Thursday, 31 December 2015

Sowing the Wind

That one of the venues for the suicide gun and bomb attacks in Paris on the 14th November was a Cambodian restaurant brought to mind Britain’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Harold Wilson (Prime Minister 1964-70) refused American requests for British troops to help prop up the unelected South Vietnamese dictatorship, although he did not oppose the attachment of British Special Forces personnel to Australian units as they rotated through Southeast Asia; men who went to those jungles (now known as rainforests) were told they were in Cambodia. Some still wonder why the ‘Cambodians’ were so belligerent about their presence.

Vietnam was part of ‘French Indo China’ when invaded by the Japanese in 1942 and was taken by the British in the south and the Chinese in the north in 1945. Ho Chi Minh’s home rule campaign started against the French and continued against the Vichy French and Japanese with American support through WW2; he declared an independent republic following the Japanese surrender, but couldn’t get anyone outside his gang to recognize it; so he declared war on France and fought them until the French gave him victory at Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva accord gave him the north. Anyone who wasn’t a communist and could ride a bike, walk, row or swim headed south to be despotically governed by the regime America eventually bulwarked as part of their foreign policy of preventing communism spreading.

The concept of communism – holding property in common - as a social infrastructure dates back to the Stone Age, according the Karl Marx, and has been flirted with by various groups throughout history, such as the early Christians, Knights Templar and the Pilgrim Fathers. Such groups usually have had a self-appointed leader to follow. The Vietnamese got Ho Chi Minh for that, as the Chinese got Mao Zedong and, a decade later, Cubans got Fidel Castro; but whether these 20th-century guys were really paid-up card carrying members of the communist party or not (‘Che’ Guevara never was), doesn’t matter. What they all had in common was that they attracted a following and then steered their revolutions to seeing off the de facto government so that they could take their turn at being the de facto government.

They voted with their bullets; losers voted with their feet. Having taken the north, Ho continued a policy of extending his remit south, which he did not live to see. His successors did, however, and Vietnam became one country in 1975. The success of that reunification might be judged by remembering the Vietnamese boat people who sailed and rowed to Hong Kong or washed up elsewhere around the Pacific Rim to get away from it. The passage of time seems to have settled things down, making Vietnam a friendly and welcoming place to visit; safe, according to the Foreign Office, same as North Korea.

Ho would not recognize this history of his country as we describe it: he regarded the whole of Vietnam as always occupied by the Vietnamese, making his war a case of getting rid of foreign occupiers (Normans out, as Hereward the Wake might have styled it) and latterly American-backed native big cheeses who failed to see him as their leader and saviour. He didn’t carve out a Caliphate; he knew before he started where its borders would be. That made his a defensive war, which he never sought to carry beyond the natural borders of the former French Indo China. The presence of his armies in Cambodia and Laos were largely for topographical and logistic reasons.

A country’s borders tend to follow geography, which also sets the pattern of occupation as farming families expanded into clans or tribes. Later politics define (or rub up against) those natural borders; consider Rome’s northern expansion and the effect the rivers Rhine and Danube had on it, both curtailing expansion (from either side) and as a defensive line. It seems perfectly natural in the political history of our planet for strong leaders to want to expand their empires, usually to gain control of resources; the Bible records various ‘neighbours’ invading Israel/Judea, including the Jews themselves, back when it was called Canaan. Located as the western end of the ‘fertile crescent’ cradle of civilisation, it was regarded as valuable real estate.

In the Middle Ages, Saladin carved out his Caliphate in the Middle East, his territory eventually including Egypt and Syria. Western objections to his imposing himself on those territories led to the various attempts to oust him, remembered by history as crusades. Saladin followed the time-honoured trajectory of empire builders by taking much of the Fertile Crescent and expanding into the massive oasis that is the Nile valley. What made the bids to oust him different was that they were inspired by religion. His making tourism difficult for ‘infidels’ and the Popes’ missing the revenues formerly sent to them by the Christian churches of Holy Land were enough to browbeat the royal houses of Europe into doing something about it.     

A hundred years ago, most of Saladin’s caliphate (apart from Egypt) was part of the Ottoman Empire, which aligned itself with Germany in the nineteenth century and thus was invaded by Britain and her allies at Gallipoli in the Great War. That war ended with four empires in collapse, one of which was the Ottoman. A 1922 conference in Paris carved up the Middle East. That’s where British Mandatory Palestine was invented; the French had the Lebanon and Syria by the same mandate, which also created Iraq and Kuwait. 

