The Wars of Ralph Peters

Slowly, but inexorably, the world is drifting towards the prospect of an all-out war between the United States and North Korea.  At the very least such a conflict is likely to result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Koreans.  It also raises the very real possibility of the first nuclear exchange in history.

Primary responsibility for this terrifying prospect lies with the North Korean regime and the Trump administration.  A tyrannical despot with no other cards to play with except nuclear ones has attempted to wrest diplomatic and economic concessions from an unstable, chaotic and rudderless administration led by a sociopathic narcissist unconstrained by moral or humanitarian considerations or even any basic understanding of foreign policy.

Both North Korea and the US have bluffed and blustered to the point when neither of them can back down without losing face – unless some external pressure is brought to bear.  Yet such pressure is dangerously absent.   China appears paralysed and unwilling to intervene to prevent Kim Jong Un’s nuclear brinkmanship.  Trump’s allies have either been passive, or like our idiot foreign secretary, have actively supported the ‘tough’ US stance that has painted North Korea into a corner.

As consequence, the world is in very real danger of being dragged towards nuclear war by clowns and political gargoyles who either have no idea of the risks and consequences of what they are doing, or don’t care if they do know.   The North Korean regime undoubtedly knows that if there were a nuclear or even a conventional war, much of the country would be destroyed, and its provocations are clearly predicated on the on the possibility that the US can be brought to the negotiating table before such an outcome occurs.  But that is a big if when dealing with an administration for whom war offers possibly the only escape from political annihilation, impeachment and historical disgrace.

So this is as bad and as dangerous as it gets, and we will need common sense, diplomatic skill, sustained international pressure and crisis management, and very cool heads to defuse the situation.  What we absolutely do not need are the maniacal prescriptions of ex-lieutenant-colonel Ralph Peters.  For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Peters is a former US intelligence officer, turned novelist and military pundit, and a particularly bloodthirsty neocon and exponent of unconstrained US military violence.

Peters has not time for scruples about civilians lives or collateral damage, for fluffy strategies about soft power, or the democracy-building civic projects advocated by David Petraeus and the disciples of ‘COIN’ – countersinsurgency.  For him war is only about ‘Carthaginian’ solutions based on destruction, killing and the shedding of ‘blood’ – a concept that seems to arouse a visceral pleasure in him, as it does for the neocon imagination in general.

Peters first made a name for himself as a war pundit in an influential article in 1997 for the US military journal Parameters on ‘constant conflict’. Faced with a future of ‘multiple conflicts in mutating forms around the globe’, Peters argued that ‘the de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing.’

In the autumn of 2004, Peters returned to the same theme in a piece for the New York Post on the brink of the second US assault on Fallujah,  in which he argued ‘The most humane thing we can do in that tormented city is just to win, to burn out the plague of fanaticism and prove to Iraq’s people that the forces of terror will not be allowed to enslave them…Even if Fallujah has to go the way of Carthage, reduced to shards, the price will be worth it.’

For Peters, the price is always worth it, and virtuous destruction is a kind of health cure for sick peoples who rarely happen to be white.  Such ‘remedies’ are especially required, and even essential, when dealing with ‘civilisational’ conflicts against ‘savages’ or ‘barbarians’.   In a discussion paper for the National Intelligence Council’s future (NIC) 2020 Project, written in 2004, Peters urged the US military to inflict ‘virtuous destruction’ on its global Islamist enemies, on the grounds that ‘there is no substitute for shedding the enemy’s blood in adequate quantities’ .

In the 21st century’s new conflicts, it was no good simply destroying things, Peters argued, or trying to distinguish between fighters and civilians because ‘ Such a policy not only complicates the achievement of victory, but extracts no serious policy from the population…Enemy populations must be broken down to an almost child-like state…before being broken up again.’

It is tempting, at first sight, to see Peters as a descendant of the ‘war is cruelty, but you cannot refine it’  philosophy advocated by William Tecumseh Sherman in the American Civil War.  But Sherman, for all his overheated rhetoric, was a humane and thoughtful man, who knew war at first hand and was revolted by it, and whose actual practices were never as extreme as his proposals.

