Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Truthers of 1929

A follow up to this post on an outdoor film screening in Trafalgar Square.

After many weeks of working in my room, cycling in to Trafalgar Square thursday of last week was a bit of a shock to the system , rediscovering such a wide sea of humanity beyond the shores of my little island studio.

The British silent science fiction feature High Treason lived up to expectations visually, low budget compared with Metropolis, but fun and inventive. My favourite item in the film was an adding machine the size of a church organ that looked like the work of Dr Seuss. The plot, though, was even more kitsch than the design, an anti-war fantasy with the all-too familiar notion of an international conspiracy of back room money men manoeuvring governments into war, and profiting via the arms industry.

The cigar-smoking conspirators weren’t identified, though I’m sure we can make a pretty good guess at who the film makers had in mind. Reference is made to their conspiracy being a repeat of 1914. I was reminded of the notorious and nauseating anti-Semitic passage in the first chapter of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, sensibly omitted from Hitchcock’s film. I wonder did the film of High Treason omit similar detail from the source play by Noel Pemberton Billing?

The story of High Treason anticipated quite closely the conspiracy theories popular in today’s anti-war movement, as it shows agitators in the pay of the warmongering conspirators carry out a false-flag terrorist attack on a landmark target, the Channel Tunnel. It could have been titled Truthers of 1929.

As a result of this war is about to be declared, but luckily for humanity women peace campaigners invade an air base, and the wise and saintly head of the peace movement assassinates the leader of the country. This combination of civil disobedience and political violence brings about world peace. But you can’t buck the system, so, with tears in their eyes, the jury at his trial find the white-haired old peace campaigner guilty of murder. The martyr accepts his death sentence, a halo round his head.

The end, at last.

Friday, 24 October 2008


There are 52 weeks in the year. Every week there’s a Normblog profile. This week it was me. And he picked out a very nice photo too. Thanks very much!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Women unlimited

Completely unrelated to the previous post, more VIP at Hairy Green Eyeball: Wild Wild Women.

Earlier VIP: Bottle Fatigue.

Copyright © 1951 Virgil Franklin Partch II.

Women limited

In Afghanistan, in Birmingham, women know your limits.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008


The last of the art for the third Charlie Bone book has been finished and sent to Paris. Phew! Coming soon, some mermaids I’ve been painting.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

High Treason

A silent British science fiction feature from 1929, showing in Trafalgar Square on Thursday (24th Oct.) at 6.30. Details here.

You can hear more about it on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme.

I've collected more views of the future here.

Update: here’s a follow up, written after watching the film.

On Powell’s endorsement

Oliver Kamm writes:
For me, two issues of great moment from the 1990s destroyed Powell's claim to be taken seriously as a public figure. First, Powell counselled against military action to expel Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait, after the tyrant had annexed (not merely invaded and occupied) that sovereign state in 1990. Powell didn't see an exit strategy, so he urged that US forces stay at home. If he'd been listened to, Kuwait would have remained the subjugated and plundered 19th province of Iraq.

Secondly, despite having been disastrously wrong on Iraq, Powell was listened to respectfully by the Bush administration when Slobodan Milosevic launched his war of aggression against Bosnia. He even opposed any US role in providing humanitarian aid or enforcing a no-fly zone over Bosnia. He was essentially ignorant of the conflict and of the region, and his advice had disastrous consequences.
More. Oliver Kamm has also endorsed Obama, but with caveats.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Naomi’s grandpa Phil Klein

I only know Naomi Klein’s writing by reputation, but for any passers by who may have followed more closely, animation historian Michael Barrier has a post on her grandfather, animator Phil Klein, named by her as an influence. There’s also a follow-up.

Phil Klein took part in the 1941 Disney strike, on which Barrier has more here and elsewhere. The film in production at that time was Dumbo, completed after the strike ended. Michael Sporn has an interesting post on possible socialist imagery in the tent raising scene from that film here. Another sequence of the film seems to pull in the opposite direction as the scoundrel clowns who exploit Dumbo are heard singing “we’re gonna hit the big boss for a raise.”

Charlie Bone 2

The new French edition of the second Charlie Bone book, Charlie Bone et la bille magique, is now available. Above, my cover painting.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

More endorsements

Colin Powell’s has the headlines, and with good reason, but also notable is the one from Deborah Lipstadt, and her follow-up post on some of the reaction she received.

There was talk from some that McCain should change his mind and drop Palin at the last minute, but maybe he should drop his whole party. To have won the nomination standing as an independent-minded centrist and then allowed his campaign to be characterised by the least appealing parts of the base - that was a dreadful lapse of judgement.

