Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Gandalf's Ring

1: The author describes how he received an e-mail from the Prime Minister, and why he didn't bother to reply. 

Oh, the First World War, boys,  served out its fate
The reasons for fightin'  I never got straight..
 Bob Dylan, Lyrics 1962-85
Tony and George wanted their war; Tony and George got their war.
The papers, even the ones who started out opposing it, went through their 'Falklands factor' rhetoric and convinced themselves that the good old days of the Blitz and the Queen Mum had come again. The news programmes were double their usual length; students sat down in front of busses in the center of Bristol. A rather chic boutique on Park Street hastily put up a window display saying 'Buy clothes, not bombs'; and swear to god, there was a poster saying 'Ocean Estate Agents Say No To War.'
I saw two school-girls bunking off for the afternoon carrying 'Not in my name' placards. There were two lads behind them, chanting, 'We want war', provocatively. Well, obviously. 'War' and 'Not War' are now two tribal orientations, like Gareth and Wil or Arsenal and Spurs. It's another big media event. More interesting than Celebrity Fame Academy, but less interesting than 24.
I'm doing my very best to feel angry with Tony, but I can't manage it. I didn't go on the March. 'Tony is an irritating sanctimonious toad and George Bush is obviously certifiable, but nevertheless there are good arguments on both sides'won't fit on a placard.
It's not that I love the Empire; I hate it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now.
Tony Blair once sent me an e-mail. No, honestly, he did.

To: web@aslan.demon.co.uk
From: tony_blair@10downingstreet.gov.uk
Subject: Your Web Site
Date: Wed, 5 Sep 2001 23:07:38 GMT
X-Mailer: Endymion MailMan Professional Edition v3.0.26
I came accross your site, I don't understand why you don't like me and New Labour.
If you look at our record on Schools, The Economy, and jobs, you'll see that things are a lot better than under the Tories.
Yours Faithfully,
Tony Blair
For More Information on The Prime Minister visit

For More Information on New Labour visit

I never replied. I realize that it was probably written by a Milbank minion. I looked it up now because reading it does almost generate a real twinge of anger.
'Our record is better than the Tories.' Well, yes. In the sense that cancer is nicer than AIDS. I voted Liberal, but I would have voted Labour (wearing rubber gloves and with a clothes peg on my nose) if I thought that was the only way to stop the Tories winning Bristol West. I would vote Monster Raving Loony if I thought it was the only way to stop the Tories winning Bristol West. (I'm voting Bristolian in the local elections, as are all decent folks.) Is 'not as bad as Mrs. Thatcher' really something that I am supposed to feel good about?
'If you look at our record on schools, The Economy and jobs....' Do you really suppose that Schools and the Economy are such binary, black and white areas that one can say that they are 'better', and not need to comment any further? I have no doubt that, according to his own lights, Tony believes that he has made schools 'better'. New Labour is doing better than the Tories at taking the country in a particular direction but it is always possible that that's not a direction I want to go in.
So, Tony: if you are still a reader—and you did once claim Lord of the Rings was you favorite book—I can just hear that wounded, Dead Ringers, sincere hand-gesture voice. 'Considering that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous madman who used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, how can you possibly talk about being angry at me?'
A just question, my liege.

2: The author describes his reasons for thinking that war is a bad thing, and possible reasons for dissenting from that view. De-ontological and teleological ethical systems contrasted.

Sarah, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you, and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to become a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?
'Genesis of the Daleks'
What is so terrible about 'war' that it can make young people stir themselves from their Gameboys and demonstrate against it? People die all the time. 3,000 people die every year in road accidents but we regard 3,000 deaths as a suitable blood price to pay for quick travel.
Did John Logie Baird mention this when he proposed the internal combustion engine, I wonder? 'Good news: I have a wonderful new machine that will enable you to go from London to Edinburgh in 12 hours rather than three days. Bad news: It will kill 3,000 people a year.' We could reduce the road-death-toll to zero by banning private cars; but we aren't going to do this. We even protest about the idea of putting up speed cameras, because, dammit, we have the right to drive faster than the speed limit. (Imposing the law? Why does the government have this vendetta against motorists?)
So: peaceniks will march against George-and-tony because they are going to take action which will result in the deaths of many Iraqi civilians but they won't do so because they are failing to take action which would prevent the deaths of many English civilians. Morally, the road-deaths are on Blair's hands just as much as the collateral war causalities.
The more I think, the more convinced I become that people believe war to be wrong because it generates ritual impurity. That is: the death I cause directly will desecrate me, put blood on my hands; whereas the death I fail to prevent, (reprehensible as that might be) will leave me relatively unpolluted. Many moral issues become clear when you have grasped this idea.
1: . The more directly I cause the death, the more polluted I become. Killing a single child with my bare hands is as bad or worse, in terms of ritual impurity, as ordering the deaths of hundreds or standing by and permitting the deaths of thousands. We hate Myra Hindley more than we hate General Pinochet, not because she did more harm, but because she incurred greater defilement.
2: I am more desecrated when the blood is literally on my hands than when the killing is at one remove: it's worse to strangle someone, looking them in the eye, than it is to pull a lever and drop them through at trap door. Not worse for them, and arguable not worse for the society which lets it happen, but worse for you. To kill someone who you can see, and who is begging you not to is to desecrate yourself. To knock a kid over in a car because you had too much to drink is merely to be a moron.
3: As a townie, I am always slightly shocked by the way in which farm people can give pet names to cattle and eat them anyway. Jokes about eating pets, even if it's only at the level of Homer Simpson's lobster, make me mildly nauseous. It's clear what is happening: I have an irrational fear that if I think of a creature as a person and then kill and eat it anyway I will defile myself much as if I had really killed a human being. (My own sub-urbanite solution, to let working-class slaughter-house workers become ritually impure while I buy my sausages hygienically packed from Sainsburys is the worst one possible. To be consistent, we need a society entirely made up either of hunters or of vegans.)
4: Opponents of blood-sports can't logically be worried about the welfare of the fox. They aren't trying to save the life of the small mammal that was probably going to be hit by a car in any case; they are trying to prevent the hunter from ritual pollution.
5: Pro-lifers know perfectly well that many fetuses are spontaneously aborted in the normal human reproductive process: but they feel that the cold-blooded murder of a baby is wrong in any case. This was particularly clear in the grotesque case in which pair of conjoined twins were almost certain to die; but an operation which killed one of them would give the second a very good shot at life. A body of Roman Catholic opinion held that it was morally better to let both die naturally than to kill one deliberately. This is incomprehensible without recourse to a theory of blood-guilt.
Once you've recognized the ritual-pollution theory, it becomes very clear that all those World War II conscientious objector tribunals were arguing completely at cross purposes. The pacifist sat there and said 'Killing is wrong', and the magistrate came up with complicated circumstances under which killing one person might save many lives in the long run. If the pacifist accepted any of these, then this was held to prove that 'pacifism' wasn't true, and the CO went to prison.
'What would you do if you were attacked in the street by a rabid dog?'
'I would try to reason with it.'
'What would you do if a German officer was trying to rape your Grandmother?:'
'I would suggest that he re-buried afterwards'
What the CO should have said is 'I believe that if kill someone; then the ritual pollution which I would incur—the harm that it would do my soul— is so dreadful that it outweighs the deaths of any number of Kurds or Jews—even, in the last analysis, than the deaths of the whole human race.' He might have extended the argument '...and a society which is full of people who are ritually impure, a society of damaged souls, would not be worth living in.'
'But Andrew: this is a magical theory—fine for Ancient Greeks and Jews, but not something that anyone in the real world believes in.?'
Well, no. Obviously not.
The only alternative on offer is to say that we judge our actions by looking at their long term results: the killing of a child might be justified if the end result was that the lives of many children were saved. If you told Tony that his war would certainly result in the deaths of many civilians at the hands of badly aimed Coalition missiles, he replied that not having a war would also result in the deaths of many civilians at the hands of Saddam. There are other considerations to look at as well as 'number of lives lost'; because most people think that some things are more important than human life. It might be valid to kill a very large number of people in order to prevent, say, the British Museum from being blown up, depending on the value you place on art and knowledge and history. It might be worth allowing the whole of America to be turned into a nuclear wasteland in order to save the world from communism, depending on how evil you think communism is and how precious you think democracy is. If you sincerely believe that America is a Great Satan, then it might be morally valid to...well, anyway.
The idea of defilement—of 'sin' as a kind of filth—is quite central to the Old Testament view of morality. (That, I assume, is why quite so much of the Torah is taken up with laws about literal cleanliness.) The Old Testament model of defilement and cleansing underlies the New Testament view of Salvation and Atonement. The Bible is quite deeply rooted in our culture, and still fairly important in some forms of Christianity. So maybe there is something to be said for it.
Try this:
I am a human being. All my programming, biological and social, tells me not to kill other people—and especially, not to cut them up, not to eat them, and not to kill my own offspring. If I do so, then I first have to overcome that programming. In fact, I have to make several quite specific shifts to my mental attitude: either to think that the person I am killing is not really a person, just a slab of meat; or that he is so evil that he really deserves it; or that I am actually only blowing up a machine, not the person in it, or that the bitch loves it, really. Military indoctrination works hard to create this mind-set, which is why civilians avoid pubs in Aldershot on a Friday night. But having once made that mind-shift then a part of myself has been killed—at any rate, changed beyond recognition—and I have become a different person. No longer quite human.
'But Andrew: up until, say, 1792, there can't have been many people who had not killed an animal, fought in a war, or witnessed an execution. All your heroes had 'killed part of themselves': by your arguments, there haven't been many 'real human beings' in history. The veggies, peaceniks and pro-lifers are clinging to a sort of sentimentalism that is an historically recent invention.'
Yes, maybe. Or maybe that 'sentimentalism' is part of what we mean by 'civilization' .

