Monday, 29 November 2010
My thanks to Simon, a Media Lens contributor, for posting this revealing email letter received from his two year-old child's nursery:
We’re Busy helping our Heroes at Nursery!Dear parent/guardianBusy Bees Nurseries in our region are holding special Heroes open weeks across the UK to celebrate local heroes in our community, and raise vital funds for the Help for Heroes charity to support British soldiers wounded in service.from the 7th – 11th June, the nursery will be holding a special Heroes Open Week, when the children will be taking part in various hero-themed activities including a march around the nursery garden, an assault course, and a creative day, where children will have the chance to make cards and presents for their Dads, just in time for Father’s Day! Special visits from firemen, nurses, and policemen and other community and Nursery heroes will also take place throughout the week, sharing their skills and knowledge with the children.The climax of the Heroes Open Week will be a ‘Family Fun Day in aid of Help for Heroes, on Saturday 12th June. This exciting event will include a one minute silence at 12pm in remembrance of all the brave soldiers who have served for their country, followed by a superheroes fancy dress parade.We hope you can support this fantastic fundraiser by coming down to nursery on the 12th June for a spectacular event the whole family can enjoy!Yours sincerelyThe Busy Bees Team
Simon objects to his child being selectively exposed to this kind of militaristic display and 'Hero' ethic. While happy to see people from the emergency services present, he believes this "goes way beyond that". Simon is concerned at the prospect of his little one marching around a nursery building, military style, and being urged to negotiate assault courses.I share his concern. It's deeply disturbing that such innocent minds can be inculcated in this way; indeed, one might reasonably view it as a form of child abuse.But it's symptomatic of the intensified popular militarism we're currently seeing and the darker ways in which the 'Heroes' agenda serves to authenticate brutal and illegal wars.I had a useful chat, in passing, the other day with a Help for Heroes collector. I asked her whether injured, traumatised, bereaved and displaced Iraqis and Afghans could also be considered heroes and worthy of support. She said that would be "controversial" and that "in time of war, we have to support our own."
I suggested that all human beings, irrespective of ethnicity or state, should be regarded as "our own", that "we're all the same human beings worthy of equal care and empathy." She accepted the point, agreeing that there are many victims of war, but that our priority is still with "ours"."Ours." 'Us' and 'Them'.
What ideological assumptions and 'educational' values lie behind those words? Only the lives and well-being of 'our' soldiers seemingly matter, not the tragedy and suffering of civilian and - yes, dare I say it - military 'others'.Charity, some say, should begin at home. That's often a convenient pretext for downgrading or ignoring the suffering of those 'we' consider 'them.'
Despite its proclaimed intentions, Help for Heroes is part of that same 'our boys' jingoism peddled by 'our' political elite and obedient media to excuse and sanitise violent and unconscionable actions against those 'others'.
The irony is important: it is they, 'our' rulers and controllers, who, in thought and deed, are actually foreign to many, probably most, peace-seeking citizens of the planet. As was massively articulated on streets around the world, the warmongers do not speak in 'our' name.Help for Heroes claims it is not political. Judge for yourself from the appeal presented in their handout leaflet:
Meanwhile, Simon has written, in good conscience, to his child's nursery challenging its planned displays of militarism. His complaint has been passed on to the group's regional operations director for consideration.
It often takes not a little courage to defy 'educational' convention and other parents' polite or 'dutiful' acceptance of such events. Indeed, risking possible social estrangement in doing so is a little heroic statement in itself.John
* Busy Bees is currently owned by the US-Singaporean corporation Knowledge Universe, which was co-founded by Michael Milken, the convicted US junk bond dealer and model for Oliver Stone's character Gordon "greed is good" Gecko in the film Wall Street.
Sunday, 28 November 2010
Since then, it's been suggested that USBlog was "hard" on young men and women who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, who probably do not even understand what's going on there and serve in the armed services just because they have a vague love of country, sense of adventure, and not necessarily because of the 'politics' of the wars.
In the background there was also a suggestion that unless you lay your life on the line, you really shouldn't criticise those who do. And, the argument went, how can you possibly deny or bemoan assistance to those who have been injured, regardless of the circumstances?
