocratic dynasts.
On the other, he at least tried to reflect the will of the people and made real efforts to modernise his country (with some success) despite the traditionalist obscurantists - and was only tactically brutal.
Much of the problem here is central to the Arab condition. Autocratic leadership is accompanied by a complete lack of an institutional learning process to create administrative capability.
Such leadership is also used to surrounding itself with a court of friends that are judged on friendship and loyalty and not on competence or shared vision. The result is inherent instability.
Nasser retained power because he had one unusual skill and one new tool - he could speak to the crowd as Churchill could in another era and, like Goebbels and FDR, he had radio to spread his message.
The army too often becomes the only structure where some form of capability meets vision but, here too, Nasser was ill served by his own generosity and lack of interest in the quality of his colleagues.
He was thus a very Arab leader, with all the strengths and weakness of the culture, and it is valuable to have an experienced Arab journalist interpret him for us.
Indeed, there are times when Aburish goes a little native, not so much in his sentiments as in his style, with repetitions for emphasis and the fluctuations of heart and mind that are intrinsic to the culture.
Indeed, the book is fascinating until the end of the Suez gamble, about half way through the story, when the decline in Nasser's mission sets in and seems to be reflected in Aburish's suddenly heavier style.
To his credit. he avoids blaming everyone but the Arabs themselves for the catalogue of errors that we see in the book, also a history of the region from the Free Officers coup to the rise of the PLO.
There is sorrow rather than anger as tribal interests, ideology, egos, the superior cohesion of the Israelis, Western ambitions and corrupt and decadent elites create the unending mayhem we know so well.
But this is not to exonerate the West at all. The behaviour of the CIA is interesting not only for its despicability but for its lack of political accountability at home - still going on in the region today.
CIA involvement in drawing up death lists for the Baathist coup (that was eventually to lead to the 'regime' of Saddam Hussein) against Kassem in 1963 makes a mockery of US moral claims to leadership.
The West was involved in assassination as strategy and instrument of policy. Only fools really believe that there is much moral content to Western decision-making as we hurtle towards war in the Ukraine!
The book is also a sustained critique of Western support for Political Islam which started much earlier than most believe and which has been an own goal of no less standing than has been the Saddam one.
In assessing the successes (rhetorical) and failures (practical) of 'Nasserism' - Arab nationalism - its culturally-sensitive secularism was the baby that got thrown out with the bath water.
The relationship between an essentially conservative Nasserism, the more radical Baathism and Communism with Political Islam is a story of incommensurate ideologies manipulated by outside powers.
Perhaps only Nasser, based on the instinct of a modernising soldier recalling his small town background, saw the danger in Political Islam if it was allowed to take hold if ever Arab nationalism failed.
Ghaddafi attempted another solution, of course, which was to incorporate Islam within a revolutionary national socialist model but the Baathist model of secularism jettisoned culture altogether.
Instead of understanding that Arab Nationalism was a potentially progressive and collaborative force, the West, the British in particular, did everything they could to undermine it.
Progressive for Arabs but also progressive in order to reach some form of equitable relationship with the West - this demand for equity, respect and dignity seems to have been dismissed out of hand.
The Western tool in the war against communism (the primary driver of Western foreign policy) and Arab nationalism alike was Islamism which is not to be confused with Islam (Nasser was a sincere Muslim).
The book is worth reading just to remind ourselves of the foolish decisions made by 'our side' against secularism that ultimately led to bloody civil war in Syria and counter-revolution in Egypt.
As I write this, dimilar decision-makers seem to be teetering on the edge of yet another global war (the Ukraine) so questions have to be asked about their competence to rule over the long run of history.
This is not to exonerate Nasser himself from egregious blunders and often being all mouth and no trousers but the resistance to what he stood for was undemocratic and ignorant.
There were ample opportunities to work with rather than against those who spoke for real popular sentiment and feeling ('dignity' above all) and still draw appropriate red lines - even over Israel.
Underhand subversion by adventurers, failing to appoint and listen to seriously effective diplomats, obsession with communism and working with obscurantists in preference to secularists were crimes.
Nasser was a romantic failure, a creature of his culture, an inspiration perhaps still to many Arabs but ultimately a lesson in there being no substitute for political discipline and capacity.
Notes are private!
Mar 02, 2014
Nov 07, 2013
Nov 07, 2013
Colin Brown is a former senior political journalist and his book has all the hallmarks, good and bad, of a current genre - the retired news man wantin...more
Colin Brown is a former senior political journalist and his book has all the hallmarks, good and bad, of a current genre - the retired news man wanting to top up his pension and sweat his intellectual assets.
The good parts first. Brown writes well and clearly. He has made a real effort to get behind the wheel of history, visiting the sites of central historical events and understands the importance of place.
His account of battles are very good (Azincourt and the holding of Hougoumont at Waterloo in particular). He is equally good on the myth-making around events such as Magna Carta and the Armada.
His choices are (with one exception) important markers for what it is to be English (rather than his claimed Britishness) and he is good at showing just how contingently events have turned out.
Very few of the events in this book were 'inevitable' (other than perhaps the creation of the NHS) though probability was with some (1688, women's suffrage and 1940) and chance with others.
The weather of North Western Europe plays an inordinate role on the touch-and-go nature of national survival but it is also true that the English/British commitment to military innovation is always high.
He is (again with one exception) no sentimentalist either, able to point out that many major events were largely 'fixes' by special interests in struggles high above the world of us peasants.
He is a fairly typical example of the modern progressive-Tory-Whig, a creature squaring a lot of internal contradictions to come up with the right answer - a modern variant of the 'God is an Englishman' thesis.
But, like most British journalists, he is averse to analysis. The story is told, the falsities exposed but no conclusions drawn that are not rather simplistic and often comforting despite what we have read.
And the book takes a sharp turn for the worse at the end, after excellent and enlightening accounts of the two pivotal events that shaped the modern English mind - 1940 and the NHS in 1948.
It is as if that mind is his mind and he becomes the nation for the last event because he was there and can report on it as a newsman with 'inside information' - the Falklands and sinking of the Belgrano.
But, bluntly, the Falklands has been manufactured here as a defining event when it was merely a gamble that paid off for a Government that had already set the tone for the next thirty years.
More defining events might have been 1956 (Suez) or the defeat of the coal miners or the lifting of exchange controls (my personal choice) or are yet to come (the Scottish and European Referendums).
Similarly, he prefers the Falklands to the dissolution of the monasteries, the union of 1707, the Somme and so many other 'bigger' events ... this just does not work.
And the final chapter seems to be little more than a complacent establishment manifesto for monarchism and for our increasingly shoddy parliament ... the junior ranks of the establishment speak!
All in all, a well written and informative book that makes a good read for a journey and will change your views perhaps on aspects of our 'island story' but the jewels are set in a lazy and tinny setting.
At one level, this is excellent infotainment and I applaud Brown's active engagement with place and evidence but, at another, it represents, once again, that our elite still does not 'get' it.
Notes are private!
Feb 09, 2014
Aug 25, 2011
Sep 01, 2006
This is what good history should be about - an evidence-based narrative exploration offering the best working explanation of a particular problem of p...more
This is what good history should be about - an evidence-based narrative exploration offering the best working explanation of a particular problem of possible concern to us today.
Ian Kershaw asks a simple question of why Germany continued to fight on, far beyond reason, against the overwhelming force of Russian manpower and of Anglo-American air and technical superiority.
The book takes us from the failed Operation Valkyrie (the only serious revolt by conservative nationalists against national socialism) in July 1944 to the final capitulation in May 1945.
These were ten months in which it was pretty clear after the failure of the Ardennes Offensive and then the massive punch of the Soviets to within 80km of Berlin that the 'regime' had no chance of survival.
Yet Germany fought on - not just the Nazi Party but the entire military, the bureaucracy, the increasingly discredited judiciary and a good proportion of the common people. Kershaw simply asks why?
This period saw not just the military dead but the death marches of concentration camp victims, significant refugee losses, mass aerial bombings (including Dresden) and German-on-German terror.
And yet the system did not break even as the country was split - not until Hitler was known to be dead and a more rational if still ferociously Nazi Donitz eventually sued for unconditional peace.
Can it be down to the force of Hitler's will or the blind obedience of the German people? Kershaw explores these and many other reasons and like all the best history comes up with some very complex answers.
However, the best history seeks patterns in the chaos and in the interweaving of many causes and effects. Kershaw is no exception. There was some binding force that locked Germany into its apocalypse.
Kershaw finds this force in the functional reality of the 'fuhrerprinzip' where military, bureaucracy, party and national identity were bound into one locus represented by a monomaniac.
Unlike Italy, where Mussolini could be ousted by the Fascist Grand Council and the military and state be redirected under a national identity separate from the man, Germany was bound into one figure.
Beneath this man, all the players could dispose of forces towards one end set by Hitler but under conditions where each gathered power in competition with the other.
After Valkyrie, Bormann turned the Party into a mechanism of terror directed at controlling the German people through fear. Goebbels took responsibility for the engagement of the masses in the war effort.
Speer used his power to broker a corporatist economic state directed at armaments production, binding military, industrialists, workers and, more unwillingly than most, slave labour.
Himmler imposed discipline on the army in a collaborative relationship with the Wehrmacht. Powerful pro-Nazi Generals took advantage of Valkyrie to place their honour and duty in the hands of the Fuhrer.
Above all, the whole 'fuhrerprinzip' was underpinned by a dreadful combination of German nationalist duty and honour and national socialist fanaticism against both communism and the 'Jewish threat'.
If most soldiers may not have cared that much about the Jews, they were prepared to sacrifice them and other race-hate targets in the primary war against the Bolsheviks.
It was this hatred of the East which bound military and Hitler together and the hatred was fully returned. Soviet vengeance became a genuine fear factor in the continuation of the war.
Any deal with the West that did not allow Germany to release its troops to fight the Soviets was seen as a cultural and possibly real death sentence for half of the country.
Anti-communist fanaticism and fear were so strong that senior figures often could not comprehend that the Western Empires would prefer to fight alongside Stalin to the end rather than save Germany.
If I have not mentioned the opinions of the ordinary German (though Kershaw is very enlightening here) it is only because they had very little to say that mattered. They were not permitted much agency.
By the last months of the war, Germans, including ordinary German soldiers in some zones, were placed under a brutal terror regime of arbitrary executions that meant revolt was a death sentence.
And this is what strikes us about the story - the extreme lack of agency offered by the 'regime' where, although paid the weekly or monthly cheque to the end, a German was the slave of his Government.
Kershaw is also good on the fundamental attitudinal split between military and civilians in the East (fearful of Soviet atrocities) and in the West (almost desperate in some places for the Allies to arrive).
He also reminds us of the human cost, with atrocities in which no player in the game was not guilty. Nazi atrocities in the East were simply compounded at home under what amounted to a gangster regime.
Soviet atrocities were real enough (it took some time for control to be re-asserted by the authorities over their own occupying troops) and led to a tragic refugee exodus in icy conditions.
The French destroyed a whole village under circumstances still not clear today and the mass aerial bombing of German civilians by the British, notably the fire storm at Dresden, still leaves a bad taste.
This was a maelstrom of horror in which the men at the top (and their wives) reveled in their own fanaticism, desperation, 'heroism', brutality and power. But can we learn from this?
The puzzlement of Kershaw was that it was so rare, possibly unique, in history for a state to go so far and so willingly down the road to potential annihilation and at such cost to itself.
It is unlikely that it will ever be repeated as a case since now we know that even communist regimes can fall without a fight - their internal complexity perhaps helps to explain why.
Perhaps Stalin's Russia came closest and perhaps it was an intelligent analysis of his own situation - a lesson that Saddam Hussein attempted to copy, not reckoning on the sheer firepower of the US.
The story tells us something about our species and power that, on reflection, is rather grim - it is that the state's strength is in opposition to individual agency on terms very favourable to the former.
Even in our lovely cuddly liberal democracies, the state has immense reserve powers - as Americans saw under Woodrow Wilson and Britons saw under Lloyd George and Churchill. These are truly formidable.
We think our agency is a human right in that magical thinking about contracts and rights of which liberals are so fond. It is true that political culture in the West usually restrains the worst of the State.
But be under no illusions that the restraint exists only because those who control the State do not have a monomaniac will to use the State for some mad cap ideal. It is convenient for them to separate powers.
If a State is so disrupted that a monomaniac can systematically unravel pluralism and centre the bureaucracy, the military and the police on him then you and I do not stand a chance.
We are then simply not in a position to organise anything but the most futile of resistance (basically, we die or are imprisoned). We should remember this when think of the powers now accruing to the NSA.
This leaves us with an interesting dilemma in our dealings with the modern state. Do we trust it to be restrained and hope it is never disrupted so that some extremist loon can seize power?
Or do we begin to consider how we can make sure that the State is always actually rather than theoretically beholden us. In short, what checks can we the people make against a loss of checks and balances.
Certainly, in 1933, the elite handed power to a genius in political manipulation and turned itself into his willing creature. Within a little over a decade, the population ended up in a hell on earth.
Even today, the British and American military have ideologies of duty and honour towards single sovereigns that are scarcely different from that of the Wehrmacht in functional terms.
It is, of course, extremely unlikely that we, in the West, would be ruled by a monomaniac able to terrorise us into total compliance but, even today, the state's weapon of choice remains fear and half truths.
Outside the West, the idea of monomania is less ridiculous when there are religious and nationalist parties which offer path ways not dissimilar to that of the Nazis in the drive to control the State.
Perhaps this is why Sisi's coup in Egypt may not be pleasant but should be heartening in a way. The military turned away from obscurantist magical thinking in favour of rational administration.
The book should thus be read not as something distant from us but as a lesson in our lack of agency even in more benign conditions and in the ridiculous power that we give to institutions and belief systems
It should also be read as an essay in the consequences of particular modes of thinking - duty and honour in the military, duty and 'public service' in the bureaucracy and belief in the party and the nation.
We think of heroism, duty, honour, ideals and often faith (though less so with maturity and education) as positives but they are not if there is no serious questioning of why the heroic act and to whom the duty.
In Silesia, the Soviet advance isolated a town. The local Gauleiter became a Nazi hero for his defence to the end against the 'Asiatic horde' but the citizens would have done better to have surrendered.
This is not an argument for pacifism or 'cowardice' but for reason. Continuing a fight against overwhelming odds for gangsters is simply stupid, worse, it is criminal where lives are concerned.
It is time to look duty, obedience, honour, authority, custom, claims of heroism, idealism and leadership in the eye and call them out by asking them why and for whom people hold to these magical beliefs.
The Nazi regime was a merger of an aristocratic presumption on its last legs and the resentments at the uglier end of the masses in a malign war on modernity and progress.
Such people were not and never could be heroes. They were simply, so it was proved, not bright enough to understand their own condition and they dragged a lot of innocent people down with them.
Let them now be cursed again. In the end, these were only dim thugs who denied humanity its greatest evolutionary prize - personal agency and freedom.
Notes are private!
Jan 15, 2014
Jan 01, 2013
This is a useful but flawed account of an important theatre of war in the struggle of liberal internationalism (Western imperialism) and socialism aga...more This is a useful but flawed account of an important theatre of war in the struggle of liberal internationalism (Western imperialism) and socialism against the attempted imperialisms of rising powers.
The story has two contemporary sets of resonance - the obvious one is the tricky current state of Sino-Japanese relations that has Westerners rushing to books like this. The less obvious is the attempt by the West to answer the question, 'what to do with rising powers?'
On the surface it is traditional narrative history. It starts at the beginning (what led up to the Marco Polo Bridge incident, the 'Sarajevo' of eight years of slaughter) through to the surprise ending - the 'deus ex machina' of the Atom Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With the usual unconscious racism of the Western armchair liberal, the debates on the use of the Bomb usually wonder about the dreadful morality of wiping out 100,000 persons in a few days in terms of saved men and materiel for the West.
