The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010)

This was the first war in history in which public opinion played so crucial a role. (p.304)

This a brilliant book, a really masterful account of the Crimean War, a book I reread whole sections of and didn’t want to end. It covers the military campaigns (along the Danube, in Crimea) and battles (at the Alma river, Balaklava, Inkerman) competently enough, maybe with not quite the same dash as the Crimea section of Saul David’s Victoria’s Wars – but where it really scores is in the depth and thoroughness and sophistication of Figes’ analysis of the political and cultural forces which led to the war in the first place and then shaped its course – his examination of the conflict’s deep historical roots and in its long lasting influence.

Thus the first 130 pages (of this 490-page text) deal with the background and build-up to conflict, and drill down into the issues, concerns, plans and fantasies of all the main players. Not just the British (though it is a British book by a British historian) but a similar amount of space is devoted to the Russian side (Figes is a world-leading expert on Russian history), as well as the situation and motives of the French and the Ottoman Turks, with insights into the position of the Austrian and Prussian empires.

The Holy Places

The trigger for the war has always struck anyone who studied it as ridiculously silly: it concerned the conflict about who should have control of the ‘Holy Places’ in Jerusalem, the Catholic church (championed by France) or the Orthodox church (championed by Russia). (Who could have guessed that the acrimonious theological dispute about the meaning of the word filioque which split the two churches in the 11th century would lead to half a million men dying in miserable squalor 800 years later.)

To recap: the life and preaching and death of Jesus took place in Palestine; by the time of the Emperor Constantine (c.320), Roman Christians had supposedly tracked down the very barn Jesus was born in, at Bethlehem, and the precise site of the crucifixion in Jerusalem – and begun to build chapels over them.  By the 1800s there were well-established Churches of the Nativity (at Bethlehem) and of the Holy Sepulchre (in Jerusalem) with attendant monasteries, chapels and so on stuffed with Christian priests and monks of all denominations.

The situation was complicated by two factors. 1. In the 700s the Muslim Arabs stormed out of Arabia and by the 900s had conquered the Middle East and the North African coast. The Muslim world underwent a number of changes of leadership in the ensuing centuries, but from the 1300s onwards was ruled by the Ottoman dynasty of Turkish origin. The Ottoman Empire is alleged to have reached its military and cultural peak in the late 1500s/early 1600s. By the 1800s it was in obvious decline, culturally, economically and militarily. Many of the ‘countries’ or ‘nationalities’ it ruled over were restive for independence, from the Egyptians in the south, to the Christian ‘nations’ of Greece and Serbia in the Balkans.

What Figes’ account brings out in fascinating detail is the extent to which the Russian Empire, the Russian state, Russian culture, Russian writers and poets and aristocrats, academics and military leaders, were all drenched in the idea that their entire Christian culture owed its existence to Constantinople. The founding moment in Russia’s history is when missionaries from Greek Orthodox Byzantium converted the pagan ‘Rus’ who inhabited Kiev to Christianity in the 9th century. This newly-Christian people went on to form the core of the ‘Russians’, a people which slowly extended their empire to the Baltic in the North, the Black Sea in the south, and right across the vast territory of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean.

In a really profound way, which Figes’ book brings out by quoting the writings of its poets and philosophers and academics and Christian leaders, Russia saw itself as the Third Rome – third in order after the original Christian Rome and the ‘Second Rome’ of Constantinople – and felt it had a burning religious duty to liberate Constantinople from the infidel Turks (Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, being of course the capital of the Ottoman Empire). It is fascinating to read about, and read quotes from, this broad spectrum of Russian nationalist writers, who all agreed that once they’d kicked the Turks out of Europe they would rename Istanbul ‘Tsargrad’.

Alongside the deep and varied rhetoric calling for a ‘Holy War’ against the infidel Turks was the linked idea of the union of all the Slavic peoples. Russians are Slavs and felt a deep brotherly feeling for the Slavic peoples living under Ottoman rule – in present-day Serbia and Bulgaria in particular. The same kind of Russian intelligentsia which wrote poems and songs and pamphlets and sermons about liberating Constantinople, and – in extreme versions – going on to liberate the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, also fantasised about a great pan-Slavic uprising to overthrow the shackles of the infidel Turk, and uniting the great Slavic peoples in an Empire which would stretch from the Adriatic to the Pacific.

Intoxicating stuff, and this is where Figes is at his tip-top best, taking you deep deep inside the mind-set of the Russian educated classes and leadership, helping you to see it and understand it and sympathise with it.

The only snag with this grand Russian vision was the unfortunate fact that there is such a thing as Catholic Christianity, and that a number of the ‘nations’ of the Balkans were not in fact either Slavs or Orthodox Christians – e.g. the Catholic Romanians. In fact, there was a lot of animosity between the two distinct versions of Christianity, with the Catholics, in particular, looking down on the Orthodox for what they regarded as their more primitive and pagan practices.

The simmering conflict between the two came to a head at the two churches mentioned above, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The churches had become rabbit warrens themselves, with holy grottoes underneath and vestries and side chapels sprouting onto them, with both Orthodox and Catholics clerics building monasteries and so on in the immediate vicinity and claiming complete access and ownership to the sites.

The Ottoman Turks had done their best to resolve disputes between the squabbling Christians and there had even been a succession of treaties in the 1700s which laid down the precise access rights of each Christian sect. But when the silver star embedded in the floor of the Church of the Nativity by the Catholics was dug up and stolen in 1847 the ‘dishonour’ was so great that the new ruler of Catholic France became involved, demanding that the Ottomans cede the French complete control of the Holy Sites to ensure there wasn’t a repetition of the sacrilege.