USBlog takes on board all those arguments: I suspect some of those arguments are acceptable. They strike at the most vulnerable flank of those who oppose Britain's war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and make opponents suitably defensive.
But there remains an issue or two that need addressing: should H4H be using programmes like X-Factor to promote their message, especially the way it was done last week? Secondly, why isn't the British state taking care of these wounded soldiers? Where is the 'military covenant' that Cameron spoke so much about when he was in opposition?
Also, what does H4H do to push the British state on this matter?
To address such questions, USBlog conducted a fairly quick check on H4H to find out who they are and what they do. The results are not surprising and tend to support the views expressed in last week's blog post:
H4H as it is often labelled, is an uncritical, deeply political, and militarist 'charity', formed by a former military officer, Bryn Parry, at the instigation of General Sir Richard Dannatt, the-then Chief of Staff, with seed-money from the Army Benevolent Fund.
According to information gleaned from H4H's own website, the charity assists serving service personnel - not just those who have been discharged. It works closely with the MoD and other Service charities.
Its patrons and trustees offer a glimpse into the military culture in which H4H is steeped. In addition to Dannatt, the charity draws patrons and trustees from across the British army, navy and air force. There are links with serving naval ships' crews and other armed service units. Celebrity patrons include Jeremy Clarkson, Ian Botham, James Blunt, Andy McNabb, and Ross Kemp. From the Tory ranks in parliament there is Richard Benyon MP, a former Green Jacket who served in Northern Ireland. 12 of 20 patrons served in in the armed forces - Northern Ireland, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan. Trustees include an Air Vice Marshal (John Ponsonby), and Sir Robert Fry who, among other things, was deputy Commander of Coalition Forces in Iraq.
Its publicity machine counts among its ranks The Sun, the Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail, helping the charity raise ca £64 million in just 3 years since its formation. It was The Sun that hooked up H4H with Simon Cowell's and X-Factor. The Sun is an organ that has long supported Britain's wars, frequently in the most gung-ho, jingoistic and xenophobic manner. "Supporting Our Boys" is not far from the oft-repeated "supporting our blokes" phrase used by H4H.
One (unintended?) effect of H4H's work is, according to Richard Dannatt is to weld the general public to the armed forces, showing the public's "respect and gratitude to the Armed Forces". Dannatt notes that "The excellent relationship that now exists fills our troops with pride and confidence that they have the support of their nation." The money H4H raises, he says, assists the Government in its work with servicemen and women. The people, the armed services, and HMG: working together to fight wars and clean up the mess they leave so many young men and women with.
Is this not political? Is this compatible with charitable status?
Andy McNabb, the ex-SAS officer and best-selling novelist says that, "Your money also [in addition to medical rehabilitation] provides simple things in life for our troops, like providing Troop Aid 'Hero Grab Bags'", handed out to the wounded admitted to hospital. This is direct assistance to serving soldiers in combat.
H4H says that they work closely with MoD and Armed Forces who are "happy to accept our contribution". They claim they are "not letting the Government off the hook" by their work but its clear that H4H is an essential aspect of the state's efforts. Is this the sort of thing that is meant by the Big Society that Cameron promotes?
H4H claims to be "simply" there to "support our blokes" and does not involve itself in politics. They claim to be "non judgemental" on the nature of the wars Britain is waging. According to H4H, "wars happen" - and they don't question why they happen or what they're for and whether the cause is just. They're effectively unconcerned that the wars might be illegal under international law or wars of aggression.
What they do not acknowledge is that the positions they take ARE political: they were formed by, are led by, military personnel proud of their service in various wars and conflicts. What they implicitly admit but publicly deny is an imperial mindset that considers perfectly normal the waging of wars in faraway lands. That mindset continues to exert power in British society today.
Should all those who lay down their lives, or at least risk them, be considered heroes? Is a suicide bomber a hero? Were Nazi stormtroopers heroes when they carried out genocide?
Are there no other considerations involved in determining who is a hero and who a villain? Surely, we must consider what someone does, why they fight, how they fight, and the consequences of wars before reaching a conclusion?
