Here’s what you should think about the war today

The media is increasingly giving up all pretence at reportage in relation to the conflict in Ukraine. So immersed in propaganda are we now, that the media are now offering us cathartic dreams to resolve the anxieties they themselves fostered and promoted.

Let’s take a quick example from today’s Daily Express. Here is the headline:

Let’s ignore for the moment the lack of grammatical punctuation and acknowledge that at least the key data is presented in scare quote marks, indicating that this is opinion of some kind and not factual assertion. That doesn’t always happen, so kudos for remembering to do that.

So, whose opinion is this? “Former British officer”, Dr Mike Martin of Kings College London, is who. Dr Martin is a visiting scholar at KCL, which means that he borrows their name in order to publish academically. In return, he provides some PhD supervision for students. This is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and I’ve done it myself incidentally.

He appears from his KCL profile to be very interested in an evolutionary psychological approach to understanding warfare. It’s a little difficult to gauge his quality as an academic from a paperchase, as he’s not published a lot academically. By far his most impactful work was an oral history of Helmand Province in Afghanistan, where he appears to have done his own tours of duty as a soldier. Some of the other things listed on his Google Scholar page, such as articles on leaf-cutter ants, may not be his at all.

So then I looked at his own website, which seems primarily aimed to promote himself as a public speaker and commentator to the media. There we can see that he’s written two other books as well, one on his interest in evo-psych and war, and the other on an adventure he had crossing the Congo river in a landrover.

A lot of his work looks back to, or builds upon his experience as the British Army’s first ‘cultural understanding officer’ in Helmand. There’s a Sunday Times article about that here. I’m not going to dwell on how poorly the British Army’s cultural understanding went in Helmand.

Nor will I dwell on the many narratives of British and American success in Afghanistan that the media published adoringly. Nor will I dwell on how the minute Western military forces, exhausted by conflict, decided to pull out of Afghanistan, it reverted immediately to the Taliban once more.

I will solely point out that the conflict was a huge waste of resources and lives, and had also been the subject of an enormous and persistently reported lie in the media in the West.

Let’s return to Dr Mike Martin. He is a former British Army reserve officer who, after leaving the army, embarked on an academic career. He’s formulated a theory about war’s evolutionary origins and now researches that at KCL. Good for him. It’s an intriguing question, how hardwired the lust for war is.

What he’s not, is any kind of expert on Russia, Russian history, or Ukrainian history; nor has he any expertise about the Kremlin or Russian politics; nor on Russian military forces, on Ukrainian military capacity, or any on the ground knowledge of the current combat theatre.

So what is this story, this headline? Dr Martin likes to see his name in the media, and it helps promote his own work, so he appears more than happy to speak to the press about issues like this where he has no apparent expert knowledge whatsoever. His opinion, based on zero knowledge and expertise, is then inflated by judicious reference to his academic credentials and military background by the newspaper.

From there, it gets promoted to headline, and suddenly a readership fed on months of existential fear of Putin has hope. The hope of his overthrow. This is wishful thinking, it seems to me. After all, Putin’s popularity has actually risen in Russia since the invasion.

Why then is the Express printing this? Because it’s the narrative they want to promote. It’s the narrative they want their readers to experience. It builds on the existing narrative that they and the rest of the media have been assiduously creating since the start of the conflict.

How does it build on it? Well, having created a monstrous, satanic image of Putin, it is now essential to offer their readership some catharsis – specifically that he can and will be defeated in some kind of moral justice. We’ve seen other iterations of this in the Western media recently, mostly speculating about his health and possible imminent demise.

In reality, there’s nothing there. This is the opinion of one guy who has zero expertise in any relevant topic, inflated into a headline by a newspaper which is cheerleading this war endlessly. I don’t mean to pick on this particular paper, or this particular talking head. I understand their various reasons for doing this. I could have chosen so many others.

This example is merely symptomatic of the sick and sickening media environment we now find ourselves in, one entirely divorced from reality and endlessly blaring in favour of war.

As Orwell once wrote, There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” Too much of our media would drive anyone mad, and indeed already appears to have driven much of the population mad.

We are all Ukraine, and that’s not a good thing to be

When I was a journalist, I used to embody the maxim from James Joyce’s Ulysses that ‘sufficient unto the day is the newspaper thereof’. Or, to use an almost equally antiquated saying, today’s news wraps tomorrow’s chips.

In other words, it’s kind of a foolish enterprise to pontificate (as I am about to do) on matters which are kinetic. Tomorrow, next month, in one hour, the situation will change, radically. One’s assumptions, presumptions and conclusions are at best provisional and likely to become hostages to fortune very quickly.

