Issue 192 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Tim Pat Coogan
John Major must hope that at least he can earn a footnote in history as one of the architects of peace in Northern Ireland. Yet a read of Tim Pat Coogan's The Troubles would leave no one in doubt that Major and those who run the British state were dragged kicking and screaming into the peace process.
Coogan is a former editor of the Irish Press, the paper associated with the main ruling class party in the Irish Republic, Fianna Fail, and he is very much part of the Dublin establishment and its friends in the United States. And he isn't above letting you know how well in he is with the Kennedy clan and the likes. In contrast you'd search hard in The Troubles for the voice of those ordinary people who set out back in 1968 on the march for civil rights, or for those who took to the streets of Northern Ireland demanding an end to sectarian killings. This is history made by great men and women.
What makes the book worth reading, however, is the insider view it offers on the peace process.
As an Irish nationalist of the strictly constitutional variety, Coogan is prepared to catalogue Britain's involvement in a 'dirty war' in Northern Ireland. The war has involved a shoot to kill policy, supergrasses and torture. While criticising the IRA, he argues, 'From the fall of the power sharing executive of 1974 until the IRA ceasefire of 1994, Britain presided over a political vacuum that spawned a political degeneracy not seen elsewhere in western Europe since the ending of World War Two.'
The indifference to a solution in Ireland shown by many British politicians is reflected in the fact that John Major had not even been to Ireland until 1990, by which time he had held two senior offices of state.
Coogan makes clear that it was pressure from Washington in particular that forced Major to put his signature to the Xmas 1993 Anglo-Irish Declaration of Downing Street.
Any concessions on the British side had to be wrung out of them. John Major had to insist on the reopening of certain cross-border roads after the army and the Northern Ireland Office had argued that such a policy must be spun out over years. They were sweetened by the construction, even after the ceasefire, of two new army forts in Crossmaglen and Newtonhamilton.
After the Unionists voted against the Tories over charging VAT on fuel, Major rushed to mollify them. This was the point at which the British government began demanding the decommissioning of IRA arms as a prerequisite for Sinn Fein being included in all-party talks. As Coogan points out, this was in breach of the Downing Street Declaration which promised elected parties entry to talks 'once they proved that they intended to abide by the democratic process'. Neither was it ever mentioned in the secret talks between Britain and Sinn Fein in 1992-93.
At present there are some 130,000 legally held weapons in private hands (virtually all Protestant) in Northern Ireland. Added to that, there are 32,000 members of the security forces who have access to personal weapons when not on duty. When you add to that 1,000 personnel in M15 and 135 fixed military installations in an area the size of Yorkshire, you can see that arms decommissioning is not just a matter of the IRA's arsenal.
It is hardly cheering to read that Major's cabinet subcommittee on Northern Ireland contains, in Coogan's words, 'some of the most right wing politicians in Europe'--Sir Patrick Mayhew, Michael Portillo, Michael Howard and Lord Cranbourne.
What's kept the peace process on the rails, Coogan argues persuasively, is the success of the Washington-Dublin-John Hume-Gerry Adams axis. For many Republicans, Adams's ability to gain access to the White House is proof that he can bring success. But just what sort of success? Coogan makes it clear that Irish unity is not on offer in the foreseeable future. Instead Dublin and London will jointly oversee the administration of Northern Ireland.
Coogan is writing about events at the top table (where Gerry Adams has won a seat). The impetus for peace came from below. Those workers who marched and rallied for peace celebrated the ceasefires of 1994. They had a right to. Yet the deals being spun behind their backs promise little for their futures.
The Eye in the Door
The Ghost Road
'I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.' So begins the poet Siegfried Sassoon's famous protest which opens Pat Barker's powerful and moving trilogy of novels about the First World War. The final volume, The Ghost Road, recently won the Booker Prize.
Sassoon's protest did not end the war. It did result in his being declared 'mentally unsound' and shipped off to Craiglochart War Hospital under the care of Dr William Rivers--'a man adept at finding bearable aspects to unbearable experiences'--to be made 'sane' enough to be sent back to the insanity of the trenches.
The first novel, Regeneration, centres on the complex relationship between Sassoon and Rivers, as Sassoon struggles to make sense of his experience at the front. It is also about Sassoon's first attempts, along with Wilfred Owen, to develop a new poetic style of 'speaking plain' which both captures the horrors of trench warfare for ordinary soldiers and rages at, 'The great ones of the earth... And monstrous tyranny they have brought to birth.'
