Friday, 15 December 2017

President Putin, Trump and a Spare Book Token

After Christmas, if you are left with a book token that someone has given you, you might consider buying the latest book by Luke Harding: "Collusion - how Russia helped Trump win the White House". There is nothing ambiguous about the title, and you might think it an unnecessary purchase. After all, hasn't the topic been covered extensively by the news media? Well, yes, it has, but Harding's book provides us with greater detail and insight into the nature of the issue, providing us with overwhelmingly incriminating information about Trump's relationship with Putin's Russia, financial and political, and also, in my opinion, pointing to some similarities between the two men themselves. But I'll save that for later.
We need to be clear from the outset that Trump denies any wrongdoing with matters Russian. It also needs to be said that the book does not provide the "smoking gun" evidence that would prove Trump a liar. That is the first similarity between Donald and Vladimir - there is no conclusive proof of nefarious activity by either of them, despite strong circumstantial evidence to the contrary. In "The Threepenny Opera", Mack the Knife always wore white gloves. Both Trump and Putin vehemently deny any truth in the secret report by Christopher Steele, the former MI6 man who once served in Moscow, despite Steele having an outstanding reputation as a private intelligence operative. In any case, the revelations in Steele's dossier, leaked online, detailed how the Russian regime cultivated Trump for a number of years in order " encourage splits and division in the western alliance".
In the dossier summary, Steele says that "...he (Trump)and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals". He goes on to say that the FSB compromised Trump by secretly recording his engaging in "perverted sexual acts" while in Moscow. The summary also mentions "... a dossier of compromising material on Hilary Clinton". The sources of these revelations appear to have been Russian intelligence officers and/or Kremlin insiders. Sinister repercussions followed.
Harding lists a number of mysterious deaths of Russian government officials and diplomats following the publication of Steele's dossier. Harding says:
"There was no obvious pattern: the deaths took place in Moscow, Moscow, the United States, South Asia."
It is not known if these deaths were of Steele's sources, but Harding says, rightly, that it looked as if a spy network was being rolled up. Someone in the Kremlin was clearly upset.
As for Trump's election campaign, Harding demonstrates that Russia was actively operating online to discredit Hilary Clinton. I myself remember videos on YouTube making salacious claims about Clinton's sexuality. The US security agencies put out a report to this effect and, as Harding states:
"From June 2015, Russian operatives purchased a series of advertisements on Facebook...they pretended to be American activists...Facebook would eventually admit that Russia had employed 470"inauthentic accounts and pages" as part of its influence campaign".
Other strange events, like the sacking of FBI Director, James B. Comey and the links of Trump loyalists with Russia are examined in great detail. We learn of Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who worked in Ukraine to elect a pro-Russian president. There is also much to learn about Michael Flynn, the former National Security Adviser, so well thought of by the Russians they called him "General Misha", who has recently agreed to testify to a forthcoming inquiry.
In the last part of Harding's book, we learn of Donald's relationship with Deutsche Bank. Charles Kaiser in The Guardian writes:
"... Trump’s incredibly convoluted relationship with the German bank, which included defaulting on a $330m loan from its real estate division – and then settling that default by borrowing hundreds of millions more from the bank’s private equity division. Asked if “it was normal to give more money to a customer who was a bad credit risk ... a former senior Deutsche bank staff member said: ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’
More grounds for blackmail by the FSB, in other words. And Trump has still not published his tax returns.
Aesop, he of the fables, once said: "A man is known by the company he keeps". If that be true, what are we to make of the fact that Harding is able to list seven known pro-Russian figures in the Trump administration, serving or former members? Besides this, there is the matter of Trump's financial interests in Moscow. As Charles Kaiser says here:
"Trump has repeatedly tweeted that he has no financial connections to Russia. But in 2008 Donald Trump Jr said in Moscow: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” A Reuters investigation revealed that individuals with Russian passports or addresses had bought property worth $98.4m in seven Trump-branded towers in Florida."
And, as Harding points out in his book, some of these individuals who bought property were neighbours in Trump Tower - many with links to organised crime.
In conclusion, I would like to say that I find Trump and Putin to be two of a kind, despite many obvious differences. They both like getting their own way, which needs no exemplification. They both detest all opposition, the difference being that Trump sacks his critics, while Putin takes more drastic action. We can only be glad that the USA is a democracy with a system of checks and balances on presidential power. Without them, the resemblance between Trump and Putin would be stronger.
The only problem with Harding's book is that, like all other books dealing with current affairs, it could be overtaken by events. It might yet be conclusively proven that Trump was fully aware of contacts with Putin. But, I doubt it. As I said, both these men are adept at covering their tracks. They have both learned from Mack the Knife. Still, this book is a rattling good read and I recommend it unreservedly. 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Playing With Dice - for Kaan Aslan

Two days ago, a 21-year old Deliveroo driver, Kaan Aslan, was returning to his east London home just after midnight when he was attacked and stabbed to death. His cousin said of him:
"'He was a good person. He was a kind caring boy, no way was he ever in any trouble. He has a younger brother who is 11. Kaan was his role model, he is heartbroken.'
One more tragedy, we could say, but for some reason this one got to me, and I wrote this poem about it:


(For Kaan Aslan, murdered 14/11/2017)

Roll them once,
Roll them twice,
An unknown gambler 
Plays with dice.

A life of hope,
A life that's gone,
A young man dead
At twenty-one.

Into the darkness
You drove alone,
Close to safety,
Yards from home.

Cold steel flashed like dragons' teeth
In gaping metal jaws;
A life that has no meaning
Put an end to yours.

