On World War Three, the Uses of History, and the Greatest Generation

Calvin and his Duplicate

Calvin and his Duplicate

Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, is fond of moving from the particular to the general, or vice versa, to see if something is true. If an ethical or moral maxim holds true as a good thing for one person, it stands to reason that it might hold true for society at large as well. Likewise, if something can be said with truth about society, it probably can be said about an individual person as well. This isn’t uncontentious, and as a method it may not always stand up to close scrutiny, but it’s a tendency in classical Greek thought, and Kant’s famous categorical imperative has always struck be as being a kindred maxim.

For my own part, I find that the most dangerous times in my life are usually those when there isn’t really anything pressing that I have to do. Often in these periods there are plenty of things I should do, plenty of things I probably could do, and any number of things that I should probably get around to doing at some point. But never anything that I immediately need to do. Or more accurately still, nothing that can’t be easily put off as a task for future Nick to worry about. I often enjoy these days thoroughly, relaxing and frittering my time away on unimportant pleasures.

The reason these times are so dangerous is that all of those things I avoid during them have an alarming way of turning into things that I absolutely, no bones about it have to do. And when future Nick turns into present Nick, and that life-changing essay needs to be handed in tomorrow, and I’ve done no reading, or that critical presentation needs to be delivered and I’m going to have to just wing it, or more often than any other, there’s no more money left and no reasonable prospect of more appearing anytime soon, so no more cigarettes for a while, present Nick tends to loathe past Nick with the fire of a thousand suns. If my temporal selves ever met in the real world, present and future Nick would quickly agree that past Nick needed to be immediately lynched, and all three of us would immediately vanish in a puff of smoke like Calvin’s perfect version of himself when he had an evil thought.

If this is true of me, and long, painful experience has shown me that it is, then there’s a chance it’s true of society at large as well.

Climate change is the most obvious example here. We could rearrange our entire society to save our planet from ecological destruction. We could cease burning carbon based fuels, put serious effort into researching alternative sources of energy, and actually work at putting them into practice. We could spare a moment’s thought for the populations of Sub-Saharan Africa or the Indian subcontinent, or the denizens of New Orleans or Miami or Venice when we fill up at the Esso. But that sounds like a lot of work, and fracking means we’re never going to hit peak oil anyway, and I have to get home because there’s something really good up on Netflix.

But exactly the same logic applies to Syria, Iraq, and the broader unfolding crisis in the Middle East. A crisis which the left-wing British newspaper The Guardian recently  announced in its editorial  was a conflict on the scale of the Second World War; one that justifiably could be referred to, from the moment they deigned to enlighten us about it, as World War Three.

The headline was risible to me, as someone who’s been following events in the Middle East as avidly and as closely as a westerner who doesn’t read Arabic and isn’t being paid is capable of doing since the Egyptian Revolution of January 2011. I can only imagine how much more risible it must have been to a citizen of Syria since 2011, or of Iraq since 2003. How pleasant that the white liberal media has finally woken up to the scale of the events it has been trivializing, cheer-leading, downplaying, condemning or ignoring since they began, I can imagine them thinking. I can’t wait till it’s Lyons, Sheffield, Atlanta or Montreal that’s a smoldering pile of rubble, littered with the spent cases of depleted uranium shells. The editorial itself is perfectly sophisticated, and makes in essence the same point that I’m making here. It is, however, still a bit risible that people don’t seem to have understood what they meant.

It’s not even a very good historical analogy. Yes, the Second World War is the last time Europe was pounded into the primordial dust by the malevolence of its own sons and daughters on a scale like we’re witnessing in the Middle East of today. But the last time anywhere in North America ever had that experience was the end of the US Civil War and Sherman’s march to the sea. And the last time what you might call ‘Western Civilization’ (a useful shorthand for Europe and her contemporary colonial outgrowths around the world) experienced a war as savage, unending, and as religiously malevolent as the poisonous death-struggle now enveloping the Middle East was the agglomeration of savage, deadly conflicts in the seventeenth century that historians traditionally lump together as the Thirty Years War, when Protestant and Catholic butchered each other for possession of the heritage of Christ.