In that same year, the religiously significant silver star was stolen that had been displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity. In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But near Christmas of 1852, Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the “sovereign authority” in the Holy Land, which the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century. The Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, but the Russian Empire disputed the change in “authority,” citing two treaties—one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca)—and deployed armies to the Danube area. (Wikipedia)

Egged on by the pan-Slav and religious zealots in his court, Tsar Nicholas I saw the opportunity to teach the Ottomans a lesson, to reassert Orthodox authority over the Holy Places, to spark the long-awaited Slavic uprising in the Balkans and to extend Russian power to the Mediterranean. Hooray! In May 1853 Russian forces moved into the two principalities which formed the border between Russia and the Ottoman Empire – the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, ‘Danubian’ because the river Danube ran through them. The Ottomans moved armies up to face them, and the war was on!

Politics in depth

What sets Figes’ account apart is the thoroughness with which he explains the conflicting political and cultural pressures within each of the countries which then got drawn into this conflict.

France, for example, had recently been through a revolution, in 1848, which had eventually been crushed but did manage to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy and usher in the Second Republic. To people’s surprise the man who managed to get elected President of the Republic was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoléon’s presidential term expired in 1851, he first organised a coup d’état in that year, and then the following year, reclaimed the imperial throne, as Napoleon III, on 2 December 1852. At which point the Second Republic changed its name to the Second Empire. (19th century French history is a hilarious farce of revolutions, coups, republics and empires, each one more incompetent than the last. Mind you, 20th century French history isn’t much better – between 1946 and 1958 the French Fourth Republic had 22 Prime Ministers!)

But that’s not the interesting stuff, that’s just the basic factual information: the interest Figes brings to his account is his analysis of the various political pressures which the new president found himself under from within France. Obviously the Catholic Right and many actual churchmen were calling for action to defend the rights of Catholics in the Holy Places; but there was a large left-wing grouping in France whose hopes had been crushed by in the 1848 revolution. Napoleon realised that he could reconcile these opposing factions by depicting war against Russia as a pro-Catholic crusade to the Church and as a setback to the autocratic Tsarist regime – which was widely seen on the Left as the most repressive and reactionary regime in Europe. On top of which a glorious French victory would of course cover secure his place as successor to his famous uncle.

Polish liberation was a big cause in France. It wasn’t so long since 1830 when Polish nationalists had risen up to try and throw off Russian control of their country. The rebellion was brutally put down and Tsar Nicholas I (the same Tsar who launched the Crimean offensive 20 years later) had decreed that Poland would henceforward be an integral part of Russia, with Warsaw reduced to a military garrison, its university and other cultural activities shut down.

A stream of Polish intellectuals and aristocrats had fled west, many of them settling in France where they set up presses, publishing newspapers, pamphlets, books and poems and establishing networks of lobbyists and contacts. Figes investigates the writers and activists who made up this Polish lobby, specifically Prince Adam Czartoryski, and explains how they went about demonising Russia (and you can understand why), losing no opportunity to exaggerate Russia’s threatening intentions and, of course, lobbying for the liberation of Poland. Figes is excellent at showing how the Polish activists’ influence extended into both British and French ministries and military hierarchies.

But this was just one of the many forces at work across Europe. All the way through his account of the war, which lasted two and a half years, the constellation of forces at work in France shifted and changed as public opinion evolved from feverish support of a war against the Russian aggressor to increasing war-weariness. It is absolutely fascinating to read how Napoleon III tried to manage and ride the changing positions of all these factions, the vociferous press, and fickle public opinion.

And the same goes for Britain. In the 1830s and 40s conflicts in the Middle East – not least the rebellion of Mehmet Ali, pasha of Egypt, who rebelled against his Ottoman masters and demanded independence under his personal rule for Egypt and Syria – had forced the British to realise that, corrupt and collapsing though it may be, it was better to have a weak Ottoman Empire imposing some order, rather than no Ottoman Empire and complete chaos over such a huge and crucial region.

Thus the French and British governments, though perennially suspicious of each other, agreed that they had to prop up what became known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Again where Figes excels is by going much much deeper than standard accounts, to show the extent of the ‘Russophobia’ in British politics and culture, identifying the writers and diplomats who showed a fondness for Turkish and Muslim culture, explaining how British diplomats, the Foreign Office, and the cabinet staked their hopes on British-led reforms of Turkey’s laws and institutions.

Figes presents not a monolithic slab called ‘Britain’, but a complex country made up of all kinds of conflicting interests and voices. For example, it’s fascinating to learn that the British had the most varied, free and well-distributed press in the world. A side-effect of the railway mania of the 1840s had been that newspapers could now be distributed nationally on a daily basis. The prosperous middle classes in Bradford or Bristol could wake up to the same edition of The Times as opinion leaders in London.

This led to the first real creation of an informed ‘public opinion’, and to a huge increase in the power of the press. And Figes is fascinating in his depiction of the robust pro-war politician Lord Palmerston as the first ‘modern’ politician in that he grasped how he could use the press and public opinion to outflank his opponents within the British cabinet. Thus the British Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, was against war and supported the moderate Four Points which a peace conference held in Vienna suggested be put to the Russians. But Palmerston, as Foreign Secretary, had a much grander, much more aggressive vision of attacking Russia on all fronts – in the Baltic, Poland, the Balkans, the Crimea and in the Caucasus.

Figes’ account goes into great detail about these other little-known fronts in the war – for example the repeated efforts by the British to storm the Russian naval port of Kronstadt on the Baltic, with a view to ultimately marching on St Petersburg! (The successive British admirals sent out to size up the plan consistently declared it impossible pp.337-339.) Or the plan to foment a Muslim Holy War amongst the tribes of the Caucasus, who would be levied under the leadership of the charismatic leader Imam Shamil and directed to attack the Russians. In the event there were several battles between Turks and Russians in the Caucasus, but Palmerston’s Holy War plan was never implemented (pp.336-337)

The summary above is designed to give just a taste of the complexity and sophistication of Figes’ analysis, not so much of the actual events which took place – plenty of other histories do that – but of the amazingly complex kaleidoscope of political forces swirling in each of the combatant countries, of the various leaders’ attempts to control and channel them, and of the scores of alternative plans, alternative visions, alternative histories, which the leaders were considering and which could so nearly have taken place.

Being taken into the subject in such detail prompts all kinds of thoughts, big and small.

