Carnival of Death

islamic_stateAlQaeda

There are two kinds of wars in the desert: war of religion and political war. In political war, we make compromises, but in wars of religion, we exterminate everybody.
Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah al-Saud [1]

It’s been a few weeks since David Cameron promised to keep the Syrian Generals safe from indictment or despatch should Bashar al-Assad “fall” from power, and in that time the idea has vanished from all diplomatic and media discourse: the war grinds on regardless and the Prime Minister continues unabashed, as if the words never even passed his lips. Unfortunately – or fortunately, if you think about it at all – the action has been elsewhere: Brussels, for example, or Doha, Ankara, or along the Jordanian border. Meanwhile, the pro-intervention arguments circulating in Washington, Paris and London – arming the Free Syrian Army or Supreme Military Council to topple Assad or strengthen the moderates in the Syrian National Coalition or at least level both sides and bring them to the negotiating table – look increasingly irrelevant. The battles are overlapping and fracturing and collectively elude any clear International Relations framework or Conflict Resolution prescription. As John Bew wrote in his July 10th New Statesman essay [2]:

The notion that we are faced therefore with a choice between idealism and realism, or intervention and non-intervention, is the first of many false starting points. That debate is a luxury of simpler times. More than two years after the Syrian rebellion began, the only question that still matters for makers of western foreign policy is what species of interference we choose to adopt.

There is no simple choice left to make, and all arguments about ideology and strategy have run their course: the three leading Western military powers are left with tactics and damage-limitation inadequate to the task at hand or the situation on the ground. The regime has consolidated its urban strongholds, regrouped and gone on the offensive with the aid of Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’ite militias and the Iranian Quds Force. It has retained and incorporated roving paramilitaries from pre-war Shabiha to the Iranian-backed al-Jaysh al-Sha’bi and multiethnic Lijan militias. Bew, quoting Syrian exile Malik al-Abdeh, describes Bashar as the “strongest warlord in the country” – strange fate for a former ophthalmology student with a retiring manner and well-groomed investment banker wife from West London. We may never know how it got to this: the exact chain of decisions made by Bashar and Maher al-Assad, Hafez Makhlouf, Assef Shawkat (before being blown up by al-Qaeda) or General Kheirbek. But their war has metastasised and burst borders. It has incorporated a theological war – or series of wars – raging in the region and has expanded and intensified them. What we are left with looks like chaos but can be summarised or categorised as follows:

1) “The Axis of Resistance”

The presence of Hezbollah this deep in the fighting and so visible on the ground indicates higher stakes at play than simply the jurisdiction and levers of state. Having said this, it is not surprising that the self-proclaimed “Axis of Resistance” will protect its own on ideological as well as strategic grounds, and some of us have been pointing out IRGC and Hezbollah mischief in Syria for over a year. Historically, the battles waged by Hezbollah in Lebanon always had a sectarian edge and agenda, from the destruction of Amal and the Shi’ite Left in the 1980s to the campaign against the Sunni Gulf monarchs that culminated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005 [3]. The announcement of Hezbollah’s entrance into the war in May was the precursor to the Assad regime’s crucial strategic victory in Quasir that momentarily jolted Saudi Arabia and Qatar out of their own rivalry (see 3, ‘Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar’). The most important subsequent Quds Force contribution may well be training of the undisciplined government militias that have run rampant in rebel towns [4] and the co-ordination of pro-Iranian Shi’ite brigades being transported in and out of Iraq (see 5, ‘Iraqi Exports’), but we shall see. Syria is an overt and acknowledged Iranian outpost to add to more exotic locales and interests in Latin America, Africa and Central Asia where smuggling and narcotic routes operate under IRGC and Hezbollah auspices. Nevertheless, the war has also exposed the limits of the Revolutionary Republic’s ultimate territorial reach which cannot realistically extend beyond the Levant and Iraq – except under the approaching “nuclear umbrella”.

2) Al-Qaeda in Syria

The proliferation of Salafist groups in Syria is a challenge for journalists and analysts who struggle to disentangle Islamist tendencies, alliances and schisms. Even al-Qaeda affiliates can be problematic. By the end of 2012, press dispatches and wires nominated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) as the primary al-Qaeda representative in Syria. In fact, the group was a franchise of a franchise: a Syrian offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), home to the post-al-Zarqawi al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In recent months al-Nusra has been sidelined by the unwelcome arrival of Baghdadi in northern Syria and his unilateral declaration of a merger between the ISI and JN into the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This had the almost instantaneous effect of dissolving al-Nusra, many of its disciplined brigades disintegrating as their leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani resisted Baghdadi’s micro-coup. There followed some inadvertent comic relief when Ayman al-Zawahiri – himself! – tried and failed to reconcile his fractious generals via a conspicuosly ignored communiqué.

Following the fall-out, a recent Reuters article distinguished between a trans-national jihadi ISIS and a Syrian nationalist JN, but this was contested by Iraqi analyst Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi who was able to show that this division is not exact and that the ISIS brigades pose a real threat as they expand into the cities, towns and villages of northern Syria [5]. What remains may be a division of tactics: despite the fearsome reputation of JN, it largely eschewed scorched earth sectarian and sharia policies pursued by AQI in the Sunni tribal areas of Iraq: the last thing they wanted was a repeat of the Iraqi Sunni Awakening on Syrian soil [6]. Baghdadi, on the other hand, is a more brutal character than this and the Syrian tribes are apprehensive about his presence, to say the least.

Outside of this disputatious al-Qaeda merger the remaining Salafist groups have formed two broad coalitions in the People’s Front of Judea tradition: the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) and the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), the latter being led by Ahrar al-Sham, the strongest jihadi group in Syria. Both coalitions contain regional brigades from major rebel cities including Homs and Aleppo as well as trans-national militias employing fighters from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Chechnya, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Despite an occasional overlap and alliance with the FSA/SMC these groups have been responsible for some of the more high-profile atrocities of the war – for example, the famous heart-eating “cannibal” Abu Sakkur belonged to Farouq Brigades (SILF). They have access to generous funding streams and weapons from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, in contrast to ISIS reliance on Palestinian and Gulf backers and self-generated income from smuggling and extortion.

Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS have not joined the Syrian National Coalition but the influence of Salafist groups in the opposition movement as a whole has grown in line with their impact on military gains. In short, they are the most organised, committed and ruthless fighters, often coming to the aid of fractious and uncoordinated FSA/SMC units. Public criticism of Salafists from opposition parties is not welcome as the secular democrat Randa Kassis quickly discovered after she denounced the jihadi turn [7] and was frozen out of the Coalition. The tactical and political folly of this course is clear and some FSA/SMC leaders are already talking about the next war after Assad: a fight to the death between the FSA and the Islamists.

3) Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar

The Saudis are locked in an intra-Sunni struggle with Qatar for control of the Syrian opposition. The Saudis have won the most recent round with the selection of their candidates Ahmad al-Jarba and Michel Kilo to lead the Syrian National Coalition at the expense of Qatari proxy Ghassan Hitto. The Saudi campaign – overseen by intelligence director Bandar bin Sultan and with the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman in tow – has effectively sidelined the Muslim Brotherhood from the Syrian opposition [8]. While the Saudis hate and fear the Brotherhood, Qatar has been their biggest recent backer with large-scale funding for Morsi in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza. Consequently, the Saudi-Qatar tug-of-war has found arenas in Syria and Egypt, and with massive loans slated for the new military-backed regime in Cairo, Bandar is beating the Emirs old and new. (As a related issue, the sectarian war is simmering away in Egypt: for example, the Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Hassan Shehata was recently killed by a Sunni mob in Giza [9] while Copts now face regular attack [10].)

For the moment, the Saudis and Qataris appear reconciled in an attempt to detach and sideline JN/ISIS and other Salafist groups (some they previously funded) from the opposition military campaign, fearful of handing further victories to their future gravediggers. The GCC is now funding and arming the SMC, the FSA and the Sunni tribes of northern Syria, in line with the declared policies of the West and Turkey. The Saudis have paid for French and Libyan missiles as well as Yugoslav weapons supplied by Croatia and shuttled in Jordanian planes to and from Jordanian territory. Given the Saudi-Qatari public policy, it ought to be pointed out that these weapons have already been spotted in the hands of al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham [11].

It should also be noted, I suppose, that marginalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood deviates from recent U.S. policy in the region as shaped by CIA director John Brennan. Since the President’s overt outreach to the Brotherhood in the 2009 Cairo speech, his administrations and diplomats have supported the organisation’s elevation to power in Egypt and Tunisia. U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson is considered a shameless Brotherhood lackey by many in Egypt, even within the Islamist-inflected military elites [12]. I suspect that Bandar has been following the follies of Obama – appeasing Iran, supporting the Brotherhood – in complete disbelief.

4) Lebanese Overspill

The export of Sunni extremists from Tripoli to Syria and the placement of Hezbollah units on border towns has underscored and aggravated the existing sectarian and factional split in Lebanese politics between pro- and anti-Syrian blocs. Tripoli is the most fractious and dangerous city of all and has been inflamed by the Syrian fighting: anti-Assad Salafist groups, armed and funded by Gulf benefactors, have fought pitched battles against Alawite, Hezbollah and Tawheed militias and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The situation across the country is laced with other distractions including FSA/SMC attacks on Hezbollah border posts, Syrian air strikes and shelling, kidnappings and car bombs, and Lebanese Army incursions into Palestinian refugee camps.

