The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza by Eyal Weizman

I picked up a few books in the Verso Christmas sale last week for a couple of quid. This is one of them, and it’s also my first almost original piece of writing in months. Got a couple more book reviews drifting about my drafts folder, will try and write them up soon. Exciting stuff all round.

When I found out, at the end of Eyal Weizman’s The Least of All Possible Evils, that it had been to some extent based off of an art exhibition, it explained a lot of what is good about the book, and most of what is weak. Its central thesis is slightly weak but the illustrations used to show this are really interesting, if hit-and-miss.

Weizman’s argument is essentially that the means to constrain and minimise civilian suffering have become methods of managing it and in a sense, legitimised this minimal level. There is no longer contestation of whether to commit evil, but over what is the ‘acceptable’ level of suffering. To a large extent it’s just a longer discussion of the (he never said it according to Google) Chomsky quote* on the lesser of two evils still being evil.

The book is organised in sections, with each one taking quite a different illustration of the argument. Weizman looks at the evolution of Médecins Sans Frontières and the humanitarian relief industry, at how the border wall encircling Palestine is contested and decided, and at how the US and Israeli militaries calculate and model collateral damage. He just about does enough to tie these ideas together and with the central thesis, but they also share the flaw of failing to provide any sort of alternative (with one exception).

The discussion of collateral damage was the one that struck me the most. There is undeniably something troubling about Human Rights Watch employing the man who used to model how buildings collapse under U.S bombing in order to assess if they would cause “excessive” civilian casualties, and the clinical nature of this sort of thing is certainly unsettling:

“The magic number in designing the attacks in Iraq, Garlasco recalled, was thirty. ‘If the computer came up with thirty anticipated civilians killed, the air-strike had to go to Rumsfeld or Bush personally to sign off. Anything less than thirty could simply go ahead.’ In this system of calculation, twenty-nine deaths designates a threshold.”

The problem is that I don’t see there being a plausible alternative. This week was the anniversary of the firebombing of Tokyo, where the mass death of civilians seemed to be if not the aim, at least a vindictive bonus. That we’ve gone from that to the US military incorporating international human rights law into its operating procedures strikes me as A Good Thing. Whether this is done out of sincere humanitarian concern or simply desire to avoid repercussions is immaterial. I don’t think Weizman is necessarily denying this. However, in common with a fair amount of leftist critique, it points out the obvious badness of civilian casualties and then wanders off, basically. Implicit in the argument that humanitarian law has legitimised civilian casualties is presumably that without it, there would be less of them. Or that they would occur but be more contested, because humanitarian law would no longer provide a figleaf. This is hard to buy – at the end of the day, hegemonic states are going to apply force where they see the need to, and humanitarian law is just trying to minimise that a little. It isn’t clear what the proposed alternative to this lesser evil is and the book generally suffers from it.

The exception I mentioned earlier is the section on refugee camps. Weizman builds a powerful critique of the apolitical, depoliticized space created, with generally noble intentions, in refugee camps in order to control and manage suffering, concluding:

“Only when humanitarianism seeks to offer temporary assistance rather than to govern or develop can the politics of humanitarianism really create a space for the politics of refugees themselves.”

Which is both beautiful, and part of a much more sustained and coherent critique than lots of the book.

Overall though, it’s worthwhile. I don’t think it lives up to the claims it makes for itself, and the central argument is a bit “sure, and?” but the examples are interestingly chosen and unconventionally approached. It drifts towards the critical-studies-over-academic without ever collapsing into it, and I enjoyed reading it.

Also I just noticed/remembered that there’s Candide references in it which are an immediate win in my book.

*Just yesterday I was talking to my flatmate about how much I hate Serious Writers who do the “As X once said…” high-school-level quotations to alleviate the tedium of their op-eds, but there you go. We all become what we once hated.

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics: Review

nicked off Amazon.com

Earlier in the year, I wrote a review of an additional chapter John Mearsheimer had written for a revised edition of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and published online – as I said at the time, I hadn’t actually read the original book. In my defence, the politics library at my university appeared to be a single room with some Spanish books in it, so I wasn’t confident I’d find it. Anyway, I’m back in London, and I’ve read it now. Review after the jump.

