Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Joyce, Iraq, Michael Collins and a few other thoughts

Today is Bloomsday, an auspicious day on the Dublin calendar.

On the 16th of June, 1904 -- one hundred years ago today -- Stephen Dedalus steps out of his temporary home at the Martello Tower in Sandycove and walks to work as a part-time teacher in nearby Dalkey. After a difficult interview with the bullock-befriending headmaster, Mr Deasey, he walks neben-ein-ander, nach-ein-ander along the strand into Dublin City -- the re-invented Telemachus -- and thus Joyce begins his modern re-telling of an ancient Greek epic.

All the events of “Ulysses” take place on this single day, the 16th of June. Joyce uses the sights and sounds of the city, the names of living people, the signboards and advertisements and actual names of the stores, newspapers, and pubs. Everything becomes grist to his mill -- the tragedy in New York harbor, the winner of a horse race (factual events) -- in order to show us how Stephen and his spiritual father, Leopold Bloom, the outcast, the cuckold, the Jew, circle one another in this chaotic modern city and inexorably come closer together.

Shortly before independence in Ireland -- followed by the usual xenophobia -- and before the devastation of the First World War destroyed the beliefs and values of 19th century Europe (to be followed by the unimaginable horrors of Hitler and Stalin and their willing executioners), Joyce was telling us to step away from the anger of partisan positions and to look at all human life with a detached if benevolent eye – a rather sharp and satirical eye, it has to be said. Observe, take pity, but don’t interfere.

Not bad advice for the present time.

Joyce was broke all his life, living on handouts. Now he's famous in his home country after being derided for years (I talked to his nephew in Dublin a few years ago who told me the whole family was desperately ashamed of him while the nephew was a kid -- this pornographic writer). Before we went on the EURO, the Irish government put him on the 10 Pound note. I know what Joyce would have said to that -- he'd have said, "Hand us over a basket of dem t’ings."

You have to be dead, I suppose, to be truly appreciated. Look at Van Gogh. Look at Ronald Reagan. For the last ten years we never heard a peep about this guy and now that he's finally dropped off the perch (Alzheimers, 93 years old) the whole American nation is going through an approximation of Shia mourning rites. Countries without a solid sense of history have to create it on the hop: Walt Disney, where are you now?

But the USA, like all other places, does have its history – dirty, smelly, frightening, confused, full of raging egomaniacs at cross-purposes – which needs to be cleaned up like all national histories and walloped into some sort of moral chronological shape before landing on the desktops of the young. It is a very interesting and inspiring history, some of it, particularly the 50 years or so before and after the nation broke away from Britain: the Philadelphia Convention, the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the signing of the Declaration (with John Hancock front and center, cojones the size of boulders) when all these guys must have known they were liable to be strung up as felons and traitors if their side lost.

It could have gone either way. The "insurgents" and "terrorists" of the 18th century could have been defeated and Americans would be walking around today with British Commonwealth passports, just like Canadians and Australians.

I couldn't imagine Bush and Cheney (with his six deferments) in the frontline at Lexington and Concord. No sign of Wolfowitz or Feith or Cambone, either. Kerry would have probably shown up, lanky, awkward, getting in the way, making dull droning speeches, but definitely present and accounted for.

Starting a war is relatively easy. Finishing a war is an entirely different matter. People who have actually experienced war at the sharp end don't lightly embark upon a new one.

War is murder on a grand scale. You kill people for political reasons. It's better to kill a few instead of a lot (of course) but once you start you have to keep on killing until you get what you want. This is Shock and Awe, known in the not-so-distant past as "Blitzkrieg". Overwhelm the enemy. If they keep fighting back, kill more of them. If you can't distinguish the enemy from the civilian population, keep the press away from the action and (with deep regrets) wipe out whoever gets in your way. Dehumanize your enemy (call them "Japs", "Krauts", "gooks", "ragheads"). Imprison suspects. Abuse them. This is not a contemporary phenomenon by any means. It represents the usual pattern of events.

Take a look at any punitive war (starting with the American Colonies in 1776) and follow the numbers:

1) Total incomprehension/ lack of interest in local feeling
2) Send in troops.
3) Enjoy initial military successes.
4) Look around for a puppet government.
5) Take hits from insurgent groups
6) Get tough with the locals
7) Confuse terrorists with local population
8) Treat all local civilians as enemy
9) Build forts
10) Bring in more troops as attacks increase
11) Tell the people at home everything is going according to plan
12) Start torture of captives
13) Use more firepower
14) Bring in more troops (conscript if necessary)
15) Engage in atrocities
16) Excoriate domestic opponents as “unpatriotic”
17) Declare imminent victory
18) Reduce troops
19) Tell local puppet government to take over
20) Pull out

The beginnings of modern terrorism can be traced to the IRA under the leadership of Michael Collins fighting against the British occupation of Ireland during the period 1919-22 , a style of warfare which was loosely based on the hit-and-run tactics of the Boers in the South African War of 1899-1902. When faced with a superior force you do not confront them in a traditional battle. You hit them at their vulnerable points in quick in-and-out attacks and melt back into the local population. You target the intelligence-gathering system of the invading force by killing their police and making an example of informers and collaborators. You frighten your own people (if necessary, and it usually is) to prevent them from doing business or having any contact with the enemy. You isolate the enemy and then increase the number and intensity of attacks so that he knows he is going to get hit nearly every day but he doesn’t know when and he doesn’t know where. You keep it up until the enemy loses political support at home and pulls out. The down side is that it takes 2-3 generations to put your country together again after the invader has gone. You can end up with a civil war. Look at Afghanistan after the Soviets.

Not much about Japan in this initial outing, not a single mention in fact. No worries, I’ll get around to the local scene when I write again. Strange Days over here -- where nobody even thinks, much less talks about the war in Iraq. We had a scare over the 3 Japanese hostages in April – they were roundly abused and forced into hiding after being released, by the way – and as long as nothing happens to the Japanese troops nobody wants to know. Troop casualties could change everything overnight, so the government is treading on eggshells. Why did Japan send troops in the first place? It's not so difficult to figure out. Look at a map of this region and think of the initials NK.