So when I read simplistic opinions about conflict in the Middle East, either opposing or defending western intervention in it, I find them at times a little difficult to take seriously. Because both proponents and opponents of Western intervention seem to miss the most important point of what is happening there, which is that it is happening, and will continue to happen,  in spite of anything we do about it. We have missed our chance to intervene in any meaningful way. From now on, and since at least two years ago, events in the Middle East control us here in the West, and not the other way around. If you’re curious, the only moment where Europe and the Anglosphere could have meaningfully intervened, and many people would disagree with me even in thinking it was possible then, was a brief moment in 2011.

This is the third world war. Right here, right now. We in the west are completely peripheral to it, and no decision we make or any intervention, military or humanitarian, that we undertake will make the slightest difference to its continuing, or even, if I’m completely honest, to its eventual outcome. We will be merely an additional complication for both sides to recognize and deal with. The bombs we drop, or God forbid any troops we deploy, will be pawns in a game that not even the governments they serve are actually playing. Their usefulness will be relative, and impossible to predict. What is bad for ISIS may be good for Iran and its puppet Assad regime. What is bad for Iran and Assad may be good for the sheikhs of Dubai and Saudi Arabia. It will make absolutely no difference to the outcome of the conflict itself. We aren’t directly involved in this war yet, but we can’t rule out that it won’t come home to us someday soon, as a different war did to America on December 7th, 1941. We have that day fresh enough in our minds to remind us of how thoroughly events can rule the powerful, rather than the other way around, but we have to go a little further back for a better analogy to what might be happening right now to the United States and the world order it’s presiding over.

Before Christianity or Islam existed, in the Middle East of the second century BC, then chafing at the clumsy, brutal attentions of the rising Roman superpower, there was a prophecy floating around attributed to the ancient Greek Sibyl. It informed the Romans that

Not foreign invaders, Italy, but your own sons will rape you, a brutal interminable gang-rape, punishing you, famous country, for all your many depravities, leaving you prostrated, stretched out among the burning ashes. Self-slaughterer! No longer the mother of upstanding men, but rather the nurse of savage, ravening beasts!”

This was mostly wishful thinking. Rome’s mastery of the Mediterranean was unquestioned, and would remain so for centuries to come. It wasn’t even a prophecy that required supernatural explanations. A reasonably keen observer of the Roman political situation in 140 BC could well have spotted the tensions that would eventually culminate in the bloody civil war that would bring down the curtain on the Roman Republic, and usher in the age of the Augustan Emperors. The Sibyl was probably just a very convenient pen name for a keen geopolitical analyst who knew his/her prognostications would be much more widely read if they came from the mythical Sibyl. But this was known from Egypt to Asia Minor as the preordained destiny of the Roman people. The Romans knew it too, and while they alternately scoffed, grew fearful, excoriated each other for their depravity, and tried to put their own house in order, they were haunted even in the moment of their world-spanning triumph by the suspicion of their impending doom. Every European empire that has followed them, from that of Spain to that of Britain to that of the United States, has been plagued by similar Cassandras and rumours of Cassandras.

But it came true. The history of Rome from Marius and Sulla to Romulus Augustulus is the history of Roman butchering Roman, and of the gradual ruination of the Italian peninsula. By the age of Justinian, Rome was a provincial backwater with a famous name and a lot of crumbling ruins. The Barbarians never invaded. That’s one of history’s great myths. For the most part they were invited in when there weren’t enough Romans left in the world to fill an army. The Goths, the Vandals and even the Huns served as foederati in the armies of the various rulers of the late Empire so they could go on killing each other and their fellow Romans, until eventually they were all that remained, and only the idea of Rome had survived. It is one of history’s little ironies that many of the near-eastern peoples they fought, and occasionally that they conquered and dispersed, like the Jews, the Armenians and the Persians, have endured where they did not.