One is that history is a kind of wreck or skeleton of what is left when leaders’ grand plans are put into effect and come up against harsh reality. History is the sad carcass of actual human actions left over when the glorious dreams of night time meet the harsh reality of day.

The Tsar dreamed of liberating the Balkans, creating a great pan-Slavic confederacy and throwing the Turks completely out of Europe, liberating Istanbul to become the centre of a reinvigorated empire of Orthodox Christianity.

The Polish agitators dreamed of throwing off the Russian yoke and creating a free united independent Poland.

Napoleon III dreamed of establishing French supremacy over a weakened Ottoman Empire, thus consolidating his reputation at home.

Palmerston dreamed of a grand alliance of all the nations of Europe – Sweden in the Baltic, France and Prussia in the centre, Austria in the Balkans, allied with the Turks and Muslim tribesmen in the Caucasus to push back the borders of the Russian Empire a hundred years.

Figes is just as thorough in his analysis of the forces at work in the Ottoman Empire, which I haven’t mentioned so far. The Ottoman Emperor also struggled to contain domestic opinion, in his case continual pressure from Muslim clerics, imams and muftis, and from a large section of educated opinion, who all dreamed of an end to the ‘humiliation’ of the Muslim world by the West, who dreamed of a ‘Holy War’ to repel the Russians and restore Muslim power and dignity.

All these shiny dreams of glory, honour, liberation and holy war ended up as battlefields strewn with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of men blown up, eviscerated, decapitated, butchered, bayoneted, as well as plenty of civilian women and children raped and murdered – all rotting in the blood-soaked soil of the Crimea, the Danube, the Caucasus.

No matter what glorious rhetoric wars start off with, this is how they always end up. In rotting human bodies.

Figes brilliantly shows how, as reality began to bite, the various leaders struggled to control the rising tides of disillusionment and anger: Napoleon III deeply anxious that failure in the war would lead to another French revolution and his overthrow; the Tsar struggling to contain the wilder pan-Slavic fantasies of many of his churchmen and court officials on the one hand and a steady stream of serf and peasant rebellions against conscription, on the other; and, strikingly, the Ottoman Emperor (and his British advisors) really worried that unless he acted aggressively against the Russians, he would be overthrown by an Islamic fundamentalist revolution.

In standard histories, the various nations are often treated as solid blocks – Britain did this, France wanted that. By spending over a quarter of his book on an in-depth analysis of the long cultural, historical, religious, technological and social roots of the conflict, Figes gives us a vastly more deep and sophisticated understanding of this war, and of the deeper social and historical trends of the time.

Relevance

Many of which, of course, endure into our time.

Why read history, particularly a history of a forgotten old war like this? Because it really does shed light on the present. In a number of ways:

1. The area once ruled by the Ottoman Empire is still desperately unstable and racked by conflict – civil war in Libya, military repression in Egypt, chaos in northern Iraq, civil war in Syria. Almost all Muslim opinion in all of these regions wants to restore Muslim pride and dignity, and, whatever their factional interests, are united in opposing meddling by the West. And it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were living through the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, in lands where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians were raping and murdering each other.

2. In other words, the religious and cultural forces which lay behind the Crimean War still dominate the region and still underpin modern conflicts. Again and again, one of Figes’ quotes from the pan-Slavic visions of the Russians or the Muslim doctrine of Holy War read exactly like what we read in the newspapers and hear on the radio today, in 2017. After all it was only as recently as March 2014 that Russia annexed the Crimea, an act most UN member states still consider an act of illegal aggression, and the Foreign Office consequently advises against any foreign travel to the Crimea.

165 years after the events analysed so brilliantly in this book, Crimea once again has the potential to become a flashpoint in a wider war between East and West.

What could be more relevant and necessary to understand?

3. And the book continually stimulates reflection not just about the possible causes of war, but about how national and religious cultures have eerily endured down to the present day. Figes paints a fascinating portrait of the fundamentally different social and political cultures of each of the belligerent countries – I was particularly struck by the contrast between the essentially open society informed by an entirely free press of Britain, as against the totalitarian closed society of Russia, which had only a handful of state-controlled newspapers which never criticised the government, and where a secret police could cart people off to prison and torture if they were overheard, even in private conversations, to utter any criticism of the tsar or the army. 160 years later Britain is still a raucously open society whereas journalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a risky occupation and open opposition to the President has landed many of his opponents in gaol, or worse. Plus ca change… Also, it becomes quite depressing reading the scores and scores of references to Muslim leaders, mullahs, muftis and so on, insistently calling on the Sultan to put an end to Western interference, to declare a Holy War on the Western infidels, to attack and punish the Christians. Again, almost every day brings fresh calls from Al Qaeda or the Taliban or ISIS to defeat the infidel West. How long, how very, very long, these bitter hatreds have endured.

4. And the book offers another, more general level of insight – which is into the types of political pressure which all leaders find themselves under. The leaders of all the belligerent nations, as described above, found themselves trying to manage and control the often extreme opinion of their publics or churches or courts or advisors. How they did so, where they gave in, where they stood firm, and with what results, are object lessons modern politicians could still profitably study, and which give fascinating insight to us non-politicians into the sheer difficulty and complexity of trying to manage a big modern industrialised country, let alone a modern war.

The Crimean War was a shameful shambles for nearly all the participants. This book not only describes the squalor and suffering, the disease and dirt, the agonising deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in a pointless and stupid conflict – it sheds fascinating light on how such conflicts come about, why they are sometimes so difficult to avoid and almost impossible to control, and why sequences of decisions which each individually may seem rational and reasonable, can eventually lead to disaster.

This is a really outstanding work of history.