3: A short digression, in which the author uses a trivial incident to illustrate the proposition that the desire for retribution is not necessarily ignoble.

If you strike a child take care that you strike it in anger, even at the risk of maiming it for life. A blow in cold blood neither can nor should be forgiven
In February, there was a news item about a school strike. A young man had shot a teacher. This had been regarded as very naughty, and he had been expelled from school. Under a complicated appeals procedure based on the ludicrous idea that schoolchildren have legal rights, the kid was re-instated. The teachers, not unnaturally, were a little perturbed.
Granted, we are talking more Dennis the Menace than Columbine: the weapon in question was a more than usually vicious pop-gun, but they still felt that pointing guns at teachers was not an acceptable way of expressing dissent in the modern education system. I believe in the end there was some kind of very complicated compromise, whereby the kid stayed technically expelled but was allowed to go to school and be educated in a separate classroom. (Like when Di was allowed to stay a Princess but stop being a member of the Royal Family.)
When I was at school, back in the Paleolithic the offending youngster would have been struck repeatedly on the palm of the hand with a blunt instrument, and the matter would have been forgotten until he appeared on Trisha blaming childhood trauma for his failed marriage and/or weight problem.[1]
I don't advocate beatings (except between consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes) but this may not have been the worst possible way of handling the situation. There seems to be a powerful emotional feeling that when someone has done something wrong, something ought to be done about it. A humiliating punishment might be a rough-and-ready way of taking the youngster down a peg and act out a little drama which says 'Shooting teachers is one of the worst things we can think of.' As it is, the teachers had the sense that nothing had been done, and therefore the original offence hadn't been that bad.
I believe that similar arguments are sometimes put forward on behalf of the families of murder victims by members of the strangulation lobby.
Three thousand people died on September 11th, and I swear I thought of the 7-11 joke before Ali G did. There is a strong and understandable feeling that if we don't do something, really, really, really, terrible then we won't believe that September 11th was a really, really, really, really terrible event: that if the world doesn't change, then all the people who died would have died for no reason. The response has to be proportionate and dramatic. More security at airports, or better designed skyscrapers wouldn't feel apocalyptic enough even if that would guarantee that another September 11th could never happen. In any case, politicians prefer doing Big Apocalyptic things to small scale sensible ones. It makes them feel important.
We are in danger of constructing international policy not in terms of what is sensible or practical, but in terms of what makes dramatic sense.

4: The author describes the use and misuse of stories as a guide to reality, and ruminates on the growing tendency of a post-religious society to see politics in mythological terms. 

'It's like in the great stories, Mr Frodo; the ones which really matter...'
Peter Jackson, after Tolkien.
'Fundamentalist' is a big word. These days, it rarely means anything other than 'Someone whose religion I disapprove of.' Its official meaning is 'one who believes in the literal truth of the Bible' but that's not very helpful. Most of our grandparents believed in the literal truth of the Bible, in the sense that they accepted Jonah's Ass or Jacob and the Whale in the same uncritical spirit as King Alfred's Cakes and George Washington's Cherry Pie—but this didn't mean that they treated the Bible as the Only Authority In All Matters of Doctrine and Conduct. Indeed, most Christians who actually call themselves 'fundamentalist' to themselves are perfectly well aware that Ecclesiastes says something different from St John. They are prone to mutter 'whole counsel of scripture' while waving their hands furiously.
George would probably claim that he believed in the literal truth of the Bible; Tony would probably say he didn't—or at any rate, squirm and say that that wasn't the real question.
A working definition of 'fundamentalist' might be 'someone who confuses stories with reality'. A relatively benign form of the complaint involves treating a story as if was an historical event. You or I read a wonderful story about a good man, the last good man in the whole world, and how God told him that he was going to destroy the whole world, everyone apart from him, and so to hurry and build a special boat....and ask 'what does it mean?'
'It's an answer to the question 'If the world is so terrible, why does god allow it to carry on?'
'No, it's about ecology; if God has promised not to destroy the world, then neither should we.'
'No, its about which laws apply to the whole world, and which apply only to Jews'
'No, the point of the story is what happened after Ham accidentally caught a glimpse of  his father's willy''
The fundamentalist, on the other hand, starts looking for the boat.
But there is a more malign version of the complaint. It is one thing to mistake a story with something to say about the real world with a piece of history which happened in the real world. It is quite another to start to think that the real world functions like a story. .
People call Wagner a Nazi, and ban 'Ride of the Valkyrie' from Israeli mobile phones. But there is nothing remotely nasty inThe Ring. The story of an heroic teenager being raised by a cynical deformed miser, and eventually discovering his true identity as a son of the gods is one that speaks to everyone's psychology and emotions. It only becomes dangerous when someone identifies the Nieblung with a particular racial group and sets about wiping them out. The British National Party attempted to appropriate Jackson's Two Towers as a metaphor for the white race's resistance to black immigration. This works perfectly well, so long as you already know that Afro-Caribbean's are just as sub-human as the orcs. Timothy McVeigh claimed that his killing of civilians Okalahoma city was no worse than Heroic Luke Skywalker's slaughter of all the millions of people in the Death Star; which is quite fair, granted that you already know that the US government is as evil as Darth Vader. Tempting, under George Bush, I admit, but hardly axiomatic.
There is no story which cannot become cancerous if used in this way. Somewhere, at this moment, a fat kid with lower middle class parents is being duffed up behind the gym on the grounds that he is a muggle.
In Jackson's desecration of Lord of the Rings, there is a scene in which the Hobbits try to persuade the French, sorry, the Ents to join the coalition against Isengard. Treebeard says gravely that this is Not His War. Merry (or possibly Pippin) agrees with him, and says that the Hobbits should go back to the Shire which they love. But Pippin (or possibly Merry) says that there will be no neutral ground in the coming war.
The fires of Isengard will spread. And the woods of Tuckburough and Buckland will burn. And all that was once green and good in this world will be gone. There won’t be a Shire, Pippin.
This is a very moving scene. If there really were an enemy as destructive as Saruman; a race of people as innocent as the halflings, and an ally as wise but cautious as Treebeard, then the moral choice really would be that simple, and I would rally to the colours along with the CGI trees. But of course, life isn't like that: Jackson-Tolkien has left out all the specific messy details which make reality so complicated. As Tolkien might have said, had he thought of it: he has cut away the foliage of reality to enable us to see the shape of the Tree of story.
Confronted by Darth Vader or Saruman, it's easy to know what the Right Thing to do is. The trouble, in the real world, is deciding where they are.
This is why I find Tonygeorge's war rhetoric so frightening. They have found their Darth Vaders, and think that it's now just a matter of blowing them up It's a bit unclear as to whether Darth is Saddam, or Osama, or Iraq, or something broader like 'terrorism' or the 'axis of evil', but they've jolly well found it, and this gives them the moral authority and moral certainty which only someone in a fantasy story can ever have. A perfectly good pragmatic case for the current adventure can be made out, but the rhetoric of 'you are either with us or against us' belongs in Middle-earth rather than the Middle East.
Not that I don't feel sorry for the politicos. It must be very galling when you get the keys of Number 10 to discover that you are not in fact going to spend your days and nights establishing brilliant stratagems to make the world a better place; but merely bickering about the minutiae of a bill about making the trains run on time. It must be very tempting to start inventing stories in which you really can Save The World; or to see the tiny little nuance of government by bureaucracy in apocalyptic terms. So when someone disagrees with you about a minor point regarding public health policy, don't worry about the issues; just recast the argument in terms of a great battle between Good (you) and Evil (The Forces of Conservatism.) If there is a terrible terrorist outrage, then don't worry about boring little details about who did it and why: announce that this our opportunity to Re-Order The World.
The most extreme version of seeing reality as a story is the one which believes that we are in the Last Days, and that modern history (whenever you happen to be living) is the last few pages of a narrative which started out in Genesis Chapter One. How much influence the pre-millennial tradition has on George Bush, I don't know. Does he, like Ronald Reagan, believe that nuclear war is inevitable, Because The Bible Says So? Is he one of those who thinks that, when John the Divine talks about Israel, he doesn't mean 'the Christian church and (by extension all of God's people in history)' but 'the modern state of Israel'? Or that when he mentions 'Babylon' he means, not 'the Roman empire, (and by extension all the oppressors of God's people throughout history)' but 'the actual city of Babylon, and the country around it, namely, er, Iraq.' Certainly, an equation of Saddam with Babylon/Satan would go some way to explain why the western conscience has fixed on this nutty dictator in particular, and left so many other nutty dictators alone.
To be fair to Tony Blair, and that is not an expression you will often read in this column, he rarely sets out to make political capital out of his religious allegiance. It was unfair, although very funny, for Paxman to ask him if he and George pray together. Tony is in the tradition of British folk-Anglicanism, a strong social conscience, nice hymns, and a firm conviction that you shouldn't bring God into religion. It's a safe bet that Tony doesn't think that he's going to literally inaugurate the Book of Revelation. However, England has its own apocalyptic mythology to which Tony is perfectly prepared to appeal. The Second World War occupies a special place in the story that England likes to tell itself about itself, because it was almost the last time it got anything right.[2] In that story, Hitler (not to be confused with the German politician of the same name) is a signifier for 'evil', scarcely less legendary Darth Vader.


