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Tag: war

Herman Wouk: Who wanted to unite Europe?

Saturday, 18 May, 2019

The author and screenwriter Herman Wouk has died at the age of 103. He was born in the Bronx on 27 May 1915 and passed away yesterday in Palm Springs. Wouk won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1951 with The Caine Mutiny and he topped the bestseller lists twenty years later with The Winds of War, which was made into a popular TV series in 1983. The novel begins six months before Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Here, the character Natalie Jastrow speaks:

“I’m sorry. I’m impressed with Hitler’s ability to use socialist prattle when necessary, and then discard it. He uses doctrines as he uses money, to get things done. They’re expendable. He uses racism because that’s the pure distillate of German romantic egotism, just as Lenin used utopian Marxism because it appealed to Russia’s messianic streak. Hitler means to hammer out a united Europe… He understands them, and he may just succeed. A unified Europe must come. The medieval jigsaw of nations is obsolete. The balance of power is dangerous foolishness in the industrial age. It must all be thrown out. Somebody has to be ruthless enough to do it, since the peoples with their ancient hatreds will never do it themselves. It’s only Napoleon’s original vision, but he was a century ahead of his time.”

The Caine Mutiny was made into a hit film in 1954 and Humphrey Bogart gave one of his finest performances as the paranoid Captain Queeg. The author knew whereof he spoke. He enlisted in the US naval reserve in 1942 and served in the Pacific aboard destroyer-minesweepers.

Herman Wouk Apart from epic historical novels of family and war, Herman Wouk’s literary output was devoted to an understanding of Judaism, especially the American Jewish experience. His religion was central to his work.

“Religious people tend to encounter, among those who are not, a cemented certainty that belief in God is a crutch for the weak and fearful. It would be just as silly to assert that disbelief in God is a crutch for the immoral and the ill-read.” — Herman Wouk, This is My God: A Guidebook to Judaism


Trump, NATO, Gatsby and Montenegro

Saturday, 21 July, 2018

US President Donald Trump raised eyebrows in an interview with Tucker Carlson of Fox News earlier this week. “Why send our kids to fight in exotic foreign lands?” was the tenor of Carlson’s question. Specifically: “Membership in NATO obligates the members to defend any other member that’s attacked. So let’s say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked. Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?”

Trump’s response: “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people… They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations you’re in World War III.”

Naturally, all those suffering from TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome) viewed this answer as an attack on the very essence of NATO and a complete misunderstanding of the alliance and its role in the world. Others, a minority, it has to be said, saw in the president’s answer a deep understanding of international conflict and a nuanced appreciation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. In Chapter IV, Gatsby speaks about the horrors of war and… Montenegro:

“In the Argonne Forest I took two machine-gun detachments so far forward that there was a half mile gap on either side of us where the infantry couldn’t advance. We stayed there two days and two nights, a hundred and thirty men with sixteen Lewis guns, and when the infantry came up at last they found the insignia of three German divisions among the piles of dead. I was promoted to be a major, and every Allied government gave me a decoration — even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!”

Montenegrin medal Little Montenegro! He lifted up the words and nodded at them — with his smile. The smile comprehended Montenegro’s troubled history and sympathized with the brave struggles of the Montenegrin people. It appreciated fully the chain of national circumstances which had elicited this tribute from Montenegro’s warm little heart. My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines

He reached in his pocket, and a piece of metal, slung on a ribbon, fell into my palm.

“That’s the one from Montenegro.”

To my astonishment, the thing had an authentic look

“Orderi di Danilo,” ran the circular legend, “Montenegro, Nicolas Rex.”

“Turn it.”

“Major Jay Gatsby,” I read, “For Valour Extraordinary.”


Angelus Novus on the Somme

Friday, 1 July, 2016 0 Comments

Thousands have gathered for a ceremony in northern France today to mark the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July 1916. More than a million troops were killed and wounded in the battle, one of World War One’s bloodiest. Despite the progress of the Industrial Revolution in producing ever more deadly weaponry, all sides proceeded to hurl human fodder out of the trenches and at the canons for five months. The storm of war irresistibly propelled them into the future.

Angelus Novus is a 1920 print by the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. The radical German-Jewish theorist Walter Benjamin bought it in 1921 and in his 1940 essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, he wrote:

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

The storm continues to rage. The lessons of the Somme must never be forgotten.

Angelus Novus


The fog of war

Monday, 15 June, 2015 0 Comments

“Hope!” is the motto of the the Ukraine pavilion at la Biennale di Venezia. And hope is needed when one reads about what’s happening on the front lines of this brutal war being waged by Russia on its neighbour. In the midst of the destruction and despair, photographer Yevgenia Belorusets portrays the miners of Krasnoarmeysk, who live and work within the war zone. They haven’t been paid since October but they carry on, hoping that the nightmare will end.