Memorable insights

The trenches The Siege of Sevastopol lasted from September 1854 until September 1855. Criminally, the British were completely unprepared for winter conditions in Russia (like Napoleon, like Hitler) resulting in tens of thousands of British soldiers living in pitifully inadequate tents, with no warm clothing, amid seas of mud and slush, so that thousands died of frostbite, gangrene and disease. In an eerie anticipation of the Great War both sides created elaborate trench systems and settled into a routine of shelling and counter-shelling. In between times there were pre-arranged truces to bury the dead, during which the opposing armies fraternised, swapped fags and booze and even toasted each other. In this element of prolonged and frustrating trench warfare,

this was the first modern war, a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War. (p.373)

Alcohol 5,500 British soldiers, about an eighth of the entire army in the field, were court-martialled for drunkenness. It was rampant. Some soldiers were continually drunk for the entire 11-month siege.

Disease As usual for all pre-modern wars, disease killed far more than weapons. For example, in January 1855 alone, 10% of the British army in the East died of disease. Died. Cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases, combined with gangrene and infection from wounds, and frostbite during the bitter winter of 1854-55. Figes has a splendid few pages on Florence Nightingale, the tough martinet who tried to reorganise the wretched hospital facilities at Scutari, on the south side of the Black Sea. I was staggered to read that the Royal Inquiry, sent out in 1855 to enquire why so many soldiers were dying like flies, despite Nightingale’s intentions, discovered that the hospital barracks was built over a cesspit which regularly overflowed into the drinking water. As Figes damningly concludes, the British wounded would have stood a better chance of survival in any peasant’s hut in any Turkish village than in the official British ‘hospital’.

Nikolai Pirogov Figes goes into some detail about Florence Nightingale (fascinating character) and also Mary Seacole, who is now a heroine of the annual Black History Month. But Figes brings to light some other heroes of the 11-month long siege of Sevastapol, not least the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov. Pirogov arrived in Sevastapol to find chaos and squalor in the main hospital, himself and the other doctors operating on whoever was put in front of them by harassed orderlies and nurses, as the allies’ continual bombardment produced wave after wave of mangled bodies. Finally it dawned on Pirogov that he had to impose some kind of order and developed the  system of placing the injured in three categories: the seriously injured who needed help and could be saved were operated on as soon as possible; the lightly wounded were given a number and told to wait in the nearby barracks (thus not cluttering the hospital); those who could not be saved were taken to a rest home to be cared for by nurses and priests till they died (pp.295-298). He had invented the triage system of field surgery which is used in all armies to this day.

Irish A third of the British army consisted of Catholic Irish. This surprising fact is explained when you learn that the army was recruited from the poorest of the urban and rural poor, and the poorest rural poor in the British Isles were the Irish.

The camera always lies The Crimean War is famous as seeing the ground breaking war reporting of Russell of The Times and some of the earliest photographs of war, by the pioneer Roger Fenton. However, Figes points out that the wet process of photography Fenton employed required his subjects to pose stationary for 20 seconds or more. Which explains why there are no photographs of any kind of fighting. He goes on to explain how Fenton posed many of his shots, including one claiming to be of soldiers wearing thick winter wear – which was in fact taken in sweltering spring weather – and his most famous photo, of the so-called Valley of Death after the Light Brigade charged down it into the Russian guns – in which Fenton carefully rearranged the cannonballs to create a more artistic effect.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

This reminded me of the account of Felice Beato I read in Robert Bickers’ The Scramble for China. Beato was an Italian–British photographer, one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers. Beato was allowed into the Chinese forts at Taku after the British had captured them in 1860 towards the climax of the Second Opium War and – he also arranged the bodies to create a more pleasing aesthetic and emotional effect.

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato


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Syria: A Conflict Explored @ the Imperial War Museum

As part of its centenary the IWM is launching a new exhibition strand called Conflict Now to explore current conflicts around the world, seen through the eyes of artists, photographers, refugees, citizen journalists, war correspondents and so on.

Syria: A conflict explored

The first of these is Syria: A Conflict Explored which will comprise a series of exhibitions and events addressing the ongoing Syrian civil war and will include events, seminars, discussions etc over the show’s run (until September 2017). The main element consists of two free installations in gallery 2 and gallery 4 on the 3rd floor of the museum.

Damascus, Syria, 24 August 2013 © Sergey Ponomarev

Damascus, Syria, 24 August 2013 © Sergey Ponomarev

Gallery 4 – Syria: Story of a Conflict

In gallery 4 is a small display exploring the origins and impact of the war. It consists of three elements:

1. Half a dozen or so artifacts including:

  • a lifejacket from a boatful of refugees from the war;
  • newspaper headlines in a British and American paper, referring specifically to the beheading by ISIS of British and American citizens
  • a mug and a plate with the images of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad next to Russian President Putin
  • cartoons by Ali Ferzat, a well-known political cartoonist in Syria until he over-stepped the mark by depicting members of the government, and was beaten up one dark night in Damascus and had his hands shattered… at which point he realised it was time to leave the country
  • one of the characteristic white helmets worn by the Syrian Civil Defence, the people who clear up after the bombings and shooting
  • a replica of a barrel bomb i.e. a metal barrel packed with explosives, petrol and scrap metal, onto which are nailed some crude fins so that it can be fired from a primitive mortar at ‘the enemy’

2. An eight-minute video giving a timeline of the war, how it developed from some acts of graffiti by dissident school kids in 2011 who were subsequently arrested and beaten which sparked protests against the regime.

Homs, Syria, 14 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 14 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

The region known as Syria was part of the huge Ottoman Empire for centuries. With the collapse of that Empire and the creation of modern Turkey, the victorious Allies (France and Britain) inherited control of the Middle East and laid out borders which endure to this day, more or less. While Britain took control of Iraq and the Gulf States, France took colonial possession of Lebanon and Syria. In fact, Syria was under French rule for only 25 years, from 1920 to 1945, when, in the aftermath of World War Two, it was given independence.

Syria’s subsequent history has been marked by a bewildering series of military coups (1961, 1963, 1966, 1970) until power was seized by Air Force colonel and one-time Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad. Assad instituted an Arab Nationalist dictatorship over a country mostly populated by Sunni Muslims but with a significant number of minorities – Kurds, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Mandeans, Shiites, Salafis, and Yazidis.

