The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Friday, February 29, 2008

My Last Night in Birmingham

I wrapped things up today for the big leave tomorrow. I went to the post office to pick up a package (turned out to be some bank stuff, disappointing, I was hoping for a book I'd forgotten or an army info pack). I went to the bank and activated my new bank card. I bought some chocs for the Cheels (the family who have been so gracious to host me the past few weeks). Finally, yes, I handed in my uniform at Macky's (still damp from washing it yesterday, no tumble dryer): tout un symbole. I also gave them a little resignation letter in which I thanked Andy for giving me the opportunity to support myself independently for the first time. Sincere smiles and best wishes and a firm handshake later, and I was off, feeling very warm and fuzzy.

Birmingham has on balance been a bad experience. I could have done a great deal to make things more pleasant and successful. Before finishing up uni and going to France, I should have got my National Insurance number (for the dole), investigated flats and applied to jobs. I should have asked the various friends and family I might have been able to stay with, rent-paying, to ease my integration into the area. I should not have jumped blindly into a new environment, alone, with scarcely a plan A, and certainly no plan B. I have learned a great deal for next time.

And things could have gone well. I might have landed in a better place to stay. I might have scored one of those snazzy jobs I went to interview for. If I'd been in a better frame of mind, I might have made friends with more of the people I'd met. And things weren't all bad. I've read more books in the past 6 months than the rest of my life put together. I've been able to visit, and appreciate, friends and family every few weeks. I got to go to my first interviews, suit and all. I've learned the assertiveness to ask and get jobs. I've been a waiter in a Spanish restaurant, a dole recipient, a mover for a law firm, a office worker for a brewery, an audiotypist for a psychiatric hospital (featuring the depressive, the insane and the drug/alcohol dependent, made me feel downright normal) and, of course, a McCrew member. It almost sounds cool, and could be made into a quirky chapter in my autobiography.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A letter to Newsweek (Gipper)

This is a response to the Feb 8 article "The Gipper Lives On":

It is wrong to suggest that McCain’s poor relations with hardcore conservatives like Limbaugh and Coulter has anything to do with the Reagan legacy. There was a great deal of talk of this year about how Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory has been simplified. The same can be said of Ronald Reagan who, despite appearances, was a complex figure. The Cold Warrior who sponsored civil wars in Nicaragua and Angola was also the peacemaker who dreamed of a world without nuclear weapons (including American). Reagan’s simultaneous tax cuts and massive defense budget put him alongside Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush as one of the biggest deficit spenders (so much for 'fiscal conservatism'). A major policy issue on which Reagan and McCain agree is one which self-proclaimed conservatives revile the most: both supported a legal path to citizenship for illegal immigrants (in Reagan’s time it was unashamedly called “amnesty”). The thoughtless references to some sort of non-existent “Reagan consensus” prevents Republicans from deciding who they really are. It has made the movement pathetically schizophrenic: simultaneously a party of isolationists and crusaders, of fiscal conservatives and big spenders, of principled libertarians and xenophobic and homophobic social conservatives.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Book Review: The Mighty and the Meek

I’ve been reading quite a bit of biography recently, partly to understand the lives of important people, partly to provide some guidance for my own. The memoirs of US diplomat Vernon Walters are rather appropriate in that respect. His parentage was English and American, he was raised in France for many years including in Paris (picking up French), in Nice (picking up Italian among the kids at school), and Biarritz (learning Spanish). Later he also became fluent in Portuguese and German. Thus became possible Walters's career as an interpreter and diplomat for the United States. The book is, in fact, is a recollection of all the famous people (The Mighty) and notable not-so-famous people (The Meek) Walters met and the diplomatic missions he undertook. It reads like a Who’s Who of political leaders speaking a Western European language. You have virtually every US president, as well as French presidents, Brazilian presidents, Popes, General Montgomery, General Marshall, Franco, Castro and others still.

Walters’s first ‘diplomatic’ mission was as an officer in the US army during WW2, in the US invaded Vichy-French North Africa, he successfully convinced a Vichy-French colonel to surrender. He recounts other encounters with much detail giving insight into the personalities themselves and what it means to be a high-level diplomat. He recounts tensions with US Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker (turf wars). He unironically talks about “the (obviously undifferentiated) Communists” much as ex-CIA Chief James Woolsey talks about “World War 4”. He quotes a thoughtful Harry S. Truman on the fate of US presidents: “The only future you have is in the memory of the people,” something which might be said of all political leaders. In all this, he has a kind word for almost everyone from Ronald Reagan to Charles de Gaulle (‘quintessential’ American and Frenchman respectively), and Maggy Thatcher (“a very handsome woman”) to Francois Mitterrand (for bringing down the French Communist Party). Occasionally this leads to platitudes and iffy praise, such as when talking about Francisco Franco or the Moroccan invasion of Western Sahara in rather kind terms. He seems to only really condemn Communists.