Ukraine miner

“I suppose I live in a country that has stepped on its own toes. But now it is going through a war. The neighbouring state punishes it for its essence, for its uncertainty, which is so valuable to me. Hope? Ukraine has always had more of it than you would expect. It is rationality lurking around every corner and maybe that will save us once again.” Yevgenia Belorusets


Keeping an eye on the other side of the hill

Tuesday, 3 March, 2015 0 Comments

The Battle of Waterloo was a momentous event in European history and the Bicentenary is coming up in June. The two greatest soldiers of the age, Napoleon and Wellington, who had never faced each other before, finally met on the plains of Waterloo and the rest is history. Their encounter was a long time brewing.

In 1803, when fears of a French invasion of Britain were at code red levels, a new play, Goody Two Shoes; Or, Harlequin Alabaster, was performed at Sadler’s Wells theatre. In it, a French assault by balloon is foiled at the last minute. The drama was riffing on popular rumours of the day, such as the one where Napoleon’s engineers would construct a pontoon across the English Channel, with the work being supervised by officers in balloons. There was a factual basis for this. The French army had used reconnaissance balloons in the Low Countries in 1794 and Napoleon, aware of the potential of air war, set up a Compagnie d’Aérostiers. The revolutionaries lost interest in their innovation, however, and as Historic Wings notes:

“On Sunday, June 18, 1815, the armies of Emperor Napoleon would face the armies of the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo. The key to Wellington’s initial deployment was that his forces were hidden on the back slope of a ridge, along the top of which ran Ohain Road. If only Napoleon had the services of the Aerostatic Corps, he would have known the full deployment of the enemy from the outset — and thus, history could well have been rewritten that day.”

The Duke of Wellington probably wasn’t talking about balloons or related technologies when he spoke to John Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty, post-Waterloo but he did make this observation: “All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill.'” The Croker Papers


Russian word of the day: maskirovka

Monday, 9 February, 2015 0 Comments

The contours of the European response to Putin’s aggression are emerging and at this stage one can say that the strategy for the Minsk talks seems to be based on a zero-leverage approach. Athens is threatening to block new sanctions against Russia and Berlin to striving to prevent new defence aid reaching Ukraine. Grim.

Moscow, on the other hand, is deploying maskirovka: deception and propaganda. And it is winning on both fronts. Maskirovka is the trademark of Russian warfare and the word, which translates as “something masked,” was made flesh last year in the form of masked unmarked soldiers in green army uniforms carrying Russian military equipment. Those who dreamed of perpetual peace and prosperity in Europe got a rude awakening when the little green men popped up in Crimea and Ukraine. Maskirovka had arrived, and it won’t go away if all that greets it is appeasement. Before sitting down with Putin on Wednesday, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande should brush up on the central components of maskirovka:

Dezinformatsia: disinformation
Kamufliazh: camouflage
Demonstrativnye manevry: manoeuvres intended to deceive
Skrytie: concealment
Imitatsia: the use of decoys

maskirovka in action


It is true that the Vikings pillaged and enslaved. But…

Tuesday, 25 November, 2014 0 Comments

There’s always a but, isn’t there? In its blurb for The Vikings by Anders Winroth, Princeton University Press points out that the Norse warriors “also settled peacefully and developed a vast trading network.” When Tom Shippey reviewed Winroth’s book on Friday in the Wall Street Journal he had a go at the modern academy, which works hard to present the Vikings as “explorers, traders, founders of urban life, contributors to civilization.” Uncomfortable fact is, says Shippey, that when the Vikings managed to “stimulate the economy of western Europe,” they did it “by selling slaves to the Islamic world and stealing church treasuries from the Christian one.”

The thing that made Viking culture different, notes Shippey, “was all that academics dislike in the word ‘Viking.’ … Vikings would not be welcome in the faculty lounge.”

Viking axe

The mortal dread that the Vikings could inspire was captured in this ancient Irish poem, as translated from the Gaelic by Kuno Meyer:

The Viking Terror

Bitter is the wind tonight.
It tosses the ocean’s white hair.
Tonight I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway
Coursing on the Irish Sea.

By the way, the second line of the John Montague translation of that anonymous poem is especially evocative: “Bitter the wind tonight/ combing the sea’s hair white.”


The bullet came before the ballot

Friday, 4 April, 2014 0 Comments

AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus was shot dead this morning while reporting on tomorrow’s presidential poll in Afghanistan. Her images of the country’s people and poverty, rituals, fears, pride and barbarity fill the viewer with hope and despair.