At the end of the novel Sassoon resolves to return to France, not because he has been cured of his pacifism, any more than his treatment under Rivers has cured his psychic wounds. He goes because he can see no other way to protect the men in his platoon from further carnage. But even this small decency is denied him. War is about killing, and Rivers reflects, 'Poetry and pacifism are strange preparation for that role.'
The Eye in the Door follows a parallel relationship between Billy Prior and Rivers. Unlike Sassoon, Billy is a working class officer who is also bisexual and suffering from an acute form of shell shock. Barker does not sentimentalise Billy's 'trustless' and sometimes brutal personality. But if Billy is brutal, he is never cruel. He is the living embodiment of 'speaking plain', 'You were raped or beaten... You put your mind's eye out.'
Both his sexuality and his split personality are overlaid with deep divisions of class loyalty. Billy's desire to remain loyal to the men he has left behind in the trenches becomes distorted by the role he is forced to play while working for army intelligence spying on working class opponents of the war. The cost of becoming an 'eye in the door' only deepens the split in Billy's psyche. In a tortured dream he relates to Rivers, he describes how "eye" was stabbing myself in the I.'
In The Ghost Road Billy Prior returns to the front. In spare and beautiful prose--itself a model of 'speaking plain'--Barker reveals how, even in the midst of so much devastation and carnage, humanity still flourishes. While waiting to go up the line, Billy and his platoon are given a brief respite in the bombed out remains of a chateau. Knowing the fate that awaits them, they share food and drink; they have sex in a nearby village; they talk quietly and tenderly.
In a moving passage, Billy and Owen watch in silence as one of their men submerges himself in the ruined pond of the chateau. The image is one of reverence for the beauty and fragility of the human body--'greenish eyes, red hair, milky white skin blotched with freckles'--beautiful human bodies about to be torn apart, randomly and senselessly, by shellfire.
There have been many novels about the First World War and Pat Barker's trilogy rates among the best. I suspect the reason that so many novelists keep returning to this period is because it concentrates all the horrors and possibilities of the century. The dream of a better world which fuelled the great revolutionary wave in the aftermath of the war had much to do with what had been suffered in the trenches.
In his poem Aftermath, Siegfried Sassoon worried that the memory of this might be lost to future generations: 'But the past is just the same--and War's a bloody game... Have you forgotten yet?... Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.'
Pat Barker's three novels don't allow us to forget.
Season of Blood
A team of war correspondents penetrate Rwanda during the killing. The landscape is silent and the smell is that of decomposing bodies--everywhere. In Nyarubwe there stands the shell of a Catholic church. On the porch lies the body of a man. All around the church and inside it and the surrounding buildings too are the bodies of men, women and children--some decapitated, clubbed to death, limbs removed.
Ethnic hatred was whipped up by the Hutu ruling class and the government of President Habyarimana against the Tutsi minority whose army, the RPA-trained in exile in Uganda--invaded Rwanda in February from South Africa. France supported the Hutu government which was also receiving arms from South Africa. On 6 April Habyarimana's plane was shot out of the sky--Keane argues by Hutu extremists-and the holocaust, planned in advance, commenced. Up to 250,000 were killed over the following four months.
Fergal Keane and his team visit the capital, Kigali, during the height of the battle. One part of the city remains in government (Hutu) control. It is an absolute certainty that all Tutsis in this area will be massacred. Keane finds words to penetrate one of the most haunting stories of the human predicament--a story to leave permanent scars with the living. Two foreign missionaries give shelter to some Tutsi children for days and days. Together they watch corpses pile up in the street outside. Every three days prisoners in pink uniforms come to remove them. One of the men is shot and seriously wounded. Keane is with the UN in the Red Cross hospital when the two make it to this half safe spot. Their story is one of the most terrible stories of war.
Keane's book is important because it is about the human condition. It is a companion, in some profound way, to those who must face extreme violence and death in their work and to others who struggle to understand wars which appear to be more about race than class or nation. The author also addresses some of the most difficult questions powerfully. How is such inhumanity possible? Who was to blame? Why and how did the 'international community' behave so abominably?
Beyond the scope of this book is another nightmare in neighbouring Burundi, a country which few talk about, but where huge numbers of Hutus have been killed over the last two years. It has a similar mix to Rwanda--about 15 percent Tutsi and most of the rest Hutu. In October 1993 Hutu President Ndadaye was assassinated in a coup. Over the following months between 50,000 and 100,000 were killed--mostly Hutus. The killing continues today, probably at the rate of a few hundred a month. The Hutu working class neighbourhood of the capital, Bujumbura, has turned into a ghost town over the last six months--'the Hutu-Tutsi power struggle in reverse,' in the words of Oxfam's Guy Vassall-Adams.
