Saturday, March 19, 2011

Orwell on Libya

Robert Zaretsky in Le Monde Diplomatique today on how Orwell would likely view Libya, in light of his own service in the Spanish Civil War. I reproduce it below under non-commercial fair use:

Libya: what would Orwell do?

Exclusive 17 March, by Robert Zaretsky

Libya’s civil war falls on the seventy-fifth anniversary of an earlier civil war, one that occurred on a neighbouring shore of the Mediterranean and galvanized the world’s attention: the Spanish Civil War. While the causes and contexts could not be more different, the ideals shared by Spanish loyalists and Libyan dissidents seem very similar. In both cases, they sacrificed their lives to resist despotism and defend democracy. And in both cases, western intellectuals proved far more willing to fight these battles to the last drop of the blood of others.

Few thinkers knew this better than George Orwell. In 1936, his long and ungainly frame clad in a ridiculous makeshift uniform, Orwell lumbered into a friend’s office in London. By way of explaining his attire, he announced that he was going to Spain. When asked why, Orwell replied, “This fascism, somebody’s got to stop it.” The only thing Orwell succeeded in stopping, it turned out, was a bullet: while serving as a corporal in an anarchist brigade, he was shot through the neck. Orwell survived, but the Spanish Republic didn’t, eventually falling to Franco’s forces.

At the very end of his account of the war, Homage to Catalonia, Orwell returns to England. Sitting in the train with “plush cushions under my bum” and gazing through the window at the “sleek landscape” of Devonshire, Orwell found it hard “to believe that anything is really happening anywhere.” And, quite remarkably, he goes on: “Earthquakes in Japan…revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning.”

Switch out Mexico for Middle East and milk for mocha latte, and we see little has changed. This includes the response of intellectuals to desperately complex struggles. In a terse essay titled “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” Orwell has little good to say about war. Long spells of boredom convulsed by a mortar blast; incessant squabbles with fellow soldiers over food; bouts of narcolepsy brought on by fear-filled nights; the omnipresent stink and filth of life in the trenches: this is war. “The essential horror of army life (whoever has been a soldier will know what I mean by the essential horror of army life),” he wrote, “is barely affected by the nature of the war you happen to be fighting in.”

Yet Orwell’s fellow intellectuals who had never fought nevertheless exhorted others to fight. The “sang-froid with which London faced the bombing of Madrid,” he bitterly observed, was all too typical of the times. The most confident, most insistent and most bellicose voices belonged to those who had never known war. While Orwell had learned that neither lice nor bullets bother to distinguish between good and bad people, intellectuals back home remained gladly ignorant of such matters.

In the current frenzy of advice mongering over Libya, there is the same strain of magical thinking among certain intellectuals. In France, Bernard-Henri Lévy, the aging “new philosopher” better known for his dark suits, white shirts with open collar and mane of greying hair than for his strategic acumen, recently went to Benghazi, trailed by a battalion of photographers. When not posing with Libyan rebels in front of a shell-pocked building, BHL has been writing editorials, giving interviews and holding meetings with President Nicolas Sarkozy, urging the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya and use of “surgical strikes” against Qaddafi’s forces.

While “frappes chirurgicales” sounds more compelling than surgical strikes, BHL’s American homologue, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has hawked the same advice. At the same time, by Robert Kagan, the author of Of Paradise and Power, and William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, joined a group associated with the Foreign Policy Initiative in a letter pushing for immediate action to bring down Qaddafi’s regime.

Orwell was merciless on the complacent certainties of intellectuals. “No-fly zones” and “surgical strikes”? How not to think of Orwell’s remark that “one has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool”? As for the metaphors themselves, Orwell would be equally pitiless: it is this sort of writing that “makes lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Military operations advocated by intellectuals would not be carried out in an aseptic space, but instead in a place of extraordinary volatility. In order to guarantee a no-fly zone, NATO pilots would need to fly constantly over Libya. As for surgical strikes, need we look any further than the use of drones in Afghanistan to know the hollowness of such a phrase, be it in French or English.

Would Orwell, then, have sided with those statesmen who continue to make haste slowly on the question of military intervention? Despite his loathing of bellicose intellectuals on the left and right, despite his recognition that the fog of war is far too heavy to allow for certitudes, and despite his awareness that we simply do not know what kind of government the Libyan rebels would form after Qaddafi’s overthrow, Orwell would make the case for intervention. In his essays, Orwell describes war’s reality so carefully in order to force us to understand what, at certain moments, we must accept if we wish to remain true to our humanity. War is squalid and cruel, but all too often peace can be even more fetid and nasty. In most wars, Orwell insisted, “one side stands more or less for progress, the other side more or less for reaction.”

We know which side is which in Libya, just as Orwell knew which was which in Spain in 1936. Needless to say, Orwell was no one’s fool before he embarked for Spain in his mismatching hunting outfit; upon returning to England with a bullet-sized cavity in this throat, he was even less so. In Homage to Catalonia, he reveals the machinations of the Soviet Union and its efforts to control the Spanish unions and Communist party. At the same time, he understood that English and French France arms embargo imposed on both sides in Spain could only push the loyalists more deeply into Stalin’s embrace.

