Monthly Archives: September 2013

The internet in my house went away. And then my country erupted into weeks of roiling, civic turmoil which demanded my full attention. Unsettled times, for everyone. The weather turned. Autumn crept onto the lawns in the park today and salted the grass with a coating of first frost. The sky darkens at the playground with my daughter. We race home to beat the darkness to it.

Leaves fall. Pulses drop over Syria instead of bombs. Iran is in glasnost mode. A slow, thawy, Persian spring in the middle of a falling autumn. The season is a horn of plenty. The plums spoil in baskets and bowls, turning soggy before we can bake them into pies or freeze them into our freezer, like William Carlos William.

I’m thinking a lot about the poems of Seamus Heaney since he died. HIs blackberry poem could be about our plums, or about our lives:

But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Each year I hoped they’d keep / knew that they would not

Or as Williams said:

This is just to say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Or in a different poem about plums, he wrote:

To a poor old woman

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

But I digress. This is just to say that I am back, and I have a ton of things to talk about. The Pope interview, Iran, Machiavelli. I hope against hope that some of you are still reading.


St Pauls Cathedral during an air raid in the blitz, 29 December 1940. An iconic image of World War Two.

As I find myself again, for at least the third time in a little over a decade, arguing for some sort of military action, I struggle to reconcile my belief in nonviolence and my abhorrence of war with my advocacy for military means to end conflicts. I am trying to recognize and give voice to my doubts, and I find myself unsettled that I seem more decided on war this time than I usually am. So I find I need to stop and acknowledge that I think of this as a failure of myself and my imagination, and a failure of our collective capability to create peace and contain conflict.


Whenever I find myself caught up in the prelude to war, I am reminded of all the descriptions I have read of the weeks before World War One, the great, fevered longing for the honourable, vital purge of Europe. No war was entered into with more enthusiasm in the minds of the people. And no war was a greater mistake, more pointless, less meaningful. It was war for nothing. A generation of men lost for no reason at all. As someone — George Monbiot? — once drily commented, the soldiers would have been far more ably served by turning their weapons on their leaders.

The Guardian has an arresting piece today on the centennial for the First World War which begins next year. If this piece is correct, a lot of work is going into making the war seem glorious and honourable. This is a basic failure, if true, to see the war as the historical disaster that it was. The difference must be understoof between the honour and bravery of individual soldiers or companies of soldiers (or, indeed, of the unacknowledged bravery of civilians in all wars) and the fundamental horror and gibbering lunacy of the war itself, the irrationality of which is clearly visible to us in hindsight.

“The war will be presented as something glorious and part of our national heritage, when it isn’t really”, musician Brian Eno says of the campaign, “It was a total disaster that was unnecessary and destroyed a generation”.


Bertrand Russell, playboy philosopher, circa 1916.

Luckily, activists are trying to organise events and campaigns honouring the pacifists and anti-war protesters of World War One. I have profound respect for these Cassandras who futilely tried to ward off the catastrophe. Bertrand Russell — one of the anti-war movement’s leading intellectuals, and a personal hero of mine — has some wonderful descriptions in his Memoirs of seeing his country delirious with war fever. Especially memorable is this passage, in which he is beginning an affair with Collette, another anti-war activist. 

When I came to make the speech, I saw her on one of the front seats, so I asked her after the meeting to come to supper at a restaurant, and then walked back with her. This time I came in, which I had not done before. She was very young, but I found her possessed of a degree of calm courage as great as Ottoline’s (courage is a quality that I find essential in any woman whom I am to love seriously). We talked half the night, and in the middle of talk became lovers. There are those who say that one should be prudent, but I do not agree with them. We scarcely knew each other, and yet in that moment there began for both of us a relation profoundly serious and profoundly important, sometimes happy, sometimes painful, but never trivial and never unworthy to be placed alongside of the great public emotions connected with the War. Indeed, the War was bound into the texture of this love from first to last. The first time that I was ever in bed with her (we did not go to bed the first time we were lovers, as there was too much to say), we heard suddenly a shout of bestial triumph in the street. I leapt out of bed and saw a Zeppelin falling in flames. The thought of brave men dying in agony was what caused the triumph in the street. Colette’s love was in that moment a refuge to me, not from cruelty itself, which was unescapable, but from the agonising pain of realising that that is what men are. I remember a Sunday which we spent walking on the South Downs. At evening we came to Lewes Station to take the train back to London. The station was crowded with soldiers, most of them going back to the Front, almost all of them drunk, half of them accompanied by drunken prostitutes, the other half by wives or sweethearts, all despairing, all reckless, all mad. The harshness and horror of the war world overcame me, but I clung to Colette. In a world of hate, she preserved love, love in every sense of the word from the most ordinary to the most profound, and she had a quality of rock-like immovability, which in those days was invaluable.

