The Shortest History of War, by Gwynne Dyer; and The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret Macmillan

Summary: War – good for nothing and may still be the thing that kills you

In The Shortest History of War, Gwynne Dyer, quotes, of course, Clauswitz’s maxim that war is the continuation of politics by other means. He does, however, conspicuously ignore that war has often been a continuation of racism by other means.

This considerable lacuna is most apparent when Dyer traces back only as far as the American Civil War the modern conception of “total war”- the making of war on the civilian populations of belligerent nations. It is true that Grant and Sherman practiced a version of this on the Confederacy. But total war has a more ancient pedigree. The sack of Troy, for example, is a story of how it was routinely practiced in ancient times.

Both Caesar and Genghis Khan also practiced versions of total war. And, while this may have gone out of fashion for a bit amongst the white nations of Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries, it was always the way in which “Great Powers” made war on those they regarded as inferior or subject peoples: Cromwell halved the population of Ireland in his campaign in the mid-17th century. Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt and Palestine was ferocious in its violence towards civilians. The US campaign against Native Americans was genocidal as was the British campaign against Australian Aboriginals. The British conquest of India was another racist exemplar of total war.

But it is not Paddies and brown people that Dyer is interested in here. Rather he is interested in the “Great Power” version of politics and how this has been manifested in organised violence since ancient times. Within this narrower scope it is still a fascinating book, packed full of interesting detail and disturbing conclusions. Dyer argues that only three countries fulfil the criteria to be “Great Powers” in the 21st Century: the US, India and China. Russia he argues lacks the population to contend. So it may be unsettling to learn how it will cope with its inevitable decline. Dyer doesn’t consider the possibility that the European Union may represent an alternative political model for a 21st Century “Great Power”.

More disturbingly he notes that between them Indian and Pakistan have enough weapons to unleash a “nuclear winter” upon the Earth should they ever blunder into a nuclear exchange. In other words, in the space of a few days, while the rest of the world could be preoccupied with other things, events could unfold in South Asia that would spell the end of all human civilisation .

If anyone thinks such a thing is unlikely, they would do well to consider Margaret Macmillan’s The War that Ended Peace, her painstaking survey of European “Great Power” politics at the start of the 20th Century. The complex array of alliances and egos that she describes shows how at critical moments inadequate and posturing leaders can lose control of situations that spiral out of control in the most appalling ways possible.

That some of the contemporary systems of planetary security are currently in the hands of Johnson, Modi, Khan and Putin should be of concern to all of us who like the thought of the next generation, and the one after that, living into peaceful old age with improving standards of human rights and a restored environment.

Towards that end perhaps someone could prevail upon Presidents Biden, van der Leyen and Xi to take steps not just to limit global warming, but also to promote détente leading to mutual nuclear disarmament between India and Pakistan.

Justice’s scales: Civil Liberties and the Covid

Summary: In a pandemic some rights are more equal than others

John Rawls, in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, argued that a key principle for a fair society is that “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberties for all.”

In other words, no one is an island. The rights that each of us have can impinge on those of others. So rights need to be calibrated accordingly. Priti Patel may not grasp this most basic fact of social living and instead feel that freedom means that racists should be allowed to abuse anti-racist protesters if their prejudices so incline them. But then she is a complete moron desperate to be accepted by the Blackshirted establishment she seeks to serve.

So, as all but the most deliberately obtuse understand, the inter-relationships of people in society means that we have not only rights but responsibilities towards each other.

Which brings us to the questions of measures to control the Covid. It’s not wrong to conduct this debate in the context of civil liberties. But it is nonsensical to proceed as if all rights are equal and absolute. No one has an absolute right to do as they please irrespective of how passionately they feel about their particular hobby horse. The sociopath may feel he should be allowed to drink and drive at whatever speed he likes, ignoring traffic lights if they inconvenience him. But the rest of us whose lives he would threaten would likely object. The right to life supersedes other rights after all.

So, in the context of the Covid the proper debate should relate to which liberties may of necessity be temporarily restricted in order to protect that paramount right to life.

The requirement to wear masks in restricted spaces is so trivial an inconvenience that it beggars belief that it should become a matter of dispute. But it has been allowed to become so. The question of vaccine “passports” seems set to follow a similar path.

As anyone who has ever travelled in the Tropics will know vaccine “passports” are already a fact of life: there are many places you simply cannot go without your Yellow Fever certificate. Proof of Covid vaccination is now a fact of travel within Europe. In parts of mainland Europe health inspectors will check that diners in indoor venues have proof of Covid vaccination. Democratic norms are still much healthier there than in the UK which seems to have gotten into a ridiculous debate that such measures would impinge on the most basic of rights of Little England and its Brexiters.

