Sorrow for those who die in wars is not the same thing as soldier-worship…


Picture from The Guardian.

Another remembrance Sunday is upon us. Images of all those thousands who died like cattle in the first world war will flood the screens, along with a Spitfire fly past. Our more recent maimed young soldiers will be wheeled out, or teeter out on the carbon fibre blades that replaced their legs.

There was a great article in the guardian today which used the phrase ‘soldier worship’ to capture something of what tends to happen at these times. A quote;

We should not feel compelled to point out that those brave men and women are fighting in Afghanistan to secure our safety every time the military is mentioned. First, because it is not true that they are; and second, because such blustering at the merest glimpse of camouflage clothing is an obvious and embarrassing capitulation to dogma.

What is the dogma being referred to here? I would like to suggest that it is the myth of the hero-soldier, fighting for our freedom, our way of life, our nationhood. True reverence (or true worship) for the heroic sacrifice they make on our behalf is to elevate the soldier onto a public plinth. This is not necessarily the same thing as rewarding individuals, rather it becomes a political hermeneutic through which we view current wars.

We in Britain have been evangelised into this new religion to a certain extent by what happens in the USA. It seems to me that it is only a recent thing that the word ‘hero’ was used each time a soldiers were mentioned in this country; not so in the USA where ‘veterans’ are regarded as we might someone who walks in to a burning building to bring out children.

Is it just me who feels a little uncomfortable every time I see the words ‘Help for Heroes‘?

I think I should be clear that I am NOT saying that soldiers should not have our respect, or our assistance in the event of injury. Even the shameful conviction of a Royal Marine commando this week for torturing then shooting a prisoner should not suggest that soldiers like killing people, or have universally lost their humanity. What it tells us rather is that war brutalises, damages and degrades everyone involved in it, even (and perhaps particularly) those who are victorious, all powerful.

In my years as a therapist in primary care, I saw a lot of ex-servicemen. The area around Bolton and Wigan has always been a big recruiting ground for the army in particular. I remember their stories, fractured and halting as they were, vividly. Mostly they were seen backwards through broken relationships, alcoholism, even prison. A man who had served in Cypress, unable even to describe the terrible things he has seen. Another man describing the slaughter of Iraqi conscripts in the first Gulf War. These were men for whom the war itself was almost the best part of them. But it was also the end of ease, comfort and self assurance. Part of this was always guilt for what they had done- sometimes personally, sometimes collectively, often just because they survived when others did not.

Are these men heroes? Some of them may well be incredibly brave, and had dreadful experiences. however, to continue to espouse soldier-worship does something to the way we view war itself. Despite telling human stories from war, it does not humanise war; it runs the real risk of idolising it. By viewing conflict only through the eyes of the mostly masculine gadget-laden machinery operated by our own heroic boy-adventurers is a remarkably effective way of taking our eyes of the nature of the conflicts themselves.

Think of all those war films- even the ones that are regarded as ‘anti-war’. Who are the lead characters? Whose life and death experiences hold our fascination? Almost every one of these films, brilliant and moving as many of them are, are long hymns sung in the church of soldier-worship.

A few years ago I wrote a post entitled Losing small wars, but not not learning lessons. I tried to outline some of the myths that we were being asked to swallow in relation to our current war making;

We have been brought up to view our own military misadventures as essentially good versus bad- the plucky resourceful Brit against the Towel-head/Hun/Jap/Red. We always triumph in the end- true character always does.

This ignores all the evidence to the contrary- the mounting body bags, the torture of prisoners, the resounding “NO!” echoing from the population of all these countries that we are supposedly liberating.

Then there is the stench of post imperialist self-interest, and the feeling of being manipulated by murky spinners of media messages- all of that gung ho ‘smart’ bombing and ‘shock and awe’-ing.

The discussion mentioned above identified some key myths that we really should watch out for (along with a few of my own suggestions)-

  • “Failure is not an option”- we will win. We. Will. Win. Or at least give it the appearance of victory.
  • “This year is the pivotal year”- as each one seems to be.
  • More money will win ‘hearts and minds’.
  • You can’t trust the locals.
  • The hero myth- glorious death. Dulce et decorum est.
  • War will solve our problems.
  • You can fight a war on terrorists by terrorising their communities in return.

The only way to humanise war is to understand that the enemy is flesh and blood too, has children, dreams, fears, irrational and rational passions and beliefs. We have to remember the hundreds of thousands of people, men, women, children, whom have died very un-heroic deaths in our recent wars. Whom have lost un-heroic limbs and have very un-heroic disfigurements.