In fact al-Assad was himself an Alawite (a heretical form of Shia Islam) and packed his government with colleagues from this sect – which was just one cause of resentment against his long oppressive rule. When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, he was succeeded by his son, Bashar, educated as an eye surgeon in the West, and who commentators – ever over-optimistic about the Middle East – thought would relax the state regime and help Syria transition to a modern democracy.

Whatever hope there was of that was crushed when Bashar was forced to choose whether to let the ‘Arab Spring’ protests of 2011 continue or crack down on them: the same dilemma faced by numerous dictatorial regimes in the past generation – Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and Li Peng’s China and Honecker’s East Germany in 1989. Possibly prompted by those around him, by the survivors of his father’s dictatorship who had so very much to lose, he decided to crack down – and the rest is history.

As the government used increasing violence to repress the protests, the protestors took up arms, dissident military units turned against the government, America and NATO refused to be drawn in and supply heavy weapons to the rebels (on the reasonable grounds that these might well end up in the hands of anti-western Islamist forces), while the opposition forces fragmented into up to a thousand different militias, among which – predictably enough – hard-line Islamist forces emerged. Combined with President Obama’s strategy of withdrawing US troops from Iraq, a vacuum of anarchy opened up in northern Iraq and eastern Syria into which surged the new, super-violent ISIS militia.

While chaos spread across the country, the Kurds in northern Syria – just like the Kurds in northern Iraq – tried to declare independence and secede, as their forebears have been trying to do ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. As usual, the Kurds turned out to be the most disciplined and unified fighting force in the country, particularly effective against the Islamist fanatics, and the West and America accordingly gave them practical help.

But this outraged Turkey, nominally a member of NATO and Western ally, but which has been fighting a campaign against Kurdish secessionists in its far south-east ever since the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and has suffered a long series of attacks on civilians and police by Kurdish terrorists. While America and NATO dithered about their policy, trying to aligned themselves with the democratic opposition to Assad while also trying not to end up arming Islamist forces – in September 2015 Russia stepped in with an aggressive policy to support its long-term ally in the region, the Syrian government.

Russian President Putin has trodden a tricky line ever since, claiming at the UN and to the world at large, to be helping Assad combat ‘terrorists’ – while in fact Russian planes have quite openly attacked non-terrorist opposition forces, most recently at the heart-breaking siege of Aleppo.

Still, however murderous their impact has been on the ground, Russia has effectively staked its place as the key external player in a struggle which is overflowing with external interference. For I haven’t explained how the two regional powers, Saudi Arabia (backing Sunni insurgents) and Iran (backing the Syrian government) have also been supplying arms, soldiers and advisers to their respective sides.

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Bringing all the warring factions in the country together to any kind of peace discussions is impossible, since many of the opposition groups refuse to accept Assad’s right to rule, while Assad refuses to talk to the opposition which he indiscriminately brands as terrorists, and the actual terrorists – ISIS and related groups – oppose both the others, wanting to establish a medieval caliphate in the region, while the fierce enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia also has to be mediated.

Just getting America and Russia to talk rationally about the situation would be a massive achievement, which doesn’t look likely any time soon, especially given President Trump’s unpredictability.

3. The third element in this gallery is a series of wall panels and photos giving the life stories of nine representative ‘ordinary’ Syrians. They are not happy stories. And somehow, they seem completely overshadowed, crushed, by the weight of the military, ideological and strategic forces which are tearing their country apart.

Gallery 2 – Sergey Ponomarev: A Lens on Syria

In gallery two (which is made up of four rooms) is the first UK exhibition of 60 photographs by award-winning Russian documentary photographer, Sergey Ponomarev (b.1980).

As a Russian i.e. a citizen of the government’s main ally, Ponomarev was able to enter the country and get access to areas most western journalists couldn’t. His photos are in colour, big and vivid. However, they are not images of the conflict per se. Unlike say, Don McCullin, who I’ve recently been reading about, Ponomarev doesn’t take images of fighting men, soldiers, militias and so on.

Instead his work concentrates on civilians living quite literally on the edge of the front line as it weaves to and fro across cities and towns – Homs, Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus itself. The impact of the war is obvious enough in the shattered buildings all around, but is only implicit in the faces of the civilians, peering out the window at snipers, leaving their bombed-out apartments, trying to live normal lives in cafes and shops while their entire country is torn apart.

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

There is no blood anywhere. It is the implicitness of the conflict which gives so many of the pictures their spooky, haunted quality. There’s a particularly haunting one showing the congregation in one of the rare Christian churches left, in Damascus, and you can see the haunted anxious expressions on their faces. It’s the third down on the left in the montage on this page:

In fact, these four rooms are divided into two distinct shows:

1. Assad’s Syria – the first three rooms feature 24 big – really big – colour prints of images of civilians, the result of visits Ponomarev made to government-run territory in 2013-14. Obviously lots of shots of people amid rubble, although also lots of pics of people trying to go about their everyday lives in cafes and churches. As I worked through the rooms, it dawned on me that these photos are dominated by buildings; many of the people are looking out of big windows, or are framed in vistas of buildings (destroyed or still standing), or are seen through windows or against pillars or staircases – and it’s the architecture which gives many of these photos their monumental effect (that and their enormous size).

2. The Exodus In the fourth and last room is a second distinct portfolio of work. There’s a bench where you can sit and watch a 14-minute slide show of 40 or so big colour images of Syrian (and other) refugees escaping across the sea from Turkey to Greece, then trying to get across the borders into Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, all hoping to get to Germany, the promised land of wealth, jobs and security.

These photos were taken between the ‘refugee crisis’ from June 2015 and March 2016. It was for this work that Ponomarev won the Pulitzer Prize (2016), the World Press Photo Award (2017) and the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award (2017). Obviously they are of people in extremes of desperation and distress but what also struck me was how beautifully framed and composed they all are.

Lesbos, Greece, 27 July 2015 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Lesbos, Greece, 27 July 2015 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

If the Assad’s Syria photos rely on architectural features to create compositions, the Exodus photos – by their nature mostly taken outside, by the sea, in fields, railway stations, wherever the refugees gathered or were corralled by the police – these have a completely different feel because they use the shapes and patterns of human beings to give shape and compositional effect.