We never hailed your triumphs,
We never heard your song.
Indifferent silence claimed you,
A dark and bitter wrong.

The gambler rolls his dice again -
Sixes, threes and fives,
With odd and even numbers
That rule and end our lives.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Contacting Donald Trump - Compassion and Eccentricity

I never thought that I'd have reason to contact Donald Trump, other than possibly writing to him on behalf of Amnesty International. That changed on October 31, when an Uzbek immigrant to the USA called Sayfullo Saipov (pictured below) drove a rented pickup truck into cyclists and runners in Lower Manhattan, New York City. Unlike other perpetrators of such attacks, Saipov was taken alive. His FBI interrogators were thus able to establish that he was a supporter of ISIS/Daesh and that he was happy with the results of his murderous attack.
His "results" include eight dead innocent people: two Americans, five Argentinians and one Belgian. Twelve others were injured, including Saipov himself. One victim had two limbs amputated. This attack happened close to the site of the World Trade Centre, destroyed on 9/11, and it seems to me that Saipov was trying to contact President Trump on behalf of ISIS. The message sent, I think, being something like this:
"In spite of all the billions of dollars you have spent trying to destroy us, despite your sophisticated weaponry, we can still hit you in exactly the same place as Al-Qaeda hit you sixteen years ago".
Saipov's weapon of choice was a humble truck, not a plane, but the terror and publicity his crime attracted was every bit as sensational as that engendered on 9/11.
We in the UK, and especially in London, have suffered from similar attacks this year, and I have been moved to lay flowers and a card at the sites of two of them. After Saipov's lethal rampage, unable to lay flowers at the scene of the incident in New York, I sent a message of condolence via email to a New York radio station and to the President himself, Donald Trump. I have received no reply, but that really wasn't expected or necessary. At least I felt that I'd done something worth while.
It will come as a surprise to some to learn that I have been sending similar messages to other countries that, like us, are suffering from terrorism. The first time I did this was in an email sent to the Norwegian Embassy in London, following Anders Breivik's killing spree in Norway in 2011, and I have sent other sympathy messages to diplomatic and political representatives after similar incidents in other countries. I haven't always received a reply, but have been gratified by notes of thanks from the German, Swedish and Russian embassies and from the Canadian Prime Minister's office.
I never talked about this to friends or family. Not that I was ashamed or embarrassed about it; I simply didn't think of it as being of much interest. That changed on June 7th, when I went to lay a floral tribute to the victims of the London Bridge attack that had happened four days previously.
While I was laying my flowers and standing in silent contemplation, I was unaware that I was being photographed by two Norwegian journalists: one male reporter and a female photographer. After I finished my moment of silence, they approached me and asked a good deal of searching questions (eg. "What were you praying about?"). They were very curious as to what had motivated me to travel into central London to lay flowers. Perhaps unwisely, I told them of my practice of sending sympathy emails to foreign embassies and politicians, and how Norway had been the first recipient. They conducted what seemed to be a fair and friendly interview, and promised to publish the article online. When it was published (link lost, sorry), the Google translation, which admittedly is not always the most accurate, made me sound rather like a typical English eccentric. I have no doubt that a few other people, reading this, will hold the same derogatory opinion. How sad it is, when small gestures of compassion can be dismissed as bizarre and eccentric!
This does not discourage me in the slightest, and I shall continue sending messages of condolence to other countries when terrorist incidents happen. If anyone else feels encouraged enough to do similar, I wish you well. It costs little in the way of time to send a short email, and only a little more time than it takes to sign an online petition. As Margaret Mead said:
 "Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have".
But... let's not forget one thing. This really is not about me, a few scoffers, or even the possibility that some people will be motivated to join me in my emailing endeavours. Let's keep our focus on the people who matter here: the victims of terrorism, whatever their country of origin or domicile. They have faces, names and people who care for them. And we could so easily become victims ourselves... I leave you with a photograph of a floral tribute laid at the Monument for the London Bridge victims. It is short, but eloquent.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Bonnie Prince Charlie - Difficult to Admire