A more open view would throw into the pot the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of Chinese and Japanese lives saved from not going down the Nazi route of a year or two of mayhem as Japan fought to the end despite its prospect of certain defeat.
Between 8 million and 20 million, variously estimated, died in those eight years with perhaps three to four million the victims of first the deliberate flooding of Henan and then its appalling famine (Mitter also notes the estimated 3m who died in a similar Indian wartime famine).
The whole business is another story of 'things getting out of control' with millions being disrupted, starved, conscripted, terrorised and murdered as a few 'big men' squabble for advantage and for 'values' that are often noble enough but equally as often hypocritical.
It is a story played out almost continuously even today - Africa being the current playground for 'big men' and psychopaths of all 'moral' persuasions. We should be pleased the rising thuggery of new empires was suppressed but it was not a simple tale of good and evil.
The flaws in the book, however, detract from its usefulness as analytical tool although the 'further reading' at the back is useful for anyone wanting to delve deeper.
Above all, the book often reads like an unjustifiable apologia for Chiang Kai-Shek, warlord leader of the Nationalist Chinese with most claim to legitimacy as ruler of China. It certainly spends more time on the squabble with General Stilwell than a straight narrative deserves.
What is going on here? The reality is that, legitimate though he was, Chiang Kai-Shek was soon run out of town (the core of China in the East) and was not much more than a superior warlord from an earlier era.
He could speak for China and for millions of men but he had proved an unimaginative and narcissistic leader before the Marco Polo Bridge incident and was not much better after it. Mitter justifiably contextualises his decisions but they were more often than not poor.
Most of the non-Communist warlords in the south marked time under his leadership but his control was limited, while the Communists under Mao cannily created a state within a state in North West China that treated the peasantry as if they mattered instead of as fodder.
By the time the Americans arrived (and the Communists are almost exclusively seen through American eyes by 1942/3 as Mittar swerves off into analyses of thinking in Washington), Chiang's China was virtually being re-colonised by the US by stealth without benefit to the people.
The blunders of Stilwell and the Americans can be charitably put down to them 'learning on the job' as they slowly displaced the British Empire as global arbiter. US foreign policy does not really settle down into full competence until after the McCarthy blood-letting.
Mitter's attempt to recover Chiang's reputation by pointing out the new status given to China in the 'UN' holds little water. Yes, this was a fact on the ground and it portended great things, a benefit that India failed to achieve, but China was always a tool under Chiang.
In essence, China held down some 600,000 Japanese troops and that was important for the Allied war effort but it presupposes that this was always in the interests of the Chinese who died in huge numbers holding together a ramshackle strategy of mere survival.
It is noticeable that in the struggle against the last Japanese offensive - like the last push of the Germans in 1918 - Nationalist troops were attacked by Henan peasants who had suffered deliberate flooding and then famine, fertile ground for communism later.
The second flaw is associated with the first. Mittel devotes about the right amount of space to the Communists in Yan'an but his coverage is still cursory and lacking in analysis. His great lack is any serious investigation of Japanese thinking and Japanese motives.
This is highly problematic. The book is about the Japanese war on China. That means it is about both main participants and the whole war zone yet we hear virtually nothing of East China other than Nanking and little of Japanese-collaborationist dealings.
He devotes a great deal of attention to the Petain of China - Wang JIngwei and his circle - but always in the light of them being implicitly honourable Nationalists who got it wrong.
This misses the point - they were naive and 'useful idiots' but there were important ideological and practical Japanese reasons for creating 'Vichy' regimes across Asia and for nationalists to choose what they thought might be the lesser evil. We get little sense of this.
Right or wrong, what was actually happening in the huge area of East China under Japanese rule needs to be explained in terms of Japanese conduct on the ground after the Rape of Nanking and of the motivations for Chinese collaborationism and resistance.
By the second half of the war, just as the National Socialists could put 'national' SS divisions into the field against the Soviets so there were substantial collaborationist Chinese troops fighting against the nationalists alongside the Japanese in the final offensive.
This has to be explained. It cannot be explained by giving excessive coverage to the superior warlord's dealings with Washington and almost completely neglecting the dynamic between Tokyo and Nanking except in terms of the factional struggles of a few failed politicians.
The net effect is that we have a book that does not take the detached and cold view of the struggle that we need to have in order to assist with the analysis of the twin issues noted at the beginning of this review - Sino-Japanese relations and the rise of new powers.
Instead, what we have is another easy read for liberal internationalists that seems intended to guide them through the group think politics of their own side rather than assist in understanding complexity and think about the unthinkable.
It is a morale-booster that seems to say that the 'real' China was only accidentally corrupt and incompetent and that if we (the West) had behaved in diferent ways and taken a flawed great man at face value, things would have been better. It is like a polemic for the past!
However, there is lot to learn from this book - about Mao's genius for making inaction look like action, about the cynicism of the Allies, about the delusions of the Japanese elite, about the resilience and humanity of the Chinese people and about the chaos of war.
One lesson is fascinating and well taught. Under conditions of war and threat, all three regimes in China turned to terror to try and hold power - Mao's reined in his intellectuals and mobilised the peasantry with the help of the Yezhov-trained Kang Sheng but he was not alone.
Chiang used the dedicated monster Dai Li (with the close co-operation of the Americans) to eliminate opposition to a regime that was really not much different from those targeted in Libya and Syria more recently. Chiang was not a democrat but an authoritarian militarist.
Wang Jingwei hired politicised gangsters to do much the same in Nanking from a class which, in Shanghai, had helped Chiang himself on his road to power. Even today, it is clear that, after seventy years of Communist 'totalitarianism', South China's gangster culture thrives.
Although the victor Mao adopted techniques later that taught Pol Pot and the extremists in North Korea their techniques of terror and power, thuggery arose on all sides out of warfare and whatever state might have emerged, none would have had much truck with 'human rights'.
This makes any attempt to make the 'less worse' seem good rather futile - Chiang murdered 800,000 Chinese in a somewhat poorly thought-out tactical attempt to slow down the Japanese by breaching the dams on the Yellow River. No wonder the Henanese peasants were obstructive!
At the end of the day, the whole debacle came down to an incident where a rising power thought that it had rights, demonstrated by its imperial enemies in the Opium Wars and subsequently, to use force to extract concessions on spurious grounds against a weak target.
That the target was weak was definitely not the fault of Chiang Kai-Shek. He was dealt an appalling set of cards but, given the realities of the situation, his decisions tended to make things worse, starting with his initial 'Night of the Long Knives' against the Reds.
Still, the book remains a valuable narrative introduction to one of the nastiest wars in an era of nasty wars. It left this reader with an abiding sense of solidarity with the Chinese people if not their leaderships.
Above all, I have come to admire the achievement of China in not merely holding itself together but appearing to cohere into a Great Power that has managed, through the construction of its own creation myth, to bind together the East, the Party and the nationalist impulse into one.
The nervousness of the West - and the margin states of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and perhaps Vietnam and the Philippines as well - is understandable but it may be that the US in particular is still not learning the lessons of the 1940s.
The book reminds us of the fragility of the Communist 'achievement'. The European Union is now seeing old interwar attitudes re-emerge in troubled economies - notably Spain and Eastern Europe - and there is no reason why something similar might not happen in China.
In its hour of greatest need, 'Free China' needed unconditional love like the battered child it was but instead it got used as a tool and was patronised by its equals - no wonder its successors are disinclined to trust anyone but their own instinct for tough love.
Notes are private!
Jan 03, 2014
Apr 01, 2013
This 1991 well argued polemic has been reissued by Penguin, perhaps to set the context for Edgerton's latest book 'Britain's War Machine' but with two...more This 1991 well argued polemic has been reissued by Penguin, perhaps to set the context for Edgerton's latest book 'Britain's War Machine' but with two useful additions - a new introduction and a superbly informative historiography bringing the story right up to date.
Despite his own 2012 caveats, this book is well worth reading and Edgerton's calling it a 'polemic' does it a disservice - it is solid and well argued history. Perhaps his use of the term simply gave him space to be a bit more assertive early in his career.
The book is set in the context of a historical debate about 'decline' that has been the standard psychological currency for anyone educated before the mid-1990s - whether from the Right or the Left. This means policy-makers who are now over 40 and who do not 'keep up with things'.
Edgerton's politics are not worn on his sleeve but one guesses he is an industrial progressive that would have felt at home (as, with caveats, this reviewer would) in the old Labour Party before it got turned into a liberal internationalist simulacrum of the Left. Perhaps not.
Edgerton's thesis is very important. He is saying - as De Jouvenal might have done from a Republican Right tradition - that the UK as advanced liberal democracy was not a welfare state at heart but a warfare state with an ideology of liberal internationalism at its core.
Far from the UK being the first industrial nation in decline, he presents it as technocratic and modernising with immense reserves of organisational and state-directed power that out-competed all its competitors, bar, in the end, the 'American colossus'.
This is dealt with in greater detail in relation to the Second World War in his latest book which we hope to review later in the year but the point he is making is important for a reason he does not give - how our perceptions are formed by group consensus rather than the facts.
This lays us open to confusion but also to manipulation. He describes, through the medium of aviation history, how early aviation strategies were strongly lnked to the political imperial Right - as readers of Nevile Shute's novels will quickly recognise.
Although this might often shift under pressure into pro-fascist and anti-democratic tendences (there is a hint of aviation industry links to those Hess expected to meet on his ill-fated trip), the best description is of it being a liberal-democratic internationalism.
This liberal internationalism is not as lovely and cuddly it seems. This reviewer sees considerable continuities between the maintenance of empire over subject peoples, the brutality of air power strategies and the trajectory that would put the Trident-loving Blair into power.
The history of aviation is only one facet of British political history but, taken as the history of air power, it is a definer of foreign policy imperatives alongside the search for oil. Its neglect until Edgerton synthesised the work of many others has made us ignorant.
We are (as British) profoundly ignorant of the nature of our State which has learned a certain rhetoric of freedom, rights and democracy but is still the creature of the few and of its own urgent desire to survive at all costs - and I mean, at all costs.
We have reviewed some of the issues arising from this in relation to the Cold War at https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... [Peter Hennessy's 'The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War'] but Edgerton's book supplies us with more evidence for the prosecution.
There is so much meat in this short book about the interplay of the technology of aviation with economics, culture and politics that we should not lose contact with Edgerton's primary thesis - that the UK did not decline, it appeared to decline only because others rose.
Apart from the massive mobilisation of an empire in order to participate in a struggle to the death at mid-century, the continued mobilisation of resources directed at subsidising the military aviation (and then missiles) sector was remarkable.
The scale of the military-industrial state constructed out of the 'reforms' of 1916 (equivalent to the allegedly progressive quasi-fascism of Woodrow Wilson and the real thing produced by Mussolini) and through the Cold War saw only one serious attempted check.
Whereas Eisenhower and Reagan brilliantly used military-industrial expenditure to develop the civilian infrastructure of the US - industrialisation of the West, road systems, civil aviation, satellite technology and the internet - the traditional elite in the UK did not.
There was a moment when elite insiders (Harold Wilson and Tony Benn) made a material effort to shift expenditures from the production of nonsensical attempts to keep ahead of a military game that could not be won into civil applications but the project fell apart on politics.
The experience appears to have radicalised Tony Benn into becoming an easily discreditable target of that same elite, while Wilson developed a partially justifiable paranoia about the right's determination to destroy him.
Even in the 1990s when I was involved in Labour Party politics, the military-industrial nationalist Labour Right plotted in my hearing to restore Trident to the top of the agenda and Amicus played a critical role in putting the Brown-Blair 'team' into power.
Much of the argument was around industrial decline, maintaining skills and full employment but what it was really all about was the military-industrial interests in the State ensuring that it would be 'business as usual' as Communism collapsed.
As the Left collapsed into a ridiculous sub-Marxism that gave cause for the Right to appeal direct to the people, New Labour eventually emerged as the synthetic merger of State resistance to fundamental change and the 'useful idiocy' of ambitious former Marxists on the make.
A similar failure took place in the Soviet Union where attempts to turn war expenditure into civilian expenditure crumbled on vested interests and sclerosis until the internal contradictions of bureaucratic paranoia resulted in the collapse of Russia into populist nationalism.
Russian populist nationalism is merely the Russian version of the British solution - the power of the State allied to a rhetoric that seduces an ill-educated population whose politics are those of slogans, prejudices and hand-me-down analyses endorsed by the media.
Edgerton does not deal with any of this grand theory but he does provide another fruitful source of data on the true nature of the state and the degree to which all is not what it appears to be in quasi-democratic states - like the UK and Russia.
His work starts to strip away our myths without in the least being 'ideological' or anything other than descriptive. The facts simply speak for themselves - the class basis within the RAF, the cruel calculations behind the use of air power, the interconnections.
If the book has a message for me, it may not be one intended by Edgerton. I am sold on the idea that the UK was not subject to decline in the twentieth century or indeed in the twenty first century. The Labour Party may indeed be electorally stuffed by robust recovery.
I am also sold on the idea that an advanced technology like aviation is transformative of political and economic structures and, another Edgerton proposal, that technological progress and modernity are very much at home, possibly more at home, on the Right than on the Left.
No, the lessons for me are several. First that the British ruling elite, as a closed-in caste that ably incorporate threats and assimilates them like an amoeba ingests food, is as powerful as it has ever been but has never been truly competent in its decision-making.
Second, that the public remains a prey to the elite's command of the terms of debate about important political issues under conditions where its 'Left' and 'Right' are merely struggling to rise to the head of something that exacts its own high price for the welfare it offers.
Third, that Right and Left are meaningless because both have been captured by the State and can only become meaningful when the Right means Republican Virtue (in the manner of De Jouvenel) and the Left means the Commonweal (in the manner of the English revolutionaries).
We have a very old story here - the struggle between Crown and People which the Crown won in 1660. It has brilliantly adapted its form to exist at the expense of the people - even today.
This book is, above all, a study of the relationship between a new and advanced technology (aviation) and its adaptation to the interests of the state and its eventual reformulation as a doctrine of mass murder in the mass bombing campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s.
It is this aspect of tolerance for mass murder as instrument of policy that took the 'regimes' of 1916 (Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George) from the more efficient use of conscripted labour to sustain the machine in the direction of two further dark ends.
The first dark end was preparedness to slaughter civilians overseas to avoid slaughtering young men at home, forgetting that the capability was mutual - and the second (see our Hennessy review) was acceptance that the nation itself could be obliterated to save the 'Crown'.
None of this was spoken of. None of this was analysed. Everything was accepted as most Germans accepted radical nationalism in the 1930s and most Russians accepted Marxism-Leninism in the 1970s. But it was no less totalitarian - simply the totalitarianism of consensual ignorance.
History may show that the conquest of the air was one of our darkest moments - darker in actual lives lost than the discovery of nuclear power (so far). This has to raise questions about a more recent invention, the internet.
Aviation was 'invented' by two brothers who had an eye to military applications from the very beginning. The internet was created by a military-industrial complex under a democratic system that saw civilian applications as a reasonable pay off for taxation.
Aviation gave us globalisation but it also gave us Dresden. The internet is currently seen as giving us 'empowerment' but also 'child porn'. 'Child porn' is the excuse for controlling action much as 'insurgency' was an excuse to drop bombs under the British Empire.
The complexities suggest a 'game' in which the State will want to command and use this tool - as Edward Snowden has apparently exposed - while getting the economic benefits for the population that supplies it with the taxes to dole out death and welfare to taste.
The question arising from the history of aviation is this - have we, the people, actually analysed correctly what is going on here and who is actually benefiting or are we taking on a narrative written by special interests for special interests?
Above all, the myth of 'decline' owed a great deal to liberal intellectuals with minimal experience of the world asserting truths without evidence because it felt right. Has much changed? A daily read of the nonsense in the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' would suggest not.
