Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima 1944, by Fergal Keane

Summary: War is cruelty, and so is reading about it sometimes

In 1989 Alan Clarke and Danny Boyle made a short film for the BBC called Elephant. There was little dialogue, and little narrative. What there was instead was a reenactment of a series of 18 killings based on real incidents from the Troubles in the North of Ireland. The film did not seek to explain the causes of the conflict, which still had almost 10 years left to run when the film was broadcast. Nor did it endeavour to posit what political processes may be needed to end it. Instead it sought only to provide a visceral account of some killings. The cumulative effect of this relentless depiction of deliberate butchery of was one of horror.

I was reminded of that film about half way through this book, which has, as its centrepiece, an account of the siege of Kohima, a bloody portion of a wider battle on the borders of India and Myanmar in 1944. At Kohima the Japanese sought to break through Allied defences and cut loose into North Eastern India. Meanwhile a combined forced of British and South Asian troops, with limited supplies of ammunition and water attempted to thwart these plans from hastily constructed defences.

It’s tough reading: pieced together from diverse accounts of both Allied and Japanese soldiers these central chapters are essentially an anthology of killings. As with the film Elephant the effect, I found, was ultimately one of numbed horror.

I am not sure if this was the intent of Keane with this portion of the book. I found it difficult to make sense from the account of any grand, or even basic, tactical vision of either the defenders or attackers. Certainly the account he presents here reflects the experiences of the soldiers fighting for their own lives and those of their comrades. But the officers who also left accounts were tasked with managing the battle and must have had a broader perspective.

In contrast with the organised chaos of the account of the bloody fighting at Kohima Keane does go to some lengths to place the role of this siege in the wider strategic considerations of Slim, the commander to the British 14th Army, and Mountbatten, the Allied Supreme Commander in South East Asia. He also does a fine job of explaining the British efforts in South East Asia in the context of the geopolitics of the time, including Churchill’s grubby imperialist pretensions.

There is much else admirable about the book, not least Keane’s efforts to bear witness to the story of the Naga allies of the British, a tribal people who stood with the British in their darkest hour at Kohima only to be betrayed by them shortly after when they were no longer needed. Admirably Keane also gives voice to the humanity and experiences of the Japanese who fought in the battle, while never overlooking their brutality and atrocities. The passages describing how the starving Japanese fared in retreat are some of the most powerful of the book.

Ultimately, perhaps as one would expect of Fergal Keane, a veteran correspondent of some of the nastiest conflicts of the past 30 years, he writes of the pity of war and the humanity of those compelled to fight. It is a book that bears witness to Sherman’s blunt observation, “War is cruelty,” and, consequently perhaps, it is at times a gruelling reading experience.

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Not British Enough: the DUP and the (next) great betrayal

There is the story of Sam the stockbroker, who made so much money that he was able to buy himself a 100 foot yacht and have it moored in New York Harbour.

He then invited his parents to dinner on board the yacht and dressed specially in a captain’s uniform that he bought to go with the boat.

After dinner he said to his parents, “Well, I bet you never thought you would see this: your own son the captain of such a vessel.”

His mother smiled at him. “Son”, she said, “to me you are a captain. To your father you are a captain. But to a real captain, you’re not a captain.”

Junior

That story came back to me recently listening to Ian Paisley Junior ranting off again about Brexit, and what the British Government should do to put “Brussels” in their place. Junior, never the sharpest of spoons in the knife drawer, hasn’t realised yet that to his voters he and his may be British. To some of his political opponents in Ireland they may even be British. But to the real British, the ultras who are busily trying to craft their little Engländer Brexit, they are not British.

That will matter when the crunch-time comes between the British government and the EU. When it comes to the choice between a deal that will satisfy those, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, seeking Brexit to avoid EU tax regulations for themselves and their clients, those, like Micheal Gove, using Brexit as an executive power grab, and those, like Theresa May, slavering over the anti-migrant ethnic cleansing that they dream of after Brexit, the interests of embarrassing “Irish” types like the DUP are not going to count for much. Instead they will be ignominiously dumped just as every British vassal has been as soon as it becomes convenient or necessary to advance the interests of the “real” British.

The outcome of the negotiations between the EU and the UK over the Irish border is already settled. It was settled in December 2017 when the UK agreed in effect that the north of Ireland would remain, de facto, in the Single Market and Customs Union. Hence the border will be in the Irish Sea. This, the “back-stop option”, is something that the DUP will regard as the most abject and treasonous of betrayals. It does have a certain ironic, comic value however: it is the inevitable outcome of the DUP’s successful, if dubiously ethical, campaigning for the UK to leave the EU.

The current pantomime that the UK is indulging, repeatedly proposing to EU 27 the same fantastically unworkable ideas for dealing with the border, is not a serious negotiating effort. There is no expectation on the part of the British that these proposals will provide any basis for a mutually agreed solution let alone that they may be accepted unamended. Their purpose is merely as a subterfuge to attempt to delude the DUP into believing that the British government is still fighting their corner so that continued DUP support for the UK government will be maintained. Of course eventually denial of the intended “betrayal” becomes impossible and the Tories will have to either come clean or accept the economic devastation that a no-deal Brexit would bring.