When it comes to disliking historical figures, we are sometimes told that we should not judge them by the standards of our own time, but by those which existed in the period when they lived. This is all eyewash, in my opinion. No amount of mental time-travelling can dispel detestation of Hitler or Stalin. Some famous names from history, of course, are not so easily dismissed as "good" or "evil". One particular example of a man who does not, apparently, fit neatly into a black or white category is the young man pictured above: Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, known to history as Bonnie Prince Charlie, (1720-1788).
For some reason, I could never take to the Young Pretender; he always struck me as being a slick operator, acting out of self-interest. I did not have much in the way of indisputable evidence (or so I thought) but I recently took an online course on Charlie and the 1745 uprising, which caused me to revisit the events of the rising, and Charlie's role in the affair. 
The Prince is very much a divider of opinions when it comes to the views of historians, film-makers and the popular image that many people have of him. There is a pervasive romanticised image of him that began with Sir Walter Scott in his novel "Waverley" , which first promoted the idea of the prince as a romantic, dashing horseman who came to liberate the people of Scotland from English tyranny. This false image (he came to recapture the crown of the whole of Britain for his father, James the Third, "The Old Pretender") has persisted down the years. Two flattering films have been made about him, one in 1923 (now lost) and another in 1948, starring David Niven. A much less sympathetic (and far more accurate) presentation of Charlie is found in the film "Culloden", made in the 60s, by Peter Watkins, based on John Prebble's book of the same name. A new film about Charles and his escape from Scotland after Culloden, "The Great Getaway", which will star Mhairi Calvey and Jamie Bacon is being produced, but has hit funding problems.
The legend lives on, also, among historians. The Prince has many latter-day supporters among people I think should know better, but they don't. The historian Christopher Duffy, for instance, presents Charlie as being what I can only describe as a sort of aristocratic version of Che Guevara.
I'm afraid that I don't buy into this fantasy. There are many reasons for doubting it, and they're not too hard to find, either. Fortunately for sceptics like me, there are some historians who see through the tartan mist. One notable name here is that of Stuart Reid, whose book "1745: A Military History" is a refreshing alternative to the sentimental gush of other books on the Jacobite putsch. More recently, "Bonnie Prince Charlie: Truth or Lies" by Roderick Graham has given new information about what Charlie got up to after the failure of the '45. I am grateful to these authors for some valuable information and insights unavailable elsewhere.
Let's get down to brass tacks: the '45 was the latest in a series of attempts to regain the crown of Britain for the Stuart dynasty, booted out of power by a backstairs conspiracy and the Dutch Army in 1688. The Stuarts tried a number of times to regain the throne, most notably in 1715 and 1719. Britain was at war with France during most of this time, and the French military probably saw the Stuarts as a potential "Fifth Column" who could be useful in their efforts to knock Britain out of the war. The French were preparing to invade Britain in 1744, but abandoned the enterprise. Charlie, who was to participate in the invasion, was left standing.
He didn't stand around for long. With the help of a bunch of crooked Brittany ship owners and slave traders, and ignoring the plea of otherwise sympathetic Highland chiefs to stay away, he sailed for Scotland, landing at Eriskay in the Outer Hebridies, 23 July 1745. He then began his campaign (aka attempted coup d'état) to reclaim the British crown for the Stuarts, and the myth-making began at the same time. There is little point in detailing the whole campaign, which can be studied elsewhere, but some myths can be dealt with here.
1. Charlie was not welcomed by the whole of Scotland, still less the whole of the Highlands. Many clan chiefs declared against him, founding Independent Highland Companies. Even less than that was he welcomed in England. The "invasion" of England was supposed to have ignited an uprising by English Jacobites. When this failed to materialise, the rebels wisely retreated from Derby on the 6th December, 1745.
2. Not all Jacobites were Roman Catholics, as many still believe.  Among the Scottish Jacobite army commanders of the 1745 rebellion, James Drummond, Duke of Perth, and his brother Lord John Drummond, were both Scottish Catholics raised in France. But other commanders, such as Lieutenant-General Lord George Murray and the Life Guards commander David Wemyss, Lord Elcho, were Protestant.
3. Not all of Charlie's army were Scots. At Culloden, there were Irish Picquets, French troops and a number of English volunteers, some of whom had deserted from the royal army. There was even a "Manchester Regiment" of 200 men who the Prince left to garrison Carlisle when he invaded, and later fled, England. When the Prince arrived in Manchester, his recruits, drawn from Manchester's unemployed, ingenuously told him that they would have joined the first army to reach Manchester.
4. The "harrying of the glens", which followed Culloden, can largely be blamed upon the clan chiefs who wished to continue the Rising after the defeat of Culloden, and Charlie had done a bunk. As Stuart Reid says:
"In Badenoch and elsewhere in Scotland, the process of "pacification" was much more lenient in character and it is clear, therefore that much of the responsibility for the sufferings of their clansmen must be borne by Lochiel and the other chiefs, for wantonly attempting to prolong the rebellion".
5. The Prince's supporters stridently condemn the ill-treatment of Jacobite prisoners after Culloden. They do not mention the fact that royalist prisoners were equally badly treated in many places following capture. It is true that 120 Jacobite soldiers were executed and 936 transported to the American colonies or the West Indies (John Prebble, in his marvellous book "Culloden", says that many of their West Indian descendants came to Britain as part of the post-WW2 wave of immigration). What they don't mention is that 1.585 rebel prisoners were released, conditionally or otherwise. A further 700 are thought to have been "persuaded", by a variety of threats and incentives, to join King George's army.
6. The affection in which many Scots hold Charlie (many don't) is difficult to understand when you learn that after Culloden, Charlie was said to have asked after the welfare of Irish and French officers, but not the Scots. During the Prince's lengthy exile after fleeing Scotland, he is not on record as expressing any sympathy for the Scots who suffered for his ambition. As observes: "Charles' thanks for such unwavering loyalty and sacrifice was to blame his treacherous "mountaineers" for the failure of the rebellion until his dying day".
7. One key element in the maintenance of the Charlie legend is musical, in particular the beautiful "Skye Boat Song", which has been recorded by a wide variety of singers, including Tom Jones and Rod Stewart. It comes as a surprise to learn that it was written by an Englishman, Sir Harold Edwin Boulton (1859–1935) of Copped Hall, Totteridge, Hertfordshire, who first published the song in 1884. 
8. Another much-loved song about the Prince is "Will ye no come back again?", written by Carolina Oliphant (Lady Nairne). Until recently, I was unaware that Charlie DID come back again. He slipped into England in 1750, and stayed long enough (six days) to convert to Anglicanism. He was also involved in what is known as The Elibank Plot, which was foiled by the timidity of the plotters and the fact that one of the chief plotters was a government spy. Undeterred, Charlie tried again in 1759 during the Seven Years War, when the French were planning an invasion of Britain. He met with, but failed to impress, the hardbitten French foreign minister, the Duc de Choiseul. Wikipedia says:
"Charles failed to make a good impression, being argumentative and idealistic in his expectations. Choiseul was planning a full-scale invasion of England, involving upwards of 100,000 men[16]—to which he hoped to add a number of Jacobites led by Charles. However, he was so little impressed with Charles, he dismissed the prospect of Jacobite assistance".
By 1759, Charlie was an alcoholic partial to (among other refreshments) Madeira wine, a taste for which he had acquired during the '45 (his soldiers drank water or beer at best). As he is reputed to have quaffed six bottles of wine a day, there is every chance that he was drunk at the meeting. Small wonder, then, that the Duc was unimpressed. When France signed a peace treaty with Britain, the Jacobite court, including Charlie, had to leave for Italy.
9. We can thank Roderick Graham for dispelling the other abiding myth about Charlie: that he was a handsome, chivalrous gallant who captured the hearts of young women with ease and returned their affections with courtly love - a "bold chevalier". This myth lives on in songs such as "Charlie is My Darlin'" and others. It is true that Charlie had a long-term Scots mistress who fled Scotland with him and bore him a daughter. He had many affairs post 1745 and, in 1772 at the age of 52, he married a 20-year old princess. The truth is, however, that Charlie was a wife beater with a grim history of violence against women. His Scots mistress, Clementina Walkinshaw, fled to a convent in 1760, leaving Charlie a letter saying that he should not be surprised:
"...when you consider the repeated bad treatment I met with these eight years past and the daily risk of losing my life".
The Prince seems to have regularly attacked all his mistresses, including a cousin of the queen of France who he beat up so badly that he was forcibly ejected from her lodgings. His abusive behaviour worsened when he married, inflicting regular beatings on his young wife and accusing her of being unfaithful. This culminated in a murder attempt on his wife on St Andrew's Night, 1780, when the servants had to rescue her from an attempt at strangulation. The marriage ended soon after.
Charlie died, an embittered alcoholic who blamed everyone but himself for his misfortunes, in Rome, January 31, 1788.
In conclusion, this is my view of the Prince: he was an egotistical, irresponsible adventurer who cared nothing for the lives and welfare of either his supporters, lovers or opponents. Thousands of ordinary men and women suffered exile, torture, wounding and death because of him, and the blame for their misery can be laid fairly and squarely at his door. As Brecht says:
"When the house of a great one falls, many little ones also perish".
Instead of the sentimental ballads sung about him, I prefer this great shout of condemnation: "Bloody Charlie". Please click on the link and decide for yourself.
Not-so-Bonnie Charlie in old age.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Dunkirk and Dunkirk - Two Accounts Compared