It used to be quite conventional to think that people should make up their minds on the merits of an argument, considering key public issues in an all-sided way.
In post-modern imperial Britain, matters have been simplified: forget the reasons for wars, just "support our blokes".
Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Imperial interference normally reinforces certain groups' influence or power by co-optation into the ruling powers' institutions, excluding or marginalising others. Frequently, imperial powers follow the tried and tested divide et impera - policies that divide and rule.
Asia abounds with examples of such imperial behaviour: the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 which led to over a million deaths as huge population movements occurred, people desperate to get to the 'right' side of new national borders drawn by one imperial master or another; Afghanistan's tragic history is further testament to the iniquities of foreign rule and the spirit of nationalist resistance.
Korea is another tragic case. Colonised by the Japanese in 1910, the Soviets and Americans decided they'd ('temporarily') divide Korea between them so as to facilitate Japan's surrender in 1945. Without any geographical, economic, strategic or any other logic, the Americans and Soviets drew a line at the 38th parallel: to the north, Soviet territory; American to the south. The national-popular committees that the Koreans themselves had set up, and the provisional government that spanned Korea they declared, were pointedly ignored as both superpowers sought to use Korea as a pawn in their own developing power game in Asia.
American forces not only ignored and then declared illegal the new People's Republic Government - which was a broad-based coalition encompassing liberals and socialists and communists - they set up a right wing regime under Syngman Rhee, a recently returned exile. The Soviets supported a communist regime under Kim Il-Sung which was, by all accounts, fairly popular across the northern area and committed to land and social reform.
What was supposed to be Soviet-American temporary power over Korea hardened into separate 'states' once the US managed to win UN General Assembly backing for the Republic of Korea, and the Soviets recognised the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). By going through the small (ca 50 members only in those days, and mainly western-dominated) General Assembly, the Americans avoided the Soviet veto power at the UN Security Council.
Yet the overwhelming sentiment in north and south was for national unity, not division, and each side threatened to invade the other in order to unify the country. Korea was a civil war waiting to happen. But for President Truman and PM Attlee, Korea was little more than a pawn in their rivalry with communism. At one time or another, both leaders declared that Korea was neither an economic nor strategic interest for Britain and America.
Nevertheless, too much prestige and credibility was at stake should the country be unified under one government, especially after the Soviets tested an atomic bomb in 1949, the same year that witnessed the successful Chinese revolution.
Thus, when the North attacked the South in June 1950, with Soviet and Chinese connivance, Truman sent in air and naval units to support the South against "aggression", defining the conflict as a test case of UN authority, as akin to fascist aggressions of the 1930s, and which, if appeased, would lead only to world war three. Attlee shared that analysis. Neither recognised the civil war character of the conflict; they saw it straight cold war, zero-sum terms. Truman's forces were sent into Korea before a UN resolution and without constitutionally-stipulated authorisation. Later, Truman declared that he would have sent in US forces regardless of UN decisions. (So much for latter-day liberal, pro-multilateral Truman-ites who contrasted their hero with the unilateralism of George W. Bush).
The politics of Korea for the Anglo-Americans is fascinating - especially as it acted as the "crisis" that served as the excuse for massive programmes of rearmament that pre-dated the outbreak of the war. But that's beyond the scope of this particular article.
The main point I'm making here though is that after three years of warfare, which left almost 4 million dead (ca 2.5 million Koreans; almost 1 million Chinese; 35,000 Americans; 1,000 Britons), a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, was agreed at the 38th parallel, precisely where it had all begun. More significantly, after initally being overwhelmed by the North in June-July 1950, the American-led UN forces had reached the 38th parallel in September 1950. The war could have come to a close there and then.
Instead, the Americans decided to press home 'their' advantage and crossed the 38th parallel and then the Yalu River, dismissing China's warnings that they would enter the war should this happen. The war then went on for almost 3 years during which a staggering 80% of all casulaties in the Korean War actually occurred.
The two states of Korea today are creatures of the Cold War, of imperial rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. Neither is considered a model to be emulated.