5: The authors concedes that Saddam was a very nasty person, and wonders out loud whether it is necessary for us to go to war against all nasty people, without reaching any very clear conclusion

Tony, Georgie won't you say
How many kids did you kill today?
Dreadful things were done in Iraq. Whether it's you favorite form of torture (tongue amputation, dropping people into vats of acid, pushing them through paper shredders); use of poisoned gas ; lack of freedom of speech and internal repression. Iraq had it all.
No-one, to my knowledge, ever denied any of this. One of the most pathetic things about the pre-war 'debate' was the way in which some 'hawks' responded to the 'doves' re-iterating, slowly, how many atrocities Saddam had committed.[3] The implication was that the pacifists didn't realize this, and would instantly become war-mongers when it was explained to them. The buried assumption was 'if a regime is nasty, then it is axiomatic that you want to go to war with it; the only reason for not wanting to go to war with it is that you don't know how nasty it is.'
It's the oldest and most dishonest political trick in the book: 'if you question my proposed means, then you obviously don't agree with the end that I'm trying to reach.' When Labour didn't approve of some dot or comma in the Tory education policy, Mrs Thatcher said that it was because socialists didn't approve of learning; Michael Howard responded to some sub-clause of Labour law and order policy which he didn't think would work by arguing that the Labour party liked criminals more than law abiding folk.
Saddam has a nasty, repressive regime. Not, according to Amnesty International, the worst in the world, but pretty bad. If Agent Jack Bauer had Saddam's head in the sights of his rifle and we knew in advance that the death of Saddam would instantly and of itself bring the torture and oppression to an end then everyone, except the most muddle-headed kind of pacifist, would agree that pulling the trigger was a good idea. Most of us would be prepared to go further: if the US attempt to assassinate Saddam on Day Zero of the war had taken out him, his cronies, and as many collateral citizens as your heart desires, then (granted that we know that the death of Saddam will instantly and of itself bring the torture to end) then everyone (except the most muddle-headed kind of pacifist) would think that they had done a Good Thing.
However, this is a scenario only marginally further removed from reality than the exemplum of Merry and the Ents. We can't simply vaporize Saddam; and we don't know that if we did so, his regime would instantly vanish and be replaced by a pastel shaded happy valley where ponies happily cavorted in the meadows.
In practice, when we say that 'we' are going to defeat 'Saddam' because 'Saddam' is 'evil', what we actually mean is that some of our soldiers are going to kill some of his soldiers, and some of his civilians as well. We think that, the process of bombing installations and taking Baghdad will probably end the current Iraqi regime; and we think that whatever comes afterwards willprobably be better than what existed before; and we think that the deaths of servicemen on both sides and civilians on their side will probably amount to a lesser evil than the deaths which would have occurred had Saddam been left in power. We may, in fact, agree with all the 'probablies'; but it is a far, far greyer shade of black and white then the rhetoric of the politicians would have us believe.
Presumably, different individuals are benefited by this process to different degrees. If I was about to have my hands chopped off by one of Saddam's gangsters, and a Coalition serviceman came in and rescued me, I would be extremely pleased. If I was living in a suburban housing estate in Baghdad, knowing that if I criticized the government I might be killed, and the news came over the radio that Saddam was dead and I could now buy the Guardian, I might be quite pleased; not as pleased as the guy being tortured, but pleased nonetheless. On the other hand, if I (like the majority of citizens in Iraq and elsewhere) was minding my own business, not annoying the government, turning a blind eye to injustices being committed on my behalf by my leaders, and therefore not in any danger of having any part of me chopped off, and a bomb dropped on my house and blew me into a million pieces, then I might be quite annoyed. The fact that the bomb was a smart bomb that was actually aimed at the military installation next door would only be a small consolation to me.
Granted that torture is a bad thing (something apparently no longer universally agreed about, particularly when the torturer is a western government and the torturee a terrorist suspect) how was the judgment that Saddam is especially and uniquely 'evil' arrived at? Hussein tortured people and gassed them; granted. But then China shoots people for trivial crimes and sells their internal organs; Saudi Arabia chops peoples hands off and stones them; Malaysia and Singapore whip people for trivial offences; parts of the United States seal people in air tight rooms and force them to inhale cyanide.
Is a country where some very terrible cruelty is inflicted on a very small number of citizens more or less evil than one where moderate cruelty is inflicted relatively frequently?
If one person lives in a country where he knows that political dissidents are killed; and another lives in a country where nearly everybody wears shoes that were made by slave labour, how do we quantify the degree of evil involved?
Do we tolerate Saudi beheadings because they come at the end of a judicial process? Or is the problem that Saddam appears to enjoy torturing people; would we put up with it if it was carried out by disinterested executioners?
Is there a limit to the number of servicemen we are prepared to kill in order to save one person from being tortured?
Which would you rather: be dropped into a vat of acid and die, or see your wife and all your children blown to bits by a friendly bomb?
I would be more inclined to support the rhetoric of war if it was clear to me that Tonygeorge had woken up one morning and said 'I have £75,000,0000,0000 in my pocket: where could it do the most good? AIDS in Africa? A cure for Cancer? Freeing Tibet? Freeing the Kurds—let's make a shortlist.'
I would be more inclined to support the rhetoric of war if it was clear to me that there had been a process by which the international community had determined that Iraq was the worst and nastiest regime on earth; if there were a supreme court, a Jedi council, a united nations which determined these things according to set of principals which everyone had signed up to in advance.
I would be more inclined to believe in the rhetoric of a war against evil if Tony hadn't said that he was quite happy for Saddam to say in power, and therefore, presumably, to continue to chop off as many hands as he wanted, provided he gave up his nukes and his anthrax.
I would be more inclined to believe that we are motivated by the suffering of the Iraqi people if, when they arrive in the UK and claim asylum, we weren't so keen to send them back. Tony stated his willingness to consider re-writing the human rights convention to allow him to send immigrants back to countries where they might be tortured.


6: The author considers various ideas about just wars, both from the point of view of just causes and just conduct, with particular reference to the works of Mr Shakespeare and Mr Chaucer. Mr Lewis alluded to, without ever quite being quoted.

