Apeirogon, by Colum McCann

Summary: a desperately sad but hopeful perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Rami Ethanan, a graphic designer, and Bassam Aramin, a scholar, are friends. They have a lot in common. Both are smokers. Both are former combatants. Both understand the deep, moral corrosiveness of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Both understand that peace requires people to talk to each other and try to understand each other’s point of view. Both are the fathers of murdered children: Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers; Bassam’s daughter, Abir, was murdered by Israeli soldiers.

Apeirogon is the story of how, in particular, these two men have sought to advocate for peace by building mutual understanding. But it ranges even more widely, into the lives of their families, including their murdered daughters, and into the cultural and political history of Israel and Palestine.

(From the Guardian)

I finished this book just before Israel launched its latest series of child-killing attacks on Gaza. As usual, in such situations, American politicians are to be found on social media congratulating themselves for the US military support to Israel that allows its leadership to launch such attacks on Gaza with impunity. Such politicians find the slaughter of children with rockets, and American journalists with bullets, much more palatable than the murder of children by suicide bombers. But that is the logic of the US’s military alliance with what the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, has called an apartheid state.

The asymmetric nature of the warfare between Israelis and Palestinians is very much on display with the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. In prison, for throwing a dud grenade at an Israeli patrol, Bassam realised that responding to Israeli violence with violence, even if only stones, plays into the hands of those who want to sustain the occupation: it allows them to portray Israeli violence and theft as defensive, and the Palestinians as less than human. As a result of this realisation Bassam became committed to the ideal of non-violence.

Rami, recognising the common humanity of Palestinian and Israeli families who had suffered similar losses to his own, came to his own realisation that the status quo offered no real security for Israelis either. His wife, Nurit, a distinguished academic and peace activist, had understood this much earlier: with enormous courage she explicitly and publicly blamed the racist and militaristic policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the death of her daughter.

Apeirogon reminds us that as well as the meat-headed terrorists in the high echelons of government and the military, Israel and Palestine also have thousands of people like Rami and Bassam: people committed to non-violence, human rights and dialogue as a path towards justice.

For success such activists need international support. Yet the US and Europe fail utterly to do this, privileging Israel with arms and trade rather than compelling the dialogue that is essential for any meaningful peace to be forged.

Apeirogon is an extraordinarily important book. It is a tribute to the thousands of marginalised Palestinians and Israelis who have sought to build peace and fraternity through dialogue and understanding rather than acquiesce in violence. How many more children will be slaughtered before their path is recognised as the only truly viable one?

Photo by Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Great Hatred: the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, by Ronan McGreevy

Summary: a fresh and gripping new perspective on the Irish war of independence in London

Great Hatred is a superb addition to the literature of the Irish revolution. Similar to Anita Anand’s, The Patient Assassin, McGreevy explores the lives of the killers and the killed. So Great Hatred provides a triple biography of Reggie Dunne, Joe O’Sullivan and their victim, Henry Wilson. The result is a book that is hugely illuminating on the conduct of the War of Independence in London and the experiences of the London Irish community during the First World War and in the fight for Irish freedom.

As Director of Intelligence of the IRA, Michael Collins had a central role in London operations, so he is also a major figure in this book. One thing that did niggle with me was the author’s apparent acceptance, along with many other fine historians, of Emmet Dalton’s criticism of Collins’ actions at Beal na mBlath, and the idea that the only rational option was to try to run the ambush rather than stop and fight into it. This seems to me to ignore the realities of IRA ambush practices which Collins would have been more familiar with than Dalton.

Like so many other books, this one also does not mention that the last Dail representative for South Armagh in Northern Ireland was Collins. This is emblematic of the depth of Collins’ emotional commitment to the North, and in exploring this McGreevy seems to have found the key to the enduring mystery of who gave the order for Wilson’s killing.

Great Hatred is a fresh, elegantly written and wholly gripping work. It is one of the best books on the Irish Revolution in many years.

Long-term lessons for the humanitarian sector from the war in Ukraine

Summary: In Ukraine humanitarian actors are awakening to risks of trafficking they studiously ignore elsewhere.

On 17 Mar 2022 the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) “warned of the dangers of people fleeing the armed conflict in Ukraine falling victim to human trafficking and exploitation.”