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HBO’s The Pacific: Review

Image courtesy of HBO Canada

So following the D-Day commemorations, the excellent Stephen Saideman got to wondering why the Pacific theatre of World War Two, and by association, the HBO miniseries The Pacific, are far less acknowledged than the European theatre and Band of Brothers. This prompted me to finally get around to watching The Pacific – I watched the first episode last year with Daniel, but as is inevitable when you commit to watching something with a specific person, we never found the time to watch the rest.

I finished it in about a week, and kept notes all the way through. I’ve collected those episode-by-episode notes in a Tumblr post here, unvarnished and incoherent, here, if you want. This can also serve as my job application for the AV Club.

For a more coherent take, read on.

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For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker

When Victoria Coren-Mitchell won the European Poker Tour for the second time last month, the Guardian ran an excerpt from her 2009 poker memoirs, and Amazon slashed the e-book‘s price (which strikes me as pretty dire business sense but I defer to the multi-billion pound empire, I guess). The excerpt was good, I played poker, a bit, badly, in high school, and have generally enjoyed Coren-Mitchell’s columns, so I went for it. I’m writing this from a flight that is making an unpleasant descent to Luton (apparently EasyJet are ok with electronics being switched on at take-off and landing: wonderful news), having just finished it, and I was very pleased with the purchase. Especially at that price, though I think I’d have been pleased at full price. Review after the big blind…

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Last Forever: Review

In hindsight, I’m still not sure whether I would have been impossible to please with this episode or not. It’s the last of 216 episodes of a show I really care about, and while I came to it late, it’s still a three-year investment. On the other hand, as I said in the previous post, the ninth season had already ticked all the boxes for me. It left the characters in satisfying places. The Mother was wonderful. It seemed almost impossible for them to actually fuck it up.

Almost impossible, obviously. Because they really did. I should know better than to become a screaming fanboy as I bear down on my 21st birthday but Jesus fuck did they blow it.

The dominant theory I’ve read is that for whatever reason, the writers felt hemmed in by their original vision for the show, where Ted ended up with Robin despite the “That’s how I met your Aunt Robin” line at the end of the pilot. Alan Sepinwall has a plausible, if infuriating, account in his delightfully angry review:

They had a plan. They were going to stick to that plan. They would take the title literally, introduce the Mother at the very end, then kill her off to clear the way for the Ted/Robin coupling everyone really wanted.

I’m going to stick with the “how” of their fucking it up completely for a second, and then circle back round to the “why” and the “what if”.

Remember how I said everything was resolved and satisfied for all the characters except Ted, although we knew him and the Mother were wonderful together, so all I needed was a double episode of him and the Mother being cute and happy?

Fine, you can’t always get what you want. If they had wanted to commit to killing the Mother off, then fine, that’s a bittersweet ending, and I’ll allow it for having produced The Time Travellers episode.

However, do you remember how I also said that Barney’s development was the most satisfying character work the show has ever done, and how nice it was to have him get a fully earned resolution and happy ending in “End of the Aisle”?

Replacing all the cute happy fuzzy stuff I wanted with a 35-minute rollback of all said development and a five-minute condensed retread? No. Obviously, Barney and his daughter was absolutely beautiful and NPH killed it. Obviously, any rewrite I make up to soothe the pain has to include that moment because it was fucking wonderful. Daddy’s home indeed.

Even if it wasn’t such a travesty of a decision on its own merits, the fact that they had to go over so much ground with Barney to get him basically back to where he was at the start of the episode left them with about twenty  minutes for all the rest. You know, the How I Met Your fucking Mother bit. I’m not one of those people who spent the whole series complaining that “lol has he still not met the mother wtf” because brain cells and stuff*. This, again, could have been OK. Over the years, Barney had seemed almost a co-lead character with Ted, so if they felt like dedicating more of the finale to him, then fine. That left enough time for Ted to meet the mother and have plenty of cute little moments going forward.

What it didn’t leave time for, unfortunately, was a bleak little vignette on how friends grow apart, how loved ones die, and how later in life, if pursuing your career has made you a lonely tragedy of a woman** you can always just end up with someone you had repeatedly decided wasn’t right for you.

