We Bomb Therefore We Are

Many people who have never read a word of military history or strategy will have come across the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum that ‘war is politics (policy) by other means.’    If wars are fought in pursuit of political goals, then it follows that governments will know what these goals are, and develop appropriate military strategies to achieve them.

The U.S. Department of Defense currently defines strategy of ‘ a prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronised and integrated fashion to achieve, theater, national, and/or multinational objectives.‘  This is what the Lincoln administration eventually managed to do in the American Civil War, and what successive American administrations failed to do in Vietnam.

Such notions have been conspicuously absent from the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and its various offshoots.    Some critics of the GWOT pointed out that the elimination of global terrorism was a goal that was impossible to achieve, and was certainly not achievable through war.

Others criticized the war in Iraq as a distraction from this central goal.  But these criticisms missed the point.  In our new era of permanent war, war is not a means to a single end; it is an end in itself, or rather an ongoing process that can ‘sweep up’ – as Donald Rumsfeld put it – many different aims and rationales as it goes along.

This was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and it has also been the case in Syria..   Ever since the summer of 2011,  the US, France and Britain – with the support of Turkey and their Gulf allies – have been looking for reasons to bomb Syria – or rather to bomb something in Syria.  Initially the reasons were ostensibly humanitarian; to protect civilians from the Assad regime and stop a dictator from  repressing a democratic uprising and  attacking ‘his own people.’

In the last two years, the debate about bombing has shifted to national security, as Daesh/ISIS has now taken the place of al Qaeda as an existential enemy and a threat to the West’s safety and security.

These debates always begin from a position of absolute military superiority, which makes it possible for a handful of states to look down at any part of the world through a bomb sight and consider whether or not to open fire.  Such debates invariably take it for granted that bombing is a necessary solution for whatever particular threat or problem that presents itself, or at least  that bombing is better than doing nothing.   Often the debate about whether to bomb or not to bomb is infused with a note of desperate hopefulness;  just drop enough bombs for long enough and something will turn up – preferably without the need to put ‘boots on the ground’.

These debates generally pay little attention Clausewitz or conventional notions of military strategy.  On the contrary, strategy is often entirely absent from bombing campaigns whose aims are often vague and poorly-defined, and lack any serious attempt to weigh up whether these goals are achievable.

What will happen if ISIS fighters melt into the civilian population of the cities that are being bombed?   Should we continue to bomb them?   Will bombing campaigns actually increase the numbers of ISIS recruits by making them look like victims?   To what extent does bombing impede or increase the possibilities of a political solution to the Syrian war and the reconstruction of Syria and Iraq?

Even to ask some of these questions, as Jeremy Corbyn tried to do last week, and you are likely to be called a Stalinist, a useless peacenik, an appeaser or a crypto-fascist apologist for Assad, or a naive fool who doesn’t understand how evil ISIS is.     Since the Paris attacks this chorus has reached a crescendo of unanimity, rage and hysteria.   Some of this is understandable, given what happened, but some of its loudest voices are clearly seizing on the opportunity the attacks have provided.

David Cameron, for instance, has been desperate to bomb Syria for a long time, regardless of the consequences or the target, and so is a significant section of the British political establishment.  As in France, the government appears to take it for granted that we are ‘ at war’ and that we can only prevent further attacks by bombing, yet no one seems to know whether ‘bombing Raqqa’ will make us safer, or whether it will make ISIS weaker or stronger.

The only member of the ‘grand coalition’ against ISIS which appears to see bombing in strategic terms is Russia.  Russia’s bombing campaign is clearly intended to prop up Assad and enable his army to reclaim some of its lost territories.  Whether this campaign is intended to strengthen the Syrian government’s position in the event of a ceasefire,  or simply make it impossible for Assad’s external enemies to attack the government directly without also attacking Russia, there is evidence of an actual  strategy behind it.

The Russian bombing campaign is also being carried out in conjunction with the the Syrian Arab Army, which means that there are ‘boots on the ground’ – the essential corollary of any successful tactical bombing offensive.

To point this out doesn’t mean that what Russia is doing is good.  What Syria needs now is not bombs, but a return to politics.  It needs less foreign military intervention and more international attempts to bring about a ceasefire and a new political arrangement in which Daesh can have no place.