How much of the current story of the internet and its purpose and use as well as its relationship to freedom and power is truly understood by these commentators. And, if they do not understand the crude nature of power and history, why are we listening to them?
Notes are private!
Jan 02, 2014
Jan 07, 2002
Sep 01, 2004
I was considering putting this book into my 'horror' list but it is no fiction, no attempt to assuage real anxieties with fantasy. This is the real th...more I was considering putting this book into my 'horror' list but it is no fiction, no attempt to assuage real anxieties with fantasy. This is the real thing and if I could give the book six stars, I would.
Peter Hennessy has carved out a niche as the historian who is a 'safe pair of hands' for the quasi-official history of the near-contemporary British State.
However, this is the United Kingdom and not yet a third world dictatorship so 'safe pair of hands' merely means that he will respect continued security concerns. Otherwise he is rigorous, curious, independent-minded and, at the end of the day, humane in his assessments.
The best way forward is to draw some conclusions of our own, bearing in mind that this edition was published a decade ago and much material remained 'under wraps'. You are recommended to go straight to the book for the full and an accurate picture.
The book was published at that key point after the security apparat had begun to wonder what its purpose was now that the Soviet threat had evaporated and before the 'construction' of the part-real and part-invented terrorist threat that now threatens to recreate some of the horrors in this book but in new forms (see below).
Part of the pleasure of the book (if pleasure at its grim story is the right word) lies in the facility of Hennessy's writing and in the element of detective work as he plausibly reconstructs past policy even where documentation remains classified.
Indeed, the reconstruction based on known declassified documentation is so (bluntly) 'scary' that the mind boggles at what was being left behind closed doors (possibly literally in the case of the West Country Command Bunker) and still could not be seen by the people who pay the salaries of these officials, the enemy having long since departed.
There is black humour as well. Many of these highly intelligent officials had no illusions that their constant and expensive war planning was little more than 'pissing in the wind'.
I am left with the image of Her Majesty bobbing away on HMS Britannia in the North Atlantic while her Government sits hours away from extermination, having murdered 8 million Soviet men, women and children in retaliation for the Soviets doing in 12 million of ours.
The idea that 210 (probably less than 150 after traffic hold-ups) officials could command a country of around 30-40million ('surviving'), most of whom would be starving, rootless, irradiated, dying and bitter through regional centres of much the same numbers - let's say 1,500 men and a very few women - is patently ridiculous.
Desperately trying to direct their armed forces into public order control as a de facto military dictatorship with draconian rights to the death penalty (the safeguards would have collapsed on the first regional revolt), the question arises how these people ever contemplated this scenario as a rational possibility.
The only good news today (and probably the reason our Government is so in favour of 'nudge') is that we simply no longer have enough soldiers to hold down the population.
Our police are also unlikely to accept orders to do the sorts of bad things necessity might seem to require - but then we are no longer under the threat of a wave of nuclear bombs that could physically wipe out our industrial capacity within minutes.
And that brings us to another absurdity. The only reason that those bombs were targeted on us was because of our unique role as the Western Alliance's island supply base for the protection of the Continent from the Red hordes.
In other words, think about this, we were targeted because we were the premier supply base and yet the first few minutes of a nuclear exchange would ensure that we could never ever be used as such an asset. Our island would be an irradiated ashen ruin, the symbolic hub of an empire (before we lost it) which would merely remember us on 'Irradiation Day' each year.
Our nuclear capability was created in a series of steps of logic from false assumptions (which we will return to later) as a 'deterrent' but a deterrent related to what? - because the answer is not as simple as it first appears.
Let is pause here to say at once that this monstrous war never took place (self-evidently) so deterrence 'worked' But this deterrence was explicit not only against the Red Hordes (effectively, "attack us tactically and we'll take out 8 million of your people") but against another fact of the Cold War - American lunacy.
That is not too strong a phrase for the really serious worry of the British authorities in the immediate wake of the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire. There was once a critical gap in nuclear capability between the US and the Soviet Union and a genuine fear (attested from multiple evidence) that 'hawks' in America would engage in a pre-emptive war against Moscow.
This was a fear that never went away because American assesments and psychology were always different from British, its interests were global in a more fundamental way and the fear was of brinkmanship by either side in which the first victim would be the United Kingdom as forward supply base.
Naturally, this oversimplifies a situation which changed from year to year (read the book for the detail) but fear of American behaviour at the beginning, when the United Kingdom was still under some great power illusions (held by Ernie Bevin as much as by any Tory), led the country into a deep entanglement with its ally.
That entanglement required our own expensive weaponry with its own consequences - for example, while small European countries built at least some degree of protection for their citizenry, the British population was left wholly exposed because all the money had to go on a massive programme of bomb and delivery development. Contingency planning for anything beyond the survival of the State as military dictatorship was simply not possible.
The situation moves inexorably into nightmare - the determination to try to control the US within a Western alliance which made the UK little more than a target, the need to buy a place at the table with an independent nuclear deterrent that was merely a provocation to destruction in a crisis and which was beyond the country's means, and the fact that a weakening economy and scientific-industrial base meant that this self-destructive white elephant was mostly dependent for its functioning on the US in any case.
At a certain point, the ridiculous position is reached where four nuclear submarines are made available to commit mass murder because the United Kingdom no longer exists.
But there is a second aspect to the story that emerges. This is about the relationship between the Crown and its People which is a story of degradation that has not ended with the end of the Cold War.
This is not to say that the high officials and politicians of the Cold War were not men of the highest intelligence, integrity and goodwill who genuinely placed what they saw as the interests of the nation at the centre of their thinking. If the outcome was absurd, it followed logically from first assumptions and it is the lack of questioning of those assumptions that now looks so tragically startling.
There might be an analogy drawn with the logic of the German war machine in which so many men of 'intelligence, integrity and good will' were engaged to the point of the worst sort of mass murder. There really is, in the end, only the moral difference (admittedly an important one) that the German war machine committed mass murder as part of a war of aggression whereas the British would have committed mass murder only in retaliation for a similar assault - or an accident.
Oh dear! Because an accident of information was always possible and our external security apparat was built up mostly on the need to avoid accidental failures of interpretation and to get good warning - if only to manage the cowboy responses of their main ally.
But the British and German States had this in common - whether for Crown or Kaiser, both had a reified concept of the nation that could contemplate rationally that its population could be thrown on to the poker table as part of the gamble.
The continuity of the State, the safety of the Queen, the preservation of what remained of the Empire, all these were vastly more important than the particular lives, properties and aspirations of the 'subjects' (mark that word) of the Crown. It drove the concept of the State/Empire as something to be preserved by alliance against an offensive ideology but, above all, it drove the construction of the secret state which was secret not only against the enemy but against its own population because of the Communist 'enemy within'.
Again, we should not be too hysterical about this. What Hennessy's researches make clear is that (sometimes for practical reasons) the genuinely civilised high officials of the State alwaysd started by trying to minimise intrusions into private life (only, of course, to see bureaucratic logic extend the machine further by degrees).
The American approach to Communism - a brutal unjust purge of citizens who simply thought differently - was pure politics and such methods were vigorously resisted at the highest political level in the UK. It was understood that real espionage against the British would remain undiscovered except through break-throughs in counter-espionage that no vetting procedure or bugging of King Street would contribute towards.
The discovery of the Cambridge Communist spies came in just that way and I offer the unfashionable view that, given the fact that not knowing what the other side is up to represents the greatest risk of error and accident of interpretation, Philby's supply of 20,000 pages of security material to the Soviets may actually have helped avoid apocalypse, with the only regret that we did not have our own Philbys in Washington and Moscow.
However, as in the logic of the acquisition of armament through to Trident (via the V-Bombers and Polaris) and the huge gamble involved in deterrence for an unprotected population, so the British wartime state that was first constructed by the 'war socialisms' of Lloyd George and then, after a gap, by the Churchill-Attlee Government found itself increasingly paranoid about an 'enemy within'.
The most interesting moment is not the decision to engage in 'positive vetting' which strikes me as reasonable, if appallingly handled in individual cases such as that of Turing (not mentioned in this book), nor the cat-and-mouse with the Communist Party which would have been rounded up and interned long before the bombs started landing.
[Personally, I would have driven straight to the internment camp zone since there is an above-average chance that the Russians might decide not to plant a bomb in the vicinity].
The most interesting moment is when a non-communist part of the population starts to get wind of the scale of the threat to its own existence and to the arrangements made by the elite to hunker down and sit out the bombings. This is the foundation of CND and the distribution of leaflets that pinpointed the 'safe bunkers' making them suddenly useless. The leaflets would have resulted in the Soviet targeting being adjusted accordingly - poetic justice, I say.
There was a rather desperate attempt to keep a lid on public awareness of what was going on and to some extent this was successful, if only because the Soviet threat was, even for socialists, possibly for them more than anyone, a very real concern and fear.
Peter Watkins' disturbing TV film of the aftermath of an attack on Sheffield was kept off the BBC for some years until it could be held back no longer. A strain of doubt set in about the good will of the Government from the mid-1960s though it never attracted a majority.
The handling of student revolts of the 1960s and 1970s and labour action have to be seen in this Cold War context because the difference between the 1950s and the 1980s was the State's belief that it might not, in fact, be able to hold the country in the run-up to a war, let alone in the aftermath.
In short, the Cold War strategy of defiance, secrecy and deterrence was being quietly undermined by the arrival of a different sort of 'enemy within' - not foreign-backed and partially-directed Communists but imperfectly educated (and whose fault was that?) and angry indigenous people.
Fortunately for the Government, the histrionics of the Left and of direct action and genuine fears of Sovietism on the centre-right kept the majority solid if wary but (and we move well beyond the book now) precedents had been set for investigation into the secret state (which are still under way) and for popular resistance to authority.
The book is, therefore, vital reading not only as contemporary history and as an insight into what happens when a delusion of power affects a whole institutional elite but also in helping us to critique what is happening to the State mechanism today and why we should continue to be wary of its claims and its internal logic.
We noted above an important difference between the German and British war machine which may be summarised as a desire for empire compared with a determination to preserve what was left of empire but this no longer applied under the most dangerous man ever to be given control over the State machine - Tony Blair.
The Cold War over by a few years by the time of his arrival in office, adventurism could now be an option. Blair synthesised the German and British models by replacing the desire for empire with a determination to spread 'values', simply replacing the US as collaborative ally for the preservation of empire with a model of inveigling a sympathetic American political class into a forward policy of extending those values and (yet again) 'ensuring Britain's place in the world'.
This aspiration to be a global player is like a drug that affects the British Left more than it does the old British Right which is generally less interested in the world and more interested in simple profit (a much more healthy attitude). The Tory Party has since been 'Blairified'-lite under Cameron and Hague.
Macmillan expressed this well - as referenced by Hennessy - when he mused on whether it might be best just to flog off the family assets (so to speak) and retire on one's wealth but, like all the others, he was trapped into the same path of redirecting massive resources to weapons that could only be used genocidally.
Blair reintroduced an ideology of Great Power status far beyond the capability of the British economy and so reinvigorated the famous 'poodle status' with the US.
This is not electorally daft. A good proportion of the British population are highly delusory about our ability to sustain a global presence and are still locked into militarist imperial imagery from the past. There are also a fair number of jobs involved in various aspects of the so-called military-industrial complex.
Perhaps one might say - "why not, if you can get away with it". But, apart from moral considerations and the sheer absurdity of the cant involved, there are two more fundamental issues that take us back to Hennessy's book.
The first is that the British economy is desperately in need of sustainable investment according to a national plan that takes account of its true destiny - as a solid trading power in the second rank globally but first rank at what it does well. It has a huge population of nearly 80 million for a small island but one that is under-educated, expectant of welfare standards that are not sustainable and increasingly non-competitive.
The 'Great Power' fiction and the excessively close relationship with the US has benefits but it also has costs and the costs of policy are a recurrent theme in Hennessy's book. Back in the day, strategic choices were made solely for cost - a massive wasteful intelligence system and deterrent with no lasting value, say, in preference to a massive house-building programme with full civil defence capability and the sort of industrial investment seen in Germany and Japan.
As we write, the Cameron Government is trying to hang on to Trident despite a desperate lack of funds for investment in innovation. What funds are available are being poured into an electorally important welfare system for an increasingly old and unskilled population.
The other legacy is the 'secret state' itself which has not merely been reinvented for the age of 'terrorism' but has the sinister aspect that it is almost entirely directed (barring 'Al-Qaeda' in collaboration with the Americans) at an 'enemy within' who is not easily identifiable.
The original positive vetting procedures of the 1940s extended themselves into significant MI5 investigations and surveillance of individuals who simply made it known that they did not agree with national policy and were prepared to say so. Within a relatively short period, threats, none of which are foreign-financed, came to include a whole range of direct action activism as well as terrorism arising out of Northern Irish and Islamic issues.
Some of this interest is justified where breaches of the law are involved and certainly where the breaches offer public danger, but we should be aware of the risk of mission creep involving not merely increasingly widespread surveillance and file-keeping but other more sinister developments, all of which have Cold War precedents.
There is also the 'co-operation' with allies where the survival of the collaborating network of regulatory states is placed ahead of the real interests of the inhabitants of those states. The argument that these are democracies stand up less well when, after reading Hennessy, one realises the degree to which the political and bureaucratic elites are in close cahoots on the need to preserve the state and impose order on the population.
As we noted, the Cold War model successively involved internment camps and ultimately military dictatorship (albeit under Cabinet Control which must make the other 79.99m of us feel immensely better) with death penalties.
What Hennessy reveals and which is easily missed is that part of the war plans involved a pre-drafted Emergency Power (Defence) Bill which would have been whipped through the House of Commons and which would effectively have ended all civil rights.
The planning was reminiscent of Hitler's move after the Reichstag Fire. The Bill was recognised not to be passable in peace time so the plan was to deliver it to parliament only when the threat of war was imminent - requiring some fine timing. The document remained secret until it appeared in an MOD file at the PRO in the late 1990s. One wonders what other 'emergency measures' are being readied for a crisis.
We should not be too paranoid. State officials are generally decent men and women and the growing 'whistleblower phenomenon', the reduced number of military and police in the hands of the State, the changing international situation, the emergence of the internet (which clearly worries the Cabinet Office) and a slight increase in political education and awareness all militate against action.
But we should never forget that the State defines the terms of a crisis and that it is now proven to place its own existence ahead of the lives of its subjects for whatever carefully thought out and logical reasons. There is potential for harm.
The Government has a command centre, much more effective than the old West Country bunker, has access to internment camps, and can rely on a relatively uneducated, atomised and easily led majority in the population and on a supine and self-selecting political party of third rate minds where a consensus can be constructed over the heads of the population through Privy Council. You have been warned!(less)
Notes are private!
Aug 10, 2013
Mar 01, 2005
This a book with insights but, I am afraid, too few insights to recommend it to the casual rather than the specialist reader who may be unable to see...more This a book with insights but, I am afraid, too few insights to recommend it to the casual rather than the specialist reader who may be unable to see through the speculation and the implicit ideological positioning.
However, when we reach 1938, there is a subtle shift in the book from a narrative well told to yet another strike in the never-ending war betwen revisionist conservatives and the mainstream over the conduct of events after Munich.
Interestingly, given the bias, the story has the odd effect of giving some credence to the old Marxist theory of national socialism as the last refuge of a late imperial military-industrialism faced by the Bolshevik threat.
Canaris was not an aristocrat but he was part of a bourgeois class that had imbibed aristocratic values of war and duty (values that, of course, would have been completely alien to actual aristocrats at any time before the rise of the middle classes).
What we see here is an old story revisited almost by accident - one of classes who are perfectly prepared to go to war with one another as competing nation states for advantage but who rapidly collaborate internationally when a threat to their hegemony appears from 'below'.
Our current condition is not too dissimilar from this although the ruling elite is more likely to be represented by a graduate euro-socialist or bureaucrat in an international agency or NGO than an officer in the imperial navy or a landed gentleman running a ministry.