An additional relevant point is that I’m not any expert on Ukraine. I’ve never been there. I’m not Ukrainian. Of course those attributes haven’t stopped others from spouting their tupennyworth of verbiage, so why should I be shy? At least my lack of knowledge doesn’t feed into the principals in this scenario. I’m not advising world leaders or directing the opinion of nations.

Ordinarily, I’d be silent, on the basis that when one is silent people may only presume you are an idiot, without you providing the incontrovertible proof thereof. But the current crisis in the Ukraine shows a risk of spreading, virus-like, to affect the rest of the planet, and I live here too, so on this occasion I’m prepared to take the risk. I will attempt to be brief, hence the bullet point format.

Crisi Ucraina, donne e bambini in fuga dal Donbass e i leader avvertono:  “Mobilitazione generale” - Il Riformista
  1. The Ukraine is seen by Russia at their sphere of influence. Specifically the Eastern provinces are highly culturally Russian. The Kiev government has not been keen to accommodate this and has banned teaching in Russian in schools, and all discussion about reconsidering Ukraine’s borders. One presumes this Russophobia is a reaction to the occupation/annexation/secessation of the Crimea. Nevertheless, it means that Ukraine, in its current form, is unlikely to be preserved.
  2. NATO did promise, under Bush, not to expand to Russia’s borders, then did exactly that, repeatedly in the Baltic states. Russia is not pleased about this and has attempted to address it in a number of ways. Both Yeltsin and Putin actually applied to join NATO, and were turned down, because of course NATO’s creation and existence is in opposition to Russia. This means that Russia is aggrieved. It doesn’t make them the victims of the current situation, far from it, but that situation derives from the former.
  3. Beyond both the debatable legitimacy of the USA (or indeed NATO or the EU) involving themselves in the Ukraine arena, and the clear unpopularity among the American people for another foreign war, especially one with Russia, there’s the fact that Washington got completely blindsided by Putin this time. They clearly didn’t foresee that he would endorse the kind of colour revolution which the US has been tacitly and overtly supporting in a range of locations. He’s played them at their own game, and they weren’t prepared for that.
  4. This situation is DANGEROUS and fundamentally destabilising to global geopolitics. Already the Baltic states are nervous. But they’re always nervous. More concerning for Moscow is the issue of the US locating missile launch sites in Poland, ostensibly aimed at Tehran but tacitly able to reach Moscow in minutes. One might argue this in turn is a reaction to Russian nukes in Kaliningrad, pointing towards Europe. But what we need is a DE-ESCALATION not an escalation of threat.
  5. What happens in the Ukraine will have knock-on effects across the planet. Not just the possibility that Europe, which receives over 40% of its heating gas from Russia, will freeze, but also massive touchpaper issues like Taiwan. Washington and NATO have positioned themselves such that they must implement serious reaction, as they’ve repeatedly threatened, if they deem that Putin has indeed invaded Ukraine. Putin has already been driven into restoring the old alliance with China, and China will be watching avidly to see how Washington responds to Donbass. There are contradictory precedents all around, and we will no doubt hear of them all. But if NATO/US do NOT react to Putin’s colour revolution in Donbass, China will definitely be emboldened in relation to Taiwan. But if they DO react, these are nuclear powers we’re talking about. The world itself becomes at risk.
  6. As is ALWAYS the case when war-war looms large, what we need is more jaw-jaw. It’s time to talk, with everything on the table. Maybe we need to commission a conference to redraw some borders in Eastern Europe. Maybe we need to stop backing Russia into a corner and into the arms of Xi and China.
  7. Maybe we need to consider what a ‘world beyond five’ might look like seriously. Maybe it’s time to discuss taking nukes off the table for good, from EVERYONE, including other hotheads like India and Pakistan, and, yes, Israel too. Everyone. Maybe it’s time for cool heads to prevail. Am I confident this will happen? Not really, no. But this is another Cuban Missile Crisis, taking place this time when we are ALREADY at a mere 100 seconds to midnight on the doomsday clock, and when global co-operation is needed as it has never been needed before, to address existential risks to us all, like the climate crisis.
  8. Ukraine is under threat tonight (maybe not tomorrow hopefully, but tonight, yes). And we are ALL Ukraine. We are all at risk. It’s time to sideline the sabre-rattling media, the warmongering neocons in Washington, the bored Russian generals, and the neo-Nazi militias in Ukraine and get the grown-ups talking. To do otherwise is potentially suicidal.

Post-Script: It’s always beneficial to recall Field Marshall Montgomery’s rules of military strategy, iterated here in the NYT during the Vietnam War: “The United States has broken the second rule of war. That is: don’t go fighting with your land army on the mainland in Asia. Rule One is, don’t march on Moscow. I developed those two rules myself.” (New York Times, July 3, 1968.)