Lebanese and Syrian politics are tied to each other. The timeline of discord runs side by side: Lebanon has been destabilised by the war next door from the moment protests started in Daraa. Only the scale of the carnage and the direction of intervention separate them. Had this trail of subversion and sporadic conflict occurred in isolation we would be discussing the start of a Lebanese civil war. Headlines and reports out of the country are relentlessly negative and foreboding, but one exception is worth mentioning. Michael Totten recently interviewed a group of Lebanese politicians who see a way out of sectarian politics precisely through the Syrian war. For example, Mosbah Ahdab, a Sunni politician from Tripoli [13]:

The post-Assad transition is going to be tough because we have Hezbollah still around. But Hezbollah will be cut down to a more realistic size. They will still have their weapons, but they can’t continue provoking the tens of millions of people who live around here that they’ve been aggressive to all these years […] There will be the real possibility of development. We could have train service all the way down to Cairo.

There is a lot going on here – a concession to sectarian realities as well as implied accommodation with Israel – but what is most striking is the sense of possibility and optimism that a defeat for Iranian proxies would bring to Lebanon. This is a clear strategic aim for the Western powers that would deliver a net benefit for moderates and allies in the region. Lebanon is not a side issue or even a separate war.

5) Iraqi Exports

The Sunni and Shia of Iraq have their own take on events in Syria and it isn’t good for Syria or Iraq or the West. One of the edgier developments is the renewed self-confidence among Sunnis marginalised by the Shia-dominated pro-Iranian Maliki administration which is combining dangerously with unease about recent Iranian and Shi’ite gains in Syria. The ultimate spur for a second Sunni Awakening could be the mass formation of Shi’ite militias and brigades that are being dispatched to Syria under the supervision of Quds Force and Hezbollah. The prominence of Iraqi Shi’ite groups in Syria – such as Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas and Liwa’a Zulfiqar in southern Damascus and Liwa’a Ammar Ibn Yasir in Aleppo [14] – is a hidden narrative with lethal implications for Baghdad. The Iraqi  Shi’ite militants come from various backgrounds, including al-Sadr remnants and Badr Organisation members. Having cut their teeth harassing Allied troops and fighting in the Iraqi Civil War of 2006-8, these Iranian-backed militants have been retrained and deployed as security henchmen for the Assad regime, guarding Damascus airport, securing residential complexes and quelling suburban rebellions. The groups are linked by ideology and iconography: websites and flags bear Hezbollah insignia, portraits of Ayatollah Khamenei and Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and pictures of the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in Damascus.

Despite nugatory attempts at the behest of the U.S. to stop planes flying over (or from) Iraqi territory loaded with men and munitions destined for Syria, the Maliki administration has aligned itself with the pro-Assad positions of Iran and Russia. The Iraqis have allowed the roads to remain open for weapons transits and the kept borders porous for Iraqi Shi’ite militiaman entering Syria. Meanwhile, pro-FSA flags and chants have been reported in Anbar province while Sunni tribesmen in Iraq facilitate their smuggling routes along the border [15]. Adding to sectarian tensions a resurgent AQI/ISI owe their new post-occupation lease of life to the Syrian war, attacking Shi’ite convoys with gusto and adding their own gratuitous signature to events in the form of beheadings, booby-trapped corpses and the mass machine-gunning of civilians.

6) The Jordanian Bind

King Abdullah II was once a close friend of Bashar al-Assad but is now among his most implacable enemies. Both came to power at the turn of the century, taking control of strategically important and troubled Arab countries after spending their formative years in expensive schools and Western capitals. Abdullah introduced economic reforms and selective modernisation to Jordan while promising further democracy without actually delivering it; as a consequence, the dynastic grip on power is precarious but stiffened by international alliances, a loyal army and Abdullah’s stunning wife. The Assad legacy was more complicated and Bashar’s room for maneuver very slight; his plans to reform the Syrian economy were gradual and careful as he navigated Ba’ath loyalists of the Hafez era and the rural Sunni interests protected by state planning. The spark that lit a civil and regional war started here: agricultural modernisation enforced by the regime – policies designed to open up the Syrian economy to world markets – caused water shortages and subsequent protests in Daraa. There is a deep irony here and I wonder if Abdullah sees it.

Assad was locked in the logic of state security and an anti-Semitic, terror-sponsoring foreign policy because of the dynamics of his father’s power network and the regional thirst for Arab resistance to Israel and the West. This was a very different course to Abdullah, who retained standing with the corrupt and duplicitous Gulf monarchs, criticised Israeli policy only when necessary (without forgetting the trouble the Palestinians once caused his father), and nurtured close diplomatic and military ties to America and the United Kingdom. Jordan’s position in the Syrian civil war is a direct result of this divergence. From the beginning, the Kingdom has kept it borders open and allowed Syrian refugees to remain on Jordanian soil with access to all social services. The influx has become a flood with the growth of two sprawling and anarchic refugee camps that no longer contain the total number of refugees, many of whom have melted into Annan and other urban populations. The strain on jobs and public resources has been immense and tensions continue to rise between Jordanian nationals and Syrian refugees [16].

There is a further fear – shared by the government, the armed forces and the monarchy – that pro-Assad Hezbollah saboteurs and terrorist cells have entered the country ready to take revenge should any aggressive move be made from Jordanian territory. This is delicate and worrying because American, British and French Special Forces have trained rebels from Daraa in Jordan [17] and the U.S. has temporarily stationed 900 service personnel in the Kingdom to man Patriot missiles, fly F-16s and prepare for chemical warfare.

7) Palestinian Ironies

The basic split apparently goes: Fatah in the West Bank are pro-Assad while Hamas in Gaza are pro-rebel. This may be true but it gets more complicated the closer in you get. The position of Hamas is particularly intriguing and it is difficult to know how successful or sensible they have been. The official line fed and led by Khaled Mashal (at least, after relocating from Damascus to Doha) has been strong condemnation of Assad with the result that Iranian funds have dropped significantly. The Hamas leadership bet on an increase in support from Qatar and the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt but with the fall of Morsi and the removal of Sheikh Hamad – the Emir who founded Al Jazeera and spent a third of Qatar’s capital reserves funding the Brotherhood – that calculation looks less secure. This has caused anger and alarm among armed Palestinian factions who have enjoyed and even depended upon the security of Persian cash and weaponry for many years. The leadership of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the paramilitary wing of Hamas, has questioned the wisdom of abandoning the ‘Axis of Resistance’ for Sunni posturing and a flakey alliance with Qatar. Meanwhile, for some in Gaza the pro-rebel position of Hamas has been too weak: unlike other Sunni militants from Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Central Asia, very few Hamas martyrs have washed up in Syria and the rulers of Gaza are being out-flanked by more radical Palestinian Salafist groups preaching anti-Shia invective to an increasingly sectarian population [18]. The alliance with Hezbollah and Assad’s lead in the Palestinian cause are now distant memories – nostalgic for some, a source of shame for others.

The intra-Palestinian ironies and agonies over the Syrian conflict are epitomised by the fate of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. This sprawling settlement was once a small Palestinian city in itself with a thriving arts scene and a record of vocal political activism; unlike its Lebanese counterparts, it closely integrated with the Syrian state and society. At the beginning of the war, camp residents stayed neutral until tensions between pro-rebel activists and the state-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command finally dragged them into the conflict. This ended with the invasion of the FSA, who entered the camp in order to destroy the PFLP-GC, while Syrian MiGs bombed them from above. By this time most of the population had fled Yarmouk and the camp infrastructure was in ruins [19].

Navigating such factionalism is a complicated matter. Success is hard, at this stage, to gauge. On the one hand, Hamas appear vulnerable and isolated after recent Muslim Brotherhood setbacks; on the other, they still retain financial support from Qatar and some GCC-based benefactors, and Iranian aid has not actually been terminated. In any future fight with Israel they can still count on Iranian firepower – as they did during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

8) Kurdish Fringes

Overlapping or interfacing with this already crowded and convoluted situation is the Kurdish Question. Until 2011, the Qamishli riots of 2004 had been the only significant internal test for Bashar, and his enormous and multifaceted Ba’ath security apparatus had broken the Kurds with some force. They kept quiet during the first year of conflict, wary of the Iranian-backed government and the Turkish-backed rebels.  They were finally sucked into the maelstrom last year when regime troops and FSA rebels both strayed onto Kurdish territory and quickly found themselves in combat with the militias.

The Kurds do not belong to either side. Even though some of the smaller parties have joined the National Coalition, the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) refuses to participate. This is partly because it is an offshoot of the PKK and a member of the Kurdistan People’s Congress (Kongra-Gel) and is therefore resistant to all Turkish-backed endeavors. (When the New York Times interviewed a PYD militiaman in July he was sat beside a large poster of Abdullah Ocalan [20].) The PYD is also at odds with the Kurdish National Council, a rival bloc backed by Massoud Barzani’s KDP which hints at a future conflict along Iraqi KDP vs. PUK lines. The Kurds are constantly fractious but for now agree on an overall strategy following the successful Iraq model: autonomy, one step at a time. (Iraqi Kurdistan is looking stronger than ever: as the central government and Sunni/Shia provinces slip back into chaos, the Kurdish Regional Government is signing oil extraction deals with the Turks and rival oil multinationals. It is exciting times, here [21].)

For now the PYD and its armed wing of People’s Protection Units (YPG) is finishing a fight with al-Qaeda and the Salafists that began last year. The jihadis are attempting to destroy Kurdish nationalism in North Eastern Syria in order to make way for their sharia state: a recent SILF statement threatened to cleanse the provinces of “PKK and Shahiba” [22]. On the other side, PYD-YPG leaders are in the process of clearing Kurdish areas of all foreign groups and influences. In Kurdish provinces, Kurdish is now spoken openly; Kurdish history and culture are back in school curricula; and Arabic road signs are being rewritten in Kurdish. In the chaos of war, with the state falling back and armed Islamist groups facing defeat by battle-hardened unisex PYD-YPG militia, a Kurdish enclave is being carved out that may yet form territory in independent Kurdistan.