Monday, 22 November 2010
Last night's X-Factor, which is rather eagerly followed in my house (but more significantly in millions of homes across the UK, possibly elsewhere too, and across the generations), featured the performance and release of a song by all 16 finallists from the show, a new version of David Bowie's "Heroes". It was called "Heroes" when released in the mid-1970s: the inverted commas meant to convey a sense of irony or ambiguity about the idea of heroes, perhaps the notion that one person's hero might well be someone else's villain.
In addition to the X-Factor song performance, during which a number of men and women in military uniform, presumably still serving in the armed forces, appeared on stage, there was a brief report on the crippling injuries sustained in a bomb attack by one young soldier while on "routine patrol" in Afghanistan. The injured soldier came from a military family - his father had been killed in Ulster.
According to the soldiers who had written to The Guardian, the Poppy appeal had "subverted" Armistice Day - a "day that should be about peace and remembrance" - and had converted it "into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars.... The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored." They also noted that the poppy had been promoted as a symbol of support of "our Heroes", arguing that "There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict."
Last night's X-Factor, I think, falls broadly into line with the sentiment expressed above. It was hard not to feel sympathy for a young soldier wounded in action, especially as his tearful mother was shown expressing horror at the news of her son's wounding. But the more political sentiment was also significant: there was no suggestion or hint, so far as I could tell, that the war in Afghanistan might be problematic in any way, nor that the number of Afghans killed and injured runs into hundreds of thousands, and that this war has gone on too long and should now end. There was just an understandable expression of sympathy for the injured soldier who, it was clearly stated, sustained his injury in the service of "his country" - which was not questioned at all.
"My country right or wrong," conveys the sentiment. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - words used by Wilfred Owen in his world war one: It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country, no matter the cause.
In addition, the soldier showed and expressed considerable courage in getting his life back together and seemed to be unrepentant about anything he or the British army might have done or be doing in Afghanistan. He resolved to go forward with his life - no looking back.
That resolve is precisely that urged by the current goverment in regard to Afghanistan - keep going. It is what Tony Blair argues over and over again in his unrepentant memoir, A Journey.
Is someone a "hero" just for fighting or dying in the military, regardless of the cause for which they fight? Why isn't the British state looking after these young men and women? After all, they sent them out there in the first place? Why is left to a charity? Why do they use a mass entertainment programme for what is a political/military cause?
I have no problem feeling sympathy for someone injured in a war. I have no problem in charitable organisations rasing funds for such causes. My problem lies with why the British state does not look after those who risk life and limb.
I have a problem with the misuse of a mass entertainment programme that unquestioningly, and probably unwittingly, promotes an unjust war. While David Bowie and Brian Eno, who wrote the song, had a sense of irony about heroism, the X-Factor betrays no such subtleties.
Saturday, 20 November 2010
Iraq: £751 billion
Afghanistan: $336 billion
Unallocated thus far: $6 billion
The sums above include funds to bribe local militias into joining US forces in fighting insurgents, though the precise sums are unspecified. Most of the spending is incurred by the Department of Defense and represents funding over and above its normal peacetime budget.
With 94% of the budget allocated to DoD, and just 5% to the Department of State/USAID (the Agency for International Development), the answer to the question asked with greater frequency nowadays - "whatever happened to American "soft power"? - is that it just doesn't apply anymore.
Such large-scale spending over time will impact, indeed has impacted, on America's relative power, just as it did during the Vietnam War. In that case, the Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese economies boomed as war production contracts poured in; in addition those economies began producing consumer durables which the war-oriented US economy could no longer manufacture.
And when it comes to America's problems at home, look no further than California today:
An Economy on Life Support
The depth of the crisis faced by California screams out from the cold hard data. Over one in five Californians are unemployed, underemployed, or have simply given up searching for work. Nearly another one in five lives in poverty. Low-income workers fortunate to have a job have seen their wages decline since 2006 – with middle income worker salaries remaining stagnant. 8.2 million Californians – up from 6.4 million in 2007 – lack health coverage.
Doors will slam shut this year on as many as 35,000 applicants to the California State University system. Both university systems approved 20% tuition and fee hikes since the start of 2009 – and UC Regents has just approved an additional 30% hike this year – ending too many students dreams of a higher education, and burdening too many more with high interest debt.