They are right, of course. On 12 March 2022 the Guardian reported that children were beginning to go missing amid the chaos of the refugee crisis from Ukraine. On 15 March, the Irish Examiner reported that a property in County Clare in the South West of Ireland, was “being offered for free to a “slim Ukrainian” woman, with an expectation of sex.” In the parlance of trafficking, this latter case is an example of an attempt to abuse the position of vulnerability of a person fleeing war for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

Trafficking in human beings is always an intrinsic part of war. Indeed, historically slavery has often been the very raison d’etre for war: Caesar enriched himself through the trafficking of thousands of prisoners during his conquest of Gaul. In the same way the European colonial powers enriched themselves with their trafficking of millions to the Americas during their invasions of Africa.

Even when war is ostensibly for reasons other than pillage, it rips away the protections that millions of ordinary people depend upon for their safety and renders them vulnerable to slavery. Hence the Rohingya refugees in the Cox’s Bazar camps in Bangladesh are vulnerable to similar trafficking risks as those Ukranians who have suddenly, rightly, exercised European civil society. Other war zones, such as those wracked by Boko Haram and Islamic State, see the routine enslavement of children as soldiers, and the systematic trafficking of girls and young women as sexual rewards for the fighters.

Hence slavery pervades contemporary war just as it did historically. So, the European Union’s offer of temporary protective measures towards Ukrainian refugees is an important step in reducing their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. Unfortunately, such protections are still unavailable to most of the migrants and refugees who risk their lives to get to Europe across the Mediterranean each year.

So, what is perhaps remarkable about the Ukrainian crisis is that the risk of trafficking has been so widely recognised already and that some systemic protections have already been put in place. Elsewhere consideration of trafficking risks in humanitarian crises is conspicuous by its absence.

In a 2021 paper, “Exploring the Relationship between Humanitarian Emergencies and Human Trafficking”, Viktoria Curbelo conducted a narrative review of databases for scholarly articles that address the issues of human trafficking and diverse forms of humanitarian crisis.

Curbelo acknowledged that a more comprehensive literature review may find additional material. Nevertheless, it is an indication of the disinterest of humanitarian policy makers and practitioners in trafficking that she managed to find only five papers fulfilling her criteria

This in turn corroborates my own observations, as both a humanitarian practitioner and an anti-slavery researcher and advocate, that the humanitarian sector is strikingly uninterested in the issue of slavery. This is surprising given that trafficking is demonstrably intrinsic to the sort of catastrophes to which the sector routinely responds.

In the very worst instances humanitarian practitioners themselves have become involved in the trafficking and exploitation of those that they are mandated to assist. In former Yugoslavia Kathryn Bolkovac, an American cop working with UN operations, blew the whistle on her own colleagues when she found they were involved in the trafficking of young women and girls for sexual exploitation. In the aftermath of an earthquake in Haiti, it was found that some Oxfam staff were involved in the exploitation of vulnerable children.

These scandals have provoked greater attention to safeguarding policies and procedures within humanitarian organisations. But in addition to such procedures there is a need for a more systematic approach from the humanitarian sector to the other trafficking risks that crises create.

This must start from a recognition that part of the reason that trafficking is practiced during humanitarian crises is that traffickers are faster in taking opportunity of the chaos of the crises than humanitarian policy makers and practitioners are in applying protections. Indeed, it must be recognized that neglecting human rights and anti-slavery protections in humanitarian response is as professionally negligent as ignoring war displaced people’s need for clean drinking water and shelter.

The awareness of the risks of exploitation and the generous extension of rights by the European Union towards Ukrainian refugees must become the template for future humanitarian responses everywhere. Without this, traffickers will continue to prey unimpeded on the victims of war.

Country, by Michael Hughes

Summary: a fresh, determinedly unromantic take on the Iliad from the mountains of South Armagh

In my novel, The Undiscovered Country, one of the protagonists is an Armagh man in Mayo. So, I was delighted to find, in a sort of symmetry, that in Country, Michael Hughes’ superb novel of the Troubles, he has as one of his principal protagonists a Mayo man in South Armagh.

A fearsome IRA sniper, because his people come from Achill Island, he is known throughout simply as Achill. His active service unit is based out of a border bar called The Ships and has been waging a war of attrition for the past nine years with the British soldiers in an old fort, perhaps named after the victor of the Boyne, King William. Over the years the “W” has fallen off the name of the base and so some of the locals refer to the base simply as “Illiam” instead.

However, Nellie, the sister-in-law of the local IRA commander, Pig, has run off with a handsome British intelligence officer and spilled some of the unit’s secrets to the Brits. This not only makes their operations all the harder but introduces a certain animus into the conflict between these two sides.

As should be plain by now, Country is a brilliantly composed scene-for-scene reimagining of the Iliad in the mountains of South Armagh during the Troubles. The casting of the IRA as the Greeks and the Brits as the Trojans is apt given the general sympathy in Irish folk tradition to the Mycenae cause, not least because the English have long claimed descent from the Trojans.

