Monday, 28 December 2009

Merry... Saturnalia? (lessons from history 3, festive edition)

or the ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’, normally referred to as Sol Invicta. December has always been a month of celebration. With the sun getting lower and lower there has always been a tendency to try to make sure the sun does actually come back. Plus it’s cold, dark and food is short, so a celebration is quite nice to keep everyone’s spirits up. Celebrating the winter solstice has long been a feature of human society.

Christmas is no different. The date of Christmas is supposed to be the date of Jesus’ birth, but this is probably not the case. Festivals in late December had long been a feature of the Roman world; in fact there were at least two of them.

The first one was called Saturnalia. It took place in late December and saw the exchange of gifts and the relaxing of formalities. In fact it was tradition to reverse social roles; the wealthy were expected to pay the rent for those who couldn’t afford it. Master and slave exchanged clothes, family households threw dice to decide who would play the role of family monarch. Overall, a rather Christmassy affair.

Saturnalia was originally a festival to celebrate the end of the autumn planting season. It came later and later as the years went on and the scale of the festivities also increased. By the birth of Jesus it was a two day festival around mid-December. A hundred years later it lasted for a week. Changes to the Roman calendar placed the festival at 25th December, around the date of the winter solstice. From the third century AD there were public banquets in celebration of Saturnalia. The authorities tried in vain to restrict the festivities. By the end of the first century however they had embraced the festival and emperors started using it as a tool to improve their own popularity by putting on typically lavish celebrations at their own expense.

Even with the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century, Saturnalia continued to be celebrated. The Roman Empire did not turn Christian overnight. The majority of the empire remained Pagan for years after the official religion became Christian.

The second contender for the Roman forerunner for Christmas is called the festival of dies natalis solis invicti It was not actually a roman festival to start with, but originated in Syria as a celebration of the God Mithras. Typically of the Roman Empire, the cult was soon assimilated into the Roman Parthenon. Celebrations of Sol Invicti took place on the 25th of December, the day after the winter solstice on the Julian calendar. It was first introduced to Rome in the late third century and took over many of the features of Saturnalia. Sol Invicti is linked with the monotheistic cult of Mithras, which strongly resembled Christianity and indeed many of the non-biblical catholic rituals; celebrating a festival on 25th December being one of them, derive from this cult.

When the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth century, the new Christian religion had to be made to fit with current religious practices. Christianity was made more acceptable by simply not changing much for most people. This cynical pragmatism does not however indicate a lack of belief, simply an acceptance of the difficulties of imposing such a radical change on people.

Fear not though, there is some Jewish basis for having Jesus birthday on 25th December. In Judaism the time of a prophet’s death is often associated with the time of their conception, so if Jesus was conceived in late March, he would be born in late December.

Why am I telling you this you ask? Because I can and because knowledge is always good to have. It’s Christmas, so my gift to you all is something to impress family and friends with next year; knowledge of the roman origins of Christmas. All that remains is for me to wish you all a very happy Sol Invicti and hope that Santa gave you lots of pressies. Maybe next year I’ll talk about why Santa Clause is part of the Christmas festivities. Meanwhile, goodbye the 00’s next time I write it will be 2010. Isn’t that exciting?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Dying Young

Again this week I am afraid that the news has let us down in that nothing of interest at all has happened. So I am continuing the project started here . Without further ado, my second challenge:

Dying Young. Write a fragment of a story about a character who is relatively young (under 40), who will die in a few years, but has no inkling of this. You, as author, do, though, and let that knowledge affect this brief story however it will affect the story. (500 words, again, a rough guide, this one is actually 544 words)

Richard strode into his office. He wore and Armani suit, a silk tie and the finest leather shoes. It was an ordinary day in the life of an extraordinary man.

Richard had grown up in Liverpool amid poverty and violence. His father beat him and his mother was unfaithful. He had gone to a shit school with shit teachers and shit pupils. According to the laws of nature Richard should have worked in a dead-end job all his life, married someone he didn’t love and had kids he didn’t want. But Richard did not believe in the laws of nature. He didn’t believe that man is a product of his environment, but that his environment is a product of man. He rejected the stereotype that all the shit pupils of his shit school with shit teachers had fallen unquestioningly inline with. You see Richard was clever. Despite the best efforts of his environment, Richard got good grades in school. His father had neither the money nor the will to send his genius son to university, so Richard set up his own business at the age of 18.

Ten years of brilliant entrepreneurship and cutthroat ruthlessness later, Richard was standing in his office at the top of a tower in Central London, a millionaire in his twenties and one of the most important businessmen in the country. His astronomic rise to wealth however had left the corpses of many businesses led by middle class, competent university graduates in his wake.

