Category Archives: Culture

Documentary review: Combat Obscura directed by Miles Lagoze

Documentary review: Combat Obscura directed by Miles Lagoze
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 April 2019

IN 2011, Miles Lagoze deployed to the Sangin-Kajacki area of Afghanistan as a combat cameraman to shoot and edit videos for the US Marine Corps.

Those videos, shot in northern Helmand province, were “a PR tool for the military,” the 29-year old veteran told The Intercept website. With Washington keen to publicise the Afghan army taking over from US forces in the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency, his job was to document marines working with the Afghan army, “giving candy to kids — hearts-and-minds type of stuff.“

The big three no-nos were “no cursing, no shots of guys smoking cigarettes and they have to be in full gear. And then no casualties. That was a big one, not too much bloodshed.”

Lagoze did all this for the US military – and then kept filming. Combat Obscura is made up of the footage the US military didn’t want you to see.

Taking a grunt’s-eye view of the war, there are long periods of boredom interrupted by short bursts of intense, adrenaline-fuelled combat. Soldiers smoke marijuana, disrespect the local population and kill an unarmed shopkeeper.

At one point a marine aggressively waves a gun at a group of children demanding “Where’s the fucking Taliban?”

With no narration or explanation, Combat Obscura is a confusing, impressionistic take on the ongoing military occupation of Afghanistan. Yet it it highlights some uncomfortable truths for the US and British political and military establishments, with the media in tow, who initiated the war and have backed it since 2001, an incredible 18 years ago.

In one of the film’s longest scenes, a group of marines search a village for a “high-value target.” Local men are detained, photographed and fingerprinted and one US soldier is filmed shortly after taking a shit in the garden of a house.

With no arrests made, the marines hold a debrief meeting. “Are they pissed off at us?” asks one soldier. “I would be pissed,” answers his superior.

This understanding that the very presence and actions of the foreign occupying forces is likely energising the armed insurgency is not confined to US troops.

As British lieutenant Jimmy Clark explained about an operation to secure a road in northern Helmand in the 2012 BBC3 series Our War, “one of the problems, especially with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the route 611, is that the insurgents aren’t trying to blow up the ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police), or even the civilians, they are just trying to blow up us.

“So we are actually in a position where we are protecting a route which only needs protecting because we use it.”

Having experienced the war first-hand, Lagoze himself is highly critical of the US intervention. “While we were there, we created an almost uninhabitable environment for the Afghan civilians,” he told The Intercept.

“Before we were there, they were oppressed by the Taliban. While we were there, they were caught in the middle between two oppressive forces. And how many times did we bomb their houses? How many times did we mistakenly kill innocent people?”

Combat Obscura is available for viewing online, download details: combatobscura.oscilloscope.net.

Book review. The Econocracy: On the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts

Book review. The Econocracy: On the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts by Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 February 2018

Endorsed by Noam Chomsky and the economists Ha-Joon Chang and Martin Wolf, the publication of The Econocracy is effectively a hand grenade thrown into the middle of mainstream economic thought.

Studying economics at the University of Manchester, the three authors became disillusioned with how little their education was helping them understand the causes and aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In response, they set up the Post-Crash Economics Society, and are now members of the Rethinking Economics network, which consists of 40 groups in 13 countries.

Their broad thesis is that economists wield a huge amount of influence in society (think of the importance the media gives to the post-budget analysis of the Institute for Fiscal Studies) but have become dangerously disconnected from the general population, with little public oversight. Furthermore, they argue that economics as it is taught in universities today means economics graduates are “grossly underprepared” to understand how the world works.

To prove this the authors conducted an indepth review of the curriculum at seven Russell Group universities, finding “a remarkable similarity in the content and structure of economic courses.” Capitalist-friendly neoclassicial economics – with its mechanistic focus on rational and self-interested individuals – dominates, as does textbook learning, theoretical models and multiple-choice questions. Frighteningly, they note the 83% of exams on economic courses at the top-ranked London School of Economics “entailed no form of critical or independent thinking whatsoever.” For the authors this amounts “to nothing less than the dictionary definition of indoctrination.” The narrowness of the curriculum is not an outcome of conspiracy, they explain, but of historical forces and a market-orientated higher education landscape in which funding, publication and career advancement is largely predicated on adhering to a single strand of limited economic thought.