In Christopher Logue’s retellings of the Iliad, the fate of Troy is decided in ill-tempered negotiation amongst the gods echoing contemporary discussions of war in corridors of power the world over. This metaphor is made explicit in Country as the increasing bitter struggle between the SAS and IRA in South Armagh comes to the attention of the various spooks and politicians in Dublin, Belfast, London and Washington.

The story is told in the local vernacular that weaves every old saw or cliché that I grew up with into a fresh prose poem that illuminates this ancient story.

Country is brilliant, and highly deserving of its growing reputation as a modern classic.

The Sunken Road, by Ciaran McMenamin

Summary: an exceptionally fine novel of the pity of war

Todd Andrews, as a youth an IRA volunteer, as an adult a distinguished public servant, once observed that two of his comrades on Bloody Sunday 1920 behaved “like Black and Tans.” As Diarmuid Ferriter notes in his history of the Irish Civil War, Between Two Hells, such judgements on both pro and anti-treaty troops became commonplace as that internecine conflict wore on.

So, it is a brave decision that in The Sunken Road, Ciaran McMenamin has taken just such a species of IRA volunteer as his protagonist.

Francie Leonard is a brutal man, brutalised by his First World War experiences, one of the few Catholics in the 36th Ulster Division. He has been fighting in the South with the IRA for much of the War of Independence. Now, visiting his native Fermanagh following the signing of the Treaty, he has to go on the run again when police inspector Crozier, a man he knew in France, gets onto his trail.

The book alternates between Francie’s experiences in mainland Europe, including the Battle of the Somme, with his childhood friend and fellow soldier Archie, and a few days in 1922 around the battle of Belleek and Pettigo, as Francie, with Archie’s sister and his own former lover, Annie, try to evade Crozier.

It is difficult to hold much sympathy with Francie once one learns that he had no compunction shooting a RIC inspector through his wife, irrespective of how bad a bastard the said inspector was. So, I found it tough going sticking with Francie past this early revelation. Nevertheless, it is a tribute to McMenamin’s skill as a writer that one comes to understand how Francie could have become reduced to such depredations. Further, like the priest Francie encounters on Loch Derg, one begins to hope for his redemption and that love may offer some renewal for him, something that the priest sees as possible, even if Francie cannot.

McMenamin’s descriptions of battle and violence are particularly powerful, and the friendships between Francie, Annie and Archie, and later Molloy, an American comrade of Francie, are beautifully drawn.

The Sunken Road is an exceptionally fine novel from a very gifted writer.

Shadow Cast by Mountains, by Patrick Howse

Summary: “Offering truth, knowing it won’t be believed,” – Cassandra, by Patrick Howse

Seamus Heaney once observed that a line of writing could be like a piece of wool, or a piece of wire.

Shadow Cast by Mountains, a book by the Irish (and British) journalist Patrick Howse, is a work of poetry constructed of lines like the barbed wire from the conflicts and battlefields that he reported for years.

There is a chronological structure to the book, echoing Howse’s life before and after Iraq. So alongside his reflections on the horror of violence, there are the more hopeful, fearful moments of his partner’s pregnancy and the birth of a daughter. Within all of that expanse of ordinary and extraordinary life, Howse reflects upon history, particularly the legacy of the First and Second World Wars and the curse of war-nostaligia wholly divorced from its visceral, piteous realities.

Again and again Howse presents the readers with arresting thoughts and images: reflecting on a young First World War combatant he notes, ”Soon he was nothing more/ Than just another/ Claggy lump of Belgium.” Or on a visit to a Parisian museum of that same war, “Once poets crouched in trenches/ Winced at shell-bursts, and/ watched men’s faces/ As they died in agony. … Now they watch television…”

The making of television was, of course, Howse job: “Hour after hour I find/ New ways to say/ The soldier’s head/ Was hacked off.”

Like all of the finest war poetry Howse can be shocking in his stark depictions of the pity of war. His poem, Responsibility, for example, I found particularly unsettling:

Imagine directing a cameraman in the pools of

Blood and urine left by a suicide bomber…

Think of telling him later that there

Just weren’t enough dead

To interest the teatime news

And listening as he describes

A baby smeared over a pavement 

And splashed on a wall…

Later, in an echo of this poem, Howse visits the Jewish Museum in Munich: “A girl asks/ ‘Even the children?’”