You mean, I'll put down my sword, and you'll put down your rock, and we'll try to kill each other like civilized people?
 The Princess Bride
The children lying down in front of the busses think that war is wrong under all circumstances. They think that the willingness to make war creates a moral equivalence between Saddam, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Adolph Hitler. At any rate, that is what they chant and what their posters say.
If nothing else I feel that this represents a pretty extreme degree of cultural dissociation. These kids apparently feel no connection with any part of our historical or legendary past. They exist in a world in which the Bible, Greek and Roman civilization, and the works of Shakespeare are evil texts; glorifying war and coming from a world as dark and alien as the Third Reich. Henry V's as bad as Hitler; Winston Churchill's a crazy man who wanted to get us involved in killing. There was little to choose between English servicemen and the Gestapo. They both killed people. (One wonders who the video games industry sells its products to; presumably, these kids look at Halo and Ghost Recon and say 'This is horrid! It's about war!')
If we were allowed to know about the past beyond Horrid History cartoon books, then we would know that civilized people have generally thought that 'war' is something that you can, as a last resort, get involved in; and that when you do so the solders can rightly be regarded as heroic.
I find the spectacle of churches with 'No war' posters outside rather eccentric, considering quite how much killing God seems to approve of in the Bible. The venerable Methodist peace campaigner Lord Soper was inclined to get round this by advising audiences at Speakers' Corner to simply disregard the Old Testament. ('I was taught to regard David as a hero, but all my sympathies should have been with Goliath'). But that doesn't really help: that well-known hippy Jesus Christ claimed to have twelve armed legions of angels under his command; and happily used military scenarios to re-enforce points about the Kingdom of God. It would be an odd way to behave if war was always and all times a great evil: put on the gasmask of faith, the flak-jacket of truth and arm yourself with the scud missile of the Spirit.
Christians warriors haven't even necessarily seen themselves as fighting 'holy wars' on behalf of God against a demonic enemy. They've simply believed that they were on the right side in a particular conflict. Henry V's question before the French campaign is not 'Is the Dauphin part of an axis of evil' but 'May I with right an conscience make this claim?' Since it is obviously the case that France belongs to England, than it's quite all right for me to use an army to take it back off them. .
The Medieval Law of Arms said that you could only make war on the grounds of treason: people rebelling against their rightful monarch; one monarch taking back land that had been unjustly taken from him by another monarch; one monarch defending himself against invasion by another. We could go to war against Turk because they had taken Jerusalem, which obviously belonged, by rights, to the King of Cyprus: we could not go to war against Islam just because they were infidels.
I find this kind of war very easy to defend.
Imagine the Iraqis have invaded Wales. (It isn't hard to do.) At this moment they are massing on the Severn Bridge, about to march into Bristol. Tony Blair is standing there in his kilt, rallying the troops.
'Fight, and you may die' he is saying 'Run away, and you'll, you know, live: at least for a while. But dying in your bed, many years from now, would you trade all the days from that to this, for, your know, we few, we happy few, this sceptred isle?'
Under those circumstances, half a dozen pacifists would say that killing is wrong under all circumstance and that Saddam ought to be allowed to rampage all over Swansea if that's really what wants, and the rest of us would grab the nearest rifle and rally to the colours.
Or imagine that Saddam has invaded the Falkland Islands. The Falklands are under our protection; and our citizens there definitely don't want to be forced to speak Arabic and drink mint tea. The only possible moral question is one about proportionality; given the numbered of citizens on the island, and given the number of servicemen likely to die, and given (a not irrelevant consideration) the cost of the war, wouldn't it be better to come to some sort of teems with the aggressor.
Or, suppose that he has invaded, say, Kuwait. Kuwait isn't specifically under our protection, but the principal that countries should not invade either countries is a good one, one we all agree with.
So: a war fought to protect ourselves, or to protect someone we have a treaty with; or to protect someone who is being bullied and we just feel morally needs our help, would classify as 'Just wars'. In neither case does a politician have to 'make the case for war' and admit that there are good and sincere arguments on the other side: the circumstance has been forced on you, and the options are 'have a war' or 'do nothing'. If War is a last resort, then if you have to 'make the case for war' then by definition, there isn't one.
Modern wars are bigger and nastier than the ones which Henry V was involved with. We aren't talking about solders killing each other with swords and guns; but with tanks, aeroplanes, and terrible weapons of mass destruction, (which are a good thing when we have them and a bad thing when the other side have them.) Medieval knights nominally followed rules of conduct: they didn't kill an enemy who had surrendered; or a person with a safe conduct, or a civilian who wasn't actively supporting the enemy; or a woman or child under any circumstances. This works well when you have a sword; less well when you have a machine-gun, and not at all when you are dropping weapons out of an aeroplane. It would be tempting, although not very realistic, to say: 'Just wars must be conducted according to the laws of chivalry. The aeroplane is an intrinsically unchivalrous weapon, therefore, all modern wars are unjust.'
When wars are very big and very nasty, we need very big and very nasty justifications for them. Hitler was, it is generally agreed, quite nasty, so the Second World War entered our mythology as a battle against a force of pure evil. This made up for the national trauma of the First World War, which wasn't about anything in particular. Then we spent fifty years engaged in something called Cold War, the whole strategy of which was based on our willingness to destroy civilization rather than nationalize the means of production. People could only reconcile themselves to the idea that we were paying taxes in order that we were better able to destroy the world than the other side was by convincing themselves that the Russians really were an evil empire.
This has left us with a polarized world view; only a force of Evil is worth going to war against. So we have to up our rhetoric and imagine that the enemy are Forces of Evil, rather than just people we happen to be at war with right now. You can't imagine Coalition troops having a quick game of soccer with the Iraqis before killing them, or giving the enemy commander a funeral with military honors, or saluting the honorable foe after they have surrendered. (You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.)
Once you have convinced yourself that you are fighting the battle of Armageddon, then old questions about justice and chivalry and the conduct of the war can safely be discarded. There are limits to the number of losses you are prepared to take in liberating the islands of Falk. There is no limit to the number of dusky skinned children who can legitimately be slaughtered in the attempt to rid the world of Sauron Hussein.
The idea of 'just war' doesn't apply to the present adventure. War is not being used as a last resort against an invader. It's an instrument of policy; one of a number of surgical procedures which we think may have a positive outcome.
A good pragmatic case can be made out. We want to defeat 'International Terrorism.' We can't do this by arresting individual terrorists, even by killing Mr Bin Laden. (So far as I can see, Al Quaeda is not an organization like the Klu Klux Klan or the Boys Brigade, with membership cards, initiations ceremonies and a uniform. Its much more a description of an ideology and a life style, like 'pirate', 'Mafiosi' or 'liberal democrat'.) The only way we can defeat 'terrorism' by making it too damned hard to be a terrorist. We don't want nutters to get their hands on anthrax or nukes; so we surgically cut out nations which are run by lunatics which would be likely to give nukes to terrorists. And since Saddam is both weak and unpopular, he is an obvious place to start. In terms of a game of Risk or Civilization it makes perfect sense. It does rather require you take on board the notion that it is the right and duty of the USA to act as Grey Lensmen, blowing up a planet here and there in order to safeguard their vision of Civilization.
'We have decided that an action which will involve the deaths of many of your civilians is necessary because it will probablysave the lives of many of our civilian' is an arguable case. It's when the corolorary 'And in the process we will liberate the surviving civilians from a nasty regime, so in fact, this isn't about our own self-interest after all, its an altruistic war about knocking down statues' is added that I start to feel nauseous. It feels horribly as if Tony has convinced himself that he has a moral duty to do what he was going to do for selfish reasons in any case.

7: By means of an extended and mixed metaphor drawn from cowboy films, the author demonstrates to his own satisfaction, if no-one else's, that International Law is a contradiction in terms. A brief swipe at Euro-scepticism.

In brightest day, in blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might
Beware my power: Green Lantern's light!
The Oath of the Green Lantern corps.
Where do laws come from? I don't think that the stork leaves them under the gooseberry bush. Someone thinks them up. In democracies, this is done democratically. For example, in the United States, everyone has a vote, and the person who gets the second most votes becomes President.
I don't think that it follows from this that laws are just what the  majority of people in a particular country happen to want. If that was true, you could never have 'just' or 'unjust' laws; laws would simply be what everyone agreed with.
'Why are you lynching that black man?'
'We took a vote first'
'Oh, well, that's perfectly all right then. Carry on.'
'Laws' which governments invent are in fact a rough and ready approximations of Natural Law, which God or Gene Roddenbury or someone decided on. Most of the time, a country's laws represents the government's best guess at doing the right thing. You look at the law and say 'Is that just? Is that fair? Is that moral?' and if it isn't you change it. Democracies seem to be quite good at this, although I've never quite managed to convince myself that this is the only valid approach. A wise autocratic surrounded by advisers might also work quite nicely. 
So: if the law is just our best guess at writing down Natural Law, then if I ignore the law and just do what's right, I can't go wrong, can I? When someone makes a bad law, or applies a good law in such a way as to produce counter intuitive results, then I should just ignore the law and go with my conscience, shouldn't I?
Of course, if I do this, the Police and the State come down on me like a ton of bricks. They don't care if I had a good reason, or if I knew in my heart it was right: if I killed someone, then I am no different from any other murderer. In civil societies, the forces of Law always win because they are infinitely stronger than private citizens doing what they 'know' is 'right'. In the last resort, the state can send in the army. This rarely happens, because most citizens think that it is better to have laws (even when we don't personally agree with them) than for each man to be a law unto himself.
It sometimes happens, especially in John Wayne movies, that the believers in What's Right are stronger than the enforcers of the Law. So when the Judge decides to let the bad guy go for some silly reason like there's not enough evidence to convict them, they all get together and kill the bad guy without reference to the judge. (This is known as "having a democratic element in sentencing policy.")
The 'natural justice' mob start off by lynching a really nasty felon who no-one wants to defend. When the Sheriff tells them not to, they say 'This man just killed three people. He's evil, goddammit. How can you object to us lynching him. You aren't saying he should have got off scott free, are you? The law is only there to defend murderers. The law is the villain's friend. You are either with the lynch mob, or you are with the murderers.' Once the Sheriff concedes this point—that a result consistent with natural justice is more important than the strict application of the written law—then it is easier, next time around, for the vigilantes to pick a less clear cut victim. Before very long, people are being lynched 'because we didn't like the look on their face' or 'because they are black' or 'to encourage the others.'
The Sheriff can only rein in the vigilantes by being stronger than they are; and that can only happen if the majority of the townsfolk think a system if law is better than mob justice.
We can talk about 'international law' until we are red, white and blue in the face, but unless there is an international policeman capable of enforcing it, it doesn't mean anything. If the United Nations had an army that was capable of enforcing its will on any country in the world, then 'International Law' might mean something. If it had moral authority such that every country in the world feared being censured by the UN so much that it obeyed its rules and mandates, then 'International Law' might exist. But right now, the UN is like an un-armed police officer, blowing his whistle and shouting 'Stop! Or else I'll shout 'Stop' again'. Neither the criminals nor the vigilantes pay very much attention.
It is just conceivable that at some future time, every county in the world might decide that international law is such a good idea that it would put a substantial body of its own armed forces under UN control, making the UN stronger than any single country on earth. It is even possible that a future US administration might contribute to a force whose objective is to remove its own power. (After all: I pay my taxes partly in order to pay for police officers who will come and arrest me if I don't pay my taxes.)
But in the real world we ought to accept that no such thing as 'international law' exists and that in fact, foreign policy will be dictated by strength. Right now, Vigilante Bush has picked Bad, Mad Saddam as his first lynch victim; and since everyone agrees that Saddam needed to be Got, few people are going to speak out against him. Heck, I don't care about international law, lets just do what's right. But once you start doing things 'just because its right', its a very small slide to 'just because I can' and 'just because its in the interests of my family and my nation' and 'just because I feel like it.'
The power of the American vigilante could be restrained if there were another superpower, one capable of influencing it both economically and militarily. Say, if there was a balkanized continent that much of the world had historical links to; a cultural center of civilization; one that had been moving closer and closer together after a series of costly civil wars; one that was already amalgamating its currency. If it unified its foreign policy and its military, became a new Confederacy of nations. Two superpowers, both democratic, both broadly allies, but both able to restrain the worst excess of the other.
But Tony Blair has largely given up on that one. At crunch time, his instincts were to honour the Last Alliance with the US, and tell the European Union and the UN to bugger off and eat cheese somewhere.
I am writing this on a Microsoft computer in a Starbucks coffee shop. There will be very much worse places for an educated white man to spend the 21st century than an American hegemony.