I’ve seen lots of people point out that this isn’t an unrealistic or outrageous conclusion, and I think they’re sort of right. Just because the Mother was “the one”, doesn’t mean there would be no other “one”. Just because the Barney-Robin marriage seemed perfect, doesn’t mean it was perfect for ever. People do die, and it is sad. This is all very true. Unfortunately, this episode didn’t do enough to make this work.

Tonally, it was strange. So fucking bleak. It might have been the time of day, or my general mood, but the last two episodes felt bleak and depressing in a way that doesn’t really gel with what HIMYM usually is. Obviously, it’s dipped into moving, borderline maudlin territory before – including with Robin’s infertility discovery and acceptance of no kids in “Symphony of Illumination”. But this felt like something else entirely.

Structurally, it was a fucking disaster, which is particularly bad for a series which has always been so masterful with its structure. We didn’t see the mother’s funeral, her gravestone, nothing. The kids tell us six years have passed in between her death and the story being told, so there’s obviously been an appropriate process of grieving or whatever, but for the audience, the whiplash of:

“she got sick and died” 😦

“yo dad we know why you’re telling us all this, go ask out Aunt Robin” 😀

“sure?”

“yeah lol why not” 😀

Was baffling. We’ve seen two scenes of Ted being sad about the Mother dying – one was in Season Eight, and one was three episodes ago. Honestly, I wasn’t keen on them killing the mother, but I’m sure they could have pulled off a moving look at what it would mean for Ted to lose the One and made it satisfying. If they had fucking tried. My sister pointed out that we didn’t even see the group reacting to her death, when they had been friends for eleven years. She was dismissed so cheaply.

To be honest, I’m not sure if the committed auteur vision Sepinwall proposes is more or less irritating – the idea that they decided to write themselves out of the corner as a challenge (read his review for the actual argument). OULIPO, 22’2s – these are valid instances of constraints producing improved art. This? Todd VanDerWerff suggests that fundamentally, they weren’t good enough to rise to the challenge:

The ultimate takeaway from the final season is that series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas were at once too good and not good enough to tell the story they ultimately wanted to tell.

As annoying an explanation as it is, I don’t really see another. The notion that they would rather fuck everything up than sacrifice 60 seconds of footage of Lyndsey Fonseca and the other kid looking the right age*** is almost too implausible.

The only other explanation would be some sort of network pressure, or maybe demonic possession? Because the last episodes of the season and the season leading up to it seem fundamentally at odds. You could probably argue convincingly for either of them representing the true spirit of the series as a whole, but a 22-episode dissection of why Ted and Robin aren’t meant to be, why the Mother and Ted are perfect for each other and have totally earned this happiness and a 40-minute look at how life carries on after the “end” and that’s OK and happiness and love are still worthwhile even if short-lived are both valid things, but they’re different things.

The ending we got was not what the season had set up. I would rather they fixed the ending, but I’d be intrigued by an alternative season nine that actually took the time to make all of the developments they placed in the finale work and feel earned. It’d be a bit of a dark turn, but I’m convinced they could make it bittersweet and nice even if the mother had died halfway through the season. Hell, they could even have sold me on Robin/Ted again if they hadn’t just spent 22 episodes shooing that possibility away.

As it stands, though, I’m currently watching season nine again and all I can think when I see the Mother being great, I see Ted trying to let Robin go, Barney and Robin trying to make it work, is that it’s all in vain, because it’ll be undone in the space of forty minutes.

When I remember the real Scrubs finale****, all I really remember is the two beautiful scenes that tie up JD’s character arcs beautifully. When I remember the Frasier finale, all I really remember is the beautiful transition from Frasier saying his goodbyes to his family and friends to him saying goodbye, in essence, to the show.

Now, when I remember the HIMYM finale, all I’ll remember is those few minutes of horror as they crowbarred their preferred resolution into being. And that’s a damn shame.

 

Reading List, because old habits die hard

At the AVClub, Donna Bowman has been doing the weekly recaps for HIMYM since the start. Her review of the finale is more positive. She also wrote a nice retrospective the day before it dropped. Meanwhile, Editor Todd VanDerWerff has a couple of good pieces that acknowledge the horror while trying to understand what led to them.

Alan Sepinwall provides the afore-mentioned account of what led the writers to fuck it up, but still gives a no-holds barred beatdown to the episode and it’s delightful to read.

