14th September: A Lull

The problem is, right, that when I say this list is “the best the Internet has to offer”, it implies it’s a relative thing. And it’s not, really. I basically just finish reading something, shrug, and add it to a list. So this evening, I looked over my list, and it appears everything I’ve read so far has been terrible, because it’s looking like my shortest list yet!

Song of the week is Louis Armstrong’s version of La Vie en Rose, which comes via me falling in love with Cristin Milioti’s (The Mother) on How I Met Your Mother and tracking down all the rest. This is probably my favourite, though I’m a terrible judge as I prefer Milioti’s bloody ukulele version to Edith Piaf’s so.

No NATO Council article this week either, though there are at least two rattling around the system at the moment, so can’t even pad it out that way.

  • Interesting look at the military legacy of the Falklands war
  • I never know what to believe about France, as it seems to the battlefield for about eight different economic ideological civil wars. I’m inclined to believe Krugman when he claims the disaster-reporting on France is politically-motivated – “So disaster is what gets reported, even if it’s not what the numbers say.”
  • While we’re puncturing liberal economic orthodoxy, an excellent look at low-paid labour and unionisation
  • Another good article on the stolen naked photos – the idea of an evolving norm on this stuff is how I see the whole thing
  • I’ve been lucky enough to be upgraded to an Apple phone recently, so I’m now sceptical and sneery at their products from within the beast. This, anyway, is an academicy/tossy look at the ideology of Apple’s marketing
  • Gary Bainbridge’s column this week is quite funny, but packs a punch at the end. Identify a lot with the “not freaking people out when walking near them at night” thing
  • (And we’ve already reached the funny bits)
  • Another brilliant Tom Phillips media parody on the aftermath of Scottish independence*
  • There are a lot of vloggers I don’t mind (or there were, before they turned out to be sexual predators), but this is very funny, and very accurate. It also targets the youths and not my generation so that’s A+
  • Finally, an old one – a scientific look at whether it’d be better to fight a horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses.

And that’s it. 500 words this week, 1,000 a fortnight ago. All about the consistency, me.

Not sure how next couple of weeks will work, by the by. Sky have said they’ll come give me Internet in October, so I’ll probably just do all my internet in the pub and schedule posts or something, but if you don’t hear from me, wish me luck with the move and I’ll see you on the other side! xx

*I think that’s part of the problem – I’ve not shared any Scottish independence stuff. TBH, I have actually read some great stuff by “no” people, but I just. don’t. care. The news has been on in the house three times a day, as well as all the little Newsnights and whatever the fuck else there is on daytime telly, and I am just 100% done with referendum talk. On the bright side, I got away with skipping about five pages of The Economist this week because it was all referendum stuff, which is a relief, because I’m currently drowning in back issues.

HMS Prince of Wales: Refloated?

Not the HMS Prince of Wales. Artist’s impression of the HMS Queen Elizabeth via militaryphotos.net


Today, in the closing statement of the NATO Summit in Newport, Wales, British Prime Minister David Cameron, among other things, announced that the Queen-Elizabeth class aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, would not be mothballed after all, as had been suggested in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Under severe budgetary pressure, the incoming Conservative-led coalition* sought to scrap the second aircraft carrier entirely, but it was discovered that the contract they had inherited from their predecessors included clauses that made it more expensive to cancel it than to let it be built.

I wrote about the long and winding road to the ocean its sister ship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth has travelled, in one of my first pieces for NATO Council of Canada – you can find that here. A lot of the criticisms levelled at that process apply to the Prince of Wales, though I’m gutted I didn’t make any bold predictions as to its future back in July.

Now, the HMS Prince of Wales will enter service with the Royal Navy when it is complete, giving Britain continuous carrier strike capability**.

The statement was limited in details, so several questions remain – I’ll try and update this post when the government release more information.

UPDATE: Update the post I have, but it’s not for government information so much as Twitter information. A very informative conversation over there cleared up some doubts and confusions I had. I’ve flagged updated bits.