Peters is very different.  Like many neocons, he is essentially a bloodthirsty voyeur, who has never personally experienced war or combat and observes the mass slaughter that he advocates from a comfortable distance.  Where Osama bin Laden once crowed about the mass murder of ‘crusaders’, Peters celebrates the destructive power of the most powerful military nation in the world, and his single obsessive demand is that this power should be used ‘virtuously’ by inflicting punitive destruction on America’s enemies, whoever they are.

It is no surprise therefore, to find him once again advocating similar solutions for North Korea in the Murdoch press.  In an article in the New York Post last month  Peters asked his readers whether ‘ we kill our enemies with sufficient ruthlessness at the outset, or do we attempt to minimize North Korean casualties and expose ourselves and our allies to the prospect of a drawn-out mutual butchery?’

For Peters there is only ever one answer:  ‘ in warfare there’s no substitute for killing your enemy and all those who support him. And you keep on killing until the enemy quits unconditionally or lies there dead and rotting.’

There are those, and Rupert Murdoch is almost certainly one of them, who find this kind of talk from an ex-military man, bracing, ‘truthful’ and sexy.  And yesterday, Peters was at it again, arguing for a preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, on the grounds that ‘Better a million dead North Koreans than a thousand dead Americans.’

As is often the case, Peters presented this equation as a form of realism, since ‘If there is any real hope of a peaceful solution, of course that would be preferable. But we cannot rely on miracles or mirages.’

In fact diplomatic negotiations are neither miraculous nor chimerical.  They could happen, but Peters doesn’t want them, and never does.  He is a true patriot, unwilling to ‘sacrifice American lives to shield the consciences of intellectual elites who, from protected positions of immense privilege, insist that all human life is precious.’

Instead Peters coolly advocates ‘ a million dead North Koreans’ from his own position of immense privilege.  He even has the gall to give this bloodlust a patina of pseudo-philosophical gravitas.  For Peters ‘warfare has been humanity’s ultimate means of resolving intractable issues since the first cave-dwellers went at the gang from the cave down yonder with rocks. We may not like it — I don’t — but to insist that war isn’t humanity’s sometimes-necessary default means of survival is to ignore all of human history.’

And again

‘I realize this column will leave liberals aghast, while even conservatives cling to lullaby chatter. I do not relish death or human suffering. But it would be immoral to allow North Korea to develop an arsenal capable of attacking our military, our cities and our allies.’

In fact this column ought to leave anybody aghast, and no one should be fooled by his faux-revulsion.  Once again,  Peters has demonstrated that he is a disingenuous hypocrite as well as a depraved and bloodthirsty savage.   Once again the man who claims not to ‘like’ war or ‘relish’ death or human suffering advocates mass slaughter as the only ‘solution’ and a reluctant last choice, and once once again Rupert Murdoch has given him a platform to do it.

But this time, unless the world can find a way to bring the Trump administration and the North Korean regime to their senses, there is a very real possibility that Ralph Peters might just get the total war he has dreamed about for so long, and Asia and the rest of the world may be sucked into a hell that could – and should – have been prevented.

One Day Without Us 2018

It’s just under a year since I was part of  a Facebook discussion about the alarmingly xenophobic drift of post-referendum UK society.  We were people from many different nationalities, backgrounds and political persuasions.  Some of us were migrants, others the descendants of migrants or British nationals who know migrants as our friends, colleagues, partners, carers, workmates and classmates.

All of us were appalled by the dangerous convergence of  street-level violence towards migrants with the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by too many politicians.  We were disgusted with the cynical references to  3 million EU citizens as bargaining chips, and the persistent denigration and stigmatisation of migrants in sections of the British press.  We did not see migrants as intruders, outsiders or interlopers, but as valuable and valued members of British society and our local communities.

So on 20th February we invited migrants and their supporters to take part in a national day of action celebrating the presence of migrants and the contributions they have made to British society.  For 24 hours, we asked the British public to imagine what a ‘day without immigrants’ might be like.

