Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “war”

Pandering to colour prejudice

Graham Greene is writing about the French occupation of the Rhineland after WW 1, in 1923. Greene writes disapprovingly of the arrogance of the French, and their ill-treatment of the native Germans.

One of the most startling indictments of the whole futility of French policy, of her cries of “security” and “revenge”, was the sight of a small Spahi, with his ragged beard and dirty khaki cloak, lounging beneath the Porta Nigra, the great Roman gateway that has stood there for sixteen hundred years.

It must be remembered, however, that the French claim that there are no blacks on the Rhine. Blacks, they say, are negroes, and their troops Senegalese or Moroccans. It is an interesting distinction, and in Bonn especially I “imagined” many negroes. The fact, however, that a Frenchman is free from colour prejudice is no excuse for quartering them on a population that is known to possess it. It is a deliberate insult against a defenceless people.

Source: Greene 1991:10.

I’ve long been an admirer of Graham Greene as a writer,m and it took me a while to get my head around that.

It’s not that the attitude is unknown to me. I’ve encountered it before — the idea that failing to pander to people’s racism is somehow unjust. But in the past I’ve usually seen it from those who feel themselves to have been unjustly treated in this way, not from a relatively neutral observer, a journalist reporting on the occupation, and a writer I have rather admired.

In his articles on the occupation Greene reported that the way the Germans were bring oppressed by the occupiers would lead to a fresh outbreak of war within 20 years. In that he was right, though it came sooner than that, it took only 16 years. And yes, it was that repression and French revanchism in particular that facilitated the rise of Hitler and the Second World War.

But with hindsight we can also see clearly what German racism would lead to — mass murder and genocide, and Greene did not foresee that.

Advertisements

PR firms: igniting the fires of ethnic hatred

The public relations firm of Bell Pottinger have just apologised for fanning the flames of racial hatred in South Africa, for money. Bell Pottinger’s full, unequivocal, absolute apology for selling Gupta lies – BizNews.com:

LONDON — Here’s a very big win for the good guys. The £100 000 a month London agency which promoted the Gupta agenda in South Africa – including instigating a threat to use the UK courts to close down Biznews – has suddenly seen the error of its ways. After steadfastly denying any wrongdoing by his company and claiming its clients were innocent victims, Bell Pottinger’s owner and CEO James Henderson today issued a grovelling apology: “full, unequivocal and absolute” to quote from the statement. News like this takes time to digest. Nice. But given the damage this firm’s dark media arts has created in South Africa, and the personal attacks and despicable social media deeds conducted under its instruction, I’m pretty sure this doesn’t close matter. But perhaps, to paraphrase Churchill, it is the end of the beginning. – Alec Hogg

That’s all very well. It’s fine for the arsonist to apologise for starting the fire, but the flames are still burning, and the apology does not put them out.

This is also not the first time that a PR firm has made a handsome profit from fanning the flames of ethnic hatred, and it probably won’t be the last. But to my knowledge it is the first time that a PR firm has apologised for its role in this.

Victoria Geoghegan, MD Financial and Corporate at Bell Pottinger.

The secret to PR spin is not to tell absolute lies, but to put a spin on the truth.

To put it crudely, what Bell Pottinger were paid to do was to bring about “radical economic transformation” in South Africa by promoting the replacement of White Monopoly Capital by Indian Monopoly Capital (the latter represented by the Gupta family).

Some might think that “radical economic transformation” should begin by questioning the role of monopoly capital in the economy, regardless of the race, ethnicity or nationality of the capitalists. The truth that is at the basis of the spin is that historically there has been white monopoly capital in South Africa, and part of the “white privilege” narrative is that it has had sufficient clout to fight back and wrest a public apology from Bell Pottinger.

Those who don’t have that kind of clout aren’t so lucky.

I’ve yet to see an apology from the firm of Ruder Finn for their role in fanning the flames of ethnic hatred that led to the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, for example. Ruder Finn’s work for Croatia – SourceWatch:

On 12 August 1991, the Croatian government hired the American public relations firm Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs to “develop and carry out strategies and tactics for communication with members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate as well as with officials of the U.S. government including the State Department, the National Security Council and other relevant agencies and departments of the U.S. government as well as with American and international news media”. On 12 November 1991, Ruder Finn’s contract was renewed to include lobbying in relation to diplomatic recognition, sanctions, and embargoes, as well as briefings for officials of the first Bush administration and preparation of special background material, press releases, both reactive and proactive articles and letters to the editors to appear in major newspapers, briefings for journalists, columnists, and commentators. In January and February 1992, Ruder Finn organized trips to Croatia for U.S. Congressmen. The United States recognized Croatia as an independent state on 7 April 1992.