Boats, trains, buses intervene a bit, but it is mostly the forms and patterns into which groups of human beings naturally fall which Ponomarev picks out with unerring skill. In the photo above there is a diagonal line from the heads of the people in the boat following the rope heading to the bottom right hand side, enlivened by the two figures struggling through the water. I’m not saying it’s schematic or planned – just that Ponomarev has an extraordinary ability to see, frame and capture the patterns and shapes which naturally arise in human situations.

His photos are quite stunning.

The information in the first gallery, with its random objects, people’s stories and short film, you could pick up almost anywhere off the internet. Ponomarev’s photos, by contrast, are extraordinary, vivid, wonderfully composed, tinged by a distinctive blueish colour palette, haunting. They are well worth a visit just for themselves.

Videos

These days most exhibitions have at least one promotional video on YouTube or Vimeo: this exhibition has 12!


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People Power: Fighting for Peace @ Imperial War Museum London

O silly and unlucky are the brave,
Who tilt against the world’s enormous wrong.
Their serious little efforts will not save
Themselves or us. The enemy is strong.
O silly and unlucky are the brave. (W.H. Auden, 1937)

It’s the centenary of the Imperial War Museum, set up in the same year as the Battle of Passchendaele and the Russian Revolution. 100 years of terrifying conflict, warfare, worldwide destruction and incomprehensible hecatombs of violent death. To mark the hundred years since its founding IWM London is mounting an exhibition chronicling the history of protest against war and its mad destruction.

People Power: Fighting for Peace presents a panorama of British protest across the past decades, bringing together about three hundred items – paintings, works of literature, posters, banners, badges and music – along with film and TV news footage, and audio clips from contemporaries, to review the growth and evolution of protest against war.

The exhibition very much focuses on the common people, with lots of diaries, letters and photos from ordinary men and women who protested against war or refused to go to war, alongside some, deliberately limited, examples from better-known writers and artists.

The show is in four sections:

First World War and 1920s

Having finished reading most of Kipling recently, I have a sense of how tremendously popular the Boer War (1899 to 1902) was in Britain. If there was an outburst of creativity it was in the name of raising money for the soldiers and their families, and commemorating ‘victories’ like Mafeking on mugs and tea towels. I am still struck by the vast success of Kipling’s charity poem, the Absent-Minded Beggar (1899).

12 years later the Great War prompted the same outpourings of patriotic fervour in the first year or so. But then the lack of progress and the appalling levels of casualties began to take their toll. From the first there had been pacifists and conscientious objectors, the Fabians of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, or the Bloomsbury Circle with its attendant vegetarians, naturists and exponents of free love (as documented in the current exhibition of art by Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and hilariously satirised by John Buchan in his gung-ho adventure story, Mr Standfast). 

The exhibition features personal items and letters revealing the harrowing experiences of Conscientious Objectors who faced non-combatant service, forced labour, imprisonment and hostility from wider society. (Conscription of all unmarried men between 18 and 41 was only brought in in March 1916 when the supply of volunteers dried up.) In fact the first half of the show very much focuses on the ordeals and changing treatment of Conscientious Objectors, because both the First and Second Wars featured conscription, forcing some men to make very difficult choices. In the Great War there were 16,000 COs; in the Second War 60,000.

The show brings out the principled stand of Quakers, religious non-conformists with absolute pacifist principles, who had been persecuted ever since their foundation in the turmoil of the Civil Wars. The Quakers set up the Friends Ambulance Unit, and there is a display case showing photos, letters from the founders and so on. One of the Great War artists, CRW Nevinson, served with the unit from October 1914 to January 1915 and two of his oil paintings are here. Neither is as good as the full flood of his Futurist style as exemplified in La Mitrailleuse (1915) – like many of the violent modernists his aggression was tempered and softened by the reality of slaughter. His later war paintings are spirited works of propaganda, but not so thrilling as works of art:

The exhibition displays here, and throughout, the special tone that women anti-war protestors brought to their activities. Many suffragettes became ardent supporters of the war and there is on display the kind of hand-written abuse and a white feather which women handed out to able-bodied men in the street who weren’t in uniform. There is fascinating footage of a rally of Edwardian women demanding to be able to work – and of course tens of thousands ended up working in munitions factories and in countless other capacities.

The millions of voiceless common soldiers were joined by growing numbers of disillusioned soldiers and especially their officers, who had the contacts and connections to make their views known. Siegfried Sassoon is probably the most famous example of a serving officer who declared his disgust at the monstrous loss of life, the mismanagement of the war, and revulsion at the fortunes being made in the arms industry by profiteers. There’s a copy of the letter of protest he wrote to his commanding officer in 1917 and which ended up being read out in the House of Commons, a photo of him hobnobbing with grand Lady Garsington and a manuscript of one of the no-nonsense poems Sassoon published while the war was still massacring the youth of Europe (in Counter-Attack 1918):

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Fascinatingly, the hand-written text here has Sassoon’s original, much blunter, angrier version.

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he murdered them both by his plan of attack.

The recent exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain explored how the blasphemous ruination of the natural landscape by ceaseless bombardment affected this sensitive painter. The exhibition shows some of the Nash works that IWM owns. Nash went on to have a nervous breakdown in the early 1920s.

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

1930s and Second World War

Throughout what W.H. Auden famously called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s the memory of the Great War made pacifism and anti-war views much more widespread and intellectually and socially acceptable. Even the most jingoistic of soldiers remembered the horror of the trenches. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been directly involved in the Great War government and this experience was part of his motivation in going the extra mile to try and appease Hitler at the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938.

All sorts of organisations organised and lobbied against the looming menace of war. In 1935 the Peace Pledge Union was founded. The exhibition shows black and white film footage of self-consciously working class, Labour and communist marches against war. Nevinson is represented by a (very poor) pacifist painting – The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice (1934). There is the fascinating titbit that Winnie the Pooh novelist A.A. Milne published a 1934 pacifist pamphlet titled Peace With Honour. But like many others he later changed his mind, a change recorded in letters here: the rise of fascist Germany was just too evil to be wished away.