We were bowled over by the response. Tens of thousands of people held protests, rallies and other events up and down the country.  There were One Day Without Us events in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; fetes in tiny villages, rallies in city centres, stalls in town markets. Members of the public, businesses, trade unions, NGOs, charities, and universities all supported what was in effect the first-ever national day of solidarity with migrants in British history.

It was a fantastic experience for everyone involved.  In providing a platform for migrants and their supporters to make their voices heard,  One Day Without Us presented the UK with a very different vision of migrants and migration to the one that has been presented to the public for too long by politicians and the media alike.   Eleven months later the need for this vision remains as urgent as it was then.  And so next year, on 17th February, we’re planning another national day of action.   For twenty-four hours we’re inviting migrants and their supporters to take part, and organise events in their local communities, under the slogan ‘Proud to be a migrant/Proud to stand with migrants.’  We’ve chosen that date to coincide with the week of UN World Day of Social Justice, but this time we’ve chosen to stage it on a weekend, so that everyone can get involved.

Our message is simple: we refuse to accept the divisive ‘us versus them’ political rhetoric that presents migrants as interlopers and outsiders and immigration as a burden.  We believe that migration had been broadly positive both for migrants and for UK society, and we want to celebrate that.   We think it is shameful and disturbing that the word migrant has become a dirty word in British politics; that EU citizens living in Britain are still living in limbo or leaving the country because of the hostility directed towards them; that families with non-EU migrant spouses remain permanently separated because they can’t meet arbitrary income thresholds; that migrant workers are described as if they were nothing but economic commodities.

We want to change that.    We do not believe that migrants are intrinsically better or worse than anyone else, but no one should ever have to feel ashamed, vulnerable or under threat because of who they are or where they came from.   It should not even need saying that migrants have the same hopes, dreams, aspirations as  British citizens, but the debased debate about migration too easily ignores this simple truth and prefers to scapegoat migrants and blame them for problems that they did not cause.  Too often migrants are described as if they were nothing but takers and migration is depicted as something unnatural and even sordid.

We want to restore the courage, heroism and dignity, the adventure and discovery that is part of the experience of migration.  As migrants and non-migrants, we want to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions that migrants have made to our country in the past and continue to make today.

We are proud that the UK is a country that people want to come to in order to live, work, study, or seek safety and protection.  We do not want a ‘hostile environment’ that turns doctors and nurses into immigration police and presents deportations of tens of thousands of foreign students on the basis of flawed or inadequate evidence as a badge of honour.  We want a UK that is welcoming, open, and inclusive in its attitude towards migration.

In celebrating migrants and migration we do not only refer to EU nationals.   Though we recognize that migrants who have come to the UK fall under many different legal categories, we do not recognize hierarchical distinctions between worthy and unworthy migrants, between EU citizens and non-EU nationals, between refugees and asylum seekers, between migrants past and presents.

The hostility directed towards migrants in post-referendum UK does not confine itself to any single target. It  can equally be directed against Polish schoolgirls, Muslims of Pakistani heritage, Bulgarians, Romanians, refugees or ‘failed asylum seekers’ .  It might be aimed at EU citizens or it might be directed against people who were born here who simply look or sound like foreigners.

Once confined to the extremist fringe, such hostility has begun to permeate the mainstream to the point when it threatens the very foundations and the character of our society, and drives government policy in ways that are harmful to migrants and to our common future.  One of the reasons why this has happened is because millions of people with a very different view of what UK society could be like have not made their voices heard.

On 17th February this is your opportunity.  We invite migrants and their supporters to join us in a positive affirmation of migrants and migration.  We invite you, whoever you are and whatever your race, religion or nationality, to take part in a day of unity, celebration and protest.  We invite you to join with us and say it loudly ‘ Proud to be a migrant.  Proud to stand with migrants’.

For further information about events and volunteering possibilities, see our website at: http://1daywithoutus.org/

And @1daywithoutus

Peter Kosminsky’s Islamic State

The violence that we call terrorism has always been surrounded by a curious paradox. On the one hand virtually every terrorist emergency in history has declared terrorism to be a unique threat to society,  yet the societies under threat are generally not encouraged and are even actively discouraged from thinking about what terrorism is, who terrorists are, what they want, and why they are inclined to do the things that they do.

