Saturday, December 31, 2005

Bullshit Watch

"I have spent a journey pleasantly from Archway to Bank on the Northern Line..."

Why must you turn the Murdoch press into a den of lies, Matthew?

Friday, December 30, 2005

Muddy Boots

Dan Todman has the first draft of a joint book review up that repays reading.

Quite apart from anything else, prior to reading it I had no intention whatsoever of buying Peter Hart's book (largely because I had assumed it would be another Lyn MacDonald etc) and now I've got it down on my list of books to get hold of. The Prior & Wilson book is well worth getting hold of, though as has been noted we're probably still a little way from any one volume on the Somme that is comprehensively adequate.

Dan's questioning of Prior & Wilson's focus on Haig is, in my view, appropriate - and doubly ironic given that Prior and Wilson have spent time in the past productively attacking writers who have perpetuated the Haig-centirc focus of the historiography.

As Dan notes, P&W document the fact - which really should be widely recognised by now, but isn't - that the popular image of British infantry marching slowly shoulder-to-shoulder into machine gun fire and being mowed down in rows is largely a load of old nonsense. Perhaps the most interesting thing to draw out of this, a fact that I think goes to the heart of British Army performance during the war, is the fact that different units acted very, very differently. In some cases this was due to local conditions. However, what it does throw into stark relief is the fact that well into 1918 what we would nowadays recognise as a coherent doctrine really did not exist in anything more than embryonic fashion within the army. British best practice in numerous areas was extremely good and in some cases better than that of the Germans, but unlike in the case of the Germans, the mechanisms by which best practice could be disseminated and promoted were inadequate.* For all that the Somme can be at least partly legitimately described as the "crucible" of the British Army, the fact remains - and it's a fact that learning curve advocates, among whose number I count myself, have to grapple with - not only that the British Army would, for a variety of reasons, get itself into an even bigger mess in 1917, but also that one of the primary reasons for German success in 1918 was a near scandalous failure of the results of lessons-learned to be disseminated evenly, not only from army to army (as with the general view that 2nd Army was a great posting and 5th Army was an invitation to have your clogs forcibly popped) but actually within army and even corps formations. When the Germans struck in 1918, some of 5th Army's formations were deployed in a manner that would have met with approval from any modern military commander, while others were set out in a manner that hard practice had (should have - even without hindsight) demonstrated was unlikely to be durable enough to meet an assault, largely on the whim of individual major-generals. In some cases there were mitigating circumstances, in others not.

This shouldn't take away from the overall achievement. The improvement in the British Army to the demands of modern warfare 1914-1918 can plausibly be argued to outweigh any improvement (or none) it made 1939-45. This achievement is doubly impressive when one considers its roots as essentially a colonial police force, pitted against a modern army designed for massive-scale continental combat. At the very worst the British Army put in a performance worthy of Rocky Balboa in Rocky (and at best in Rocky II. Or IV. Or something.). But it is interesting to note the extent to which different officers, including as high up as army and army group command, were able to work on what should have been a unified plan while nursing substantially different assumptions regarding what was going on.

*doctrinal underdevelopment is actually a key theme in examining the 20th century British Army at least into the 1980s, but that's a whole other story.

Can't Not.

Yes, I know it's has absolutely nothing to do with anything even vaguely important but I simply can't resist stuff like this:

1. Beatles, Stones or Beach Boys? Beatles.
2. Kant, Hegel, Marx? Kant. I feel so dirty now.
3. Cluedo, Monopoly, Scrabble? Cluedo.
4. Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford? Too difficult..
5. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart? Mozart.
6. Australia, Canada, New Zealand? Canada.
7. Groucho, Chico, Harpo? Groucho.
8. Morning, afternoon, evening? Four legs, two legs, three legs.
9. Bridge, Canasta, Poker? Poker, unless the ghost of Iain Macleod is in town.
10. Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Big Lebowski.
11. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau? Locke. Why couldn't Hobbes be an option in question 2?
12. Cricket, football, rugby? Cricket.
13. Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte? The brother because apparently he died standing up.
14. Parker, Gillespie, Monk? Monk.
15. Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham? Up the Arse.
16. Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld? Frasier and Curb your Enthusiasm.
17. Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart? It's Sophie's Choice, you sadistic bastard.
18. France, Germany, Italy? Italy.
19. Apple, orange, banana? Apple.
20. Statham, Tyson, Trueman? Trueman.
21. Rio Bravo, El Dorado, Rio Lobo? Rio Bravo.
22. Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Ingrid Bergman? Streep.
23. Chinese, Indian, Thai? Depends on my mood. Thai comes a poor third..
24. Handel, Scarlatti, Vivaldi? Handel.
25. Oasis, Radiohead, Blur? Blur.
26. Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones, Yes Minister? Fawlty Towers.
27. Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw? Ibsen.
28. American football, baseball, basketball? Baseball.
29. FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton? The inferior of the two Roosevelt presidents..
30. Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky? No thanks.
31. Paris, Rome, New York? Paris or NYNY.
32. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck? Steinbeck.
33. Blue, green, red? Blue.
34. Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, West Side Story? My Fair Lady.
35. J.S. Mill, John Rawls, Robert Nozick? Mill.
36. Armstrong, Ellington, Goodman? Armstrong. Anyone who picks Goodman is insane.
37. Ireland, Scotland, Wales (at rugby)? Wales.
38. The Sopranos, 24, Six Feet Under? 24.
39. Friday, Saturday, Sunday? Saturday.
40. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear? Macbeth.
41. Fried, boiled, scrambled (eggs)? Boiled.
42. Paths of Glory, Cross of Iron, Saving Private Ryan? Cross of Iron.
43. England, Australia, West Indies (at cricket)? England.
44. Chabrol, Godard, Truffaut? Why thank you Andre, I'll have the veal piccata.
45. Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks? Blonde on Blonde sounds kinky. Therefore Blonde on Blonde.
46. Trains, planes, automobiles? All of them..
47. North By Northwest, Psycho, Vertigo? North by Northwest.
48. Third, Fourth, Fifth (Beethoven Piano Concerto)? Fifth.
49. Coffee, tea, chocolate? Tea.
50. Cardiff, Edinburgh, Dublin? Edinburgh.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Rogue's Gallery