“Sir,” Richard’s secretary stood by the door.

“Yes Carol” he did not turn to talk to her.

“Your latest business acquisition is being blocked by the competition commission. They are afraid of you developing a monopoly.”

Richard sighed. “Do I look as if I care?” his voice retained some hints of his formerly strong scouse accent. “just bribe a few people at Whitehall and they’ll soon come round to my point of view.”

“They’re also afraid that your takeover will eliminate hundreds, if not thousands of jobs. They’re wondering whether you’ll be creating any new jobs to compensate.”

“Carol I am running a business not a fucking charity. If they’re good enough they can find a job elsewhere, if not then they don’t deserve it. I am taking over this business because I know I can turn a profit from it. I can do that because I can do things more efficiently than the moron who was running the company before. The current structure of the company is so bogged down with bureaucracy and inefficiency that it’s a wonder anything every gets done. I can cut costs by cutting out all the dead wood that exists. In doing that I am bound to reduce the number of jobs and hence reduce the payroll, in turn making my profit margins higher. So if the pen pushing do-gooders and red tape enthusiasts in Whitehall think I am going to create pointless jobs to give some thick dick from Birmingham a job when I don’t need him for anything, they have another thing coming.

“Now go get me my coffee.” Carol left silently.

Richard sat down on his leather backed chair and sighed. Meanwhile the cancer ate away at him, slowly bringing his cruel life to an end.

Monday, 14 December 2009

white lies

Earlier this week former Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that he would have gone to war with Iraq even if he had known that there were no WMDs in the country. He said that he would have used different arguments to justify the war. Essentially Blair has admitted that he lied to the country in order to commit us to a war which he knew would be difficult to sell to a public who rightfully saw no direct link between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, or indeed any actual threat from the regime.

In the build up to war, the main thrust of the arguments centred around the fear that Iraq was hiding Weapons of Mass Destruction which could be used against Britain at very short notice. In less than an hour, it was reported, Iraq could fire dangerous weapons at us. This claim was questioned at the time and now it has been shown to be little more than a convenient argument. It probably wasn’t true and even if it was, it was only a shallow justification, not the actual motivation for the war.

Blair said that the real reason for going to war was the removal of Sadam, who had, after all, used chemical weapons against his own people. I do not debate that Sadam’s regime was evil and deserved to be removed, but I was not aware that Britain still claimed to be a world police force. I thought our national ego had significantly deflated after we lost the empire. Apparently Blair still harboured delusions of grandeur about Britain’s place in the world. Delusions he clearly did not feel were shared given his refusal to be honest about his reasoning for the war.

If we were to follow Blair’s rather arrogant train of thought all the way to the end of the line, we would end up trying to justify war with just about half of the world. If Blair sees it as Britain’s job to remove oppressive dictatorships, we should probably think about attacking most of Africa. Robert Mugabe is just one of many dictators who are just as bad as Sadam was in 2003. How about the rest of the Middle East? Surely Iran and Saudi Arabia are just as bad as Iraq was. Perhaps the reason Blair didn’t go to war with either of those countries is that they might actually have WMDs.

Like a playground bully, Blair went to war with a country he knew he could defeat. He could make himself and his country (but mostly himself) look like a great, moral man who it willing to go to war in order to protect people and spread liberal western democracy. Whether the people wanted his protection or his democracy is up for debate.

We may of course be missing an elephant in the room here. Blair did not go to war with Iraq on his own; like a loyal dog, Blair followed Bush. I don’t know what Bush’s justification was, I’m not even sure Bush knows what his justification was. Either way Blair was not so much the playground bully as the sidekick who tries to look big and impressive by following the bully wherever he goes.

Whatever his motivation, what’s clear is this; Tony Blair lied to the public and the House of Commons in order to justify a war which would otherwise have been unjustifiable. It is highly doubtful that Blair would have been able to get the support of the Commons or the public without the scaremongering that accompanied the false assertions about WMDs. Blair’s lie has cost lives of hundreds of British soldiers, fighting for a cause which was unjust and unnecessary.

Blair’s confidence that the war was just and the removal of Sadam was for the good seems rather shallow. If he actually believed that his cause was just, why did he not use that to argue for the war, rather than hide behind the probably false assertion that Iraq had WMDs? One has to question whether or not this new claim is little more than another convenient argument to make Blair look like a moral man when actually he went to war for far more selfish reasons.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Lessons from History 2

Earlier this week Barak Obama pledged a further 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan in the hope that this troop surge will have the same effect as a similar surge in Iraq last year. It won’t. The war in Afghanistan is not one that can be won by sheer force on numbers. Indeed I would debate whether the war in Afghanistan is winnable at all. Certainly when one looks to the history of Afghanistan, we see that every invader has come upon the same problems as the British and American troops are coming upon today.