*

Ten years ago I was sitting in a restaurant in South Kensington talking to a friend who was born in Yemen but had been raised in Richmond.  During our conversation, I asked her about the divide between Sunni and Shia and whether it meant anything to her. She looked at me like I was mad and said, definitively: “I never think about it.” She has since moved on – working as a lawyer in Abu Dhabi, last I heard – but so has the Arab world. It would be a very different conversation now, I suspect.

Two events – or, more accurately, moments – spring to mind. The first provided by Kanan Makiya during a despairing 2007 interview with Dexter Filkins in which he described the Shi‘ite leadership in the run-up to the Iraqi civil war [23]:

There was this attitude: “This is a war, this is it — the showdown — why don’t we just gird ourselves for it, why not recognise it as a war and fight it to win? Because we can win.

To Makiya’s dismay, the man he believed had “broken the mould of Arab politicians” – namely, Ahmed Chalabi – joined the hard-liners of SCIRI and Moqtada al-Sadr and pushed Iraq into the sectarian implosion now ripping through the region. (Chalabi could be found rallying the anti-Khalifa Shia parties in Bahrain last year.) This double descent – of a man and a country – is indicative, and tragic.

The second moment is the source of the first: al-Zarqawi’s 2004 letter to al-Zawahiri in which he explained his plan to destroy democracy in Iraq by stoking a religious war. “If we succeed in dragging [the Shi’ites] into the arena of sectarian war, it will be possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger,” he wrote, diabolically [24]. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, destabilising the entire region and not just Iraq. He had to bomb the Golden Mosque in Samarra to get his sectarian war in full flow but from that point on there was no turning back. The current Sunni war against all in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Algeria, Mali, Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and maybe soon Saudi Arabia is a legacy of al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian street criminal turned psychopathic terrorist whose life ended beneath two 500-pound, laser-guided U.S. bombs. This carnival of death is his lethal bequest.

Notes

1) Second King of the Second Saudi state and the grandfather of Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, quoted in Lewis Pelley, Report on a Journey to Riyadh (Oleander Falcon reprint, 1978)
2) John Bew, ‘Las Vegas Rules Don’t Apply in Syria’, New Statesman, July 10th 2013
3) Halil Khashan, ‘Hezbollah’s Plans for Lebanon’, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2013
4) Hala Jaber, ‘Hezbollah Trains Assad Attack Force’, Sunday Times, June 6th 2013
5)  Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, ‘Where Does Jabhat al-Nusra End, and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham Begin?’, Syria Comment, July 13th 2013
6) Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, ‘Jabhat al-Nusra: a Strategic Briefing’, Quilliam Foundation, January 2013
7) Volkhard Windfuhr, ‘Syrian Opposition Group Leader: “The Islamists are Seizing Power for Themselves”’, Der Spiegel, July 16th 2012
8) David B. Ottaway, ‘The Saudi-Qatari Clash Over Syria’, The National Interest, July 2nd 2013
9) Raymond Ibrahim, ‘Shias: the Arab Spring’s Latest Victims’, Middle East Forum, June 25th 2013
10) Raymond Ibrahim, ‘Muslim Persecution of Christians: April 2013’, Gatestone Institute, July 24th 2013
11) Brown Moses Blog, ‘Evidence of Jabhat al-Nusra with Croatian Arms’, March 23rd 2013
12) Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, ‘Ambassador Anne Patterson, the Controversial Face of America’s Egypt Policy’, The Daily Beast, July 10th 2013
13) Michael J. Totten, ‘Dreaming of a Lebanon at Peace with its Neighbors’, The Tower, July 2013
14) See Phillip Smyth’s ongoing series ‘Hizbollah Cavalcade’ at http://jihadology.net/hizballah-cavalcade
15) Michael Knights, ‘Syrian and Iraqi Conflicts Show Signs of Merging’, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 7th 2013
16) Taylor Luck, ‘In Jordan, Tensions Rise Between Syrian Refugees and Host Community’, Washington Post, April 21st 2013
17) Julian Borger and Nick Hopkins, ‘West Training Syrian Rebels in Jordan’, The Guardian, March 8th 2013
18) Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, ‘HAMAS and Syria’, jihadology.net, June 21st 2013
19) For an account of this episode see Moe Ali Nayel’s interview with Moutawali Abu Nasser at Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades Information Service, ‘Yarmouk Activist Describes Situation Inside Syria’, March 6th 2013
20) Ben Hubbard, ‘Kurdish Struggle Blurs Syria’s Battlelines’, New York Times, August 1st 2013
21) Joost R. Hiltermann, ‘Revenge of the Kurds’, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2012
22) ‘Insurgents Declare War on Syria’s Kurds’, syriareport.net, May 27th 2013
23) Dexter Filkins, ‘Regrets Only?’, New York Times, October 7th 2007
24) Quoted in Peter Bergen, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between Al-Qaeda and America (Simon & Schuster, 2011), p. 164

Posted in Bahrain, Egypt, France, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Terror Network, Turkey, UAE, UK, USA | Leave a comment

Ezra Pound & Salò

Ezra-Pound-2

I want to go on fighting.
Canto 72

In 1948, the year James Laughlin published The Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound remained incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a Federal Government asylum in Washington, having been found mentally unfit to stand trial for treason. During the war, Pound was a vocal anti-Semite whose sympathies lay with the more extreme sections of the Italian Fascist regime in Salò and with the Nazis, as he openly declared in pro-Axis propaganda broadcasts on Rome Radio. This endpoint was evident, and expressed, in his poetry, including The Pisan Cantos which won the Bollingen Prize in 1949, awarded by the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress, among them T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden. These highly accomplished men were perceptive and conceited enough to pen a pre-emptive defence of their controversial choice, made only four years after the discovery of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It stated: “To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.” Or, in other words, l’art pour l’art.

Partisan Review, among other organs, invited comment. Karl Shapiro, a Fellow, disagreed with the selection on the grounds that “the poet’s political and moral philosophy ultimately vitiates his poetry and lowers its standards as a literary work” (1); Dwight Macdonald, by contrast, viewed the award as a  supremely civilised act and a rare example of national magnanimity. George Orwell composed a more subtle position, making two points with direct relevance to contemporary Pound studies, that obtuse critical subgenre. Firstly, he objected to the artificial separation of Pound’s political activities from his poetry, a division never made by Pound himself who considered his adopted economic theories (for one thing) to be central to The Cantos’ purpose, aesthetics and meaning. The tendency to ignore or rationalise the poetry’s politics — the thematic content of The Cantos, in other words — grew among and with Pound’s influential friends, acolytes and protégées after the war, notably Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Hugh Kenner and James Laughlin. These entwined artistic and critical circles preferred to emphasise Pound’s aesthetics at the expense of his economic and racial politics, as if The Cantos could exist without Social Credit, history and Jews, and live through their lyrical technique alone.

Pound learned to accept this in his very late years — in the Sixties, when it was most convenient to do so. By this time he could tell Allen Ginsberg that anti-Semitism had been his “worst mistake” and write to Robert Lowell: “that nonsense about the Jews…Olga knew it was shit, yet she still loved me.” (2) This was also the time, non-coincidentally, when he admitted that, by his owns standards and expectations, The Cantos had been a failure. He would tell Daniel Cory: “I botched it. I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make a work of art.” (3) Nevertheless, as late as 1959, Pound was sending poetry and Social Credit pamphlets to Oswald Mosely’s post-fascist European journal; and in the middle of the Fifties, Pound acolyte John Kasper achieved some notoriety as a segregation activist in the American South, spreading anti-Semitic and racist screeds encouraged by the unrepentant poet. His late disavowal of anti-Semitism made it more convenient for a Jewish Communist like Zukofsky and a Catholic conservative like Kenner to approach their idol with easier conscience and less prickly questions, but the racial instincts and devotion to Social Credit theories (with their distinct flavour of conspiracy theory) remained. Some put this down to mental health problems; others simply accepted Pound’s recantations and overlooked his unseemly actions and associates, dismissing these as anecdotal and historical. Orwell spotted all of this early and immediately skewered it: “He may be a good writer […] but the opinions he has tried to disseminate by means of his works are evil ones…” (4)

Secondly, Orwell noted a more brazen attempt to fully expunge Pound’s politics: “there has been,” he wrote, “a tendency to claim that Pound was “not really” a fascist and anti-Semite, that he opposed the war on pacifist grounds and that in any case his political activities only belonged to the war years.” (5) This was nonsense, of course. As Orwell had no difficulty illustrating in 1949, Pound’s own activities, pre-war and after, exposed this fallacy; more importantly, the poems vividly demonstrated Pound’s commitment to Social Credit ideas and to Italian Fascism. For Pound’s non-fascist supporters this made rationalisation more important and urgent. It could get desperate. For example, William Cookson, in his commentary A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, made an unintentionally acute attempt to redeem Pound’s wartime radio propaganda: “at their core the speeches are a document of anti-war literature. Incidentally, much that he said against “U.S. economic aggression” made good sense and has an affinity with the more recent polemic of Noam Chomsky”(6); he also described the subject of Canto 73 (see below) as being “like a suicide bomber.” Cookson was sharper than he realised, perhaps: there is the distinct shade of anti-capitalist and anti-American politics that unites far-left and right in the subject matter of The Cantos and Pound’s politics; an attachment to crank economics and conspiracy theory that leads, eventually and inexorably, from left or right, into the gutter of anti-Semitism. (If Pound had been writing today, would there be a Bilderberg canto?)