There's a splendid little quiz over at Harry's place. I'd urge you to check it out, if only to remind yourself quite what a bunch of nasty, nasty vicious bastards lurk under the Stop the War/MAB/Respect/SWP/etc banner and the fact that, regardless of your views on the Iraq War, these are not the sort of people with whom one should associate with good conscience.

It's actually fairly tough. Here are the ones I (think) I know.

1) I know Alain de Benoist did. Dunno about the rest.
2) Sa'ad al-Faqih
3) Tariq Ali
4) I'm guessing Sir Menzies Campbell, given that he can't go on TV these days without using the phrase "flawed prospectus".
5) Educated guess - 'Cos he's a nasty little rat-f*** c**t.
6) Alex Callinicos
7) Galloway
8) Guess - Lindsay German
9) Don't know
10) Harold Pinter. Don't know which Yanqui-peeg-dogs are supporting it.

I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony...


So sweet. I haven't cried this much since Optimus Prime died.

Yeah, I know, I'm a bad person.

Seriously though, apparently this thing draws very much on the various Sufi traditions and one point worth making - setting aside any broader debate regarding how wholesome Sufism is or whether or not Islam as a whole is fundamentally a happy religion of peace and pink marshmallows - is the fact that in fact the bits of the Islamic world (and the travelling Salafist self-detonating terrorist roadshow we're currently butting heads with from London to Iraq) with whom America tends to have beef also tend to be the places and the people that have been the keenest to suppress Sufism.

The Unpleasantness

Norm has some comments by Jonathan Sacks up.

I'm not religious (if God's worth worshipping I'm pretty sure he'll be hip to the groove enough to let it slide...), but I've long been of the view that, both morally and intellectually, the Chief Rabbi is the only man among our current crop of religious leaders (at least on the Anglican/Hellfire-bound Papist/Jewish/Muslim front) to be worth a damn. He has also been consistently cautious and not alarmist in his pronouncements regarding anti-semitism and only a few years ago he took the line that, broadly speaking, anti-semitism within the United Kingdom was not a major issue. He is not a man to cry wolf or to indulge in flamboyantly emotive rhetoric.

Over the past few years - and especially in the past 12-18 months - it has become clear that he is increasingly worried and alarmed. If he's worried so am I* - and you should be too.

*I was worried anyway from the evidence of my own eyes. But the fact that he's worried simply lends weight to the idea that I'm not just going mental.

"I say let them crash!"

James Joyner links to a piece discussing the perils of being a talking head for the broadcast news types.

Mysteriously, I've never been asked to air my prejudices on BBC News 24. However, I have met a number of people who have provided "expert comment" and I also happen to live with a Reuters journalist when in Westminster, so I've seen both sides of the wire.

I can only comment with regard to defence-related "expert analysis" on the television news, but my one piece of advice is to take most of it with a huge pinch of salt.* The journos, as noted in the article, want concise answers that fit easily into a short broadcast segment. They also want solid, unequivocal responses, even when there are none to give.

This is unfortunate, as in both war and the wake of terror attacks it is difficult to sit in a TV studio and give these sorts of answers. Or, more accurately, it's easy to give them but they'll be guff. In addition it is common for the editorial staff to have constructed a pre-conceived narrative and the questions the expert will be asked are often extremely leading, to put it mildly (often with the news host responding with incredulity or a persistent lading follow-up if the expert does not take the bait). Most of the expert analysis during the conventional phase of the Iraq war turned out to be total nonsense. Our own Sir Lawrence Freedman, who is as careful and nuanced an analyst as one would care to encounter in his written work, infamously predicted in 2001 that it would be next to impossible for the Allies to take Kabul by the end of the year - less than 24 hours before Kabul fell (this was, of course, the narrative being pushed by the news editorial staff at the time, replate with dire predictions of military "quagmire", unprecedented refugee displacement and "silent genocide" - all of which turned out to be wild speculation of the most irresponsible kidney). Similarly, following terror attacks the news people want answers and they want them now, even though in reality clear pictures don't emerge until at best days and more often weeks after the event - a fact they'd make clear to their viewers if they actually wanted to provide a serious public service. If anybody is unequivocal you should immediately have your guard up.

Here's vaguely what the expert analysis should sound like:

PRESENTER: I have with me in the studio Dr Dave Skidmarx from the Frank Gaffney Military-Industrial Complex Institute. Dr Skidmarx, clearly the question on everyone's lips today: Are we looking at an al Qaeda strike?
DR SKIDMARX: Well I think right now the only real answer I can give you is "I don't know". I don't know for sure and I don't think anyone else does. We can say that the MO, several simultaneous, co-ordinated attacks on serperate targets, is a traditional al Qaeda hallmark. However, the fact of the matter is that doing something like that isn't exactly rocket science and anyone with an awareness of roughly ho these things operate and how it's been done in the past could have taken it on board. We could be looking at a centrally planned al Qaeda operation. More likely, especially given the way they operate these days, is that it's some sort of loosely affiliated group that may have received some form of backing either in terms of finance or technical support. Or it could be neither of these and we could actually be looking at a completely independent group. We aren't likely to know within the next 24 hours and actually it could be a few weeks. The best thing we and your viewers can do is sit tight and wait for more of the facts to come in - and bear in mind that the theories that emerge in the first 24 hours often turn out to be wrong or at least incomplete. In a few days we may at least be able to take an informed guess. Until then anybody who offers you a concrete answer to your question is either a fool or a knave.