Personally, I have no problem with the notion that Daesh must be militarily  – and politically –  defeated, but that is primarily a task for Syrians and Iraqis, and I have no doubt that they can do it – when they have governments they want to fight for.  But  I have yet to hear any advocate of bombing Syria – whether these calls demand the bombing of Assad or the bombing of Daesh – explain how an escalation of bombing can contribute to this outcome.

In this country, neither the government nor the Labour rightwingers who have used the Paris attacks to bludgeon Corbyn, have defined the strategic goals of a bombing campaign, or attempted to consider whether bombing would create more destruction or less.    .

Tactical bombing, as opposed to strategic bombing, requires infantry forces on the ground, yet neither this government nor any other seems to know who these soldiers would be. Certainly not their own, nor Assad’s, nor even the Kurds, who the US is now backing away from under pressure from its Turkish ally.

Instead the Paris attacks are being used to terrify the public into ‘bombing Syria’ as part of an anti-ISIS alliance that includes some of the countries that have directly or indirectly supported ISIS.    Last year NBC News reported that the bulk of funding for ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusrah front came from  private donors  or ‘angel investors’ in the Gulf countries, particularly from Qatar, which is now nominally part of the anti-ISIS coalition.

According to a report compiled by Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights,  Turkey has provided direct and indirect support to ISIS, even though ISIS has carried out suicide attacks within Turkish borders.  This support includes military training to ISIS fighters and weapons transfers under the guise of humanitarian aid; turning a blind eye to the movement of ISIS fighters between Turkey and Syria; refusing to support Syrian Kurdish fighters who have successfully defended themselves against ISIS and driven it back from key areas; and  providing medical treatment to ISIS fighters in Turkish hospitals

No one will be surprised that Saudi Arabia may also have been complicit in the rise of ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria.   Ideologically, there is almost nothing to distinguish the Saudi leadership from the ‘caliphate’ it is supposedly fighting.

Yet these countries are part of the great coalition that the British political elite wants to join, in yet another pathetic attempt to punch above its weight and fight yet another war that it doesn’t know how to win, and with  no apparent idea of what victory would actually look like.

All of which suggests once again, that  in the twenty-first century war is no longer politics pursued by other means, or the prudent deployment of ‘instruments of national power’. Instead war has become the antithesis of politics,  and  a permanent necessity of powerful states that don’t seem to know or care what they are bombing or why, as long as they are bombing someone.

Bang, Bang Maxwell’s Silver Hammer

Many years ago, back in 1971, the publishing magnate Robert Maxwell was forced to resign his position on the board of directors of the Oxford-based publishing company Pergamon Press, following suggestions of malfeasance in connection with his role during an attempted strategic takeover of the company.  A Department of Trade and Industry inquiry into the buyout of Pergamon declared Maxwell ‘unfit to hold the stewardship of a public company.’

Given the fact that we are talking about a man who subsequently went on to loot the pension funds of his company to pay off debts at the Mirror Group, hindsight might credit the DTI with some considerable prescience. Nevertheless this was not how things seemed at the time.   The litigious Maxwell took the DTI to court, and in 1971, Justice Forbes ruled  that the DTI inspectors “had moved from an inquisitorial role to an accusatory one and virtually committed the business murder of Mr Maxwell”.

As a result Maxwell’s reputation survived the inquiry.  He regained his seat on the board and went onto to engage in the sleazy financial practices that subsequently made him famous. This obscure investigation into a scientific and medical publishing company nevertheless gave rise to a new legal process known as ‘Maxwellisation’, in which the objects of public inquiries were given advance notice of any criticisms directed against them, in order to forestall the possibility of Maxwellesque legal action,  and allow named individuals to respond privately before such criticisms were made public.

In the last  twelve months the British public has become depressingly familiar with the concept of Maxwellisation, as a result of the Chilcot Inquiry’s extraordinarily protracted attempt to conclude its six-year inquiry into  the Iraq war.   Until last year, we were led to believe that the main reason for the delay in the publication of the report was the Inquiry’s attempt to wrest key documents from the British civil service.   Recently, it was revealed that Sir John Chilcot and his team have been engaged in a process of Maxwellisation with some of the individuals criticized in the report, and that some of these individuals have brought their lawyers in.

This is – or ought to be -something to make collective jaws drop.   Remember that the Chilcot Inquiry was not a judicial investigation.  It had no power to subpoena individuals or documents.   If people didn’t want to appear before it they didn’t have to.  If certain departments didn’t want to hand over documents, all the Inquiry could do was haggle and say please.