Cantos 72 and 73 are the low point of Pound’s own descent into Inferno in the tragi-comic form of Mussolini’s fall. The poems were both composed in 1943 in Italian, as the fascist dream collapsed in Italy with the Allied invasion and German occupation of the peninsula. Pound fled North, on foot and by train, sleeping in the open and eating with peasants, to link up with the remaining regime loyalists at Lake Garda. After returning to Rapallo he committed himself fully to the Axis cause, writing newspaper articles and manifestos in defence of the new republic. Salò appealed to him, as it did to other early Italian Fascists who had become disillusioned with the ‘Mussolinism’ of the Thirties; there was purity and potential in this new experiment, an uncompromised, activist esprit de corps that revived memories of the old movement. Mussolini was returning to socialism and syndicalism, while squadristi and regime protection rackets tortured and killed with impunity on the streets of Rome and Milan. The intellectuals and thugs were in charge, extremists like Roberto Farinacci and Alessandro Pavolini: a lethal combination. Pound wrote his two cantos for this regime to use against the Allies: they were propaganda pieces, advanced cases of fascist martyrology and idealism. Pound had apparently been further enthused by the violent, quasi-mystical defiance of Mussolini’s final public speech in Milan, 1944.

72 and 73 are evidence for the prosecution of Pound. In preceding poems he had prepared the ground for this full ideological and aesthetic embrace of the Axis cause. Canto 35, for example, presented a nasty satirical portrait of pre-war Viennese Jewish society. Canto 38 introduced Pound’s new and tragic obsessions: the arms trade and the Social Credit theory of Major C. H. Douglas. In Canto 41, the poet explicitly hailed il Duce (or “the Boss”). In Cantos 45, 46 and 51 the mortal enemy was identified: “usury,” the destroyer of civilisations. By 72 and 73 the contemporary forces of usury had been specified: “Geryon, prototype of Churchill’s backers”; “Roosevelt, Churchill, and Eden,/the Jews, the bastards,/swindlers, the whole lot liars…” All of this was in the air, of course, but the Jews were an obsession for Pound at a time when Mussolini’s regime still employed them, a situation altered by the 1938 racial laws (7). While not an overt Nazi sympathiser (though he shared their paganism and susceptibility to the occult) Pound’s anti-Semitism was more pronounced than many of the original Italian Fascists, and was there to be exploited when necessary, as Orwell recalled: “I remember at least one [broadcast] in which he approved of the massacre of the East European Jews and “warned” the American Jews that their turn was coming presently.” (8)

Pound’s full identification with the cause and methods of Italian Fascism is revealed in 72 and 73, exposing his doctrinaire extremism. Pound’s family and backers were aware of their damaging potential, and the Ezra Pound Estate has never been willing to authorise English translations of the poems; they were excised from the New Directions and Faber Cantos until the 1987 edition, when they were finally included as an appendix, in Italian and without notes. Even now, 72 and 73 are considered aberrations, rather than (as they are) exemplars of The Cantos’ dark energy and ideological propulsion. These poems are a logical outcome of the ideas and loyalties laid out in Pound’s epic; they are also a key moment in the poet’s own personal and aesthetic journey, a basic underlying pattern and narrative of his work. They express the despair and defiance of the loyalists of Salò: the men who stuck with Mussolini and imposed fascism in Northern Italy in pure, totalitarian form, without the compromise of private business, monarchy or the Vatican. These two cantos are Salò poems: the driving forces of the Italian Social Republic — defiance and loss, sacrifice and redemption — are played out, embodied in them.

So 72 and 73 not only reveal but explicitly confirm Pound’s intimacy with and loyalty to the actual actors and characters who theorised, built and ran the fascist state. Canto 72 exhumes the spirit of Marinetti, killed on the Russian front, but eager to return to the fight in Pound’s body: “I want to go on fighting/& I want your body to go on with the struggle.” Who, in this poem, is the fight against? “[T]he great usurer Geryon,” Dante’s symbol of Fraud and “prototype of Churchill’s backers.” Pound is the poem’s centre, its vessel, visited by four spirits (or “voices”): Marinetti; the librarian and translator Manilio Dazzi; the Venetian tyrant Ezalino da Romano; and (briefly) the Empress Galla Placidia. The tone is elegiac, as well as defiant: Pound is an interlocutor, weary and at one remove, but these voices also appear to transmit his owns instincts and obsessions. Romano lauds Farinacci — the former Fascist ras and party secretary described by Denis Mack Smith as “vindictive, ambitious…a dedicated believer in political violence” (9) — in terms that match Pound’s own obsessions: as one who has “seen thru the swindle” of the “followers of fattened usury.” He is “honoured by the heroes,” among them the fallen Italian Fascist generals intoned by Romano and listed by Pound, but singled out with approval because of his fanaticism and anti-Semitism. It doesn’t seem to me that Pound is distancing this selection by making it Romano’s; rather Farinacci is elevated, in this poem of loyalty, violence and despair, to a fascist hero, a figure close to Pound’s own ideal: man of action and enemy of usury. The poet is not simply channelling his apparitions, but engaging in ventriloquism: Pound uses them to convey personal obsessions and ideals.

Canto 73 is more explicit. The poet is at the service of the regime. This time Pound invokes Guido Cavalcanti, the medieval Florentine scribe and associate of Dante, to recall a contemporary story of an Italian peasant girl who, raped by Canadian troops, takes revenge by leading them into a minefield. The tone is rapturous: an ecstatic martyrdom in the genre of fascist and Nazi iconography: kitsch, quasi-mystical. She is pictured singing with joy, “so brave a spirit”, holding two Germans by the arm, “singing of love.” This is camaraderie within the Pact of Steel, but the girl has “no desire for heaven”: she becomes “defiant of death” only after her violation by Allied soldiers, that “filthy pack.” These are the shock troops of “Roosevelt, Churchill, and Eden,” the pawns of Jewish bankers and arms dealers, rampaging through Italy, desecrating ancient temples and raping small girls. Her death is an instance of the fascist ideal, and her spirit the expression of its soul: “the child’s spirit/courageously/sang/sang…Glory of the fatherland!/Glorious, it is glorious/to die for one’s country/in Romangna.” This is propaganda, and Pound sells his lyric gift to do it: the poem is ugly, crude, tedious. It remains interesting as fascist and Nazi art, tapping into neo-pagan, neo-Romantic volk iconography of German National Socialism and the neo-classical, militaristic kitsch of Italian Fascism. By the middle of the war years, the divisions, separations and tensions within and between the fascist states and movements had become less distinct or important, and Pound’s poems convey this pan-fascist aesthetic, an ideal clarified by Romanian Iron Guard leader Horia Sima: “We must cease to separate the spiritual from the political man. All history is a commentary upon the life of the spirit” (10). These words could summarise Pound’s ultimate intention for The Cantos.

Pound’s supporters creep from defence of the poetry to absolution of the poet; they appear to take his recantations at face value and over-estimate personal relations. (For example, Zukofsky: “I never felt the least trace of anti-Semitism in his presence. Nothing he ever said to me made me feel the embarrassment I always have for the ‘Goy’ in whom a residue of antagonism to ‘Jew’ remains.”) I think Orwell was correct to hold the poet to account for his rhetoric and his opinions; he was also right to dismiss the plea of insanity that Pound would adopt to save his own skin. Pound’s broadcasts, wrote Orwell, “did not give me the impression of being the work of a lunatic”; the poet was a clever propagandist who knew exactly how to play to an isolationist and anti-Allied audience. At Pound’s trial, the Superintendent of St Elizabeths hospital, Dr. Winfrid Overholser, was asked to present his confirmation of Pound’s insanity; however, he did not reveal to the court that his own doctors disagreed with his conclusions and considered Pound to be “merely eccentric and wanted to see him tried and convicted” (11). To accept that Pound was simply “insane” when he composed his polemics, be they Rome Radio scripts or Cantos 72 and 73, is to some extent to accept that all of The Cantos are deranged doodles, a repository of crank conspiracy theories and junk verse, psychological case studies rather than art. Orwell, for one, considered Pound’s work to be “spurious” as poetry, although not because the poet was mad; Robert Conquest did his own forensic demolition job on Pound’s classical pretensions and mistakes, in an attempt to undermine the poet’s carefully cultivated authority.

For modern poetry, or what is left of it (if anything), The Cantos remain, as Delmore Schwartz described them, a touchstone. Or as Basil Bunting wrote: “you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.” You don’t need to reject the poetry along with the politics, or make weak attempts to minimise or separate the politics to redeem the poems. It is a fragmented, incomplete, incoherent, incandescent epic of a life that veers (and veered) between intense evil and luminous insight. Because of this, it retains a unique tension, an awful tautness despite the diffuse elements and ranging references. It can be disgusting and invigorating, vile and beautiful; the fracture of form and rupture of language it initiates keeps its many parts alive. Fascism and anti-Semitism are unavoidable forces in The Cantos that must be faced and understood; they do not reduce but complicate and deepen the poem’s power.