And here's what it actually sounds like:

PRESENTER: I have with me in the studio Dr Dave Skidmarx from the Frank Gaffney Military-Industrial Complex Institute. Dr Skidmarx, clearly the question on everyone's lips today: Are we looking at an al Qaeda strike?

It's enough to make you choke on your Fruit and Fibre.

*said the pot to the kettle...

So I showed it to the doctor and he took one look and he said, it's all got to come out he said...

Dan Drezner thinks we should boot the Russians out of the G-8.

He's a lot smarter than me on this sort of thing and I don't want to put myself in the inevitable John Laughland-led camp that'll blame it all on the US and claim everything is peachy all that jazz but I'm honestly not sure what giving them the shove would really achieve and I'm not as sanguine as Dan regarding the possible costs.

So they took it all away and they put a bag in, but it doesn't seal very well you see...

Now my period of being sympatico with the Rooshians ended when they shot the Tsar but it does seem to me that letting them in was one of those things that you don't undo lightly.

  • First off, will anyone but America agree to it? The Germans almost certainly wouldn't and I can't see the French or even probably Her Majesty's Government being particularly mad for it either.
  • Having been comprehensively splattered in the Cold War and having seen its spheres of influence in both Eastern Europe and the Middle East wither away like an eskimo nudist's unmentionables, the Russians seem to have a chip on their shoulders regarding national greatness that makes your average Gaullist seem well-adjusted. Far from putting serious pressure on Putin to permit domestic reform, it seems to me just as likely that moving against Russia in the G-8 field would actually cause the Russian public at large to rally behind the government.
  • There is at least an argument that we need the Russians to be nice to us in the fields of anti-terrorism, non-proliferation and energy security just as much as they need us to pat them on the back.
Maybe I'm wrong. It's at least arguable that it wouldn't be a disaster - and the above points are hardly conclusive - but it's a bit move to make and I'm really not sure what the payoff would be. At the very least I'm surprised to see Dan setting out his stall on the issue as though it's a no-brainer. But then maybe it is a no-brainer and I just don't get it..

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Nutcracker

Just a few things that might be of interest:

  • Fascinating (if you like that sort of thing, which I do) post over at Airminded.
  • In spite of the fact that I live not much more than a stone's throw away from the place of origin, everywhere seems to have sold out of Wensleydale cheese and I'm buggered if I can find any.
  • Er... that's it. For now. But probably just that's it.
  • Oh yes, it turns out the Chris Martin is a great big poncing hypocrite.
  • Rather like that chap Jay Kay out of Jamiroquai who nances around telling everybody that if he wasn't a music star he'd be an "eco-warrior", while maintaining a large fleet of sports cars which he uses to burn around the countryside, breaking the speed limit and worrying the sheep.
  • The big git.
  • Christopher Hitchens doesn't like Christmas. Fie, I say. Fie and pshaw. We can only hope he will be visited by ghosts in the night and thusly learn the error of his ways.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The people have spoken. The bastards.

It goes without saying that I stand four square behind the right of the Bolivian people to elect a hairy-palmed pinko bonkers mentalist to be their President, should they so wish, but it's fairly difficult to view this as Good News.

A Gentle(ish) Madness

So I was browsing on Airminded and I found this site and with a dreary degree of predictability I now find myself in the middle of cataloguing my library.

If anyone is interested in the contents of my shelves you can find a partial catalogue of the books currently housed Oop North here. This does not feature my antiquarian collection, nor does it list the overwhelming majority of my books dealing with strategic and military historical issues as these are largely still at my flat in Westminster. As such it's fairly unrepresentative of the collection as a whole. But I suppose on the other hand it gives an insight into what I'm reading when I'm not reading about Shit Blowing Up.

I've catalogued 350-odd right now, but I reckon the entire collection, including works in London, probably clocks in at somewhere around the 1,000 level. Which is pretty big, but as nothing when compared to the sheer scariness of Chris Brooke's library.

Eye Level is the theme music to Van der Valk...

James Joyner has some interesting "skinny"* on varying casualty figures from different recent conflicts.

*Oh, heavens, yes.

Obituary Watch

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Quotation of the Day

"Of course there will always be viewers for whom the first world war is a new story... All the same, if you feel you've gained a pretty full picture from the war poets, Journey's End, Paths of Glory, Blackadder Goes Forth and so on, you can afford to miss this latest dispatch from the front."

- From a review of "Merry Christmas" in today's Sunday Times "Culture" supplement.

I've got my eye on you, so take your finger out your bum...

I was talking to my brother on the phone a few weeks ago and he mentioned the fact that he had been walking around town and had noticed a police poster with a large pair of eyes on it and a slogan saying, "Watching you... for your protection."

We agreed that ultimately the point may come when the country in which we both grew up is a spiritually dead husk, having cast off pretty much every value that made it a worthwhile place to live in the first instance, at which point it would become painfully necessary to move to either Canada or the United States. doesn't look nice, try your thumb instead.

