As Russia ramps up the war in Ukraine and China plays dog fights with US spy planes, the focus of global threat is on ISIS, an organised crime operation that runs on fear and extortion. It has no seat at the UN Security Council. It is not a lynchpin of international trade. It makes nothing. It has no missile silos and aircraft carriers. To deal with it, we should draw experience not from the insoluble tribal and religious tapestry of the Middle East, but the gangland neighbourhoods of London, Los Angeles and Mumbai where — predictably — power vacuums and weak government spawn this type of violence. Once that’s done, minds need to concentrate on the rise of China and hostility of Russia because if we get this wrong it will be really bad.
Like most democracies, the actions of Israel’s government reflect the the majority view of its citizens as (perhaps) do those of the elected leadership of Hamas in Gaza. Opinions of the wider world have little standing. Similar democratic choice was excercised when voters in America and Britain returned their leaders after the invasion of Iraq that appalled so much of the wider international community. Since 9/11, richer developed countries have vigorously advocated the concept of sovereign democratic choice which in recent years has contributed to the present bloodshed in Libya, Iraq, Egypt and (moving out of the Middle East) the newly independent South Sudan whose civil war has produced the worst food crisis in the world and , of course, Ukraine. There can be no summary slaying of such an entrenched myth that elections lead to freedom, but as starters, it might be an idea to eliminate two words from diplomatic vocabulary so threat and aspiration become more transparent. Those words are Terror and Democracy.
In an indication of how we’ve come to accept high levels of civilian violence, today’s attack on market in Gaza is being seen as part and parcel of the daily bloodshed there. Twenty years ago, a single mortar bomb exploded in the main square of Sarejevo killing 68 and wounding 200 people. It was the worst single atrocity in the 22-month old conflict between Bosnia’s Serbs, Muslims and Croats and led to international intervention that changed the course of the war. Yet today, the US is reportedly re-supplying Israel with mortars and grenades.
The process of granting fracking licenses may well be similar to those of off-shore dredging which a few years back I investigated to see what’s known about its impact on coastal erosion. The EU, Canada, the United States and Japan all acknowledge a link, and in the United States, the coastline is shored up after dredging takes place. The British government does not admit to a link. As my investigation continued, background briefings set up with government scientists were summarily cancelled and answers from press departments were wrapped in so many figures and purple prose to be indecipherable. Meanwhile, it turns out that there are applications to extract 68 million cubic metres from the seabed over the next 15 years from just one area of the North Sea off the coast of Great Yarmouth. The Empire State building is one million cubic metres, so that’s the equivalent of taking out a fair chunk of Manhattan then saying that this has no impact on the wave and tidal flows that cause erosion. Nor has the government produced any explanation as to why its findings contradict those elsewhere. The government “is not in a position to comment on activities that have been permitted by other countries” came the answer. I did find a contact who spoke off the record, saying that the dredging companies pay big money for scientists to write licence applications, leaving few qualified experts in government to challenge the science. There must be a danger of the same happening on fracking in which case prepare for nasty times ahead.
Before watching the next new bulletin, read some lines from Itzhak Katzenelson, the great Jewish poet from the Warsaw ghetto — and see if there’s any common ground with the Palestinians in Gaza.
The first to perish were the children, abandoned orphans, The world’s best, the bleak earth’s brightest. These children from the orphanages might have been our comfort. From these sad, mute, bleak faces our new dawn might have risen…… I saw children just brought in from the street. I hid in a corner And saw a two-year-old girl in the lap of a teacher. Thin, deathly pale and with such grave eyes.
I had a dream, a terrible dream: my people was no more, my people disappeared.
I rose screaming: Ah! Ah! What I have dreamed is happening now! Oh, God in heaven! — Shuddering I shall cry:
what for and why did my people die?