Truth is the first casualty in PR offensive | The Independent:

The Ruder Finn strategy has been to build a congressional and Senate coalition in the US in support of Croatia. The strategy has included mobilising the 2.5 million Croats in the US to lobby their own representatives in Congress.

Central to all this activity was equating the Serbian forces with Communism and the Croats with Western freedom and democracy.

In October 1992, Ruder Finn took up the job of public relations for the ethnic Albanian separatists in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Bell Pottinger’s work in South Africa hasn’t yet led to death and destruction on that scale, but the story isn’t over yet, and the flames fanned by Bell Pottinger are still burning.

 

The War on Christmas

The modern War on Christmas began when Ariel Sharon, then the Prime Minister of Israel, provocatively went for a walk on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September 2000. thereby sparking off the Second Intifada. This turned Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, into a no-go area, just in time for the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, which Christians might have wanted to observe with special celebrations.

XmasWarThe song of the angels, heard by the shepherds, was more than a little ironic:

Luke 2:14  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

King Herod, who started the first War on Christmas, apparently showed very little goodwill, and over the last 200 years, little has changed.

Global Research is a somewhat tendentious web site, and I usually take what it says with a pinch of salt, but when it comes to the War on Christmas, I think they got it right. US-NATO’s “Counter-Christmas Crusade” against the Cradle of Civilization and the Holy Land | Global Research – Centre for Research on Globalization:

…a region now decimated by that created by George W. Bush’s and Tony Blair’s “Crusade,” not to mention Obama and Cameron’s “humanitarian bombings” of the Land of two Rivers.

Ur was vandalized by the US army, who arrived with Bibles in vast stocks, missionaries and plans for proselytizing those who had nurtured and stewarded the region’s wonders of all religions for centuries.

Al-Qurna was stormed and devastatingly damaged by British, Lithuanian and Danish troops, the Tree of Knowledge whose legend and life seemingly spanned the mists of time, died, near certainly from the poisonous pollution of battle, more poisonous even than that which destroyed over half all fauna and flora after the Desert Storm 1991 onslaught, leaving the soil dead and infertile for years afterwards.

Syria’s tragedy in the ongoing Crusade, determination to redraw the map of the Middle East and steal all natural resources rather than purchase them, is outside the scope of this article.

And Christmas is not the only Christian activity that has been disrupted by these Middle Eastern wars. Now there is this: Last-minute politics overshadow historic pan-Orthodox council – The Washington Post:

A religious summit last held more than 1,200 years ago suddenly risks being downgraded or postponed because of Syria’s four-year civil war. This unexpected twist has come as the world’s Orthodox churches, the second-largest ecclesial family in Christianity, were supposed to be only months away from their first major council since 787.

Now it is no longer clear when or where the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, a summit first proposed at least as far back as 1961 and provisionally scheduled for May in Istanbul, will be held.

Merry Xmas, everyone!

The dust that falls from dreams

The Dust that Falls from DreamsThe Dust that Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernières
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The centenary of the First World War seems to be inspiring quite a number of novels about that conflict and the effects it had on people. In this case it is three upper-middle class families living in Eltham, near London, whose children were quite close friends in childhood.

Since no one now living and writing really has much memory of that period, most of the recent crop must be classed as historical novels, and the authors are imagining what it must have been like. When I was at school, about 60 years ago, I read a similar novel, I think the title was The flowers of the forest — I can’t remember the author’s name. The abiding impression it made on me was the number of young women whose boyfriends and husbands were killed, though many of them succumbed to the influenza epidemic that followed the war.

This book has the same theme, and shows how families coped with such losses, or failed to do so. What I liked about this one was the characters and their interactions, sometimes witty, sometimes cruel. They are all different, and respond in different ways to what happens to them.

The edition I read was a proof edition, and so it still had some rough edges, and they may have been corrected in the final published version. There were anachronisms of language — people being “devastated” and “bonkers” about their losses, for example. Perhaps a proofreader caught those. And the RFC pilot who as a child ran around roaring like an aeroplane in 1902, when the first powered flight was only in the following year. There were also some inconsistencies in the ages of the characters, which, again, I hope were picked up by the proofreaders.

Some things were very true to the period — the way many people visited spiritualist mediums, for example. The one in the book is a minor character, but nevertheless an interesting one.