In the meantime, this Remembrance Sunday, it is right to remember all those who died.

But let us not use the word glory– the first world war killed that one.

Neither let us use the word honour- their is no honour in war. World war two made this clear.

And as for the word hero, let us use this word sparingly and apply it most fervently to those who make peace in the face of violence.

Dystopia and remote revenge killing…

2000 ad

When I was a student, my mate Mark was an avid reader of the comic magazine 2000AD. He probably still has all the originals in the loft. For those of you who have not heard of it, this is a British publication that used stunning graphic art to bring to life futuristic characters such as lawman Judge Dredd Rogue Trooper, the robot mayhem of ABC Warriors and the mutant killers of Strontium Dog.

I often borrowed Marks copies and read them- but they made me very uncomfortable. Some I would have to skip past, as the vision of the future was so dark, so dystopian. Policemen (Dredd) who killed to dispense justice, Characters that were hard and bad, societies that were falling apart and full of violence and hatred and perpetual warfare. Robot weapons systems that killed, robot planes that rained terror.

I remembered the feeling these magazines gave me the other day, as I was reading something about the American (and British) use of remote drones. As I read it, the emotions rising in me were the same as reading those old comics.

Except this was not fantasy from the imagination of some talented geeks, this was real life, real death.

On September 11th 2001 terrorist crashed two planes into the World Trade Centre in an appalling act of violence. 2823 people died. We know each of their names.

Since then we have had wars in two countries thousands of miles from America. One of these countries (Iraq) had no connection whatsoever to the deaths above, but somehow the thirst for blood made invasion acceptable under a flag known as ‘the war on terror’. According to the website Iraq body count, between 115,000 and 120,000 civilians have died in Iraq since the invasion. They are nameless.

The other country (Afghanistan) was a traumatised mess of extremism, poverty and wilderness, long used to being the place where superpowers play out their war games. Bad people lived there, and it was time to take them out. It was time for pay back. Around 14,000 civilians have died there according to the Guardian. These too are nameless.

Of course, most of these deaths were not caused by American or British bombs and bullets. However, some most definitely were.


This is a ‘Reaper’ drone. Its name and appearance are straight from the pages of 2000AD. Reapers fly wherever they want to over Afghanistani and (even more controversially) Pakistani, Somalian and Yemeni airspace, seeking out targets. They are like airborne Judge Dredds, administering remote justice. Killing bad men. Avenging all those innocents that died in the towers. Surgically and clinically cutting away the canker of terror. It is a triumph of technology over tribalism, of wise investment over evil. Best of all it is clean and risk free to the good guys, who sit thousands of miles away in front of screens, using joysticks with big red buttons on top.

The article that brought all this back to me concerned a discussion about the numbers of civilian deaths caused by these machines. This has proved to be a rather difficult thing to estimate. Who is a combatant and who a civilian? Whose intelligence do we believe? Is that a gun on the grainy photograph or an umbrella? Add to that the fact that many of these attacks happen in remote and rural villages high in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, far from the eyes of the media.

And that discomfort rises in me again. How much death is enough? How much more bad blood can we cause?

Air Force, Army leaders discuss new UAS concept of operations

So, who are these people who are being killed?

An organisation trying to shine some light onto the use of drones is The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. They estimate that the total numbers of people killed are around 2,523-3,621, of which around 416-948 were civilians– women, children, passers by, mistakes, regrettable casualties of war.

They are gathering a database called ‘naming the dead’, in which they try to tell the story of each confirmed death by these drone strikes. This is their rationale;

At launch, the Bureau is publishing in English and Urdu the names of over 550 people – both militants and civilians. This list will grow in the future.

Of the named individuals:

  • 295 are civilians, including 95 children

  • 255 are alleged militants – of whom 74 are classed as senior commanders

  • Just two are women

Naming the Dead builds on the Bureau’s two-year project tracking drone strikes in Pakistan and the numbers of people reportedly killed. This extensive research has found that at least 2,500 people have reportedly been killed, including at least 400 civilians. But almost nothing is known about the identities of these casualties.

The Obama administration has claimed that drones are a highly precise weapon that target al Qaeda and affiliated groups, while causing almost no civilian harm. But it does not publish its own account of who it believes has been killed. By gaining a clearer understanding of who is dying in drone strikes the Bureau aims to inform the debate around the effectiveness of the US’s use of drones – and around this rapidly evolving weapons system.