Anja Niedringhaus


Shia and Sunni and the Thirty Years scenario

Monday, 27 January, 2014 0 Comments

“This is a conflict which is not only bigger than al-Qa’eda and similar groups, but far bigger than any of us. It is one which will re-align not only the Middle East, but the religion of Islam.” So writes Douglas Murray in the current issue of The Spectator in a piece titled “Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East’s 30 year war.” Murray contends that the slaughter in Syria is, in reality, a proxy war between Saudi and Iran, between the Shia and Sunni factions of Islam. “There are those who think that the region as a whole may be starting to go through something similar to what Europe went through in the early 17th century during the Thirty Years’ War, when Protestant and Catholic states battled it out,” he says, warning that the current savagery will be exceeded in barbarity when the “gloves come off.”

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is sounding a similar alarm. “Religious difference, not ideology, will fuel this century’s epic battles” he claimed in yesterday’s Observer. Citing a “ghastly roll call of terror attacks” in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia, Burma, Thailand and the Philippines, he declares that these “are perpetrated by people motivated by an abuse of religion. It is a perversion of faith. But there is no doubt that those who commit the violence often do so by reference to their faith and the sectarian nature of the conflict is a sectarianism based on religion.”

If there is to be peace, we need to study faith and globalisation and agree on the place of religion in modern society. With this in mind, in collaboration with Harvard Divinity School, Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation, will launch a website later this year that will provide “up-to-date analysis of what is happening in the field of religion and conflict; in-depth analysis of religion and its impact on countries where this is a major challenge; and basic facts about the religious make-up and trends in every country worldwide.” It’s not a solution, but it is a sign and it’s a necessary sign because the latest Pew report on global religious Hostilities doesn’t make for pretty reading. “The sharpest increase was in the Middle East and North Africa, which still is feeling the effects of the 2010-11 political uprisings known as the Arab Spring.”

Meanwhile, a glance at the devastating history of the original Thirty Years’ War should encourage everyone to work to prevent a modern-day re-enactment.

War


What if Britain had stayed out?

Friday, 24 January, 2014 0 Comments

That’s the question posed by R.J.W. Evans in “The Greatest Catastrophe the World Has Seen.” His engaging tour d’horizon of the latest World War I books includes belated recognition for Le origini della guerra del 1914 (“The Origins of the War of 1914”) by the Italian politician and journalist Luigi Albertini, which was published in 1942–1943. As Evans notes: “Silenced by the Fascist regime, Albertini immersed himself in all the sources, and added more of his own by arranging interviews with survivors. That lent an immediacy to his wonderfully nuanced presentation of the individuals who actually made (or ducked) the fateful decisions.”

The fateful decisions taken in London were “entrusted to the tentative grasp of the country squire Sir Edward Grey”, who “wobbled both before and after Berlin’s foolhardy démarche, and was determined at least as much by parliamentary frictions and civil disturbance at home.” This “disturbance” included “the ferocious clashes over Ireland’s home-rule legislation.” Grey, does not emerge well from the books reviewed by Evans, but like many of the other players in this drama he was unprepared for what was coming in July 1914. “Communing with nature on his country estate, for he passionately preferred live birds (he was an acknowledged expert in their observation) to the feathers on an archduke’s hat, he had already reached the conclusion that ‘if war breaks out, it will be the greatest catastrophe the world has ever seen.'” And it was.

The Survivors

No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’ —
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died, —
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Siegfried Sassoon

1914 — 2014: Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, compared the leadership of China to the German monarchy of Wilhelm II ahead of the First World War. Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang responded by calling the Japanese World War II criminals commemorated at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo “Nazis in the East.”


Advent appeal for Syria’s refugees

Friday, 29 November, 2013 0 Comments

The numbers coming out of Syria are numbing. The latest UN report warns of “a generation of damaged children” because more than half of the 2.2 million Syrian war refugees are, in fact, children. Up to 300,000 Syrian children living in Lebanon and Jordan could be without schooling by the end of this year, and the suffering of Syrian refugee children in Turkey is appalling. “Under rain and without shoes, Syrian refugee kids fight for lives in Istanbul” reports Today’s Zaman. Snippet:

“The biggest ethnic group among those who leave for Turkey are Sunni Arabs, who cannot speak Turkish to find a job.On Tuesday, heavy rain hit Istanbul, making it impossible for Syrian refugees to remain in parks. In Istanbul’s Şirinevler neighborhood, for instance, an IHA correspondent photographed several Syrian children, some of whom even lacked shoes and were living under a small tent made of plastic bags.”

As we prepare to celebrate the onset of Advent on Sunday, our thoughts should turn to these most vulnerable victims of the Syrian conflict. Those doing incredible work for Syria’s war refugees include The International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, The International Medical Corps and The International Orthodox Christian Charities. They deserve our support at the time of year when thoughts are meant to turn to “Peace on the earth, good will to men.”

Syrian refugees