The evidence for this class interpretation lies everywhere in the first third of the book and beyond, pehaps most poignantly in the strange appearance of at least three Jews at different times as agents of German and national socialist espionage!
There is Canaris' undoubted involvement in protecting the cold blooded murder of Luxembourg and Liebknecht and there is his personal network of alliances with arms manufacturers and bankers that played a critical role in Nazi support for General Franco.
Indeed, one might reverse the usual claim that Hitler supported Franco in an ideological drive to expand international fascism into a far more realistic model where conservative nationalists inveigled the Nazi into supporting one of their own.
Whoever Canaris was by 1938, he was a ruthless player who may have pragmatically felt (like many German conservative nationalists) that the nasty little oik running the country was dragging the country to disaster but who was, equally, no stranger to criminal acts.
The revisionism that fuels the book from this point on seems to be one of the recurrent 'problems' of history where inconvenient truths have to be explained to salvage an interpretation necessary for the self image of a particular element in society.
I am confidently expecting Labour memoirs and historiography to give thoroughly revisionist perspectives in due course on the alleged unwilling complicity of senior Labour left-wingers in the Blair 'regime' and to claim their 'secret resistance'. Ho, hum!
It is true (I think Bassett demonstrates this) that Canaris was horrified by the turn of events within Germany after Kristallnacht. Canaris was not particularly anti-semitic and also understood better than his bosses that the early easy victories of Nazi aggression were not sustainable without some sort of peace with either the Reds or the Empires.
Strategically, Germany can look to the West against the East or look to the East and security and both visions have played their part in German history since Bismarck - as they do 'sotto voce' even today.
Canaris was firmly (remember the violence against the Spartakists) against the East because it was Bolshevik but he may well have had a different view had Russia been Tsarist.
Ideology infected strategy here as elsewhere. Once Germany had bitten off more than it could chew, there was a relatively short period when flexible cynics might have tried to 'do a deal' with one set of enemies in order to crush collaboratively the other.
Bassett concentrates on this 'window of opportunity' but too easily confuses the facts of the matter (the 'is' of the story) with an implied 'ought' - oh how much happier we would all have been if the generals had overthrown Hitler and a strong Germany resisted and beaten Stalin back. Ho, hum again!
Canaris was drawn to circles with a similar conservative anti-Bolshevik view in the West and this undoubtedly drew him into dialogues that any reasonable Nazi (indeed, any reasonable German in a state of war) might reasonably have called treacherous.
It is this treachery that Bassett seems at pains to justify and it is true that all spies are 'treacherous' to a degree in that part of their job is to maintain lines of communication with the enemy - whether IRA or Taliban or 'C' in London - so that deals may be struck later.
Unfortunately, this truth is spun here into something that the evidence simply does not support. Bassett speculates so that we see information that could be interpreted more reasonably in one way being interpreted in another in order to praise the man for the ideological reasons that we will come to.
It is the nature of espionage that we have very little evidence that is reliable and what evidence that we have may derive from a deliberate intent to tell a particular narrative.
Similarly, any dealings with the enemy (the separate peace feelers with London) are part of an elaborate game of maintaining options and advantage in which we simply cannot KNOW what precisely was intended.
Contacts with London could be interpreted in many ways and not all of them treacherous. The treacherous aspects do seem to have been there but it would also seem that senior Nazi figures were well aware of them and even (almost certainly in the case of Himmler) happy to take later advantage if they could.
Moreover, none of the acts that were designed to suggest the back door to London for conservative nationalists need be interpreted in quite so noble terms as Bassett implies. After all, to conservative nationalists sacrificing some of their own hoi polloi might be regarded as a perfectly reasonable price to pay for political advantage,
Similarly, like good philosophers, spies can think two or more apparently inconsistent things at the same time and can over-reach themselves in doing so.
We must remember that this was a man who not merely collaborated with Heydrich, albeit as a bureaucratic rival, but who knew him well before he became a Party figure and who lived next door to the man and spent musical evenings with him.
Canaris' knowledge of the man may have helped to create seriously defensive moral principles in his more conventional Abwehr but it might easily be interpreted that Heydrich's SD was there to 'do the dirty work' so that the old guard could keep its hands cleans.
What I cannot believe is that Canaris was so horrified by what Heydrich represented that he began to 'plot against the regime'. It really is not that simple. And whatever Canaris was, he was a highly intelligent and rational player who loved his career and being at the centre of things.
It is equally probable that, like Gehlen later, he saw the way things were going a bit earlier than most and simply wanted to hedge his bets so that he had a job later. In the end, he miscalculated. It has to be said that he accepted his fate (as far as we can understand) with enormous dignity.
In other words, the 'distance' of complicity and mentality between Canaris and Heydrich is simply not proven but is merely suggested by testimonies that owe a lot to the later need of his officer colleagues in the New Germany to distance themselves from the thugs with whom they had shared power.They are not liars but they are not telling the total truth.
I would have been more inclined to give Bassett, and so Canaris, the benefit of the doubt if there had not been the implicit ideological agenda in the Introduction to the book (and in the closing comments) and which begins to emerge in force in the account of matters after 1938.
Again, we must not go too far. My own view is that Bassett demonstrates sufficiently that Canaris did retain certain standards, did refuse to get down into the mud with his Nazi colleagues, was part of the German nationalist readiness to overthrow Hitler and did undertake a number of highly creditable acts in defiance of Nazi ideology and hegemony.
Where we seem to differ is that all this is not enough to exonerate him or his class because there is enough evidence even in this book that the conservative nationalists only started to take a serious interest in countering national socialism when it looked like defeat might bring crimes to account.
It is true that Canaris wisely saw Hitler's forward foreign policy as potentially disastrous but we should not make too much of this. After all, many loyal Party men (I have been there!) know that their party is heading for a disaster on the logic of the situation but continue to serve the party regardless.
Yes, we have evidence of private horror at Nazi behaviour but much of this is cast in almost aesthetic and cultural terms rather than in terms of the sort of 'outrage' that affects (or infects) contemporary international relations discourse.
The picture that Bassett seeks to paint is one where a noble class of conservative nationalists, implicitly transnational in their acceptance of chivalric values but proudly patriotic, are outmanouevred by a bunch of rabid gangsters and then nobly risk their lives to recover their country from the fiends' coming apocalypse.
This ideology is part of a wider European revisionism that is deeply conservative in mentality. It implies that if only the Catholic Church (Bassett is characteristically kind to the Pope), conservative gentlemen and public servants, especially the military and allied services, had retained power, then all would have been well.
The conservatism comes through even in the rather pointed (and actually true) references of the debasement of the gentlemanly breed of spies by Tony Blair and his 'dodgy dossier'.
One of Bassett's items of evidence for the defence is that Canaris, faced with a similar demand (to that demanded by New Labour) from Nazi officials (to assist the invasion of the Netherlands) simply refused. I am afraid this does not make Canaris 'good' but merely reminds us just how dreadful Blair was!
Canaris is put into the same bracket of honour as 'C' - men of 'service who stood up to politicians and served their country with as much ethical consideration as the unethical trade of espionage permits.
This is, of course, romantic tosh but very much part of the self image of a particular element in the ruling order that will talk of the Christian West around High Table and at conservative European dinner parties much as they did in the age of the Kaiser and Edward.
Now let's put away this propaganda of a revival of a Christian-aristocratic vision of Europe with the politicians firmly under the control of the subtle counsellors in the bureaucracy who rely on the Vatican for moral succour and on an 'ethic of service' to give the masses the administrative rule they require.
In fact, the German conservative nationalists of the interwar period were wholly complicit in the rise of national socialism but were simply incompetent at managing it or in understanding its true nature. Far from effective, they were serially incompetent - no less than their imperial equivalents in the British Conservative Party before 1940.
To this day, Chamberlain's naive and stupid guarantee to Poland in 1939 must rank as one of the most stupid acts in British history - it cost millions of British and imperial lives and lost Britain its already weakening global hegemony.
To have allowed war elsewhere and national feeling (which was strong) to buy time for a major national rearmament programme designed to contain Germany and then ally with the Soviet Union at the 'right time' seems not to have occurred to the confused buffoon surrounded by incompetent 'service professionals'. One thanks someone for Churchill!
As for mainland Europe, the catholics, the aristocracy and the bureaucracy were so blinded by terror of Bolshevism that they gave carte blanche to populist gangsters who would kill their own as much as their enemies and they gave this carte blanche willingly in fear of worse.
Nor were they alone. Mussolini suggested a 'way forward' with his Papal Concordat that horrified his own radical pagan supporters such as Evola. The old revolutionary socialist marched on Rome and then made himself head of the biggest protection racket in history.
Franco was treated as the 'coming man' (and was clever enough not to concede ground to the Nazis) and the Church backed vicious dictators across Eastern Europe and 'quislings' in the West as the Wehrmacht moved towards Moscow.
In one of the silliest analytical tricks of the conservative revisionists, any crime is moderated because conservative nationalists were less anti-semitic than the Nazis - basically, they simply had none of the lust for extermination of their radical cousins.
This is like the justification of the old man bonking a fifteen year old school girl that he is not to be compared with a member of a ring that abuses five year olds - true but it rather misses the point.
Even Hitler compromised with the old guard once he had shown what he was capable of in hitting out at both conservative nationalists and his own 'Left' in the Night of the Long Knives.
Though historians love to suggest that the SS slaughter in 1934 created a sense of terror amongst conservative nationalists, we must not forget that the main purpose of the event was to create an understanding with the new Wehrmacht.
Von Papen himself was held back from the slaughter as a chess piece in case of need. He did not defect and (on the evidence of Bassett) even considered it possible that he might be reappointed Prime Minister by Hitler in order (we presume) to help broker a peace deal with the West against Stalin.
In other words, the conservative nationalists were cowed perhaps in 1934 and came to understand their role as junior partners with the radical nationalist state but they never gave up hope of being senior partners again.
They were still well in play within the system and they never truly revolted except in their own class interest (beautifully recast by the identification of that class and cultural interest with that of their own nation). The self-delusion here is almost magnificent.
Only at the end, to save their own skins for the consequences, not merely of aggression but of gross atrocities unmatched in war since the seventeenth century, did they seek any means possible to counter the decisive statement from FDR that German surrender had to be 'unconditional'.
Bassett seems to dislike this commitment to 'unconditionality' because he continues to have faith in this class and to share their view that the division of Europe between Anglo-Americans and Soviets was an unalloyed disaster.
I do not - not because I like sovietism (on the contrary) but because the true disaster for Europe would have been anything less than a decisive defeat for the undemocratic instincts of the old feudal classes and an opportunity to create new parties and new constitutions for the defeated 'ab initio' and regardless of their much vaunted 'tradition'.
In the end, though much later, Eastern Europe was enabled to join this new model with its own aristocratic and religious machinery collapsed and with traditionalism only able to return as a petit-bourgeois pale simulacrum of its previous claims to power. Even the fascistic Golden Dawn is no Iron Guard.
The real danger for Europe is of a Vatican resurgent (which it has been since its effective claim to have won the Cold War in Europe for the West) backed by a sentimental 'service ethos', to which a certain sort of conservative bourgeois is attracted, in order to control the masses.
This book acts as both a flawed history of an interesting figure in twentieth century history but also as an unintended warning of the new political romanticism that might suggest that a failed ruling order still has something to offer Europe. It does not.
Notes are private!
Jul 21, 2013
Aug 03, 2002
This book was produced to accompany what may have been the first major exhibition of video gaming in an art gallery (in both Edinburgh and London) in...more This book was produced to accompany what may have been the first major exhibition of video gaming in an art gallery (in both Edinburgh and London) in 2002.
The exhibition was excellent and no doubt helped one member of my family to feel even better about (eventually) choosing video gaming as the subject of his university course.
But, in retrospect, I regret that there seemed not to be a traditional catalogue available (or else I was misled into thinking that this book was such an artefact for the future).
Instead, what we have here is a series of essays, of varying quality, one or two of which are arch and truly awful, with some added eco-cant at the beginning.
It all looks very dated about one of the fastest moving industries in history. A catalogue of the exhibits would have been far more useful, giving us a base-line history of the genre in the last century.
Having said that, the better essays give us a decent picture of what people thought was important in 2002 and we can use the book to compare and contrast what was expected and what actually happened.
For example, there is no reference to the massively fast growth in social media gaming and mobile platforms and tablets simply because, well, they weren't available then.
Other things are talked up that have not had much impact - notably machanima which became crass to an extreme and virtual worlds which rather stagnated despite the massive rise of the MMORPG.
What has changed are the graphics. The graphics of 2002 look clunky in the extreme and would be wholly unacceptable today in a world where games can show us a remarkable hyper reality.
Video gaming has been immensely influential - Hollywood adventure movies routinely use the 'level' meme to structure their narratives - and is more sophisticated but the book has one insight to hold on to.
This is that video games are, well, games. That is, they are not to be confused with the narrative forms of other arts like film or the novel.
The gamer is not simply watching or passively allowing words to create mental images away from reality. The gamer is actively engaged in manipulating formal rules for particular outcomes, usually competitive.
This may explain one of the great frustrations for many outside observers - the inability of the gaming industry to do more than add beautifully designed bells and whistles to a very few narrative forms.
Gaming is immersion in a restricted set of possibilities that are usually linked to a very few and simplified primary drives - hunting, being hunted, winning, acquiring, raising status, being 'more than'.
It is skill-honing and wish-fulfilment but it is not often subtlety though this is not how it needs to be in the hands of some coming genius of the genre.
Someone is going to enter into this field, on the back of increased computing power and the availability of artificial intelligence, and introduce subtlety much as the Renaissance introduced perspective.
What this needs, of course, is a market (which is probably sufficiently there) but also the ability to understand a very advanced technology alongside a creative and artistic mentality.
This mentality, though, will be very different from the expected one of the individual genius. It is more likely to be the Disney type leader who can collaborate equally with workshop and purchasers.
We are on the edge of this change. Some masterpieces - Myst, The Sims, Final Fantasy perhaps - have drawn us closer to a point where, eventually, we will see interaction guided into self-discovery.
Instead of the mere expression of desires and clan-based competition, the game may mature not into the 'vision of the artist' but of a 'guided shared vision' that has a process-based and not a fixed 'form'.
In a 'guided shared vision', the prime creators and the game players would be co-creators of an inward reality that is personally transformative. At that point, we will have a high art on our hands. (less)
Notes are private!
Jun 05, 2013
Apr 01, 2013
Oct 01, 2013
The first half of this book is a superb introduction to the current crisis in Syria. It would be hard not to recommend it to anyone with limited knowl...more The first half of this book is a superb introduction to the current crisis in Syria. It would be hard not to recommend it to anyone with limited knowledge of how this monstrous civil war came to be and who feels that they may need to understand it better before coming to a view.
Unfortunately, about half way through, the book seems to change tone and become something else: half history and, then increasingly as the book proceeds, half an implicit attempt to rehabilitate the Muslim Brotherhood in a way that simply does not quite stand up to scrutiny.
It would seem that no book in English on the Syrian situation can now detach itself from a position on one side or the other, at least by strong implication.
This mimics the intellectual world surrounding the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s where statements about the combatants were always absolute and placed in terms of good and evil. George Orwell's critical stance on the communist/anarchist conflict was the exception.
We badly need Orwell today because, in a parody of the Leftist position on Spain, there is a neo-Arabist perspective on the Middle East that, in justifiably seeking democracy, human rights and the reform of sclerotic governments, has abandoned support for some fundamental enlightenment values.
Lefevre is very definitely not a propagandist but he is also not an Orwell. He describes in an evidence-based way but sometimes, perhaps, he just cannot bring himself to ask the right questions as if that would betray his interviewees.