Yet despite all that he had seen, Orwell maintained a kind of enlightened pessimism. Soon after his return to England, he wrote to a friend: “What I saw in Spain did not make me cynical, but it does make me think the future is pretty grim.” The amateurish yet passionate resistance of the Libyan rebels echoes the spirit of the Spanish loyalists under Orwell’s command. In both cases, these accidental soldiers were barely able to shoot a gun, yet were willing to sacrifice their lives in the effort to learn. While the Spanish loyalists fought to save a legitimate and democratic government, the Libyan dissidents are fighting to overthrow a ruler whose willingness to kill his own people at the very least matches the brutality of Franco and his Phalangists.

We do not know what a post-Qaddafi Libya would look like, but it cannot be any grimmer than the current model. Orwell concluded that, at the end of the day, matters were rather simple in Spain. “In essence,” he wrote, “it was a class war; all else was froth on its surface.” It is also a class war in Libya: the few who have everything and are willing to murder and maim in order to maintain their power; the many who are fighting for their dignity. While he would not be surprised, Orwell would be as dismayed by the pusillanimity of the West today as he was seventy-five years ago.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

America's man in Lahore today

The Lahore High Court, as expected, found today at a hearing held at the jail that Ray Davis lacks diplomatic immunity because neither the US Embassy nor the foreign ministry had presented any authentic documents showing that he is entitled to it. But Judge Aujla put off charging him with murder, adjourning the case until the this coming Tuesday the 8th, because the defense said the prosecution hadn't yet provided all the docs detailing the charges.

So far no one in the US government is explaining to the taxpayers why using their tax money to hire people like Davis to arrange for terrorist bombings and shootings in Pakistan is good value for our money. It looks like Davis is going to trial. The Americans have been bullying the Pakistani government to blow off their own law and let Davis walk on these murders, never mind the coordination of terrorist attacks that Davis was engaged in, but they don't dare, for fear that the people will put them on a plane like Ben Ali or Mubarak.

Let's say a supposed consular official from Pakistan kills a couple of FBI tails on Olympic Boulevard in LA and the LAPD picks up, and it then turns out that he was actually working for Pakistani intelligence or maybe some mercenary contractor that rents out retired military hard guys, and his job in the States was to arrange for terrorist bombings and assasinations of American citizens. Would we expect the LA Superior Court to nicely dismiss the case and send him back to Pakistan, maybe with a box of chocolates and a long stem rose?

What kind of mentality lets anybody feel like that makes any sense? Doesn't it look like the thinking of the guy Jesus spoke of that wants to remove a speck from his brother's eye while there is a log in his own? Here is where Malachi sits up and advises anybody that claims to be under God, and who doesn't want to laugh out loud at what Americans expect of Pakistan in this matter, "Consider your ways!"

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

"He catches the wise in their own craftiness" (Job 5:12-13)

Mad Magazine could not have made this up. It seems that that nice consular official, Raymond Davis, busted January 27 in Lahore, had some great music on those cell phones, even though he is not yet singing himself.

It seems that Davis had 33 Pakistani contacts in his three cellphones, of which 27 were members of the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taib, the outfit that did that caper in Mumbai a couple of years ago in which 164 died and about 300 more were wounded. And he had made lot of calls recently to these guys. The Pakistani and Indian papers are reporting from intelligence sources that "diplomat" Davis was engaged in recruiting young guys to work for these organizations to blow things up and kill people in Pakistan in order to show that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are not safe - presumably to justify their seizure by the Americans. Operation Northwoods comes to mind, the plot developed in 1962 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to kill Americans and blame it on Cuba.

Anyway, Pakistan picked up another guy, Aaron DeHaven, last Friday on an expired visa. Turns out he works for an outfit called Catalyst Services LLC. It seems that according to Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the rats are leaving town. and things aren't being blown up in Pakistan quite so much.

Now to figure out what effect this might have in Pakistan, an effective way to use our brain cells is to remember what the Bible says, that God has fashioned all our hearts alike, and then to consider how we as Americans would think. Let's imagine that several hundred Pakistani "diplomats" are running around the States, and recruiting hard guys to shoot Americans and blow them up in order to prove that the United States is an unstable place that should be invaded - and that these things are actually being done in American streets. Now stop right there: how will American citizens respond to that caper when they learn about it?

If you need the Americans for anything - like the Americans need the Pakistanis - how smart would you be to grab the Americans by the nose in that way? So then, how could these clever Americans be that stupid, grabbing Pakistani noses the same way?

It does get worse. If Aaron DeHaven is going to play secret agent man in Pakistan, shouldn't he get his visa renewed? And if Ray Davis is going to be shooting ISI guys on the street, should he be keeping the names of his Taliban buddies on his cell ph0ne contact list? I'm about as well-suited for espionage and covert ops as I am to be a hair stylist, but I think even my tradecraft is better than this!

The biblical lesson seems to be this. These guys delight to do these things because they are wise in their own eyes. The rules don't apply to them as for ordinary people, because they are special, the Superman that Nietzsche wrote of. And so they have been caught in their own craftiness, just as it is written. That happens a lot, but they never learn.

The funny thing about the Bible is that it contains very little of the direction people look for in life - which stock should I buy; how do I get that woman; should I take that job; how can I trick this foreign government or the American public into believing some lie, so that I get to do this or that thing? And because God is silent to such questions, people spend real money and trouble for the advice of clever men, instead of considering that if God won't answer, maybe we should be asking different questions.

The guidance God gives is quite simple: "What does the Lord require of you, O man, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?" Sometimes that will look stupid, but the stupidity of God turns out a lot smarter than the cleverness of Raymond Davis and his handlers, doesn't it?