1) Quoted in Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound (Penguin,1974), p.546
2) Quoted in William Cookson, A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound (Anvil Press, 2001), p.144
3) Quoted in Stock, p.586-7
4) George Orwell, ‘A Prize for Ezra Pound’, Essays (Everyman Library, 2002), p.1363
5) Orwell, p.1362
6) Cookson, p.115
7) See especially Renzo de Felice, The Jews in Fascist Italy (Enigma, 2004)
8) Orwell, p.1362
9) Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini (Paladin,1983), p.81
10) Quoted in George L. Mosse, The Fascist Revolution — Toward a General Theory of Fascism (Howard Fertig, Inc., 1999), p.12
11) Stock, p.538

Posted in Italy, Literature, USA | 1 Comment

5 Days of War (Renny Harlin, 2011)

610x

Ever since the glory days of Cliffhanger and Die Hard 2, Renny Harlin has been a reliable Hollywood hack: an artiste of the brash, the brutal, and the High Concept. Like Tony Scott but without the subtleties, or a budget Bruckheimer brat, his films are made to be consumed and discarded, leaving only the clearest traces of adrenaline. Apart from one lost period in the straight-to-DVD wilderness of neo-horror and wrestling promos, his career has remained modestly bouyant and uncomplicated. There is, however, one intriguing anomaly.

In 2009, Harlin agreed to direct a movie about the South Ossetia war between Georgia and Russia. I remember hearing about this film at the time and would not have guessed that the director of Deep Blue Sea would be at the helm — but there he was. The genesis of this project is obscure and slightly murky, although there are intriguing leads to follow. For example, it is interesting to know that the executive producer was a Georgian parliamentarian and party colleague of President Mikheil Saakashvili, or that the film’s funds were channeled through a shadowy Georgian mining company that nobody had ever heard of. It is useful, I would say, to learn that it was shot on location in Georgia with parliamentary buildings and military hardware leant to the film crew for free.  With such sponsors, the product could only be unapologetic propaganda and the Finnish director was clearly the man for the job: like the Georgians, he knew a thing or two about Russian aggression, although this kind of combustible material strayed far from Cutthroat Island.

5 Days starts like a stupid Scoop in a raucous Tbilisi bar with a gang of hard-boozing war reporters swapping jaundiced wise-cracks and hitting on waitresses. They have come from all over their battle-scarred world to watch the Russian tanks roll into South Ossetia, drawn by brand new trouble like — why not employ a cliché? — moths to a flame. The clichés, in fact, roll thick and fast: a mélange of Mahogany Ridge, Bang-Bang Club and “anybody here been raped and speak English?” These reporters and photographers are a mixed pack of high-functioning addicts and trapped adolescents: irresponsible, self-centred, and driven by personal demons. They have flak jackets, notebooks, flash cameras and cool Zippo lighters. They have a cynical disdain for humanity, yet care too much to leave it alone. They are good people at heart: flawed, but always on hand to expose evil when it happens. There is a thin layer of Human Rights Watch pornography grafted on to the Tony Scott turbulence, a liberal indulgence possibly inspired by Harlin’s own proximity to the heart of the conflict. (He is not wrong on this, either.)

We follow American television reporter Thomas Anders (Rupert Fiend) and British cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Richard Goyle) deep into the Caucasus maelstrom and a lot of awful things start happening very quickly. Russian Su-25s zoom out of the deep black Georgian night and fire missiles at a rural wedding party. Innocent, good-looking revelers are shredded. Roadblocks manned by thick-faced Russian irregulars delay cars in which people are visibly dying in back seats. Unhinged Ossetian militiamen rampage through Georgian villages, looting homes, raping daughters and murdering local leaders. In captivity, Anders is menaced by a gruff general of the veteran class who explains why the Russians have let him loose: “they know we will finish the job. For us it is personal!” (Or something: this is not a script that lingers.)

Anders and Ganz manage to capture one gratuitous Ossetian atrocity on camera and the plot builds on their quest to broadcast this footage to a world otherwise distracted by the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing. Georgia’s plight barely makes the international news agenda.  Mikheil goes berserk in the Presidential Palace as Bush and Sarkozy ignore pleas for military intervention. Sarkozy, at the time, did have his own agenda, which involved appeasement of the Putin regime, but Bush had no excuse. As the film underscores, Georgia sent the third largest contingent of troops to Iraq and Saakashvili had made hopeful steps towards membership of NATO and the EU. He felt like he’d earned some protection — or even a response — from Western leaders as the Kremlin threatened to overthrow his regime and occupy his country. This was a critical moment of political drama that the film inexplicably fails to capture: the President and his aides holed up in the Palace, making desperate calls to hesitant allies, waiting for the Russian army to arrive.

This is all fine, incidentally: an open case made with digital precision, wild pyrotechnics and silly stereotypes. At a Los Angeles screening in 2011, the real Saakashvili stood up in front of an audience thick with expatriate Georgians to proclaim 5 Days a “masterpiece” — and, for him, what else could it be? There’s Andy Garcia playing his role with slick Godfather III-style vim and sheen, steadfast as the Kremlin War Machine bears down on lonely, defiant Tbilisi. Oozing oily charisma this Mikheil Garcia amalgam is outraged by Putin’s “unprovoked” aggression: “my country is innocent!” he barks at a squirming American aide, as Georgian partisans climb under their seats. (Does Garcia’s suit shine harder than his hair? It is so hard to tell, but it is with the real Saakashvili, too. This is Harlin’s idea of Method Acting.)

In fact, as Russians and other critics of the film correctly point out, hostilities began with a Georgian assault on Tskhinvali rather than a Russian invasion, but if the film fails to mention this then it also does not explain that Georgian action was provoked by the ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia (the war’s second front) and Russia’s covert sponsorship of separatism in South Ossetia . This was secession by social engineering and annexation by stealth: an on-going aggressive territorial move by Russia designed to dismember Georgia in retribution for the offence of independence, given extra impetus by Putin’s personal animosity to Saakashvili. You will note that the Kremlin’s enthusiasm for South Ossetian “independence” did not extend to North Ossetia, larger and more populated and yet within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. It did not extend to Chechnya, to say the least.

Therefore, even in the context of  Harlin’s pro-Georgian propaganda flick, Saakashvili can be outraged at Russia’s “unprovoked” aggression and get away with it, because he’s right. Furthermore, the portrayal of random Russian air strikes and marauding Ossetian militias is not without foundation, or even far-fetched. The city of Gori, the film’s final battlefield, really was hit by Russian cluster bombs and despoiled by Ossetian gangs as Georgian troops retreated to defend Tbilisi. (In fact, to track the film’s narrative even closer, a Dutch journalist was actually killed by a Russian cluster bomb in Gori’s central square.) Action-hack PR this may be, but the lies aren’t lies.

Harlin gets the underlying narrative of the war just about right. This was a case of provocative and pre-meditated Russian imperialism that threatened the physical integrity of independent Georgia. Saakashvili had no option but to react with force. He was, at this alarming moment, both courageous and correct. His performance, you could say, was almost worthy of Andy Garcia.

Posted in Cinema, Georgia, Russia | Leave a comment

Spirit of ’45 (Ken Loach, 2013)

Clement-Attlee-005

The new Ken Loach film Spirit of ‘45 opens with British Pathé footage of elated crowds in Trafalgar Square on the day victory was declared in Europe: friends and strangers dancing together in the fountains, having just defeated Hitler. His survey of the post-war Attlee government continues in much the same way, swaying gently between the maudlin and the militant. It is not an exercise in nostalgia but a clarion call for action directed at the Left. At least that’s the way Ken sees it, and that’s how he expects you to see it, too. But the thing is, I don’t think I do. This is all nostalgia, and almost fantasy.

The film’s premise, in its simplicity, is both uplifting and reassuring. British workers, formerly rotting in slums or on the edge of unemployment in unregulated, profit-driven industries and competitive services, united under central state planning to fight fascism. This led, after the war, to a collective optimism and the selection of socialism at the polls — or the version of socialism then being offered by the Labour party, anyway. This is Loach’s “spirit”, a national mood that was also a socialist spirit: when the British were at their best, choosing things Loach likes.

This is a hero story and the unspoken hero is not, in fact, Clement Attlee but Nye Bevan. It is Bevan who believes, who orates, and who builds; the visionary from Tredegar who broke the vested interests of private health practitioners and laid the foundation for the rapid expansion of post-war social housing. Bevan is at the core of Loach’s narrative, a great beacon and lost seer, knifed by Gaitskell and buried by the P.L.P. His reputation is burnished on screen by ex-nurses, doctors and physicians ostensibly chosen to represent their profession, but actually chosen because of their socialist credentials and links to Loach. (This partisan selectivity means that we must also endure the pontifications of John Rees and Tony Benn.) There is, therefore, a slightly occluded counter-narrative within this film that, in a sense or even essentially, junks the very version of Labour it pays tribute to. It is the same counter-narrative, or insurgency, of the left-wing of the Labour movement, the constituency activists and councillors who glorified Bevan and scorned the Parliamentary Party. The battles are old, the wounds open.

Spirit of ‘45 is a panegyric, but also a piece of sectarian propaganda. It is full of coded digs at enemies within Labour, but also decks out the wicked witch in pantomime drag. There is a crude cut from the great works of Attlee to the iniquities of Thatcher, a blunt edit that swallows thirty years whole, thus losing context, responsibility and logic. Here, it gets laughable. Outside Downing Street, Thatcher delivers her famous St Francis of Assisi speech, and Loach elevates the baying crowd of protestors in the sound mix to retrospectively drown her out. A glib young economics lecturer presents a cartoon reduction of Hayek’s already reductive Road to Serfdom thesis, and therefore fails to dislodge its simple power. A former NUM shop steward exposes Milton Friedman and “The Chicago School” as the sinister force driving Thatcher’s neo-liberal coup; in the background, Loach rolls footage of brash young traders flashing leather Filofaxes and mobile phones the size of bricks on the London Stock Exchange floor. Bang! Along came The Milk Snatcher to destroy the legacy of Attlee with an ideology of cruelty and greed, smashing trade unions and coal communities with a militarised police force fed fresh wads of cash to wave in the faces of jobless miners. It was the beginning of a long period of Restoration. If it wasn’t fascism, it might as well have been. At some point, the clichés Loach deploys begin to topple each other.