Recently, I was trying to order a DVD of the Christopher Nolan film "Dunkirk", starring Kenneth Branagh and Harry Styles. As it was not then available, I bought a DVD copy of the 2004 BBC TV series of the same name, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, among others. I haven't yet bought the film on DVD, but followed a friend's advice and watched it in the cinema. It was good advice. The film needs to be seen in an auditorium, not a living room; only then can you appreciate the amazing sound and visual effects.
For those people who have seen either or neither, I think it worth doing a comparison of the two. They are both fine productions, but in two distinctly different ways. Put succinctly: the BBC series is informative and factual, while the film is powerfully and profoundly experiential.
The TV series consists of three episodes: Retreat, Evacuation and Deliverance. The first episode details how Captain Bill Tennant of the Admiralty began the organisation of Operation Dynamo to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk, or at least some of them. Simon Russell Beale delivers a splendid performance as Winston Churchill defying Cabinet members, most prominently Lord Halifax, who want to negotiate peace with Hitler. It also features the Wormhoudt massacre of captured British soldiers by the Waffen SS. A number of such massacres happened in 1940 and later, but this is an effective presentation which stands for them all.
The Evacuation episode is about just that: by Day 6 of the evacuation, two-thirds of the BEF have been evacuated. The role of the famous "little ships" is highlighted by the fate of the cockleship Renown which, with a largely civilian crew, successfully rescues a number of soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches, carries them safely across the Channel, but is later destroyed by a mine. It was one of 200 or more ships sunk by the Luftwaffe; about 3500 soldiers and sailors are said to have died during the evacuation.
The final episode acknowledges the heroic contribution of the rearguard troops who held the Germans at bay for so long. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Lt. Jimmy Langley of the Coldstream Guards, who is wounded and captured by the Germans. There is a memorable scene where Langley and a German soldier exchange gifts. The German gives Langley a cigarette, while Langley, to his huge amusement, presents his captor with "marmalade" (jam). By Day 10, all unwounded BEF have been evacuated. Captain Tennant takes a train journey during which he collapses with exhaustion.
The three episodes are absorbing and informative, without being didactic. I would have liked to see more details of the massacres of British soldiers, and more details provided about the contribution of the French Army to the evacuation. By Day 10, only French troops were holding the Dunkirk perimeter. Another thing not mentioned is the fate of the 80, 000 French and British troops who were left behind in Dunkirk. However, it has to be said that it is just not possible for a TV series or film to give all the facts about an event in History - that's what books are for. 
The film, which covers the same wet and sandy ground, takes a far less informative approach, and some critics have been very unkind. Here is the jaded view of Richard Brody, in the New Yorker:
"Nolan's sense of memory and of history is as flattened-out and untroubled as his sense of psychology and of character."
Jonathan Romney, in the same publication, praises the film, saying:
"It's not always easy to know what's going on in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk-which makes the film seem all the more convincing as an evocation of war."
These two differing views have some validity, in my view. I certainly am in two minds about the film. On the credit side, it is superb at conveying the action scenes. When an evacuation vessel is hit by a torpedo and causes panic among soldiers and crew, I was looking round for the exit.  As Christopher Hooton says in The Independent:
"The Spitfire dogfights in the sky are particularly gorgeous, unfolding most of the time from a cockpit or first-person perspective and making it feel like you're playing a video game 10 generations of console into the future. On land, the sea foam shivers on the beaches around the dead, even the howling wind not seeming to want to let the soldiers escape, while at sea the desperate situation on sinking destroyer boats is depicted with gasping grit, the camera being flipped on its side and stationed in unusual places in order to capture the mania as the troops struggle to extricate themselves from the water's embrace."
I endorse that opinion, but have a number of reservations. The beach scenes are thinly populated with troops, and look more like a Territorial Army exercise, rather than the desperate exodus of a beleaguered army. Kenneth Branagh plays Commander Bolton, the pier master during the evacuation. I found it remarkable that Bolton manages to do so much, evacuating over 300,000 men as the only senior naval officer on the beach. Obviously, this is artistic licence, and Bolton symbolises all the Naval officers on duty, but I found his dominance of the action irritating. Another jarring factor happens when a civilian sailor, captaining his own small craft, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) rescues a traumatised soldier (Cillian Murphy) from a wreck. The soldier turns violent and injures Mr Dawson's son's friend, George, so badly that he dies of his injuries.  Incredibly, Mr Dawson does not turn the soldier over to the authorities when he makes his final return journey to Dover. I realise that Christopher Nolan meant this as a sympathetic portrayal of the effects of PTSD on soldiers in combat, but, to me, it beggars belief that the soldier could walk free. Neither the BBC production or the film acknowledge the contribution of the contingent of Indian troops who maintained their discipline during the retreat to Dunkirk, unlike some BEF units whose morale and discipline broke down completely.
One good thing that both productions have in common is that they convey a profound sense of relief when the BEF is finally evacuated. This is not just as a conclusion to the film, but, for British audiences of all ages, a thankful feeling of reassurance that the BEF really was evacuated intact. Their escape kept Britain in the war against Hitler, and many returned to help in the liberation of Europe in 1944. The Dunkirk evacuation deserves to be remembered by all generations; both these productions assist in doing that.
For those interested in buying the DVDs of either one or the other of these presentations: I recommend that you buy both.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