This line rather sums up the reality of war that “the red-cross wrapped” future cannon-fodder of Brexitism simply do not understand. Instead they worship an imperial past that they have learned only from old movies, forever ignorant, as Howse notes, that, “England is a German word”, its very being forever bound up with the rest of Europe.

Shadow Cast by Mountains is a fine work of poetry, some of it exceptional. It is an important riposte to the tendency of those who have never seen the face of war to glorify it. And, with its reflections on love and family life, it is a reminder that these most mundane of joys are the most important cause of hope for our common European homeland.

An Army At Dawn, by Rick Atkinson

Summary: a fine account of Operation Torch and the US army’s “European” baptism of fire

An Army at Dawn is an account of Operation Torch, the US army’s first engagement – in North Africa- against the European axis powers during the Second World War.

Atkinson notes that from the outset American generals argued that the only way to defeat Germany was a direct attack on its heart through France. The British, by contrast, having been unceremoniously evicted by the Germans from France, Norway and Greece, were altogether more circumspect about this approach. Instead they advocated a “peripheral” strategy, starting in North Africa”. This also had the advantage of maintaining access to the raw materials, including the cannon fodder, of their empire.

In spite of all the advice to the contrary Roosevelt eventually sided with the British and launched Torch, an invasion of French North Africa aimed at catching the Germans in a pincher with the British 8th Army.

By Atkinson’s account Roosevelt’s decision avoided disaster. In spite of great strategic acuity, the Americans had little senior experience of war-fighting: Patton and Marshall had been relatively junior officers in France during the First World War, Eisenhower had yet to hear a shot fired in anger. So some of their officers didn’t even know, for example, how to load a ship in “battle order” with the things they would need first going into the hold last, and the vice versa.

Consequently the US made initially heavy weather of the campaign, including the landings, in spite of the vast majority of the French forces ostensibly defending the coast wishing to defect to them.

After initial setbacks however the Americans learned their craft well in brutal fighting in the Atlas Mountains. Consequently Patton, Bradley and particularly Eisenhower went on to shape the strategy of the Western European theatre, informed by the operational lessons they learned in North Africa.

A minor theme running through the book relates to the racism displayed against the local Arab population by the Allied combatants. This dimly echoes Bonaparte’s atrocity strewn campaign in Egypt and Palestine and prefigures the post war independence movements to come.

An Army at Dawn is a fine, lucid account of this North African campaign. It is a refreshing alternative perspective on the English national religion that the Second World War has become.

The Ratline, by Phillipe Sands

Summary: meh!

I once attended an academic conference in which one researcher after another spent their allotted time telling the audience in exhaustive detail how they went about undertaking their research, and how interesting that was for them whether the audience shared their interest or not. Few of them mentioned anything they had actually found out.

It is a common enough story amongst inexperienced researchers: developing robust methodology can be such a challenge that it is the thing that comes to preoccupy them rather than the actual purpose of the research itself. We’ve all been there.

Phillipe Sands is not an inexperienced researcher. The Ratline is his follow up to the very fine East West Street, his hybrid family memoir/ joint biography of the originators of the legal concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide. However reading The Ratline, I did find myself, again and again, transported back to that conference, thinking to myself: But what is your actual point here?

Like East-West Street The Ratline is concerned with the atrocities of the Second World War. It has grown out of conversations that Sands had with Horst von Wachter, son of Otto, a man indicted for mass murder in 1945 but who was never captured.

Horst insisted that his father was a good man, who, in spite of his involvment with the Nazis was never implicated in murder. Further Horst reckons that his father, who died in Rome, was murdered.

All of Horst’ fanciful assertions about his father are exhaustively explored by Sands. Unsurprisingly there is no “THERE” there. What we knew at the beginning is what we know at the end: His father was directly involved in atrocity and he was not murdered.

Some reviewers have found compelling Sands’ account of his painstaking investigations to discover nothing. I didn’t. Much of it I found banal in the extreme, particularly the extensive passages quoted from the diaries of Otto’s wife, wittering on about various domestic and society concerns while her husband is out conducting affairs with other women and ensuring that the machinery of mass murder is running smoothly. I presume that Sands’ purpose in including such material is to illustrate the banality of evil. But that does not stop the material in question from being desperately boring too.

Following the war, and after 3 years on the run in the Alps, Von Wachter senior came into contact with some pro-Nazi elements in the Catholic Church. He hoped these would help him escape on to someplace such as Argentina or Namibia via the titular Ratline.

It is a historical fact that elements of the Catholic Church assisted Nazi criminals to escape justice by facilitating their flight to South America and elsewhere. Other Vatican officials, most notably Hugh O’Flaherty from Kerry, also ran one of the biggest Allied escape networks of the Second World War, but Sands does not mention this.

