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A Land Grab?

An entirely predictable outcome to the announcement of US troop withdrawals from the region, perhaps even co-ordinated with it, Turkey’s military action in the north of Syria cannot be aimed at anybody other than the Kurdish forces which have done so much to rid the area of Isis influence.

The combination of these actions can only lead to resentment on the part of the Kurds towards the US. (They already knew Turkey – at least Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey – was an enemy.)

Erdoğan has long regarded Kurds as adversaries because ethnic Kurds in South Turkey have for as long as I can remember sought for a degree of autonomy from the Government in Ankara. Some previous Turkish governments had had some sympathy to their requests but Erdoğan seems to deny any other ethnicity can exist within Turkey and regards everyone who lives within its borders as only being able to be Turkish. The Kurds also give him a handy scapegoat for any opposition in the south of Turkey to the central government. He calls them terrorists. His designation of north Syria as a “terror corridor” is clearly self-serving but may also be a prediction. I doubt the people living there – including those Syrians displaced there by the civil war in that country – will find Turkish rule any more benign than that of Bashar al-Assad.

Erdoğan’s proposed invasion looks to me like a land grab, designed solely to increase Turkey’s territory. He probably intends never to withdraw from what is actually Syrian sovereign territory. Kurds have had the singular misfortune to live in an area of the world where their population is distributed over the territory of four different countries (not only Turkey and Syria but also Iran and Iraq) – and not had one of their own to call home.

With the restraining hand of the US on Turkey removed, their outlook would seem to be bleak.

On Their Shoulders by C N Barclay

British Generalship in the lean years 1939-1942. Faber and Faber, 1964, 184 p.

On Their Shoulders cover

The book is primarily a defence of the British generals in the early years of World War 2 who, “out-numbered, out-gunned, out-tanked and inadequately supported from the air,” nevertheless did not suffer terminal defeat and thereby bought time for sufficient numbers of men, training and decent equipment to be brought to bear. (Time too for allies belatedly to alleviate the burden.)

Barclay’s preface is at pains to point out that, “with the exception of the Great War, the British Army was a small colonial force, unsuitable for modern war. Both World Wars were begun with negligible land forces which had to hold the fort until expansion had taken place. After Dunkirk, alone, defeats were inevitable, not losing the war was about all that could be done,” and include the amazing statistic that, “The Boer War of 1899-1902 cost us more in men and material resources than the struggle against Napoleon nearly one hundred years before.” Perhaps more contentiously he states that, “the Staff College provided us in World War 2 with the best team of generals this country has ever known.” A particular handicap was that British generals’ experience of armoured warfare when the war began was theoretical as none had directed armoured troops as those forces barely exisedt. Nevertheless an armoured foray against the German advance near Arras did give the enemy cause for concern.

Barclay devotes one chapter each to Gort, Wavell, O’Connor, Wilson, Auchinleck, Cunningham, Percival and Hutton. Gort made the correct decision to retreat to Dunkirk and thereby saved not only most of the BEF, including most of the generals who would go on to victory in the latter years of the war, but also a substantial number of French troops, Wavell oversaw the victories against the Italians in East and North Africa, O’Connor directed that North African campaign and might have gone on to Tripoli if not denuded of troops for the forlorn Greek adventure but was then unluckily captured by a German patrol, Wilson helped in the planning for O’Connor’s victory and was then himself plunged into the debacle that was Greece before taking successful command of the Iraq, Syria and Persia sector, Auchinleck at least stopped Rommel’s first foray into Egypt but as an Indian Army man with no experience of armoured warfare was a strange choice for the role given to him, Cunningham swept the Italians from East Africa before being (briefly and almost certainly mistakenly) appointed to command in the Western Desert, Percival made no difference at all to the defence of Malaya and Singapore and Hutton had the impossible job of trying to save Rangoon.