8: The author describes how, on the first day of the recent middle-eastern adventure, he experienced his own personal 'voila' moment, and after confessing a moment of moral cowardice, humbly takes his leave.

Gandalf as Ring-lord would have been far worse than Sauron....While Sauron multiplied evil, he left good clearly distinguishable from it. Gandalf would have made good detestable and seem evil
 JRRT, September 1963
Sometimes, I think: 'Tony really believes that Saddam is just as bad as Hitler, and that it is his moral duty to oust him. George Bush is using this sincere, charismatic Englishman to give a veneer of moral authority to his political war. '
Sometimes I think: 'No: Tony believes that a surgical removal of the Hussein regime is necessary to make England safe from International Terrorism The nastiness of Saddam provides a pretext for him to do this. '
But then I think: 'No: he has made a long term decision that the future of the International Order is with an American hegemony, not with Europe, and has made a pragmatic decision to back America, so that he can be a small voice in the new order, instead of a large voice in the old one: the threat of terrorism provides a pretext for him to do this.'
But then I think: 'No: however you cut it, this boils down to vengeance against the Arabs for 11.09.01, and Blair wants to write himself into the grand narrative of what is basically a racist war.'
But then I think: 'No: its an act of policy in the Middle East; to establish a base to use against the Saudis if the Saudis ever went awol; or as part of a long term domino scheme to 'infect' the middle east with democracy. The popular thirst for Arab blood is being harnessed to support a sort of benign imperialism.'
But however I look at it, when Blair puts on his sincere, furrowed brow, and says that he really and sincerely believes in this war because he wants so much to liberate the Iraqis and bring democracy to the region and over throw an evil dictator, then I am convinced that he is Not Telling The Truth. Morality and sincerity and human rights are being used as a political tactic, to galvanize people behind a military action which he supports for purely pragmatic reasons.
All through the build-up, my contempt for Tony was running off the scale; and every time George and his keepers or some bellicose 'nuke em til they glow' U.S vox pop polluted the air waves, I have to physically remind myself that I have really likedevery single American who I have ever actually met. Clair Short comes up with reasons why saying that she is going to resign and then not resigning is actually the path of integrity. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who I've had such high hopes for ever since he took The Incredible String Band to his desert island makes long wise statements saying absolutely bugger all. Throughout, I maintain my 'good arguments on both sides' pitch.
But then the missiles start flying, and everyone reverts to type. Falklands Blitz rhetoric clicks in; even to question the Prime Minister implies a Lack of Support for Our Brave Boys. ('Boys' is very ironic, considering how often the UK has been taken to task for sending under age solders into the front line and discriminating against female service people.) And the Sun runs a headline:
Show them no mercy. They have tainted souls.
Doing a double take, I check to see if this was something that Evil Saddam is saying about the Infidel. But no indeed. This is the opinion of the editor of the Sun.
Actually, it was a misquote from Air Marshall Brian Burridge, the total and utter chief of staff of the British Army. I've rather liked him ever since the press conference where some fool asked him if it was true that the British soldiers didn't have enough toilet paper and he replied 'I don't want to get bogged down in minutiae.' The text of his speech was rather in the tradition of old fashioned chivalry and human decency in the face of mass slaughter. Look here, chaps. There's going to be spot of bother now, and I'm pretty sure you'll do a good job. This being a war, I'm afraid some you might get killed; and you may have to kill some of the enemy. But look here: Johnny Iraqi is quite a decent sort of cove, and if he surrenders to you, treat him with jolly decent English courtesy; our fight isn't with him. But one or two of them are all round bad eggs who support Saddam and do dreadful things. And if we jolly well have to kill some of that kind them don't shed any tears, oh no, they have tainted souls.
But translate it through what for want of a better word I will call the mind of Rupert Murdoch, and it comes out as unadulterated fascism. Kill the sub-human enemy. Tainted souls. Orcs. Niggers. Stormtroopers of the US government who we can vaporize with our little proton torpedo. To save this village, we had to destroy it.
And then, of course, the pro-war graffiti started to appear around town. The small 'No war' poster outside the Wesley Chapel had the words 'Why not? Nuke the bastards' added, probably in crayon. There was one near Ikea that said 'Wham, bam, fuck Saddam.' (Bristol is a world center of political graffiti, but this wasn't a good example, in my opinion. )
I experienced what I believe is referred to as a voila moment.
No longer was I collateral damage caught in the friendly fire between the competing narratives of war, patriotism, international law, liberation, Dad's Army and the Book of Revelation. There was a clear demarcation, between the Axis of Jingoism and the Forces of Humanity. Blair has aligned himself on one side, with Bush and Murdoch and against Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter and Europe and the United Nations and...er...everybody else, basically. I was required to pick sides.
Whatever Blair thinks he is doing; and his policy relies on the good old jingoism of the British public. If the British public couldn't be relied on to hate Arabs and French and Asylum seekers, then this war could never be prosecuted. Blair can put on a serious, worried, more in sorrow than in anger face because he knows that Murdoch will whip people up into a racist fervor anyway. 'I honestly and sincerely believe that it is our moral duty to defeat this terrible evil' and 'You're shi'ite and you know you are' ultimately amount to the same thing. The one legitimizes the other. It's good and noble for us to kill Argies and Gerries and Towel heads and Frogs because that nice religious Tony Blair says so.
You are either with us, or you are against us: either aligned with the 'nuke the bastards' racists or with the hopelessly naive peace campaigners, who think that 'war solves nothing' but that holding up the traffic for ten minutes solves all sorts of things. Everything is black and white and we have to make a choice. Either 'They have tainted souls' or else 'Don't attack Iraq!'
It would have given this article a nice, punchy conclusion if I could say 'So I went and joined the sit down protest in Millennium square' but unfortunately my commitment to this column doesn't run to getting arrested. But I did smile at the protestors as I walked past.
Not in my name, Tony. Not in my name

[1]I saw footage of a US tank in the gulf with the legend 'Attitude Adjuster' written on its barrel. I believe that this is how American school -teachers traditionally label their canes.
[2] The other time was a football match in 1968; and we tend to get the two events confused.
[3] Julie Burchall, a totally round the bend columnist in the Guardian describes the peace campaigners as "pro-Saddam" and argues that they oppose the war because they are are sexually attracted to Saddam Hussien. 

Thursday, August 01, 2002

Masters of War

Tis' said that countless thousands should die through cruel war
But let us hope most fervently that soon it will be o're
Let them be warned old England, Is brave old England still
We've proved our might, we've claimed our right, and ever ever will
Should we have to draw the sword our way to victory we'll forge
With the battle cry of Britons, Old England and St George.