A good read … I wasn’t sure whether to give it 3 or 4 stars, but in the end gave it three. .

View all my reviews

The new Cold War

This morning a friend asked on Facebook what I thought of this article, and I will try to reply here. BREAKING NEWS – PUTIN EXPOSES OBAMA’S PAID ISIS MERCENARIES IN MIDDLE EAST AND SYRIA! | THE MARSHALL REPORT:

(Putin speaking): First point. I never said that I view the US as a threat to our national security. President Obama, as you said, views Russia as a threat, but I don’t feel the same way about the US. What I do feel is that the politics of those in the circles of power, if I may use those terms, the politics of those in power is erroneous. It not only contradicts our national interests, it undermines any trust we had in the United States. And in that way it actually harms the United states as well.

But I can’t reply to this in isolation. It is part of a whole string of media reports and media reporting that goes back two years or more.

Concerning the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular, we are bombarded by  increasingly shrill and decreasingly credible media propaganda from all sides that I’ve simply stopped paying attention to most of it. If there is any truth wrapped up in the all-too-obvious lies, I have no means of sifting and discerning it.

I have tended to interpret all in the light of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, as expounded in his book The clash of civilizations and the remaking of the world order. I’ve already written about that here, so I won’t repeat much of it now, except to say that things are now much worse.

I have tended to attibute the growing American Russophobia, which strikes me as loony and entirely irrational, to Putin’s blocking of Obama’ s plans to bomb Syria. But now the Russian air force is bombing Syria.

The world... is going to hell in a hand cart

The world… is going to hell in a hand cart

Two years ago, I regarded Russia Today as  a more reliable news source than most of the Western media, especially on events in the Middle East. Now it is blatantly filled with anti-American propaganda, so I don’t watch it any more. It’s clearly playing tit-for-tat to the Russophobic line of the BBC, Sky News, CNN, and Fox news. As a result the truth suffers.

Can Al Jazeera be trusted? When reporting on other parts of the world, perhaps. But Syria? I’m not so sure. Al Jazeera’s base is Sunni, the Syrian government tends to be Shia. There could be some bias there that would be difficult for non-Muslims to discern.

Also, since I’m inclined to be pacifist, I find the increasing belligerence of warmongering politicians distressing. Obama promised “change you can believe in” but he is just as belligerent and bloodthirsty as his predecessor George Bush and the only difference is that he is more articulate about it. David Cameron is just as belligerent and bloodthirsty as Tony Blair, but I didn’t expect him to be any better. I did, at one time, and probably foolishly, hope that Obama would be better than Bush and Clinton. But it’s always naive to believe in politicians’ promises, and Obama proved to be no exception.

Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

If the Labour Party, under Jermy Corbyn’s leadership, manages to win the next UK general election, will it be any better? Will this, at last, be “change you can believe in”?

Not if the British media have anything to do with it. They have slammed him left, right and center, dismissed him as insane because he has qualms of conscience about annihilating millians of people in a nuclear holocaust.

And my mind goes back more than 50 years to Jeremy Taylor, a Johannesburg school teacher who sang this song:

Well one fine day
I’ll make my way
to 10 Downing Street.
“Good day,” I’ll say
“I’ve come a long way
Excuse my naked feet.
“But I lack, you see
the energy
to buy a pair of shoes
I lose my zest
to look my best
when I read the daily news
’cause it appears you’ve got an atom bomb
that’ll blow us all to hell and gone.
If I’ve gotta die
then why should I
give a damn if my boots aren’t on?

Three cheers for the army and all the boys in blue
three cheers for the scientists and politicians too
three cheers for the future years when we shall surely reap
all the joys of living on a nuclear rubbish heap.

I would fight quite willingly
In the forces of Her Majesty
but not at the price of sacrificing
all of humanity.

That expressed my sentiments when I was 21, and still does, now that I’m 74.

And, since the politicians of the world seem to be determined to restart the Cold War, and threaten to make it hot, another Cold War hymn seems appropriate.

The day God gave thee, man, is ending
the darkness falls at thy behest
who spent thy little life defending
from conquest by the East, the West.

The sun that bids us live is waking
behind the cloud that bids us die
and in the murk fresh minds are making
new plans to blow us all sky high.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa (book review)

The Persistence of MemoryThe Persistence of Memory by Tony Eprile

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Bildungsroman about growing up in apartheid South Africa — a white boy at school, then an army conscript, and afterwards.