Anyway, tangentially related is the story that the US government has been, allegedly illegally, poking its nose about in areas that may not, strictly speaking, have been any of its business. This has prompted a flurry of commentary on the computer-information-hyperweb-meganet ranging from allegations of criminal perfidy on the one hand and charges of treasonous undermining of the executive in wartime against the leakers of the story on the other. Daniel Nexon mounts a fairly unequivocal case for the prosecution. Phil Carter has more. James Joyner has made several posts over the past few days offering the non-hysterical case for the defence. At this point my response is going to remain limited - and may well do so permenantly as I don't feel equipped to offer a considered opinion - to having a nice hot cup of tea and a sit down. But more interesting links as (if) they emerge.

Tribes 3: Franchise Abuse

There are two very interesting posts up at Dan Todman's site regarding the recent Royal Marines "bullying" case which was much in the headlines a couple of weeks ago.

Post 1
Post 2

I was actually going to write something about this earlier, but Dan's posts seemed to me to do the job better than I could hope to so I held back. But I'm bored so here's my penny's worth, in which I'd like to try to make a couple of points regarding the aspects of this sort of thing that struck me first.

When the story first broke we were treated to a veritable tidal wave of officers in the TV news studios, donning furrowed brows and informing us of their shock, dismay and disbelief at what appeared to have happened.

A very specific image entered my head at this point, namely that of Claude Rains going, "I'm shocked - shocked! - to find gambling taking place here!". I imagine I was hardly alone in this.

Perhaps I'm overly nasty and suspicious, but I'd actually be surprised if that sort of thing wasn't happening. Which isn't necessarily to say it's either right or harmless (I'm not judging one way or t'other) but merely to note that it's very much part of the tribal ethos.

Anyone who is a civilian and spends a reasonable amount of time around military people, especially Army and Marine people and especially Army and Marine NCOs who have seen active service, will be aware that there can be a chasm between people who serve and have served and people who have not. The width of this chasm varies. At it's thinnest it will merely take the form of there being certain conversational topics that the civvies will not "get". At its broadest it can take the form of people with extensive regular military service genuinely finding it hard to connect emotionally or socially with people who don't have the same life experiences or - most relevantly - the form of servicemen refusing to treat civilians as equals until the civilians have "earned" their respect.

So on a broad level there is, or at least can be, a form of sociological split between servicemen and civilians. At a more specific level there can be internal tribal splits between, say, regulars and reservists, or Green Jackets and Paras, or Teeth arms and REMFs/PONTIs.

These tribal tensions tend to manifest themselves very strongly in the case of Elite troops vs. non Elite troops. An ethos of specialness is often best nurtured by emphasising the deficiencies, real and imagined, between those of the elite and those not of the elite. Internally within a unit or organisation there will also often be initiation ceremonies to mark the point at which new blood ceases to be part of the "other" and becomes a recognised part of the tribe. In the case of newly minted junior officers this can, at its most tame, take the form of the initiate being induced to drink vast quantities of alcohol at a single sitting. Obviously there are different strokes for different folks but the principle is fairly consistent.

If you want to be a Royal Marine, your instincts can mean the difference between life and death. Look at this photo of a biscuit cracker - what's your immediate reaction? If the answer is "Wank on it", we'd like to hear from you...

The Royal Marines, of course, represent an elite.* By reputation, for the Royal Marines there are two - and only two - types of people in the world:

  1. People who are Commando Trained
  2. Everybody else

There have been a number of stories regarding the Marines giving non-Marines a rough time - including instances in which non-Marine officers on attachment for various purposes found themselves victims of "hi-jinks" ranging from property destruction to physical abuse. This sort of thing - especially if it turns out to be initiation-related - should come as little surprise to anybody and frankly I find it hard to believe that many of the military talking heads were being other than disingenuous on this issue when they expressed slack jawed amazement at it (though, being almost universally officers, their own experiences may have been rather more genteel).

As Dan notes it's hard to tell how long this sort of thing has gone on. Documentation of specific activities of this sort within the armed forces in the pre-1945 period is extremely scanty, if not non-existent. The principles, however, are surely by nature primal and as old as human history itself.

The main difference, one suspects, is simply that the latest generation is decreasingly inclined to accept it. In the past these things were accepted because 1) after humiliation came acceptance, 2) it came as part of a recognised and ongoing cycle - those doing the humiliating today were once themselves the humiliated and today's grovelling victim would in turn take his place in enforcing the rites of passage on those who came after him [all terribly top public school, I dare say] and 3) today's generation are a bunch of soft mummy's boys, innit?

I don't think this is the full story, of course, but I do think it forms a broadly accurate narrative. I don't make any judgement on whether what happened was good or bad, unacceptable, unfortunate or brimming with hearty manliness. I'm not a Royal Marine and I never will be. I know they're very, very, very good at what they do, but ultimately whether what we've seen is an essential part of their ability to keep us all safe in our beds or whether it was a nasty bit of casual, meaningless, institutionalised cruelty conducted for shits and giggles by abusers of authority I don't know.

*By weird coincidence, a couple of weeks before this incident broke I was having a conversation with someone in which one of the topics raised (not by me) was the strange tendency of Marines to get stark bollock naked in public at the drop of a hat.

The Bookworm 2: I'm Losing It Boogaloo

I know that my haul of Christmas presents this year will include, as it does every year, several books, so I make a point of not getting into anything too "heavy" in the immediate run-up to the 25th because once the day comes anything I'm reading will be cast aside and perhaps not returned to for a goodly period of time as I munch through my new acquisitions.