Mr. Blair wants there to be a war against Nasser Hussein.
I know that Mr. Blair is a truly great and good man, for he told me so himself. So I am sure that there must be some very good reason why he wants to have a war.
I'm just not quite sure what it is.
Mr. Blair has a special relationship with Mr. Bush. Mr. Bush agrees with Mr. Blair that we should have a War on Nasser Hussein.
Last year, on September the Eleventh, the Eleventh of September happened. This was a terrible tragedy, almost as bad as Holly and Jessica. So obviously, it would be bad manners to disagree with Mr. Bush about anything, at least for a while, in the same way you have to be extra-nice to Granny after Granpa's funeral. Anyone rude enough to not agree with Mr. Bush about Nasser Hussein must be anti-American, in the same way that anyone who doesn't think that Jewish people are always right about everything must be anti-Semitic against the Jews because Hitler was so horrid to them.
I'm not anti-American. I've found out that if you ask for "Americano", Starbucks will give you something very much like a cup of coffee. I even had a poster of Captain America on my wall when I was a kid.
There are three reasons why Mr. Blair wants us to have a war against Nasser Hussein.
1: Because he is a baddy (Mr. Hussein, I mean)
2: Because he might have an atom bomb.
3: Because he probably supports some of the people who almost certain support the people who probably bombed the Eleventh of September.
I think he is telling a big fat whopper. I don't think that these are the real reasons at all.
I understand that nowadays you don't have to say why you are having a war before you have it. You are allowed to have the war first, and decide what it was about afterwards. So when we went to war against Afghanistan, everyone thought that it was because the Bert from Sesame Street (the bad man who very nearly definitely bombed September the Eleventh) was probably hiding there and the Afghanistanis wouldn't give him to us so we had to go in and capture him. But after the war was all over, we decided that the real reason for having the war was because the people running Afghanistan were baddies. They were such baddies that when we liberated them all the Afghanistanis stopped being Muslims and shaved in the street, which proved that we were right to have the war. So I suppose we shall have to wait until after we have had the war against Nasser Hussein to find out what it's about.
I don't think that it will turn out that the real reason for having the war was that Nasser Hussein is a baddy. He's been a baddy for a long time, and we haven't had a war against him before, except once. In fact, he was a baddy even in the very olden days when the Ayatollah was the baddy and Nasser Hussein was the goody. And anyway there are lots and lots of baddies in the world, and we aren't having wars against all of them.
I don't think that it will turn out that the reason for having the war is that Nasser Hussein has an atom bomb, either. In the olden days, Russia were the baddies, and they had lots and lots of atom bombs; but they never used them, because the Americans, who were the goodies, also had lots and lots of atom bombs. So Russia was too scared to use them. It was like "there's no point in you killing lots of us, because we can kill just as many as you, so its better to play nicely," which in the end they did. But Nasser Hussein doesn't have nearly as many atom bombs as the Russians, and hardly any aeroplanes and missiles. So there isn't much chance of him bombing New York or London or even Slough. I reckon that if an aeroplane with a bomb on it flew out of Iraq, then Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair would shoot it down before it got to us.
Everyone agrees that Bert from Sesame Street, who very nearly definitely bombed September the Eleventh, is the biggest baddy in the world, as bad as Myra Hindley and Hitler and Jeffrey Archer put together. But I don't think it will turn out that we had the war just because Nasser Hussein probably supports Bert from Sesame Street. There are people in Pakistan and Bradford who think that bombing September the Eleventh was quite a good idea (though not most of them, because not all people with corner shops are Muslims, and not all Muslims support bombing people, anymore than just because you drink Guinness on St Patrick's day you agree with blowing up policemen with car bombs, and most Muslims are nice friendly people who run the good curry houses in Tooting Bec.) But even if there were lots of people who supported him, that wouldn't be a reason for going to war against Bradford. And anyway, I don't think Mr. Blair has any evidence that Nasser Hussein supports Bert from Sesame Street because if he did have he would have shown it to us by now.
So I don't think that any of the reasons that Mr. Blair has told us are the real reasons for the war. I think that he has a secret reason, which he keeps in secret room in 10 Downing Street in a file marked Secret.
I think that if we read the secret file, we would find out that Mr. Blair has picked up some crazy idea that his job as Prime Minister of England is to do things in the world which will be good for England, and America, and also Scotland. I think that he is silly enough to think that as Prime Minister, he ought to be looking out for our interests. I think that he has picked up some wild notion that we use quite a lot of petrol in this country, and that if we couldn't get any, or it was too expensive, everything would grind to a halt, and we would all be very poor and very miserable. I think that Mr. Blair is such a cynic that he wants to stop us all from being very poor and very miserable.
Most people, apart from hippies, think it is all right to have a war against someone who is hurting you. But wars in the old days were easier. When Hitler landed at Hastings, to invade England in 1966, we all got together in lots of little ships and sent him homeward to think again. When the Argies invaded the Falklands, we killed all the Argies and freed the Falkland Islanders, which was a good thing, apart from encouraging Jim Davidson.
It's like this. If in the old days, Mr. Hitler had put lots of U Boats in the English channel and blew up all the oil tankers bringing oil to England (and also Scotland), it would have been all right for us to send out Spitfires to blow up the U Boats and let the oil tankers through. Of course, some of the evil jerry scum who we drowned would probably have been nice Germans who liked Beethoven and sausages and didn't deserve to be killed. But everyone agrees that it was still all right for us to kill them (except hippies).
But nowadays, because of the Internet and Starbucks coffee, the world is more complicated and wars can happen by remote control. Nasser Hussein doesn't need to send out boats to stop us getting any oil. He can lob a Weapons Of Massive Destruction at Kuwait, or Israel; or even do something awful (I'm not sure what) to Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Arabians chop peoples heads off and don't allow beer or vicars or homosexuals, but that doesn't make them baddies it just means that we tell their ambassador that we have very real concerns about their record on human rights from time to time.) And this would still mean that we wouldn't get any oil, and that other bad things (I'm not sure what) would happen. So having a war against Nasser Hussein is really just like bombing Hitler's U-Boats, and if some people get killed as well, then that's just the same as killing German sailors. We're still making sure the oil gets through. Okay, Nasser Hussein hasn't actually done anything yet, we just think that he probably will. But that makes sense too. It's like as if you bombed the U-Boats before they got to the channel; or even better, bombed the dockyards before they built the U-Boats, or even better, bombed Berlin before Hitler even gets into power so the situation doesn't arise. We are sort of saying "We think that if he makes an Atom Bomb, which he hasn't, Nasser Hussein might do something horrid in Israel, or Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait, or Slough in which case we'd have to have a war against him, so it makes sense to have a war against him now, before he even gets to do the things that would have forced us to have a war."
Which makes sense to me.
So, when the war is over, it will turn out that it was really about petrol. But if you say that to nice Mr. Blair and clever Mr. Bush, they say: "Oh no. It's not about oil. It's about an important moral principle. Nasser Hussein is a very bad man, and Mr. Blair thinks we should smack his bottom, and Mr. Bush thinks we should kick his ass, which I think means more or less the same."
But I think wars about moral principles are much worse and more scary than wars about your country's good. If we had to go to war every time Mr. Blair had a moral principle then we would never get a moment's peace. Bert from Sesame Street bombed The Eleventh of September because he had moral principle, because he thought that America is bad and decadent and that Moslemism is the best religion in the world. Lots of people think that, but that doesn't mean they can kill people over it. So Mr. Blair shouldn't kill people because Nasser Hussein is bad and decadent and New Labour is the best religion in the world.
Maybe, just maybe, it would be all right to kill Nasser Hussein and Bert from Sesame Street if we could catch them. In America you are allowed to kill very bad people, provided you give them lots of ice cream to eat first. In England, we stopped hanging people just before the first ever episode of Doctor Who went out. But in both England and America we all agree that they should have fair trials first (apart from the person who almost definitely didn't tell the police about the man who probably had something to do with killing Holly and Jessica, who should be lynched on her way to court, obviously.)
In conclusion: I think that the safeguarding of British strategic and economic interests in the Middle East is legitimate grounds for military intervention in Iraq. I think that it is incumbent on Mr. Blair to explain to Parliament what those strategic and economic interests are; and that if he did so honestly, the campaign would meet with widespread political and public support. But I think that he should immediately abandon the mendacious, sanctimonious propaganda about there being a moral imperative to secure a regime change because of some nebulous quality called "evil" supposedly attributable to the Iraqi leadership. 
Our leaders should trust us with the real reasons for the forthcoming war. Saying over and over again that we have to have a war against Hussein because he is such a naughty, bad, wicked man make us feel that we are being treated like children.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