Other good reviews: Jezebel, NPR, Time.
*it also helps that I came to it during the sixth season and caught up. I concede that if I had been watching since 2005 I may have grown more impatient.

**great politics there, HIMYM

***which Sepinwall skewers perfectly:

Which led to the most awkward interaction of past and present footage since Tony Soprano’s final conversation with his mother.

****ie: disregarding the season with James Franco’s annoying brother. Also, this is a rhetorical device more than anything. I have watched that episode so many times that I’m not far off being able to list the main narrative beats it hits. Still, the point stands, if less elegantly – I have no desire to watch “Last Forever” again.

PS: Wanted to preserve the neat ending, but I feel like some of the successes of the finale have to be acknowledged, just not in the main body because that would add nuance to my rant. So; Father Barney was great, every single scene with Ted and the Mother together was great, Ted’s goodbyes were lovely, I really liked that they got a group shot of them in the booth to echo the finale, Lily’s white whale costume was ridiculous and great, “be cool lady, damn” was the best line, and that little photo-montage before the credits was really sweet, if horrifying. Though I’m not sure if I can really credit the show with that so much as the crushing passage of time and mortality.

Last Forever: Prologue to a Review

I expect the true extent of how disappointed I was by the last episode of How I Met Your Mother will only reveal itself completely as I make my way through watching the final season again. For most of the past three years, I’ve watched repeats of HIMYM on E4, on the laptop while drunk, tired, hungover, bored, or just short of something to watch with lunch. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the first seven seasons at least twice over – for quite a few episodes it’s probably closer to three or four times.

See, my plan had been to hold off on watching the final seasons again so that I could go back through them all after the finale and appreciate it in one bittersweet weekend. I mostly stuck to that plan – though I’ve watched How Your Mother Met Me twice, and that song at the end repeatedly because all the logic in the world can’t get in the way of just how good Cristin Miloti was.

Unfortunately, that’ll probably backfire on me. I don’t disagree with what Todd Van Der Weff says here

Can a bad finale ruin a whole series? The popular (and proper) answer to this is no. Any TV show worth its salt understands that the age of endless Internet chatter about TV series overvalues endings in the grand scheme of things. The pleasure—particularly in a sitcom—is all in the journey. And that should be more than true for How I Met Your Mother, a series that was all about how the journey turns you into the person who is ultimately worthy of love when the right person finally lands in your life.

And indeed, to try and put it all out of my mind, I watched a couple of Season 6 episodes before bed this morning and they held up. I’m sure that generally, HIMYM is safe on my “shows that you can almost recite but you still keep watching” shelf for years to come. The final season though? Maybe not so much.

In the lead-up to the ninth season, when the “24 episodes set over one weekend” structure was announced, I was rare among my friends in being generally excited for it. Like Donna Bowman , I had faith in the program being able to pull it off:

We’re likely to see some of both this season, but it’s thrilling that the show is taking this kind of chance with structure. Based on its track record, I’m betting that the net payoff will be entirely satisfactory.

Until last week, I felt vindicated in this. There were mediocre episodes, and some of it felt like stalling, but no more so than in any of the recent seasons – the “boldness” of the structure just made them more vulnerable to criticism. Still, it was obvious that this wasn’t going to become a season of 24 HIMYM’s distinguishing feature is how much it fucks about with time, structure, and story-telling in a way that would be dickishly meta if it weren’t also so funny and well-done.

As I say, until last week, this was brilliantly handled. Having Ted “meet” the Mother in the second episode, a year after the finale, was inspired, and almost all of the jumps forward to them as a couple were delightful highlights. It undercut the tragedy of Ted’s interactions with the promise that he would find happiness within a couple of nights. Donna Bowman again:

This character has been waiting for “the one” since the pilot, and as his friends all found their futures, he has grown more convinced that his chance for love has slipped away. He’s become a supporting character in his own tale, simmering with despair that can, at any moment, slide into desperation.[…] The depth and emotional heft of those remaining possibilities arises from that oldest of all narrative devices: dramatic irony. We know what the character does not, so we watch in hope and fear as he plays out his role in a state of ignorance placing him in the path of dangers invisible to him, but obvious to us.