Now, in the Twenty First Century AD, or CE, as we’ve arrogantly begun to call it, the superpower bluntly trying to shape the Middle East to its liking is the United States of America, and its capital is even more removed and distant from the fighting and chaos it tries desperately to control. Unlike Rome, America is unwilling or unable to summon the cold brutality needed to truly put an end to the strife that so worries it. When the Jews revolted against Roman rule three times in two hundred years, Rome eventually razed Jerusalem to the ground, renamed it Aelia Capitolina, butchered the Jews and their leaders and statesmen, and obliterated the very idea of an independent Jewish state. It won them peace and quiet, for a time.

America, for very good reasons, is unwilling to truly unleash the full fury of its military arsenal on the Middle East. They certainly could bring peace to the region if they did, but only if they were willing to leave it a radioactive wasteland devoid of all life, human or animal, and to live with a faint green glow in the eastern sky for the next few thousand years to remind them of what they did. They are willing, instead, only to deploy short-term solutions; supporting this state against another, bombing this group of Islamists, supporting that one, and cracking down on another through a proxy. I’m glad they’re only going that far, I suppose, because all of humanity might be wiped out by the nuclear option, But the measures they’re taking will only, perhaps, buy time. And in the end they will likely only spawn more hatred and engender still deeper chaos.

The barbarian invasions of Europe may be one of history’s greatest myths; Rome’s decline was entirely its own fault, and wasn’t imposed by any kind of external force. The insistence that every great empire’s decline will unfold exactly like Rome’s might be another, but far and away the greatest myth of them all is that the study of history will teach us lessons about how to avoid making the same mistakes our ancestors did. Even when this is true, which it rarely is, it doesn’t prevent us from making fifty new mistakes to make up for the old ones we successfully avoid.

Why study it then? I’m honestly not sure, and I ask myself almost every day. The best answer I’ve come up with so far is that, like poetry, you may not see why it’s relevant when you first read it, but five, ten, twenty years down the line, as your life unfolds and good and bad things start happening to you, something might come to you and you’ll remember, in a flash of insight and understanding, that line you read that made no sense at the time, and you’ll be glad you took the trouble to read Auden, or Whitman, or whoever else floats your boat.

As an example of what I mean, something from my knowledge of history that keeps coming to me recently, and giving me a little bit of hope as I look at a world stage that only seems to get bleaker, darker and still more terrifying, is a line from John Adams. In 1773, as tensions between Britain and its thirteen American colonies kept rising higher and higher, and compromise and moderation became less and less possible, or even desirable, he wrote to his wife Abigail that he despaired of his fellow Americans. He called the problems they faced ‘too grand and multifarious for my comprehension,’ and of his generation of Americans, he wrote  that ‘We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in Genius, in Education, in Travel, in Fortune, in every Thing. I feel unutterable anxiety.’ John Adams went on to be the second President of the new United States, and that generation of feckless losers he’s describing went on to be the Founding Fathers of the United States, reverentially cited by their descendants as the ultimate arbiters of political wisdom. Even when they weren’t. Even when the person speaking knows nothing about them at all, and is massively distorting who they were and what they intended. They’re who he thinks of when he things of the perfect generation of Americans; the ones whose example this contemporary one is so spectacularly failing to emulate.

I may not know much about the future, or whether there’s any truth to these claims about History, but I do know that I can relate exactly to how he felt when he wrote that. In this narcissistic, shallow age of selfies and lattes and hashtags and textspeak, it’s really hard to believe that any of us, let alone most of us, like our grandparents in the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ will prove more than we appear, and rise to the really insurmountable challenges we’re facing on pretty much every front of our collective existence. And maybe we won’t. Maybe we’re totally doomed. Worst of all, maybe we totally deserve to be.

I obviously don’t know that, and I have no way of knowing. But if history has any lesson at all here, it’s that my opinions on the subject are irrelevant one way or another, and we very well might be all right in the end. So let’s be prepared, and do the best we can with what we’ve got, because if we pull it off, then we, not our grandparents, will end up being the Greatest Generation.