What Happened During My Summer Holiday

Arthur:  And what happened to the earth?
Ford:  It’s been disintegrated
Arthur:  Has it?
Ford:  Yes. It just boiled away into space.
Arthur: Look, I’m a bit upset about that.
Ford:  Yes, I can understand.
So; Flash and me and Darren and Keith hired a little pleasure boat at Inverness, and spent a week tootling down the Great Glenn, across Loch Ness, Lock Oich and the imaginatively named Loch Lochy.
Flash and I flew from London to Scotland. That meant on one day I traveled on a train, a car, a bus, a plane and a boat.
Scotland is very pretty. There are hills and lakes.
One night, we tied up at mooring point a mile or so from the nearest village. There was no artificial light. We couldn’t take our eyes of the stars (until it got too cold and we went into the boat and drank whiskey and read poems out loud out of a book).  It surprises townies that the night sky has stars in it.
According to the guidebook, you could drown the whole population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over. Somewhere in its murky depths there hides a Monster.
Never mind the scenery, the whiskey, or the stars. It’s the Loch Ness Monster that keeps the tourist business going. Souvenir shops offer you soft-toy Nessies (usually sea-serpents) or china ornament Nessies (usually plesiosaurs). Dumnadrochit has got a large fiberglass plesiosaur in front of a mocked up boat, so you can show your friends a photograph of you with the Monster. As you sail through the lock system into Fort Augustus, there’s a topiary of the monster and a little baby monster.
Flash explained that in Scots, you can’t mistake the word “Lock” for the word “Loch” because “Lock” is pronounced “lok” whereas “Loch” is pronounced, er, “clorrk”.
It only takes two people to pull a little boat through a lock, so while Darren and Keith held onto the ropes, me and Flash jumped off, walked into the canal-side pub (the Lock Inn, ho-ho) downed a quick pint, and rejoined them on the other side.
It was September, so the weather wasn’t perfect but we didn’t have any thoroughly washed out days. There’s a snapshot of the three of us looking very drenched by a very disappointing historical monument.  (An ancient well where the dismembered heads of seven people who had been executed in some blood-curdling highland feud were washed before being presented to the clan chief, apparently.)
The worst disaster occurred when we thought it would be a Good Idea to take the boat out into the middle of the lake while Keith was preparing a good healthy English cooked breakfast. The first time a teensy tiny little wave struck us, he poured a – fortunately not very hot pan -- of cooking oil over himself.
The charter company set Fort William as the limit of how far we could take the boat. It was Tuesday. A nice enough medium size town, containing the one good pub we found, name-check the Goose and Gruel. It’s the place you go if you want to climb Ben Nevis. We didn’t. We did visit the Ben Nevis whisky distillery, however. Not a whisky drinker myself, but I forced myself to try the free samples.
We took a taxi back to the marina where we’d left the boat.
“Och, have ye heard the news?” said the driver “Apparently, an aeroplane has crashed into a big hotel in America.”

We only had a radio to communicate with the outside world. But then one would automatically turn to  Radio 4 in a crisis in any case. When we turned on, there were car bombs going off all over America and tens of thousands were dead. Canary Wharf had been evacuated. Things only gradually got back to normal. I am happy to say that I still haven’t seen the footage of the tower collapsing.
I was going to use the word “stunned” to describe our reaction. Perhaps “embarrassedly not sure how to react” would be more honest. Since none of us on had friends or relatives in New York we turned off the radio and carried on with our holiday. There didn’t seem a great deal else to do.
There was an American family we’d passed in a couple of locks, with a star and stripes tied to the back of their boat. We noticed they’d lowered it to half-mast.
Last February, I lost a very close friend in a pointless futile stupid railway accident. That’s left me a bit mixed up over how to mentally process big disasters. I’d been through the experience of seeing a news report of a major accident, saying “tut tut, how terrible” and finding out twelve hours later that there was a real person involved. It would be nice to say “and that made me feel much more Christian sympathy for the horror stories coming out of New York”, but it actually just made me want to switch off. Must then a Christ perish in torment in each age for the sake of those with no imagination?
I think the media actually does very well at bringing minute-by-minute reporting of major events. In the old days, the morning papers were history’s second or third draft: by the time you heard the news, it had been tidied up. Journalists knew the facts before they reported them. Live news creates a weird immediacy, despite its inaccuracy. Fog of war – conflicting reports – “something terrible has happened, we don’t know what the details are yet”—too early to speculate. Real life must be very much like that. 
But after a few hours, it very rapidly reverts to normal; human-interest items about children who have lost parents and arty photos of the fire brigade raising the Stars and Stripes. Would the girl who lost her fiancĂ© be any more traumatized if he’d slipped on the steps outside his house and broken his neck? But because he perished publicly, her grief is News.
I know what they were doing and I don’t blame them for it. 6,000 dead is just a number, they want to put a human face on it. But it has the effect of assimilating the shock into an easily digestible narrative:  tragedy as soap opera. At some level, those of us who weren’t directly involved were enjoying it. God help us, we were.
“We are all Americans now,” said one commentator. I was at college in Brighton when the IRA came within a hairsbreadth of assassinating Mrs. Thatcher; one of those rare moments when strangers are allowed to talk to each other, even if it’s only to look down at the paper and say “Tut tut, nasty business.” People stood on the beach and gaped at the wreckage of the Grand Hotel. A man with one of those RAF moustache accents said “You a Tory supporter, then?” and I said “No, but that’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?” -- as if my opinion of the Falklands War or the Miners Strike might have any effect on my opinions of the moral wisdom of putting explosive devices in hotel bedrooms.
My opinions on the U.S foreign policy, the middle-east situation, George Bush’s brain-power, globalization and the fact that Starbucks make crap coffee remain precisely where they were on September 10. But that’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?

The most moving sound image which Radio 4 piped at us was the Queen’s guards playing the Star Spangled Banner outside Buck House as part of the changing of the guard; and the mainly but not entirely American voices singing the words. The cynic in me knows that “the Queen’s” decision to change the ceremony was really the result of a press adviser who wanted to make sure that she didn’t fumble the ball like she did when Di died. But it was very moving, nonetheless.
We can’t do patriotism; we aren’t allowed. At about this time of year, there is a minor classical music concert in the Albert Hall. Tradition dictates that the second half includes Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and a silly medley of English Sea Songs, culminating in Rule Britannia. And every year, I mean, every year, without fail, there is a minor controversy about whether these songs are a bit bellicose and jingoistic and it wouldn’t be better to sing “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing In Perfect Harmony” instead. This year there was even more mumbling. As it happened, the little American conductor with the line in weak jokes replaced Land of Hope and Glory with Ode to Joy but still let the multitudes belt out Jerusalem and everyone went home relatively happy. But one couldn’t help comparing our embarrassed confusion about patriotic traditions with the purity and wholeheartedness of that of the Americans.

The Vicar preached an entirely adequate sermon about Recent Events in the World. He said that it reminded us of the frailty and contingency of human existence; he said it reminded us of the weakness of human endeavor compared to the will of God; he said that if we put our trust in God rather than towers made by men, that, in the long run, even in the face of terrible events, we would be OK: that death needn’t be the final and total evil. He pointed out that in the Psalm, where it says “God is our refuge” the word “refuge” means literally “unassailably strong tower.”
All doubtless very true.
But it struck me that all he had really done was use an “item in the news” as a sermon illustration: rather as if he had drawn an moral point out of England losing the football (don’t set your hearts on human heroes, they may let you down) or, less likely, England winning the football (press on towards the goal however hard it seems.)
And that, one feels, is what a lot of people have been doing: like any big event, it can’t just be a Terrible Thing which happened: it has to be a metaphor of Titanic proportions; onto which we gradually project meanings. Sensible meanings, if we are C of E vicars; mad ones if we are Richard Dawkins or Pat Robertson. There are crazed fundamentalists on all sides. (Tony’s “reorder the world” speech reminded us that it was possible to be a well meaning liberal and a crazed fundamentalist at the same time.)
It’s unlikely that “Why does God allow bad things to happen” was at the forefront of the congregations mind. If we regarded “the problem of evil” as an impediment to Christian belief, it’s unlikely we would have been in church in the first place. The issue that we could have done with guidance on was, I thought, more practical. “What’s the Christian response to evil? Should we try to forgive the people who did this terrible thing, and encourage our leaders to turn the other cheek? Or should we rather take up arms against Evil, and prepare for a Holy War?  Great Christians have  taken both positions. And if a Just War it is to be should we regard it as a Crusade against Islam, or merely a crusade against a minority of bad people? Or perhaps a police action against one Evil person? But if it is a war against bad people, why these bad people in particular; why not a never-ending theocratic war until a holy world government ushers in the Millennium?”
Answer came there none.

Someone said that reacting to a terrorist is rather like smacking a naughty child. You know that he’s trying deliberately to provoke you, and in reacting, you are in one sense, giving him precisely what he wants. But if you don’t, then he smashes up your house. There’s no doubt that the point of a terrorist attack is to provoke a retaliation, to make the target behave like the wicked oppressor that the terrorist believes him to be. (Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Look at me I’m being oppressed!)  But in one sense, what else do you do?
As a dyed in the wool liberal with dangerously pacifist tendencies; I would like to hear a good deal less about good wars, about how we are going to defeat the forces of evil and make the world a good and happy place and a great deal more about straightforward retaliation. Swift retaliatory justice, annihilating the perpetrator of the atrocity, in so far as we know who he is, and indeed where, taking out as many civilians and tacit supporters as happen to be in the way – nuke the whole country if you like, I don’t mind. It may not be an ideal solution, but it seems to be morally straightforward, in a brutal, Old Testament way. I can understand the morality of “If you kill our citizens, we will kill you”. It has limits. A blood-letting , some mourning, and we get back to normal. But a general war against terrorism – or, in some views, against evil in general – seems too open ended. It could go on forever. Millions could die. And it’s a blank check to give power to our rulers. Of course we aren’t going to be too critical of them during a crisis; but don’t let it go to their heads, otherwise the crisis could mysteriously drag on for ever and ever, with more and more of our liberties being eroded along the way.