Over the course of the season, it tied everything up. The final slaps were handed out. They tied up running gags I didn’t even realise I wanted tied up – I cheered when Barney’s job was explained. The guest stars were given their moment in the spotlight. Marshall and Lily made it work, and while having Marshall spend half the season getting back together with the main cast (I’m not clear on whether this was an unforced error – I understand he was shooting a film recently so maybe they just couldn’t get him on set) was a bit of a misstep, they’re the only lead characters I have no overall issues with.* They even tied up the love triangle aspect of the series, that occasionally veered towards the frustrating, rather well. I never really bought Barney and Robin as a couple, but the writers certainly spent the 22 episodes of the season doing their best to make it work, and by the time Robin walked up the aisle, I was happy with the pairing.

They resolved the Ted-Robin relationship well too (that god-awful CGI/Atomic Kitten scene aside). He let her go again, except this time, put his money where its mouth is, and it was nice.

And Barney promised to be honest and I bought it. They started adding depth and development to the one-note gag that was Barney Stinson around season three or four as far as I recall, and in the hands of the consistently wonderful Neil Patrick Harris, it’s been some of the best stuff the show has ever done – the Barney’s father arc would be excellent even if it didn’t feature Dick Solomon as the father. When he gets his happy ending with Robin in “End of the Aisle”, it feels completely earned. I left that episode utterly satisfied with how the writers had resolved every arc except the titular “How I Met Your Mother”, and was looking forward to an indulgent, sweet 45 minutes of Josh Radnor and Cristin Milioti being cute together. I was pretty resigned to them killing the mother off at some point, but still had a slim hope that they’d pull a lame miracle cure bait-and-switch.

Good lord was I a fool.

Part Two up here.

*Lily was consistently brilliant this season, from “Thank You Linus” to that whale costume.

 

Veep

Having never watched enough Seinfeld to form an opinion on it beyond “those fucking bass licks are really annoying”, I decided to make it my next series to catch up on this year*. I don’t know that I have much to say about it beyond that it definitely grew on me, that eight seasons of a sitcom is probably too much to watch in a couple of months (haven’t the patience for the ninth yet), that it can be very hard to place yourself in context for these sorts of supposedly trailblazing programs (so many of the plots and jokes have been nicked wholesale by later shows that it leaves the original feeling played-out, unfairly), that I would happily watch the whole season with Kramer entirely excised, and that that fucking bass lick is still really annoying – though not as prevalent as I had remembered.

The main take-away was a little crush on Elaine (Julia-Louis Dreyfus). Which ultimately led me in two directions. Firstly, to Enough Said, a film I had previously been intrigued by for being one of James Gandolfini’s last roles, in a romantic comedy to boot (having watched several seasons of The Sopranos over the summer, this was naturally a delightful prospect). As Dreyfus is the female lead of the film, up for a Golden Globe for her performance, it jumped to the top of my to-watch list. Combined with  a favourable Kermode review and a persistent bout of insomnia, I watched it at seven in the morning last week and found it a rather lovely film, with Gandolfini and Dreyfus both wonderful. The whole thing’s a bit predictable, which is no bad thing.

From Enough Said, I bounced to another later Dreyfus work, perhaps the clearest evidence of her putting the “Seinfeld curse” to bed – Armando Iannucci’s Veep. I had watched the pilot a few years before, but it hadn’t really clicked. The addition of a crush on the lead, and the absolute boredom of not having anything to do while not being able to sleep (I thought normal days were boring – when they stretch from five in the afternoon to nine in the morning, they’re excruciating) led to a rather speedy download** of the lot.

Which was followed by an almost breathtakingly quick jaunt through both of its seasons***, which are, admittedly, HBO-comedy short, ten episode deals, but still. As I emerge, blinking from the last episodes of season two, which true to form, I watched in bed on the Nexus before I had even properly woken up, a few thoughts.

It’s a cynical program. There is certainly a lot to be cynical about in politics, generally, and US politics, specifically. The choice of focusing on the office of the Vice-President’s office, in particular, allows the show to get to the heart of power in DC while at the same time having absolutely nothing of consequence happen (from this interview), “”Being vice-president is so near and yet so far. It is a comic situation to be in,””). Seriously, one of the running jokes of Season 1 is that Selina Myers (JLD) accomplishes nothing (Season Two gives her more clout and accomplishment, probably to the show’s benefit). This means it dodges any sort of partisan jokes, which is fine, and heightens the cynicism even more. All the back-stabbing and conniving and self-interest that we all suspect dominates politics might seem a bit more worth it if it enabled real progress and improvement. The impression given by Veep is that it doesn’t. At all. Which as a message, is a bit upsetting.