He does not ask why large sectors of the working class actually voted for Thatcher. At least, his film ignores the fact that political choice or sympathy does not reduce to interests, or self-interest: the appeal of conservatism, even in the conflicted and insurgent form of Thatcherism, is also moral, ethical and patriotic. By failing to recognise or credit the factors behind Thatcher’s two genuine electoral victories (’83 and ’87), Labour, the Left and allied trade unions suffered a tactical and strategic defeat of their own making. For Militant, the Trotskyite parties and some of the unions, this was richly deserved; for the trade union movement as a whole and the Labour Party itself, these self-inflicted wounds were avoidable and tragic. Re-drawing the Spitting Image caricatures, Loach makes the same mistakes in exactly the same way all over again.

Loach further compounds these errors by overestimating Attlee — or, we ought to say, Bevan. He makes no reference to the economic realities of the period. In the Loach version, Labour promised socialism and then, with almost unlimited generosity, started to implement it. But at this time Labour, and the country, was bailed out by massive financial loans from America and Canada, injections of capital that kept Britain solvent after the abrupt end of Lend Lease. This compromising situation was given added flavour by the virulent anti-Americanism of the Labour left and their hero Bevan who, nevertheless, began to build his health service and council houses while Britain lived on borrowed dollars.

The Labour Party was not prepared for office in 1945. They were more prepared than they had been in 1938, simply by having occupied cabinet positions during the war; but they did not, at any moment during the election, expect to win. To the Labour ministers of the wartime coalition, Churchill appeared to be unbeatable in 1945; Dalton, for one, wished to extend the coalition into peacetime (1). For this reason, Let Us Face the Future, Labour’s election manifesto, made extravagant claims and lavish promises, and irrevocably commited the party and the country to state socialism. Labour ministers believed that the architecture and machinery was already in place in the form of wartime planning; there was also the cornerstone of, and national enthusiasm for, Beveridge. Labour could ride this; their manifesto could exploit it. Their case was eloquent but irresponsible. Loach treats the manifesto like a Holy Book, intoned with reverence over footage of slums and mines, but it was a wild rhetorical gamble that courted catastrophe.

But even this inept effort by Loach cannot diminish the great activity and ambition of those years, or their radical and far-reaching effects and legacies. The Attlee administration was flawed, almost dysfunctional, and launched on bluff, but through manic application driven by fear, ambition, personality and idealism it rebuilt Britain along new lines. This was the achievement of men like Dalton and Gaitskell, not just Bevan and Cripps: the forerunners of Healey and Blair, men the left and Loach would reject with the venom reserved for apostates and imposters. Bound by old resentments and older ideas, the film does not even begin to ask the interesting or necessary questions. It celebrates something that is almost fictional. For this reason, and also on technical and aesthetic levels (the flat digital monochrome, the hackneyed score, the crass edits), it is a lazy film: partial, sentimental and possibly pointless.

At the dawn of ‘Blairism’, Richard Cockett wrote:

Much as Keynesianism might have been useful doctrine in the 1930s, when it was largely rejected by governments, so economic liberalism would have been of enormous benefit to the country if used by governments in the 1950s, when the British economy was still strong enough to adapt and survive in a competitive international environment. As it was, economic liberalism as applied in the 1980s effectively wiped out a large part of Britain’s manufacturing industry and, at the end of a decade of economic experiment and dislocation, left as many people unemployed as there were in the 1930s. (2)

The Attlee government, like the Thatcher administrations to which it is now compared, imposed a radical and doctrinaire suite of policies that defied the economic reality of its time. In both cases, they were courageous but also dangerous regimes. They caused great damage, but they were also necessary governments, as their immediate successors recognised. Loach, meanwhile, is still catching up. Or is he trying to reverse the clock? Is he, actually, just a conservative?

(1) See Ben Pimlott, Hugh Dalton (Harpercollins, 1984), ‘Coalition Poker’
(2) Richard Cockett, Thinking the Unthinkable — Think-Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution, 1931-1983 (Fontana Press, 1995), p. 330

Posted in Cinema, UK, USA | Leave a comment

Iron Lady vs. Iron Lady

maggie

The corpse of Margaret Thatcher will be carried into St Paul’s Cathedral today by ten pallbearers representing key Falklands combat units. This is, of course, quite appropriate. The Falklands war came to symbolise Thatcher’s kitsch brand of nationalism but also delivered the solid electoral mandate that sanctioned her radical Hayekian experiment. The terminal dissolution of industry and manufacturing in the United Kingdom necessitated, as she knew, a political and physical conflict. For Thatcher and her small ring of government allies, the foreign and domestic fights were comparable, even linked, in rhetoric and practice. She made this explicit in July, 1984: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.” The key difference being: the Falklands was a fudge, a scramble, a gamble; against the NUM, she was fully prepared.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has not been invited to the funeral. (Although, in an inappropriate diplomatic touch, the Argentine Ambassador Alicia Castro is welcome: this distinction both makes the point and saves face on either side.) The current on-going spat between the UK Coalition government and the Kirchner administration is a fitting backdrop to Thatcher’s ceremonial send-off. The Falklands dispute remains unresolved over thirty years after the war: a light geopolitical fault-line that is, nevertheless, deceptively dangerous for both countries, fragile as they currently are. In April 1982, the UN had to arbitrate between the sovereign rights of British subjects and the anti-colonial claims of a Peronist junta. Allan Gerson, U.S. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick’s legal aide, noted that during the crisis the Israeli and Syrian delegations in Turtle Bay “looked unusually relaxed. They were, it seemed, on a sportsmen’s holiday observing others now trying to manipulate as adroitly as they had on very different occasions the language of aggression, self-defence, self-determination, and “inalienable rights” to suit their purposes.” (1) As in the periodic Arab-Israeli wars, victory simply resolved a short-term contest while keeping the fundamental conflict in deep-freeze. The recent Malvinas revival has been stirred by a populist regime in Argentina and the whiff of Atlantic oil and gas reserves: the conflict always remained, waiting.

Kirkpatrick, the other Iron Lady of the period, was sent to the UN by Reagan precisely because of her rigid anti-totalitarianism, academic élan and non-diplomatic chutzpah. Thatcher and Kirkpatrick looked like political twins, but never actually interacted on the public stage and maintained a frosty indifference to each other. This was partly because of similarities, but mainly due to differences. It is worth recalling Kirkpatrick’s background in the Young People’s Socialist League and the ‘Scoop’ Jackson wing of the Democratic Party; a record Reagan could tolerate, but was anathema to Thatcher as she prepared to battle the trade unions at home. In a 1985 speech, Kirkpatrick declared: “It is true that I am a convert to what are known today as conservative associations. Like many converts, I do not find the experience easy. I would rather be a liberal.” (2) This was not the conviction conservatism of Thatcher the True Blue Believer. Even Kirkpatrick’s uncompromising anti-communism stemmed from a very different source to Thatcher’s, following the Cold War liberal tradition of Truman, Kennedy and Jackson.

But the main dividing line between Thatcher and Kirkpatrick was Argentina, and the division was dramatic. Kirkpatrick was Galtieri’s strongest ally inside the Reagan Administration and a heroine in Argentina. The junta considered her influential Commentary essay ‘Dictatorships and Double Standards’ to be a theoretical justification for their Dirty War, an impression Kirkpatrick never corrected. (The regime was notorious for slitting open the stomachs of left wing activists and throwing them out of helicopters into the freezing Atlantic, among other inventive atrocities.) The war between Argentina and Britain fully tested Kirkpatrick’s thesis, and Thatcher’s close alliance with Pinochet (and Chile’s own neo-liberal project) supported her analysis. When the conflict broke out, Kirkpatrick counselled neutrality and Reagan almost concurred, such was her sway. (How could he choose between his Iron Ladies?) This inspired Sir Nicholas Henderson’s poisonous dismissal of Kirkpatrick as “one of America’s own-goal scorers, tactless, wrong-headed, ineffective, and a dubious tribute to the academic profession.” (3) For Kirkpatrick, the issue was absurd: “for America to sacrifice its new and hard-won position in South America, where a number of nations [teeter] on the brink of Marxism, all for the sake of the Falklands, [is] lunacy.” (4)

Ultimately, in this case, Kirkpatrick was wrong. As Caspar Weinberger advised Reagan, the Atlantic alliance was key to U.S. Cold War strategy and more important than the South American anti-communist dictatorships. (These were, if anything, a liability, as the Falklands definitively proved.) Thatcher did not go to war against Argentina to remove a fascist junta from power and install democracy, although this was a net gain. She had no quarrel with Galtieri’s former Condor allies and was not notably moved by their harrowing human rights records. This was simply a scrappy territorial dispute, not a matter of ideology or morality. As the Shadow Foreign Secretary Denis Healey later wrote, the Falklands war “would not have happened if the Government had shown a spark of the courage and competence before April 2nd 1982 which brought it to victory soon afterwards.” (5) It broke out of because of Thatcher’s own fecklessness and inexperience, inspiring hubris among the Argentine generals; it was won by her own will and nerve, which brought them down. When Reagan, prompted by Kirkpatrick, urged magnanimity in victory, she refused point blank, telling Henderson: “There’s no possibility whatever in what they are thinking of…We have lost a lot of blood, and it’s the best blood. Do they not realise that it is an issue of principle?” (6) In the end, Thatcher acted to protect British interests and uphold international law. In so doing, she removed a key Reagan ally from power and vanquished the Iron Lady of Turtle Bay.