A few months ago I picked up a hardback copy of Lionel Casson's "Libraries in the Ancient World" but with the onset of the new university term I didn't get a chance to start reading it before having to get back to the grindstone. It's only a couple of hundred pages long so it struck me that it would serve as a nice little time filler.

I can't find it anywhere. I know I haven't left it in Pimlico so... it should be here somewhere. But as far as I can tell it isn't. The problem is that now I'm beginning to think that maybe I only thought about buying it and didn't actually get it. Which makes me wonder whether I'm developing a truly olympic case of senile dementia five decades early.

On top of that in spite of scouring both my flat in London and my bedroom here from top to bottom I can't for the life of me find my copy of Loch Johnson and James Wirtz's edited volume on Strategic Intelligence, which seems to have vanished into thin air. Short of it having spontaneously combusted or been eaten by the black labrador I occasionally babysit I'm not sure what could have happened to it.

Anyway, it looks like for the next week I'm going to be reduced to re-reading this for the 34th time.

Oh, you are awful...


There's a new paper up at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute site that looks interesting, though I haven't had a chance to give it an indepth read yet.

Funnily enough, one of the topics I was considering for my dissertation (which has since been discarded) was a study of the complications raised by the employment of indigenous allies (in various forms - from white colonists in Africa to Vietnam etc) by Western armed forces conducting counterinsurgency operations abroad. Probably lucky I hadn't decided to invest a great deal of time in it.

The Harvey Proctor Collection

Haha. Ha.

Quite what David Adesnik though he was doing wearing a bow tie in public I don't know (this from a man who was quite seriously contemplating the purchase of some two-tone shoes yesterday) but the reaction he got probably ranks somewhere in the top ten list of "it's funny because it's true" moments.

It's a general rule in the political arena that anybody who sports any of the following:

  • A bow tie
  • A colourful waistcoat
  • A pocket watch, especially with ostentatious chain
  • A rosy, grandfatherly visage that immediately puts one in mind of Father Christmas
will almost certainly be deeply, deeply, disturbingly right wing.*

People sporting a combination of three or more of the above almost certainly enjoy sexual spankage in addition to being deeply, deeply etc.

Similarly, left wing people can be identified by the following:

  • Grey shoes
In a related vein, teachers who wear ties emblazoned with cartoon characters will almost certainly be utterly, utterly humourless.

If you encounter any of the following combinations:

  • Cartoon bow tie
  • Grey shoes and cartoon tie
  • Franklin Mint commemorative "limited edition" Father Christmas pocket watch
run far, run fast.

*There is, of course, an exception to every rule, he said in a grovelling fashion.

The Bookworm

With the partial exception of my bedroom in my flat in London, which is so small it tends to become ever more cluttered and messy until I suddenly go into a flurry of tidying up and get it all Sir Garnet (for at least a couple of days...) I'm a reasonably domesticated type. I especially like to have everything just so over Christmas so I've been undertaking a fairly thorough non-Spring cleaning over the past couple of days. I'm simultaneously pleased and horrified to come to the recognition that my livrary has got so big that it actually does need a library (I should buy the Cluedo house) to house it. My bedroom currently has three full sized book cases in it and the only way I can store everything other than in piles on the floor, on top of my chest of drawers, heaped under my desk etc is to completely double stack the cases, with the books stored horizontally (which isn't good for them). A good third of my collection, including most of my War Studies relevant texts, is still in Westminster. Frankly, what the hell I'm going to do with them if I ever get put in a position where everything needs to be in one place I have no idea. Right now half of me is glowing with pride at the distinguished nature of my "library" and suppressing the urge to stand leaning nonchalantly against the living room fireplace, smoking a pipe and looking smug and the other half is suppressing the urge to start shrieking incoherently and set fire to the lot.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Tribes 2: Light Infantry Boogaloo

Interesting story here.

I don't know what the impact, beyond a lot of emotional hurt, the army's reorganisation is going to have. The arguments in favour of it are not unpersuasive with regard to the demands of modern warfare, jointness etc, but nor do I consider them exactly watertight and conclusive. I think the cultural backdrop is interesting, though.

Arguably the binning of the Light Infantry does mark the end of centuries of tradition, in the we've had Light Infantry in a recognisable form since at least the 18th century. On the other hand, the proud regimental tradition that we know and love has, in fact, undergone several seismic upheavals since the birth of the modern British Army, most notably in the 1880s and the 1960s but also in the early 1990s.

Take my grandfather's old regiment, the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry. A proud name, now sadly no more. But for soldiers of a couple of generations before that of my grandfather it would have been a name to be cursed to just as great an extent as we now brandish our fists at something as vulgar as "The Rifles" (which is pretty vulgar actually - where's the romance?).

Prior to the Cardwell/Childers reforms, British foot regiments (foot, mark you, not infantry...)were numbered, although these numbered regiments did often enjoy geographical links and would sometimes be referred to in these terms [eg. the 43rd (Monmouthshire) Light Infantry]. In the 1880s the system was replaced, in the face of violent opposition, with the various "county" regiments the like of which we tend to hark fondly back to today.

Servicemen of the time were horrified. As Richard Holmes noted in his "Riding the Retreat", the general attitude was "damned names mean nothing" and one officer wrote that under no circumstances would he "come to anything called a Hampshire Regimental Dinner. My compliments, Sir, and be damned.".