If there is a weakness in Keane's book it is that it fuels the analysis that Hutus are responsible for genocide without taking the regional context into consideration and examining the massive crimes of the Tutsi armies of both Burundi and Rwanda.
No slick and easy explanation of the regional crisis in the Great Lakes is useful. Keane explains that he writes, like those who wrote of the Nazi Holocaust, 'that we do not forget'. And he writes to help us to understand. He is careful about his assertions about race and class and demonstrates his political astuteness by a most precise and almost frugal selection of data on issues such as international negligence and complicity.
Ghanaian socialists have written recently:
The Benn Diaries
Fascinating and irritating by turn, these diaries (just issued in a single volume) chart the ups and downs of the Labour Party in and out of government from 1951 through to 1990.
Today working class people want change, a government which will do something for them after 16 years of government for and by the rich. Benn's diaries reveal so clearly why those hopes will be dashed. First of all, Labour in office is powerless. In Wilson's 1964-70 Labour government, Benn became Postmaster General. He had the modest idea of getting stamps designed without the queen's head on.
Little by little Benn discovered that his own civil servants were flagrantly disobeying his instructions to commission designs without the queen's head and behind the scenes palace officials were manoeuvring. Eventually Harold Wilson himself told Benn the queen's head had to stay on.
For years Benn had opposed nuclear weapons but supported nuclear power. But in 1983 while in Japan he made an interesting discovery:
Century of war
The New Press £19.95
It is now generally accepted that the 20th century--the short 20th century from 1914--measured by the numbers killed wounded and tortured, has been the bloodiest period in the whole of recorded history; and it is now coming to be recognised that unless certain fundamental changes take place the century we are soon to enter will not be different.
The future could be less horrendous of course, if certain basic revolutionary changes were to occur, but there are no signs at present that any such changes are in motion. The long run is still a very long run, and whether the disintegration of the present world capitalist order will take another century, or two or three more, will depend on a range of historical factors some at least unknown at the present time. Whether the present increasing world disorder will eventually be replaced by a more decent, sensible and humane form of social organisation--some version of what we have always understood as classical socialism--is also beyond our present predictions. Those of us who are socialist activists obviously think it will be.
Some of these thoughts come out of a reading of Kolko's book. He has already written many volumes on the diplomatic and political history of the world since 1939--of which his large scale volume on Vietnam is perhaps his most impressive achievement--and this present volume brings together his research and appreciation of war in society since 1914. It is a subject requiring serious analysis, because war has increasingly entered into the lives of whole populations as each decade has passed. From 1950 to 1980 there were around 150 wars--large and small--most of them in the Third World with an estimated 30 million dead at a time when Western Europe and North America were enjoying the expanding pleasures of consumerism. The last 15 years since 1980 have not witnessed a slowing down of conflict and its associated butchery.
The greater part of Kolko's book is concerned with the Second World War and the decades which followed. The countries of Europe, China and South East Asia receive quite detailed summaries of their bitter experiences from which he draws some broad generalisations. One is the increasing involvement of societies in war and war preparations. A second is the widespread failure of politicians and military leaders to foresee the consequences of the war or wars they are embarking upon. Stupidity, imbecility, naiveté and plain ignorance have been factors within the leadership of all countries engaged in 20th century wars and Kolko is right to underline their significance.
A third conclusion, upon which he very properly lays emphasis, is the elimination of any distinction between combatants in uniform and civilians: a distinction which continued to be recognised for the most part during the First World War but which from 1937 began to be eliminated. I assume, though he is not specific on the matter, that he chose the date 1937 to refer to the German bombing of Guernica (although he could have used the earlier example of the Japanese Army in North China). The lack of differentiation between civilians and those in uniform was a striking feature of the Second World War in Europe, but what Kolko does not bring out sufficiently sharply is the bitter contrast between the Western and Eastern Fronts in Europe, and not just the actions against the Jews in Eastern Europe.
It is surprising that Kolko does not include in his bibliography Arno J Mayer's classic Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?--a book everyone should read--for while Mayer is centrally concerned with 'the Final Solution' he documents in chilling terms the Wehrmacht's butchers of the civilian populations of Eastern Europe extending deep into the lands of the Soviet Union: a frenzied carnage on a very large scale which may be compared in its ferocity with the utter devastation of Protestant Magdeburg in 1631 by the Catholic troops of Tilly during the Thirty Years War. What happened in Eastern Europe and the western areas of Russia was the most harrowing and gruesome experience of any area during the war years, much played down by Stalinist diplomacy and not appreciated by the ordinary people of Western Europe.