On Letting Western Jihadists Come Home

A few years ago, a British comedian made a brilliant video entitled Gap Yah, viciously satirizing privileged British teenagers and young adults taking a year between school and university to go find themselves, or save the world, or whatever it is they go to do. Tarquin and his friend were British, but they could have been from Canada, France or the United States. It’s pretty standard for young westerners to go do community service or something similar in the ‘third world’ or ‘developing countries’ for a little while in their young years before they get bogged down by adult responsibilities. Yes, I did it too. I laid water pipes, planted trees and built stoves in Peru, and I felt incredibly weird the whole time. Did I do some good? Yeah, maybe. Should I have been doing it? I’m really not sure at all.

There’s something totally insufferable about the whole idea. For the most part, and I can’t imagine this has changed much since I did it in 2006, it’s a matter of taking selfies and feeling good about oneself, then eventually getting bored, or realizing that one isn’t actually making that big a dent in the problem, and then going home.

That’s what’s insufferable. We go on vacation, help the poor brown, black or purple people deal with their poverty, and then we go home, to Starbucks Lattes and IPhones and clean water and comfortable beds.

The thing is, this is exactly the same thing that young British, French, American or Canadian Muslims are doing right now in Syria and Iraq. Only the circumstances and the reasons are different, and those differences are kind of cosmetic. In many important ways, they’re doing the same thing for a lot of the same reasons; teenage angst, alienation, anger, and boredom all play big roles, as does a sense of guilt at their comfortable lives and desire to do good for the poor benighted people of some faraway land. In their case, however, they’re going to kill and be killed, not to build schools or plant trees. And recently, like a lot of us eventually do after our service junkets, some of them have begun to realize just how stupid an idea it was the whole time.

Their IPods don’t work anymore. Most of the time they’re not really doing anything glamorous or exciting. The bathrooms are dirty and they’re uncomfortable most of the time. Rapine, murder and butchery aren’t quite as fulfilling as they were led to believe they would be.They want to come home and see their families and go back to the lives they knew. They’re seeing that maybe those Kufar aren’t so evil after all. At least back in the land of Jahiliyya they have regular access to toilet paper.

But out of fear, anger and a little bit of racism, we won’t let them. We should. We should even encourage it, and set up a process by which it is gradually, and very eventually possible. In a way that acknowledges the gravity of their mistake, makes damn sure they’re being sincere in their remorse, and punishes them justly for what they’ve done, but also in a way that leaves them a path open back to a normal life. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also in our interests, as well as the interests of the people of Syria, Iraq and wherever else these people are wreaking havoc.

When young, stupid white kids from western countries go gallivanting off to save the world, not even the people who think they’re being silly think they also deserve to die. Even if they get into serious trouble in one of the places they go to, nobody seriously suggests that they aren’t worthy of consular protection and assistance, and nobody says that their parents are wrong to be glad they’re back, and to let them back under their roof. I imagine Gap Yah’s parents and the British government did eventually get him out of that Burmese prison. Yes, he was an idiot, but stupidity isn’t a capital offense.

Except, it would appear, when you and your parents are Muslim. Then rich, white politicians are apparently perfectly free to brag about how they will burn your passport and never let you come home. Then your parents will receive verbal abuse and even threats because of your stupid decision, and have their motives and loyalties questioned if they worry about the fate of their children. After your government refuses to help you, and you die, your parents will be forced to become political props as well as suffer unspeakable grief. And, by the way, even your mistake will be angry with you, and publicly seek to kill you even if you do come safe back home. Which is tragic, because you could, and still can, do a lot of good there.