While Norway, the Dunkirk campaign, the Western Desert, Greece, Hong Kong, Malaya and Burma saw defeats they were in the main retrievable. The single utter catastrophe was the fall of Malaya and Singapore (the biggest ever defeat in British military history.) This could be put down to political failure, local attitudes and dispositional necessities but General Percival did not do much to ginger things up when he arrived. It was also the only British campaign for hundreds of years in which naval support was totally absent. This was of course due to the sinkings of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse by the Japanese air force. In amongst these setbacks there were notable successes, the utter destruction of numerically much larger Italian forces in East Africa and North Africa (“two of the most resounding military victories in history”,) the elimination of the Vichy French threat in Syria and the flawed success of Operation Crusader in the Western Desert.

Barclay cites lack of high quality training as a principal contributor to defeat. Better trained, more mobile forces, even if much smaller in number, can nevertheless achieve victory. Against the Italians the British troops (whom I would submit were also better motivated) were the better trained. In Malaya, not so, even if the Japanese had in effect only the one tactic. The Germans were, of course, trained superbly.

The book is unfortunately lacking in depth. In addition, due to the overlapping jurisdictions and swapping of roles there is frequent repetition of information. We were told about ABDA at least four times.

According to Barclay the war was disastrous in its consequences, “allowing Communism into the heart of Central Europe.” In addition the colonies were lost, Britain’s prestige and influence declined. Yet the consequences of a German and Japanese victory would have been even more regrettable. And the generals discussed did prevent that.

Barclay’s somewhat Victorian/Edwardian world-view, exemplified by the Communism remark above, is emphasised by his use of the word “savages” to describe some of the native peoples against whom the British Army was used in colonial times. Fifty years after the book’s publication reading that expression came as a shock.

Pedant’s corner:- he showed mark enthusiasm (marked,) india (India,) seemed to damp enthusiasm (dampen,) and other who visited (others,) the British public have been given the impression (has been given,) Field- Marshall (Field-Marshal,) Alemein (Alamein,) non-commital (non-committal,) Iraqui (may have been the spelling in 1964; now it is Iraqi,) based on New Delhi (in, surely?) after he arrive (arrived,) Caldron Battle (Cauldron is more usual,) there were a few (was,) for an Army office his early background (officer,) military unsound (militarily,) Japanes (Japanese,) “It would be foolish to deny that there may not have been neglect in the training of the Army in Malaya” (the exact opposite is meant; “It would be foolish to deny that there may have been neglect in the training of the Army in Malaya.” It is obvious from Barclay’s previous comments that the training was very poor,) “if other councils had prevailed” (counsels,) it maybe that (may be,) “that is is no part” (that it is,) two lines are transposed on page 160, by much small bodies (such small bodies,) to a less degree (lesser degree is more usual,) acquite (acquit,) salving the bulk of the Burma Army (saving makes more sense,) miscaste (miscast,) “the programmes for units was similarly laid down” (either

Poppy Watching Again

I was actually thinking last night it was that time of year again, and also that if I caught sight of any of that unholy brigade of Farage, Johnson, Gove, Fox and Davies sporting a poppy this year I would be livid with rgae.

How dare they?

How dare they blazon their attempt to corral patriotism to their own ends?

How dare they coopt the sacrifice of those who died in the cause of better relations with our European neighbours rather than worse ones?

I actually saw some poppies for sale in the bank today when I was paying some bills. When I got home I got my first sighting of this year when there was a guy labelled as a historian wearing one on the news. He was commenting on the non-story of the Russian aircraft carrier which travelled through the Straits of Dover today en route to Syria, saying they normally went by the top of Scotland as it was shorter that way.

Really? Longer to go straight down the North Sea than travel across the top of Scotland and all the way round Ireland?

I suppose the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen etc made their channel dash in 1942 because that was the longer route? Pull the other one.

I found the tone of the news coverage of this perfectly unexceptional use of international waters to be verging on the hysterical. I do hope we are not being softened up for something.

Life Goes On

In amongst all the stuff going on in the world – a certain referendum result, the resultant resignation by Mr Irresponsible (see posts here,) a constitutional coup d’état in the UK followed by the appointment of a buffoon as Foreign Secretary, an inadequate with mental problems rampaging along a packed, festive promenade in a lorry deliberately targeting families and children, a seeming military coup d’état in Turkey with characteristics that are very odd and which swiftly fell apart, not to mention the ongoing mayhem in Iraq, Syria and so on – people have to get on with things and carry on, marking the milestones in their lives.