Whatever the conclusions of the report, no one will face any legal charges as a result of them.  Only their reputations will be at stake. Yet the individuals who have been Maxwellised are allowed to respond to the report’s conclusions with lawyers, and the Inquiry will change its conclusions as a result.   And even more incredibly, according to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, the public will never know which individuals have been Maxwellised, or the original criticisms that were directed against them, or the modifications that may have been made to these criticisms as a result of intervention by their lawyers!

There might be an argument for a process like this in inquiries into business practices that don’t involve explicitly criminal behavior – even if such inquiries are directed at a sleazy and disreputable figure like Robert Maxwell.  But illegal wars of aggression are quite another matter. The issues involved here go way beyond the issue of individual reputation, or the supposed need to protect civil servants and governments from future scrutiny that has been cited as a justification for Maxwellisation in this case.

There is no greater betrayal of public trust than for a government to wage war on false or manipulated pretenses, and no greater violation of democratic accountability and transparency.  If a government can do such a thing, and get away with it, then it can get away with anything, and the Maxwellisation of the Chilcot Inquiry is a grotesque and feeble travesty that makes it very likely that those responsible for the Iraq War will get away with it and will be allowed to shape public understanding of what took place in accordance with their own priorities.

There have been suggestions in the British press in recent weeks that Maxwellisation was primarily aimed at Tony Blair.   Today the Guardian revealed that the Inquiry has broadened its criticisms to include individuals outside Blair’s inner circle such as Clare Short, Jack Straw and Richard Dearlove.   The notion that these individuals are outside Blair’s inner circle is certainly questionable, but the Guardian report nevertheless suggestions that Blair’s Maxwellisation has already begun to produce results, declaring:

‘While Blair will bear the brunt of the report”s criticism, one source said it would suit the former prime minister to see a wide range of targets blamed when it is published.’

This is not exactly surprising.   Blair, like the Bush/Cheney clique, has always tried to take the line that ‘everyone is responsible therefore no one is guilty’ as a justification for the war, and the widening of the Inquiry’s criticisms would certainly help promote this narrative.  And of course these new criticisms must also be subjected to Maxwell’s silver hammer, since:

‘The wide circle of people facing criticism is cited as one of the reasons for the delay. As part of the process, every individual to be criticised is sent draft passages giving them an opportunity to comment. Some of those who have received drafts have expressed surprise, having regarded themselves as peripheral to the events leading up to the invasion.’

All of which will lead to more delays.  After all:

‘Chilcot wants to ensure that those criticised are given every opportunity to rebut the criticism. He does not want to give them an excuse to take legal action or attack the inquiry after the final report has been published.’

This is not exactly a ringing and courageous declaration of independence.   An Inquiry worth anything would not be concerned about legal action because it would have evidence to support its conclusions.   It would not be afraid of being attacked by the people that it has criticized because that is what happens when you criticize powerful people.

Chilcot’s pathetic reluctance to take these risks suggests a very different attitude, that might be more appropriate for examining a poor England Ashes tour or a village fete that failed to sell enough muffins and tea cakes.  The more the dismal process goes on, the more it screams one word: whitewash.

But whatever happens, according to the Guardian:

‘The final report will not include the number of people who have been sent drafts containing criticism. The public may not know to what extent Chilcot has toned down his criticism in response to objections.’

So at the end of it all, we won’t know who was criticized, or what they said in response, or how the Inquiry responded to what they said.  And all this thanks to a sleazy tycoon who showed that litigious rich men can get away with much more than anyone else.

Isn’t British democracy grand?


Many years ago I remember going to my local record shop almost every week to find out if they had received Television’s first album yet.   I started going months before it actually came out after reading Nick Kent’s great review in the NME.   I was hooked on that album even before I heard it, to the point when the sales assistant was undoubtedly tired of hearing the same question ‘ Has Marquee Moon arrived yet?’

I wasn’t the only one asking it.     In the culture industry, the fact that such and such an artist takes a long time to produce a new novel or album can sometimes work to the commercial advantage of the person or group concerned.     Terence Malick makes films so infrequently that when they do come out they are invariably greeted with a special reverence that few directors can aspire to. The fact that Donna Tartt has published her novels an average of ten years apart has done her no harm at all.     And Harper Lee’s follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird is already a bestseller before it’s even been published.