When young, often disadvantaged and justifiably angry Muslims in western countries are mulling over the idea of flying to Syria, who do you think is going to have more moral authority telling them that it’s a stupid idea, completely unIslamic, and that they shouldn’t do it. An ex-Jihadi? Or some western politician like Boris Johnson, whose biggest passport problems involve how much tax he’s able to avoid paying out of his ludicrous, undeserved wealth? The ex-head of MI6, Richard Barrett, who has probably had more experience with problems like this than armchair right wing experts around the world (or, for that matter, armchair left wing experts like me) is explaining in the British press that “many of the people who have been most successful in undermining the terrorist narrative are themselves ex-extremists.” It’s terrifying when young westerners decide that ISIS has a more fulfilling narrative of life to offer than we do. It has to make you wonder a little bit how bad ours actually is.  It’s completely in our interests to let these people back to help make sure that that doesn’t happen. They have a chance to do good, and to atone for their mistakes, and since we and our fellow citizens are the ones who stand to benefit from it, it would be suicidal of us to let them die alone and unloved in a foreign country for no good reason.

But what’s good for us or for our ex-jihadi citizens isn’t really the biggest issue here. What is is what’s good for the citizens of the Middle East, for whom this isn’t a theoretical problem, and for whom the tyranny of the Islamic State and the constant threat of violent death aren’t problems happening on the internet or in the papers. It’s right outside their door. This isn’t a hypothetical war, and these aren’t hypothetical issues for them. They are the ones dying, and they can’t just switch off the computer to make it go away. It’s a paralyzingly awful situation, for which there is no easy or obvious solution. Western intervention isn’t going to make it stop, military or otherwise. This is a war that isn’t going to end anytime soon, no matter what anybody says or does. It’s a horror from which there is no escape. It’s not a place people should be jaunting to lightly. And that goes for the people going to join the Kurds, too. The last people in the world whose help the Middle East needs right now are crazed German bikers, and the Western right should stop cheering them on, because they’re not even a tiny bit morally superior to the western jihadists.

One thing I want to make absolutely clear is that these people aren’t just idiots. They are, but many of them are very likely rapists, murderers, and traitors to the countries they’ve come from as well, by any sane person’s definition of the word. The penalty for treason has historically been death, but it isn’t anymore. When they do come home, they should be prepared to do time in prison for any crimes they’ve committed, and probably also to lose any and all privacy they’ve enjoyed in the past, at least for a good long while. In a situation like this, where so much rides on a person’s sincerity, society actually is entitled to know what you’re saying in private, and to see what you’re doing in private. You can’t be speaking out of both sides of your mouth about your repentance, and in a situation like this it’s only prudent that you’re being monitored around the clock, for your own safety, and that of the people around you. This is probably one of the only circumstances in which the sort of dragnet, total surveillance that our security services are subjecting all of us to right now (Hi guys!) is actually justified. Which, by the way, is why they should deploy their resources to that end, and not to collecting the dick pics of innocent strangers.

I do support western military efforts against ISIS, and am glad that we’re helping their enemies in the region to kill them as quickly and efficiently as possible. The closest analogy in the European cultural experience to ISIS for stupidity, viciousness, brutality and unadulterated evil are the Nazis. And if Godwin’s law is in your head, get it out. The reason it’s so irritating when stupid people make stupid comparisons to the Nazis is that it trivializes the analogy when it’s perfectly, completely accurate. And in this case it is. That’s who you should have in your head. That’s the mature, intelligent comparison you should be making. So if these westerners really do believe in the divine mission of Caliph Abu-Bakr and are willing to die in service to a demon in human form, they should rest assured that they will.

But they don’t have to. Because they can also come home. And we should make sure that they can. Were they idiots? Yes. Could they have known what it was they were getting into? Yes. Are they the first young people in history to make a dumb ass decision that they later came to regret? Not a chance. Has their decision put them completely beyond the pale of human consideration forever? No.