1) Allan Gerson, The Kirkpatrick Mission (The Free Press, 1991), p.122
2) Quoted in Clifford D. May, ‘Jeane Kirkpatrick’s War’, National Review, August 9th 2012
3) Quoted in John F. Burns, ‘Papers Show Rare Friction for Thatcher and Reagan’, New York Times, December 28th, 2012
4) Quoted in Gerson, p.117
5) Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (Penguin, 1990), p.493
6) Quoted in John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher, Volume Two: The Iron Lady (Vintage, 2008), p.152

Posted in Argentina, UK, United Nations, USA | Leave a comment

The Oldest Enemies of Saddam

an_image_from_saddam_husseins_private_photo_album_4

The United States allowed Iraq to send Republican Guard units into southern cities and to fly helicopter gunships. (This in spite of a ban on flights, articulated by General Norman Schwarzkopf with considerable swagger: “You fly, you die.”) The consequences were devastating. Hussein’s forces levelled the historical centres of the Shi’ite towns, bombarded sacred Shi’ite shrines and executed thousands on the spot. By some estimates, 100,000 people died in reprisal killings between March and September. Many of these atrocities were committed in proximity to American troops, who were under orders not to intervene.
Peter Galbraith, ‘The Ghosts of 1991’ (1)

In his 2011 memoir From Dictatorship to Democracy – An Insider’s Account of the Iraqi Opposition to Saddam, Hamid al-Bayati recalls the moment his organisation, the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), received a copy of Saddam’s plan to drain the Tigris-Euphrates Marshes of Southern Iraq. The document they obtained outlined a five stage process designed to divide the major wetlands and divert the River Euphrates by building enormous dams, barriers and dykes. “Clearly,” al-Bayati notes, “Saddam had one objective: to destroy the environment of the Marshes. The stages were directives […] carried out with brutal force to ensure their implementation even as the whole plan was shrouded in mystery.” (2) It was a programme intended to wipe out a community, a culture, a way of life. It was a second attempt at genocide.

Saddam had a pressing strategic aim here. He had always had trouble with the Marshes, from the guerrilla fighters dug in around the town of Al-Majar al-Kabir to the bandits prowling along the Basra-Baghdad highway (3). After the Shi’ite rebellion in the south, the SCIRI and their paramilitary unit Badr Corps used the thick cover of the reeds to regroup and organise the next phase of their campaign. “Accordingly,” writes al-Bayati, “Saddam began to target the Marshes with planes, tanks and artillery.” (4) This was a double assault of heavy weaponry and civil engineering. The scope of his extermination project was staggering, and the human, cultural and environmental destruction vast. Despite these facts, international political exposure and media coverage remained minimal until too late. Until, in fact, it was almost over.

As the SCIRI spokesman based in London, al-Bayati had the desperate task of publicising this carnage in Europe and America. He found early and invaluable Westminster allies in Foreign Office mandarin Julian Walker and (then) Conservative MP Emma Nicholson (5); he would later take a prominent place on the board of INDICT, the anti-Ba’ath lobby organisation chaired by Labour MP Ann Clwyd. The international opposition to Saddam and his Ba’ath agents and assassins was a brave and brittle and contentious alliance that veered from unexpected success to abject failure (and back again) throughout the Nineties. The various groups that made up a broad and often disunited front had their own agendas, vendettas and masters. Of the Shia parties, the SCIRI had Iran, while Dawa looked to the remaining Iraqi clergy; a nationalist group of ex-Ba’athists formed the nucleus of Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord, and found favour with the CIA, MI5 and the UK Foreign Office; Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress had the strong backing of neoconservatives in the Pentagon and Dick Cheney’s office. Meanwhile, the two main Kurdish parties of Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani had their own complex and contested network of alliances spread between Washington, Iran and Europe. The majority of Iraq’s future democratic leaders would be drawn from this large pool of exiles and rebels. It is a tale that is both unedifying and inspiring in equal measure, but is now largely untold in any detailed or accurate way. 

Al-Bayati’s memoir is, as yet, one of the few correctives to a legacy of occlusion and slander but is, in itself, imperfect and skewed. The author tells his story on behalf of the SCIRI (and its leadership, the powerful Shi’ite dynasty of al-Hakim) but rarely mentions the Revolutionary Republic of Iran, the party’s principal patron and protector. SCIRI, now renamed the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, remains the primary vessel for Iranian interests in Iraq. The organisation was a major source of sectarian animosity in the Sunni-Shia civil war of 2005-6 and corruption during the administration of Ibrahim al-Jafaari. The Iranian link had always been the defining detail of SCIRI, a cause of understandable suspicion and concern among Coalition  leaders. The final days of the Iran-Iraq war, to pick one telling example, was fought through proxies, as Saddam deployed his Persian MEK guerrillas against Khomeini’s SCIRI Arabs.

So, from raised Kurdish villages to drained Ma’dan marshlands, the argument in favour of Iraqi sovereignty had collapsed long before 2003. What the 2002-3 anti-war protesters were defending, in effect if not intention, was the sovereignty of Saddam Hussein and his remaining military and security loyalists. The “Three Cities Plan” that the INC presented to U.S. officials in 1993 was drawn up precisely on the basis of this loss of sovereignty (6). Kurdish and INC militias would take Mosul and Kirkuk in the north as the SCIRI captured Basra, strengthened en route by defecting military commanders. The territory controlled by Saddam would be salami-sliced to the outskirts of Baghdad in a forerun of the U.S. war plan of 2003. The underlying rationale was that the regime had lost all legitimacy in Iraq and held territory by force and through terror. (In the event, there was no support from the Clinton Administration or the CIA. Consequently, the joint INC and PUK Northern Offensive of 1995 suffered a bloody rout by the Republican Guard.)

This was reinforced by legal arguments. The “illegal war” canard is, ten years on, very much alive, boosted in 2004 by Kofi Annan’s misplaced and mistaken assertion that the war was an illegal violation of the UN Charter (7). On March 27, 2003, the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva held a vote on human rights abuses in Iraq connected to the war; had the motion succeeded, it would have undermined the legitimacy of U.S. action. Jeane Kirkpatrick was asked to present the case for America, and the argument was tight but also preserved a crucial distinction. She recalls:

What I argued in Geneva with my team of advocates was that the 2003 act of force on Iraq was not going to war. It was, rather, the continuation of the 1991 Gulf War, and thus wholly permissible under the rule of law. UN resolution 687, which contains the terms of the cease-fire with Iraq, and which was negotiated during the interruption of the first Gulf War, had clearly been violated. Indeed, Iraq had never fulfilled the terms of the 1991 cease-fire agreement. Resolution 687 was as valid in 2003 as it was in April 1991 and as it is today. The legal authority to use force to address Iraq’s material breaches was and remains clear, and is a matter of record. So the case I presented to the international community in Geneva in March 2003 at the bequest of the Bush administration was an argument based on the rule of law, not an argument on behalf of the Bush administration’s assertion of its right to pre-emptive action in self-defense. (8)

This argument did enough to win the UN vote, and echoed the advice given to Tony Blair by Lord Goldsmith. At the core of this legal case, and of all cases of foreign intervention military or otherwise, was the question of sovereignty and it limits. In the Marshes, from 1992 right up until his deposition, Saddam did not simply kill enemy combatants or murder civilians: he wiped out an entire way of life and destroyed an enormous and unique part of Iraq’s natural landscape and cultural heritage. This was genocide and ecocide combined, completed with totalitarian scale, ambition and technical detail. It was driven by the same personal ambition and sectarian impulse that led to the torture and murder of Shi’ite, Sunni and Christian scholars and the demolition of Iraq’s historic shrines, churches and seminaries. Saddam was determined to eliminate Iraq’s intellectual, theological and cultural history and identity, and replace it with his own image, and in his own interest. As al-Bayati writes:

Saddam tampered with every single brick in the historical city of Babylon and replaced them with new ones bearing the initial “SH” in Arabic. His policy was to change everything in Iraq according to the interests of Saddam, his family, and the Baath Party, including the names of historical places, public streets, and squares. (9)

This created a monstrous wasteland of brutal kitsch that culminated in the horrific Triumphal Arch built to celebrate “victory” in the Iran-Iraq war. The Arch embodied the pathological and violent megalomania Saddam imposed on Iraqi society; this object and the psychology behind it was analysed and dissected by Kanan Makiya in his elegant and haunting study The Monument (10).

This is the antithesis of popular sovereignty: at best, Saddam retained the loyalty of a small caste of Sunni hardliners and terrified Ba’ath officials or implicated sadists and murderers. In the end, he only had his tribe; even family members were touch-and-go, as the doomed defection of his son-in-laws Hussein Kamel al-Majid and Saddam Kamel (along with their wives) demonstrated. This was borne out by the Coalition’s lightning victory, which reinforced complacency and arrogance within the American command. Hardly anybody, even among the Republican Guard, proved willing to fight for Saddam. But, from late-2003 onwards, many would be willing to fight the blundering and brutal occupying armies.