A Narrative of Failure – 3 Para in Afghanistan

Recently, a friend lent me a book that he’d just bought – “3 Para”, by Patrick Bishop. The book covers the six-month deployment of the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment to Helmand Province in Afghanistan, beginning in April, 2006. I was a little reluctant to read this book, as I knew the ending of our military adventures as part of the so-called “War on Terror”: failure. The failure in Helmand Province was much less ignominious than that in Iraq, but a failure it was. Nonetheless, I resolved to give the book a chance.
The Paras set off for Afghanistan following a month’s training in Oman, expecting to see little combat, if any, while aiding in reconstruction projects. They soon changed their minds about that; things went wrong from the outset. As Bishop says:
“The size of the “force package”…had been the subject of long debate in London. Men and material were in short supply owing to commitments in Iraq.”
Besides this, there was no worse place in Afghanistan for British troops to be stationed. As Frank Ledwidge says in his book “Losing Small Wars”, the local Helmand populace had long memories of previous British incursions into their land:
“…the British were simply sticking to their role as the regular invaders of their country.”
James Fergusson, in his book “A Million Bullets” says:
“To the Afghan mind the return of the Brits looked like an Allah driven invitation to a punch up”.
If the Paras went to “Afghan” expecting a said punch up, they got one. By June, conflict with the Taliban had begun. All “hearts and minds” activity ended, and the Paras, together with some Fusiliers, Irish Rangers and Gurkhas were engaged in desperate defensive actions against continuous Taliban attacks. Most of Bishop’s book is devoted to descriptions of these attacks, and little purpose is served by detailing them here. Even Bishop admits that the Taliban showed remarkable tenacity in continuing to attack, despite severe losses. Inevitably, the Paras suffered casualties as well. Fourteen were killed, two of whom, Corporals Brian Budd and Mark Wright, were awarded the Victoria Cross and George Cross respectively. Forty-six soldiers were wounded, many suffering life-changing injuries. The Taliban succeeded, by their constant, if costly, attacks in thwarting the principal stated aim of the Paras’ mission. Bishop again:
“The reconstruction mission had become a memory. 3 Para and their comrades were fighting a desperate war of attrition. Most of them were besieged in…”platoon houses”…fighting off daily attacks by the Taliban, who, despite taking murderous losses, kept on coming”.
Unsurprisingly, these constant battles were highly destructive of the towns and villages in which our troops were stationed. They also served the purpose of further alienating the local civilian population by destroying homes and livelihoods, and by being seen to support a corrupt local government, the worst aspect being an unbelievably corrupt police force. Ledwidge again:
“Most police posts had their “fun boy” – child catamite – and the British estimated that over 80% of policemen were regular smokers of hash…”
Small wonder then that, towards the end of the Paras’ tour, as Bishop comments:
“…the attitude of the local people seemed to have turned to one of indifference or hostility”.
The Paras themselves seem to have sensed the futility of their activity. Bishop quotes a Para officer as saying:
“What was it all about?...Well, I flattened the town and I killed a lot of Taliban…did that achieve a good effect? I don’t know”.
After six months and 498 engagements, the Paras and their comrades were withdrawn. Writing in 2007, Bishop ends the book by observing that the Paras were getting ready for another deployment to “Afghan”, as they did in 2008. Bishop went with them, writing yet another book about the conflict: “Ground Truth”. I shan’t be reading it. I might not know the details, but I know the ending for the British military. I know that the Taliban changed their tactics, resorting to less costly (for them) planting of multiple IEDs. I know that many of the places in Helmand that the Paras fought so hard to hold have since fallen to the Taliban. President Trump’s decision to continue to deploy US troops might stave off defeat for the Afghan government. How long for, no-one knows. I finished this book full of admiration for the Paras and the other soldiers and equally filled with anger at the people who sent them on an ultimately futile mission. Our memories of our Afghan adventure, and the names of those who fell in action, are slipping into history as something we would rather forget. I shall return the book to my friend when I see him, with thanks. He bought it – a hardback- in a charity shop for £0-99. Somehow, that seems to speak volumes - a sad commentary on our contribution to the "War on Terror".
3 Para soldiers in Helmand Province.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Parsons Green Outrage: Searching for Explanations