In all these cases, the long wait has served to create a sense of anticipation, expectation and curiosity that can easily be enhanced by a skilled sales team.   The long gaps between the publication of Tartt’s books has given their author a unique mystique, suggesting a patient and painstaking creative process that demands special attention.   In Lee’s case, the fact that the sequel to one of the most popular books ever written is already number one in Amazon’s charts is partly due to the fact that a sequel was not expected.

The extraordinary delay in the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War has aroused very different responses.   When the Inquiry was first convened in 2009, it was expected to publish its findings before the 2010 general election.   Instead Sir John Chilcot and his team completed their hearings in February 2011.     At various times since then we have heard that its report was written and ready for publication.     In January 2014, the British press was reporting that the 1,000,000+word report was ready for publication later that year.

Earlier this year there were rumours that the report would be published before the election, and then in April BBC Newsnight suggested that it would be published after the election.     And now we have been told that the report is unlikely to be published until next year ‘at least’. If this was a Donna Tartt or Harper Lee novel, their publishers would be racking up advance sales and the books pages would be offering regular breathless updates.

Yet neither the government nor the main opposition has appeared particularly concerned by the delay, and the public has also remained generally indifferent to it.   The lack of interest from the political establishment is only to be expected.     Labour is unlikely to benefit politically from publication, and nor is the Tory government, which would have done exactly the same thing in Iraq, and whose rush to war in Libya and Syria showed no more concern with the historical ‘lessons’ that the Inquiry was intended to learn than its opponents.

Nevertheless the public ought to be concerned, because the delay says so much about the way this country is governed and the truncated and managed democracy that we inhabit.     The delay appears to be primarily due to two factors a) The reluctance of the civil service to allow the publication of key documents that the Inquiry needs to make its case, and b) the so-called ‘Maxwellisation’ process, which enables individuals criticized by the Inquiry to see its findings before they are made public so that it can refute them.

We can’t know whether the 30-odd individuals in category b have brought any influence to bear on the civil service to prevent the publication of documents that might be used against them.   One of them is Tony Blair, whose spokesmen have denied any such charges.   No one will be surprised by such denials, but whether they are true or not, the civil service should not be allowed to have the final say on which documents get published or not.

After all the Inquiry, for all its limited remit, was established in order to investigate one of the most disastrous foreign policy decisions ever taken by a British government.   And its inability or unwillingness to publish its findings speaks volumes about the ability of powerful governmental institutions and individuals to protect themselves from the scrutiny of the public that they are supposedly accountable to.

As is often the case in the UK, very little has been done to avoid this outcome.   The Inquiry was not given powers to sub-poena the documents that it wanted to look at, and was obliged instead to haggle and negotiate with civil servants who have been able to invoke national security and reasons of state to justify non-publication.   And the ‘Maxwellization’ process has clearly paved the way for endless prevarication that would have resulted in the collapse of the judicial process if it was applied to ordinary justice.

The Inquiry itself had no legal powers, yet in December last year the Times was reporting that the ‘Maxwellized’ individuals were bringing in lawyers in response to the criticisms made against them.   Exactly why they they can use the law to defend themselves in private while the Inquiry can’t use it to get full access to the documents it needs – let alone subject them to the same kind of cross-examination that would have occurred during the hearings if a judge was involved – remains a mystery to me.   But then again, not so much.

All this ought to be a national scandal, yet so far there has been no serious political pressure to change this situation.   Unlike Donna Tartt or Harper Lee, there is no sense of anticipation or expectation, and little likelihood that the Chilcot Report will hit the bestseller charts.

On the contrary, the longer the delay, the more likely it is that the politicians who never really wanted an inquiry in the first place will be able to consign it to historical irrelevance, and the British public will have forgotten what the Inquiry was ever supposed to have achieved, and the individuals and institutions that contrived to manufacture the Iraq catastrophe will continue to build new careers with their reputations unscathed, and the British state will continue to function, just as as it has always done, with its dirty linen locked away in a box labelled ‘national security’ which noone will be able to see until it no longer matters.