I would like to be able to say that this book “tells it like it was” in the same way that Andre Brink‘s A Dry White Season does, but two things make me hesitate to say that. One is that I never served in the army, so I cannot say that the middle section, which deals with that, is accurate. Secondly, there are several inaccuracies about known things in the book, which cast doubt upon the accuracy of some of the other parts,

The inaccuracties bothered me. One of the most egregious errors is a reference to the Australian national rugby team as the All Blacks. Another was a reference to a Xhosa chief, Makhana, which goes on to say that Makhana wasn’t his real name, but a reference to his left-handedness. There is a footnote to the effect that his real name was Nxele. But it is Nxele, and not Makhana, which is a referwence to left-handedness.

At first sight these errors (and there are several more) are not about matters central to the plot, and one might attribute them to careless writing and editing. But on second thoughts, they relate to something that is central to the plot and is embodied in the very title of the book. The protagonist, we are told, has an excellent memory, and at one point, when he testifies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the reliability of his memory is both demonstrated and brought into question.

If the protagonist’s memory is crucial to the plot, then perhaps these errors scattered through the book (told in the first persion) are intended as hints that the protagonist’s memory was not as good as he claimed it was, and therefore, far from “telling it like it is”, the book is a kind of bizarre fantasy, reminiscient of Jean Genet‘s The Balcony.

So though I wanted to give it four or five stars, in the end I gave it only three.

View all my reviews

What’s really going on in Ukraine?

For the last year or more, Ukraine has been descending into violence. This week, we are told, a group of leaders are meeting in Belarus to try to find a peaceful solution to the problems, but nobody seems very hopeful that a solution that all interested parties can agree on can be found. Leaders locked in Minsk talks on Ukraine ceasefire | World news | The Guardian:

Russian, Ukrainian, German and French officials, as well as separatist leaders and officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OECD) are locked in talks in Minsk trying to smooth the way for a summit deal leading to the demilitarisation of eastern Ukraine.

The leaders of the four countries are expected to meet in the Belarusian capital on Wednesday in an attempt to secure a ceasefire in the region, where pro-Russia separatists have been expanding the territory under their control in recent weeks.

Fighting raged in east Ukraine on Tuesday as both sides tried to make territorial gains before the proposed summit, which is being billed as a last chance to prevent the conflict from spiralling out of control.

It would be nice if they could find a peaceful solution, but I doubt that they will, because no one really seems to want one. And it is also very difficult to know what is really happening there, because most of the media reports one reads are tendentious and biased to one side or the other, so one has to read between the lines, and reading between the lines is often a misreading.

So here is the picture I have.

It is probably simplistic, and possibly wildly inaccurate, but I have no way of knowing, because the news media can’t be trusted.

I tend to interpret what is happening in Ukraine in the light of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory, because it seems to have predicted such clashes with uncanny accuracy, and what is happening in Ukraine seems to be almost a paradigm case.

Huntington identified nine civilizations, and compared the boundaries between them with the geological fault lines between tectonic plates. He predicted that most post-Cold War conflicts would take place along these fault lines, and that when they did, the more powerful countries in the civilizations would tend to be drawn into the conflict, and often use a local conflict on the fault line as a proxy for larger civilisational conflicts.

Civilizations and theoir boundaries, according to Huntington

Civilizations and their boundaries, according to Huntington (1996)

There is one inaccuracy in the map, however. According to Huntington’s theory, the fault line between the Western and the Orthodox civilizations should run right through the middle of Ukraine, though the map does not show that clearly.

In Western Ukraine Ukrainian nationalism is stronger, and more people speak the Ukrainian language (as opposed to Russian). In the past it was ruled by Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and there were significant minorities of Poles and other peoples. In much of Western Ukraine the Roman Catholic Church was strong, either in its Latin form, or in its Eastern Rite (Uniate) form. These characteristics tend to put it into Huntington’s Western Civilization.

Eastern Ukraine, by contrast, has many people who speak Russian in preference to Ukrainian, and the strongest church is the Orthodox Church, linked to the Patriarchate of Moscow. It was never ruled by Western empires, except briefly, in the 1940s, by the German Third Reich.  This tends to put it into Huntington’s Orthodox Civilization.

The differences between east and west tend to shade off towards the centre of the country with a more mixed popularion. Eastern and Western Ukraine have tended to support different political parties, though all seem to have been characterised by corruption. The parties supported by western Ukrainians have tended to be supported by Western Europe, and have tended to favour trade and cultural links with Western Europe. The partes supported by eastern Ukrainians have tended to be supported by Russia, and to favour trade and cultural links with Russia.