We all agree: it could have been worse. If the Parsons Green Tube bomb had been better constructed, we would have seen a tube carriage full of corpses, rather than the scores of people injured by flame. It is a relief to me that two men have been arrested, one in Dover and another here in Hounslow. If these two alleged perpetrators are brought to trial, it will be a relief we all share. Our present sympathies, of course, go out to the victims and to Ronald and Penelope Jones, M.B.E., who are believed to have fostered an 18-year old, allegedly one of the two men arrested.
This is the fourth terrorist incident in the capital this year, but differs in some ways from the others. No-one was killed, more by luck than judgement. A timer device was used for the first time with the IED on the tube train. Also, the attack was unusual in that the attacker left the scene before the bomb exploded; usually, they explode the bomb themselves in a suicide attack, as with the Manchester Arena and 7/7 bombings. This might indicate a change in tactics by ISIS/Daesh; they might have realised that suicide bombings are somewhat wasteful of manpower - especially when you're losing a war elsewhere.
What we are not doing, I believe, is questioning whether or not our analyses of the motivation for these attacks are correct. I don't claim to have the answer, but I believe that some of the current views, held by different shades of political opinion, bear closer examination and evaluation.
We hear a good deal about the government de-radicalisation programme, but little about its effectiveness. According to The Guardian in 2016:
"Almost 4,000 people were referred to the UK government’s flagship counter-terrorism scheme last year (2015) – nearly triple the figure in the previous year, and an average of 11 people a day".
This is done with good intent, but did not prevent terrorist attacks this year. In the same 2016 article, The Guardian noted:
"In October last year, a 14-year-old boy from Blackburn who had been on the deradicalisation programme was jailed for life for plotting the Anzac day beheading of Australian police officers. Worried school staff had referred the boy, who cannot be named, to Channel in 2013 but caseworkers were forced to call in police when the boy paid only “lip service” to their efforts, the judge said in sentencing."
This is not to say that the programme is ineffectual, but it does point to a weakness in the thinking behind it. It is based on the conservative thesis that revolutions, strikes, unrest, terrorism are all stirred up by a small minority of troublemakers that people blindly follow: "All we like sheep are gone astray", as it says in The Old Testament. This simple-minded view takes a very patronising attitude of human beings who, apparently, cannot think or act for themselves. So then, rather like naughty children who just need a good talking-to, a de-radicalisation programme will sort out these deluded individuals. However, we are not dealing with naughty children. While de-radicalisation may prove successful in many cases, it may actually cause more dedicated Jihadis (or Fascists, Anarchists, etc...) to become even more determined in their radical views. No-one likes being talked down to, and it is perfectly possible to undergo ideological re-programming without changing your views.. Just because you are in a room with a proponent of a differing view does not mean you have to listen to them, still less agree.
From the Left, we get a different perspective on these events. Stop the War Coalition have not yet seen fit to comment upon the Parsons Green bombing, but if they did, they would probably say something like this:
"Yes, well, Comrades, this bomb attack is deplorable but we really should remember that all these terrorist attacks have come about because of the illegal and imperialist invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Let's not forget, also, that millions of innocent Muslims have died in those countries even though the casualties at Parsons Green deserve our sympathy."
The problem with this view, which is every bit as simple-minded as the first, is that it is anachronistic and reductionist. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, wrong though they were, happened in a previous decade. Today's Jihadis are not acting out of anger about the invasions 15 years ago; they believe that Daesh provide the way for all Muslims to follow now. Nearly all the Jihadis arrested or killed in the UK were born here, not Iraq or Afghanistan. By ascribing the invasions as a prime moving force for terrorism, we ignore other factors - and the passage of time.
I believe that those who resort to terrorism in the name of Allah in the UK are possessed of a deep-seated feeling of alienation. Events abroad may well have considerable influence, but there are other possible factors. One might be mental illness; some (unlikely, I admit) may arrive at their Jihadi beliefs through argument and intellectual persuasion. However, I think we should look at the way Asians, and Pakistanis in particular, have been treated in this country since the advent of mass immigration after WW2. Have we forgotten "Paki-bashing"? Rajni Bathia wrote in 2007:
"It's a word I heard all too often in my formative years and one which still stirs up bad memories of bovver boots, skinheads and "Paki-bashing"."
Today's young Asians will have heard of this from their forbears: about racist violence, discrimination, Enoch Powell and being rejected by so much of white society. It should come as no surprise that for a small minority of young Muslim Asians, there is an inherited sense of resentment which has caused them to listen to the equally alienated anti-Western rhetoric of the Jihadis. We often hear about our imperial legacy; I believe that our problems today are partly the result of our post-imperial legacy.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Veterans on Trial and the Achievements of Tony Blair