Those looking for how change can be forced on this conservative world will be interested in the book’s short section detailing the growth of student groups attempting to reform the teaching of economics. Believing that economics is too important to be left to the experts, in 2015 the authors launched a pilot Community Crash-Course In Citizen Economics, a six-week evening class for interested members of the public.

Coming in at a quick 210 pages, it’s a tightly-argued, level-headed critique of the dominance of neoclassical economics. If there has been a more important book written in the last ten years about the role of economics in society I’d like to see it.

The Econocracy is published by Penguin Books, priced £9.99.

My favourite books of 2017

My favourite books of 2017
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2017

Published a long twenty years since her Booker Prize winning debut novel The God Of Small Things, Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton) is a sprawling epic about contemporary India – from a guesthouse for trans women in Delhi, to grassroots protest movements and the dark arts of the intelligence services. Since her initial success, Roy has turned her attention to activist politics, eloquently questioning and criticising the government and corporate elites in her own country and across the world. These concerns worm their way into the narrative, evidenced by her vivid descriptions of India’s brutal actions in Kashmir and the perilous lives of those enduring and resisting the military occupation. Though it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of her first book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’s ingrained left-leaning politics and its yearning friendships and romance between school friends make for an affecting literary journey.

Tom Mills’ The BBC: Myth of a Public Service (Verso) is an essential corrective to mainstream journalists and commentators blowing a gasket about fake news and alternative media. From the 1926 General Strike to the 2008 financial crisis, Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, highlights the BBC’s long history of towing the British establishment line on key issues. The censure of the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg by the BBC Trust for erroneously editing a 2015 interview with Jeremy Corbyn, the BBC’s shameful lack of coverage of the UK-enabled humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the corporation’s North Korea-style coverage of Prince Harry’s recent engagement suggest little has changed.

Somewhat amateurish in its presentation, George Paxton’s Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis (YouCaxton) is nevertheless one of the most important books I’ve ever read. While Western political culture unquestionably repeats the idea that violent struggle against Nazi Germany was the only option, Paxton, a trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, tells the stories of those who non-violently resisted the Nazis in Europe. Even in the most authoritarian circumstances there was, it turns out, opportunities to challenge – and sometimes win small, but important, changes to – Nazi policies. A 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons, while in Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street and stopped the threatened deportation of their husbands. Fascinating and inspiring in equal measure.

Book review: Tales Of Two Americas. Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation

Book review: Tales Of Two Americas. Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
27 November 2017

Made up of contributions from 36 contemporary writers, Tales Of Two Americas explores what it feels like to live in the inequality-riven United States today.

As the US billionaire businessman Warren Buffett famously said in 2006, “There’s class warfare, all right but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Since the financial crash class politics have taken on a renewed importance, especially in the past couple of years. “America is broken”, editor John Freeman argues in the introduction, noting the unease created by the soul-crushing neoliberalism that has dominated US politics since the Reagan Administration “became the pivot point of the 2016 presidential election”.

Mixing short stories, journalistic essays and poems, the collection includes some literary big hitters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Patchett and Richard Russo. Rebecca Solnit explores the connections between a 2014 police shooting of a Hispanic young man and the gentrification of San Francisco, while Roxanne Gay provides a piercing story of a working class woman living in oppressive circumstances, determined to escape. My favourite piece is Sandra Cisneros’s moving and eloquent love-letter – of sorts – to Chicago, where she spent her poverty-stricken childhood. “In the neighbourhoods we knew, booze was easier to find than books”, she remembers. Also impressive is Karen Russell’s long, personal account of getting on the housing ladder in the liberal city of Portland amidst some of the highest levels of street homelessness in the country.