It’s hard to dispute, however, because Veep seems extremely well observed. Beyond all the office politics stuff that many sitcoms do, there’s that Armando Iannucci Thick Of It focus on the minutiae of politics – the psephology, the 24-hour news cycle and the ravenous thirst for scandals it brings, the naked ambition of everyone involved. It’s convincing as a portrayal – indeed, the second season is weirdly prophetic – from what I understand of the filming schedule, it predicted a lot of what went on in the States in 2013 (for example, an episode about a government shutdown premiered in June 2013 – four months before the real one shut down in a remarkably similar manner).

Most importantly, however, is that it’s funny. Like The Thick of It, the profanity in this show is delightfully creative. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to deliver those lines as brilliantly as the Twelfth Doctor, but JLD and her supporting cast comes close – there are some extremely nasty people circulating around the VP’s office, and none of them seem to like each other. Generally, it hovers on the acceptable side of cringe comedy – there’s the occasional joke that falls flat to awkward silence, but they don’t dwell upon it like other programs. There have only been a couple of occasions where I’ve been tempted to pause and do something else as a crushingly predictable “AWKWARD” scene approaches (think David Brent getting ready for his motivational speaking gig in The Office, or …well, all of Hello Ladies). On those occasions, I was actually pleasantly surprised to see the writers sidestep the possibility of prolonged discomfort.

Julia Louis Dreyfus is absolutely wonderful in the title role – excellent at both the crude insults and the tiny little modulations of her facial expression as she struggles to conceal any compromising reactions. Her team are also all excellent, with characters that are very quickly and clearly defined without being made too one-note.

Overall, it’s a very entertaining program and Season Three is set to come out in April this year, making that month the one I’ve looked forward to, in TV terms, more than any other.

Now…

PS: You’ll notice that what I sold as a review of Veep was, in fact, a post going off all fanboy about Julia Louis Dreyfus. I cleverly disguised my true intentions there.

* I’m fairly certain that part of the Erasmus experience should be getting immersed in Spanish culture. Instead I’m using the combination of no financial pressure, no social life, and a fuck-ton of spare time to catch up on, broadly speaking, American culture. Seriously, in the few months I’ve been here, I’ve gone through Modern Family, Community, Seinfeld, Veep, a whole season of Lost, and I’m about to start Louie. If I can just manage The Wire and maybe Breaking Bad , I’ll come home this summer feeling far more culturally enlightened than I would have done had I spent the time dicking around art galleries, to be perfectly honest.

** Well, almost. The start of the downloading coincided with an intense two-day effort to get the Morroblivion mod running on my computer, which involved a whole load of downloading, installing, and moving of large files around, taxing my already-overburdened hard drive more than it could really bear. Typically, the efforts failed, and indeed, the mod seems to have taken the base game down with it.

*** Seriously – I checked my history while writing this – I looked up the download link four days ago, and I’m already done. It’s almost as if I do nothing else with my time.

Review: Bomber Command ~ Max Hastings

Image

The timing on this one is perfect*. A couple of weeks ago, they finally unveiled the memorial to RAF Bomber Command on Green Park. Hastings’ book is from 1979, but feels like it could have been written last year. Interestingly, and I’d like to be able to investigate this, he claims at the start that “it is unlikely that important new evidence will be found about the nature of what was done to Germany by the bomber offensive”, which seems like an awfully risky thing to say.

I’m a big fan of military history books, especially World War Two ones. However, I had my doubts going into this one. The impersonal nature of a bomber offensive would seem to lend itself less well to the emotional narratives that can make military history so powerful. Furthermore, the terrible grey area Bomber Command inhabits would make it all much harder to identify with. I was wrong on both counts.