British infantry advancing into a gas cloud during the Battle of Loos, taken by a soldier of the London Rifle Brigade (1/5th Battalion, The London Regiment), September 25th, 1915.


The image of private love, physical and emotional, as sanctuary from, and the opposite of, the bestial fervour of the war in the streets and the skies is indeed a powerful image. But also a reminder that it should always be included among the “great public emotions” that war produces. Love reminds us of what the nature of war is. 

And in applauding the work of these activists, we need to remember that the age of full wartime conscription were not days that were tolerant of conscientious objectors. Anti-war activists were frequently jailed for their work. Some of the most dedicated conscientious objectors were assaulted and shunned. A few faced the death penalty for refusing to carry out orders (but to my knowledge, none were ever actually killed, thankfully).

Russell quotes a translation of a Chinese poem sent to him while he was in jail for his own work against the war.

Sent as a present from Annam—
A red cockatoo.
Colored like the peach-tree blossom,
Speaking with the speech of men.
And they did to it what is always done
To the learned and eloquent.
They took a cage with stout bars
And shut it up inside.
Po Chu-I


Virginia Woolf has a beautiful paragraph that opens her piece “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940):

The Germans were over this house last night and the night before that. Here they are again. It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet, which may at any moment sting you to death. It is a sound that interrupts cool and consecutive thinking about peace. Yet it is a sound—far more than prayers and anthems—that should compel one to think about peace. Unless we can think peace into existence we—not this one body in this one bed but millions of bodies yet to be born—will lie in the same darkness and hear the same death rattle overhead. Let us think what we can do to create the only efficient air-raid shelter while the guns on the hill go pop pop pop and the searchlights finger the clouds and now and then, sometimes close at hand, sometimes far away, a bomb drops.

The idea of thinking peace into existence, of peace as the only certain shelter from war, is one I am drawn to. I have always seen war as a failure of the collective imagination. A failure of recognition, of mutuality.

We should respect that rational pursuit of our interest will sometimes drive us into armed conflict with other rational actors, and recognise that rational actors can’t necessarily contain the chaos created by irrational ones. We should stop treating war as some bizarre aberration and rather study it — as scholars of peace and conflict studies are doing — as the outgrowth and predictable effect of organising international and national societies in the way we do. But I refuse to believe that it is an inevitable one. We should always see war as a fundamental failure.

And though I keep to the idea that the international community should punish the war crimes of the Assad regime, I also need to keep reminding myself of the unbearable costs and the tragic nature — in the greek sense — of war. This is why we should admit loss whenever we find ourselves in this situation, of advocating war as the preferred option. And we should keep thinking peace into being. If the decision is to use force, then we should redouble all our other efforts to create peace.

I’m reminded of the Joshua AI’s line in the cold war era film WarGames. After running through every simulation of a thermonuclear war, it concludes: “a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”


A brief addendum: One of the activists for the anti-war centennial is the wonderful poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Below is her WWI poem, “Last Post”, which she wrote for Harry Patch, the last veteran of WWI to die. Patch said this about his experiences in the trenches: “Too many died. War isn’t worth one life”. Duffy’s beautiful vision of soldiers rising from their graves is a tribute both dulce and decorum.


In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud …
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home –
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now to die and die and die.
Dulce – No – Decorum – No – Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too —
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert —
and light a cigarette.
There’s coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queueing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly write it backwards,
then it would.

A burning building in Homs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Syrian dilemma troubles most people who aren’t on the hawkish, neocon right. As well it should. While we wait for the US discussion in Congress on Monday, I’m still sorting through what I think. I’m still uneasy about the position I take, arguing for attacks. It seems to go against my nature, and although I have argued for intervention more than I would have liked to in the recent past — in the Yugoslav wars, in Afghanistan, in Libya and (at least as a thought experiment) during the Gaza war of 2009 — it always feels wrong. As it should. Acts of war always produce bad outcomes and damage to the social fabric of the countries engaged. But I they can also stop even worse outcomes.


In the past few days, while I’ve become gradually more convinced about the case for military strikes, I’ve seen a tendency develop to overthink the Syrian dilemma. Not in the sense that thinking about the strikes is detrimental— on the contrary, it’s essential. And I’ve been positively surprised by the level of nuanced, insightful, complex commentary on the situation from most sides.