On Sunday morning, a name I recognised came out of the past. I was watching the BBC programme, "Sunday Morning Live", where a group of people were discussing the necessity of trials for alleged acts of murder committed by British soldiers during the Ulster conflict. The discussion grew distinctly acrimonious, with supporters and opponents of the proposed trials becoming very angry. During the squabbling, the name of one alleged murder victim of the British Army was mentioned, and it took me back 45 years to what now seems a different world.
The name that came up was that of Joe McCann, shot dead by paratroopers on April 15, 1972. McCann was a "stickie" - Belfast parlance for an Official IRA member. He was commander of the Officials' Third Belfast Battalion, and thought to have been behind a number of terrorist attacks. However, he was unarmed at the time of his death and running away from the Paras, who are alleged to have shot him about 10 times. In November, 1972, I was in the company of some soldiers of the Royal Artillery who had just returned from a tour in Ulster. One of them gave a more graphic account of McCann's death, too gruesome to write here. The Officials declared a cease fire on May 29 that year, and the military campaign torch was taken up by the Provisional IRA.
Two former soldiers, both now greatly advanced in years, are to stand trial for McCann's death, and many others are being investigated for their role in similar circumstances. This has caused considerable resentment, with Army veterans calling it a witch hunt. They point out, perhaps rightly, that Tony Blair, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, betrayed his own soldiers, because, as "The Sun" says:
"...a total of 156 IRA suspects enjoy total immunity as part of the Good Friday Agreement struck by former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Dozens of other IRA fighters received “comfort letters” assuring them they would not face prosecution."
The Sun might have mentioned that this applied to scores of Loyalist terrorists as well, but they are correct in saying there was no such concession awarded to soldiers and RUC men. I have mixed feelings on this issue as, I freely admit, if Joe McCann were a relative of mine, I would want justice for him. On the other hand, unlike many of my generation, I own up to the fact that, at the time, I rejoiced to learn of the killing of IRA operatives. Only with the passing of the years did I become politically aware; only in the late 70s did I finally realise that there was no military solution to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I also freely admit that I wholeheartedly supported the hunting down of Nazi war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann and Klaus Barbie. Despite this, I have grave reservations about the arraignment of Army veterans on such old charges.
Now, I am well aware that some people will accuse me of double standards here. "If you were happy to see old Nazis tried", it may be said, "why do you demur at the trials of elderly British soldiers? Aren't you being hypocritical?". At least, that's the cleaned-up version.
My answer is this: the British Army and the German Nazis were two different types of organisation, despite the propaganda of Irish Republicans, the Troops Out Movement and, to a lesser degree, the Stop the War Coalition. The British Army in Ulster had a painfully difficult task, which they didn't understand at first. We can argue about whether they should have been in Ulster at all, but that's not relevant here. The fact is that they were subject to due legal process and bound by rules of engagement. They did not always observe those rules, as on Bloody Sunday and in alleged extra-judicial killings for which these old men in their70s and 80s are facing trial. However, it needs to be said that many of these veterans have been investigated already, if not to everyone's satisfaction. Also, let's not forget: both sections of the IRA, Official and Provisional, had a "shoot to kill" policy, and no-one now is castigating them. Anyway, I anticipate that, should any of these British Army vets be acquitted, there will be a huge outcry of "white wash!" from the organisations mentioned above. I strongly suspect that their calls for justice are nothing more than a clamour for revenge. Conversely, should any be found guilty, there will be strident protests from veterans' organisations, politicians and many others - not all of them on the political right. It will be very difficult for all involved in the judicial process, knowing they will be condemned as biased, whatever verdict is passed.
I do understand the feelings of the relatives of those killed by the military in Ulster, in the same way that I understand those of the relatives of the dead, maimed and injured in the M62 coach bombing, the Birmingham pub bombings, the Hyde Park bomb attacks, the Enniskillen and Omagh atrocities and the Warrington bombing. The families of the victims of IRA atrocities have to live with the knowledge that the culprits will never be brought to justice. They have been told that this is all part of the peace process. No-one has asked them for their views on the matter.
Lastly, let's examine what Tony Blair has achieved here. The Good Friday Agreement was considered to be his crowning glory. We are now seeing old soldiers reviling him as a traitor for casting them to the wolves, while sparing terrorists. The Left, and the peace movement, loathe him for his military adventure in Iraq. He has alienated old soldiers and peace activists - very few British politicians have done that.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