The 43rd (Monmouthshire) and 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiments were merged to form the Oxfordshire Light Infantry (doubtless officers of the 43rd were especially apoplectic). In 1908, the regimental name was expanded to become the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

In the 1960s further reforms (for "reforms" read "cuts") were made, involving several regiments being disbanded and others being merged. The Somerset and Cornwall, King's Own Yorkshire, King's Shropshire and Durham Light Infantry were merged to form the Light Infantry. The Ox and Bucks became the 1st Battalion of another amalgamated regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, which drew its heritage from the Rifle tradition (which is related to, but not analogous with, light infantry), it's second and third battalions being drawn from the King's Royal Rifles and the Rifle Brigade.

In the early 1990s the RGJ was reduced to two regular battalions and it was the nominally Ox and Bucks bit of its heritage that got dumped.

So, what's the point of this timeline? I suppose to illustrate that, although it would be going far too far to claim that the regimental system as it currently exists is a nonsense tradition and that those who are passionately dedicated to preserving it are deluding themselves (on an emotional level I agree with them entirely - and some regiments, such as the Black Watch, have been far less messed about with over time than others), to some extent we are talking about preserving an imagined tradition that has actually been in a fairly regular state of flux over the past two centuries.

Black Mafia

As far as I can tell, from my position as an outsider, the change seems to be generating more than the usual resentment by the fact that those driving it are perceived as being those who will suffer least. The CDS comes from the Anglians (who are already effectively a super regiment) and will be replaced by an Air Marshal when he retires. The CGS came up by way of the Paras and the Intelligence Corps and his deputy is a gunner. The British Army (and, perhaps, all armies) has a reputation for going through phases during which, for whatever reason, officers from certain branches tends to dominate the higher echelons of command and arguably to have a disproportionate impact on the direction the army takes. In the late mid to late 19th century, gunners and sappers tended to dominate. In the Great War years there is the old chestnut about the dominance of the cavalry officer.* In the 1980's there was a common perception that the higher levels were dominated by the "Black Mafia", Green Jacket and Gurkha officers who eased the path up the promotion ladder for their tribal peers and undertook elaborate plotting, Byzantine in complexity and quite possibly Satanic in nature, to guard their parent regiments from cuts. In recent years there seems to be a popular perception (perhaps not entirely legit) that the route to the top is increasingly via the Paras, preferably with a stint in the Regiment along the way. One way or another I think it's fair to say that the "bog standard" infantry types are feeling fairly hard done by right now.

*Heavily overplayed by post-1945 historians. In reality, most senior British officers were infantrymen - though cavalry arguably enjoyed disproportionate representation given the size of the cavalry arm. Additionally, there is little empirical evidence that generals drawn from the cavalry proved any less competent, by and large. than their infantry counterparts.** The most underrepresented branch, especially given that it was the most important, was the artillery - though Horne, who commanded 1st Army from 1916-1918, was a gunner.

**Anybody who cherishes iconoclasm, controversialism and general purpose pain in the arse cussedness might productively consider spending some time constructing the argument that cavalry officers in the Second World War were actually less able to deal with modern warfare than their supposedly arme blanche-obsessed counterparts 1914-1918.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

No Touchy

What a great country.

There are, of course, issues with the McCain amendment. There seem to be genuine questions over legislative meddling in an area that is arguably the purview of the executive*. From a purely utilitarian perspective the record of Congressional poking about in the President's foreign policy back garden is in no small degree positive. For all that Congressional interests run to pork, interest groups, noisy passion without responsibility (as over Taiwan for example) and general guff, I think it's fair to say that the historiography (by no means all of it left wing) to date seems to indicate that on the issue of Latin America in the closing years of the Cold War, Congress largely got it more right than Reagan. On the other hand, arguably Congress was significantly behind the curve during the early years of WW2 and much of the backdoor support to Britain from the Roosevelt administration, which is now seen as both crucial and entirely laudable, would have found little favour either in Congress or among substantial sections of the American public at large and was, well, rather naughty.

But the fact of the matter is that even if it's wrong in every other way, every legal and political particular, McCain was fundamentally (on a spiritual, zen, karmic and whatnot type thingy level) right. Indeed, if there are negative consequences of his amendment, and I believe they have been overplayed, I think they will almost certainly be worth paying. The fact of the matter is that, rightly or wrongly the US's cache and credibility right now is not good. The overwhelming support gathered by Senator McCain speaks volumes that, fundamentally, even if they bugger stuff up along the way, the USA is still one of the Good Guys (or as close as we get to good guys in the hugger mugger world of international politics) and the elected representatives of the American people aren't about to sell their (much trumpeted) values down the river. This is a good day for America, it's a good day for American values and it's almost certainly a good day for a soundly conducted War on Terror. Which is a pretty happy combination.

It's also a very bad day, in my view, for Dick Cheney, who seems to have been positively frenzied over the past few weeks for precious little result. The Vice President seems to me increasingly detached and to be honest I'm really not sure sure what the hell is going on in his office. I'm not a natural Dick Cheney hater: Unlike some commentators I see relatively little in his past to mark him out as a natural enemy of all things wholesome and creamy. But frankly his judgement seems rather off on a whole array of issues, from this to Iraq - where he has "mis-spoken" with regard to everything from WMD to progress in training the Iraqi armed forces so often that one begins to feel uncharitable.

*Or so I read - Americans feel free to enlighten me if I'm groping about in the dark.

Trial of the Century

Oliver Kamm has things to say regarding the Newsnight production "Allies on Trial".

The fact is that this particular type of current affairs programming is fundamentally unserious. The idea that the "verdict" reached is in any way analytical tends to be complete rot and the "prosecution" tends to take a substantial amount of ground by the simple gambit of self-righteous posturing and superficially plausible bullshit, asserted with enough conviction and furrowing of brows to play to the audience's preconceived prejudices.