Twitter and FB feeds have created a dark week with ISIS, Ukraine and Gaza and there’s much talk about the dangerous world in which we live. It is, though, far less dangerous than it used to be. With MH17, some Ukrainians or Russians messed up with a weapon. It’s bad and the weapon was big and the shock factor high and it happens in the US all the time where gun control debate is about how and why the bad guys get their weapons. Individual grief over lost loved-ones is not measured by whether a child is murdered in an airliner or on a school playground. ISIS is another knock-on from the ill-thought out Iraq invasion and, sadly, political leaders get it wrong all the time. If, say, Western democracies had backed Communism over Nazism instead of the other way round, there might have been blowback, but there probably would never have been a Holocaust. Because of that, the Israelis and Palestinians have been doing what they’ve been doing since most of us were born, fighting, blaming and causing the deaths of children. This suffering — as dreadful as it is – is fairly limited compared to, say, being caught up in a Cold War proxy war in Vietnam or Angola, or being trapped in the Warsaw ghettoes or in the siege of Stalingrad, or being wrapped in the lunacy of the First World War or falling foul of any of Europe’s routine tribal killings over the decades. The world today is safer, wealthier and healthier than it was a hundred, fifty, twenty or even ten years ago. But is social media and 24-hour news helping or hindering? Their round-the-clock vigil on atrocities repeats images and opinion that create a spectre of horror like in a hall of mirrors. It’s been effective at the grass-roots generating anger, resolve and a sense of citizen empowerment such as in the Arab uprisings. But government policies appear unchanged with Russia and its drunken militia, the Middle East and its children-killing, and endless meetings, resolutions, sanctions and invasions with bloodshed undiminished.
On the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, Humphrey Hawksley has been trying to find the modern heirs to those guitar-hero singer-songwriters who wrote so many anti-war anthems in the 1960s. Lyrics once tackled the trauma of the Vietnam generation – but does America today have any appetite for ballads about war in Iraq or Afghanistan?
A massive neon light shaped like a guitar protrudes from a building along the Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee. Underneath, bathed in the flashing blue lamp of a delivery truck, a street singer with a stubbled beard and black T-shirt, plays a familiar song that I can’t quite place.
“It’s not me that started that crazy Asian war,” he sings to a small circle of passers-by. “But I was proud to go do my patriotic chore.”
I put some dollars into his tip jar. “What’s the song?” I ask.
“Kenny Rogers. 1969.” His eyes gleam with enthusiasm. “So tragic. A Vietnam vet gets crippled. Back home he watches his girlfriend dress up to go out on the town while he has to stay in. He pleads with her – Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, it’s called.”
He nods thanks as others drop more dollars into the jar.
“What about now?” I say. “Any songs about Iraq, Afghanistan?”
“Can’t think of one.” He shrugs and runs his fingers over his guitar strings to begin his next song.
Iraq and the spectre of Baghdad’s collapse is filling the airwaves counting the human cost and the struggle of troops returning home. Forty years ago with America’s attempt to democratize Vietnam failing, protest movements swept the country led by young musicians like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez.
Nashville is known as America’s Music City and the Broadway is a main road flanked by neon-decorated bars with names like Whisky Bent, Tin Roof and Legends. Bands hoping for the big break play from cramped stages, their raw music spilling out into the humid night. It’s a place where Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn meets Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire and where musicians have drawn inspiration from issues of poverty, inequality and race.
And, of course, war. But where is the war music now?
“We’re not writing any of that stuff,” says the heavily-bearded Stephen Mollere of the Relentless Mules as they pack up after a set. The mule was the work animal of the cotton plantations and with a banjo, mandolin and resonator guitar, they play a style called blue grass. “It’s just not commercial anymore,” he adds.
Further along, Jim Hayden, a jazz singer with the geeky bespectacled look of Buddy Holly agrees. “People don’t seem to want it. But maybe……” He pauses hesitant on what he’s about to say.
“Go on,” I nudge.
“You know we have the Patriot Act over here and people remember how the FBI tracked John Lennon for his anti-war songs and then he got shot….” He tails off, embarrassed at his own conspiracy theory. “Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen have done stuff. But they’re dinosaurs. I don’t know, music against the war is being unpatriotic and people don’t want that.”
Earlier, I’d asked the same question in the small town of Tupelo in Mississippi where American flags fly from lampposts and where Elvis Presley was born in 1935 and grew up in a two room clapboard shack.