  1. Will the HMS Prince of Wales, as planned, be built with catapults and arrestors (CATOBAR***)? This sounds trivial, but it’s probably the most important question. The CATOBAR system, used on US and French aircraft carriers, would allow the Royal Navy to launch a variety of jets from its decks, including the F-35C. There had been plans to adapt the Queen Elizabeth to a CATOBAR system, but as costs mounted, these were cancelled (I explain it in slightly more depth in the above article). This leaves the carrier unable to fly anything other than Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) jets, which, for the foreseeable future, means the Lockheed Martin F-35B. If the Prince of Wales, as expected, goes with a CATOBAR system, not only would the Royal Navy have more strategic options, but the Ministry of Defence would have more procurement choices – there are a lot more options for fighter jets that can be launched by catapult than there are STOVL ones. EDIT: I may have gotten lost in the twists and (u-)turns of the carrier saga here. I had assumed HMS Prince of Wales was being designed from the ground-up with catapults and arrestors – turns out it’s subject to the same costly modifications that did for the Queen Elizabeth. So it looks pretty likely that it’ll be the exact same model as its sister ship.
  2. Following on from the previous question, and largely contingent on it – what will it fly? Will the government need to order more Joint Strike Fighters, or will it just spread the existing purchase across the two carriers (I suspect the latter, but you never know). EDIT: To be clear, there’s also, I think, a question of what to fly – if they have different launching systems, will they fly different planes? As was pointed out to me in that Twitter conversation, since the carriers are meant to be interchangeable (to ensure continuous availability), it would make most sense for them to have the same air wing, etc.
  3. Where will the money come from? The HMS Prince of Wales was to be mothballed to cut costs. While the government has promised that they have finished their defence cuts, and budgets are set to rise in the next few years, this is certainly a turnaround, and may require extra spending or cuts elsewhere in the armed forces.

This was a surprising announcement, but, generally, a positive one. There doesn’t seem to be much clearer a statement of British commitment to its own defence than ensuring the Royal Navy has the means to project power across the globe, all year round.

PS: In the ongoing tale of my descent into weird military fetishism this past year or so, getting excited over the announcement of a really expensive piece of military hardware may mark a nadir.

PPS: I mean technically I don’t even think the HMS Prince of Wales has been put together or even built, let alone ever floated but this was a far more exciting title than just “removed from hypothetical mothballing”

*these days, I keep forgetting the Lib Dems are even a thing

**with only one carrier, the need for maintenance, training, etc. would mean there would be stretches of time where the carrier was unavailable.

***the most conversational military acronym I think I’ve heard

31st of August: Final Stretch

In the UK at least, summer seems to have collapsed in on itself. Which can only mean I’m that much closer to moving into a flat and restarting some semblance of a life again, so with any luck, these posts will get a lot more streamlined. Until then, I’m still pinging across London multiple times a day, several days of week, with all the scope for consuming enormous amounts of reading. Without any further ado, then, let’s get stuck in.

Song of the week was my favourite revelation of last week’s VMAs – Usher and Nicki Minaj have done a song together, and it sounds like something that could have come off Confessions, which was lovely as I’ve kind of lost touch with Usher since then. NB: Going to be a Nicki-heavy week*. EDIT: There’s a real video! Excitement!


First up, NATO Council of Canada article this week involves neither Canada or NATO, but it is on procurement, so I just about stayed on-topic – I looked at Brazil’s military modernization programme.

Also, weekly reminder – I’m still sending this out in newsletter form every Sunday, hoping that it’ll eventually hit critical mass – you can subscribe here.