Max Hastings portrays the live of the aircrews, their leaders, and also, in one excellent chapter, their victims, in moving detail. The astonishing casualty rate – 55, 573 dead out of 125,000 air crew – is an ever present reality. Many of the chapters focus on one squadron, with its aircrews as minor characters in the book. But George R.R Martin himself is more sparing on character death. The troubling thing is, for the most part, how casually the deaths are described, both by Hastings and the men he talks about. It’s understandable, in a way – you couldn’t really have a ceremony at Wooton Bassett for every casualty when a few men died every week. Come to think of it, 55,000 over 6 years is just under 10,000 a year, so 200 a week? It hardly bears thinking about.

Yet every now and then, a death really slaps you in the face, as they should. Hastings quotes at length one pilot writing to his fiancée. He very calmly discusses the possibility of his own death and his wish for her to move on after he is gone. Immediately after the letter, Hastings writes

“John Bufton never married, for he was killed a month later.”

And I nearly cried.

Beyond the personal stories, there’s everything else that makes WW2 history so fascinating. The colossal scale of everything. Tragedy, heroism, cruelty, kindness, ingenuity, sacrifice, they are all here in buckets.

It’s worth reading simply to be able to fully grasp the Bomber Command debate.             While I don’t know that it is of any value to sit in 2012 and shake our fists at the decisions made 67 years ago, it is certainly a bad move to do so on the basis of a sketchy understanding of them.

The strange thing about WW2 is that the scale of it does tend to play havoc with any moral judgements. It’s almost too big to understand, let alone condemn. At the end of the book, I’m left with the sense that the firestorms of Cologne, Hamburg, (perhaps not Dresden) were utterly horrifying, yet it’s hard to say how I would have done differently. For this sense of moral unease alone, Bomber Command is well worth reading – I think it’s really refreshing not to know where you stand and maybe to be OK with that. 

*This was perfect timing – I started reading the book the day after the memorial was unveiled, finished it a week later, and then sat on the review for a week. I was considering bundling this post up with another Max Hastings review and a general post on WW2, but decided they’d largely stand up as three separate posts.

“Refuser d’être avec le fléau” (Review: La Peste ~ Camus)

Albert Camus reading a newspaper

Add a trilby and a double of bourbon and it could be Draper himself.

I think watching Mad Men vastly improved my second reading of Albert Camus’ La Peste, not for its commentaries on 60s sexism or corporate America (it’s set in 1940s Algeria), but for its style. One of my favourite aspects of the book is the idea of the central characters being a group of stoic men doing their best against the plague and not really achieving much but just doing their best. That was already cool, but when every single one of those men is Don Draper? Perfect.

La Peste is a very powerful novel. The descriptions of the plague and its ravages are harsh, and in a couple of scenes, Camus describes the sufferings of victims in drawn-out detail as the Don Drapers look on, powerless. The prose isn’t overly lyrical, and the characters aren’t prone to wailing and beating their chests in frustration, which makes the whole thing more moving – it’s understated.

Interspersed with the plot, the narrator discusses at length the effect the plague has on the city and its inhabitants, not just on its victims, but as the city is quarantined, on all those who are cut off from their loved ones. The reflections on separation and exile are brilliant, which I hadn’t noticed before.

On the other hand, what I had always remembered about La Peste, however, was this quote:

“Dans la vie, il y a des bourreaux et des victimes, et tous ce qu’on peut faire, c’est d’être à côté des victimes.”

(“In life there are executioners and victims, and all one can do is be on the side of the victims”)

It’s actually better than that.

“Je dis seulement qu’il y a sur cette terre des fléaux et des victimes et qu’il faut, autant qu’il est possible, refuser d’être avec le fléau. Cela vous paraitra peut-être un peu simple, et je ne sais si cela est simple, mais je sais que cela est vrai.”

(“All I am saying is that there are on this earth plagues/scourges and there are victims, and one must, whenever possible, refuse to be on the side of the plague/scourge. It may seem simple to you, and I don’t know if it is simple, but I know it’s true.”)

Which could be my motto. While obviously, it’s one of those things that does feel a bit self-evident – I’d be surprised if there was anyone who chose to side with the plague/scourge –it comes in the context of one of the characters talking about the death penalty, and it becomes clear that while not many people would set out to be with the plague/scourge*, there are plenty who don’t take side of the victims, which comes to the same thing. All very black-and-white, and I love it.