Kurdistan was thought too small economically to be a country, although the consideration at the time was not who lived there so much as infrastructure. Geographically it’s big, but land-locked, lacking ports and navigable rivers. The carve-up put parts of it in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey; none of whom has since wanted to give birth to a ‘new’ nation, although it has always been there.

Movements for independence traditionally fight defensively in their homelands. The Jewish revolts of the first and second centuries generated warfare in Judea, unless you subscribe to the theory that the great fire of Rome in AD64 was the first strike of that revolt by Jewish Christians targeting the seat of the government they hated. The IRA fought to rid Northern Ireland of British rule and from time to time they extended their campaign to bombing the mainland; they also (accidentally) invented the suicide bomber.

The new Caliphate currently being carved out in the Middle East plans on world domination, so while Ho Chi Minh didn’t bomb Paris or New York to make his point, the new Caliphs have and will.

This round of bloodshed started with the ‘Arab Spring’ in Tunisia and spread to Libya, where insurgents were soon spotted by TV crew cameras sporting mint condition British L1A1 rifles; the sort our government took off us in 1989 because it was too dangerous for us to keep them. Now we know why; suitably motivated people can use them for regime change.

Egypt had its regime change, but Syria stood firm in the face of insurgency. British L1A1 rifles did not appear there, as the Foreign Office did not know who to give them to. Opposition in and around Syria is multi-faceted; ISIS is just one of them – a successful one for psychological reasons. It’s better to be pro something than anti, so being pro a new state is better than being anti an old one. 

Thousands of people are voting with their feet, fleeing Iraq, ISIS, Syria etc. in nearly all directions. We think that’s a good idea; the Caliphate, or Syria for that matter, is nothing without the de facto government having people to rule over, as Norse invaders discovered in what became England. It’s all very well attacking the place, sacking the monasteries, stealing crops and putting people to the sword, but no point trying to settle it unless you either keep the farmers that are there to plant crops with which to feed you or bring non-warrior people with you to do that work. Failure to do so makes the invader lord of starvation, as the Pilgrim Fathers discovered that first winter near Plymouth Rock.

Our government seems to us to be tripping over itself to attack ISIS wherever they may be found, before things are right on the ground for them to do so. There are still a lot of people in the Middle East who would flee given the chance. The problem is that those who have already voted with their feet have found it dangerous or fatal doing so and the supposedly safe havens they are fleeing towards obstructive to their presence. Word of such gets back to the people who have yet to make the journey, so they are still there, having to decide between being eye witnesses to the American/British/French/Russian/etc. bombing, or possibly drowning in the Aegean after a long walk.

This could all have been handled better; the supposed free movement of people and goods in Europe doesn’t extend to outsiders, who have to sneak in under the radar and then operate their own version of Operation Stack in Calais to find a way to Britain. We were in Calais during the debacle that closed the Channel Tunnel and backed lorries up to the extent that there were ten miles of motorway hard shoulder in use for parking. The wannabe immigrants walked along the central reservation looking for likely lorries to pick on once it got dark.

One Scottish seafood company had to write off more than £100,000 of invoices because one lorry taking fresh food to the continent got caught in the jam. That comes straight off their corporation tax and that was one lorry, one day; there were tens of thousands of lorries and disruption that lasted more than thirty days.

It would have been cheaper to send a fleet of double decker buses to pick all the wannabe Brits up; next stop Kent, who wants it? That way, they’d all come in officially, making it easier to reject those who do not need asylum. It is always the case that people who are smuggled into the UK can bring stuff with them that is not welcome here: guns and bombs, VD and TB, cannabis and heroin.

What does not make sense is that, while making it difficult for Syrians to escape ISIS, Syria, etc. our Government are also making it their job to prevent people going the other way. We would much rather that those people who want to join the Caliphate are allowed – encouraged – to do so. It’s much easier to bomb them in Iraq or Syria after they have ‘come out’ as it were, than it is in England where the collateral damage would be greater, if indeed they can be identified here before doing something horrific.