The exhibition includes diaries, letters and photography which shed light on the personal struggles faced by these anti-war campaigners – but nothing any of these high-minded spirits did prevented the worst cataclysm in human history breaking out. The thread of conscientious objectors is picked up again – there were some 62,000 COs in the second war, compared to 16,000 in the first, and letters, diaries, photographs of individuals and CO Tribunals give a thorough sense of the process involved, the forms of alternative work available, as well as punishments for ‘absolutists’ – those who refused to work on anything even remotely connected with the war.

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

The single most inspiring story in the exhibition, for me, was that of John Bridge, a convinced pacifist and physics teacher, who nonetheless volunteered to train as a bomb disposal expert. He has a display case to himself which shows photos, letters and so on, and gives a detailed account of his war time service in a succession of conflict zones, along with the actual fuses of several of the bombs he defused, and the rack of medals he won for outstanding bravery. In serving his country but in such a clear-cut non-aggressive, life-saving role, I was shaken by both his integrity and tremendous bravery.

Cold War

The largest section of the exhibition explores the 45-year stand-off between the two superpowers which emerged from the rubble of the Second World War – the USA and the USSR – which was quickly dubbed ‘the Cold War’. Having recently read John Lewis Gaddis’s History of the Cold War, I tend to think of the period diving into three parts:

1. The early years recorded in black-and-white TV footage characterised by both sides testing their atom and then hydrogen bombs, and leading to the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The exhibition commemorates the many mass marches from the centre of London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at RAF Aldermaston in Berkshire about thirty miles away. Interestingly, it includes some of the early designs for a logo for the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (founded in 1958). These various drafts were made by artist and designer Gerald Holtom, before he settled on the logo familiar to all of us now. This, it turns out, is a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters ‘N’ and ‘D’.

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

Although Holtom is also quoted as saying it draws something from the spread arms of the peasant about to be executed in the Spanish painter Goya’s masterpiece, The Third of May 1808.

2. The Cuban crisis shook the leadership of both nuclear powers and led to a range of failsafe arrangements, not least the connection of a hotline between the US President and the Russian Premier. I always wondered what happened to the whole Aldermaston March culture with its earnest young men and women in black-and-white footage carrying banners against the bomb. The exhibition explains that a 1963 Test Ban treaty between the superpowers took a lot of the threat out of nuclear weapons. It also coincides (in my mind anyway) with Bob Dylan abandoning folk music and going electric in 1965. Suddenly everything seems to be in colour and about the Vietnam War.

This was because the Cold War, doused in Europe, morphed into a host of proxy wars fought in Third World countries, the most notable being the Vietnam War (additionally complicated by the fact that communist China was the main superpower opponent).

The same year Dylan went electric, and TV news is all suddenly in colour, the U.S. massively increased its military presence in Vietnam and began ‘Operation Thunder’, the strategy of bombing North Vietnam. Both these led in just a few years to the explosion of the ‘counter-culture’ and there’s a section here which includes a mass of ephemera from 1960s pop culture – flyers, badges, t-shirts etc emblazoned with the CND symbol amid hundreds of other slogans and logos, and references to the concerts for peace and tunes by the likes of Joan Baez and John Lennon.

Reviled though he usually is, it was actually Republican President Nixon who was elected on a promise to bring the Vietnam War to an end. Nixon also instituted the policy of détente, basically seeking ways for the superpowers to work together, find common interests and avoid conflicts. This policy was taken up by his successor Gerald Ford and continued by the Democrat Jimmy Carter, and led to a series of treaties designed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on both sides and ease tensions.

3. Détente was running out of steam when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and a year later the tough-talking Republican President Ronald Reagan was elected US President. Reagan’s more confrontational anti-communist line was accompanied by the development of a new generation of long-range missiles. When the British government of Mrs Thatcher agreed to the deployment of these cruise missiles at RAF Greenham in Berkshire, it inaugurated a new generation of direct protest which grew into a cultural phenomenon – a permanent camp of entirely female protesters who undertook a range of anti-nuke protests amid wide publicity.

The Greenham camp began in September 1981 after a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrived to protest the arrival of the cruise missiles, and continued an impressive 19 years until it was disbanded in 2000. The exhibition includes lots of memorabilia from the camp including a recreation of part of the perimeter fence of the base – and provides ribbons for us to tie onto the metal wire, like the Greenham women did, but with our own modern-day messages. And this impressive banner made by Thalia Campbell, one of the original 36 women to protest at Greenham Common.

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Peter Kennard is very much the visual artist of this era, with his angry, vivid, innovative photo-montages. I remembered the IWM exhibition devoted entirely to his shocking striking powerful black-and-white posters and pamphlets.

Modern Era

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 (and Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher left power, 1989 and 1990 respectively), many pundits and commentators promised that the world would benefit from a huge ‘peace dividend’. Frances Fukuyama published his influential essay The End of History – which just go to show how stupid clever people can be.

In fact, the fall of communism was followed in short order by the first Gulf War (1990-91), the Balkan Wars (1991-5), civil war in Somalia, the war in Afghanistan (2001-2014), the war in Iraq (2003-2011), and then the Arab Spring, which has led to ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya. In all of these conflicts Western forces played a role.

Obviously the 9/11 attacks on New York ushered in a new era in which radical Islam has emerged as the self-declared enemy of the West. It is an age which feels somehow more hopeless and depressed than before. The Aldermaston marchers, the peaceniks of the 1960s, the Greenham grannies (as they were nicknamed) clung to an optimistic and apparently viable vision of a peaceful world.

9/11 and then the ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with the financial crash of 2008 and the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, along with the permanent sense of threat from Islamic terrorism, somehow make this an era without realistic alternatives. Financial institutions rule the world and are above the law. Appalling terrorist acts can happen anywhere, at any moment.