And so everything gets back to normal; my holiday is over; there are reports of bombings on the news and some vague mutterings about anthrax in the stock exchange. It’s not even very interesting any more. Just some dead people in a foreign country; a subject to write about; slag off the clergy, maybe a parenthesis or two about Tony.
It’s been a standing joke in this column for years that half the readers are a mysterious alien race called “Americans”. I drop in friendly little asides about how “my readers” won’t pick up on the irony or understand my references to English literature. Assuming that they exist it would have been nice if I’d been able to think of something better to say to my Americans readers beyond “sorry”. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

You could drown the whole population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over. Somewhere in its murky depths there hides a Monster.

Thursday, February 01, 2001

Dungeons & Dragons

 Dungeons & Dragons


Mine eyes have seen the glory of the umpteenth level priest
If you're evil and he turns you then you're instantly deceased
He's got wisdom twenty seven, it's been magically increased
And he goes marching on…

The receptionist at my office expressed surprise that Dungeons & Dragons could be turned into a movie at all. "After all," she said, "It’s only an old cartoon series."

Well, no, actually, not.

Before D&D was a cartoon, it was a game. Those critics who have heaped abuse on the movie also entirely missed this point. Dungeons & Dragons was, as the title proclaims, an attempt to capture the essence of fantasy role-playing on the screen; and it did this remarkably well.

The movie is set a generic, undifferentiated fantasy-never-never-land. It contains crowded markets, crowded bars, castles, a forest, and not much else. It’s the sort of place where things called "orcs" and things called "elves" meet in bars; where things called "halflings" are mentioned in passing and where there is an obligatory "dwarf" who starts fights and spills food on his beard. At one point we see an establishing shot of a city floating in the clouds, but nothing comes of this: it’s just another collection of taverns, markets and a thieves' guild. The non-humans don’t regard the elves or the orcs as remarkable, alien, or even foreign; when one of the characters spots an elf in the bar, he just tries to chat her up. All the archetypes are dragged out of Tolkien and Howard and made contemptible by decades of familiarity. This looks like Middle-earth, but it's actually New York, or, at the very best, Disneyland. Even the dragons are significant primarily as a kind of nuclear deterrent.

Total absence of sense of wonder; just like a D&D game. Check.

The two main characters, Ripley (or possibly Ridley) and Snails (no, really) are nominally thieves. Ridley is played by Jimmy Olsen out of the Lois and Clerk, and Snails is the result of a terribly experiment in genetic engineering involving DNA from Eddie Murphy, Red Dwarf’s Cat, and Jar Jar Binks. I don’t know if you call his dialogue "rap" or "jive" or just "very, very irritating." I’m pretty sure I heard Ripley and Snails calling each other "dude"; and they definitely do that high-five thing with clenched fists. It is impossible not to think of them as Bill and Ted wandering around Middle-earth. The movie starts with them ineptly robbing the wizards’ guild. The funny black man is comically terrified, while the swashbuckling white man remains cool and confident, yet it is very clear that neither of them actually believe themselves to be in the slightest danger. They behave, get this, as if they are playing a game.


Then there is the matter of the plot, or rather scenario, or rather scenarios, because the script keeps changing its mind. Having been captured by a girly wizard while robbing the guild, Jimmy Olsen finds himself involved in a quest to find the Staff of Something-or-other, which confers on the wielder the power to control computer animated dragons. At the beginning of the film, the point of this is that the Evil Chief Wizard is going to take the staff of office (which also controls dragons) from the Good Empress, so we need a spare staff to protect ourselves from him. But at the half way point, up pops Tom Baker in a blonde wig and pointy ears and talks some guff about how wizard's USE magic, but elves ARE magic. The point of the quest is thus really to stop anybody using magic staffs of any sort because every time a dragon gets killed you upset the balance of the Force. (At this point some black elves in masks look at each other and then look at Ridley and say with sub titles "Does he understand his full potential?" No he doesn’t, and nor do we, but this is all right because the subject is not raised again.) One has the impression of a scriptwriter chucking a McGuffin at our hero and retrospectively working out some reason for it to be important.


The story about the Evil Wizard and the Good Empress is lifted wholesale from Phantom Menace. The Empress actually wears one of Amidala's cast-off costumes, until the end when she changes for no good reason into Mordred’s armour out of Excalibur. The scene in the Wizards Council Chamber (which looks like an Italian Opera house, actually rather cool) where Jeremy Irons as Profion, Chief Evil Wizard, asks the Empress to hand over her staff and she, speaking up for the rights of Commoners everywhere, says "That is something I cannot do" is almost frame-by-frame the Senate scene from Episode I. The end of the movie, which is completely over the top and almost worth the price of admission, has Ripley sword-fighting with Profion at the top of an absurdly narrow tower, while dragons of various types set fire to things and fall out of the sky. (It is one of the perils of computer animation that once you have rendered out one dragon, you can just as easily show 1,000 of the beasts; and therefore do so.) Profion suggests that Ripley should use the Staff of Something against him.

"No" shouts Ripley "NO. I’ll never turn into you. Never."

The possibility that Ripley/Ridely might in any way be in danger of turning into Profion has not even been mentioned up to this point. But still, we can at least be grateful that Profion resists the temptation to tell Ripley that he is his father. None of this makes the slightest sense in terms of the "plot" we just feel that the characters are re-enacting their favourite bits from the Star Wars trilogy because it felt like a fun thing to do.


I could also mention the complete lack of emotional depth. I saw the film with an audience which was clearly made up of D&D geeks. There was no heckling or popcorn rustling; everyone was in the cinema because they positively wanted to see the film. Otherwise, they’d have been next door watching Hannibal. When the trailer for Lord of the Rings came on, there was a sense of religious fervour. But even so. When Snails gets killed off -- sorry that’s a spoiler isn’t it, the cute annoying humorous black guy who's the hero's mate gets killed, there’s a turn up for the books -- the whole audience collapsed into laughter. I mean, the whole scene -- Snails falling from the battlements; Ripley or Ridely falling to his knees and shouting out "Noooo". One would have to have a heart of stone to read of the death of little Nell without laughing. Quite clearly neither we nor Ripley nor Ridley really care that he’s dead: he’s just acting out the sort of thing that heroes do in movies when people die. One expected Wayne and Garth to pop up and say "Yeah, like we’d end the movie like that!". We all know it wasn’t real.


Finally, there are the stock characters. We’ve mentioned Amidala. We have Jeremy Irons doing a mock Shakespearean villain, e-nun-ci-at-ing every line. We have the ultimate geek icon, Tom Baker popping up for no reason to deliver some of Yoda’s old lines. Best of all, what almost makes the movie, we have Richard O’Brien camping it up as the head of the thieves guild, who puts Ridley, into, get this, a MAZE. Not, admittedly, a crystal maze, but nevertheless. If you ever played in one of those D&D campaigns where Elric and Frodo went up against Conan because the referee thought it would be kinda cool, you’d feel right at home.

Check. Check. Check.

Oh, I could go on. The way in which character's meet up at random and join "the party" without introductions or explanations because they are PCs and know that that is what they are meant to do. Arbitrary deus ex-machina for the good of the plot: when Ripley goes into the dungeon to retrieve the Staff of Something, the DM puts up an invisible barrier to keep the other characters out of the way "because only he is meant to go in." Arbitrary appearances by monsters from the monster manual who don’t actually do anything. The whole film is as perfect an impression of the kind of D&D games you used to play from about age 12 until you discovered Call of Cthulhu as it is possible to imagine.

The film ends with Ripley, wearing what appears to be a modern biker outfit, standing at Snails’ grave, and talking about how wizards and commoners are going to be equal, just like Snails, something of a civil rights campaigner in his spare time, wanted. When suddenly one of the elves starts talking mystical gumf again, about how maybe Snails isn’t really dead as long as we all remember him, when, bang, the writing vanishes from the grave stone and everyone is turned into a sort of swirly Tinkerbell bolt of lightning. The end.

You what? I mean, really, you what? What was supposed to have happened? It seems (seriously) obvious that something has been cut out. And I think I can guess what it was.

In the original version of the film, the swirly bolts of lightening were going to shoot over the city, out into space, and in one of those cosmic zoom effects, shoot off the planet and out of time and space. Whereupon, we were going to transfer to a geeky student bedsit, where all the actors, now in modern clothes, would be sitting around a table. There would be half-eaten pizza on the floor, and little miniatures looking like the characters from the film. Snails, of course, would be alive and well. There would probably be Doctor Who posters and Star Wars books and Crystal Maze videos, in order to drive home the point. I don’t know which character would turn out to be the DM; maybe Jeremy Irons? It would probably be filmed in black and white, like Wizard of Oz. All the characters would start to laugh and say "Yeah, that was a good game, same time next week". Snails and Ripley would shake hands to assert their real world friendship. Snails and the Elf-girl would probably be dating. Everyone would leave. The camera would linger for a few seconds over the dice and the character sheets on the table. The light would go out. The credits would roll. The end.

Had they left this ending in, it would be possible to appreciate the film for the classic it really is.