Comfort to the Enemy, and other Carl Webster stories, by Elmore Leonard

IMG_0183Comfort to the Enemy is a book of two short stories and a novella, all focussing on Leonard’s character Carlos Webster, United States Marshall, and star of another Leonard novel, The Hot Kid.

This book starts with a short story recounting Webster’s first encounter with hoodlums in his teens and ends with the novella, Comfort to the Enemy, in which he, sort of, investigates a killing at a German prisoner of war camp in Oklahoma.

Carl is a Western archetypal ideal: taciturn, polite, smart and extremely gifted in the art of violence. He is strikingly similar to another Leonard character of a later era, Raylan Givens, the marshall protagonist of the glorious television series Justified, though with an altogether more settled family life – one could never imagine Carl’s upright and sympathetic father Virgil ever trying to kill him – and a less fraught relationship with booze.

The two short stories, Showdown at Checotah, and Louly and Pretty Boy, and the novella Comfort to the Enemy, are lovely exemplars of Leonard’s spare and laconic storytelling style, gently compelling, funny and exciting by turns. Great stuff!

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The Rise of Islamic State, by Patrick Cockburn

imageThe Rise of Islamic State is a short book but an extremely important one. Cockburn, a veteran Middle East correspondent, lucidly describes how Islamic State has arisen as a concrete legacy of Bush and Blair’s inept and illegal invasion of Iraq. He also unpicks the political and military quagmire currently extant in that region.

Cockburn identifies Saudi Arabia as the primary source of financial support for Islamic State (DAESH) and its predecessor Al Qaeda, and the origin of its barbaric “jurisprudence”. However in the aftermath of 9/11, or indeed at any time subsequently it seems, rather than confront Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan with its murky ties to international terrorism, the Bush administration instead invaded Iraq, a country that, for all the brutality of Saddam had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

George W Bush, with his pal Prince Bandar bin Sultan,

George W Bush, with his pal Prince Bandar bin Sultan, “godfather” of DAESH (Islamic State)

One can only imagine how Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the US, an instigator of the Iraq invasion and frequent house guest of George Bush, must have giggled to himself at how easily led the US was towards advancing Saudi Arabia’s brutal foreign policy without Saudi ever having to get its hands dirty. As head of Saudi intelligence subsequently, from 2012 to 2014, Bandar was the key individual responsible for backing DAESH against Shia and minorities in the region and so helping them become the potent military force they currently are.

Cockburn points out that while DAESH may not be loved by the Sunni population of Iraq, they are tolerated by them because the alternative, perhaps unbelievably to some, would be much worse for them. The bigoted, pro-Sunni extremism of DAESH Wahhabism is mirrored by the brutality and sectarianism of the Shia militias that the US and UK supported Iraqi government have been sponsoring.

Which brings us to the present: the Obama administration’s efforts towards a detente with Iran would now appear to be a central element in the strategy against DAESH, along with support for the Kurds and a recognition of Assad as a ruthless bulwark against DAESH. The desire of the US Congressional Republicans in collusion with Netanyahu to undermine a deal with Iran seems peculiar, but in keeping with the ineptitude and dysfunctionality of US Middle Eastern policy over the past 15 years. Overall the US seems to value the possibility of profiting from the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia rather than actual regional security. In the end perhaps the US will gain the same comfort as the gun store owner who at least has the satisfaction of knowing he sold the gun to the psychopath who murders him.

All too human: war and terrorism in the contemporary world

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica

In the aftermath of the recent spate of atrocities by Islamic fundamentalists it is probably worth focussing on a couple of points that have been obscured in the rush to condemnation.