Protest has had more channels than ever before to vent itself, with the advent of the internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s and yet, somehow… never has the will of the bienpensant, liberal, cosmopolitan part of the population seemed so powerless. A sense that the tide is somehow against the high-minded idealism of the educated bourgeoisie was crystalised by the Brexit vote of June 2016 and then the (unbelievable) election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.

This final section of the exhibition includes a world of artefacts from this last 28 years or so – the era of Post-Communism.

In terms of anti-war protest it overwhelmingly showcases the numerous protests which have taken place against Western interference in and invasions of Arab countries. It includes a big display case on Brian Haw’s protest camp in Parliament Square (2001-2011). There’s a wall of the original ‘blood splat’ artwork and posters created by David Gentleman for the Stop the War Coalition, including his ‘No More Lies’ and ‘Bliar’ designs, as well as his original designs for the largest protest in British history, when up to 2 million people protested in London on 15 February 2003 against the Iraq War.

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

The exhibition features a kind of continual aural soundscape in that there are well-amplified sounds of chants and protests from the different eras and installations washing & overlapping over each other, as you progress through it. In addition, there are also headphone posts where you can slip headphones on and listen to a selection of voices from the respective era (1930s, 1950s, 1980s).

Effectiveness

Did it work? Any of it? Did Sassoon’s poems stop the Great War a day earlier? Did all the political activism of the 1930s prevent the Second World War? Did the Greenham Women force the cruise missiles to be removed? Did anything anyone painted, carried, did or said, stop Bush and Blair from invading Iraq?

On the face of it – No.

The question is addressed in the final room, or more accurately alcove or bay, where a large TV screen runs a series of interviews with current luminaries of protest such as Mark Rylance (actor), Kate Hudson (General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), Vanessa Redgrave (actor), Lindsey German (convenor of the Stop the War Coalition), David Gentleman (artist associated with Stop the War) From these fascinating interviews there emerge, I think, three points:

1. To the Big Question the answer is No – All the marches, banners, posters and activism never prevented or stopped a single war.

2. But, on the plus side, very large protests can influence the culture. There is now probably a widespread feeling across most of British society that British troops must not be sent to invade a foreign country, certainly not another Middle Eastern country, ever again. This helped decide the vote in August 2013 in which MPs voted against David Cameron’s proposal to allow RAF planes to join other NATO allies in attacking ISIS forces inside Syria. But was this due to any of the protests, or simply due to the long drawn-out mismanagement of the war which so obviously led to bloody chaos in Iraq, and the loss of lots of British troops and – for what? And then again, they didn’t create a culture of total pacifism, far from it – In December 2015, MPs voted in favour of allowing RAF Typhoons to join in attacks on ISIS in Syria i.e. for Britain to be involved in military operations in the Middle East. Again.

3. Community So none of the interviewees gave any concrete evidence of any government decisions or military activity being at all influenced by any protest.

But instead, they all testified to the psychological and sociological benefits of protest – of the act of joining others, sometimes a lot of others, and coming together in a virtuous cause. For Mark Rylance joining protests helped him lance ‘toxic’ feelings of impotent anger. One of the other interviewees mentioned that marching and protesting is a kind of therapy. It makes you feel part of a wider community, a big family. It helps you not to feel alone and powerless. Lindsey German said it was exciting, empowering and liberating to transform London for one day, when the largest protest in British history took place on 15 February 2003 against the prospect of the invasion of Iraq.

This made me reflect on the huge numbers of women who took part in the marches against Donald Trump in January 2017, not just in Washington DC but across the USA and in other countries too. Obviously, they didn’t remove him from power. But:

  • they made their views felt, they let legislators know there is sizeable active opposition to his policies
  • many if not most will have experienced that sense of community and togetherness which the interviewees mention, personally rewarding and healing
  • and they will have made contacts, exchanged ideas and maybe returned to their communities empowered to organise at a grass-roots level, to resist and counter the policies they oppose

Vietnam

The one war in the past century which you can argue was ended by protests in a Western country was the Vietnam War. By 1968 the U.S. government – and President Lyndon Johnson in particular – realised he couldn’t continue the war in face of the nationwide scale of the protests against it. In March 1968 Johnson announced he wouldn’t be standing for re-election and declared a winding-down of U.S. troop involvement, a policy followed through by his successor, Nixon. But:

a) Handing over the people of South Vietnam to a generation of tyranny under the North Vietnamese communist party was hardly a noble and uplifting thing to do.

b) In the longer term, the debacle of the Vietnam War showed American and NATO leaders how all future conflicts needed to be handled on the domestic front i.e very carefully. Wars in future

  • would need to be quick and focused, employing overwhelming force, the so-called ‘shock and awe’ tactic
  • the number of troops required should never get anywhere near requiring the introduction of conscription or the draft, with the concomitant widespread opposition
  • the media must be kept under tight control

This latter is certainly a take-home message from the three books by war photographer Don McCullin, which I’ve read recently. During the Vietnam War he and the hundreds of other reporters and photographers could hitch lifts on helicopters more or less at will, go anywhere, interview everyone, capture the chaos, confusion, demoralisation and butchery of war with complete freedom. Many generals think the unlimited reporting of the media lost the war in Vietnam (as opposed to the more obvious conclusion that the North Vietnamese won it).

The result has been that after Vietnam, Western war ministries clamped down on media coverage of their wars. In McCullin’s case this meant that he was actively prevented from going to the Falklands War (April to June 1982), something which has caused him great personal regret but which typifies, on a wider level, the way that War was reported in a very controlled way, so that there’s been an enduring deficit in records about it.

Thus from the First Gulf War (1990-91) onwards, war ministries in all NATO countries have insisted on ’embedding’ journalists with specific units where they have to stay and can be controlled.

Like the twentieth century itself, this exhibition is sprawling, wide-ranging, and perplexing – sparking all sorts of ideas, feelings and emotions which are difficult to reconcile and assimilate, since its central questions – Is war ever morally justified? If so, why and when and how should it be fought? – remain as difficult to answer as they were a hundred years ago – as they have always been.

The video


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Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

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