  • Lots on the Islamic State this week** A thought-provoking John Schindler essay (/polemic) on what he sees as the generational struggle against militant Islamists. IDK. Worth reading, possibly overblown.
  • A couple of good pieces looking more closely at IS – this one on the Britons going to join it, and this on its rise, relationship with Al-Qaeda, and future
  • Boris Johnson is a cretin.
  • Interesting discussion of why we respond so much more to IS’ violence than, for example, gang violence in Latin America, given their apparent similarities
  • Clear pushback on the emerging idea that we should side with Assad against IS
  • Great essay on the vacuum of power (but not a “why won’t Obama lead”) in the Middle East
  • Kind of terrifying article embedded with the Shia militias on the frontlines in Iraq
  • Important reminder from a while back that bombing Syria last year would have done fuck-all, and diplomacy has eliminated their chemical weapons
  • Investigation of the possible legal justifications for American airstrikes against IS in Syria
  • Another good Stephen Saideman piece on reforming NATO
  • First of the week’s New Yorker backlog clearout – long feature on Putin and the new anti-Americanism in Russia
  • Lot of talk of Obama’s foreign policy falling apart this week. A reminder that the low-hanging fruit is gone.
  • Hopi Sen continues his hot-streak in his first appearance this week, on the “Stop the World” coalition – I remember wanting to argue with something in this but not finding anything.
  • Second New Yorker is a feature on the Sri Lankan civil war. Hard reading, but nothing that’ll surprise anyone who watched the Channel 4 documentary (go watch that if you haven’t)
  • This profile of an abortion doctor in Mississippi is a great look at a wonderful man, that doesn’t lose sight of the fucked up conditions he is forced into
  • Couple of good pieces on the dangers of condescending reporting on the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa. This one, at the Atlantic, is heartbreaking (that ending – chills). This one, at the Monkey Cage (I know), more scholarly
  • Hugh Muir is excellent on the continuing horrors coming out of Rotherham and the shameless attempts to blame them on PC gone mad.
  • Thoughtful essay on admitting your white privilege
  • History of race riots in the USA, and growing more positively out of similar fuckery in the UK, a history of the Notting Hill Carnival
  • Harsh piece on war reporting today
  • Rather weirdly beautiful piece of writing on war through the eyes of the C-130 transport plane
  • Obviously this is a great blog on what all the horrid images shared on Twitter do to us, but I’m mostly sharing it because despite having consigned Thinking Fast and Slow to the “two-thirds read” pile***, I recognised the quote!
  • Fascinating account of the botched rescue of the Iranian embassy hostages
  • I may have linked to this before, but you should all be checking out Willard Foxton’s WW1 History Tumblr – based on a collection of contemporary magazines, he also shares little anecdotes or histories. Really interesting little tidbits every day.
  • Hopi Sen, again, on the need for a Spotify for news – I feel this.Even if money wasn’t a concern, the hassle is maddening – the Financial Times is pretty egregious in this regard.
  • Told you Nicki was going to feature heavily. These two posts that I found really helpful provide context to the brilliant Anaconda video– plenty overlap, but this one is a snappy Tumblr, and this one is a bit boilerplate feminist. Meanwhile, this by Emily Reynolds is just quite funny.
  • Now that Playboy have de-perved their website (mostly), can respectably link to them. This, on the whitewashing of hip-hop, is great.
  • Suspect time-lapse videos are going to be everywhere soon (Dad showed me the new Instagram app), but until then, this one of the Panama canal is quite incredible
  • IDK if I’m horrified or enticed by Arby’s Meat Mountain but this is a brilliant article
  • I defer to no man**** in my love for About a Boy/Bridget Jones Hugh, but this is funny.
  • As the start of the academic year approaches, this might be helpful to some of you.
  • Finally, Fuck this tortoise.

A long one, but there you go. Lots to be getting on with – see you in September! x

*I have some thoughts on Super Bass, which for some reason, I hadn’t heard before, and I have a platform so: 1) the aesthetic of this video is terrifyingly frenzied. Just that blinking in the first verse is disquieting 2) first time I heard it, I was immediately reminded of the soundtrack to Thomas Was Alone and this felt like a really good insight. Look!

**I’ve noticed that about half of these articles are still referring to ISIS. There are sound political reasons for this (not legitimising them as a state, chiefly) but I go with IS largely out of laziness and Twitter character limits.

***started it up again last night after writing this

****admittedly I probably don’t need to

17th of August: 5.7% My Own

This week hasn’t really been a great deal better, has it? A couple of times, I was almost scared to go to sleep, for fear that any number of the world’s ongoing crises would degenerate even further before I woke up. Even though this has been a week where we’ve seen Ukraine and Russia seem to have taken a step closer to open war, the Ebola virus continues its spread, and a Brazilian presidential candidate killed in a plane crash, the reading list is remarkably homogenous this week – about a third each on Ferguson, MO, and Iraq – hence the title.

Song of the week is by Ben L’Oncle Soul, one of the few French artists I left Ferney with any appreciation for, much to my embarrassment. Delightfully cool and swinging – you’ll wish you were in Paris by the second verse.