Critical questioning of beliefs and of such matters as the treatment of women are not to be found in this book and the result is a skewed and over-sympathetic portrayal of the Brotherhood as well as one that rightfully ends much negative stereotyping.
One of Lefevre's achievements is to demonstrate the breadth and complexity of 'Political Islam' but, then, this should be common sense - socialism and liberalism are similarly complex. However. it is hard to claim plausibly that the late discovery of reform and democracy within the movement is anything more than tactical at this stage.
We cannot rely on conservative democratic claims to mastery over the movement while these elements are busy competing for Western patronage and Gulf geld.
The thought that kindness and encouragement are enough to split Political Islam in general from the jihadi loons in Syria and turn it into another pale blue AKP misses a fundamental point - the model, the AKP, is censorious and partially obscurantist with a very troubling view of sexuality and women.
Some Western liberal internationalist policy wonks, analysts and security advisers (many of whom are still half-looking over their shoulder at the 'Russian Empire') seem to be aiming at a liberal-faith based alliance of democratic interests.
This is sometimes explicit on both the neo-conservative Republican Right and in the Blairite model of the universe which 'does not do God' overtly but clearly has an orientation towards inclusion of faith-based perspectives in public policy in a way fraught with danger for the Western tradition.
We see here a repeat of an old Cold War strategy (that of linking right-wing Italian and German democrats to the obscurantism of the Vatican and the order of the Lutheran Church in order to defeat communism) but, in this case, the policy is in danger of selling large numbers of Arabs for whom 'traditional values' are oppressive down the river.
The condition of the Northern Levant in the 21st century and of the Southern Mediterranean in the mid-twentieth century are very different. The Allies were able to impose a liberal order everywhere except Spain, one that permitted individual freedom to co-exist with Vatican power, but these conditions do not apply in 'Greater Syria'.
Yes, it is possible certainly that moderate Islamism could become a partner within an essentially liberal democratic Syria but there is no reliable 'deal' to be struck here because there is no reliable deal maker on the faith-based side.
At the end of the day, the corrupt old Christian Democrats of Italy and the earnest Christian Democrats of West Germany acted as firebreaks against further secularisation and not as agencies for the assertion of canon or church law on revived democracies.
The AKP in Turkey and the MB in Egypt (and Hamas in Palestine) suggest that the ambitions of Political Islam are not defensive. We seem to be allowing faith-based perspectives to slip in behind the door of our liberal cultures in a way that may have blow-back on hard-won Western freedoms.
The book thus has a perverse effect. The Baathist government ('regime' is already a loaded word you use for people you do not like) has undoubtedly been thuggish and cruel. Its behaviour has been appalling.
But the actual conduct of traditionalists has tended to provide some justification for the belief that, given what was inherited from successive empires, only authoritarian order could hold up civility.
This reviewer tended not to take that view and to hold to a reform view (and we must reveal some direct involvement in Anglo-Syrian relations between 2002 and 2005) but events since 2011 and the evidence of this book has shifted my perspective somewhat.
The question becomes whether that sufficient and temporary authoritarian order is better to be secular republican or shar'ia, whether the thugs are better Alawite peasant bootboys or fanatics who treat women as essentialist objects.
It is Hobson's Choice but a choice seems to have been made inevitable and the question is really about whether we can hope for it to be temporary if it cannot be sufficient. The threat of a revived political islam is precisely that it may become permanent as in Iran.
Any serious Syria watcher who has actually been in active politics as opposed to reading from texts knew two things from the start of the conflict.
The first was that the Assad Government would not fall on a puff of liberal rhetoric from those intellectuals who confuse what 'should be' with 'what is'. Only a matching of force with force could ever defeat this Government because it was ruthless enough to commit force itself.
If you wanted to impose democracy, then you needed an Iraq or at least a Libyan solution which means, bluntly, the manufacturing of a war where the aggressors would have to commit lives and reconstruction funds - and we all know how badly those other cases were handled.
The second was that, as the struggle continued, the complexity and inherent contradictions of post-colonial Syrian culture would tend to extremism, repeating the brutalities of the late 1970s on both sides.
The Assads, in fact, had compromised with non-political Islam in order to avoid democracy after the massacre at Hama so that a democracy movement that did not understand its own objective conditions would necessarily have created a militant Political Islam.
If Assad had adopted Islam as state religion and taken a relationship with compliant islam any further than his father had done, he would have had a coup on his hands. This is the Syrian trap - all sides want what can't be given without blood.
Order (because of sectarian, class, tribal and corrupt family needs), democracy and true religion is a game where two out of three is good going and a 'true religion democracy' was always going to be a threat and a fear to too many special interests to be viable.
If the Western strategy is to tame and neutralise sufficient of political islam to permit democracy, then it may be making the same mistake as the German General Staff in popping Lenin over to Petrograd to try and end the war in their favour.
Where Lefevre is valuable is in his fundamental honesty in telling his tale in terms of the evidence even if my instinct is that he has been bamboozled to some degree by contemporary interviews with Muslim Brotherhood activists.
The problem for anyone following the Turco-Qatari line of support for the Botherhood is that history shows the MB and Political Islam to have been provocative and brutal long before the massacre in Hama. They may try to rewrite this history but it is there in the eyes of the local public even if we do not recognise it in the West.
The experience of Islamist terrorism can be encapsulated in the story of the murder of 83 young Aleppo military graduates in a gratuitous escalation of the then-crisis in 1979. In other words, the horror of Hama did not emerge suddenly like some evil Venus from the waves.
Yes, this was the deed of the so-called Fighting Vanguard but the MB appears to have wobbled around this without condemning or seeking to calm matters and certainly not as we have seen the Muslim community do in London this month.
We have a case study now, in the UK, of what happens to a political culture when just one soldier is killed by a fanatic in the streets. We all wobble - almost ridiculously so. Syrian culture thirty four years ago was in no condition to respond mildly.
Bear in mind that at this time in history, even the advanced British were behaving like thugs in Northern Ireland because their opponents were fanatical killers and that the US was just coming out of phase of mass civilian murder in South East Asia intended to defeat a very different ideological enemy.
It was also an age of state terror of horrendous proportions in South and Central America which were condoned and supported by the US administration. We forget our own histories too easily.
This justifies nothing. Let me repeat that - this justifies nothing. Exiled Uncle Rif'at is culpable here but so are a lot of Pentagon officials. The question is what is to be done now.
The 'history' certainly does not justify the sustained torture of inmates, the arbitrary justice and the mass murder in Hama in which civilians were massacred alongside islamisty rebels but it does contextualise it better.
Although this may seem strange to us in our Western safe havens and with our simple view of good and evil, a secularist in a Syrian city, especially a woman or a member of a minority group, might come to fear some rebels more than the Baathists.
This is why this book strikes me as naive while being useful. Part of that use lies in Lefevre's scholarly honesty because he lays out, in the interstices of his narrative, all the reasons why we should be nervous of taking sides with Islamism, even of the moderate behaviour.
Why? Because, like socialism or all universalist ideologies, Islamism (as opposed to Islam) is intrinsically anti-universal and inhumane. Its core model of the universe requires that at least half humanity, the non-believers, let alone people who will believe in other things, be bent to its transcendental and traditionalist will.
The given argument is that the Arab world (or at least Greater Syria) is inherently Islamic but this is about as valid as the right-wing assertion that the West is inherently Christian. It just is not so.
It has merely been made to be so by circumstance ... and circumstances change. People change and they can choose to go backwards or forwards. The fact that liberals may be helping whole cultures go backwards is truly disturbing because it suggests that we may decide to follow them.
In complex multi-community societies, the best guarantor of safety and freedom remains secular order first and then democracy and not the other way around.
We are lucky in the West because democracy arose out of dynastic order. The Syrians are unlucky in that order has ossified into a set of corrupt special interests but it is still the order that has to be reformed first or else democracy will be a brutal chaos much as we have seen.
Even Turkish Islamic democracy follows this model with the AKP ruling on the back of a transition from secular militarism after years of creative struggle within a structure of order created by Ataturk.
But, of course, we must be fair. The Muslim Brotherhood is complex and could become much like the AKP (though the AKP remains conservative and obscurantist at heart). They are not to be confused with the jihadis. The question is really what are Western liberals doing 'in bed' with the AKP!
Some of the best material in the book comes from the interviews conducted by Lefevre but I urge you to take time to read the Appendices which are very revealing.
In the tales of Marwan Hadid, we have little more than a local version of the bandit narratives that were brought to life by Eric Hobsbawm. This is the legend of Mesrine moved from France to the Syria.
Meanwhile, we have the Brotherhood's 'liberal programmes' from this century which are models of democratic sophistication and may be persuasive to those armchair policy wonks who live by the text.
But neither sets of narrative are to be trusted as 'true' and not merely situationally useful.
The radical jihadi narratives are there to create legends. Underlying them is the sheer monstrosity of an essentialist ideology that can permits almost any crime if it can be justified by a text. The text again! Always the text! And not life lived in the world.
On the hand, all ideologues will shift the superficialities of their language in any necessary way in order to gain power. Saudi dissidents were notorious in the 1990s at having two versions of their programme - one for the West and one (often brutally anti-semitic) for the rest.
But these people are not to be classed as opportunists. They do believe not only in the divine but in the Koran as sacred text. This is very much their privilege but the political islamist (as opposed to the muslim) would be inclined to impose what they could on the wider population at the first opportunity.
What Western policymakers are doing by even contemplating being politically associated with these interests merely indicates how imperial opportunism and the triumph of tactics over stategy are perhaps one of the few constants in our international affairs.
All in all, if you retain a critical mentality as you read this book, you will emerge far better informed after than before. You may kick yourself for your naivete in ever thinking that there was a simple solution to the Syrian horror but the book is still highly recommended despite all our caveats.
Notes are private!
May 29, 2013
Jul 01, 1971
A tiresome potboiler in many ways, caught between proto-fascist wartime propaganda and an attempt to convey Crowley's 'Magickal' ideas, this book is n...more A tiresome potboiler in many ways, caught between proto-fascist wartime propaganda and an attempt to convey Crowley's 'Magickal' ideas, this book is neither particularly exciting nor illuminating.
The bulk of it was written in 1917 allegedly to help bring America into the First World War but was only prepared for publication in 1929 very much later when Crowley's game was getting funds on his notoriety.
This is not to say that there is not merit in the writing once you get past the late Victorian Swinburnian prose poesy or in the ideas once you get past the flummery.
But, honestly, most of the ideas are now readily available elsewhere and you have to work through a lot of dross to get to the literary gold.
It may be more entertaining if you have some knowledge of the period and appreciate the satire on spiritualism, on rival 'occult' schools and on the character of the imperial post-Victorian English middle classes. But that is a lot to ask of the modern reader.
There are some moments of genuine horror - the black magick ritual certainly puts Dennis Wheatley to shame - and, perfectly in character, he is much better at portraying villains than heroes.
But the story does not flow, the psychology is unconvincing, the long stretches of didacticism dull, the obfuscations unnecessary, the 'wit' heavy-handed (he is no Oscar Wilde) and the more than occasional nastiness about women and war uninspiring.
All this book tells us is that Crowley was capable of creativity but not capable of the sustained effort and judgment to refine his literary art. This looks and feels like something cobbled together for ulterior purposes.
Perhaps it serves an insight into a man who is an important cultural figure but it also confirms the view that he was only a minor literary figure if not a wholly uninteresting one. It is, in short, hard work.
A footnote may be useful on the concept of the moonchild, which is the capture of a higher soul into a newborn child through magickal means. This is an idea of interesting potential somewhat wasted in this book. However, for those Americans who remain entranced by the experiments of Jack Parsons in this area, the book might be a useful corrective and explain why, for all his dark side, Crowley was horrified by the naive dabbling of Americans in undoubtedly serious matters. The 'high ethic' of Crowley in this effort (if you are of a Platonic mind-set) contrasts with the cynicism and cruelty displayed by him on the material plane. It is difficult to work out the point of sincerity in the author. My personal view, as an out-and-out materialist, is that, consciously or unconsciously, the experiment demonstrates the inherent cruelty of all idealisms but others will be entranced by anything that takes them out of the mire and into the imaginal realm. If you can ignore the worst of the writing and the faults enumerated above and you can lose yourself in the conceit, then you may enjoy the performance.
Notes are private!
Mar 05, 2013
Dec 31, 1980
Dec 31, 1980
The book tells the history of the brief insurgent response to the arrogance of both Liverpool City Council and the British Government in their dealing...more The book tells the history of the brief insurgent response to the arrogance of both Liverpool City Council and the British Government in their dealings with Wales in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
There is an indirect link with the story told in Lyn Ebenezer's book on the Fron Goch internment camp which we reviewed in January - http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...
The internment camp, which was the bungling British Government's school for the IRA, was situated only a very short distance from what was to be the Tryweryn Reservoir, the creation of which, alongside the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, proved the trigger for the events described in the book.
A bombing campaign was signalled in 1963 with an attack on the transformer of the construction crew for the reservoir but by the time that the insurgents were defeated, there had been significant attacks not only in every part of Wales but also on pipeline outlets in England.
The narrative here is very much from a radical Welsh Nationalist perspective and that has to be borne in mind, but it is clearly written and fair and so it offers us a rare insight into how an insurgency starts and how it is defeated in a developed country.
My position in what follows should be made clear and was outlined in the Fron Goch review. Nationalism is intellectually absurd but then so is any ideology.
However, as a binding force for resistance to the arrogance of power, it has its uses and it is elite mismanagement that tends to trigger violence rather than the inherent malice of the insurgent. This is certainly borne out by the testimony of Jenkins who founded MAC (Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru).
Here we are speaking of two wholly separate cell-like operations, the Free Wales Army (which existed as much for publicity as for action) and MAC as well as individuals whose actions proved strategically problematic.
There were also radical propaganda operations in the borderland between the insurgents and the disapproving official nationalism of Plaid Cymru.
The growth of insurgency within a few years makes this a case study in the initial success and eventual inevitable failure of the sort of 'leaderless resistance' strategies much favoured by the revolutionary radical right.
The strategy of both the FWA and MAC (though they did not connect) was similar - to use violence to raise consciousness.
The author insists, and I accept on the evidence, that both sets of operation were careful to avoid deaths and to direct their attacks on property, although the FWA was much less inherently disciplined in this respect than MAC.
The total number of casualties was small given the amount of gelignite used, even in urban areas - one RAF man (though this may not have been an insurgent action), two insurgents blowing themselves up very late in the campaign and a young boy getting his leg badly injured.
One suspects though that the insurgency was heading to a tipping point where violence might have become more widespread after the failure to stop the investiture.
The bulk of the Welsh were torn between admiration for someone standing up to the English and a traditional loyalty to the Crown, depending on their location and self-perceived 'Welshness'.
Strategists on the insurgent side would have been minded, we believe, to jolt the population with increasing extremism if they had not been removed from the scene soon after the investiture.
The Free Wales Army was a classic romantic nationalist 'petit bourgeois' operation, consciously anti-communist and operating under conditions where the dominant party of Welshness at the time was the South Wales Labour Party with its phalanx of left-wing but centralising mining constituency MPs.
You can study its founder Julian Cayo Evans and the operation at length in the book but it was surprisingly open in the field, somewhat ramshackle, but it did what it said it would do until the raids that finally broke it up at the end of the decade.
'Cayo' was partly inspired by an (unwitting) Polish romantic exile, a teacher, and all the paraphrenalia of interwar romantic small nation fascism emerged in reduced form within the FWA as it did in its non-Marxist celtic nationalist contemporaries.
There were fraternal links with exiles and other Celtic nationalists, as well as the IRA which used them for its own purposes, but these were people of limited means, if of passion, who only required a determined and brutal response by a competent security apparat to unravel.
Still, they may have become a threat if they had taken a hold on a greater proportion of Welsh sentiment.
