When do wars actually end?

World War One started in July 1914, but when did it end? Conventionally, people assume it ended in November 1918, with the surrender of Germany.

But people were still dying many years later. My own grandfather suffered for decades with lungs rotted out by mustard gas at the Somme, and didn’t die for many years, gasping and coughing nightly.

The most recent victims, astonishingly, were as recently as March 2014, almost exactly a century after the conflict started. How is that possible? They were construction workers, who accidentally triggered an unexploded bomb buried beneath where they were working.

During WW1, a ton of explosives was fired for every square metre of territory along the front.

As a result, the French Département du Déminage (Department of Mine Clearance) recovers about 900 tons of unexploded munitions every year. They call it the Iron Harvest.

Unexploded ordinance is left behind after all conflicts. Children are maimed and killed every year as a result of uncleared mines and bombs in Asia and Africa.

The wars we fight today will kill not only us but our grandchildren and great-grandchildren too. It’s time to make war history.

What if World War III broke out and no one noticed?

What if no one noticed for the same reason that for a long time no one noticed that industrialisation was causing the climate to change? What if World War III is a hyperobject?

We live at a time when empires are decaying, arising and reformulating themselves in new structures and alliances. Does knowing this help us at all? Are we like Europe in 1914, on the brink of a seemingly inevitable global conflagration? Or more like the great empires of the Bronze Age, which collapsed in darkness three millennia ago following their own tragic but elusive hyperobjective moment?

Perhaps AI might yet save us from ourselves, if only it too were not a hyperobject, or worse, the oscillating image of multiple potential hyperobjects, each one more alien and incomprehensible than the last.

So if we can’t rely on a digital messiah, we might be forced to resolve our current issues the old-fashioned way.

No, not war. The OTHER old-fashioned way.

I’ll be giving a talk on all this next month. More info shortly.

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.

On not reviewing Branagh’s ‘Belfast’

A few people have asked me if I’d seen Branagh’s sepia-tinged movie about Belfast. I haven’t. I also don’t intend to. I’m sure it’s great, but it’s not for me.

Kenneth Branagh racconta 'Belfast': "Ci ho messo due mesi a girarlo e una  vita a concepirlo" - la Repubblica
Branagh on set.

I grew up literally one street away, the other side of a fence we euphemistically call a peace line. That fence is there today. It wasn’t there in the Seventies.

“Peace” line in North Belfast.

In this Google Maps image you can see where my house was (those ones are new). You can also see KAT (standing for ‘Kill all Taigs (Catholics)’ written on the wall. That’s today, nearly three decades into a peace process. If you can’t imagine what it was like at the height of a civil war, there’s plenty of archival news footage available.

I expect Ken would have made a very different movie had he grown up in the city at that time, as I did. Actually, I expect he’d not be making movies at all. So no, I haven’t seen it and won’t see it. It’s not something I care to revisit, in Ken’s sepia tones or in any other format.

It’s not a tribal thing. I’m proud of Ken and always have been. I’ve loved his work since the ‘Billy’ plays. But Ken’s Belfast and mine, though they almost overlap, are hugely different. When the civil war euphemistically known as the ‘Troubles’ erupted in 1969, Ken’s family quite sensibly emigrated.

What they left behind, and what my family moved into (after being threatened out of their home in a different part of town), was a North Belfast that quickly became a patchwork quilt of paramilitary loyalties, rival tribalisms, brute violence and war.

I really admire Branagh for never shying away from his origins, and also for the sensitivity he has always brought to the topic. But, to use a word in today’s parlance, I find this somewhat triggering. More pertinently, I’m not the intended audience for this.