Due to weird scheduling, my NATO Council pieces have appeared throughout the week instead of their usual “five minutes after the reading list” posting. I wrote one about European Security and Defence Policy, and one quite International Relations theory one on NATO, Russia, and the Security Dilemma.

Given the reasonably even split this week, we’re going back to categories. Also, if you remember the old days, you’ll recognise the increasing sprawl of these posts as I find myself spending more and more time reading on trains. Sorry – working on it.

Iraq, Syria, and the Islamic State

  • Compelling argument in the Evening Standard (!!) against the calls to bog down British foreign policy in parliamentary consultation
  • Another brilliant Hopi Sen post (he’s on fire just as all his interventionists pals go from low to low) – the Pakistan comparison is something brilliant I’ve never considered
  • Deeply pessimistic take on the prospects for the American campaign against the IS
  • Interesting comparison of Syrian and Russian propaganda strategy
  • Very important pushback against the narrative taking hold that “if only we had DONE SOMETHING in Syria, the Islamic State wouldn’t have happened”, on arming the rebels in particular
  • Vox gets a lot of flak, but I’ve found them very helpful recently – meanwhile, this essay on the US’ diminished influence in the Middle East, meanwhile, is just quite interesting
  • Detailed look at British options for intervening against IS
  • Just as I was starting to warm to the idea of a Clinton presidency, she gave that interview and ugh.

Ferguson, Police Brutality, and Racism

  • It’s to my great shame that until I read this incredible piece on the issue, I hadn’t really thought about Michael’s Brown death as a separate and particular tragedy, either because I only became aware of it once the situation had escalated, or just because young black men being murdered feels like such a depressing regularity. Nevertheless, as Musa Okwonga argues, we can’t forget him.
  • Great report “From the Front Lines of Ferguson” – aptly titled. Another good one, at The New Yorker
  • Stinging critique of “broken windows” policing
  • Thought-provoking roundtable on police brutality
  • Powerful defence of “black anger”
  • It must be interesting being a writer of such calibre that people are desperate for you to return from holidays so you can weigh in on an issue. Ta-Nehisi Coates is that man.
  • Stephen Saideman draws out some interesting political theory ideas from the situation
  • Finally, bitterly funny.

Literally anything else

  • Sticking with the grim for a second – two interesting, overlapping pieces on international responses to Israel – one clarifying the French “ban” on pro-Gaza protests, and one on broader trends of anti-semitism
  • Important rebuttal of #notallmen
  • Explainer on Brazil’s imminent elections*
  • Number of interesting articles from defesanet.com.br, a cool Portuguese-language defence news site I found. On the peacekeeping mission in Haiti. On the Brazilian Armed Forces’ search for a role. On the politics of Brazilian arms imports.
  • Report from cracolândia
  • Feature on the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism policies in North Africa
  • Two mythbusters at War on the Rocks – on WW1, and on French military prowess during WWII
  • Cool walkthrough of the investigating process at Brown Moses’ new venture, bellingcat
  • Beautiful writing on coping with depression
  • Helpful advice on being a bit less of a dick – will try and bear it in mind this September
  • Finally, important for those of you (?) who have just received exam results, and the rest of us, who exist – how to be OK with failure.

Plenty for you to be getting on with, I reckon. Have a lovely week – let’s hope it turns it around a bit.

Also, weekly reminder, that if you’d rather, I send this out in newsletter form as soon as it gets wrote Saturday night. You can subscribe to that here.

*panic-inducingly soon actually

10th August: Binary Mood

I don’t know if this is just one of those confirmation bias things but I feel like the past few weeks have just been a bleak, bleak time to be human. The last awful headline barely has time to be fade before another horror arrives on the news. So I’m rejigging the structure a bit this week. The first half is pretty grim but, I hope, interesting as ever. Meanwhile, I’ve shoved anything mildly optimistic/light-hearted into the second half, regardless of topic. If you’ve read enough dire reports on the state of the world today, scroll straight down.

Song of the week  – Guns N’ Roses’ “Coma”. Had forgotten about it as I’m no longer 16 ( 😦 ) The last two or three minutes of this song are properly incredible – rest is good two but from the solo onwards it’s something else.