This reluctance is often fed by the belief that terrorism is so toxic that it cannot be analysed without its toxicity spreading.  Thus Conor Cruise O’Brien once said that no one should try to understand the IRA, because even trying to understand its motivations was the first step towards legitimisation.  And when the Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem made his remarkable documentary The Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone about ETA, he was vilified by the Spanish government and also by the Association for the Victims of Terrorism, which accused him of ideological collusion with terrorism.

Such reactions are on one level entirely ridiculous. Terrorism is a human activity and it should be liable to intellectual scrutiny, like any other activity.   It should also be possible to look at imaginatively, as writers do.  Crime writers do this every day without being accused of intellectual collusion with rape, gangsterism or paedofilia or serial killing.    Armies seek to understand the tactics and strategies of  their opponents and assess their strengths and weaknesses.

None of this should be rocket science.  Yet it’s amazing how unwilling we are to do this when it comes to terrorism.  Too often we allow governments and dubious ‘terrorism experts’ pushing very specific ideological agendas to interpret terrorist violence for us. They use terms like ‘radicalisation’ when we have no idea what this term really means or how it takes place.   They wage ‘wars against terror’ with no strategic coherence and no clear goals that only make the problem worse.

They use banal tautologies such as ‘the aim of terrorism is to terrorise’, when often it is quite clear that ‘spreading fear’ is only one component – and often quite a minor one – in the strategic intentions behind such violence.   They describe atrocities as wars on ‘our values’ when it is quite obvious that such crimes have a very different motivation and target.

Given this context, Peter Kosminsky has performed a valuable service in writing and directing a drama about the most vilified of all terrorist groups.  I am only two episodes into it, but it’s already clear that The State is a compelling and deeply disturbing journey into the nightmare caliphate created by Daesh/ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which should leave no discerning viewer in any doubt that this ‘state’ is an abomination.

The Islamic State that Kosminsky describes is savage, reactionary, misogynistic, tyrannical, and cruel, fanatical, dishonest and manipulative.   It chops off heads and hands in front of young children and exposes its recruits to high-production atrocity videos in order to condition them to the cruelty that it expects.

All this is depicted from the point of view of four British Muslims who make the journey to Raqqa.  Kosminsky does not  spend much time on the personal back stories that motivated them to leave the UK.  He is more interested in exploring how Islamic State was able to manipulate them into embracing its vision of religious purity, by presenting itself as a defensive jihad on behalf of oppressed Muslims and as a rebellion against a supposedly corrupt and immoral world, that can only be purified through the most fanatical and reductionist version of the Sharia.

In one scene, the cult-like ‘mother superior’ who inducts the women volunteers lectures them on divorce, immorality, and commercialised sex of the world of jahiliya – Sayyid Qutb’s modern reworking of the state of pre-Islamic ignorance.   In another, a military trainer hectors the male volunteers on the evils of women who urinate and bleed.  Even in hospitals, ISIS is so obsessed with female behaviour that the British doctor-volunteer can only treat women and cannot be left alone with a man.

Kosminsky also shows the ‘positive’ appeal of ISIS: the ‘band of brothers’ bonding between the young fighters who receive their kalishnikovs; the yearning for a religiously pure and morally-unambiguous Islamic life; the sense of comradeship that comes from fighting in a meaningful cause; the artful propaganda; the teams of ISIS men who try and seduce women over the Internet into becoming ‘lionesses’; the eschatological and millenarian fantasies of the end of the world and the day of judgment that ISIS seeks to bring about through war.

So this is a serious – and in fact the first – attempt on television to imagine what ISIS is like and why people have been attracted to one of the most horrific political movements in modern times.  Kosminsky and Channel 4 ought to be congratulated for that.   But no one will be surprised that he has been vilified by the Sun, the Daily Express and the Mail.  The Sun  quotes the Zionist neocon and former British army colonel Richard Kemp as a ‘terror expert’, who has called the drama ‘the jihadist equivalent of inspiring war epics such as Band of Brothers or Dunkirk. ‘

The best that can be said about this is that it is not a very intelligent observation, because it ought to be quite clear to anyone with a pair of eyes that Kosminsky’s characters are embarked on a journey to the heart of darkness that is not inspiring at all.  Kemp’s comments are not as dense as the witless Christopher Stevens in the Daily Mail,  who has described the series as ‘pure poison – like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s.’  Well those films may have worked for the pro-Nazi Daily Mail at the time, but the comparison bears no scrutiny in relation to Kosminsky’s film.