The news for educators is no better. More than 23,000 teachers recently received “pink slips”, unlikely to return to the classroom next fall.
Over three-quarters of a million California families were ousted from their homes in 2008 and 2009. The Center for Responsible Lending projects another 2 million foreclosures through 2012 – with nearby homes losing an average of over $50,000 in value. 2.4 million California borrowers – 35 percent of all properties with a mortgage – are currently under water (e.g. owe more on their home than it’s currently worth). By 2011, that number will increase to nearly 70 percent of homeowners.
California could use an economic stimulus package. Can America afford to spend over one trillion dollars on war when their own country is screaming for public investment?
"We have the resources - commercial, military and cultural - to remain a major player in the world. We have the relationships - with the most established powers and the fastest-growing nations - that will benefit our economy. And we have the values - national values that swept slavery from the seas, that stood up to both fascism and communism and that helped to spread democracy and human rights around the planet - that will drive us to do good around the world."
So spoke David Cameron at Guildhall last week. Britain is strong, capable, and a Force for Good in the World.
Those lines owe their origins not to Gordon Brown, or Tony Blair, or Margaret Thatcher - their provenance reaches back into British history - an imperial mentality forged over generations. Lord Palmerston said it in the 1860s; George Canning said it even earlier; Gladstone and Disraeli said it in their own ways in the 1870s and 1880s; the Foreign Office's Eyre Crowe sort of said it in 1907; Clement Attlee said it over and over after 1945, showing that 'de-colonisation' need not interfere with imperialism.
As Cameron acknowledged in his speech, Britain has "a glorious past" of "deep engagement around the world", an imperial "instinct to be self-confident and active well beyond our shores"; it's "in our DNA", no less.
No mention of "empire" of course when he talks about India, and China, and Korea, and Zambia, but "deep engagement" or "centuries-long engagement" which has "left a rich legacy". No mention of the rich legacy Britain left in Afghanistan in the imperial era, or the legacy it is organising there now in that tragic country, with hundreds of thousands dead in their wake.
Britain's national interests appear to focus on big business, as strong a military as Britain can afford (to assist its flexible approach to "threats" through "Brigade-diplomacy"), and the deployment of foreign aid more closely tied to building security and stability. Cameron does not aspire to a "perfect democracy" in Afghanistan, just a place from which "al Qaeda can never again pose a threat to us". The "us" means "US", I think, as 9-11 occurred on US soil.
And the United States remains not just "special" but "crucial" to Cameron's Britain - through G8, G20, NATO, intelligence cooperation, counter-terrorism, and the like. An attack on the US is an attack on "us" - a quiet assumption that has run through British foreign policy since the 1940s and shows no signs of abating.
Cameron's lines have been lifted from past prime ministers' Guildhall speeches; there is a Vision. It just isn't very inspiring for anyone with a sense of history, especially a sense of western interventions in the 'third world'. We have been here before. When will British elites learn that it is possible to be global in outlook, to see the interconnectedness of things, but realise that imperial interventions - for whatever purposes, usually prestige, power, or material gain - are totally counter-productive? Just look at Iraq and Afghanistan.
But what can you do about imperial DNA?
Friday, 5 November 2010
The UK's [recently-published] National Security Strategy recognises that Britain cannot go it
alone in the world. British troops have only operated independently twice in the past 30 years
- in Sierra Leone (2000) and in the Falklands (1982). The bulk of UK military activity has been
undertaken in co-operation with allies. There is much talk in the NSS of partnership, therefore,
both within NATO and the EU, as well as a new emphasis on stronger bilateral relations with India, China and other emerging powers. But one thing is abundantly clear: the ‘special relationship’ with the United States remains fundamental. As the NSS document says, “our strong defence, security and intelligence relationship with the US is exceptionally close and central to our national interest”. Critics may argue that it was subservience to Pentagon paranoia that got Britain into the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan (and may yet again draw Britain into a future foreign crisis). Many were hoping for UK leaders to end their 'slavish' devotion to Washington – the words of the current Deputy Prime Minister during the general election (although now he praises a 'built to last' relationship with the United States).