Obama’s direction of travel from the activists towards the centre is the better one. The question remains as to whether improved policies will result. Someone’s going to be disappointed, but I have no idea who.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Afghanistan Amazons

On BBC Radio 4 today, Women in Uniform, presented by Martin Bell. Women of the RAF, RN and British Army in Afghanistan.

And in the Radio 4 archives I’ve been listening to The Roman Way from 2003, which I somehow missed back then. Asterix gets a mention.

Savin’ the country

He links to the other fella, I link to both of them , they link back. Oh we’re busy being smart round here. And not a potato peeled.

Why is it though that I need to go south of the river, or halfway round the world even, to find someone to agree with?

Did I mention that I like this one too?

What a morning it was in our house. Tears at school time. The only way to settle my nerves is to declare war on Russia. Better be quick though, before there’s no Russia left to fight.

Illustration: “Savin’ the country” by JH Donahey of Ohio, 1875-1949, reprinted in issue no. 6 of Nemo magazine, 1984.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Two endorsements with caveats

From Oliver Kamm:
I am no admirer of Barack Obama, whose grasp of foreign policy is worryingly confused (in particular, his willingness to meet leaders of rogue states without preconditions shows a man unversed in the exercise of diplomatic leverage).
And from Americans for Bosnia:
His record does not suggest that he naturally leans towards the cause of liberal intervention.
Bob has a roundup of other opinions as the US elections get closer and closer.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Loose lips

The realists find their audience - from Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal, Taliban mock West for calling Afghanistan unwinnable:
The Taliban have seized on what US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described as “defeatist” comments made by Western officials on the ability to succeed in Afghanistan to score a propaganda victory.

In a press release issued on Oct. 10 at Voice of Jehad, the Taliban’s official website, the group described the recent statements that that war in Afghanistan is unwinnable as “a hue and cry” and reiterated their terms of peace are complete and unconditional withdrawal.
Earlier posts on this topic: ‘Realists’ go home, The language of victory, and Punchline.

Brighter news: the Long War Journal also has an interview with US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, and Mick Hartley points to a piece by Bob Krumm, In Today’s Iraq, the Times Are Constantly Changing. But good news is no news, so Western Journalists in Iraq Stage Pullback of Their Own, from the Washington Post.

Cat on the blackboard

Clever Kitty . . . by Bo.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Wolf on the blackboard

Not yet at the door . . .


Norm , writing about a New Statesman editorial on Afghanistan which argues that it is morally preferable to leave the foreigners to the wolves, concludes:
The New Statesman is a weekly magazine of the left.
Still waiting for the laugh. The word ‘left’ has been marked down so often, it’s only value is sentimental. If you want to impart meaning, you’ll have to find another.

More dark humour: Terry Glavin applies the realist solution for Afghanistan to Britain with the headline Britain’s Best Hope: Abolish the Commons, Let the Lords Rule. I suspect a number of the realists wouldn’t get it, being only too happy to agree with such a notion.

Related: we saw last week how words spoken in Afghanistan were heard around the world. No doubt this week words spoken in Iraq will be heard clearly in Afghanistan. What value the word of a British leader now, be they political or military?

From the interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki published today in The Times:
At the time Basra was not under control of the local government, but in the hands of the gangs and militias. The local government was just a screen. And didn’t have the ability to move or solve any security issue.

The British forces withdrew from the confrontation from inside the city to the area of the airport. They stayed away from the confrontation, which gave the gangs and the militias the chance to control the city. At the time we were strongly pre-occupied with Baghdad and some other provinces, therefore our presence in Basra was not strong.

But when the British forces withdrew and the situation deteriorated so badly that corrupted youths were carrying swords and cutting the throats of women and children, the citizens of Basra called out for our help … and we moved to regain the city…
And he continues, speaking  about the deal that the British cut with the militias in 2007:
Of course we were not comfortable and we conveyed our discomfort and regarded it as the start a disaster. The disaster would have materialised, if we had not made the sacrifices. Had they told us that they wanted to do this [cut a deal] we would have consulted with them and come up with the best possible decision. But when they acted alone the problem happened.
It will take a major change in thinking at a political level to recover from this. Sticking plaster missions will come unstuck. Aims short of victory equal defeat. In Afghanistan as in Iraq, final victory will come at the hands of the people. Our victory will lie in their victory. That will only be achieved by standing with them. To betray them is to betray ourselves.

Follow up post: Loose lips.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Laid low

charlie bone
After having spent most of his life hiding in his room, Uncle Paton ventured out one early morning to do battle with the forces of evil. Unsurprisingly they were better prepared for a fight than he was, and now he lies there, back in that room, hollowed out, powerless.

Illustration for an upcoming French edition of the third Charlie Bone book.