First this sort of atrocity is nothing new in modern history. Ordinary Germans routinely massacred civilians in Eastern Poland during the Second World War. Much of the RAF bombing campaign on Germany during the same war was indiscriminate and killed thousands of old people, women and children. American troops in Vietnam regularly butchered Vietnamese civilians. Irish paramilitaries slaughtered both compatriots and British civilians alike. The last vestiges of the notion of Israeli “purity of arms” died in the slaughterhouse Prime Minister Netanyahu created in Gaza in the summer of 2014. In fact in the sweep of human history the idea of refraining from making war on civilians has been rather unpopular, and the wars emanating from, and waged in the contemporary Middle East are no exception.

The notion that Muslim atrocities are somehow qualitatively different and beyond the moral pale of what the Western world would contemplate is laughable, and must be even more laughable to those who, in recent years, have been on the receiving end of the violence of the West and its allies.

However it does seem plain that at this point in history there is a significant sub-culture within the European Muslim community which is alienated from the democratic ideals of wider European society, and within that, a smaller minority which is prepared to resort to violence and terrorism both in Europe and abroad as an expression of this alienation.

A lot of the focus in the aftermath of the most recent attacks has been on the need for European Muslim community leadership to combat this alienation. Such leadership has and will continue to have considerable potential to lead young people away from violence and towards more constructive roles for their community and wider society. But it is disingenuous to presume that the reason that young people are engaged in violence to the current extent is because of failures in the leadership of the Muslim community.

To presume this may be comforting to non-Muslims, as it implies that we have no responsibility for Muslim alienation. But it is not a response to the violence that will leave a single individual anywhere in the world any safer or more protected from random and brutal terrorism.

Goya's Shootings of the third of May

Goya’s Shootings of the third of May

Because, of course, alienation and terror on this scale never occurs in a vacuum. Just because the wider society is unaware of the narrative that is justifying that terrorism to its perpetrators does not mean that such a narrative does not exist. And just because the narrative may be filled with distortions and logical inconsistencies does not mean that it is any less compelling to its adherents.

What should be apparent to even the most myopic of observers is that the fundamentalist violence that we have witnessed in Europe over the past 10 years comes in the context of a much wider system of violence. And, as Patrick Cockburn has put it, “It is inevitable that sparks from these conflicts land in Western Europe and other parts of the world.”

For many in the West this cycle of violence started with the attacks on the World Trade Centre. However Muslim grievances predate that. For example the West’s acquiesce in an emerging system of Israeli imposed apartheid in Palestine or the horrific brutality of the wars in Algeria are both capable of providing alternative points of origin for a narrative in which 9/11 seems no less and no more justifiable than Dresden or Nagasaki. And the brutal conduct of the bloody fiasco in Iraq has sustained the flow of grievance.

European Muslims are likely to have similar reactions to injustices against Muslims in Gaza or elsewhere as Irish Americans had against British injustice in the North of Ireland. However the danger, from a contemporary point of view, is that the US wasn’t seen as being complicit in British injustice. Today Europe, in particular the UK, may be closely and ignominiously identified as being complicit in the bloody mess of Iraq and Israel’s violence against Palestinians.

In other words, distasteful as it may seem to some, the current spate of Islamic fundamentalist terror is a political problem. It is not an Islamic versus Western ‘clash of civilisations’, though some would like it to be portrayed as such: Netanyahu’s cynical elbowing to the front of a Parisian photocall with international leaders in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack was a physical assertion of this idea. He intended to convey to Europe and beyond that it has no choice but to stand alongside his militarism. Rather what we see is a set of wars of varying sizes and asymmetries that are born from fundamental human and therefore political issues of injustice, violence, alienation, cruelty and stupidity.

But if we can accept that this fundamentalist violence is the consequence of a more mundane set of political problems then we can recognise that it requires political solutions, or at least a political process, to address the causes of alienation alongside the security response necessary to attempt to fend off future attacks.