Rather I mean overthink in the sense that a lot of discussion seems to be devoted to parsing out a dilemma of far greater scope than the rather limited problem of the current situation. A lot of discussion seems to revolve around what good it does for the US or the UN to get involved in the conflict. How does it resolve the conflict? How can we support the non-schoolboy Syrian rebels? What happens if the rebels win? What are the regional implications?

These are all good questions, but they aren’t questions that directly apply to the current situation. It’s quite clear that a one-off strike using mostly cruise missiles is what is the US intention. Protracted engagement, and that by now flogged-to-death euphemism of boots on the ground is not going to happen.

The arguments against war seem to be mostly arguments against war: Going all in, guns blazing, and taking sides in the fight beyond what the West is already doing. And they are good arguments. But they’re not arguments against a hard and well-planned cruise missile strike.


What does a retaliatory, one-off strike accomplish? 

  1. It degrades both the ability and the will of the regime forces to deploy chemical weapons in the future.
  2. It creates a certain level of military losses in the Assad government military apparatus, hastening at least somewhat a resolution of the conflict in favour of the parties that are most obviously the desired winner of the conflict (certain of the rebel factions).
  3. It enforces the norm of the chemical weapons ban, degrading the will to use chemical weapons in the future.
  4. It takes the possibly decisive battlefield advantage of chemical weapons off the table for the Assad regime.

It does not:

  1. End the war.
  2. Solve the problem.
  3. Rid the West of the moral imperative to work hard to end the war. The diplomatic approach needs to be taken after the strikes. Or maybe the US could even use the threat of strikes to force Assad to the table. Given that he’s committed unforgivable war crimes over the past two years (and in the past month), that’s unlikely.
  4. Insulate the West against blowback.


The false parallel to Iraq is another way of overthinking. People’s faith in the trustworthiness of the US government in questions of WMDs and war is low. The desire for foreign wars is low.

On the whole, this is a good thing. Wars should be approached skeptically and blind trust in the evidence of things not seen is a terribly bad thing. But this case for the Iraq objection neglects three things: the hard cost of doing nothing, the unusually clear intelligence case and the moral imperative to a) enforce the norm of chemical weapons b) prevent future attacks in Syria or elsewhere c) punish indiscriminate attacks on civilians in some way.

Just to state my position: to my mind, there can not be any doubt about the facts of the chemical attacks. It was definitely nerve gas, probably sarin, used indiscriminately and purposefully against civilians — who were part of the target package — and it was undoubtedly the Syrian military who fired them. And they did kill many hundreds, probably over a thousand people, injuring at least four more

Though to be fair, you should read Andrew Sullivan’s very strong case against my position on the Iraq parallel. And this part of his advice is probably well-taken whether or not Obama wins the vote on Monday:

Lose the vote, don’t go to war, but go to the UN repeatedly and insistently. Gather more and more evidence. Get Ambassador Power to pummel the Russians and Chinese with their grotesque refusal to do anything about this ghastly mass murder. Expose Putin for the brutal thug that he is. And focus on the huge challenges at home: a still-weak economy, a huge overhaul of healthcare, a golden opportunity for immigration reform. That’s why he was elected. And his domestic legacy is at a pivotal point.


Some problems with an attack which are more likely: 

  1. Unilateralism: this attack further erodes the UN Charter, effectively moving us closer to, or even ushering in a world of power and agents, rather than norms.

I quite simply don’t have an argument counter to this. I think this is quite simply what is about to happen. And this is really where the thorniest part of the current situation lies, for me: it has forced me to finally acknowledge the fact of the decline of the UN monopoly on violence. It is a sad fact that we are living in a world of powers, not norms, as it is. The Security Council’s imbecilic and hypocritical structure is fundamentally flawed, ensuring that only crimes that do not serve the interests of the great powers are punished with efficacy.

I think a separate case needs to be made for Security Council reform by the General Assembly. But this is impossible to get done because of the idiotic article 109 of the UN Charter, which ensures that the great powers have veto right over changes to the structure of the UN as well. This is something which needs to get done to move towards an egalitarian and democratic world order.

2. Perception: an attack might damage the already-frayed view of the West in parts of the Muslim world. (Although it’s not completely impossible that a limited attack would be viewed as intervening on behalf of Muslim victims. I doubt that we’ll be so lucky.)