Letter from Palmyra

Hey brother,

Greetings from Palmyra!   I’m telling you bro, this has been a good week for the Caliphate, because we are LIVING THE DREAM!       First we took Ramadi and you should have seen the Iraqi army run away from us!   Afterwards we killed the ones we caught and anyone else who was with the government – 500 in a few days!   Just lined ’em up next to a ditch and then bang, bang, bang, like those old pictures of the Nazis in the war books dude – check out the instagram I sent you!   That’s me third on the left with the Glock.

Then we drove Bashar’s troops out of Palmyra.     Now we’re livin’ it large bro, sittin’ on a lake of oil, enough American weapons to keep us going for years, Uncle Sam flying around up there trying to blow us up and they can’t even see us!     And next week we should be ready to clean out some heretics and smash to pieces a 2,000-year-old World Heritage Site!

Because let me  tell you something brother, those ruins are just stones and those stones are coming DOWN, because Daesh won’t stand for no IDOLS innit and no stoneworshipping Romans neither.

Anyway,   right now I’m just chillin’ with a latte, my AK and my Chinese motorbike beside me, and I’m thinking, the Caliphate is COOOL.   And I’m thanking Bashar, I’m thanking the House of Saud, I’m thanking Jordan, Turkey and America, for making this possible, for making this dream come true.

Because you know what?   I never knew how BORED I was till I came to the Caliphate.     I’ve been here eight months now and I have done so much killing and destroying I don’t even know myself.   Forget Call of Duty bro.   This is Playstation for real.   I mean if I’d stayed in Europe I could have killed a few cartoonists and had a bit of a laugh watching the kufar get their knickers in a twist about free speech and all before I got shot and went to paradise, but you know here bro, you can kill ANYBODY, and not just kill them, you get to MESS THEM UP!

I mean you can shoot ’em, cut their throats, push ’em off buildings, crucify them – even shoot ’em with a bazooka! And you know what it is really, really cool?   You can just keep on doing it and nobody tells ever tells you to stop.   Isn’t God just so great?

When this is over there won’t be any Shia or Yazidi or Christians or anyone, just PLUs bro,   all living under the Caliphate in one big happy family, just like in Islam for Dummies, because like my brother al-Britani says in his cool guidebook:

‘I cannot see a Baltimore riot springing up here anytime soon and that is a dead cert, not because those in charge will deal with matters with an iron first, but because there is no blur between right and wrong. What I mean by this is that citizens are not hypocritically led to believe that all cultures can coexist, and then have this belief torn apart by the bigoted reality on the ground. Everyone is judged with the right law (which is Islam), and told what is the truth (which is Islam), and the dangers and impracticalities of multiculturalism are well and truly nipped in the bud.’

Ain’t that the truth my brother?  Because who needs a ‘blur’ between right and wrong and all those ‘dangers and impracticalities’ when you got Islam?       So what are you waiting for bro?   Come on and do some jihad because jihad is not just a duty, it’s FUN.   Come and see the Caliphate for yourself.       You know you always wanted to see the world!

Where else can you get a perfect shish kibab served up by a slave girl whose family you wasted the week before?     And these aren’t women who tell you what to do brother.   Here they do what YOU say and you’ve always got Mr AK or Mr Glock to remind them what will happen if they don’t, right?

Like last August we buried some of those Yazidi heretics ALIVE along with their men, so their sisters  aint going to give you no backtalk, you know wot I’m sayin?  Anyway if you need a wife or two – maybe three! Then this is the place to come looking.   And if you got mates who are already married then tell them to come over with the wife and kids, because like brother al-Britani says, in the Caliphate

‘There are no classes promoting homosexuality, evolution, music, drama, interfaith and the rest of the rubbish taught in non-Muslim schools. Your child”s delicate mind is well and truly protected in the Caliphate.’

That’s right.   Nothing here to disturb a child’s delicate mind.     No smoking.   No alcohol.   No movies.   No music.     No homosexuals.   No drama. No trash.   No disorder.  Just a whole lot of killing! So bring your mates.     And bring your sister too.     Becaise you know a girl like that is too pretty to go around with her face uncovered.

And don’t worry about home comforts, dude.   Here in the Caliphate we got the the most succulent shawarmas, and fruity cocktails to die for.   Transport?     Within a few years we’ll have high speed trains from Damascus to Baghdad,   zeppelins, microlites, cable cars – whatever our ‘witty entrepeneurs’ can come up with!

So what are you waiting for brother?     Come over here and build the dream.

And remember: God is great, and he’s on our side.

Your brother S.

ps. how about that Messi goal?