They were representing a genuine and widespread resentment at English demands on water resources and an historic lack of respect for their culture (although Prince Charles' determination to learn Welsh proved an imaginative act of partial and symbolic restitution by the Crown).
A turning point might have been the FWA's active support for the Aberfan community (after the disaster that led to the deaths of many of their children).
The community was disgracefully, almost psychopathically, treated by the clumsy British bureaucracy and by the National Coal Board. This might have turned moderate men like me into supporters of radical responses if it had become more widely known.
MAC was a different kettle of fish. It was also the creation of one man but one with a well thought out ideology of resistance, closer to the partisan mentality of the Second World War, John Barnard Jenkins.
Jenkins was a common soldier in the Malayan insurgency. It is striking how many British-Welsh ex-soldiers found themselves, despite their emotional allegiance to the British Army, fighting against the Crown as romantic nationalists.
This is a phenomenon of 'spirit'. The current British Government may be making its own blunder in letting loose on a troubled English community a large number of well-trained but only partly educated men without a purpose in life.
That is another story but rightist insurgency in the developed world has always had a strong element of resentment from ex-military about their former or current masters.
The Freikorps in post-first world war Germany were not unique in history and the Fron Goch book showed us examples too of British-Irish soldiery turning to the IRA and romantic nationalism.
Be this as it may, Jenkins, working as a lowly NCO still within the territorial structure of the British Army, ran a small but effective 'terrorist' (that is, insurgent) cell in North Wales in the latter part of the period.
Jenkins evidently gave an extensive interview for this book and its honesty and ability to analyse self-critically is remarkable. He clearly had and has a good mind. All policy makers could learn from his frank testimony. These were not bad men but frustrated men.
Perhaps the most valuable insight is psychological because it is true. Consciousness-raising in the individual is very different from ideologicial consciousness-raising of the mass.
In the first case, an act or an experience shatters a way of seeing and forces the world to be rebuilt along new lines. The latter is simply a matter of taking a grazing herd from one field to the next.Here is Jenkins on the moment of action and its effect on him:
"My basic feeling going home in the car [after the first bombing of a pipeline] was one of great sadness because it had come to this. The thing is that the first time you deliberately break the law ... then that is the first time you snatch the blinkers away. The web that has been carefully and steadily drawn about you since the day you were born is suddenly cut through. All the taboos, such as the policeman is a nice chap, and the government is always right, and the state is there for the citizen's own good ... I was reacting violently against everything that up until then had been the whole basis of my existence. What I felt when I left that bomb on the pipeline was that since before my action I had been within the law and a respected member of the public within the law; now I was outside the law ... and I was filled with a sort of sadness, a sense of loss because I had cut myself off. I felt a totally different person. Once one has taken a bite out of the state and it succeeds, then one is totally different, totally divorced. I felt that I could then for the first time look at things with complete objectivity, because I no longer has these 'should I or shouldn't I? doubts. I could go against the state, I had gone against the state, and I was still here ... "
This is probably the best account I have ever seen of the transformative and liberating effect of transgression (including the 'sense of loss').
It helps to explain why controlling the cultural infrastructure is always going to be more important even than controlling access to weaponry as far as the defensive state is concerned.
The end of the insurgency owed itself to two causes. The first was inherent in the approach of the insurgents and the second inherent in the state machine of the day.
Things started to go wrong when the insurgents failed to win a base in the community that could sustain them. They could not expand until they no longer feared ordinary people as law-abiding informers and that point never came.
Worse, as an early example of 'leaderless resistance', excitable individuals outside the relatively disciplined structures of FWA and MAC began amateur bombing attempts that endangered life.
The FWA was also once too close to declaring war on the English rather than the British Government (a mistake MAC never made) when one bomb attempt threatened to deprive 1.5m people in Birmingham of water as early as 1967.
This sort of thing (if it had later been pursued as a strategy) or the assassination of Prince Charles (which was discussed but not pursued) might have given the FWA what it wanted - the equivalent of the black & tans in the Cambrian Mountains to alienate the population - but the Welsh People would probably have turned on them long before that.
The 'insurgents' also had minimal resources. The Official IRA's half-baked support at the margins and the odd secret wealthy donor were not sufficient to provide more than a few guns.
We leave you to read in the book the tragi-comical story of the IRA deal involving a brochure offering armoured cars and tanks when the FWA could scarcely scrape the cash together to buy a second hand motorcycle and a sidecar.
Above all, Wales in the 1960s was mostly a modern industrial nation (certainly in the South) and the ideology of the FWA was that of small people outside the mainstream of 'history'.
A genuine insurgent response to London would have required an ideology that did not look back to the 1916 Dublin Rising which in turn looked back to the 1840s but would have 'detourned' socialism in the Welsh Valleys much as Hitler 'detourned' socialism in the industrial zones of Germany.
However, all this is academic, because we must turn to the response which showed all the essential characteristics of the British State when it looks like it is going to lose a bit of its property.
The crisis started because of the utter arrogance over Trywern. The first reactions to 'extremism' were mostly outrage, huffing and puffing and posturing.
One of the biggest huffer and puffers was Plaid Cymru which had decided on a constitutional route to independence which (at that time) had achieved nothing. The drift into the Establishment of constitutional radicals is an eternal of history.
The next phase was one of somewhat desultory policing where (as far as the FWA concerned) both sides, FWA and police, engaged in a somewhat autistic rivalry where each taunted the other but no decisive evidence brought men to trial.
The reason for this is clear. Central Government saw Wales as a strategic problem that had to be dealt with strategically, until then it was a matter of local policing within the law.
The eventual strategy was to appropriate Welsh feeling to the Crown and isolate the nationalists by offering the young Prince Charles up as Prince of Wales direct to the people.
This was a risky strategy tactically - it could centre violent protest on the Prince and on the event (which it did) and it could mobilise more awareness-raising activity about the imposition of the Crown on Wales - but it proved the correct strategy if only because the working classes of Wales love an excuse for a party.
From this point on, matters escalated. The British system is centred on the Crown to a degree not always appreciated by its own population, let alone foreigners.
The Prince of Wales was being gambled against not only the FWA but possibly the IRA which was then in a highly unstable state. Needless to say, every stop was pulled out to protect the Prince and control the media.
Equally needless to say, the somewhat thuggish Special Branch (the more discreet Black & Tans of the day) went into what amounted to gang warfare mode with the FWA, supported by the magistrates.
Again, I refer you to the book on the detail but it is a truth universally acknowledged - from the Easter Rising to the London Riots - that the British State, when faced by the first signs of an existential threat, mobilises itself to crush that threat with consummate ruthlessness, without morality and only barely constrained by its own laws.
The characterisation of 'James Bond' as representative of the British Establishment in defence mode is in this respect accurate. The operations against radical Welsh nationalism, also had the full political support of even the 'official' Welsh nationalists.
Needless to say, the FWA were taken out largely by judicial means (not without back room beatings and bad faith). The amateurs were removed by the professionals.
MAC was more conventionally defeated when Jenkins, its only central co-ordinator, was removed from the scene by solid conventional policing.
The principals were jailed and the story somewhat suppressed (there is, for example, as of today, no reference to the FWA's role in the Aberfan disaster relief campaign in Wikipedia). The individuals left prison in the coming years with no machinery in place, no popular support and under permanent surveillance.
But there is a coda not in the book. Wales, forty years on, has its own autonomous Assembly within the United Kingdom and the Welsh language has equal status to English. The police are now Heddlu.
Plaid Cymru would like to claim that this was all their doing. The South Wales Labour Party would like to claim the political credit since they implemented it through the Blair Government (which, incidentally, recognised the wrong-doing at Aberfan if in a somewhat mealy-mouthed way as soon as it got into office).
In fact, the FWA and MAC gave the British Establishment a bit of a scare and Home Rule for Wales seriously entered the agenda from that point on even if it would be resisted until the 'right' way of doing it had been offered.
If a tiny group of marginalised young males could threaten water supplies, gain growing acceptance amongst others (as was happening) and offer a terrorist threat that stretched into England, then it could happen again if Welsh culture and aspirations were ignored.
Plaid Cymru and the (mostly South Wales) Labour Party were henceforth competing to claim that they were the party of Welsh aspirations and culture.
The process only awaited a new Labour Government to see that the British State could safely grant those aspirations without detaching the country from the Crown.
There were important steps along the way - the subsidised Welsh television station S4C in the early 1980s, for which Plaid Cymru should take the political credit, is one. Home Rule was not automatic but it was probable.
FWA and MAC were, thus, failures as political strategies but they are not unimportant. They helped to force autonomy on to the agenda by showing that resentments were real enough to force some ordinary people into direct action.
The Trywern reservoir campaign in which the FWA played a critical role, the skilled public relations operations of the FWA and the FWA's Aberfan activity at a very local level, showed that anger and resentment could be exploited by extremism and that simply removing the obvious extremists from the stage was not enough.
The British State wisely removed those extremists by fair means and foul but then allowed democratic competition to permit eventually a solution for Wales. If the same wise strategy had been followed in Ireland, it might have remained within the Kingdom.
So, this short and not easily available (I picked it up by chance on a visit to the Lleyn Peninsula) must be added to any library on insurgency and terrorism as testimony from 'within a movement' that was very close to home.
There is nothing in the interviews in this book that might not be said one day by resentful working people in British Columbia or Bethnal Green so one hopes lessons have been learned.
Notes are private!
Feb 17, 2013
Dec 05, 2002
This is a superb bit of diplomatic micro-history covering a series of foreign policy crises between 1933 and 1939, using the question of what facts Hi...more This is a superb bit of diplomatic micro-history covering a series of foreign policy crises between 1933 and 1939, using the question of what facts Hitler had to hand when he made a number of important decisions.
This book is illuminating about German and European history in the run-up to the cataclysmic Second World War but it should really be seen as a contribution to a much deeper contemporary concern - how can we be sure that we have true information in making policy decisions?
This issue is going to become one of ever more vital importance under conditions where the veracity of any claim being made about the world is increasingly subject to serious questions about the prior manipulation of information, as well as about its control by interested parties.
Shore refers to the contemporary Middle East in passing in his conclusions - the book was published in 2003 - and we have our own intimate experiences during precisely that period of how information was supplied, blocked and hidden as inconvenient by officials.
He covers each of six cases in intimate but not dull detail. I admire, above all, his courage in making intelligent judgments about what would most likely have filled those gaps where evidence is not direct and clear.
I argued in a Lobster article before this book was published that 'truth' in contemporary political analysis required both a rigorous attitude to the evidence but equally a sensible judgment on the gaps in the record.
There is a tendency in the less intelligent historian to restrict themselves only to the evidence to hand yet where the gaps are is where something happened. We must adopt a Japanese approach to silences and voids as things of a sort.
Our founding engasgement with the Exaro project - www.exaronews.com - represents the first part of the necessary equation: the forensic uncovering of evidence without making conspiratorial leaps or allowing ideology or partisanship get in the way.
Shore is a good historian and fulfils this primary requirement brilliantly. However, he goes further, as he should do, and becomes an equally brilliant intelligence analyst in interpreting the facts in the most probable way.
Once or twice I might demur on his judgments - once or twice - but that goes with the territory. For example, he possibly over-eggs the 'terror' aspect of Naziism in policy-making as opposed to the impacts of careerism and the standard bureaucratic obsession with position.
This is not to deny the terror represented by the Nazi regime or the reality of collaboration and resistance amongst the conservative elite - the case of Von Papen is instructive in how terror can work with almost scalpel-like precision in the hands of political genius.
It is simply to point out that second-guessing human motivation is perhaps a judgment too far and to say that much of the conduct Shore describes in closed political and bureaucratic systems is far from unique to national socialist Germany.
Our own experience of working inside the New Labour culture from 1992 to 1996 indicated precisely the same processes of competitive control of information, manipulation of facts, deliberate denial of access for bearers of inconvenient truths and so on. The rest is history.
Almost all political and state systems operate in much the same way - as do corporations, churches, NGOs and probably clubs and societies - anywhere where individuals have a career or personal stake in the retention or acquisition of power.
As for the history, Shore throws new insight on several problems that make this book an invaluable additional secondary source to set against the 'big histories' that most people will buy.
I draw attention here to only two of many - the factional struggle about whether to support Ethiopia or not in its struggle against Italian imperialism in 1934 and the final decision of Hitler and Stalin to cut a deal before partitioning Poland.
The first provides particular insight on the balance of power betwen traditional conservate realism and the more intuitive and ideological approach of Hitler.
It is interesting that conservative realist and ideological aims were similar in terms of the issue at hand - ultimately anschluss with Austria - but the conservatives took a traditional line of national interest that saw Italy as threat to the dream of German unification.
Hitler saw things differently, bigger perhaps, exploiting Italian resentments at Western refusal to respect its rights in order to build an axis of resentful powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) where anschluss could be positioned as relatively small beer to imperial domination of 'spheres'.
It is not too fanciful to see the struggle between traditional State Department realism and the hysteria of both neo-conservatism and liberal internationalism mirroring this story in our own time.
The second set of insights come from the account of the information flows surrounding the Nazi-Soviet Pact which is positioned in our conventional history as a particularly heinous act - it looks less so in the light of the information provided by Zachary Shore.
On the contrary, Stalin now looks as if he had no alternative because of the blundering of that utter fool Chamberlain whose commitment to appeasement seems to have been much deeper than any of us might ever have thought.
We can never know what might have happened if Chamberlain had not blundered, working behind the backs of his own nation and much of his party.
Chamberlain gave Germany the opportunity to demonstrate itself and have demonstrated by the facts to the Soviet Union that Britain would never provide the security guarantees for the Soviet Union that might have saved Poland.
Litvinov was only the first of many sacrifices to Chamberlain's errors of judgment.
The Soviet Union left the decision to join with Germany very late but it had every cause to make that decision given the asinine handling of the situation by the British Government - I refer you to Chapter 6 which is damning.
We have got into the habit of pouring all the blame for killing on the tyrants but blundering fools must also take their share of the blame.
If Chamberlain had not been such a fool, it is quite possible that millions would not have died, or at least have had some more years of life.
Never again should not just mean no war but no more blundering fools - regrettably they still continue to appear with alarming regularity.
As Shore points out if indirectly, the information flow at the hands of Saddam was a material fact in a fairly recent war. We now know that a misreading of a diplomat's statements were interpreted as giving the green light to an invasion that need not have happened.
This brings us back to information flow in our culture and the importance of process, system and transparency (within limits).
Elected politicians can and should define the national interest as the needs and desires of the people through the democratic process (which must be more than competing party cadres)
But, as in war, the performance of policy needs to be left to the professionals. By all means get new professionals if the old ones are not up to the job but let them be professionals.
Hitler's 'achievements' from a German nationalist perspective were quite remarkable but he was, in my opinion, pushing at an open door.
Most of Europe, fifteen years on from Versailles, knew that Germany had to be accommodated. There is scarcely a claim of the nationalists that might not have been 'sorted out' by professional diplomacy within ten or twenty years of a determined commitment to do so.
What Germany required was Bismarckian conservatism or internal transformation from its militaristic and rather strange culture into something truly liberal. What it got was a violent emotional reaction to humiliation under a charismatic hysteric.
One of the virtues of this book is that it raises questions about Hitler himself. He was undoubtedly a political genius but he was not and never could be a statesman.
The stories here should help knock on the head any lingering idea that he was quite the decisive all-knowing courageous leader (in foreign policy) who just went too far of revisionist legend.
The real story is that he was an ideologue and fantasist about power - just like today's liberal internationalists, neo-conservatives and Islamists - riding for a fall.
His tactical genius in domestic politics was translated into 'wins' in foreign policy but he was well served by his supine (UK) or weak (France) or distracted (Italy) potential opponents.
But underlying his tactical skills was a degree of strategic nonsense that had defeat in-built into it - the exact reverse of Stalin whose domestic ideology had ultimate defeat written into it while his realist foreign policy built a short-lived empire.