Saturday, 24 January 2015


“Radicalization” is the new buzz-word. Politicians in particular use it when trying to rationalize to themselves why British-born people might wish to leave the comfort of the United Kingdom in search of a shallow grave in the Middle East, while at the same time so many people are trying to dodge shallow graves all over the third world in favour of the comfort of the United Kingdom.
         Flying the family nest in search of adventure is nothing new; and flying the family nest for ideological reasons is not new either, from the Crusaders in the Middle Ages, to the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) and any number of adventurers, privateers, soldiers of fortune and pilgrim fathers in between.
         Volunteers for the International Brigade went to support the Spanish Government of the day against an insurrection of the Spanish military. They weren’t representing their countries of origin, nor were they necessarily representing their homeland’s foreign policy. It was a case of responding to the call to arms as individual militiamen.
         That call came through the Communist Party, attracting left-wing support for a left-wing government that was too left-wing for its own military’s taste.  Support for the rebellious Spanish army in 1936 came from Germany and Italy, both of which had right-wing governments at the time, and they used the war to test new equipment and to give their frontline men combat experience. Britain’s fascists under Sir Oswald Moseley were also supporters, so the British government found its people adopting the traditional British position of supplying both sides.
         When the International Brigade was disbanded in 1939, volunteers from fascist countries were given honorary Spanish citizenship, as they could not go home. Most others went back to mixed receptions in their native countries. Several thousand Americans of all ethnic backgrounds fought in Spain. We pause to remember Oliver Law, the first African American in the history of the United States to command a racially integrated military force of his countrymen, as officer commanding the Abraham Lincoln Brigade for the last four days of his life. Returning American were labelled ‘premature anti-fascists’ by the FBI—i.e. were suspected of not being proper Americans. Those who served their country in WW2 (despite difficulties such as not getting promotions) and survived, got caught up in the McCarthy red scare afterwards, since he (more accurately his assistant Bobby Kennedy) remembered that the fight to save Spanish democracy was communist organized. Belgian and Dutch volunteers lost their citizenships for having served in a foreign army.
         British volunteers seem to have been ignored by the establishment and welcomed home by the people who appreciated their sacrifice. The welcoming committee included Walthamstow MP Clement Attlee, later a Prime Minister of the UK. Any concerns Secret Squirrel or the British right wing may have had about the 305 returnees being terrorists, or of unsound mind, intemperate habits or communist leanings were short-lived: war against Germany in 1939 saw most of them back in uniform serving under British colours.
            A mixed bag of individual odysseys, then, that painted the final panels in the history of that conflict. They have to be considered individually rather than as a pattern, since no pattern emerges, but since in a democracy it is the people who make war, governments should pay attention as to whom public opinion is supporting.

For the current conflict in the Middle East, what are we to make of the volunteers trying to get into the fight? Or out of it afterwards? They haven’t been summoned, was our first thought. We heard a radio report detailing a Syrian rebel commander’s complaints about British volunteers. His problem was that they were untrained. They didn’t speak the language, they slept too long, ate too much, and expected far more home comforts than irregular warfare in a Third-World country usually provides.
         Ideology doesn’t have much to offer, except possibly as a kick-start. British Moslems teach their children the principles of their faith through the Mosques, Islamic centres and Madrassas that they fund. British Christians do the same through churches, Sunday Schools and faith-based schools. Neither radicalizes anybody in the mainstream; that is the role of individuals who appoint themselves to do so. As an example, consider the opening scene of the movie All Quiet on the Western Front: Arnold Lucy radicalizes his classroom of young men to rush out and enlist. (Donald Pleasance was scarier but less radical in the 1979 re-make.)
         So what would yer average jihadi warlord make of British tourists wanting to join the fight?—apart from that they don’t have the language, the training, etc. Well, as in Spain, propaganda. They make a statement by their presence. No matter if the first drone to happen along kills them, as long as their accents have been recorded on someone’s mobile beforehand.
         The eventual outcome of tourist terrorism, as with tourist mercenary or tourist security work, is that those young people who survive the adventure will ‘find themselves’ (with any luck, but not necessarily, in one piece). It used to be said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and that may be true, but only of those who were trained not to be atheists. We assume that our supposedly radicalized wannabe jihadi tourists have sufficient training to draw comfort from their scriptures, but knowing when to dig in, what not to tread on and who the enemy actually is, may also come in handy. After some experience of the food, sleeping arrangements, drones, incoming fire, discipline, footwear, prayer times and travel arrangements, most will know, after a few weeks, whether they want to be in, or out.
         As to what they do next, that is largely a matter for Islamic State. Volunteers are usually committed for the duration, so there may not be an exit strategy that meets with local approval. Assuming there is a way out, the UK Government wants to have a bigger role in debriefing those returning (and presumably rejects) than they did when the International Brigade came home. First indications are that they want to emulate the American position of the late 1930s and treat any returnees as suspicious.
         Of what, is undecided; but at least some sort of debrief, even a hostile one, may help those returning make the adjustment to the comforts that the UK provides its residents, assuming that the UK government lets them in and releases them into the wild.
         Somewhat more sinister is the vague threat of preventing them leaving, since, as an arbitrary power being given to undertrained people, it could affect any or all of us wishing to take a holiday. Turkey is nice at this time of year and in 2015 will host centenary events to remember the Gallipoli campaign.