So it was that I missed Sons opening game of the season (about which the only thing positive to be said is that we twice came back from a goal down.)

Why did I miss a game so easily travellable for me?

I was at a piss-up in a brewery.

To clarify: it was my younger son’s wedding and the happy couple decided to hold their nuptials at the West Brewery, in part of the former Templeton’s Carpet Factory, near Glasgow Green, (which I now realise I haven’t yet posted my photographs of.)

One of the advantages of holding a wedding in a brewery is …… beer. As well as the usual immediate post ceremony libation of wine the choice of beer was available, great foaming jugs of the stuff (and half-pint glasses – just as well; the beer seemed quite strong.)

Then these two jugs appeared on the table before the meal. The beers were Munich Red and St Mungo, both very palatable:-

Beer

A few minutes later another jug was added. This was a wheat beer of some sort, to the front in this shot. Less to my taste, though:-

More Beer

There was a lot of dad dancing going on – and not just from the older ones like myself. But a good time was had by all.

When Will They Ever Learn?

The UK under Tony Blair followed blindly (hung on the coat-tails?) where the US led in invading Iraq – ostensibly to get rid of weapons of mass destruction (which anybody with the slightest understanding of Saddam Hussein’s psychology knew didn’t exist – though he wanted us, but more especially Iran, to think they did) but really simply to be seen to be doing something about the attacks on the World Trade Center (which Saddam Hussein had not a thing to do with; Al Qaida had no presence in Iraq before the war precisely because he had such a firm grip on things they weren’t allowed one) the operations in Afghanistan not being satisfactory in rooting out Osama Bin Laden, or just possibly to “secure” oil supplies.

Now that all worked out terribly well, didn’t it?

About two years ago some of the blowback from the mistakes of those adventures resulted in a vote in the UK Parliament on bombing Syria. No consensus on such action could be found.

Yesterday, more or less prompted by the murders committed by Isis/Isil/Daesh in Paris, a measure to bomb Syria was passed by that Parliament’s successor. This time, though, the target is different. Not the forces of President Assad, but those of Daesh.

The decision seems to be from the “grab at a false syllogism” school. This goes along the lines of, “The events in Paris were terrible. Something must be done about the perpetrators. Bombing is something. Therefore we must bomb.”

The fact that bombing Syria is against international law, notwithstanding the recent UN resolution, that bombing by near enough everybody else has had absolutely no effect in reducing Daesh’s activities does not seem to count against this argument. The facts that it won’t defeat them, that it won’t make us any safer, that it will only increase their appeal to potential adherents, that such a response is precisely what they look for when planning their atrocities weighed nothing against the apparent need to be seen to be doing something. Anything.

I had to give a hollow laugh when in the run-up to the vote Mr Irresponsible, aka David Cameron, havered on about outsourcing our security to others. If the UK is not outsourcing its security to others why, exactly, is it a member of NATO? (And, as a by-the by, what exactly is the purpose of the nuclear deterrent? France’s Force de Frappe didn’t prevent the Charlie Hebdo attacks nor those of this November. Trident didn’t stop the IRA nor 7/7 bombers.)

He also said that opponents of the bombing were terrorist sympathisers. Language such as that proves once again that the man is unfit to be Prime Minister.

Yes Daesh is a murdering, barbaric organisation utterly antithetical to freedom. But, Mr Cameron. Isn’t it possible conscientiously to think that bombing is a strategic mistake? That it will only encourage Daesh that it has got under our skin? That it will be profoundly counter-productive? That it will cause civilian casualties far in excess of any damage it might do to Daesh? That it will not bring about an end to Daesh? That it will not reassure Muslims in Britain that war is not being waged against their religion? That it makes us even more of a target than we were already? That it can only strengthen the position of the man the original bombing was supposed to help oust?

The history of British interference in the Middle East goes back a long way. The Sykes-Picot Agreement carved the area up between Britain and France, becoming effective after the Great War. In the 1920s the RAF (in Iraq) was the first air-force in the world to bomb indigenous rebels though it’s likely civilians bore the brunt as usual. The UK mandate in Palestine led (in)directly to the formation of Israel. Along with the US Britain was instrumental in removing the Mossadeq regime from Iran in the 1950s. Then there was the chaos we recently left behind in Iraq and contributed to in Libya.