As with any edited volume, some pieces are more memorable and insightful than others. Rather than reading it at a gallop as one would a good novel, I found myself dipping in and out of the book, savouring and considering each contribution before continuing. At the very least the book is a brilliant opportunity to discover new writers who have a deep concern for the wider social and political world.

And it’s not all doom and gloom. In-between all the misery, violence, wasted talent, resignation and desperation highlighted by the authors, chinks of hope shine through. Fictional characters and real people endure, flourish, empathise, cooperate, resist and organise – qualities that will need to be seriously upscaled if President Trump is to be toppled and a fairer, more just and humane America established.

Tales Of Two Americas is published by OR Books, priced £15.

If you are asking ‘Where is all the protest music?’ you aren’t looking hard enough

If you are asking ‘Where is all the protest music?’ you aren’t looking hard enough
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
4 September 2017

Every now and then an opinion piece is published in the press lamenting the lack of political songwriting today.

A couple of assumptions lay behind this much repeated concern about popular music. First, ‘political music’ is taken to mean music giving voice to left-leaning, anti-establishment politics – AKA protest music. Second, that the Golden Age of political music ran from the 1960s to the 1980s, from Bob Dylan’s broadsides against the military-industrial complex and American racism to John Lennon’s feminist Woman Is The Nigger Of The World and a slew of anti-Vietnam War songs. Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi echoed the concerns of the emerging environmental movement, while artists such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder soundtracked the racism and economic disadvantage experienced by African Americans. In the UK Pink Floyd released bestselling albums making uncomfortable statements about consumerism and suburban living, while Canadian Neil Young sang about colonialism from the POV of first nationers on epic tracks like Cortez the Killer and Pocahontas.

With the turn to neoliberalism still being contested in society, Thatcher’s Britain was also a fertile ground for protest music, including songs and public statements made by The Smiths, working-class hero Billy Bragg and The Jam (see Going Underground and Town Called Malice). Robert Wyatt’s version of the anti-Falklands War song Shipbuilding hit the top 40 chart in 1983, while Ghost Town, The Specials’ spooky hymn to urban decay, reached number one two years earlier. Social and political concerns were also important to many of the bands that dominated the international stadium circuit during the 80s. On the electrifying Bullet in the Blue Sky U2 denounced US intervention in Central America, Tracy Chapman and Peter Gabriel sang about apartheid South Africa, and Bruce Springsteen gave a voice to working-class families struggling to make ends meet in Reagan’s America.

However, by the time New Labour was at the height of its power in the late 90s British popular rock music had come to be dominated by deeply bland music. Coldplay, Keane, David Gray, Dido, Travis and Robbie Williams all sold millions of records by saying nothing at all, to paraphrase another nondescript songwriter popular at the time.

Fast forward to today and a slew of hipster-friendly rock acts endorsed by the Guardian, Q, Uncut and Mojo magazines are in the ascendency, though they seemingly have nothing coherent or substantive to say about what’s going on in the wider world: Fleet Foxes, Australian experimentalists Tame Impala, Grizzly Bear, War on Drugs, Spoon, Wilco and Kevin Morby to name but a few.

Dominating the Latitude, Green Man and End of the Road music festivals, these bands are very obviously influenced by classic rock artists like Dylan, The Beatles, Young, Springsteen and Pink Floyd – but the influence seems to be solely musical, with their heroes socio-political concerns largely disregarded. US singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, who is often compared to the great wordsmiths of the past, has released sixteen albums since 2000, with pretty much every song on every record focussed on the never-ending ups and downs of his romantic life.

(As an aside, I should say I am a fan of nearly all of these bands – my critique is not coming from a position of ignorance or antipathy).