There are some other gaps in Kolko's analysis. He fails to discuss one of the main factors which brought about the escalation of wars in the Third World, namely the international trade in armaments by the advanced industrial societies. In the 1930s the arms trade was condemned as obscene by the whole labour movement in Britain. As a result of public pressure there was even a Royal Commission on the subject but today? Who worries about the killing of hundreds of thousands of the people of East Timor since 1975, achieved with a considerable proportion of the weapons and arms supplied by Britain? At least 10 percent of all British export values are of military equipment and arms. They include instruments of torture which the British governments in the 1980s expressly denied were required for British forces. Obscene is the word. About three quarters of British arms exports are taken by Third World countries with deaths on a massive scale as the consequence. A priority for New Labour?
Kolko provides a great deal of detail on Europe, China, the Philippines and Vietnam but very little on the other areas of the world. Africa, South America and most of the Pacific are outside his analysis, yet it is in these continents and countries that much of the butchery of the past decades has taken place. His book is useful then for what he telIs us although it would certainly be improved with a more rigorous editor, for his writing is becoming much too wordy and diffuse; and he has missed much from the bloodstained history of the world in these past decades. His subject is of quite central concern to all of us concerned with the increasingly threatening character of world capitalism in what would seem to be a historical period of disintegration. Workable alternatives for socialists need to be grounded firmly in as close an analysis of what is really happening in the world as can be achieved.
The Year of the Flood
Harvill Press £9.99
This is a slim little book about big themes--power, violence, passion and the struggle for justice.
The story is set in the 1950s in a small Spanish village in the province of Barcelona. The Civil War is over but the tensions remain, and so do the protagonists. The local fascist landowner has his estate and possessions intact, but he is fearful of the bandit in the hills. The bandit, exiled for fighting against Franco, has returned, 'not for vengeance, but for justice'. The hospital, a decrepit old ruin run by the nuns, epitomises the failure of the church to answer people's needs.
Despite the pressure for things to remain the same, times are changing. The old family traditions are breaking down, people are moving out of the village and there is no one to look after the old. A new hospital is being built by the state and so the church has to find itself a new role. The Mother Superior, Sister Consuela, decides to try to raise the money to refit the old convent as an old people's home. The story is her story.
In her innocence of the world Sister Consuela first turns to the rich and powerful for help. At the same time she warms to the only human contact she has ever experienced outside the arid life in the convent. Against a background of torrid heat and then torrential rains, the nun struggles to make sense of a maelstrom of repressed passions and disturbing temptations. The flood echoes the turbulence of her emotional awakening and her attempt to find her identity as a woman and a human being. After the flood nothing will ever be the same again.
Sister Consuela is no Mother Teresa. She is both more naive and more humane, and she ends up defiantly defending her desire for worldly warmth against the sterile, false world of religion.
This book is a damning indictment of religion and a church which was the willing partner of fascism. But it is a novel, not a tract. The old people's home is finally funded by an anonymous benefactor, but not before the nun has encountered the bandit and his philosophy of life. Like most outlaws, he's got some of the best lines, and they are at the heart of this novel. It's the bandit who tries to educate the nun in the ways of the world--the class system and the apparatus of the state which keeps it in place. Like he says, 'The police and judges are there to serve the rich, and the less said about the holy church the better.' And this bandit is no hillbilly: who wouldn't echo his sentiment that 'nobody can deal with banks and escape unscathed'?
By the end of the book we've moved into the present day. The old people's home, built on the cheap and badly administered, has itself fallen into decline. It's been taken over by the government and has been the scene of health workers' strikes. The system and the need to fight against it remain the same.
This is a rich and powerful novel. It has plenty to say and it says it vividly and with humour. More than that, it's a passionate affirmation of the desire of men and women to change their world. Not bad for 118 pages.
The Secret State
The British secret services--MI5, M16 and Special Branch--are surrounded by a paranoid mythology on much of the left. The idea of a highly efficient secret state using phone tapping, infiltration and agents provocateurs to smash opposition to the state has spread fear amongst many campaigners and socialists over the years.
Socialists need to be careful of being paralysed by such fear. We need objective consideration of the activities of the secret services in the context of their role within the capitalist state.
A welcome addition to this area of study is Richard Thurlow's ambitious attempt to chart the development of Britain's secret services over the past century. The range of studies is quite breathtaking, covering the British state's response to just about every political movement in Britain and Ireland since the early 1900s.
Thurlow describes how the Special Branch, and later M15 and M16, developed as agencies to collect information as a basis to disrupt 'extremist' political movements. The term 'extremist' has been used by the leaders of the secret services to include anyone who might threaten British capitalism, and has included such dangerous characters as Liberal prime minister Lloyd George, Labour MPs and trade union leaders. 'Extremist' movements were perceived as fronts for overseas powers to destabilise British democracy.