After some hiccups in the posting schedule, my latest-ish piece at NATO Council is up (hoping for a couple more to appear soon) – this one was on the United Kingdom procuring the F-35. It’s also the last of the little miniseries I was writing (in my mind) on British defence matters so that’s cool. Been playing with a concluding post to go up here, may arrive this week.

With that, let’s get the nastiness out of the way first

The Bad

  • So IS(IS/L) have been all over the headlines (and all up in US bombsights now) this weekend. This essay in the London Review of Books is properly depressing stuff – they look increasingly likely to be here to stay
  • I’m sure you’re all dying to know – the official stance here is cautiously in favour of the operations against IS announced this weekend. Then again what the fuck do I know I was pleased when UNSC1973 got passed and look at Libya now. Regardless this is a well-argued proposal at Foreign Policy for a proper disengagement by the USA from the Middle East.
  • I’ve spent the past few days sneering, sniping and generally being unpleasant about the various irritants who make up the British liberal interventionist segment of the media. So it’s only fair that I share with you this thoughtful, honest meditation by Hopi Sen, shining light among them, on the current state of Western foreign policy
  • Properly arming the Kiev government would be a bad idea right now
  • Vladimir Putin seems a bit of a tragic figure, aside from all the nastiness. But what if sanctions do force him out of power?
  • Bringing research and scholarship to bear on the ongoing problem of creating a lasting ceasefire in Gaza
  • The fact that the Ebola serum has only been used on two white Americans while Africans die by the hundred looks bad – but it’s more complicated than that
  • This is a powerful, upsetting read about a young reporter’s first night in Kiev. Dispiriting but important. TW for sexual assault.

Ugh. All-round unpleasant.

But look.

  • First up, Daniel Woodburn presents a more optimistic look at ISIS’ prospects*
  • Intriguing proposal to end the violence in Ukraine from Dan Drezner
  • Slight, but fascinatingly futuristic idea for humanitarian relief
  • Realistic proposals for positive change in the DRC? :O
  • A reminder that there are no nuclear weapons in South America – that’s nice. Interesting look at why that is.
  • Hesitated on where to put this, as it’s bittersweet, but a lovely profile of one of the women involved in the Supreme Court case against the Defence of Marriage Act.
  • The New Statesman has a tendency to publish pretty irritating stuff on feminism**, but this brilliant (long) essay on trans people and radical feminism kind of makes up for it
  • Was only vaguely aware of this – amid the commemorations of the soldiers, Paul Mason argues the First World War was brought to an end by workers’ movements
  • CityMetric is an interesting project. This is cool on the definition of a city, and this is encouraging on the urban revolution.
  • Speaking of cities: very fun account by Clive Martin of a pub crawl through the worst of gentrifying London dickery. Surprisingly even-handed. While most of my trips into Central London make me pray for the day all its wanky boutiques, pop-ups, craft beer and fancy coffee houses disappear from the face of the Earth, this sort of piece makes me wonder if I shouldn’t give it a chance while I’m still here.
  • Great interview with the wonderful Christina Hendricks
  • Been reading a lot of The Debrief this week (you should too) – enjoyed this on the mad reactions to J-Law’s breakup, and not just because her dating that annoying kid out of About a Boy was annoying
  • Liked this by Daisy Buchanan – just eight years to go till I hit my peak, apparently
  • Really want to play Far Cry 3 again after reading this great piece
  • I identify deeply with this Buzzfeed.
  • My hero.

Also, I wanted to do a Kanye-eyeroll here but can’t be arsed, but can we just take a moment to note that on Thursday morning Dan Hodges wrote a weasel wordy, incoherent, ignorant column decrying the paralysis and cowardice of the non-interventionism that dominates Western policy and literally like twelve hours later, Obama was authorising airstrikes on ISIS (just in time to spare us a tedious Nick Cohen column on the topic, I hope). Beautiful.

Long’un this week. Whoops. We’re done. Enjoy the week as best you can guys. This too shall pass, maybe? IDK.

As ever, if receiving this thing to your email inbox late Saturday night instead of seeking it out yourselves during Sunday appeals to you, I’ve started a newsletter which you can subscribe to ->here<-

*optimistic for us, not them, obv.