The loyalty to the British Crown of the Unionist community in the North of Ireland is an incredible thing. Tens of thousands have displayed awesome courage in its service and bled for it over the centuries in every war and imperial adventure that the British have undertaken. But this loyalty has never been reciprocated by the British Establishment. The DUP are about to find that out as they are abandoned like the cheap stooges to power that they are.

The Problem of Jefferson: political inaction and the continuation of slavery in the world

My remarks to the Slavery Panel during the Women’s Forum in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

It’s highly appropriate that slavery is on the agenda of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week. Because while London is sometimes thought of as the cradle of the anti-slavery movement, the anti-slavery movement truly started years before the meeting in 1787 that set up the Committee to Abolish the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It started the first time west African men and women rose up to fight with their bare hands for their freedom from the slave ships, and whose actions disrupted the slave trade to such an extent as to save hundreds of thousands of others from such trafficking.

That is a tradition that has continued across the centuries and across what is now the Commonwealth. From Caribbean leaders such as Mary Prince, to African leaders like Equiano and Cugano, to Asian leaders such as Dr Ambedkar, to contemporary organisations like Piler in Pakistan, OKUP in Bangladesh, Centre for Education and Communication in India, and the Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women. All these have asserted and continue to assert the principles of human rights in opposition to the way the world dehumanises and enslaves others.

So after these centuries of struggle why are we still discussing how to end slavery. Well it is because we, as a human society, still permit slavery to exist.

While I have rarely met anyone who is in favour of slavery in principle, I have met many people who are in favour of slavery in practice. Slavery provides benefits to the powerful, in terms of cheap commodities, cheap construction workers, vulnerable domestic workers, advantages in terms of trade, opportunities to sexually abuse women and children, or simply to indulge prejudice.

So while we all bear a moral responsibility for this continued existence of slavery, the greatest responsibilities must be borne by those with the greatest power to end the power.

A recurrent problem through history is what I have come to think of as the problem of Jefferson. Jefferson was possibly the most brilliant man to hold the US presidency and a vocal opponent of slavery. But all he used that brilliance for was developing excuses why he couldn’t do anything about slavery.

Today politicians and business leaders across the world, including within the Commonwealth, find, in the name of convenience and prejudice, all sorts of reasons not to stand up for the children of their nations and citizens everywhere to end slavery and its causes. Migrants are vilified and exploited in the countries where they live and work and are too often ignored by the governments of the countries from which they originate. Governments make inadequate provision for education, particularly of girls, and both women and girls are denied their most basic rights. Civil society activists and trade unionists who lead the struggle against slavery and for decent work are isolated and persecuted. Police corruption is tolerated. Rule of law is undermined.

The struggle to end slavery is a political one. And yet it is not a coherent political priority for any of the governments of the Commonwealth, even those most voluble in their antipathy towards slavery. So long as this remains the case, it is ordinary Commonwealth citizens who will pay the price with their lives and liberty.

The Undiscovered Country appeal: Dublin reflections

Dublin Castle

Across the rooftops to Dublin Castle

This week I’m in Dublin, where, during Easter Week 1916 the Irish War of Independence began. Historians still argue over how necessary or justifiable that war was to achieve Irish independence. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it in the grand, historical scheme of things, at the most basic level it followed a bloody path of ordinary people doing brutal things to each other. As Eamon says in The Undiscovered Country, “even just wars are evil things.”

I learned the evil of war early. One of my earliest memories is seeing a neighbour getting shot. Another is of narrowly avoiding a culvert bomb set by the IRA to attack the British Army. The brother of a classmate at primary school was murdered by the SAS. Ten years ago I discovered that a group of Loyalist paramilitaries had planned, in reprisal for an IRA atrocity, to attack the primary school that I attended to kill all the children and teachers. The plan was eventually vetoed: some things were just too much of a war crime for the war criminals of the North of Ireland.

Some of the the themes of The Undiscovered Country are, unfortunately, as timeless as war itself. Others are, equally unfortunately, very timely. I wrote much of the book as a hard won peace, brought into being at another past Easter with the Good Friday Agreement, came under threat from a neo-imperialist faction of the British Establishment blundering towards a scorched-earth Brexit with utter unconcern for the damage they will cause to erstwhile friends and neighbours. It’s in this context that Eamon and Mick ruminate over chess and pints on the realities of colonialism and some of the absurdities of historical memory.

Thanks to the extraordinary generosity and support of over 150 friends I have now reached 62% funding for The Undiscovered Country. So, with another 40 or so pre-sales, the next big milestone of 70% funding beckons, and with that a step closer to the chance to share with the wider world all this, and more en route to solving a knotty mystery, including the cultural threats posed by mainland Europe’s resealable beer bottles, an assessment of Hamlet as a revolutionary, and the etiquette of buying pints in an Irish pub.

So, if you can see your way to adding your support to this endeavour by following this link

https://unbound.com/books/the-undiscovered-country/

and pledging what you would like, I would send you a hundred thousand and mark your name with gratitude in the book itself.

Very best

Aidan