The mayor, 38-year-old Jason Shelton, lived in the same poor part of town and went to Elvis’ old school. He described how Elvis’ childhood experience of race and poverty helped him take music to a new level.
“But your question about songs from these wars,” he said “Nothing really comes to mind.” He gets out his I-Pad and logs onto his Facebook page. “But let’s see. I’ll send a message and ask around.”
While in Nashville that evening, there’s a response to the mayor’s message from Darby McCuller, an Iraq veteran, who has a band called Dry County Tragedy. He sends me a rough recording of a song he’s just written, a tribute to his best friend killed by a roadside bomb.
It has a slow, haunting melody. You never thought this ‘ol world would turn out so cruel, goes one line and describing coming back from the war You wake up screaming…. Yesterday a Hero. Yesterday is gone.
“All that hero hype,” says Darby when I call him. “All those medals. For what?”
“Are there any other songs?” I ask.
“There’s got to be, but I don’t know them,” he replies. “Young folks today are all on their phones and computers and you don’t get music from that.”
A colourful sculpture emblazoned with the faces of legendary singers marks one end of the Broadway, where a guitarist who must have been in his seventies plays an old Joan Baez protest song.
“Those issues ain’t solved,” he says when I ask him. His wonderfully alive, craggy and layered face breaks into an upbeat smile. “But there’ll be someone out there who’s writing a song about these wars. It’ll be from their soul and suddenly the song will be there and it’ll take us all in a storm.”
In the 1980s, India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi armed and encouraged Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka, thus creating the Tamil Tigers who blew up airplanes, invented the suicide vest, slaughtered women and children and murdered her son Rajiv. At the same time, the United States bankrolled the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, thus helping to create Al Qaeda who attacked the Twin Towers and now have off-shoots stretching from Yemen to Iraq and beyond. In 2014, Russia armed and encouraged separatism in Ukraine thus starting a civil war withsophisticated weaponry resulting in the shooting down of MH17. There are probably 500 or so in the villages around who have a pretty good idea who fired the missile. What unfolds in their minds over the next few weeks is crucial. As soon as they begin to weave the big lie, invent myths of glory and honour to tell their children and grand children, justify a lethal injustice by upping hatred for the enemy and brace themselves for violent reprisals, they will go into an unbreakable mental lockdown that will contaminate generations. They could say: “Sorry, we messed up.” But it takes a big confident, mind to do that. Like India and the United States, Russia should prepare for the monster it’s created.
The people of Hong Kong must be among the most sensible in the world when it comes to balancing hostile power against personal aspiration. So far removed from the Middle East with its corpses, offence and revenge, Hong Kong people have generations of experience in flitting between China’s red lines and what they wish to achieve. They concentrate on making money, building homes, educating children and dispatching relatives to far-flung cities like New York, Vancouver and London to set up nests should everything around them collapse. So far it hasn’t. But now, 17 years after Britain handed its control to China, the times might be a changing. Trust has broken down on how the Chief Executive is to be elected in 2017 while Beijing is telling Hong Kong judges that they must be ‘patriotic’, meaning they need to back Communist Party policy. There is an instinct in this place that if it loses its reputation for impartial rule-of-law, businesses will pull out, money will flee and Hong Kong’s golden goose will shrivel and die. The upshot has been some of the biggest protest Hong Kong has ever seen. Against the backdrop of China’s regional muscle flexing, one of the world’s glittering financial centres could be facing its biggest test yet for survival.
As Egypt detains Peter Greste and thousands of others in appalling and intimidating conditions, foreign companies investing there must be reminded of new international standards on business and human rights. Egypt is a military-run government that kills, detains and tortures. Millions who supported the legal opposition last year now live in terror. Any company operating in or buying from Egypt has an obligation to make itself aware of human rights abuses there and either find ways to rectify them or stop doing business. The 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights apply to all businesses regardless of size, sector, location ownership and structure – that includes tour operators sending holiday makers to Sharm El-Sheikh, retailers importing Egyptian cotton sheets and banks lending money for new enterprises. Company executives can no longer use the excuse that they’re unaware of what’s going on there. It’s their job to know and act accordingly.