**which I’m loathe to really criticise because I’m a bloke but.

13th of July: They Think It’s All Over

And, mercifully, it almost is. It’s been a wonderful Cup but I’m ready for the footballing humiliation to end and the irritating coverage of Brazil to go away. That means it’s the last of the Brazilian choices. To suit the mood, the beautiful “Tive Razao” by Seu Jorge. Come for the effortlessly cool video, avoid weeping over the Brazil team’s goal difference in the last two games, and stay for Jorge’s gorgeous voice.

With that, off we go. One thing: I forgot how publishing works when it’s not just me alone in my room pressing “post”, so the next NATO Council piece will actually be up this week, maybe.

  • Somewhat reassuring look at how the USA will retain the capacity to deter Chinese expansion until domestic factors make China less of a threat
  • Then again, with the continuing absurdity that is the F-35 program, maybe the optimism is misplaced…
  • Analysis of the different possible motivations and strategies behind IS(IS?)’s violence
  • Great piece for the IR nerds by Adam Elkus on the “state of the state”. His “ISIS as Jay Gatsby” analogy is my favourite thing
  • Consideration of the pro-Russian narrative in Ukraine on Kiev’s atrocities
  • Bit glib, but within this comic there’s a really interesting story of the AU peacekeeping mission in Sudan
  • Charlie’s blog is really hitting its stride – I’m actually starting to get the hang of the complexity economics thing he keeps going on about
  • I snark enough about reporting on Brazil here, so only fair to highlight – this is a good piece on the World Cup serving as an introduction to Brazil for the world and vice versa*, this is a sweet piece on kids who won tickets to the final (Charlie Bucket eat your heart out), and this is both snark on crappy reporting and a nice look at Brazilian’s reaction to the Mineiraço
  • 😦 **
  • While it is all a bit obvious, this is a useful reminder that everything is fucked in case you’re also struggling to find a job and hating everything – it’s not all your fault***
  • Brilliant little Civil War story
  • Occasionally I think I might stop dodging the draft and go and do my Brazilian military service. This piece, on Royal Marine Commando training, was a nice deterrent. It’s also interesting to note how sophisticated it all seems compared to the “Curahee” episode of Band of Brothers
  • The Emmy nominations were this week, and I saw a lot of “OMG why didn’t X get a nod” stuff circulating. This is a good Voxplainer on the process behind the awards that goes some way to explaining all the anomalies, like Jon Hamm not winning all the awards ever.
  • I like Mindy Kaling a lot, The Mindy Project a lot less, but it’s great that it exists as a show if it inspires these sorts of conversations. Article itself is a bit flabby – it’s one of those Buzzfeed “roundtables” that gets too rambly. A lot of interesting stuff about second-generation immigrant alienation, among other things.
  • This is stunning – behind-the-scenes footage of the VFX work on Game of Thrones work
  • Looks like this could be an interesting series on Lana del Rey. Could also be tossy and dull of course, because it’s the New Inquiry, so one to watch
  • Super exciting news about a republication of The Sun Also Rises, along with a lovely collection of all the covers through the years

Finally, it’s back. I’m trying to be a more positive, professional voice here, but I made the mistake of reading this and ugh. I should have known better – king of the smug interventionists John Rentoul linked to it on Twitter, and the title itself is a warning as to just how smug it’ll get, but god. In response to all the sneering, let’s just take a whistle-stop tour through all the problems with it; massive public opposition to further intervention in the Middle East is dismissed as “cheap campaign promises”; the Iraqi government’s agency in refusing to sign the Status of Forces Agreement is dismissed in favour of scoring cheap shots at Obama; “an attempted détente” with Iran is pitched as a bad thing; the excellent Daniel Drezner is smeared as “one of the administration’s “realist” apologists”…. I mean I could go on, this is just me scrolling through and letting the irritation take me. There is only one thing left to say:


Enjoy the final tonight, and have a lovely week, guys xx


*of course if the introduction happens via shitty sensationalising and “oooh how exotic” reporting then….