Our politicians seem to have forgotten all this. Unlike them, the locals have long memories.

I can’t see anything good coming out of this at all.

Keep Calm and Carry On

My posts of the past two days were scheduled in advance and so had no possibility of taking account of the events in Paris.

My sympathies and condolences are with the families and friends of the dead and injured.

It’s difficult to comprehend why people would commit such acts – or to see what utility they might have in the perpetrators’ own eyes. Do they really think it will change the policies of European governments, or that of the US? If they were under the influence – or part – of Daesh (as that organisation doesn’t like to be called) surely the motivation can not be desperation. As I understand it, despite some successes against them by Kurdish forces, their territorial gains have not been badly reversed so far.

I greatly fear that the intent was to provoke us into over-reaction – something that worked very well when Al Qaida flew those aeroplanes into the twin towers.

There is an undercurrent in the British news that the question of bombing targets in Syria will come before Parliament again. Mr Irresponsible is reported to be all in favour of this. All I would say to this is that – with one possible exception (and even that is by no means a given) bombing has never resolved a conflict. All that what we in Britain called the Blitz accomplished was to stiffen the resolve of the British public not to give in to Germany. Bomber Command’s operations over Germany similarly failed to affect civilian morale to any great extent. Or to bring about an end to that war. Only boots on the ground did that.

Is the British public (is David Cameron/) prepared to send troops to Syria? More importantly; if they are, is there a plan to hand over to someone (or group) competent as soon as possible after a successful end? Is there someone competent to hand over to?

I am sure there will be calls for greater powers to monitor personal communications over and above the ones recently promulgated – already increased recruitment to the security services and GCHQ has been announced. Might it just be possible this is one of the things the Paris attacks were planned to accomplish?

If our governments become more authoritarian as a result of wanting to be seen to be doing something then what precisely would we be defending ourselves against? Would we not then have become what we are fighting, if a bit more woolly around the edges.

Short of supplying those troops on the ground and an effective plan for post-conflict resolution in Syria – plus something along the lines of the Marshall Plan for economic regeneration – it is probably too late now for a similar endeavour in Iraq to bear much fruit – I do not think Britain can do anything to affect the situation in Syria materially.

The best thing may be to do nothing. Continue on our daily business. Go to gigs. Go to football matches. Go to restaurants. Do not change our actions in any way at all.

As those never issued WW2 posters had it, Keep Calm and Carry On.

The Holocaust and the State

There was an interesting article in the Guardian of 16/9/15 where Timothy Snyder argued that the conditions necessary for the Holocaust of Jews (and others, but mainly Jews) by the Nazis to take place have largely been misunderstood.

Snyder sees it as crucial that in the areas where most killings occurred, principally in the lands of pre-war Poland, the Baltic States and what had been Soviet Belarus and Ukraine, the apparatus of the state was no longer functioning – had indeed been deliberately destroyed. This was the necessary precondition for the activities of the Einsatzgruppen and the SS to be so unconstrained.

Though Snyder’s focus is on Eastern Europe I found myself thinking that in Western Europe too the absence of state institutions was a factor contributing to whether or not transportations to the killing zones of those whom the Nazis saw as undesirables came about. In Denmark, where the king remained and most institutions stayed intact (at least until 1943,) most of the Jews escaped or survived. By contrast in the Netherlands, whose monarch went into exile in Britain, and in France, where the Third Republic collapsed and Vichy was a puppet, deportations were much easier and in some cases even facilitated.

We have seen the consequences of the absence of the state relatively recently in Afghanistan – the Taliban would not have come to power there if not for the chaos engendered by, first, the Soviet presence and then its retreat (effectively driven out by a mujahideen aided and abetted via US and Western support) – in the disarray of Libya and now in Iraq and Syria where ISIS/ISIL/Daesh would not have had the opportunity to grow as quickly or at all if there had not been the vacuum created by the destruction of the Iraqi state and the failure to replace it.

Contrary to what some libertarians appear to think it seems the state really is a force for good.