Of course, there are exceptions to my argument – Radiohead’s twenty first century ecological dread and critique of late capitalism (see Idioteque and all of their seminal OK Computer album) and PJ Harvey’s musical exploration of the UK’s foreign wars come to mind. However, these artists tend to be disconnected from the broader trends and fashions of popular music. For example, Asian Dub Foundation’s incendiary 2000 album Community Music attacking Blairism, corrupt cops, nationalism, racism, corporation-led globalisation and warning of an impending financial crash, stuck out like a sore thumb at the time and has been quickly forgotten since then. And let’s not forget Springsteen and Young have made two of the angriest political albums in recent years with Wrecking Ball and The Monsanto Years, respectively – a fact that should shame their younger musical peers.

Finally, these OAP rockers highlight a key third assumption behind the original lament about politics and popular music: it really only applies if you define popular music as mainstream ‘rock music’ or ‘guitar music’.

There is lots of exciting and interesting protest music being made today – just in different genres and away from the mainstream. Rapper Plan B’s 2011 riots-inspired Ill Manors is arguably the greatest British protest song of the last decade. In the US R&B star Beyonce’s message of feminism and black power has reached a mass audience with her hit 2016 album Lemonade, while hip hop’s man of the moment Kendrick Lamar’s Alright is sang at Black Lives Matter rallies. Kanye West’s 2012 track New Slaves draws a connection between slavery and the involvement of profit-seeking corporations in the US criminal justice system today. Across the border, on her latest album Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq sings about the rape of indigenous women and lands in Canada. Elsewhere, on her electronic 2016 album Hopelessness the brilliant Anohni turned her attention to Obama’s drone wars, climate change, toxic masculinity and the death penalty.

Finally, the Morning Star’s favourite singer-songwriter Grace Petrie has been skewering the hypocrisy of the British establishment since 2010 – and, amazingly, still doesn’t have a record deal. As she sings sarcastically on last year’s I Wish The Guardian Believed That I Exist, “We’re not on the radio because they don’t want to know and by this point it’s really pretty clear that the mainstream music press they just couldn’t care less”.

 

Book review: To Kill The President by Sam Bourne

Book review: To Kill The President by Sam Bourne
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
31 August 2017

Writing under the pseudonym Sam Bourne, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland’s new book is a timely Washington D.C.-based political thriller.

Presumably finished soon after Donald Trump won the presidency in November last year, To Kill The President begins with an unnamed, newly elected and manically unstable Commander in Chief stopped at the last minute from ordering an unprovoked nuclear strike on North Korea – a storyline that got Freedland plenty of media exposure during the recent US-North Korean nuclear standoff.

Operating in the shadows is the president’s calculating, deeply unpleasant chief strategist Crawford ‘Mac’ McNamara, clearly based on the recently departed Steve Bannon.

Fighting the good liberal fight is Maggie Costello, a former UN aid worker and peace negotiator now working in the White House’s Counsel Office. Ordered to investigate the mysterious death of the President’s personal doctor, she uncovers a plot to assassinate POTUS, grappling with the personal, moral and political repercussions of her discovery. Should she try to stop the murder of the democratically elected head of state, or would the US and the world be a better place if the ignorant and dangerous demagogue was six feet under? This conundrum isn’t as interesting as Freedland thinks it is but nonetheless it’s an entertaining plot device, one that encourages the reader to root for the assassin, in a similar way to Frederick Forsyth’s classic The Day of the Jackal.

The centrality of the assassination plot means the book is inescapably premised on a particularly elite view of history – that the real power resides with Great Men and that significant, long-lasting political change is triggered if they are disposed. Social movements, grassroots activism, broad historical currents – all are ignored.

Talking of politics, as a long-time reader of Freedland’s Guardian articles, I was interested to see if his brand of liberal, establishment-friendly politics would be reflected in his writing, or whether he was a skilled enough author to escape, or atleast think critically about, his increasingly irrelevant worldview (e.g. his article just before the general election about Labour’s fortunes titled ‘No more excuses: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for this meltdown’).

Spoiler alert: it’s the former.