**unless if you’re spending most of your day playing Skyrim and Crusader Kings… then it’s kind of your fault

***this is a link, in case it isn’t clear

on Reforms to the British Military

on Reforms to the British Military

The second half of my piece on NATO Council of Canada went up. In my head the second half was more substantial than this. 

Still, very proud of the whole thing and, again honoured and grateful to have been given the opportunity and the platform to ramble on like that. I assume the world’s militaries, governments, newspapers and just general organisations will be scrambling to hire me now.




on Threats to the United Kingdom

on Threats to the United Kingdom

Given my frequent scorn here and in Twitter for the state of foreign policy discourse in the UK, figured it was time I at least tried to contribute. I’m very grateful to have been given the chance to contribute to NATO Council Canada and hopefully you’ll all go read this so they ask me back. Quite proud of how this, and the second part turned out.

Either way, planning to return to this topic over the summer in more depth, starting with a proper look at the 2010 Strategic Defence Review.

Finest Hour

Currently reading: All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings, a history of the Second World War*

Currently watching: The World at War, a documentary series about the Second World War

Currently playing: Company of Heroes, a real-time strategy game set in…  the Second World War

Probably a bit unhealthy, this. The Second World War has always exerted a strange fascination on me. I remember a BBC dramatization of, I think, the Battle for France, but only one scene: the commanding officer of a group of captured British soldiers goes out of the shed they are being held in to ask their captors for water. The camera watches from inside the shed as he is shot at point-blank range, and then the rest of the prisoners are machine-gunned. I was horrified by the cruelty of it all. Later, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the media was full of features about it, and again, I was horrified – horrified, and humbled – by the sacrifice, by the gruesome stories of soldiers joining comrades on the beach only to find that they were actually dismembered corpses. That memory has stuck with me to the extent that I am now incredulous when I see how few lives, relatively, were lost on the beaches of Normandy – it simply doesn’t fit my childhood image of all-encompassing horror.

In a previous post, I suggested this horror was one element of what makes the Second World War so compelling. Upon reading that on average, 27,000 people died every day from 1939 to 1945, you can’t help putting things in perspective. While military history as self-help might seem at best absurd, at worst a bit exploitative, I genuinely do believe there is a lot to be learnt from the experiences of those who lived through the war. For example, coming off the back of reading a lot of Camus and Voltaire, this quote from Max Hastings’ Bomber Command:

“‘Strangely, for everyone, the acceptance and the giving-up of hope create and reinstil hope in a kind of reverse-process mental photonegative function. Little things become significant. The next meal, the next bottle of booze, the next kiss, the next sunrise, the next full moon. The next bath. Or as the Bible might have said, but didn’t quite, Sufficient unto the day is the existence thereof.’ […] ‘To be allowed to continue to live – nothing else mattered.’”

is just splendid. **

To my mind, what is consistently fascinating about the Second World War, more, perhaps, than any other period in history, is the sheer scale of everything. Not just the number of casualties, which isn’t so much an element of interest as the sobering fact underpinning it all. Nor is it just the scale of the military forces involved, the production efforts  (in 1943, the Soviet Union built 43 T-34 tanks every day), the material devastation. That may be by turns awe-inspiring and sobering, there’s something more.

At every turn when studying WW2, one is confronted by humanity pushed to extremes; political extremes, obviously, but also the extremes of cruelty and kindness, heroism and cowardice, incredible ingenuity and stunning blunders. Nothing seems half-hearted – while this may just be an consequence of writers of popular histories only quoting the best material, that they have such rich material to draw upon is telling.

These extremes were reproduced again and again across the world. Every front in the conflict has its own story to tell, and each of those stories is the story of hundreds, thousands of lives – for the most part, ordinary lives. At first glance, that whole history books have been written on the battle for one tiny Mediterranean island seems mad, but maybe that explains the enduring fascination with the period – sixty-seven years on, we haven’t run out of stories to tell.


*I had set out to make this a review of All Hell Let Loose. It clearly isn’t. It’s a very good book, if you’re interested in WW2, go for it.

**incidentally, I’ve just started readingsome Ernest Hemingway, and was reminded of the following quote from For Whom The Bell Tolls:

““There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life. A good life is not measured by any biblical span.”” 

Review: Bomber Command ~ Max Hastings


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.