The anniversary of August 14

This is a ramble, and it is one of the few occasions when I am glad I am not in charge of anything.

I forget who it was who, when asked why she wore black, said “I’m in mourning for the world”.  Edith Sitwell ?  Anyway, we should all be wearing black for such an appalling world.  It is chilling to note that the full awfulness of what is happening in Gaza, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Central African Republic (more deaths than anywhere) and so on, is occurring on the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.  We never bloody learn, do we, and some features (the idea that military power, or bombing, or police brutality can cow a civilian population into submission) didn’t work even on the Germans in 1945.  This latter idea is usually semi-racist.  “Our folk are indomitable” goes the argument “but if we dump a few more bombs on Dresden or Coventry, Tokyo or Guernica, Gaza or Aleppo, the other lot’s moral fibre will crumble”.

I once had a brief Twitter exchange with the Times columnist David Aaronovitch.  Mr Aaronovitch is a man of liberal instincts, of Blairite hue (still defends the Iraq War, which is at least consistent).  I just asked, inside the 140 characters, whether he ever had sneaking sympathy for the CIA men whose careers involved keeping unpleasant dictators in power because whatever replaced them was likely to be far worse.  He replied ‘no’, with insufficient consideration in my view.  There used to be an allegedly worldly wise expression that said “if you are right wing before you are twenty, you lack a heart; if you are left wing after forty, you lack a brain”.  Well, I guess I’m in the brain-lacking bunch; on social affairs, I remain a man of the left.  But maybe different rules apply for internal and external politics.  The interventionists now are right wingers, from Oliver North to George Bush and all stops in between.   In respect of these gents, I think you can say that if you leap into overseas military interventions after the age of forty, you are flying in the face of experience.  Police actions like Sierra Leone, OK.  Expelling invaders, like the First Gulf War, fine.  But Afghanistan (especially after arming the mujahidin for twenty years) ?  Whoever thought that was a good idea ?  And weren’t the messes of Egypt and Libya totally predictable ?

I’ve just finished “A Scandalous Man”, a decent beach-read book by the journalist Gavin Esler.  It’s based around the secrets of the Thatcher/Reagan years, with a touch of Oliver North, lots of Middle Eastern politics, some sex and not a few clichés.  One of the tired old intelligence guys revealed that the CIA was minded to blow up the plane that flew Ayatollah Khomeini from Paris to Iran in 1979: “think how many lives would have been saved” is the argument.  I leave that with your tender consciences.

What to do about Gaza ?  Don’t know.  I find it hard to believe that the amount of destruction is necessary.  Israeli sources say they’re retaliating against rocket fire, and so they are, but times change.  Modern equipment can say precisely where a rocket is fired from (that is, after all, a commonplace in war); it is plainly possible to target that area with a drone and take out the guilty.  Which would imply rather more precision than we are seeing from Israel.  On the other hand, much of the logic used in discourse is pretty flawed.  People contrast the number of Palestinians killed in the fray with the much lower number of Israelis.  But, er if the morality of a cause was determined by how many civilian victims dies, then remember the western allies killed over 1m Germans in air raid, against about 60,000 Britons.  Disproportionate, eh ?  I also note the thunderous silence of Arab governments about Hamas.  And those who decry collective punishment against a population are often the same ones who demand academic boycotts or trade disinvestment of Israel, which kill no-one but are about as collective as you can get.

The argument against the scale of Israel’s response is not that it is immoral, or a war crime (a term which has rather expanded its use since Oradour-sur-Glaine and Lidice), but that it is ill-advised.  At some point, Israel and Palestine will have to sit down and deliver a durable peace.  That will not be possible for as long as each side regards the others as murderous thugs.

Osborne and WW1

One hundred years ago, the First World War started, leading to the deaths of nearly 40 million people*, and setting off events that led to the Bolshevik Revolution, the present day Middle East and ultimately Hitler and the Second World War.  It was a historical cataclysm.  Humanity had experience of wars of stunning dreadfulness before, of course.  The Thirty Years War, the Dutch Revolt, you name ‘em.   But these were localized.  WW1 caused suffering the world over – vast losses in East Africa, for example – to presage the genuine world-wideness of the Second World War. The Spanish ‘flu pandemic, helped by starvation and exhaustion, killed another 50 million.

So how does George Osborne commemorate the event in today’s Financial Times ? With an article praising the civil servants and bankers who worked in London to preserve the financial system.  At first, I thought this was an extract from the Onion, but no.  Our Chancellor genuinely thinks he is naming the hidden heroes of the Great War.  You couldn’t, as they say, make it up.

*including my great uncle Frederick Daly, of the Canadian Infantry, killed in 1917 and buried near Arras.