Diligently following the press pack, lamentably the book is preoccupied with the supposed dangers of social media, and those liberal bête noires – so-called Fake News and post-truth politics. In contrast Media Lens told the Morning Star last year the “media performance” of the corporate liberal media “is itself largely fake news”, arguing the term is deployed to demonise social media and bolster the corporate media. Indeed, Freedland isn’t averse to some post-truth politics himself. For example, “when violence resumed in Gaza” was how he described/dismissed, on BBC Question Time, Israel’s 2014 one-sided bombardment of Gaza that killed 1,523 Palestinian civilians, including 519 children, according to the United Nations.

The previous occupant of the Oval Office – who Costello reverentially remembers serving under – is represented as a benign, wise, rational man. Laughably, at one point Freedland writes that this Obama-like figure insisted an investigation into a “mid-ranking official” in his own administration had as wide a remit as possible to make sure it uncovered any corruption going on. Again, this power worship shouldn’t be surprising when one considers Freedland’s quasi-religious account of Obama coming on stage in Berlin in July 2008: the then Democratic presidential candidate “almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water”, he breathlessly recorded.

“We will miss him when he’s gone”, he wrote about president No. 44, who had bombed seven nations, killing thousands of men, women and children, during his presidency. Freedland has acted as a defacto unpaid intern in the White House press office for decades. “I had seen a maestro at the height of his powers. Clinton was the Pele of politics, and we might wait half a century to see his like again”, he gushed at the end of Bill Clinton’s time in office in 2000. “I will miss him”.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask from To Kill A President, but the book – and no doubt Freedland – shows no awareness of the relationship between Obama’s neoliberal, status quo-saving politics and the rise of Trump. Or the key role played by liberal commentators such as Freedland in shielding the Wall Street-funded Obama from serious criticism.

Though it doesn’t match the excitement levels or political conspiracy of the best in the genre – think the unthreatening and simplistic politics of TV show Designated Survivor rather than the radicalism of Costa Gavras’s Z or the lightening pace of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels – Freedland has written an enjoyable page-turner. Just don’t read it to understand US politics, the Trump presidency or how real progressive change might be made in America.

To Kill The President is published by HarperCollins, priced £7.99.

 

The Myth of Dunkirk

The Myth of Dunkirk
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 July 2017

The British public, one of my university tutors once said, are still feeling the effects of Second World War propaganda today.

The events surrounding the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk in late May 1940 are no exception. The popular story – one of the foundation stones of modern British national identity – goes something like this: facing the German army, the brave British forces were let down by their French and Belgian allies, and forced to retreat to the coast where they were evacuated to safety by the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ manned by volunteer civilian seafarers, given the opportunity to fight another day, and eventually help to win the war. Victory, the nation was told, was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

It hasn’t been mentioned much but Christopher Nolan’s new Dunkirk movie isn’t the first blockbuster with that name. That honour belongs to Leslie Norman’s 1958 hit black and white feature. Watching Norman’s film today – made in the aftermath of the 1956 ‘Suez Crisis’ (AKA Britain’s invasion of Egypt) – it’s easy to laugh knowingly at its quaint nationalism and repetition of the Dunkirk myth. But while Nolan’s film is an incredibly intense and visceral cinematic experience, politically it deviates little from Norman’s unquestioning picture made nearly 60 years earlier. Indeed, Nolan’s film has received glowing reviews in conservative organs including the Telegraph (“heart-hammering and heroically British”), the Evening Standard and the Mail on Sunday, which said it should be “compulsory” viewing.

With this in mind, it is worth considering what the popular Dunkirk narrative either downplays or omits to mention completely.

First, as Max Hasting notes in his 2011 history of the war All Hell Let Loose, it is important to recognise that “disproportionate historical attention has focused upon the operations of the small British contingent, and its escape to Dunkirk” in accounts of the fighting in May-June 1940. In reality “the British role was marginal”, he explains. “The overriding German objective was to defeat the French army.”