Also, not that I tend to try and ‘justify’ my  atheism, seeing as it just is, but upon being told by the (brilliant) priest character that in such trying times, one either has to lose faith entirely, or love every part of God’s creation – even the death of a child, the main character snaps, “je refuserai jusqu’à la mort d’aimer cette création ou les enfants sont torturés.” (“I will refuse till the day I die to love this creation where children are tortured”). Which, again, is just all kinds of fantastic.

It’s like that all the way through. Almost every other page there’s a killer observation, a heartbreaking scene, an inspiring idea. It’s just consistently bloody brilliant. Oh, and that dovetail with Candide I mentioned yesterday?

The character’s determination to fight the plague – the narrator makes it clear it’s no more heroic to fight evil than a schoolteacher teaching that 2+2=4 (Hello Orwell), it’s just what needs to be done. Since evil* is, it must be fought.

*I’m quite annoyed that I’ve struggled to translate these words, since they’re kind of key. Fleau is often used in reference to the plague. Google gives me scourge, which seems alright. Mal apparently is evil, but evil seems a) necessarily human in source in a way that a plague, for instance, isn’t it, and b) kind of cartoonish. Make of them what you will.

Review: Candide ~ Voltaire

While I think everyone should read everything I ever review (I rarely read books I don’t like, set texts aside, and I only really feel the need to review very interesting or very good books), I especially think no-one should not have read Candide. That’s partly because fucker is less than a hundred pages long, and written with all the dense prose and complex imagery of a picture book. It’s not one of those must-reads like Ulysses or Capital. And it is an absolute blast. People tell me ‘bimble’ isn’t a word (dictionary aside, they’re wrong). From now on, I think I’ll just point them at Candide. It is very much the tale of characters bimbling around the world. I remember our teacher drew us a map of the adventure – it goes from Westphalia to Bulgaria to Holland to Portugal to South America to France to Venice to Turkey at a rapid pace. Characters return to life more often than the Daleks. But the cheerful absurdity of it all is laced with venom, and it’s the irony that makes this book. Voltaire seems to lash into everything he saw, and every other chapter, something new is getting it in the neck.

I should probably declare an interest – the town I lived in for six years, Ferney-Voltaire, was almost a product of Voltaire. After he was [ejected?] from Geneva in ?, Voltaire took up residence in the commune of Fernex, and set about improving it, building homes, draining swamps, starting workshops to provide employment, etc. He also changed that hideous name, reasoning that there were too many –ex’s in the region (I feel much the same way). This is important beyond it simply being a cool thing he did. While there are a variety of nice little insights and quotes throughout the book (the main character’s dismissal of optimism is a favourite of mine*), the conclusion is what really bears taking away.

“Cela est bien dit, mais il faut cultiver son jardin.”  “Well said, but one must tend one’s garden.”

I’ve left the original quote there not out of a desire to show off (although I think that was a lost cause once I set about reviewing two French books), but because I have no idea how to translate it. It’s often quoted without the “Well said” part at the start, which seems to me to utterly miss the point. At the end of the tale, Candide’s friends are discussing their situation and providing elaborate justifications and reasonings for it, much as they have done throughout the story. The main character, having travelled the world and put his childhood teachings to test and found them wanting, does not disagree with their speeches – “well said”, but sets them aside, because (and I have never known quite how to translate “il faut” – something along the lines of “it is necessary to”, I suspect) there is a garden to be tended.

I take a lot away from that. If I had only written that on the first philosophy paper I had to write last year, I could have saved myself a lot of hassle. To me, the garden to be tended is a life to be lived. But it’s not just a Theses on Feuerbach “the philosophers have interpreted the world” idea – not only is it more important to act then to speak, but unlike Marx, the point is not to aim to change the world. No one individual can realistically hope to change the world. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to change our own little gardens, our little spheres.  Maybe it’s in a “be the change you want to see in the world” vibe, but I don’t much like that saying, because it can end up a bit “RECYCLE IF YOU WANT THE MAJOR INDUSTRIAL POWERS TO STOP DESTROYING THE ENVIRONMENT”. Which, seriously. Die.

Even better, it dovetails nicely with my takeaways from La Peste.

* “Qu’est-ce que l’optimisme? C’est la rage de croire que tout va bien quand on est mal!” “What is optimism? The madness of believing everything is fine when you’re not!”

Boom.