Max Webster’s production of Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse promised to examine a riven England and the alternating cast of cynics and inadequates who govern it. The interpretation is still apt, though the genuflections to colonialism and climate change seem like the perfunctory box-ticking of liberal orthodoxy. Other interpretations are now more pressing, and more awkward. This is a war play, the story of an overweening king set on reconquest, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Or is it? Isn’t it also the story of a master rhetorician, a reformed actor-king uniting a fractious nation?
During a time of war, it is inevitable and not necessarily inappropriate to limit some cultural interactions with an enemy nation, not least as part of a strategy of isolating an aggressor. If Russians cannot compete in international sporting events, should musical competitions be different? Is it any more unreasonable to want to postpone a performance of the bombastic and militaristic 1812 Overture than it was for the British conductor Mark Elder to express doubts about conducting the Last Night of the Proms following the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War? (Elder was promptly replaced.)
The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, choked back tears on LBC earlier this week as the Taliban consolidated control in Afghanistan. ‘The big regret for me is that some people won’t get back,’ he said. Between 2003 and 2005, Wallace was overseas director at QinetiQ, the military technology firm created in April 2001 when the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency was privatised. Its revenues are around a billion pounds a year. Wallace’s contradictory roles – as a former senior executive at a company reaping financial rewards from the ongoing ‘war on terror’ and as a senior minister claiming rightly that much is owed by the UK to the people of Afghanistan – reflects a larger contradiction at the heart of the global war economy.
By killing Soleimani, Trump has not only supplied the Islamic Republic with a powerful casus belli, he has also reinforced its longstanding narrative of martyrdom at the hands of the Great Satan, and may well help to strengthen the supreme leader’s hand at the very moment that the regime is facing popular anti-Iranian protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and reeling from a series of revolts at home in which hundreds of Iranians were killed by security forces. Not for the first time, the American government has proved an objective ally of Iran’s hardliners.
On 15 April, President Trump made an unexpected phone call to Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan military officer and former CIA asset who has launched an attack on Tripoli with the aim of overthrowing Libya’s nominal ruling authority, the UN-backed Government of National Accord. According to a White House statement, Trump ‘recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources’, and the two men discussed their ‘shared vision for Libya’s transition’.
The reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Homs in February 2012. A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s movie based on her life, begins with archival footage of Colvin being asked by an interviewer what she would want a young journalist to know about being a war correspondent. Her answer comes in two parts: first, that you should care enough to write in a way that makes others care; second, some tough-sounding advice on not acknowledging fear until the job is done.
Amid the poppies, the parades, the TV programmes on military themes, the commemorative art works springing up in towns and villages across the country, Theresa May said last week that she would be laying a wreath at the graves of British soldiers in France on the centenary of the Armistice to commemorate ‘every member of the Armed Forces who gave their lives to protect what we hold so dear’.
A number of military experts – including the defense secretary, James Mattis – have warned that a US war against North Korea would be hard, incredibly destructive and bloody, with civilian casualties in the millions, and could go badly for US forces. But Lt. Gen. Herbert Raymond McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, is apparently insistent that ‘a military strike be considered as a serious option’. One of Gen. McMaster’s claims to fame is a Silver Star he was awarded for a tank ‘battle’ he led in the desert during the so-called Gulf War of 1991. As a young captain leading a troop with nine new Abrams M1A1 battle tanks, McMaster destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks in 23 minutes without losing any of his own or suffering any casualties. McMaster’s exploit (later embellished with a name, the ‘Battle of 73 Easting’) was little more than a case of his having dramatically better equipment.
‘First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.’ That was how Colin Powell described the battle plan he and his generals came up with for the war they were about to wage against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991, and that is, more or less, what happened. After the US A-10 tank-buster bombers known as Warthogs had finished off the Iraqi armoured brigades on the Basra Road, Harold Pinter, disgusted by the gratuitous carnage, wrote a poem called ‘American Football’. He sent it to several publications, including the London Review of Books, where I then worked. He had it faxed to the paper's office on Tavistock Square. None of the editors much liked the poem, but because it was by Pinter there was some further deliberation, and as the afternoon ended we thought we'd defer the decision to the following morning.
It’s war time again. Earlier this month the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FAC) noted that legal opinion is at best divided on the legality of whacking Islamic State without Chapter VII support, but last Friday the UN passed resolution 2249 enjoining member states to take ‘all necessary measures’ – UN-speak for military action – against IS. David Cameron will probably seek and get Commons approval for war next week, a move that’s already had the spin-off benefit of splitting Labour’s Corbynites and hawks.
Unmanned is the latest release from the Italian game designers Molleindustria, who aim to ‘free video games from the dictatorship of entertainment’. Their other productions include Phone Story, ‘an educational game about the dark side of your favourite smart phone’: you have to use armed guards to threaten Coltan miners in central Africa to increase their productivity and catch suicidal Chinese factory workers in giant nets. It isn’t available from the iPhone app store. Unmanned, rendered in blocky, lo-fi graphics, examines a day in the life of a disaffected suburban drone pilot.
Not long ago, Greg Jaffe, the Washington Post’s military correspondent, wrote that ‘this is the American era of endless war.’ Endless war manifestly does not suggest any eagerness to use military power with an eye towards liberating or pacifying countries governed by regimes that Washington happens to dislike. Post-9/11 experiments along those lines in Iraq and Afghanistan yielded little but disappointment. The American people have lost their stomach for invasions that lead to long-term military occupations, with all that implies in terms of casualties suffered and money poured down the drain. When Robert Gates said that anyone advising a future president ‘to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined’, he was codifying sentiments that had long since found favour with the American public.
I haven’t seen the play of War Horse, and never got to the end of the novel either: my son had Private Peaceful, another of Michael Morpurgo’s First World War books, as a bedtime story, and it was so sad and full of injustice – and dragged out, chapter after bleeding chapter, night after night after night – I am just relieved that now he can read these terrible documents, should he wish to, without my help. In War Horse (1982), it’s 1914 and Joey’s owner sells him to the cavalry – and that’s all you need to know, really. The book is one of the five ‘classic war stories for children’ that the Imperial War Museum aims to ‘bring to life’ in its new exhibition, Once Upon a Wartime.
The victory at the Oscars of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker over James Cameron’s Avatar was generally perceived as a good sign of the state of things in Hollywood: a low-budget, independent film overcomes a superproduction whose technical brilliance cannot cover up the flat simplicity of its story. So Hollywood is not just a blockbuster machine, but still knows how to appreciate marginal creative efforts. Well, maybe. But it’s also the case that, with all its mystifications, Avatar clearly takes the side of those who oppose the global military-industrial complex, while The Hurt Locker presents the US army in a way which is much more finely attuned to its own public image in our time of humanitarian interventions and militaristic pacifism.
The first things a new nation needs are a football team and an army. The last thing it needs is for either to disappear overnight and it’s an embarrassment to Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993, that all 12 members of the national squad should have dumped their strip in the wheelie-bins at the back of their hotel during a CECAFA tournament in Kenya and vanished without further ado. ‘Cazzo,’ I hear the Eritrean leadership whispering to itself. ‘But at least we’ve still got the army.’ The trouble is that the army – or rather military service – is one of the reasons so many Eritreans want to get out. (The UN puts the monthly emigration figures in the low hundreds.) Another is poverty, another is the angular, repressive style of the regime, which hasn’t changed its ways since it got control of the liberation struggle in the mid-1970s.