Annelise flying over the city

Annelise is a superhero that Peggy has invented. Annelise has a friend called Mary who is “not very clever,” so Annelise needs to rescue her quite a lot. Sometimes Peggy plays Annelise with friends. “You be Mary,” she says.

This is from Peggy’s second book of Annelise drawings.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The language of victory

There has been more than a little reaction to the comments a week ago by Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, senior British commander in Afghanistan, where he was quoted as saying  that we must “lower our expectations,” and that “we’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”
“We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done through negotiations,” Carleton-Smith said.

“If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”

This interview between a British officer and a British journalist was not a private conversation, and his words went far beyond Britain. They were heard in the US, in Canada, and in Australia. Who doubts they were also heard in Afghanistan, and across the border in Pakistan?

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates used the word defeatist in rejecting some of what was said, while endorsing the idea that negotiation had a role to play: “Part of the solution is reconciliation with people who are willing to work with the Afghan government.” He compared this to the successful strategy of supporting the Sunni Awakening in Iraq.

The point is not to negotiate with irreconcilable enemies of democracy in Afghanistan, rather it is where possible to facilitate those ready to turn from supporting the insurgency to supporting a democratic future for the country instead. Not to capitulate to the enemy, but to reduce support for the enemy.

A clear and detailed view of the practical limitations of negotiation with the Taleban has been provided by Martin Patience of BBC News, while Massoumeh Torfeh gives a more forceful view.

It has long been clear that all serious people involved in the West’s current counter-insurgency wars understand that the choice between political and military solutions is a false one. Political, military and economic solutions are interdependent. Of course some less serious commentators have had difficulty understanding this:
“We hear a lot about how violence is down in parts of Anbar province. But this has little to do with the surge - it’s because Sunni tribal leaders made a political decision to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq. This only underscores the point - the solution in Iraq is political, it is not military.”
But as one of that candidate’s supporters acknowledged:
“The surge came just in time to salvage a remnant of Sunni presence in Baghdad, which is one major reason why Americans suddenly found new allies among former insurgents who not long before had been blowing up our convoys.”

Back to Afghanistan. In writing on Canadian reaction to Brigadier Carleton-Smith’s words, Terry Glavin pointed out that strategically there was nothing new in what he said. And in terms of the detail that was to some extent true, but there remains a problem in Carleton-Smith’s choice of language, and that was why Gates used the word defeatist.

The main error was in saying “we’re not going to win this war,” and yet the aim Carleton-Smith described of reaching a point where Afghanistan’s security forces would be able to manage the insurgency, that aim looked a lot like victory, or at least like a stage on the way there. So why did he not see it as such? Was the clue in the word ‘we’? If by ‘we’ he meant the British army, or even NATO, he was making a big mistake. A victory by the army of a democratic Afghanistan would be a victory for NATO and for the UN.

The West’s interest in Afghanistan is identical with the interest of the majority of the people of Afghanistan. The anti-war movement in the west refuses to understand that. If those charged with leading Western efforts in Afghanistan do not fully understand it, then we have a problem.

There is no reliable alternative to security through democracy. The fantasy of a quick-fix acceptable dictator has been shown again and again to be disastrous. Our enemies were raised under such dictatorships. And that leads to Carleton-Smith’s second mistake: the vague phrase “political settlement”. It has to be made clear that the only acceptable political settlement is one which respects the will of the people of Afghanistan. Perhaps he did say that. Perhaps those words were left out of the report. If so the fault is with the journalist. Those words need to be said every time there is talk of negotiation. They need to be repeated and repeated, and repeated again.

“The people will win,” Terry Glavin writes, and I believe he’s right. It’s in the West’s interest to hasten that victory. The way to do that is to commit totally to that victory in word as well as deed, to victory by the people of Afghanistan, victory for democracy and the rule of law in Afghanistan, not victory just for the current party in government but victory for the system of government that best serves the people.

Victory is not served by allowing even the smallest doubt to form about our commitment. Ambivalence leads to war, it prolongs war, it allows defeat.

Victory in the cold war came when the people of Eastern Europe  no longer believed in the power of their oppressors, when they were convinced their own power was stronger. Part of building that belief in Afghanistan’s population will be direct military action by NATO, part will be economic development, but at the centre must be the idea, and the belief in the idea, of the strong and free Afghanistan that will come with victory.

Follow up posts: Punchline, and Loose lips.

Related: Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words? from the International Crisis Group July 24 2008.

Also, linked to earlier, but here it is again: Knowing the Enemy by George Packer, The New Yorker, December 18 2006, on David Kilcullen, on Al Qaeda’s information strategy, and on how victory must come through giving security to the population.

And from Your Friend in the North: F.A.O. Brigadier Carleton-Smith.