The format was, of course, pioneered by Channel 4 News, which has produced a string of distinctly unedifying and lavishly one-sided "trials" of the following topics:

The Monarchy
The War on Terror
The Iraq War

The shows made for frustrating viewing for anybody whose worldview wasn't roughly within the spectrum running from the left wing of the Labour movement to the Socialist Worker's Party. The presenter, Jon Snow (whose pearls of insight run to dismissing the Iraq conflict as "Mr Bush's war for oil" in his memoirs), made a manful effort to keep his prejudices in check and, to his credit, succeeded for all of the first five minutes (watching him trying not to curl his lip whenever he's interviewing an American on Channel 4 News is like watching Dr Strangelove trying to control his right arm, bless 'im). If serious attempts were made to ensure the audience wasn't stacked they failed abysmally, with "defence" witnesses regularly being bayed down and the general mood among audience members seeming to bear no relation whatsoever to what, if the polls are to be believed, a genuinely representative cross-section of society would display. The whole sorry spectacle generally seemed to add up to not much more than a thinly disguised chance for the Channel 4 editorial team to give vent to their political angst.

Maybe the Beeb is better than that and the "trial" will actually provide an enlightening forum in which competing ideas can be tested in a challenging and intelligent way. I doubt it.

Iraqi Election

It looks like good news from Iraq. Very good news. The fact that the turnout is high and the fact that the Sunni seem to be voting in large numbers is undboutedly very good news indeed.

It would be ridiculously premature to suggest that this represents a leap to victory against the insurgency. Although free and open elections are toxic to the prospects of success for an insurgent movement it remains very much an open question whether the Sunni will really swing in behind the result if it is not favourable to them. And even if this proves to be a real change in the environment it is likely to be very much the end of the beginning and not the beginning of the end. However, the fact of the matter is that this is good news and everyone should be very pleased indeed.

And, frankly, somewhat humbled. A lot of people where we come from go "Oooh, you must vote - people have died so you can have that vote", but the fact of the matter is that the Iraqis voting today really know what that means.

I note with some displeasure that in the entire comment and leader section of today's Guardian, the only comment the professional do-gooders and bleeding hearts who make up the backbone of that rather tarnished publication can summon up regarding this risky, exploratory and perhaps imperfect but self-evidently widely supported experiment is a rather pissy article by one of the usual suspects arguing the whole thing's a terrible sham. If I was an Iraqi liberal, queuing nervously to vote and wondering whether I'd get to the doors of a polling booth before somebody decided that it was desperately necessary, for the good of the oppressed Islamic world in general, for me to be blown limb from limb in a ballbearing-laced suicide bomb explosion, I think I'd be a little bit miffed, frankly.


Norm has more

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

All the news that's shit to print...

There are a number of interesting counterinsurgency-related posts up at Arms and Influence that are worth checking out.

I'm not entirely sure I agree with the meat of this post, however, in which the US practice of planting positive stories in Iraqi newspapers is condemned on various counts.

It's a tricky area. I tend to feel that in the area of press manipulation the main commandment is "Thou shalt not get caught". Well they clearly violated that one.

In fact since 9/11 itself one of the most curious things is just how woefully incompetent the current US administration has been at controlling and shaping the news agenda beyond the borders of the USA itself. Quite apart from its craptastic public diplomacy, in the first term we used to be treated to things like Rumsfeld openly announcing that task forces were going to be set up to covertly influence coverage of events, not just in the Third World but in places like NATO Europe - and then adopting an expression of irritated bemusement when people living in Europe went, well, mental.

So you could argue that this whole project was doomed from the start and certainly the way in which it was implemented does seem to have been extremely cack-handed and amateurish.

But contrary to general American principles? I dunno. Arguably the Cold War provides a long enough heritage to demonstrate a veritable strategic culture involving American media maniuplation (and, in the case of Radio Free Europe, of the central government losing control, blowing its credibility and everything going arse up at an inconvenient moment).

For my part I'm quite mellow on the issue - the fact is that if it's handled well it can work. Psy-ops and agenda control played a key part in the British COIN effort in Oman. Facts were massaged, good news was boosted, bad news was suppressed or downplayed and care was taken to massage all sorts of unglamorous little prejudices (including religious) to win over support for the government.

It implies that the US government believes the Iraqis to be gullible, unscrupulous, and incapable of handling their own affairs

Well, yes. Or at least some of them. I'm not saying it's a particularly nice line to go down, but media manipulation, if done well, can be an important item in the counterinsurgent's toolkit. As long as you do it well and don't get caught. In this case it was done badly and they were caught. In moral terms though, it's a piece of nastiness I can live with, as long as it works - and I don't think it's especially un-American.

I think one of the more interesting questions to ask is whether, with the proliferation of news sources, media manipulation is not less practical a gambit than it was Back In The Day. Have structural changes made this sort of thing more or less doomed from the start?

Shiny Happy People

An encouraging poll from Iraq. There's also some encouraging news in the form of more Sunni coming on board for the election. Too much can be made of it, of course, but broadly speaking it's good news and certainly the attitudes expressed demonstrate that all is not lost.

Incidentally, you can get extremely paranoid regarding press bias and I myself have taken others to task over being too quick to allege pernicious machinations in this area, but I am slightly irked by the speed with which this story has slipped down the agenda list on the BBC website: Especially as it's only 24 hours since it broke in the first place.