Germans are ashamed of Hitler for some very good reasons - thuggery being one - but they should add to the charge sheet that they allowed a genuine ideologue to operate the machinery of state. Let us hope we never make the same mistake today. (less)
Notes are private!
Jan 31, 2013
Feb 15, 2006
Feb 15, 2006
This book looks at the Fron-Goch internment camp from an implicitly Welsh nationalist perspective and is, in that context, surprisingly fair-minded, i...more This book looks at the Fron-Goch internment camp from an implicitly Welsh nationalist perspective and is, in that context, surprisingly fair-minded, if clearly and understandably critical of the 'English'.
Fron-Goch in Wales became home to many of the men (many perfectly innocent of wrong-doing) seized by the British Government after the Easter Rising in Dublin and it was instrumental in the creation of what became the IRA.
There are a number of lessons from the book which is what makes it worth reading. This reviewer has an ambivalent relationship to nationalism. One's view of the national question will almost certainly affect how the reader responds to the book.
Nationalism is an intrinsic absurdity that merely shows that traditional state formation has failed. It is also clear that outrage about the brutality of empires is more often than not hypocritical - nationalists become brutal in power, often against each other.
On the other hand, empires of all types have a tendency to take their subject peoples and their vulnerable and neglected for granted. Nationalism is a powerful insurgent mobilising force that can teach the arrogant a sharp lesson or two. In short, it has its political uses.
For example, in a modern twenty-first century context, a moderate English national feeling is a useful tool in restraining and combatting the technocratic incompetencies of the European Union but any extension of it to an intrinsic belief in 'England' would be ridiculous.
So, the first lesson to be drawn from this book is not the nobility of the Irish cause - since many of the Irish nationalists were clearly fanatics and capable of murderous intent themselves - but the inherent incompetencies of the British Empire.
To some extent, this arose from the sheer scale of the Empire as complex system - it was fated in this to be handled incompetently once it had reached its natural peak.
Although larger in the 1930s than the turn of the century, it was clear that its manageable extent had been reached under Lord Salisbury. The Boer resistance was a central event when 'white' national resistance emerged to challenge London's right to rule.
Ebenezer makes a good case for the Irish revolution - a confusing affair with a long history and a long tail - being central to subsequent insurgency against empires for the next 100 years.
The techniques on both sides - internment and hit-and-run guerrilla tactics - may have been created in South Africa but they were distilled in Ireland between 1916 and 1922.
The British royally screwed up at so many levels. Ebenezer wisely points out that the IRA was not a formidable military force but a force engaged in political warfare under a tight and effective cadre later led by the remarkable Michael Collins.
The IRA at its largest could probably count on perhaps 3,000 active fighters within its paper complement of 15,000 but the panicking British, operating on multiple imperial fronts were calculating an uprising in the 100,000 to 200,000 range.
Prior to 1916, most urban Irish would have been perfectly happy with the prospect of a Home Rule which was to be blunderingly delayed but was almost certain to come in the post-war political environment.
The revolutionaries were disorganised and incompetent and cursed by those they were trying to liberate. Irish revolt was an intellectual and rural business of unsophisticated passions and hatreds.
The British Government then made error after error with arbitrary killings and a complete disregard for the rule of law - or rather the construction of laws that made a mockery of any form of justice.
Fron-Goch proved a forcing ground for political education and Collins and the IRA learned swiftly to out-think their captors at almost every level.
Having incarcerated angry innocents with the hardened survivors of a failure whose incompetent leadership had been eviscerated, the British then allowed them to cohere and released them when they were ready to do maximum damage to the British interest.
There was something fundamentally unsound about the management capabilities of the British ruling elite. A great deal of it can be put down to the rigidities of class - both the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires were to fall on similar failures of management.
The situation was partially recovered - insofar as Eire under the bitter English-hating De Valera never became the cause of a fascist stab-in-the-back after 1940 - by the arrival of a brutal but intelligent outsider in Lloyd George who knew how to 'deal' with the situation.
This is an old trick of the British ruling establishment - bring in an outsider to handle a crisis: Disraeli to deal with democracy, Lloyd George to deal with working class aspirations, Churchill to deal with the Nazis and Thatcher to deal with the unions and socialism - and then it is business as usual.
It is infinitely sad for Britain that the current and extremely severe economic crisis only has a group of old Etonians on one side and the failed economics of Ed Balls on the other when what is probably needed is just such a ruthless insider-outsider.
The rest as they say is history but a relatively small number of ruthless and driven men took on an empire and within six years, learning fast and adaptively, removed an entire nation, regardless of its wishes, into a working autonomy within that empire and then to complete independence within another two decades.
Fron-Goch also was innovative in other respects. Ebenezer is good on the traditional roots of the hunger strike but the academy of Fron-Goch was to refine the hunger strike as political weapon in subsequent years to the extent that it is the defining tool of resistance.
This cannot be stated enough - the Irish revolution was a political revolution making use of terror and the provocation of counter-terror and not a military insurgency as it has often been portrayed.
Much of the kiling was actually Irish-on-Irish and I strongly recommend Ken Loach's 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) as a superb cinematic evocation of what that meant.
The violent approach also slowly destroyed the working class and trades union urban argument for change which dominated politics in Scotland and Wales during the same period and replaced it with something that could be classed as quasi-fascistic by the time of De Valera.
There are many, many lessons in all this and some for today, though we should not over-estimate them since both sides (empire and insurgency) have learned their histories to greater or lesser extents.
The insurgents, however, always seem to learn faster than sclerotic empires, perhaps because there is a creative elan to attack where defence is bureaucratic and fearful.
Even as late as the 1970s, the British were repeating the same mistakes in Northern Ireland that they had made in the South half a century before - heavy-handedness, a failure to maintain the rule of law, internment and poor propaganda.
The early days of the so-called 'war on terror' show the same egregious errors, the same panic, the same thuggery - for the propaganda value of Fron-Gach and the black-and-tans, read extraordinary renditions and Guantanamo Bay. The stupidity of empires passeth all understanding.
And maybe the same result - the kow-towing in process to so-called 'moderate' Islamists is a defeat for the West just as the Irish Free State (as opposed to Home Rule) was a defeat for the British Empire.
The best (though they will not tell you this) that the 'Western' policy-makers will get is the eventual neutralisation of these new Islamic states as direct threat - the secular liberals will be thrown to the wolves as were the majority of Irish to romantic fanatics.
A relatively few fanatics may, of course, be defeated by extra-judicial murder and the turning against them of 'moderates' but their intended aim is under way - large tracts of the Arab World will be under Islamic law. Terrorism and insurgency will be proved to have 'worked'.
The question is always why are empires so incompetent. It might be forgivable in 1916 insofar as both sides were 'learning' and because the Boer situation may not have been adequately analysed in the middle of a war for survival from 1914.
But that the successor empire - the US - did not learn these lessons is almost unforgivable, both in allowing the insurgency to find its roots in the first place and then handling it in a populist and emotional way that has been, in many ways, more foolish than London's.
The book is not easily available outside Wales. The book is translated from the Welsh and contains useful information about the area around Bala that helps us to see the Welsh nationalist perspective better.
However, despite some serious tensions in the 1960s, Welsh nationalism is quite a cuddly animal that has achieved a sufficiency of self determination and cultural autonomy almost without asking too aggressively.
There is a Welsh Assembly. English cities would not get water rights any more without a real struggle and a high price. Labour has constructed a compromise on autonomy that enables Welsh nationalists to be a democratic and not a revolutionary challenge.
It may be that the experience of Eire helped this process but it is more probable that protestantism and industrialisation modernised Wales faster and made extreme romantic nationalism counter-productive except at the cultural level. Welsh language culture is strong, albeit subsidised.
The old empire is almost gone, little more than a dynasty, an economic power embedded in a global city, the increasingly loose association of ancient kingdoms, a cultural myth and some problematic far-flung islands.
If there is to be an insurgency against it, it is either a proxy game in faraway countries where an increasingly economically exhausted polity plays at being powerful under the wing of others or it will be in its own inner cities.
If there is a revolutionary insurgency in the UK today, it probably lies in the ranks of organised crime and the potential for blundering in the Home Office - the handling of the recent London Riots does not bode well.
Notes are private!
Jan 27, 2013
Jul 05, 2012
May 01, 2014
Shaun Hutson has done a worthy job in translating a 1950s British attempt to mimic the American monster movie (and Hammer's effort to follow on from t...more Shaun Hutson has done a worthy job in translating a 1950s British attempt to mimic the American monster movie (and Hammer's effort to follow on from the initial success of Quatermass) to twenty first century Britain.
It is often tougher to write a page turner for the average bloke than a literary effort for the soi-disant intellectual in Hampstead and from that point of view Hutson does well.
Indeed, I would go further and suggest that he has a talent for introducing simple descriptions of very real emotions into a story.
I 'liked' in particular the way he wove very real daily twenty-first century fears - death or maiming in military service, cancer, family loss and deformity in children - into the story.
However, the book is a bit of pot-boiler for a fault that is not Hutsons - he has been remarkably creative in adding new elements to an old 'radioactive monster from out of the ground' story but a story that was entertaining on film is far too limiting as literature.
Hutson had a choice here whether to 'stick to the script' for the sake of Hammer's revival and the fans or go spinning off into more credible characterisation, political context and science - he chose or was instructed or pitched the former.
The result is an entertainment of sorts but also a reminder that any attempt to stick to a film story too closely in literature is likely to produce flawed material.
This ties in with the common experience that films of books may be great films but never as great as the original text while some of the iconic films, especialy in genre cinema, are quite free adaptations of short or relatively popular and simple fiction.
The book is part of the attempt to revive the Hammer brand (which we welcome) and assure the British public that the 'spirit' of Hammer lives on but be warned, the blurb in the GoodReads introduction is inaccurate and suggests a lazy copywriter who has not read the book.
The book is not set in Afghanistan or Scotland (yes, the film was set in the latter) but in the English countryside - the only connection with Afghanistan is that the British soldiers are sympathetically drawn as facing duty in that useless war.
There is no horrific chemical weapon being created by the British Army - who is this guy, a Fenian? I won't give the story away here except to note that the 'hero', as in all early Hammer cinema attempts to reach the US market, is an American scientist like the early Quatermass.
And a boy stumbles on something but only after British troops have done so and it is not anything man created but a classic monster from the deep.
As so often in a reading since the crash of 2008, this is another sign of the sheer laziness and perhaps cost-cutting of the publishing industry. The sales agents do not even read the books they are selling.
Still, though a potboiler, and it looks as if he hurried the commission in the last third, it made me interested in reading a 'real' Shaun Hutson, one he initiated and plotted rather than one fitting a strict pre-set formula, and I may look out for one of these. (less)
Notes are private!
Jan 24, 2013
Apr 04, 1995
Primo Levi may or may not have committed suicide in 1987 and it is all too convenient for myth-makers to say, as Elie Wiesel did, that Levi had died a...more Primo Levi may or may not have committed suicide in 1987 and it is all too convenient for myth-makers to say, as Elie Wiesel did, that Levi had died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.
However, there is one section of this book - Vanadium - where one understands the possibility of existential despair for Levi, his exchange with a German who was 'on the other side' at Auschwitz.
It is not that the German was wholly obtuse and certainly the man knows that bad things were done. By all 'conventional' standards, he is not a 'bad man' - indeed, he reminds one of Arendt's description of evil as fundamentally banal.
But the world views of victim and (relatively) minor participant are so utterly different that the only conclusion to be drawn is that empathy is always going to be the human exception rather than the human rule.
The Royal Institution awarded this book the title of 'best science book ever written' in 2006 (it was written in 1975) but it isn't. This is pure sentimentality - rather it is a very well written series of memoirs and some stories, hung together around a scientific theme.
It is, in fact, a bit of a mish-mash and it is perhaps time to 'toughen up' and stop missing the point. If Levi was defined by his experience in Auschwitz, the world has colluded out of what can only be described as a mass guilt trip that, I think, insults the dead.
We know now that - separated from the eurocentric view that rediscovered Nazi attrocities in the 1960s and after - the human species is capable of atrocity by its very nature. We live in a world of discovered and new atrocities, of Milgram experiments and Rwanda.
Primo Levi's testimony is important because he was in the heart of hell but we diminish him by patronising him. He does not come to terms with anything in this book and we should not either - we cannot 'empathise' or believe we have any conception of what he experienced.
Indeed, that is the flaw of the book - a set of incidents for which the periodic table is an excuse skirt around the elephant in the room, a 'why' that has no answer.
It is as if he is clearing his mental deck of thoughts and memories but we come out none the wiser as to the reality. We are filled with sympathy but blocked from anything but a very sentimentalised empathy.
At the end of this book, I deeply cared about this man - not humanity - but this man and in that sense the book is a success insofar as it helps us see each victim of these grinding machines to be a person.
But it takes us no nearer to coherence or understanding. The lack of anger or rage in itself seems to be taken as a good sign, that Levi was not a man who hated or seeked vengeance. I disagree.
The sweet reasonableness is what most people want to see but it does not look like a truth, only a repression out of confusion. Levi never ever says he forgives here or elsewhere. He is simply pining in 'Vanadium' for a German to understand what it is to be Primo Levi.
The tragedy is not only that the German does not understand what it is to be Primo Levi but, bluntly, none of us do. If we claim to do, because of his fine writing, then we are self-deluding liars.
The praise and the awards and the claims about the man are almost piling insult on injury. No one understands what it is to be Primo Levi any more than anyone can understand who it is to be me or you.
Atrocity is now understand to be common enough - Stalin and Mao were both responsible for more deaths than Hitler. It cannot be great to be in Guantanamo or see your family blown to bits in a drone attack or macheted in Rwanda - but each person in each atrocity is unique.
Worse, the dead person no longer suffers - only those left behind suffer and we cannot 'get' this essential injustice where we cannot be sure whether it is better to be alive or dead.
So, Levi is important because of what he fails to be able to say not because of what he actually says.
Who knows what he thought on the night of his death but it is a fair guess that he would have given up all his writing just to know that someone, anyone, could actually communicate that they knew precisely what he had become because of the cold brutality of others.
It just can't be done. So, by all means read this book and get what you can from it (including insights into life in pre-war Italy) but do not expect to really understand what is going on here.
Or, at the least, read and re-read 'Vanadium' and be humbled at the inexpressible sadness of the human condition. Sometimes, all that is left is a respectful loving silence. Literature is an ambiguous friend in such circumstances.
Notes are private!
Jan 20, 2013
Jan 01, 2009
Sep 09, 2010
A solid and competent biography of an icon of British popular literature.
Wheatley is, however, not as interesting a person as (say) Somerset Maugham...more A solid and competent biography of an icon of British popular literature.
Wheatley is, however, not as interesting a person as (say) Somerset Maugham whose biography by Selina Hastings we reviewed on GoodReads last year.
The net result is a readable account of a British 'type' - conservative, perhaps street-wise rather than highly intelligent, 'bon viveur', mostly likeable though not without mild sociopathic tendencies and, of course, slightly odd.
The one thing to be said is that a social snob like Wheatley is still infinitely preferable to the intellectual snob - Giles Gordon of Secker & Warburg on pages 544-546 may stand as the type of the last.
There are interesting tit-bits about sexual life in the first world war and twenties, about the first world war itself, about propaganda operations in the second and wealthy upper middle class lifestyles.
However, what we really want to read about is his occult literature (which gets its first treatment only after two fifths of the book has passed) but the book adds little to what we intuit.
The truth is that Wheatley was an energetic and creative man but no great writer. He simply hit on a formula that was able to latch on to the repressed fantasies, desires and fears of mid-century Britain.
The 'Devil Rides out' remains his masterpiece and possibly that of the Hammer Studio output. Wheatley's place in British cultural history is assured but none of that makes him great or good.
Still, Phil Baker writes in a clear and easy-going style and, with only very occasional confusions and minor repetitions in over 600 pages, the book is readable and useful. (less)
Notes are private!