In any event the impression given by the book of the Ratline is less an organised right-wing conspiracy and more a few corrupt and venial individuals seeking to profit from the desperate efforts of repulsive individuals to evade justice.

Von Wachter did not progress beyond Rome along this Ratline because he could not stump up the cash to pay. Instead he whiled away his time swimming in the Tiber where he contracted the infection that killed him.

Overall then The Ratline offers some methodological insight into how Sands conducts his research, but little new on any aspect of the war, crimes against humanity or genocide that was not much more fruitfully explored in East-West Street. It is a story of the banality of evil, banally told.

The Cure at Troy: Seamus Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes

Summary: still with something vital to say about a new Ireland

Odysseus has come to Lemnos with Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, to procure the bow of Heracles, without which, so it is foretold, Troy cannot fall. Unfortunately for Odysseus this is in the possession of Philoctetes, a former comrade abandoned by Odysseus on this island because of his foul-smelling, unhealing wound.

The Cure at Troy contains some of Heaney’s most famous lines, including that of Chorus reflecting that sometimes “hope and history rhyme”. This became something of an epigram for the Irish peace process organised by Heaney’s former schoolmate, John Hume.

But while there are themes of forgiveness in The Cure at Troy its protagonists are not actually concerned with peace but with the organisation of an atrocity. When Sophocles wrote the original play the audience would have been aware of the horrors that Odysseus and Neoptolemus would inflict in their future on the women and children of Troy. Heaney, a classical scholar himself, would have known this too and Chorus warns these men against the very atrocities that they will go on to commit.

But, just as in the midst of the Troubles, in this play the pleas for peace and restraint are, at the very moments they are being said, falling on deaf ears. Neither Odysseus nor Neoptolemus are interested in such things. Instead they are dreaming of rape, pillage and martial glory. Across the course of the play they do not really change from Chorus’ initial assessment of them: “…every one of them / Convinced he’s right, all of them glad/ To repeat themselves and their every last mistake/ no matter what./ People so deep into /Their own self-pity self-pity buoys them up.”

Perhaps that is a more fitting epigram for the current state of the Peace Process and the hopes of a New Ireland in the aftermath of the UK’s buffoonish Brexit: “Republicans” dwell on the hurt they have suffered and dismiss the pain of those on whom they have inflicted hurt. “Loyalists”, convinced of their fundamental entitlement to privileges they would love to deny their nationalist neighbours, are in denial of the consequences of their own actions, and desperate to blame on someone else the damage that they have inflicted on their own community.

But in recognising the humanity of murderers even as they plan their foulest atrocities, the play reminds us that eventually the pleas for restraint and toleration are recognised to be not mere idealism or wishful thinking but the overwhelming wisdom essential for survival. Sometimes hope and history do indeed rhyme.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary: in the tradition of War and Peace but maybe better

Half of a Yellow Sun is an incredible book. A sort of a 20th century War and Peace but, for me, carrying a heftier emotional wallop than Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

Thirteen year old Ugwu gets a job as “houseboy” for Odenigbo, a lecturer at Nsukka University in Nigeria. There he meets Olanna, Odenigbo’s posh, beautiful girlfriend. He doesn’t quite realise for some time, as he continues with his household duties, that the two have effectively adopted him as part of the family, ensuring that he goes to school, planning university for him, and, when they can, taking care of Ugwu’s blood relations.

Into the orbit of this non-traditional family, comes Olanna’s non-traditional sister Kainene, a business executive, and her English boyfriend, Richard, an academic drawn to this part of West Africa by his love of its art. None of these adults receives much approval from their other relatives and parts of their communities for their choice of lovers. As the story is told from the perspectives of Ugwe, Olanna and Richard, the barbs and abuses they receive, and the tensions they endure, allow for particular insight into the diversity of Nigerian cultures and British and Nigerian attitudes towards each other.

But all of these prejudices pale in the face of the bloodbath of civil war that engulfs Nigeria and leads to the establishment of the breakaway state of Biafra.

When I was growing up Biafra was still a by-word for famine and the punchline for knuckleheaded racist jokes. With Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie describes the horror of the war there through the eyes of this small group of young people.

As well as the specific details and dynamics of that half-forgotten war, Half of a Yellow Sun tells the universal story of the impact of war on ordinary people, shattering life and love and brutalising and breaking even the best of people.

It is a masterpiece and wholly deserved of its reputation as one of the greatest books of the 21st century.