Here’s my take on it:

It would be in the interests of a stable, free and prosperous Ukraine if there could be a balance between the interests of east and west, so that one would not dominate or threaten to dominate the other.

The present crisis started when President Viktor Yanukovych (whose support was mostly in the east) cancelled a proposed trade agreement with the European Union (EU) and proposed making one with Russia instead. Those in favour of closer ties with the West protested, initially in the main square in the capital Kiev, but also in other centres as well. The protests became increasingly violent, with violence being used by some protesters and the police. It was at this point that several clergy and monks were seen standing between protesters and the police, praying for peace.

Clergy and monks pray as they stand between demonstrators and riot police in Kiev

Clergy and monks pray as they stand between demonstrators and riot police in Kiev

On 21 February 2014 President Yanukovych fled from the capital, perhaps fearing a coup, and the following day the Ukrainian parliament voted to depose him (unconstitutionally, and apparently with unseemly haste). Russia gave asylum to Yanukovych, and said that his deposition was a coup, and said it would protect Russian speakers in Ukraine; the West supported Yanukovych’s opponents, and the pressure from these outside interests gave it all the marks of a classic clash of civilizations.

And now some of the eastern parts of the country want independence, and this has developed into a civil war, which is also, because of the backers of each side, a proxy war in the clash of civilizations.

If there is to be any peace in Ukraine, then it’s time for the big boys to back off, and not to back one side or the other, but simply to back peace. In other words, the civilisational leaders must stop playing a zero sum game, and must help the Ukrainians to look for a win-win solution. I suspect that the current talks will fail because the participants are not looking for peace, but victory, which would be the conclusion of trade agreements that would favour one side and not the other — in other words, a zero-sum game. But I pray that it is not so, and that there will be at leasst a glimmer of sanity.

Now my view may be ridiculously simplistic, and I have been assured by one blogger that it is based on totally wrong premises, and that there are no differences or differences of opinion between Eastern and Western Ukrainians, and they would all live together in perfect peace and harmony and unanimity if it weren’t for the evil Russians, or rather, one Russian in particular, the evil Putin.

Well, not having been to Ukraine myself, I’m in no position to refute it, but I do regard it with a great deal of scepticism, because everything I’ve read about the history of the region indicates that there is no unanimity between Eastern and Western Ukraine, though I do think they might do a better job of sorting out their problems among themselves if they weren’t being egged on by Russia and the West.

So I reject that interpretation, and still haven’t seen a better one than the one I have given above. Does anyone else have one that isn’t driven by blind nationalism or civilizational loyalty?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martinmas: Poppies and corn

Today is the day when people, especially in the UK, tend to wear red poppies in remembrsnce of those who died in the two world wars of the last century.

But in recent years I’ve been repelled by the sight of British politicians appearing on TV wearing poppies in their lapels three weeks or more before the day, in a blatant attempt to curry favour with the voters. And it seems that right-wing politicians are particularly apt to jump on the bandwagon.

Red poppies among the corn (photo by Chris Gwilliam)

Red poppies among the corn (photo by Chris Gwilliam)

Perhaps to counter this my friend Chris Gwilliam posted a picture on Facebook of red poppies where they belong, among the corn, not in the lapels of smarmy politicians. The poppies symbolise the blood shed by the predecessors of those same politicians, and, very often, the blood shed in our day by the very politicians who wear them, who still send young people to fight in futile wars as their predecessors did a century ago.

Coincidentally, and perhaps ironically, 11 November is also the feast day of St Martin of Tours, who could be the patron saint of conscientious objectors, since when he became a Christian he resigned from the army. On being accused of cowardice by his commanding officer he offered to stand, unarmed, between two opposing armies in an impending battle.

On an altogether different tack, the picture of the cornfield reminds me that in American English the word they use for corn is “grain”, and they reserve the word “corn” solely for maize. Looking at the picture, I wondered why I would not describe that as a grainfield rather than a cornfield, since I do also use the word “grain” to describe cereal crops. And I realised that I think of it as “corn” when it is growing in the fields, and “grain” only when it has been milled.

Grain elevators in Koster, North-West Province, where grain is fouind

Grain elevators in Koster, North-West Province, where grain is fouind

So what is seen in the fields in the picture on the left is corn, and what is kept in the grain elevator in the picture on the right is grain, even though Americans might call it corn.

 

 

Been through this movie before?

I’ve just “shared” three appeals for peace on Facebook — one from a Christian, one from a Muslim, one from a Jew.