(1) Peter Galbraith, ‘The Ghosts of 1991’ Washington Post, December 12th, 2003
(2) Hamid al-Bayati, From Dictatorship to Democracy – An Insider’s Account of the Iraqi Opposition to Saddam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), p.33
(3) Patrick Cockburn, The Occupation – War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso, 2006), p.111
(4) Hamid al-Bayati, p.30
(5) Nicholson would eventually drift away from SCIRI (to Bayati’s obvious dismay) alienated by the religious intransigence and arrogance of Sayyid Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim. Nevertheless, she stayed the course and in the run-up to the 2003 invasion made a crucial and neglected point about Saddam’s support for terrorism in a speech given to the House of Lords. For all the chatter about phantom al-Qaida connections or the whereabouts of Abu Nidal or slush-funds for Palestinian “martyrs” nobody had mentioned the fact that Saddam still protected the core leadership and cadres of the MEK in camps inside Iraq. Despite its own propaganda in Western capitals, the MEK remained a murderous cult of personality responsible for bombs and assassinations on the streets of Europe, America and Iran. It incarcerated its own ideological deviants in prison camps on Iraqi territory. Saddam has used their combat units to suppress the Kurdish uprisings and incorporated them into his increasingly paranoid and unpredictable security apparatus throughout the Nineties. Nicholson, alone, made this delicate point.
(6) Laurie Mylroie, ‘The United States and the Iraqi National Congress’, Middle East Forum (2001)
(7) ‘Iraq war illegal, says Annan’, BBC News, September 16th , 2004
(8) Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Making War to Keep Peace (Harpercollins, 2007), p.281
(9) Hamid al-Bayati, p. 274
(10) Kanan Makiya, The Monument – Art and Vulgarity in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (I.B. Tauris, 2003)

Posted in Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Terror Network, UK, United Nations, USA | Leave a comment

Ben Jonson Interlude

Arcimboldo---Vertemnus-454x417

During an extended walking (and boozing) tour of his ancestral lands in 1618-9, Ben Jonson stayed at Hawthornden Castle as a guest of William Drummond. His host, a pompous, second-tier Scottish peddler of Petrarchan sonnets, scribbled down notes throughout this visit, later published with the title Ben Jonson’s Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (what else?). These contain a rather biting pen-portrait of Jonson, who did not overly impress Drummond:

He is a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him (especially after drink, which is one of the elements on which he liveth), a dissembler of ill parts which reign in him, a bragger of some good that he wanteth, thinketh nothing well but what either he himself, or some of his friends and countrymen hath said or done. He is passionately kind and angry, careless either to gaine or keep, vindicative, but, if he be well answered, at himself.

This is meant to be a demolition job, it seems, but is undermined by its own ambivalence, as Drummond betrays an undertone of admiration in this litany of bad traits. All these flaws are (at the very least) half-attractive, double-edged. Drummond’s description adds nothing to our esteem of him, but we are not repelled or appalled by his subject, as he possibly thinks we should be. On the contrary: it is Jonson you’d want at the dinner table, not the self-important, saccharine Scot.

Jonson’s poems are smooth as marble, urbane, and draw on classical models, notably the Latin lines of Martial, Horace and Catullus (“I know nothing can conduce more to letters than to examine the writings of the ancients,” he wrote in his Discoveries). They are more disciplined and conventional than Shakespeare’s sonnets and lack the ornate obscurity and startling naturalism of Donne’s early work. This is not always the case, of course, but holds true for the bulk of his Epigrams, the opening collection of poems in his first printed Folio. Jonson mastered “merry Martial”, solidifying the epigrammatic form for the English language, but he also learnt to stretch the convention thematically and structurally by studying the Hellenists of The Greek Anthology. His formidable and famous Classical learning gave him the edge on contemporary court hacks, who he dismissed: “thou hast seen/Davies and Weever/…mine come nothing like…” (Epigram 18).

And yet Jonson’s Epigrams are not all Roman sobriety and Hellenistic grace: there is some of the bile and bite of his great stage comedies and satires in these pithy, perfectly formed poem-epistles. Throughout the edited collection you can trace Volpone’s abrupt and broken rhythms and feel the energy and irreverence of those dangerous theatre collaborations, The Isle of Dogs and Eastward Ho! (Jonson would be imprisoned for both of these plays, and face torture and possible execution; he was only rescued, each time, by good fortune and influential friends.) The poems savagely lampoon a gallery of Jacobean Court and Inns of Court characters, barely disguised by a series of riotous sobriquets: Sir Cod the Perfumed, My Lord Ignorant, Court-Worm, Sir Voluptuous Beast and Prowl the Plagiary, to name a few. They also glorify Jonson’s Court allies and Country House patrons in extravagant terms. The poems serve a personal purpose here, and Jonson displays dual “modes” (in the Restoration sense): slanderer and scholar; satirist and sycophant. This was, simply, the way a successful poet lived through, or survived, the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

So there is a general and generous contradiction of character here that we can enjoy and that animate the poems; a “tough reasonableness” underlying lyric grace noted by T. S. Eliot in his 1921 essay on Andrew Marvell. Jonson, as described by Drummond, is abusive, vain, bad-tempered, badly behaved. He was in many ways the wrong sort: son of a brick-layer, convicted murderer (upon plunging a rapier into stage actor Gabriel Spencer), and Catholic convert; an unpredictable theatre-land trouble-maker with connections to the Earl of Essex and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. This was to run just a few of the gravest risks in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. But he was, in the end, too canny, intelligent and talented to die; and, maybe more to the point, too well-connected. The scourge of Society aspirants, phoneys and double-dealers, Jonson was also one of the great buddies and raconteurs of English poetry, a loyal and bold-hearted bugger who could devise a mean masque and drink the King’s favourite under any table.

This stands out in his lovely poem ‘Inviting a Friend for Dinner’ (Epigram 101), the epicentre and great survivor of the Epigrams. Superficially (and formally) it is one of the least epigrammatic works in the collection, although it consciously draws on the “invitation poems” of Martial, Horace and Catullus (as well as the Greeks). It is within the tradition, relocating Rome and Athens in the gardens, houses and taverns of Jacobean England. Jonson invites a highly-esteemed acquaintance (“my grave friend”) to feast at his table, which over-flows with local produce; the appearance of this great guest will, alone, make the evening “perfect” rather than the delicious treats (“the cates”).

Jonson’s party promises colour and variety in its culinary and intellectual entertainment. The poem, in its rich variety and ease of cadence, is a celebration of conversation, friendship, liberty and learning. The correct company is, of course, crucial; “no Pooly, or Parrot” (spies, traitors, bad eggs) will be admitted into the home. Jonson lures his gang with extravagant enticements in the manner of Martial’s mock invitations: I will “lie” (he teases) “so you will come.” To the “olive, capers…some better salad,” the “mutton” and a “short-legged hen…full of eggs,” he adds an unlikely (yet feasible, and edible) menu of local fowl: “partridge, pheasant, woodcock,” “godwit, if we can:/knat, rail and ruff too.” This will be followed by “digestive cheese” and fruit, and (most importantly) “rich canary wine” from the famous Mermaid Tavern. Across this splendid spread they will share and recite a literary selection in line with the poet’s cherished Renaissance humanist ideal: “Virgil, Tacitus, Livy.”

Jonson presents an abstract ideal and an actual occasion, uniting public theme and private experience, the very art of the epigram. It has a social and personal function. It works and it has purpose. Jonson mastered this form better than the lesser Court Epigrammists because 1) his Classical learning far exceeded theirs, and 2) his “character” was already so dominant and to some extent artificial that private and public conflated in his very being, a psycho-social condition we now call celebrity. If he displayed distaste for publication and booksellers (circulation of elaborate manuscripts in private was the correct way to do things in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Courts and country houses) he was also one of the first of his contemporaries to arrange formal publication of his own work. He chose to display a lot of himself (on stage, on page, at Court and Oxford) and he mostly displayed big, glaring, attractive, forgivable contractions. His work may not have been loved in the same way or to the extent of Shakespeare’s, but there was, after all, ‘The Tribe of Ben’ whose influence was felt in living verse for decades.

T.S Eliot, in the Marvell essay, described an “alliance of levity and seriousness (by which the seriousness is intensified)” which characterised the poetic “wit” established and refined (in different ways) by Donne and Jonson. This tendency, or method, or skill, threaded through Marvell and the Caroline and Cavalier poets, to Dryden and Pope. (After this, according to Eliot, it was lost, fully eradicated by the Romantics.) In an earlier essay on Jonson, Eliot went a little further, to say: “his poetry is of the surface. Poetry of the surface cannot be understood without study; for to deal with the surface of life, as Jonson dealt with it, is to deal so deliberately that we too must be deliberate, in order to understand.” He distinguishes this, of course, from the “superficial” — a different thing altogether and associated here with Jonson’s pygmy stage rivals Beaumont and Fletcher. (Well, we could do with a Beaumont and Fletcher right now.)

The close weave of classical allusion and real life detail in ‘…Dinner’ (“Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,/Are all but Luther’s beer, to this I sing”) is an elegant and easy example of Jonson’s complex surface art. The setting, the purpose, the tone and form are (now) rare and refreshing. This might explain the durability of certain Jonson epigrams, particularly this one: the rare quality and informal use of language in a now defunct formal role. There is something of it in the work of Frank O’ Hara, another singular voice whose influence was also wide but less rewarding than Jonson’s; in, for example, an elegy like ‘Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s’, a piece composed for specific people on a particular occasion that nevertheless transcends its origin with self-conscious ambition and grace. Like Jonson, O’Hara locates and achieves a fine balance between public and private space and moment, the local and elemental, temporal and eternal. They can both, in these poems, transfigure the ephemeral and make the personal details of the day (of a life) speak for all time.

Don’t forget to visit the King’s College London Festival of Food and Ideas, from 7th-22nd March.

Posted in Literature | Leave a comment