Are we happy to leave the future of our planet in the hands of Judge Dredd? If not, let us remember that killing people by remote video game leads only to a devaluation of human life. Lord have mercy on us.

By way of my small protest, here is one of the stories taken from the Naming the Dead website;


Little is known of Bibi Mamana’s life except that she was in her 60s, a grandmother, the wife of the retired headmaster of the Government High School in Miranshah, and a midwife who ‘delivered hundreds of babies‘ in her community. However the events immediately around her death have been well documented.

According to detailed reporting in The Times and the BBC’s Panorama programme, among others. For days before the strike there had been the constant hum of drones overhead, it was reported. Mamana and several of her grandchildren were outside the family home. She was picking okragathering wood for Eid al Adha tending to livestock when a drone struck.

It is not clear how many missiles were fired. But Mamana’s eight-year-old granddaughter Nabeela (aka Mabeela Rehman) was 20m away from where they hit. She told The Times: ‘I saw the first two missiles coming through the air… They were following each other with fire at the back. When they hit the ground, there was a loud noise. After that I don’t remember anything.’ Nabeela was injured by flying shrapnel.

At the sound of the explosion, Mamana’s grandson Kaleem (aka Kaleemur or Kaleemullah), 18, ran from the house to help his grandmother. But five to seven minutes later the drones struck again, he told the BBC. He was knocked unconscious. His leg was badly broken and damaged by shrapnel, and needed surgery.

The missiles physically hit Mamana, Amnesty researcher Mustafa Qadri said. ‘She’s literally hit flush and is blown to smithereens.’

Atiq, 38, Nabeela’s father and Mamana’s son, was in or was leaving a mosque at the time of the attack. On hearing the blast and seeing the plume of smoke he rushed to the scene. When he arrived he could not see any sign of his mother, he told The Times. He said: ‘My relatives arrived and urged me not to go too close. I started calling out for her but there was no reply. Then I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body a short time afterwards. It had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and it was in pieces. We collected many different parts from the field and put a turban over her body.’

Atiq’s brother Rafiq was also away from the house when the missiles hit. He arrived as Mamana’s grave was being dug. Her body was already in a coffin. He told the BBC: ‘I threw myself over her coffin but the box was closed. The family told me not to open it as she had been hit by a missile and her body was in pieces.’

Family members hit in the same blast made the eight-hour bus journey to Peshawar for medical treatment. While there, Atiq showed The Times his mother’s identity card. The family then travelled on to Islamabad for specialist help. There Rafiq showed the BBC Mamana’s passport, pictures of her grave, the spot where they say the missile hit and fragments of the missile.

Rafiq told Al Jazeera English he received a letter after the strike from a Pakistani official which said the attack was a US drone strike and Bibi was innocent. But nothing more came of it, Rafiq said.

Taliban poetry- the voice of Jihad…

Emily described a news clip she watched the other day- a mother grieving the death of her son, a Jihadi martyr. The poor woman seemed to veer between terrible loss and the cultural sponsored celebration of his violent death.

The terrible contradictions stayed with me.

All those mothers who are told that God is pleased with the death of their sons. Two thousand American and British mothers in Afghanistan. Twelve thousand Afghanis.

The proud, rich culture of Afghanistan is of course well used to war being waged on its soil by foreign invaders; Persian, Greek, Indian, Russian, British, American. The scarred land becomes fertile ground for the raising of revolutionary warriors, but this is not the point of this piece.

Afghanistan is also rich in the tradition of poetry- Ghazal’s have been written there for millennia recording the human conditions- both the pain of loss/separation and the beauty of love in spite of all the pain associated with it. It should then be no surprise that the Taliban in modern times still tell the story of who they are in poetry.

A new book is out telling some of the story;

There is more about the book here and here.

There is of course, much war propaganda arising from Afghan recent history;

Moscow still owes us blood,

I write the terms of my debt on the chest of the arrogant.

They will ride the white horses in the red field,

Then we will install the white banner on the Kremlin’s chest.

The day of red blood will become red with the Red’s blood,

The knife that is stuck into the Chechen’s chest today.

My enemy, go and read the history of heroism,

There is a page written about Macnaghten’s chest.

The Pharoah of the time send arrows everywhere, These arrows will finally strike Washington’s chest.