People say that “religion” is responsible for most of the violent conflict in the world, so how come it is the secular politicians who are fanning the flames of conflict in the world, while is is the “religious” people who are calling for peace?

Remember what happened 100 years ago tomorrow?

19140804I’ve just been reading about it in this book, an hour by hour account of that day, with what led up to it, and the aftermath. Come tomorrow, when I’ve finished the book, I’ll review it (now finished, review here)  but what disturbs me is that nothing has changed. While the world media’s spotlight is on Gaza this week, they haven’t stopped killing people in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. Three civil wars and a quasi civil war in Gaza.

But what are the world’s politicians doing about it? Are they trying to urge the warring parties to get together and try to find a peaceful solution? No, they are grandstanding and making threats against each other, just as they did a century ago. Back then it was called jingoism, and it’s much the same to day.

We don’t want to fight
But By Jingo! if we do
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the guns
we’ve got the money too.

What can ordinary people do to promote peace when the politicians of the world’s most powerful nations are in the driving seat and driving in top gear to hell?

For what it’s worth, here are some of the appeals for peace:

But what is happening?

With Syria buried in the news, hopes fade for ending world’s bloodiest war | Al Jazeera America

What are other countries doing? Supplying arms to the combatants, that’s what.

Church leaders express concern about the sabre-rattling rhetoric: Statement by the diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church in Australia regarding the situation in Ukraine:

The Church is concerned that much of the rhetoric appearing in the media is biased and ill-informed; based upon the geo-political aspirations of certain stakeholders, which can only lead to further conflict and, God forbid, outright war.

And even some retired politicians recognise the danger — Ex-chancellor Schmidt slams EU over Ukraine – The Local:

Former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt said on Friday the Ukraine standoff recalls the lead-up to World War I and blamed the “megalomania” of EU bureaucrats for sparking the crisis.

For the moment, these are separate conflicts, but remember that the Second World War started when a lot of separate smaller conflicts coalesced into one big one — Italy versus Ethiopia, Japan versus China, Germany versus Poland. And suddenly it became a free-for-all.

Can we learn the lessons of history, before it’s too late?

 

 

 

The honour, the glory, the boredom and futility of war

The Sword of Honour Trilogy (Everyman's Library Classics & Contemporary Classics)The Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Guy Crouchback, lonely, divorced, and living in Italy, returns to the UK at the beginning of the Second World War, and tries to do his patriotic duty by joining the army. Because of his age, however, no one will have him. Eventually, though an acquaintance of his father’s, he joins the regiment of Halberdiers, and undergoes boring officer training. The war progresses, but nobody seems to want the Halberdiers either.

After training, they have a new commanding officer, who wants them assigned to Hazardous Offensive Operations, for which more training is required. Whenever he seems about to go into active service, Guy Crouchback is sidelined, by accident, injury or illness, or the need for further training for some new task.

This book was originally a trilogy of three novels, and was rewritten into one in the 1960s. While reading it, I wondered how Britain ever managed to win the war, as everything seemed to be stifled by red tape. At one level the novel is satirical, making fun of the military bureaucracy. But there is also something authentic behind the satire; this is indeed how many soldiers probably spent the war, with action brief and inconclusive, and much of the time just hanging around waiting for someone, somewhere, to give an order.

So the book is also something of a historical record. Many soldiers left diaries and memoirs, but what they told and what they chose to leave untold varied a great deal. Many may have recorded battles and action, but the logistics of preparing for the action gets omitted. Waugh seems to tell more of the story than most. This is what it was actually like, not in surreal fantasies like Thomas Pynchon‘s Gravity’s Rainbow or in the story of planning and carrying out of military operations, but in the experience of one soldier, and a few of the people he encountered, buth military and civilian.

I’m not an expert on military history, but some parts that touch on things that I have read about in history books, such as conditions in war-time Yugoslavia, seemed pretty authentic to me.

Guy Crouchback is a Roman Catholic, and so we are given a glimpse of the lost world of pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, to which Evelyn Waugh was a well-known literary convert.

It reminded me in some ways of Waugh’s contemporary, Graham Greene, also a converet to the Roman Catholic Church, whose The power and the glory reflects on the challenge of being a saint. Guy Crouchback is nothing like the whisky priest in The power and the glory, in either his upbringing, his circumstances or his character. But he faces similar problems of conscience and ethical dilemmas, in which attempts to help others sometimes turn out well, and sometimes disastrously for all concerned.

As it is a concatenated trilogy, it’s a long read, and when I finally reached the end, the overwhelming impression was of the futility of war.

View all my reviews

Post Navigation