Postscript:- While looking over the above it also occurred to me that the killing fields in Cambodia, while a consequence of Pol Pot’s take-over, were also due to state collapse, in this case that of the pre-revolutionary government. I suppose too that La Terreur in revolutionary France and the turmoil in the former Russian Empire after the Bolshevik coup are examples of what happens when state organisation suffers disruption. To avoid chaos a polity requires not people with guns but checks and balances; plus a functional judicial system capable of holding those in power to account.

Drone Killings

The Prime Minister, David Cameron – known to this blog as Mr Irresponsible – has stated that the recent killing by RAF drone strike of two UK citizens in Syria is lawful as it was an act of self-defence and there was no alternative.

So. Let me get this clear. It is illegal for agents of the UK government to execute people convicted in the UK courts for murder, treason (or even arson in Her Majesty’s Dockyards) since the death penalty for such crimes has been abolished; but it is legal to do so to someone outside the UK’s legal jurisdiction, someone who has not been so convicted, or even put on trial?

How is that exactly?

(And what is to stop the government declaring anyone so guilty and despatching a drone to get rid of them?)

I thought we (the so-called civilised law-abiding nations) were supposed to be better than them (the likes of ISIS, ISIL or, the description I believe they themselves abhor, Daesh.)

We have been here before, of course. The major difference is that Gibraltar is British sovereign territory and Syria is not.

Mind you. Abolition of the death penalty in the UK has been a dead duck since the Iranian Embassy siege.

Syria and Parliament

It seems that an outbreak of sanity has occurred in the UK Parliament with its vote against military action in Syria.

Now, chemical weapons are horrible things (even if you are just as dead being killed by high explosive or shell fragments or blast or a bullet; it is difficult to see a moral difference) but I fail to see how attacking Syrian government forces can make life better for the average Syrian even if responsibilty for the use of such weapons were to be established beyond doubt.

Not to mention the wider implications. Pour oil on to a fire, why don’t you? Bombing yet another mainly Muslim country will only encourage those Muslims who have a grievance against the UK already.

[And don’t forget there are many reasons for that grievance. I noted only yesterday that British forces were involved in killing locals in Iraq in the 1920s. This followed the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which laid the path for the eventual Jewish takeover of most of Palestine. Then there was the overthrow of Mossadeq in the early 1950s. The collusion with Israel over Suez in 1956, the Suez invasion itself. The illegal invasion, on totally spurious pretexts, of Iraq in 2003. This is just those instances of UK intervention which impact on the Middle East. (A term which is itself anglocentric.)]

Quite how adding in another external faction to what is a civil war in Syria would help in resolving the situation there is also beyond me.

Just because people say something must be one doesn’t mean you can do anything you like.

Mr Irresponsible (aka David Cameron) has once more shown himself up to be a blustering bully. I suspect his enthusiasm for miltary intervention in Syria is that he believes sending in the armed forces helped both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to be re-elected. (A belief in which he is probably mistaken.) What he hasn’t learned is that the Iraq invasion – or, more accurately, its aftermath – poisoned the opinion of most British people against the assertions of Government spokespeople and Prime Ministers over the reasons for using troops and weaponry.

Military action against Syria could be like stirring up a hornet’s nest with a stick. There is no telling what the consequences would be.

A better response to use of chemical weapons, or any atrocity, would be to make sure that anyone responsible for what are considered war crimes is held to account by the international community. This would mean instant arrest should they stray outside whatever jurisdiction is keeping them safe from it and then arraignment before an international court. This stricture ought of course to apply to anyone, from whatever country, not just those our politicians say they don’t like.

And as to the effects of chemical weapons it might be best to deluge Syria with kits containing antidotes to the chemicals likely to be used – which would render their deployment pointless.

It wouldn’t stop the killing though.

I’m afraid this has been a somewhat unfocused rant. I can’t see a quick way out of the present Syrian imbroglio, the two sides seem too far apart for that.

Civil wars tend to be intractable. Intervention in them needs to have a purpose beyond, “Something must be done.” I didn’t think any of our politicians – least of all Mr Irresponsible – had enough wisdom to see beyond such simplicities. Parliament has at least resolved not to do more harm.

For the moment anyway.

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