Earlier in the year, the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee reported that "the perception that the British government was a subservient 'poodle' to the US administration leading up to the period of the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath is widespread both among the British public and overseas". And the Committee concluded that "this perception, whatever its relation to reality, is deeply damaging to the reputation and interests of the UK". The sight of British Ministers scrambling to provide reassurance to Washington that the defence cuts were less deep or wide-ranging than the Pentagon and White House initially feared only reinforces that perception.
It is also unlikely that the landmark Anglo-French defence cooperation treaty announced on 2 November represents a strategic realignment away from Washington towards Paris (and certainly not to the EU-side of Brussels). Rather, as the Prime Minister pointed out, this represents a "practical, hard-headed agreement between two sovereign countries". It is also interesting to note that David Cameron needed to stress that the treaties would not weaken British sovereignty and did not amount to a sharing of the UK's ‘independent
nuclear deterrent’ (which, ironically, would have required permission from Washington).
In essence, behind the preamble about shared strategic perspectives and common adversaries, the pressing reality is that both countries want to retain their global reach, but neither can afford to do so in isolation.
Tuesday, 2 November 2010
An Anglo-French military treaty, due to be signed today, has been greeted with dismay in some quarters while indicating to others that the Anglo-American 'special relationship' may well be slipping away. Is this a turning point? I'm not sure. If it is, is it an unalloyed advance? Is Britain less likely to try and police the world, just behind the American behemoth, if the French are close to hand, whispering restraint in Britain's ear? Would an Ango-French military alliance have opposed the Iraq War or would it have forced France to support it (or would the matter have split apart such a union)?
The historical precedents are there to consider: in June 1940, when France was on the verge of signing an armistice with Nazi Germany, Britain offered to France the prospect of an Anglo-French Union - one nation with a common currency, passports, and the like. But the French cabinet rejected it, much to PM Winston Churchill's relief (he hadn't been too keen in the first place), and the French headed to a kind of European union headed by Adolf Hitler, against which many Frenchmen and women fought valiantly, a valuable aid to Anglo-American efforts. Britain, of course, went on to forge an Anglo-American alliance that holds to this day.
In 1956, the-then French prime minister, Guy Mollet, proposed a union of France and Britain as they cunningly manoeuvered in the Suez 'crisis'. Egypt's President Nasser, you will recall, had had the temerity to take control of the Suez Canal, which was on his sovereign territory, much to the chagrin of Britain and France - who still entertained ideas about gunboat diplomacy to 'sort out' such people and put them in their place. Clearly, their ideas about de-colonisation did not fundamentally impoverish their imperial mentalities.
Prime Minister Anthony Eden, perhaps sensing that the Suez adventure was about to go awry, declined the French offer. He also wanted to ensure that Britain, whose ambitions remained global in scope, would not get too tied down in Europe. France, which was very keen to unify Europe as a way of controlling Germany, then signed the Treaty of Rome and, a decade or so later, withdrew from NATO's military command structure (which it re-entered only last year). France then blocked Britain's attempts to enter the European Community for almost twenty years, declaring the Anglo-Saxons to be bent on global domination, especially in the Vietnam War era, when said Anglo-Saxons were fighting a war in a former French colony.
Is a post-Iraq War, post-Blair-Brown, Britain ready to embrace Europe, tame its global mentality, eschew further American adventures, and stop punching above its weight in world affairs? Will PM David Cameron, current leader of Churchill's party, sign the death warrant of British imperial mentalities?
The severe financial crisis, which is driving the current phase of national security policy suggests that this is no permanent retreat from imperial thinking, merely a practical, pragmatic response to a crisis.
American power continues to align with every cultural, imperial and ethno-racial instinct of Cameron's party, never mind the political influence of Tory Euro-sceptics. But times are hard. You have to 'make do' with what you can.
Even within these parameters, however, there remains the notion of a certain degree of freedom within an Anglo-French alliance - room for manoeuvre, should a tempting offer from across the Atlantic come Britain's way. The other point is that the new treaty is being sold as an opportunity for joint Anglo-French military intervention in Africa, where they share 'common interests'.
Their forms might change, but imperial mentalities do not die easily.