The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Thursday, March 06, 2008


In a post a few years back I noted the parallel between Norman Lewis's description of liberated Naples and what was, is, taking place in Iraq. Patrick Cockburn has done the same in The Occupation:
By the time Bremer left Iraq just over a year later there were few, either among the Iraqis or the Americans who dealt with him, who had a good word to say for him. The White House and the Pentagon blamed him for everything, conveniently forgetting they once shared his imperial hubris and misconception that Iraq was a tabula rasa they could reconstruct [write on, surely?] as they wished. Bremer had many faults but they were not without precedent. He may not even have been, as some believed, the worst American proconsul in history. Towards the end of Bremer's tenure in Baghdad I reread Naples '44, the fascinating account by Norman Lewis, then a low-level member of British intelligence, of the US occupation of Naples in World War Two. I wanted to see if American rule in Baghdad sixty years later was uniquely incompetent and corrupt or if American occupations were always like this. Naples sixty years earlier and Baghdad in 2003 were both dangerous cities. Each was inhabited by destitute and desperate people equally willing to work as a gunman or a labourer. The US viceroy in Naples, General Mark Clark, left behind an even murkier reputation than Paul Bremer. On his first night in the city, Clark dined on exotic fish looted from the Naples aquarium and appointed Lucky Luciano, the head of the New York mafia, as his senior security advisor.

Probably Luciano knew a lot more about Naples than some of Bremer's American-Iraqi advisors did about Iraq.
Alan Whicker was quite scathing about Mark Clark in Whicker's War, accusing him of allowing German forces to slip away while he concerned himself with making a triumphal entrance into Rome.


We're used to thinking about Iraq as a catastrophe, but an article by Jim Holt in the London Review of Books from 18th October 2007 put forward quite a different interpretation:
Was the strategy of invading Iraq to take control of its oil resources actually hammered out by Cheney’s 2001 energy task force? One can’t know for sure, since the deliberations of that task force, made up largely of oil and energy company executives, have been kept secret by the administration on the grounds of ‘executive privilege’. One can’t say for certain that oil supplied the prime motive. But the hypothesis is quite powerful when it comes to explaining what has actually happened in Iraq. The occupation may seem horribly botched on the face of it, but the Bush administration’s cavalier attitude towards ‘nation-building’ has all but ensured that Iraq will end up as an American protectorate for the next few decades – a necessary condition for the extraction of its oil wealth. [...] The costs – a few billion dollars a month plus a few dozen American fatalities (a figure which will probably diminish, and which is in any case comparable to the number of US motorcyclists killed because of repealed helmet laws) – are negligible compared to $30 trillion in oil wealth, assured American geopolitical supremacy and cheap gas for voters. In terms of realpolitik, the invasion of Iraq is not a fiasco; it is a resounding success.
The entire article is not very long and well worth reading. I'm no economist or mathematician, so I have to take the figures quoted on trust, though I see that Joseph Stiglitz reckons the cost of the invasion is $3 trillion, not $1 trillion as Holt says. However, the thrust of it is clear enough: the human cost of the invasion, and the consequences for regional and global stability, are considered negligible when set against securing the oil resources and the revenues derived from them. The description of the 'super-bases' I find particularly interesting.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Dreams. How we live in them. How they make the days of keeping appointments and spending time in the company of people who say things we've heard in just those same words a thousand times...just a little more bearable. Without them, what an utter desolation of predictability and frustration. Even for the best of us. Even for the most unstructured of us, the freest of us. Dreams. Without them, the suicide statistics would be catastrophic.
The key word here is desolation: without solace. From The Harlan Ellison Hornbook.
If England were what England seems
An' not the England of our dreams
But only putty, brass an' paint
'Ow quick we'd drop 'er. But she ain't.
Kipling, from 'The Return'.


It's been quite something to return to reading the Hornbook after a gap of fifteen years or more. It's verbose in places and dated in many others, but much or most of it remains forceful and invigorating and encouraging and just plain entertaining.

The Kipling lines come from my mother's copy of Other Men's Flowers by Lord Wavell (still in print from Pimlico). The plate inside the cover states that it is a prize for Lower 6th English, and is signed by the headmaster, F. Spencer Chapman, a genuine WWII hero whose The Jungle is Neutral is a classic account of guerilla warfare (republished in 2006 by Birlinn).

Incredibly, what appears to be the original Time magazine review from 1949 is available online; the last paragraph reads:
The Jungle Is Neutral is packed to the boards with incredible adventure and impressive evidence of human fortitude, but it is written without a note of excitement, understated to the point of monotone. For that reason, and by the simplicity of its statement, it makes most first-person war books seem almost shrill.
Though I haven't read The Jungle is Neutral, this description tallies with my reading of Eastern Approaches, which is weirdly unaffecting despite everything which takes place in it. You know: holed up in the Sahara after a disastrous night raid, half the men lost or killed or injured, water low, ammunition low, random aerial bombardment from the Germans, who know they're out there somehere: "Our position...left much to be desired."

I mentioned this to a friend in the Army, and he more or less shrugged his shoulders and said, of course. How do you communicate the uncommunicable to those who weren't there?

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