Far from being necessary to defend 'democracy' from external influences, the secret services have developed, as part of the capitalist state, to protect the ruling class from internal threats, even to the extent of undermining elected governments and democratically run political movements. The secrecy of the services' existence and activities, together with their lack of accountability to the government is a fundamental necessity given the political nature of the services.
However, what we see is not the well oiled, professional operation that the intelligence service is made out to be. Although Thurlow tends to play down the fact, he gives evidence to show that the secret services are staffed by a bunch of paranoid, and often incompetent, characters with extreme right wing ideas.
Throughout their history the secret services have often come up with incorrect 'intelligence' or have presented information that is available to the public in any case. Reading the home office reports on the Communist Party that MI5 gathered, it is clear that much more accurate information on the Communists' activity could be gleaned by reading the Daily Worker.
When looking at British fascist movements during the 1930s, Thurlows research presents an unclear picture of exactly where the loyalties lay of MI5 agents working inside Mosley's British Union of Fascists. What is certain is that Mosley was not concerned about infiltration and that MI5 recruited agents who remained active fascists.
The section on British fascism was one of the most interesting in the book. The British state managed to contain the social conflict that the depressions of the 1930s caused. In this context, where the state's strategy used every trick of propaganda and coercion, we see a secret service that had little effect on events. Thurlow, although trying to argue that 'extremists' of the left or right were dealt with equally, also shows that the state was far more interested in smashing the Communist led anti-fascist movement than the fascists, as was seen after the introduction of the Public Order Act in 1936.
The whole book is a fascinating read, despite Thurlow's liberal politics and the fact that most of the relevant files are still unreleased. By placing the secret services in the context of the state's management of public order, Thurlow has offered socialist the opportunity to increase our understanding of the strategies the British state uses. By building large and open organisations in the working class, we will inevitably confront the state but, as this book shows, the secret services will hopefully be the least of our worries.
Monster: The Autobiography of a LA Gang Member
It is one thing to read that compared to their white contemporaries US blacks are six times as likely to be murdered or that one in three young blacks are in prison, on probation or on parole--the 0 J Simpson trial encapsulated the whole situation. It is quite another thing, however, to read of the real impact of welfare cuts and constant playing of the race card in American politics on the day to day lives of black working class Americans. That is exactly what this autobiography sets out to do.
The book tells the story of Sanyika Shakur, otherwise known as Monster Kody Scott. Born in 1964 in South Central Los Angeles, Shakur, aged 11, gains entry to a gang by the usual rite of admission--gunning down a rival gang member. He readily takes to gang life, 'I had as much ambition, vitality and ruthlessness as any corporation executive planning a hostile takeover... merger was out of the question.'
Shakur advances quickly, and by the age of 14 has gained the pseudonym 'Monster'. He shows meticulously how the gang system is organised. The 'supergangs'--the Crips and the Bloods--are broken into smaller units, each of which covers only a block. 'Each army has a flag... its own language, customs, and philosophy, and each has its own GNP.'
A great deal of the book centres upon the gang war between Shakur's gang (Rollin' Sixties) and the Eight Trays. Throughout he uses military terminology. However, Shakur points out that US soldiers in the Vietnam, War could relax at home base when not involved in fighting. The gang war, however, is conducted literally at home in the front room. It is 24 hours a day, most graphically demonstrated when Shakur goes to a local chain store with his mum and ends up in a gang shoot out.
After surviving all the shoot outs and the murder of fallen comrades, Shakur is inevitably caught by the gang to end all gangs--the Los Angeles Police Department--and he receives a life sentence for murder.
In prison, despite the routine humiliations, Shakur searches for ideas to explain and change his predicament--much as Malcolm X did. He flirts with the Nation of Islam but eventually joins the Consolidated Crip Organisation.
His transformation is fascinating. Shakur recognises, 'We were making the same mistakes as the Black Panthers.' However, for all his valid criticisms of the Panthers, it becomes clear that Shakur himself, unfortunately, has not yet escaped the maze of black nationalist politics to seize the centrality of class politics.
This book is a condemnation of American capitalism in the late 20th century. It shows how Reaganomics and its decrepit child, the Republican 'Contract with America', have pitilessly torn up millions of ordinary people's lives.
Above all, this book graphically demonstrates how the US ruling class has developed its own devastating gravedigger--the US working class. The tip of the shovel that can sweep away this despicable system--the black working class--already knows how to use a gun, if not where to point it... yet. Go read it!