Farewell to all that

by Maria on October 26, 2014

The Union Jack came down in Camp Bastion today, marking the end of the UK’s combat role in Afghanistan and its misconceived campaign in Helmand Province; the campaign with no strategy, less chance of success and a gossamer-thin plan. It has come to a dignified end with a choir of establishment generals (is there any other kind?) and politicians serenely harmonising the nation’s oldest hymns; ‘mistakes were made’, and ‘perhaps we might have done it differently’.

Nineteen billion pounds. Twenty thousand Afghan civilians. Four hundred and fifty three UK soldiers. More Afghan National Army killed last summer than UK troops throughout the whole war. More poppy seed than ever growing in Helmand, but lots more children in school, too.

Was it worth it? Well if you’ve figured out a workable and not-obscene calculus of human pain and worthwhile profit, let the rest of us know.

I knew one of the four hundred and fifty three, but only superficially. He was deputed one autumn evening to squire me around the officers’ mess when E was already gone. He made sure I had drinks and was warm enough, saw me into the dining room, flirted chastely back and manfully ignored the younger women. It was like something out of Thackeray. Beautiful manners on the eve of battle.

The other senior wife and I went to his funeral, along with the welfare officer, representing the battalion. The men wouldn’t be home for months. As an Irish woman, I had never expected to be dressed in black, walking slowly through a seated congregation to a reserved pew at the front, next to a coffin with a Union Jack on. The gloves and belt were the hardest to look at. No one cried. Not obviously, anyway.

Later, driving through the gold-tinged dusk of a Wiltshire summer evening, I rounded the corner of B-road to see the flag again, flying in someone’s garden. I had to pull over.

That’s not my flag and never will be. It’s just something someone I slightly knew died for.

Grossman’s Life and Fate

by Chris Bertram on October 26, 2014

The past year has been one of reading long books. Naguib Mahfouz’s *Cairo Trilogy*, *War and Peace*, and, on the back of the latter Vasily Grossman’s *Life and Fate*. I’m still digesting. Is *Life and Fate* the greatest Russian novel of the past century? I don’t know, and it seems like an invidious question. But great it certainly is. Not so much for the writing — at least in translation Grossman’s prose is, well, prosaic — but for it breadth of vision, its humanism, its psychological insight and for Grossman’s courage in facing up to inconvenient facts about human beings and his own society. Grossman, Soviet war correspondent alongside his rival Ilya Ehrenberg, one-time favoured Soviet writer, seems to have imagined the book might have managed to get published under Khruschev, as *One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich* was. What an absurd hope to have had. *Life and Fate*, was “arrested”, the typescript seized by the KGB. But Grossman had made copies which were smuggled to the West, and the book was finally published in 1980.

At the heart of the novel is Stalingrad, briefly, as he puts it, capital of the world, the focus of a great struggle between two totalitarian powers. Alongside this, and interwoven with it, are the travails of nuclear physicist Victor Shtrum and his extended family, their dealings with a capricious state, their moral dilemmas and psychological adaptations in the face of its cruelties. In the background lurks the memory of the year 1937, knocks on the door in the night and sentences of ten years “without right of correspondence”, meaning, in actuality, a bullet in the head. Right in front is the destruction of European Jews, massacres and deportations by the invading Germans and the imminence of death. And all the time the question occurs, made vivid by Grossman cutting between Soviet POWs in Germany and zeks in Siberia of whether there is any moral difference between these two regimes.
[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Saguaro cactus

by Chris Bertram on October 26, 2014

One of the more recent criticisms I’ve read of Eichmann in Jerusalem—in Bettina Stangneth’s and Deborah Lipstadt’s books—is that far from seeing, or seeing through, Eichmann, Arendt was taken in by his performance on the witness stand. Eichamnn the liar, Eichmann the con man, got the better of Arendt the dupe.

For the sake of his defense, the argument goes, Eichmann pretended to be a certain type of Nazi—not a Jew hater but a dutiful if luckless soldier, who wound up, almost by happenstance, shipping millions of Jews to their death.

Arendt heard this defense, and though she never accepted the notion that Eichmann was an obedient soldier (she thought he was a great deal worse than that), she did conclude that Eichmann had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann was hermetically sealed off from the world, from the perspective of people who weren’t Nazis. Because the “more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view,” he “never realized what he was doing.” He knew he was sending Jews to their death; he just didn’t grasp the moral significance of that act, wherein its evil lay, how others, including his victims and their families, might see it.

According to evidence presented by Stangneth and Lipstadt, Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel was indeed a performance on Eichmann’s part. The truth is that he was a rabid anti-Semite who took initiative and on occasion defied the directives of his superiors in order to make sure even more Jews went to their death; at one point, Lipstadt reports, he even personally challenged Hitler’s order to allow some 40,000 Hungarian Jews to be released for emigration to Palestine via Switzerland.

At every stage of his career, Eichmann knew what he was doing. In power, he did it with zeal; out of power, in the dock, he tried to pretend that he hadn’t, or that if he had, that he had no choice.

Arendt’s vision of the banality of evil, her critics claim, rests upon a failure to see this, the real Eichmann. Eichmann the trickster, Eichmann the con man, rather than Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel.

As I’ve written before, I think there’s something to this argument about Arendt’s failure to apprehend Eichmann’s performance as a performance. Arendt sometimes, though not nearly as often as her critics claim, did take Eichmann at his word, and it never seems to have occurred to her that he would have had the cunning—and necessary self-awareness—to fashion an image of himself that might prove more palatable to the court.

But if Eichmann was indeed a liar, that, it seems to me, argues in favor of Arendt’s overall thesis of the banality of evil, not against it. Once you work through the implications of Eichmann the liar—as opposed to Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel—it becomes clear that it is Arendt’s critics, rather than Arendt, who have not only failed to come to terms with his evil, but who also may have, albeit inadvertently, minimized what he actually did.

So let’s work this one through. [click to continue…]

Three things the US has (just about) seen the last of

by John Quiggin on October 26, 2014

Here’s an assorted list of things that once seemed archetypally American, but have pretty much reached the end of the line. More precisely, there are no new ones, or hardly any, and the existing examples look increasingly down at heel

    Shopping malls
    Nuclear power stations
    Republican intellectuals

Feel free to discuss, deny, add to the list and so on.