With the German army quickly advancing through Belgium, in his book 1940: Myth and Reality Clive Ponting notes the British started pulling back from the frontline without telling the Belgian forces on their flank. British forces also refused requests from the French high command to fight alongside French forces (British soldiers were formally under French command at the time), says Ponting. Writing in his diary, General Pownall, Chief of Staff to the Commander of the BEF, described the Belgium military as “rotten to the core and in the end we shall have to look after ourselves.” Asked about the possibility of evacuating Belgians troops, Pownall replied “We don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians”.

After the Germans had started cutting off supply lines “stealing from civilians soon became official policy”, according to Nicholas Harman in his 1980 book Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth. And with morale at rock bottom and troops under extreme physical and psychological stress, historian Glyn Prysor notes there was “widespread British antagonism towards refugees and other innocent bystanders.”

Prysor records the story of artillery NCO William Harding who remembers a fellow soldier shooting an old woman in the street in Calais. When challenged by Harding the perpetrator replied “Anybody dressed as old women, nuns or priests or civilians running around get shot.” Harman notes that “British fighting units had orders to take no prisoners” except for interrogation. This policy, combined with the widespread fear of ‘fifth columnists’, led to a “large number of executions without trial”, writes James Hayward in his book Myths and Legends of the Second World War. For example, Harman notes the Grenadier Guards shot seventeen suspected spies in the Belgian village of Helchin.

With the evacuation at Dunkirk moving ahead, Ponting notes “the British relied on their allies to hold the Germans without offering to evacuate their partners.” On 29 May French troops were manhandled off British ships – a fractious relationship highlighted in Nolan’s film. “There are many reported incidents of British officers and soldiers resorting to firing upon their French counterparts at Dunkirk”, Prysor notes. In the end around 340,000 allied soldiers were rescued, including 125,000 French troops.

And what of the “little boats of Dunkirk”? As the historian Angus Calder notes in his 1991 book The Myth of the Blitz “Few members of the British Expeditionary Force owned their passage to ‘little ships’ manned by civilian volunteers”.

Moreover, former Telegraph editor Hasting argues that like all significant historical events “the legend of Dunkirk was besmirched by some uglinesses”.

“A significant number of British seaman invited to participate in the evacuation refused to do so, including the Rye fishing fleet and some lifeboat crews”, he notes. According to Calder the Royal Navy had to commandeer boats in Devon whose owners would not volunteer. However, this is not surprising – Calder explains the British public was only informed of the evacuation in the evening of 31 May, by which time around three-quarters of British personnel had been rescued, so it’s likely many would not have known what they were volunteering for.

Rather than the simplistic and patronising bedtimes stories the British public have been told at school, by the news media, television and film industry, the evidence presented here points to a complicated, sometimes unpleasant – more human – reality.

However, as George Orwell once wrote about the UK, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark”. This happens “without the need for any official ban”, he argued, but by “a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.” The accuracy of Orwell’s truism is demonstrated by the reverence the allied role in the Second World War continues to be held in – across the political spectrum it seen as the Good War, the ultimate Just War.

The problem with this framing, the comedian Robert Newman argued on his 2005 album Apocalypso Now, is that it’s “based on a very misleading premise: which is just because the enemy you are fighting is evil, that makes you good”.

Can it really be a Good War when it included “Allied bombing in which German and Japanese civilian populations were deliberately targeted claimed the lives of about 800,000 civilian women, children and men”, according to historian A.C. Grayling? Were the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the US knew the Japanese government was on the verge of surrendering, part of a Just War? What noble aims and values lay behind British forces working with German collaborators to violently suppress the popular anti-German resistance movement in Greece in 1944-5? Were British forces rescued from Dunkirk so at the end of the war British troops could work with the defeated Japanese forces to crush nationalist uprisings in Vietnam and Indonesia, as written about by the journalist Ian Cobain and historian John Newsinger, respectively? And while we are at it, why were tens of thousands of British troops ‘defending’ Singapore and the Middle East during Britain’s ‘darkest hour’ in summer 1940?

Where are the blockbuster films about these campaigns conducted by British forces and their allies in the Second World War?