Headspace, or, Adam Curtis redux

It’s always nice to see something new from Adam Curtis. He’s a genuine original, not just in terms of his vision but also in terms of his cultural position. There is literally no one else who holds his kind of position, salaried at the BBC to rummage in the entirety of their archives for his own purposes. Therefore, we have to value him, especially as he now is reaching pensionable age.

Can’t Get You Out Of My Head is a kind of capstone to the work Curtis has been doing for the past two decades or more. It has the thematic obsessions of Hypernormalisation or Bitter Lake, presented in the longer, episodic form he used for earlier work like Century of the Self.

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It’s subtitled as an ’emotional history’, which could mean that Curtis has eschewed his habitual monotone voiceover or attempts to emulate the communicative modes of reportage, but in fact means that he intends this to be understood as a history of human emotions, specifically how people have emotionally responded to key events and societal developments in recent times.

People familiar with his work, so iconic at this point that a number of biting satires exist, will know what to expect: grand macro-theories about global geopolitical developments undercut by psychological speculation deriving from key practitioners, and illustrated by the succinct telling of lifestories belonging to people from the slipstream. Not Malcolm X but Michael X, not Mao but his fourth wife Jiang Qing, not Lee Harvey Oswald but his buddy from the Marines Kerry Thornley, and so on.

This is, of course, all extremely interesting, and provocative, especially when little known or long forgotten facts, such as Michael X selling John Lennon’s hair to raise money, are illustrated with archival footage. And the sheer welter of information, and imagery, alongside Curtis’s calm and lugubrious voiceover script, and the soft lulling of an expertly curated soundtrack of ambient music, all adds to the effect of being almost hypnotised.

Curtis loves to tell us how we have collectively and individually succumbed to dreamscapes, be they the futility of revolution, the seduction of online existence, the pseudo-authority of the banks, the fabricated myths of lost nationhood. Ironically, the narratives which emerge from his own work, acute though they are at times in skewering key engagements of the West with the non-Western world, are no less delusional.

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It would be churlish and indeed ungrateful to pick holes in a work delivered to the world for free by a man who dedicated two years of his life to constructing it, a work of nearly 8 hours in length, that is carefully constructed, and perpetually intriguing and informative. So I’m not going to do that.

His theorising, in the academic sense of the word, which means argumentation that varies in quality from actual philosophising to bar room speculation to fervent ideological signalling, is exempted from the usual somewhat limited standards of academic review, largely because of the format in which he presents his arguments. The archival collage effect is so impressive, the editing so neat, the soundtrack so excellent, that one realises the inappropriateness of desiring an evidence base, or references, or footnotes.

And because he doesn’t have to provide footnotes and references, he can wildly connect this to that, across time and space, operating with the facade of reportage so it seems to be without the constrictions of ideological argument. But of course there is an ideology in there, albeit submerged and tentative, and there is a rashness to the wild connecting which suggests causality where in fact there is at best correlation, or at most ideological desire, or perhaps nothing except the sort of false pattern recognition he simultaneously propagates and excoriates.

If there’s a meta-theory beneath all of Adam Curtis’s endless, and often spurious big-picture postulating, it’s Dasein. Curtis’s sense of optimism is rooted in Heidegger’s understanding that we must really be in the world we occupy. Which is perhaps an understandable but ironic desire coming from someone who spends decades at a time in dark rooms watching ancient film footage.

The collage aspect, along with his culminating call for us all to wake up and be in the world, as well as his predeliction for slipstream figures and their tangential relationships to his grand narratives, may be why his huge lacunae often pass unnoticed. It seems perhaps that precisely because we have spoken so much about Trump and Brexit that Curtis need not refer to them except in brief passing.

Or we have worried ourselves so much about Putin’s Russia that the story of fringe element Limonov seems refreshing and interesting. Or we have agonised over both the causes of BLM and the civil unrest unleashed by it so much that it is preferable to look to previous eras and discussions of race relations, like Tupac or his mother. Or our lives have been so upended by Covid that we prefer to consider China’s business relationship with the west rather than the origins of the virus.

In the end, though, these are not slipstream events. They are the key elements of our age, and will define the chaos we have before us, indeed are already experiencing. Curtis’s slipstream narratives do not address these matters, because they don’t fit his narrative, his theorising. Curtis would have us to keep dreaming of new futures, which is desirable, but not at the expense of sleeping through the present.

Can’t Get You Out Of My Head is highly recommended, the keywork of a master at the top of his game. But it’s just another dream. One wonders if Curtis has it in him to document what happens if, how, when, we dead awaken. I hope so, because I doubt who else could.