We can go even as far back as Alexander the Great and still see similarities. Alexander invaded Afghanistan in 330 BC and, despite early success, was soon dragged into a long and arduous guerrilla war which claimed the lives of hundreds if not thousands of troops and led to Alexander himself receiving a near fatal wound. While Alexander’s powerful and experienced army was able to sweep away any opposition that stood in its way, it had a much harder time dealing with the guerrilla, hit-and-run tactics of the Afghan tribesmen. As soon as Alexander swept through Afghanistan, founding cities and replacing the Persian Satrap with his own governor, the locals fled to the hills. Strategic victories and the besieging of major cities was not enough to conquer Afghanistan for Alexander, nor was it enough for the British invaders over two millennia later.

In 1839 Afghanistan provided a neutral buffer between British controlled India and Russia, which was hostile to British control of the subcontinent. So when a Russian diplomat arrived in Kabul, fears of Afghanistan becoming a Russian Satellite state ignited. In a typical aggressive, imperialist move, an invasion of Afghanistan was ordered. British troops took Kabul in less that 8 months and installed a puppet ruler on the throne. Despite this they spent the next three years trying and failing to subdue the Afghan countryside before withdrawing, having achieved little apart from the loss of thousands of men. The British faced the same problems as Alexander; the Afghan tribesmen retreated to the hills and disappeared into countryside that they knew far better than the British. The invaders ended up trying and failing to fight an invisible enemy who could disappear as quickly as they could emerge unsuspected from the hills and wreak havoc on the British troops. This time however they were not only fuelled by a general distain for the invader, but a fierce nationalism fuelled by religious devotion, a devotion that would only become more prevalent in later invasions.

Little had changed in 1878, when Britain invaded again for similar motives. Again quick gains were made, with Jalalabad and Kandahar being subdued within a couple of months. A treaty was drawn up and it seems that the objectives have been achieved quickly and easily. However when the British ambassador was murdered, the war began again. A long guerrilla war was only adverted by installing a governor who was favoured by the tribesmen. For a change the second Afghan war was fought like a conventional war, with armies fighting each other, rather than elusive guerrillas. It is not surprising then that the British won. The aims of the war were not to conquer Afghanistan, but to achieve a limited set of objectives which would result in Afghanistan falling under the Empire’s sphere of interest, but not actually being ruled directly by Britain. Britain did not try to subdue the Afghan countryside because it recognised that it could not, instead it was content to install a friendly ruler and leave him to manage the Afghan tribesmen.

More recently, in 1979, the Soviets attempted an invasion of Afghanistan. It has been called ‘Russia’s Vietnam’. Russian troops very quickly took Kabul, but were drawn into a long guerrilla war against the Mujahideen, an extreme Muslim group who took to the hills and violently opposed the Russian invaders. Fuelled by religious fanaticism, the Mujahideen out fought the second most powerful military in the world. After using extreme measures to dispose of the Guerrillas, such as Napalm and poison gas, the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, her face red with embarrassment at the failed war against such a minor power, despite the support of the ruling party.

History tells us then that wars in Afghanistan almost inevitably descent into vicious insurgency. The mountainous landscape of Afghanistan endears itself to hit and run tactics from locals who know the area far better than any invader could hope to. These tribesmen come not from major cities, but small towns and villages, scattered around the country and almost impossible to subdue. Strategic victories are a myth. Taking cities and establishing control over the political centres is pointless, opposition comes not from the ruling classes, but the fiercely independent tribesmen. Extremist Islam only serves to extenuate this problem; Islamic hatred towards western Christianity fuels the tribal hatred of invaders. In short an invasion of Afghanistan is doomed to failure.

Obama’s decision to pour more troops into Afghanistan then, when set against the context of the violent history of the country, is absurd. More troops on the ground are not going to be any better adept at flushing out the insurgents as the troops currently in the country. No amount of troops will ever be able to subdue the country because whenever an area is cleared to the Taliban, they wait until the troops have left and return from their hiding places. The tribesmen live in the villages, so all then need to do in order to melt away is to return to their homes. They then become no different from other civilians.

When set in its historical context, the invasion of Afghanistan was never going to be anything but a futile waste of life and resources. The war is unwinnable because Afghanistan is not like any normal theatre of war. Unless the tribesmen are in support of the invader, the invasion is bound to become a guerrilla war, which the invader will never win. Further proof that we do not learn the lessons of history.