As anyone who has ever led in a public health emergency will know, such a task requires hard choices and pragmatism. The decisions that may be necessary do not represent unalterable precedents. Rather they are simply the measures that are required to ensure that others live another day.

As British politics becomes increasingly infantile, losing sight of this principle in a welter of doctrinal disputation will lead to the country becoming an even greater international laughing stock than it already is. But whatever grim mirth may be prompted by a UK refusal in the name of “civil liberties” to apply essential public health measures to stem a pandemic, this will never salve the grieving of those who have had to bury the needlessly dead.

What a Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division, by Kevin Meagher

Summary: a fine and concise history of the bloody consequences of a failed state

With this book Kevin Meagher seems to have two principle objectives: to provide a concise history of the conflict in the North of Ireland, and to identify British Government culpabilities in this conflict.

He fulfils both of these things admirably. While never excusing the routine atrocities of the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries, or the intrinsic bigotry of wider unionism, he identifies successive points where political courage on the part of the British Government may have staunched at least some of the bloodshed.

It was the British government which deliberately created a sectarian Orange state in the North of Ireland. This led to, until recently, a parallel illiberal state in the South as the ideal of a plural Ireland, uniting “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irish”, was shattered by British policy. 

The British excuse for Partition was to avoid civil war. But that came anyway, both in the South until 1923, and, off and on, in the North for the next 80 years. 

Meagher identifies 1914 as the last year in which this protracted conflict might have been avoided, had the newly passed Home Rule Act been implemented. It is not unreasonable to imagine that this may have allowed Ireland to have had a bumpy evolution into modern statehood akin to that experienced by Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 

But that didn’t happen. Instead from 1921 onwards the British government was content to acquiesce in the establishment of a state which institutionalised a type of caste-based discrimination within the borders of the United Kingdom. Meagher shows how the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system was foundational to the gerrymandering of Northern Ireland in favour of bigoted unionism, just as FPTP is today foundational to corrupt Tory power in Britain.

Successive British governments, even under Irish-heritage Labour politicians such as Jim Callaghan and Dennis Healey, were content to let this apartheid-style system fester so long as it didn’t bother them. They were not even stirred to do something when the Catholic community in the North of Ireland, inspired by Martin King and the black civil rights movement in the United States, took to the streets to peacefully demand their most basic civil rights. 

The British government only reacted when their puppets in the Northern Ireland government embarrassed them internationally by turning civil rights protests on the streets of Derry into a re-enactment of the sort of nakedly bigoted police brutality seen earlier on the streets of Selma and across the US South. By sending in the troops the British government blundered into escalating civil unrest into civil war.

Thereafter, as the death toll mounted, British Labour and Conservative governments alike missed opportunity after opportunity to deescalate. But eventually, starting with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, a peace process began to be pieced together following John Hume’s blueprint of dealing with the “totality of relationships” – within Northern Ireland, North-South and between Britain and Ireland – within the context of common membership of the European Union. 

It was this painstaking and still fragile process that Boris Johnson – and I choose these words carefully – decided to shite over in his fevered scramble for the British premiership.

Meagher identifies a number of British politicians who made, on balance, constructive contributions to Irish peace – Whitelaw, Prior, Brooke, Mayhew, Mowlam, Major, Blair, even Thatcher, in spite of her inept handling of the 1981 hunger strikes which made her, in effect, the fairy godmother at Sinn Fein’s political rebirth. However, it is difficult to think of a politician since Lord John Russell who has been more damaging to Anglo-Irish relations than Boris Johnson. 

As Unionists try to celebrate 100 years of Northern Ireland, Meagher has commemorated this anniversary with this important book that shows why Northern Ireland has been such a disastrous political project.

And yet there are still those forlorn souls who bleat about the possibilities of a new “progressive” unionism for Northern Ireland’s second century. But, as Meagher shows, this is hardly a new idea. Terrance O’Neill as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland tried it in the 1960s and was destroyed for it. Every unionist leader since who has made even the slightest move towards equality has been dispatched. Most recently Arlene Foster was removed because she wasn’t homophobic enough, and Edwin Poots brief leadership was ended when he acquiesced in a British government move to give effect to his own party’s commitments regarding parity of esteem for the Irish language.

“Liberal unionist” is a relative term in a political ideology that is inherently reactionary. That is why unionism eats progressives raw, and always will. True progressives must instead turn their eyes to the prize of another of John Hume’s ideas: that of unity in the diversity of a New Ireland. 

As the ugly spectre of Johnson’s Blackshirt-hued politics continues to assert itself in England the prospect of a New Ireland will become ever more attractive to people of all traditions in the North of Ireland. For now, Kevin Meagher’s fine book shows why it’s time to put Northern Ireland out of our collective misery.