The thing about ISIS and their twisted, lying ideology is that at its kernel there’s a small scrap of truth. But only in the same way that the Nazis had one was well when they said that the Treaty of Versailles had punished Germany unfairly. It had, but that in no way justified Nazism or the things people did in its name. In ISIS’ case it’s that there really are a lot of things about Western civilization that are deeply, deeply wrong, and which will destroy us in the end if we don’t figure out a way to fix them. Our society, with its dehumanizing greed, its horrific structural inequalities, and its vacuous inability to give us, its citizens, much in the way of meaning and purpose in our lives beyond waiting for the IPhone 7, is in serious, serious trouble. Going to Syria to wage jihad may be a stupid person’s response to that fact, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. This is a test of our situation and our way of life. If we can forgive this, and reintegrate people into our society even after doing something like this, then we’re probably going to be all right in the end.

But if we can’t, we’re probably on the road to becoming history. We’re often told that at the core of ISIS is a festering, maggoty heart of pure evil. I think that’s exactly right. But all the evil ever done in this world has been done with the best and highest of intentions. People always think, by their own lights, that they’re doing good, even when they’re doing unfathomable evil. And one thing that does need to be said about these kids? They thought this was the right thing to do. And no, the Gap Year analogy isn’t the best one available here. Western students and young people aren’t willingly or knowingly risking their lives for anything these days. But they used to. We actually have been here before. It was the late nineteen thirties, and the problem then was young Americans, Brits and Frenchmen going to join the international brigades to make sure Franco didn’t win the Spanish Civil War. George Orwell, Ernst Hemingway, and countless other much less famous names were so convinced that a better world was possible that they left behind everything they knew to fight for it. Was it their fault that Stalin and the communists betrayed those hopes, and the governments of their own countries decided Franco was the lesser of two evils?

These kids wanted to fight for something. They thought they were willing to die for something. Even that thought is a rare commodity these days. Maybe we should make sure we’re keeping it close to home.

The Surreal Case of North Korea

North Korean Missiles

A friend of mine recently suggested to me that I write a post detailing what I think about North Korea.

In fairness, I have no idea what to say.

This is a country like no other on earth. One that lives through unimaginable brutalities every day, and which we in the west are content to let linger in a long, horrible nightmare that has, for the people of this hermit kingdom, lasted over 50 years. See the movie Kimjongilia if you want to know what life is like in this benighted country. It will horrify you. My brother in law, who’s a film director, once interviewed a survivor, which seems the only appropriate word to use, of North Korea. He asked the man’s South Korean handler if his story was particularly terrifying.

He said no. They’re all like that.

We turn a blind eye because…I’m not entirely sure why, to be honest. I imagine it has a lot to do with not wanting to antagonize China, given what happened last time the west tried to extirpate this vicious bunch of thugs. Read Kissinger’s Nixon in China for an account of how Mao’s China went to war to defend this stupid little republic.

And because they have nuclear weapons.

It seems pretty clear now that this is the case. North Korea now has a small nuclear bomb that it is capable of putting in a missile. A missile that could potentially eradicate part of Japan, South Korea, US Bases in the Pacific Ocean, or even, and this is the ultimate nightmare scenario, if unlikely, the continental United States itself.

We all woke up a little less safe this morning. But my first thought goes to the people of Japan. How unfair that one country should have such a sordid nuclear history to begin with, and now have to live with the almost daily threat of annihilation.

And needless to say, the people of North Korea have a lot less reason to be hopeful now. No one will be coming to liberate them from this hyper-repressive regime anytime soon. The risk is now too great.

The ultimate outcome depends a lot on what China decides to do. China remains the DPRK’s biggest supporter. Indeed, without Chinese aid, it’s doubtful the people of the country could survive at all, let alone that the regime could possibly survive.

But of course, China likes this. China enjoys having a client state under it’s control. It feels that this is natural. And as such, is unlikely to do more than slap the young Kim-Jong Un on the wrist.

But in the end, today’s developments signal the likely freezing of the status quo on the Korean peninsula. I’m not really listening to the threats. I tune them out. This is such a ludicrous regime that it actively benefits from racheting up the international tension like this. I imagine they’re bluffing. I don’t think they’d do it. Bomb a nearby country, I mean. I don’t believe that even they are that twisted.

And if they are? If I’m wrong? Well, to quote probably the greatest president the United States never had, they should prepare to be ‘blown off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder.’