"The State" - A Warning to Daily Mail Readers

If the Daily Mail comments disparagingly on a TV programme, it can't be all bad, especially since the criticism is usually inaccurate. An example of this is the Mail's reaction to "The State", which was screened on Channel Four over four evenings last week. For those who did not see it, the programmes follow the fates of two British men and two women who go to Syria to join Isis, where they are segregated with only the men being trained to fight, and all four are encouraged to forget their past lives in the UK. The Mail thundered that:
"The State is no sort of truthful drama, as it claims to be. This is a recruitment video to rival Nazi propaganda of the Thirties calling young men to join the Brownshirts."
Having watched all four episodes, I can testify that the Mail got it wrong. As far as I am concerned, after watching the final episode, I was wondering (briefly) how to enlist with the Kurdish troops fighting ISIS (I'm overage). There is nothing in any of the episodes that could remotely be considered pro-ISIS propaganda. If anything, it is very much the opposite.
The four ISIS recruits arrive in the Islamic State radiant with enthusiasm for the cause, but disillusion rapidly sets in.  These recruits are Ushna, 18, a timid student; Jalal, 19, whose brother died fighting for ISIS; Shakira, 26, a mother and doctor; and Ziyaad, 19, Jalal's friend and a school dropout. The two girls are "encouraged" to find husbands, which Ushna accepts, but Shakira doesn't. Shakira, who goes to the State to practise medicine, finds herself restricted in all manner of ways. She escapes being pressured into marriage to the Hospital Director (a nasty piece of work) by marrying a doctor who is secretly gay. After he is killed (doctors have to fight), and her 10-year old son is training to go to the front line, she escapes back to the UK, where she is pressurised by security forces into becoming an informer in the Muslim community.
Jalal witnesses some of the vile atrocities of ISIS: public execution, beheadings, etc., and is forced into beheading a prisoner (guilty of helping his Christian wife escape) but cannot bring himself to do it. He attempts to escape by car with a woman, presumably Yazidi, whom he bought for $200 along with her child. Alas, they are caught escaping in the final episode. Their car is stopped, the poor woman and her child are shot, and he is dragged away to an uncertain future. It will take another series to find out what happens.
As you may gather, this series pulls no punches and no ISIS atrocity is excluded. The writer, Peter Kosminsky, who wrote "Wolf Hall", has said of The State:
  “I absolutely hope it will have a deterrent impact”.
I concur in this, although there is a point to be made about the timing. Was it right to show such a series after the terrorist outrages that happened so recently in this country and in Europe? As The Guardian comments:
" Kosminsky, who directed the successful BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, said this month he feared being “accused of being an apologist for a truly nasty organisation” because to understand why young Muslims joined a “horrific death cult” he had needed to show what attracted them to it."
It has to be said: there would have been no good time to show this series and others like it, as terrorist attacks are so frequent.
But there is one possible negative point that neither the Guardian or Mail have considered. ISIS have a small, secret, but dedicated presence in this country. They are significant enough to have planned and mounted terrorist crimes, and significant enough to compel Britons who have fought for the Kurds, after returning to this country, to change addresses. Peter Kosminsky has succeeded in creating a fictional warning against Jihadist radicalisation; Mr Kosminsky had better watch his back.

Monday, 7 August 2017

OFSTED and Adventure in the Playground

For those who do not know, the lady in the adventure playground pictured above is Amanda Spielman, the new Head of OFSTED, the schools inspection service. Like her predecessors, Ms Spielman has begun her tenure as OFSTED Supremo by making an amazing non-discovery about something amiss in education unnoticed by previous holders of the post. Well, it's one way of making an impression, I suppose. 
Ms Spielman has set out to stamp her authority upon schools and education in general by accusing schools of mollycoddling pupils. As the BBC says:
"Teachers must stop trying to wrap children in cotton wool with over-the-top health and safety policies, the chief inspector of schools has said.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Amanda Spielman said it stopped the children developing resilience and grit".
She notes with displeasure that schools are over cautious in their Health and Safety measures such as banning conkers, yo-yos and making children wear high-visibility jackets on school trips. The Chief Inspector goes on to say:
"My message to schools is this - keeping children safe from harm should always be your overriding concern but... make sure you distinguish between real and imagined risk.Trying to insulate your pupils from every bump, germ or bruise won't just drive you to distraction, it will short-change those pupils as well, limiting their opportunity to fully take advantage of the freedom of childhood..."
On the surface, this appears to be fair comment; those of us over a certain age often remark that today's children don't have the freedoms we had, but I'll leave that for later.
We should first take a look at Ms Spielman and the way MPs reacted to her application to become OFSTED boss.Put simply,the Education sub-Committee did not want to give her the job. Ms Spielman is not a qualified teacher and thus lacks experience of schools and school administration, which is not ideal training for her present role. I am no fan of OFSTED, as readers of this blog well know, but at least previous Chief Inspectors had worked at the chalkface and taught in the classroom. Without that experience, a crucial understanding of the pressures upon teaching staff is lacking.
Besides this, Ms Spielman, as the BBC says:
"... failed to show "passion" or an understanding of the "complex role", education select committee MPs said". 
In spite of this, Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, overruled the sub-committee's misgivings and Amanda Spielman was given the job. Hardly a promising start!
It is also useful to examine Ms Spielman's concerns about excessive Health and Safety regulations in schools. These measures receive a good deal of attention in the media from time to time, and it's worth looking back over some of them.
1. There was a primary school in Leeds which banned the game of "Tig".
2. The old playground game of "British Bulldogs" is seemingly banned in many schools. In 2011, over a quarter of 653 school staff surveyed by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said it had been banned from their school.
3. Schools in Wiltshire, Cumbria and Clackmannanshire introduced a ban on conkers over fears the horse chestnuts could trigger anaphylactic reactions.
4. In January, birthday cakes were banned at a Blackpool primary school as teachers "do not have time" to check ingredients for pupils with allergies.
On the face of it, our schools are overrun by rules that are preventing a whole generation of our children from having fun and experiencing the world. As a primary teacher for 34 years, now retired, I can attest that this is a purely superficial impression. If we examine the evidence, it is only one school out of thousands that has banned "Tig" - I have never encountered such a ban on this game or "Bulldog". As for the conkers ban, please note: only three LEAs banned conkers. In my experience, children do not play conkers because they regard this activity as being old-fashioned or simply do not know of the game. I have known birthday cakes to be banned for some children, but as a result of parental pressure, rather than a busybody school administration.
It is ridiculous to single out schools as over-protective agencies holding children back from becoming seasoned adventurers. If anything, the whole of society plays this role. Most people of my generation think we remember a golden age when our parents sent us out to play in the morning - but with firm instructions to be back in time for tea. That golden age, if it ever existed, has been transformed into abiding fears for children's safety - Mary Bell, the Moors Murderers, the killers of Jamie Bulger, Rhys Jones, Millie Dowler and many other young victims have seen to that. Schools simply reflect the anxieties of wider society on this issue.
To conclude: I am not impressed with Amanda Spielman's debut on the educational stage. In this, she is no different from previous holders of the post of Chief Inspector for Schools.