Image from the Archives of Ontario. Copyright © Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Noisy nights in Dublin 5

From the pages of In Dublin magazine, summer of 1987. My first effort at acrylic, and I still had a lot to learn, not just about painting but lettering too. That lower case ‘k’ gives me the shivers.

Earlier posts in this series of musical reminiscences: one, two, three and four.

More In Dublin work here.

Military Sealift Command goes green

At Information Dissemination. The ship in question uses a computer-controlled kite to assist conventional engines and save fuel.

Earlier posts on environmentally friendlier war here and here. And I linked to this story on counter-insurgency solar power at the bottom of this post.

There seems to be a close alignment between the aims of the green movement and those of counter-insurgency warfare, though I’m not sure many greens would recognise it. Counter-insurgency war is about empowering communities, about grass-roots politics, about saving the village without destroying it. It’s activist warfare. So solar power to the people, no plutonium pollution, do more with less, it all serves the cause.

Oh yes, and sending less money to our enemies is also a good idea.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Brute force versus agility

A name new to me, though perhaps not to you: John Boyd of the US Air Force.

My interest was sparked by a post at Information Dissemination, suggesting that Boyd’s ideas were very influential in current strategic thinking. A short biography at Eject! Eject! Eject! filled in some details about those ideas which originated in his experience as a fighter pilot instructor, were then developed in his contribution to designing lighter more responsive fighter jets with the F-15 and F-16, and were more broadly applied in ground warfare during both the first Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. More details of a new book on J. Boyd at tdaxp, with lots of links.

From this brief introduction it seems that some of what John Boyd was proposing was a re-learning of old lessons, but no less valuable for that. It looks as though I may have to read more.

Also on re-learning old lessons, I very much enjoyed this on But I am a Liberal, a 2006 interview with Victor Davis Hanson on the Peloponnesian War and on what lessons Thucydides might have for the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on how democracies win or lose wars, on the need to define the war in existential terms, on the experiment that is contemporary Western warfare in trying to win and reconstruct nations without subjecting those nations to total defeat, on the abiding necessity to inflict an unambiguous defeat on the specific fascist enemy within those nations in order to discredit the enemy in the eyes of the larger population.

In the comments below that post, The New Centrist gives a link to a conversation around some of those themes from a few months ago, in part here and here.

A quote from the Victor Hanson  interview, relevant to this earlier post on utterances by UK diplomatic and military figures on Afghanistan:
Missing in this war is some commander who would say this war is for liberal values and I’ve got a bunch of soldiers over here, I’ve got a bunch of women over here, I’ve got a bunch of people from different races and minorities and they represent the future of a liberal West that’s being attacked by these people and they’re not going to lose.

On the subject of democracy and war, here’s a good post on the democratic shortfall in Georgia, on Michael J Totten's blog, but written by Michael Cecire. I’ve argued earlier that authoritarianism in the Georgian government shouldn’t be used to equate them with the current Russian Potempkin democracy, and that Georgian democracy will be better served through being supported by the West than by being left to the mercies of the Russian invaders, but the other part of that argument is that in supporting Georgia the West needs urgently to ensure Georgian democracy is strengthened alongside Georgian security and international connectivity.

The fight that needs to be won is not between leaders or nations, but between political, legal and economic systems. Authoritarianism vs totalitarianism isn’t good enough.

Drawing from In Dublin magazine, 1987.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Playing with matches 5.1

Olmert: megalomania”.

The word is not in this summary though, or this one. Is there a more extensive translation anywhere?

In other news, they all love this guy in the UN General Assembly, while the Security Council is either on pause or at a dead end, depending on your level of pessimism. People get ready.

Previously: 1, 2, 3, 4.
Follow ups: 6, 7.

Matchbox from wackystuff, via Monster Brains.

Thursday, 2 October 2008


Drawing by Peggy.

‘Realists’ go home

At Harry’s Place: An Acceptable Dictator. Packing bags time. Pack the ambassador in the diplomatic bag, I mean.

It’s also in The TimesUPDATE: Francis Sedgemore also has something to say. UPDATE 2: Terry Glavin thinks it’s just those obscure London journals making trouble again. But then this happens.

In this information war, some on the UK side are getting quite practiced at friendly fire. How do they expect the population in Afghanistan to align with the government and the UN and NATO mission if UK diplomats and military officers actively undermine confidence? And why would the Taleban change their minds and negotiate in response to signs of weakness? This looks like a repeat of Basra. British troops deserve better leadership. Afghanistan deserves steadfast friends.

Illustration: realists in history by Low, a repeat appearance from this post, and found in The Complete Colonel Blimp, edited by Mark Bryant, and copyright © Low estate/Solo Syndication.