Amid all the glorification of death and the calling for the blood of the foreigner, there appears to be some hope;

 …a great deal of this Taliban poetry will be comprehensible to western readers who are unable to understand Taliban ideology. The major themes are recognisable, even universal, and the dominant form is the ghazal, or love lyric, which links the Pashtu language to the classical civilisations of Persia and India. The poems describe a land of mountains and pines, each stone a ruby, each bush a medicine, and of laughing blossoms, dancing tomorrows, of twilight arriving with its lap full of red flowers (a poem called Sunset, reproduced here, reads more like a product of a Zen monastery than of a Deobandi madrasa).

What is interesting is that the Taliban’s official face and past practice has been so fiercely anti-Sufi, anti-historical, and seemingly anti-culture. This book provides an entirely different outlook. Indeed, in their rich memory of 19th-century British invasions, of Afghan folklore and Islamic heroism, the Taliban poets seem more awake to history than we are.

As well as raillery and satire against the foreign enemy and its local servants, there is self-criticism aplenty. “Humanity has been forgotten by us,” writes one poet. “And I don’t know when it will come back.”

(From the Guardian.)

Poetry will do that. It can not be tied for ever to narrow ideology- it has to fly. Let us celebrate the open hand over the clenched fist. The space forced open by love in a wall of hate- wherever we find it.

Back to the news story that Emily told me about. Here is my own response in poetry;

Jihad Ghazal

They tell me his death was holy and so I should rejoice

But what care I for dancing now?

He is dead

Tender flesh of my sucking flesh

Is now blown by foreign flies

He is dead

They tell me that his death had purpose

But once his life was all the purpose I ever needed

He is dead

So what care I for all those virgins whom I will never meet

And will never bear my grandchildren?

He is dead

They tell me his name will be written in the book of martyrs

And poems will be made from his bravery

He is dead

But what care I for war stories

The songs I sing will smoke the air with sorrow

My precious son is dead

Losing small wars, but not learning lessons…

Britain has been engaged in some small war or other for much of the last couple of decades. Small that is as they are not here- the public are not particularly involved, and most of the time are not even very interested.

The last couple- Iraq and Afghanistan- will probably come to define our age- along with the ‘credit crisis’, and the death of Princess Di.

When these wars are spoken about at all in the media, a strange kind of mythological language is used. We start from a position of ‘our brave boys’ (no argument there- mostly we send boys, and they are incredibly brave) who are part of the most professional, humane and most highly respected army in the whole world.

Criticism of the war is possible- in terms of the political decisions that have been made- but criticism of the actual way the war is being waged by our Generals is not countenanced.

If you are interested in an alternative perspective, then I would recommend listening to Start the Week on the i-player, here.

Frank Ledwidge was devastating in his analysis. He described how we lost the war in Iraq- including the humiliation in Basra, where our forces were rescued by an exasperated US army. We then went on the lose the war in Afghanistan, where we sent our troops to a place where they were only ever going to be seen as an invading unwelcome army- given our history in the region.

The scary thing about this is how little we are prepared to hear these critical voices. We have been brought up to view our own military misadventures as essentially good versus bad- the plucky resourceful Brit against the Hun/Jap/Red. We always triumph in the end- true character always does.

This ignores all the evidence to the contrary- the mounting body bags, the torture of prisoners, the resounding “NO!” echoing from the population of all these countries that we are supposedly liberating.

Them there is the stench of post imperialist self-interest, and the feeling of being manipulated by murky spinners of media messages- all of that gung ho ‘smart’ bombing and ‘shock and awe’-ing.

The discussion mentioned above identified some key myths that we really should watch out for (along with a few of my own suggestions)-

  • “Failure is not an option”- we will win. We. Will. Win. Or at least give it the appearance of victory.
  • “This year is the pivotal year”- as each one seems to be.
  • More money will win ‘hearts and minds’.
  • You can’t trust the locals.
  • The hero myth- glorious death. Dulce et decorum est.
  • War will solve our problems.
  • You can fight a war on terrorists by terrorising their communities in return.
There is a different path of course- to see these things from the perspective of the individual. This is a luxury that governments, particular superpowers, appear not to have. The voices that emerge from war that are the most powerful in retrospect are ALWAYS the stories of individuals faced with the awfulness of war.
Our TV’s are full of the soldiers stories- amputees and medal winners, returners to family. We have so few stories of ordinary Afghans.
Let us create space for honest debate, and for the sharing of stories of small ordinary people in extra ordinary situations.