3. Blowback: You can’t rule out that terrorist attacks are going to come out of this, somehow.


Weighing lives and nations on the scales of reason is impossible to do. There’s something perverse about attempting utilitarian calculus about chaotic, unpredictable events on this scale. I don’t find my resolve getting stronger. But I do find that I’ve reasoned myself into thinking that strikes are a good idea. I find that it’s the most adequate way I see of not letting injustices go unpunished, not allowing norms to be violated, not letting dictators think they can get away with anything.

The more cost we can impose on future acts of atrocity, the better. Because even if we find it hard to do that kind of calculus, the trouble is that psychopathic mass murderers like Assad don’t. We need to put new constants into their equations. I think the near-certainty of a retaliatory strike from the world community would be a good place to start.

Seamus Heaney at a turf bog in Bellaghy wearing his father’s coat, hat and walking stick and additional shots in the Bellaghy bog, 1986. Photo: Bobbie Hanvey (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Walking home from beers in the park with a friend today, I listened through Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Prize Lecture from when he became a laureate in 1995 (you can read it here, but he does have a wonderful voice, so it’s worth hearing him read it).

It’s actually a quite wonderful speech. He has that ridiculous precision with words, even in the smallest turn of phrase. Listen for when he describes his childhood as “creaturely” (imagine the conceptual difference between that word in that place and, say, “animal” or “beastly”), or when he refers to “the dolorous circumstances of my native place”.

The theme is Crediting Poetry, trying to carve out a place for what poetry is, what it can be:

I credit it ultimately because poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference, between the child gazing at the word “Stockholm” on the face of the radio dial and the man facing the faces that he meets in Stockholm at this most privileged moment. I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.

His speech becomes more tender and raw when he ventures into the conflict in Northern Ireland which coloured his life. He tells this heart-stopping story, which I’m going to indulge and quote at length, for the way it gestures towards redemption:

One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.


It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power. I remember, for example, shocking myself with a thought I had about that friend who was imprisoned in the seventies upon suspicion of having been involved with a political murder: I shocked myself by thinking that even if he were guilty, he might still perhaps be helping the future to be born, breaking the repressive forms and liberating new potential in the only way that worked, that is to say the violent way – which therefore became, by extension, the right way. It was like a moment of exposure to interstellar cold, a reminder of the scary element, both inner and outer, in which human beings must envisage and conduct their lives. But it was only a moment. The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.

As writers and readers, as sinners and citizens, our realism and our aesthetic sense make us wary of crediting the positive note. The very gunfire braces us and the atrocious confers a worth upon the effort which it calls forth to confront it. We are rightly in awe of the torsions in the poetry of Paul Celan and rightly enamoured of the suspiring voice in Samuel Beckett because these are evidence that art can rise to the occasion and somehow be the corollary of Celan’s stricken destiny as Holocaust survivor and Beckett’s demure heroism as a member of the French Resistance. Likewise, we are rightly suspicious of that which gives too much consolation in these circumstances; the very extremity of our late twentieth century knowledge puts much of our cultural heritage to an extreme test. Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.

I was very happy when I learned that his last words, texted to his wife from the hospital bed — in latin, for Christ’s sake — were noli timere, “don’t be afraid.”

I was walking through the park while I listened to Heaney’s lecture. And just as he said how St Kevin stood “at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder”, I passed a stand of flowers. I had just about given up hope for flowers this late in the season, with the first leaves falling already, but there they were, perfumed to the fingertips, flooding me with . For a second it seemed as if that line of Heaney’s about poetry being “equal to and true at the same time” was true, real, present like the old man himself, speaking those words. But he’s already dead and all we can do now is read him.


His Nobel lecture also quotes his poem “Exposure” at length, the last poem from the wonderful collection North. I’ll quote the whole thing here for you, he only quotes from the third stanza onwards.

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.

We build people. People build organisations. Organisations move.

James Bevel, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

James Bevel was an important organiser and aide to Martin Luther King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He is also apparently, as I learned while writing this post, a child molester, which kind of damped my enthusiasm for posting his words. His behaviour in the book by Garrow which is the source of the quote is also less than salutary.

But the fact is that that’s about as succinct a formulation of one way of thinking about organisations as I’ve seen. The goal for movements of social change and empowerment should always be building up people within them. When the personnel becomes competent and empowered, they improve the structure of the organisation and make it capable of creating more people with political and organising skill sets. Eventually, a tipping point is reached and the organisation gains power.

No particular reason, I just happened to read it. Thought of the day.


David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Harper Perennial Classics (2004), p 449.