Jan 02, 2013
Sep 26, 2000
Ashenden is a thinly disguised memoire of Maugham's own period in wartime (1914-1918) secret service work. For all his customary detachment, he is ver...more Ashenden is a thinly disguised memoire of Maugham's own period in wartime (1914-1918) secret service work. For all his customary detachment, he is very aware of and interested in the moral issues involved in such work.
Maugham cannot write badly but this book is still (structurally) an imperfectly strung together group of short stories and novellas. It can also be rather self-consciously literary at times.
Famous as a precursor of Fleming's Bond and influencing an early Hitchcock film, it is rather misleading to compare Ashenden with 007. The book is certainly not 'exciting' in the way that we have come to expect within the thriller genre.
Each story is both a literary concoction and a moral tale of sorts in which the 'hero' is an observer out of necessity, with his own moral choices limited to a certain commitment and a sense of duty.
As neither one thing nor the other, literature or memoire, the total leaves one a little dissatisfied but the parts make up for the whole.
The component stories tend to centre on types of weak, fundamentally unimaginative or unfulfilled individuals, none of whom are truly mocked but all of whom are dissected through their own words.
They kill, lose lovers, probably die, actually die or are left deeply depressed, either because some obligation creates a situation from which there is no escape or the necessary duty of others entraps them.
The book closes with a tragic satire of two types of bourgeois - the Russian liberal and the American businessman - but there is an unusual generosity of spirit here, as if the confusion of the middle classes in a collapsing West had resulted in a strange camaraderie.
If the book can appear to be callous on the surface, it is only the detachment of the doctor dealing with pain and disease. We should remind ourselves that Maugham was originally trained in that profession at St. Thomas'.
Every now and then, we find out that this secret agent is not a natural psychopath like 007 but one socially constructed entirely by war and empire.
Ashenden is quite capable of holding strong sympathies with his required victims while wholly suspending sentiment in order to get the job done. In a way, he stands for all corporate men with a job to do.
In the tale told by an ambassador, in a literary sleight of hand, a man speaks of another where Maugham is clearly speaking of himself in the voice of the first.
It help here to know what contemporary readers did not - that he was gay. 'Society' requires certain things in terms of sexual conduct and that's an end to the matter.
This particular tale drags a bit and is conventional in precisely the way that Maugham (through Ashenden) appears to mock earlier in the book but the sentiment within it is undeniably real.
Perhaps that is the real virtue of the book - out of conventional, even theatrical, tales of duty, courage and treachery, he teases out an underlying human reality.
In each of his characters, he uncovers some emotional trait that may be absurd, and even be hysterically expressed, but which is nevertheless 'true' to our species.
Ostensibly a story of a world which has lost its moral compass in a struggle for survival, the book returns us time and time again to the fact that even a world of duty and obligation contains human foibles and emotions that need to be recognised as part of that world.
Notes are private!
Dec 16, 2012
Jan 28, 2011
Jan 01, 2011
This is a very odd book. Is it an angry political tract masquerading as an analysis of political assassination? It certainly cannot make its mind up w...more This is a very odd book. Is it an angry political tract masquerading as an analysis of political assassination? It certainly cannot make its mind up whether it is journalism or not. But, equally, it is not easily dismissed either.
Perhaps it is best treated as an introduction into political conspiracy and as a companion piece to Camus' 'L'Homme Revolte' updated to look retrospectively at some of the central events of the twentieth century through a conspiratorial but informed eye.
Camus was all ideology, text and theory but Belfield fills in the practical details of realpolitik and he can be surprisingly fair-minded - he exonerates the SAS and points out the reality of IRA intentions in the 'death on the Rock' case, as an example.
The classically liberal observer is going to have some serious difficulties with this book because Belfield does take conspiracy theory seriously but perhaps that is because the liberal intellectual is incapable of seeing what is not placed under his nose by the approved media.
I am in two minds about ‘conspiracy’ but it is foolish to believe that conspiracies do not take place and that small groups of men in politics operate in a moral climate that might otherwise be called psychopathic if this was not unfair to psychopaths.
In this book, Belfield argues well on the evidence and he gives foot notes that allow us to check most if not all statements.
At times, he does go over that fine line into unwarranted speculation but I have to say that he has changed my mind somewhat, albeit cautiously, on the death of Diana even if I still struggle with the motive. Surely the French cannot be quite that incompetent in such a consistent way!
Belfield seems to share a view that I put in ‘Lobster’ article many years ago that critical judgment in the para-political field obliges us to a probabilistic model rather than reliance only on the evidence available and on understanding the meaning of gaps and alleged coincidences.
As an Appendix, there is quite a wise ‘General Principles in Assassination Science’ (aka parapolitical investigation of state and group terror) that is worthy of further study and refinement. It is still useful to expose these sharks - it may slightly restrain their excesses.
The problem for most critics of para-politics is that every now and then evidence does emerge and we find ourselves faced with horrors – surely, Camelot was well and truly buried by the evidence of JFK’s complicity in the assassination of Diem and the revelations of the Church Committee.
JFK was really not much more than a very powerful gangster when it came to international relations and Obama’s embracing of remote drone killing as an instrument of policy shows him to be well and truly within the Imperial Democratic tradition.
To his credit, at least Obama does not pretend to be anything other than he is – a warlord – but we should be grateful for small mercies even if the admission is degrading and problematic for the liberal who would prefer such matters to remain secreted away as ‘conspiracy theory’.
But I do not want to catalogue the horrors nor imply that Belfield is wholly reliable nor that sometimes extrajudicial murder may not be reasonable (Belfield hints at this himself) nor that villainy is the prerogative of just one side in any game.
The service provided – albeit in a rather episodic way – by Belfield is to drive another nail into the coffin of the idea that any one set of State or ideologues is much better in its practices than another.
Indeed the ones who claim the highest moral ground appear to be those most inclined to high crime.
The simple brutal matter of British security stating the line across which the IRA could not cross was repugnant perhaps but it did reduce the threat of civil mayhem, with mass displacement and sectarian pogroms, to a mutual killing field of gangsters more like Sicily than Syria.
Containment slowly allowed the stick and the carrot to result eventually in the chief gang leader of one faction shaking the hand of the chief gang leader of the other – and the crisis to at least be attenuated to the point where protection money could exchange hands in the open.
The point is that morality and governance are in uneasy relationship. The governed have to believe that their governors are moral and they would prefer not to be told otherwise – it is rather like the necessity to believe in God for many people. It is an avoidance strategy.
In the best of situations, the illusion of morality becomes a reality because there is no reason for it to be otherwise but the essential a-morality of Power should never be under-estimated.
Anglican priests stayed silent on the mass bombing of German civilians because they knew what side their bread was buttered. Anti-communist intellectuals turned a blind eye to the bombing of civilians in Vietnam and leftist intellectuals to Soviet crimes.
The moralists are usually moral cowards. This book is therefore probably for only those interested in the tit-bits of Power’s behavior when faced with threat or filled with ambition. It will not interest people who do not like inconvenient truths.
It should inspire a healthy cynicism because little will change. Indeed, it is getting worse: if there is one thing the internet has demonstrated, it is that the people really are powerless and and that realpolitik no longer needs much coherent moral force to function. It is all mere cover.
Notes are private!
Aug 19, 2012
Jan 01, 2010
Sep 10, 2010
Pilkington has produced a highly intelligent book on the UFO phenomenon that makes a good starting point for anyone interested in the subject. I shall...more Pilkington has produced a highly intelligent book on the UFO phenomenon that makes a good starting point for anyone interested in the subject. I shall only quibble with his evident tolerance for the dumb asses who need to believe anything to hand.
Nevertheless, he is more critical than most and it is true that, if you have to believe something, the presence of aliens on this planet is no more daft than believing that Iron Age texts can tell us anything about how the modern world works.
The main thrust of the book lies in its investigation of the possibility (or rather probability) of periodic entries into the UFO mythos by security interests.
Pilkington is persuasive that a small group of intelligence players have dabbled in the UFO world but he is not foolish enough to assume some master conspiracy.
On the contrary, Pilkington is very sophisticated in understanding that small tactical interventions for specific purposes (inter-agency rivalries over funding, cover for advanced but very human technologies or behavioural experimentation) can take on a life of their own.
There are undoubtedly trickster personalities at work here, psychic predators who cannot resist enjoying themselves at the expense of vulnerable and confused souls, the sad people who have the Mulderian ‘need to belief’ that seems to affect a large proportion of the human species.
The rest of us may simply be indifferent or possibilian about anything not evidenced by facts or scientific method – we may concede that aliens may be among us but that it really does not matter so much that we have to enter into the realm of paranoia based on an unlikelihood.
There is little evidence for aliens on earth. Pilkington, definitely not a crude debunker, opens our eyes to a whole range of manipulative security possibilities that would be perhaps cruel but are also tactical and rational ways of solving short term problems for the State.
We are in the world of Ronson’s ‘Men Who Stare At Goats’, with bits of the excessively feather-bedded and itself paranoid military-industrial complex being allowed to do ridiculous things without much scrutiny.
If I have a problem with the book it is that it falls into the populist ‘Ronson trap’ of telling a personal narrative to get us amused at the cost of any decently coherent and sustained ‘analysis’. As we will see, this personal stance leads us into an unhelpful tricksy doubt.
The UFO phenomenon desperately needs analysis, not po-faced radical criticism of the military but a proper consideration not only of the general need to believe in unlikely things but of the sociology of memetic manipulation.
Being in this manipulative world myself (though as defence and never offence), I am aware of how a surprisingly few activist agents can wreak amazing reputational damage on an individual or an enemy through a few carefully placed false or conspiratorial memes.
My own theory on the intelligence engagement in UFOs is that it has all simply got out of hand because the perpetrators themselves have imperfectly understood a revolution in communications. They will not have anticipated the self-replicating and uncontrollable nature of the meme.
Closed experiments in manipulation and operations designed to muddy the waters in closed communities explode periodically into popular culture. The security community did not understand how the UFO belief system could escalate to become what amounts to a world religion.
Conspiracy theorists believe that the authorities are deliberately creating confusion and paranoia for their own purposes. They are simply not that clever. If you want to see short-term destructive memetic war in operation, look at the primitive garbage coming out of Western psy-ops about Syria.
Short-termism only means that authority is more likely to be undermined by irrational distrust and paranoia. Vast floating belief systems are now out of control – from ufologists and trans-humanists at one end to rights activists, Islamists and tea party primitives at the other.
Still, if Pilkington fails to get out of the ‘popular journalism’ trap, he does make a very good fist of being sensible about this mess of disinformation and paranoia. There is some good hard data in here and some interesting personal testimony.
But, in my copy, Pilkington has hand-written ‘Every word is a lie’, then crossed out ‘lie’ and replaced it with ‘true’. He also reveals his own UFO experience in a way that creates doubt as to his intentions even though one of his informants has a plausible technological explanation.
This attempt to be a trickster is fun but it diminishes the book and him – if we say we cannot believe him, even in jest, then perhaps it is true that he is running rings round us on everything.
Maybe Rick and Bill do not exist. Maybe the advanced aircraft in the picture selection are faked.
This may be good chaos magic but it is lousy real world management. Slightly more worrying, if a few lower level trickster state agents are screwing up the minds of the weak-minded, then that is not fun, it is cruel and malign – and, in the case of Paul Bennewitz, downright evil.
Manipulation of others is not fun. It is bullying. I see no ethical condemnation in the book. It is all too much fun. Cruelty is only fun to the immature.
Thick and weak people (and a lot of people are not very bright or are bright but vulnerable) either require silence (for reasons of State) or the truth – they do not deserve having their minds shattered or to be sent into a fantasy world that wrecks lives and families.
What we need now is a proper exposure of anyone engaged in these cruelties and for their superior officers to regain control of the agenda if only for one extremely good reason – the manipulation of the masses is counter-productive to the State and order. Loki is undermining Asgard.
In the week when a disturbed neuro-science student (why the media silence on his studies at the time of writing? are they too stupid to investigate them?) re-enacts the fantasy of a comic book psychopathic and kills en masse, memetic manipulation is a public policy issue.
This is no argument against freedom or for censorship, but an argument for the exposure of manipulation, for critical judgment, for an enlightenment attitude to a hierarchy of evidenced facts and for a profound skepticism but one that keeps in mind any possibility as, well, possible.
As for aliens, they could be here from the past or from the future and their presence could be covered up by the State but these propositions are all unlikely. And, amazingly, irrelevant.
What is more relevant is the lack of a mental attitude amongst the population that, having held to the possibility of aliens, is mentally prepared for that possibility and is not frightened by that possibility to the extent of becoming paranoid or supine before authority.
The hysteria over Al-Qaeda has created over a decade of dangerous imposition of surveillance and social control which is now being developed as neuro-scientific ‘nudge’ and the re-creation of newly created social conservatisms through State tolerance of faith-based idiocies.
If conspiracy theorists persist in believing in an alien invasion that will impose the New World Order on us, they are missing the point.
An NWO of sorts is happening anyway because they and others like them live in permanent states of irrational autistic fantasy without any ability to organise practical resistance to their own enslavement.
Tyranny does not need aliens or Al-Qaeda – it only needs a cynical elite and a stupid and distracted population. At this point in history, we have both.
Notes are private!
Jul 24, 2012
Oct 01, 1990
This is a solid set of essays from academic specialists on ancient warfare, from the Assyrians through to the last days of the Roman Empire, edited by...more This is a solid set of essays from academic specialists on ancient warfare, from the Assyrians through to the last days of the Roman Empire, edited by General Sir John Hackett and with illustrations to fit the text from Peter Connally.
The text can be densely specialist in places, the diagrams (though extensive) could have been better thought through and the narrative is nearly a quarter of a century old but it provides a continuous account of the use of force by the succession of gangsters we call kings and emperors.
Specialists will demur at my generosity in giving five stars (the easy acceptance of the presumed division between the heroic age and the age of the phalanx is no longer widely accepted) but the flow between the chapters works well and we get a strong sense of history unfolding.
In essence, warfare in the ancient world can be characterised as the skilful use of massed ranks of armed men, with the same human force being used to bring down the walls of besieged cities. The phalanx and the legion dominate the story but both are mere variations on a theme.
Technological change is present but remarkably limited. There are changes in tactics but the aim remains to get position for a set piece battle and use your men well. Naval force is of limited value except against sea brigands and still relies on brute human labour as oarsmen and marines.
Even horse power, while having an important role in battle, is weakened by the lack of the invention of the stirrup. Elephants died in cold climates. Animals were as likely to be part of the problem behind a failure as the means for success.
The genius of ancient generals lay in both a quick intelligence about the calculated risk to be taken and their ability to create or take advantage of systems that relied on masses of men being incentivised, out of fear or interest, both to win battles and exploit populations.
Many of these systems - the Assyrian, the Alexandrine and the Roman - were little more than self-creating machines for rapine and plunder and we can see the seeds of Napoleon and Trotsky in the actions of the Ancients.
Little changes when it comes to the exercise of brute power. Terrorism against populations alternates with cutting deals with troublesome enemy elites, a form of natural instinctive game theory builds up empires until the next innovator can smash them.
Empires rarely implode from within though the classic split in the ruling order can weaken an Empire and open the door to a superior organisation. Revolts rarely succeed because they cannot build the critical mass of manpower or learn how to organise themselves against the organised.
Indeed, the achievement of Trotsky and other liberation Communists in this context - mobilising and creating a military machine to defend and promote a revolution - stands up alongside those of Alexander and Caesar though, of course, the ideals were soon lost to the necessities of Power.
There is a possible truth that only the brutal realism of Communism, with its culture of terror and expediency, can overthrow the world of kings and emperors completely. Power and military ruthlessness have been and will always be inextricably linked. This book shows us for just how long.
Notes are private!
May 20, 2012
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