Watson is shocked – shocked I tell you – that one of the characters refers to ISIS as ‘ ” a real supercool club”. There is no irony in her voice.’  Goodness, no irony.   Don’t Daily Mail critics actually learn how to analyse a text or a film?  Apparently not, because the ‘irony’ may not be in the character’s voice, but it is made obvious by the glaring discrepancy between the expectations of Kosminsky’s naive recruit and the horrendous reality all around her.

Stevens has little time for nuance or dramatic subtlety.  He wants his messages served up on a giant platter with a large sign pointing to them, and so he works himself up into the lather of Dacre-suppurating moral indignation that Daily Mail writers just can’t help, and describes  Kosminsky as ‘the epitome of the London media luvvie who is desperate to demonstrate that he is less racist than anyone else at his Hampstead dinner party. He’s been the subject of a South Bank Show profile by Melvyn Bragg. You get the picture.’

In fact we don’t.   And Stevens’s insistence that ISIS is a ‘death cult’ is not enlightening. It is just an insult and a cliché that explains nothing except what Stevens thinks ISIS is. Kosminsky’s drama, on the other hand,  attempts to understand what ISIS itself thinks it is, and any viewer with any serious interest in understanding this malignant phenomenon should pay it serious attention.

The Sun, the Express, and the Mail are  written by people who don’t want to think and clearly don’t want their readers to think either.  But given the magnitude of the mess we’re all in, we need writers who do, and The State is a rare and brave attempt to ask serious questions about something that is really too serious to leave in the hands of the likes of Christopher Stevens or Richard Kemp.

 

History, Peace, and Beauty: On Barcelona’s Ramblas

Of all the massacres perpetrated in Europe in the name of Islamic State, yesterday’s slaughter in the Ramblas has a particular personal resonance for me. I spent nine years in Barcelona, living near the Ramblas for part of that time. Even when I moved further away from downtown Barcelona, hardly a week went by in which I didn’t pass through it. This is because the Ramblas has a special place in the life of the Catalan capital. It’s where you go to meet people, at the Café Zurich at the top of the Ramblas, or by the entrance to the Plaza Catalunya station, or by any other point up and down this fabulous thoroughfare.

It’s where you go to shop at the marvellous La Boqueria indoor market, or look at the fruit and vegetable stands laid out with meticulous precision in dazzling displays of colour. More than anything else, it’s a place you go to stroll. Lorca famously described the Ramblas as a street that was so beautiful that you didn’t want it to end, and he wasn’t wrong. Despite the over-priced cafés, the dense thicket of tourists, the traffic running up and down alongside the pedestrian thoroughfare, the Ramblas remains a space of peace and beauty.

On Sundays it was a pleasure to join the families walking up and down the rows of plane trees, past the flower-sellers, bird stalls, and newspaper stands, to check out the dancers, the ridiculously elaborate living statues, musicians, the skinny little guy who used to perform astounding tricks with a football, the silver-painted Columbus I once interviewed for a radio feature.

Sometimes you might let yourself drift dreamily all the way down from the Plaza Catalunya to the Drassanes medieval shipyards; past the rebuilt Liceo opera house; the Miró mosaic where the murderer eventually crashed his van yesterday; past the Poliarama cinematograph where George Orwell spent three days reading detective novels in June 1937 while anarchists and Assault Guard soldiers shot it out in the Café Moka down below; past the seedy side-streets of the Barrio Chino, where Jean Genet had once picked up knife-fighting lovers in sleazy bars; past the former stamping ground of so many characters from Juan Marsé’s Barcelona novels; past doorways that still bore the marks of the high heels of prostitutes waiting for ships to arrive at the harbour.

My piece for Ceasefire Magazine.  You can read the rest here.