‘The Places In Between’ review…

I have just finished this book- and thought it worth posting a quick review, as it’s subject material is Afghanistan- post 911.

The author Rory Stewart is an ex soldier, some time diplomat- including serving as deputy governor of an area of occupied Iraq. But in 2000 he packed in work and walked for 6000 miles from Turkey to Bangladesh.

And following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, Stewart decided to take a winter walk across the middle of the country.

Which was by any measure a rather mad thing to do. The country was shattered by war, traumatised by successive violent and oppressive regimes and the route he chose was thought to be impassible in winter- because of deep high mountain snow and plunging temperatures. Then there was the political situation- the minefields (both literal and figurative) to stumble into.

And of course, the strong chance that he would meet people who might seek to do violence to him.

But the end result was a walk through a varied landscape and a variety of cultural/religious situations that tells us a great deal about the country in which British soldiers are still fighting in our name.

The book is in many ways of a style more akin to travel writing of a previous generation- which suits me fine, as I love Newby, Herrer, Theroux.  It is writing that emerges from perilous encounter and adventure. And it is very well written.

Stewart relied entirely on the kindness and hospitality of Afghan villagers and local leaders for food and shelter. This made me very uncomfortable as I read the book, as some of the people he imposed himself on had very little themselves. At times, he (and the dog he picked up along the way) was clearly an unwelcome burden.

But I think this book is worth reading for these reasons-

  • It is a contemporary window into a country that we only know through the very limited eyes of  journalists ’embedded’ in the occupying forces- living in military compounds and making short forays in armoured troop carriers.
  • It is very strong on the majestic history of the country- of its former empires and mythical cities and leaders- stories that live on through ancient writing and poetry. Stewart is currently living in Kabul and heading up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which is investing in the regeneration of the historic commercial centre of Kabul, providing basic services, saving historic buildings and constructing a new bazaar and galleries for traditional craft businesses.
  • The book also introduces us to the great diversity of Afghanistan- with its different people, traditions and religious divisions.
  • It confronts some of the easy stereotypes- the violence, ‘noble savages’, a country suffering from PTSD, as well as Blair’s rather patronising quoting from the Koran. But is avoids siding with any of them- giving an impression of a country that is all of these things, and none.
  • It makes clear the human cost of war, and the long term effects of the power struggles and violence that always follow in it’s wake.
  • It is literary, well informed, sensitive to religion and culture in ways that I can only assume are detailed, well researched and accurate.
  • Finally, it reveals a love of this place- in all of its mess and beauty.

Recommended reading as an essential antidote to the infotainment contained in the dreadful repetitive rolling news of Sky and BBC news 24.

Rambo, Hollywood and war…

Rambo III was on this evening. I flicked past it, and found my eyebrows shooting upwards.

I have never been a fan of these films- which always made me laugh. The ridiculous plot lines, the wooden acting, the stereotypical bad guys- and the fact that no-one could shoot straight, apart from Rambo of course, who can dodge nuclear missiles. However, I had not realised that they could be prophetic- until just now.

So, a quick recap of the plot to Rambo III. Rambo’s former commander and side kick is captured whilst delivering missiles to some brave freedom fighters who are heroically resisting the evil Soviet invasion of their country- Afghanistan. The names of the freedom fighters? The Taliban. Of course, Rambo kicks much ass, kills all the bad people, and frees the Taliban from the oppressive heel of oppression.

Along the way, there is plenty of tub thumping American propoganda.

Check out this clip- and you will understand my raised eyebrows!

By way of further discussion- there is a good post by Brian McLaren in response to a recent speech by President Obama. He quotes Obama as saying this-

… mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago – “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

The President of the USA has such  responsibility. The worlds only superpower, currently fighting wars in two foreign soils. But like many, I remain unconvinced that the response to violence should be greater violence. Jesus pointed us to a different way of being…

I loved McLaren’s comment on this-

I don’t judge the President; I’m just a citizen with a lot less intelligence (of whatever sort) than he has. But I wonder if someday he will see that he was right in his first assessment of Gandhi and King: they spoke not from naivete about evil and violence but from “a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” Yes, one can be naive about the insidious reality of evil, but one can also be naive about the “germs of self-destruction” contained within our attempts to overcome evil through “the mass application of force.”Somehow we must live with vigilance against both kinds of naivete, Presidents and citizens alike.

Not for the first time, I find myself saying “Amen Brian, amen.”