Picasso's Rape of the Sabine Women

Picasso’s Rape of the Sabine Women

The full extent of the political agenda that should be followed will be considerable and international in scope. It may necessarily include consideration of the question of reconciliation between French and Algerian peoples. It should probably include confrontation of Pakistan and in particular Saudi Arabia as countries that have been the ideological reservoirs, financiers and facilitators of much of the terror that is currently plaguing the Middle East and the world. Unquestionably one element must be the robust pursuit of a just peace between Israel and Palestine, instead of the international acceptance of the quasi-apartheid that currently pertains. This will require the Jewish community bearing a heavy burden of leadership comparably to that required of non-violent Muslim leaders: the one thing the current Israeli government and its apologists seem afraid of is ordinary Jews publicly repudiating the Israeli government’s extremist policies and racist attitudes. Such sanction carries with it a credibility that non-Jews, lacking links to the appalling tragedy of Jewish history, could never hope to attain.

An international political process that openly seeks to deal justly with grievances would provide political weight and credibility to those leaders and citizens, particularly Muslims, who wish to pursue the path of non-violence. Without it, those same advocates for peace will be rendered much less effective, twisting in the wind as the West blunders on repeating the patterns of the past 10 years with brutal and inept military responses to problems emerging from countries and societies that we barely begin to understand.

Traitor to his Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by HW Brands

IMG_0172Franklin Roosevelt, the only US president elected more than twice, is generally viewed alongside Lincoln and Washington as the greatest of American presidents. This biography is an elegantly written survey of his life, times and accomplishments.

At the outset of his life it seemed the world was his oyster. He was born into considerable wealth and a prominent family – cousin Theodore was a Republican president. As was typical of his class much of Roosevelt’s upbringing was left to nannies and servants. Peculiarly Brands suggests that two of these servants, Helen McRorie and Elspeth McEachern, because they were from the North of Ireland, cemented his anglophilia. For those familiar with the politics of Ireland, the Catholic name of Helen McRorie would rather suggest that she may have been a significant source of his radicalism: It is more than probable that she was from the nationalist community and brought with her deeply felt memories of marginalisation and discrimination at the hands of the British and Unionist establishments in Ireland. Indeed this awareness of the nature of British colonialism may have added conviction to Roosevelt’s advocacy of Indian independence during the war.

Roosevelt’s privileged youth led him to Harvard and then a political apprenticeship in New York politics, thence to a spell, including the duration of the US involvement in the First World War, in the federal government as Under-Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration.
eleanor-rooseveltBut the seeming gilded path was somewhat illusory. His wife, an extraordinary person in her own right, Eleanor, was almost certainly gay, and so, as their marriage progressed it became less a loving relationship and more a political alliance of close friends. Roosevelt’s life was further cruelly marred by a bout of polio which deprived him of the use of his legs. Following a period of rehabilitation however he found his way back to electoral politics eventually becoming governor of New York and then, in 1932, president.

His accomplishments in this role were considerable: the “New Deal”, a rearrangement of the political economy of the United States, helped bring an end to the Depression, introducing banking regulation, promoting labour rights, founding social security and ending child labour in the process. His leadership of his country in the Second World War was decisive in the defeat of the Axis, and the United Nations remains one of his most enduring international legacies.

Part of Roosevelt’s success derived from his legendary charm, but beneath this there was unquestionable steel, tempered by his personal travails, but constantly under control. The strain that this placed on him was not inconsiderable: observers noted his exhaustion at Yalta from trying, perhaps a little naively, to charm Stalin away from his murderous, imperialist ways. And the pressure of the presidency through the crises of war and peace contributed to Roosevelt’s relatively early death.

Traitor to his Class is a fine introduction to one of the pivotal figures of the twentieth century and his times. Still, in spite of this, at the end Roosevelt seems a rather remote figure. It is as if the restraint and reserve he showed through life still renders him somewhat unknowable today. Nevertheless, as Eleanor noted at his death, “If at the end one can say: “This man used to the limit the powers that God granted him: he was worthy of love and respect and of the sacrifices of many people, made in order that he might achieve what he deemed to be his task,” then that life has been lived well and there are no regrets.” And in Roosevelt’s case, the liberty of western Europe emerged from his life, and those of us who live here must always remain grateful for that.