On the other hand, this is still towards the top of the story list and it's also a positive sign.

How The Axis Learned Their ABC...

For some time now I've taken the view that probably the most under-appreciated and under-rated organisation (both among the public at large and in the historiography) during the Second World War is the Royal Navy.*

However, for a variety of reasons I've spent some time recently looking at the Royal Navy's activities 1939-1945 and I'd actually like to go even further.

I reckon, and I'm prepared to take a slapping on this one**, that if you're trying to locate a Finest Hour in the Royal Navy's history you shouldn't be talking about the Seven Years War, nor even the Napoleonic Wars (yes, including Trafalgar) - I reckon you should be looking at 1939-1945.

Feel free to try to convince me otherwise.

*actually if I'm being scrupuplously fair it's probably the Royal Canadian Navy, as most historians actually take the trouble to notice that the Royal Navy existed....

**Offer closed to LSE graduates.

Plum Duff

Dr Who to deliver anti-war message on Christmas Day.

"It's Christmas Day, a day of peace," said chief writer Russell T Davies. "There is absolutely an anti-war message because that's what I think."

Actress Penelope Wilton plays the Prime Minister in the hour-long show.

In one scene she says of the US president: "He is not my boss and he is certainly not turning this into a war."

Yes, that's just what we need, another cringingly obvious, heavy-handed, unsubtle, gauche and deeply self-righteous slice of cant shoehorned into an otherwise amiable bit of light entertainment.

Taste the rising tide of bile

A later scene echoes former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision to sink the General Belgrano during the Falklands conflict in 1982.

Wilton's Prime Minister orders the destruction of a retreating alien spaceship, a decision condemned by the Doctor.

You can just about get away with Iraq, but the General Belgrano? It was a left wing nutjob issue back in 1982 and it hasn't exactly matured like a fine wine since then.

Friday, December 09, 2005


Last Friday, this happened.

It so happens that at the time it all went down, I was standing in the foyer of the main Strand building, chatting with one of my friends.* The sound of very large numbers of pissed people singing "Que Sara Sara" wafted down the street and then the mob hove into view. Amusingly, because the main Strand building has a large revolving door, the first 15 or so people to hurl themselves forward became comprehensively jammed inside it and looked like a right bunch of wankers. Finally the mob found its way in an proceded to smash up everything in the foyer that wasn't bolted down, while bellowing "Fuck KCL" and then made their way upstairs, where they proceeded to smash things up further and wreck most of the ceiling tiles on the second floor.

I'd love to tell you that we fought to bar their entry by forming an Anglo-Saxon shield wall and sold our lives dearly while banging axes on shields and defiantly bellowing "Out! Out! Out!", as was the fashion in those days.

In fact that's exactly what we did. I was hit in the head with an arrow and was killed instantly.

No, it's just not plausible enough to run with. What actually happened was that we stood there rather bemusedly while the mob, who beyond hurling verbal abuse at the college in general, were not out for a fight (Which is lucky, cos I'd have learned 'em if they'd tried anything. Clearly. Ahem.), passed through and then we went on our way.

The interesting point to this is this:

If you look at it empirically, they actually caused a lot of trouble for themselves. The money - and it runs to a hell of a lot of money - is coming out of their student union funds, which means they've pretty much shot themselves in the foot and I suspect that those students who didn't take part are probably not that chuffed. If anyone is positively identified (which I doubt will happen given the sheer number of students - if there were fewer than double the number estimated in the BBC report [I dunno who gave them the 50 estimate but they must have had all the perceptiveness of a myopic bush baby] I'd be very surprised) they stand to lose out badly not only financially but academically. So what's lost? Nothing really.

And yet... and yet. The point remains that they made a right old mess of our place and their stomping ground over at the Aldwych remains pristine and unviolated. Did they "shame" their college? No, they didn't, they struck a blow because in however many years time the financial cost will not be remembered but the fact that they made a right old mess of KCL will remain, doubtless burnished into a sparkling little bit of student folklore. And we did nothing about it except demand that their administration pay for what happened, which in spiritual terms is roughly the equivalent of running crying to teacher.

Not that I'd advocate actually going and, Bomber Harris styl-ee, giving them a taste of their own medicine and then some. By every measure of sanity and common sense the college Principal is absolutely right. But it's hard to shake the niggling feeling that they violated our patch and that because like has not been repaid with like even if we get everything paid for, even if they get a stern talking to, even if one or two of their people get carpeted and given an apocalyptic bollocking, on some weird spiritual warrior-bollocks level it's 1-0 to them.

Which is nonsense really... and yet given that college loyalty can spur that sort of thinking it puts a bit of context on just how fucked up things can get once you're in a situation where people are getting killed. Ouch.


Traditionally, of course, the main inter-collegiate rivalry within London University has been between UCL and King's, though I've seen little active evidence of it in my time here. Famously, Jeremy Bentham's preserved head is now kept locked in a safe because our lads kept stealing it from its display case and either dispatching it to far corners of the nation (it once eneded up in a station luggage locker in Aberdeen) or, on more extreme occasions, playing football with it in the grounds of Somerset House.

Which when you think about it is absolutely appalling in every conceivable way. But generally speaking it leads to the perception that we've got one up on them so I'd be lying, ashamed though I am to admit it, if I told you I gave a shit.

*Who later announced cheerily that he knew somebody at the LSE who had mentioned that something was going to go down that week but that he'd forgotten about it. Given that he's from Jersey and is therefore already wide open to suspicion of pro-French/Nazi/Illuminati/Stuart Monarchy sympathies this does his credibility no good at all...

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