For me, personally, the chapter on Mobutu Sese Seko was a real treat. Walters was sent on several missions to Mobutu to ask him to reform, release US citizens or not be so harsh on dissidents. How surreal that the infamous Zairean dictator, known as “Satan”, “the vampire”, and “l’Egorgeur” among other things, apparently once burst into tears when Walters urged him to reform a little too hard. He also describes how he was taken to Mobutu’s hometown of Gbadolite on a C-130 airplane… which terrified him because of the notion of “Zairean maintenance” of the plane and the fact that Mobutu himself would be piloting it. After a comfortable flight and successfully landing the President of Zaire apparently swiveled round his pilot’s chair and stood up exclaiming “Alors vous avez vu ca?’ (Well did you see that?) One senses more somewhat childish pleasure when Mobutu beamed with pride after Walters told him, having landed on the presidential yacht in a helicopter, that he had “Africa’s first aircraft carrier”.

The chapters on ‘The Meek’ and his missions also have a few juicy anecdotes and tidbits. He describes meeting a missionary in rural Brazil who was attempting to learn the Cracati language of the 20,000 Indians who spoke it, so he could translate the Bible into their language. When Walters asked how long this would take, the man replied “Perhaps my whole life.” Among his diplomatic missions, he describes his attempt to persuade European leaders to cooperate with Reagan’s bombing of Qaddafi in 1986 as well as innumerable attempts to get people out of jail

The Mighty and the Meek is a pleasant book to read, although I’m not sure I would enjoy a repeat of the curious non-chronological format. Still, it is a good record of the high points of an astonishing career, one which will be of interest to anyone interested in high politics and the illustrious figures he mentions.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Book Reviews: Understanding the Congo Wars

When the history books of the future talk about the 1990s and early 2000s, they will probably talk about 9/11, America 'maximalist' foreign policy, and an 'ever-rising' China. If they are written with all fractions of humanity in mind (which may seem naïve), they might include, beside the chapter on the integration of Western Europe, a chapter on the disintegration of Central Africa. In the 1990s, Zaire, the major state in the region, collapsed as an economy and a state. It was invaded twice, once by Rwanda in 1996 and renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and again by several states in 1998 including Rwanda, Uganda, Angola and Zimbabwe. The ensuing wars have led to the deaths of over 3 million people.

A question always asked after major conflicts, from the US Civil War to WW2, is of course why? In the case of the Congo Wars, explanations have included the struggle for resources, ‘tribal wars’, and the power vacuum following the collapse of the Zaire/Congolese state. Here are three books (slim!) which attempt to explain the wars.

Echec aux mercenaries (“Failure for mercenaries”), as the title suggests, covers the first invasion by Rwanda to topple Mobutu’s dictatorship of Congo/Zaire and France’s failed attempts to stop this by means of French, Belgian, Serb and South African mercenaries. It is well-versed in the contemporary French-speaking press.

It is quite good at revealing the attitudes of some French authorities. It quotes a French colonel at that time with a statement which is striking in two ways: “Mobutu? Not a very respectable man, sure, a bit of a scoundrel, cruel even. But why change him? At least we know him! Incidentally, the one who will replace him will resemble him like a brother.” Remarkable, given that Kabila, the man the Rwandans would eventually put in charge of Congo, was very dictatorial himself and accused of being a “Clone of Mobutu”. The colonel then follows up with: “These niggers are net yet ripe for democracy. Will they be one day?” I need not add to that. It similarly has good passages on Frenchmen who believed the war in central Africa was orchestrated by “the Anglo-Saxons” as a conspiracy to replace France’s sphere of influence in Africa.

The main weakness of the book is, natural given that is a published as part of a series of Dossiers noirs condemning France’s policies in Africa, is that it is systematically anti-French and anti-Mobutu. It generously reserves judgment on Rwanda even though it participated in various massacres of people and pillaging of economic resources of the country (this was not 100% clear at the time).

The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality is written by veteran Congo scholar Thomas Turner. It is not a narrative of the wars. Rather, the book tries to do many things: the early chapters are wonderful at introducing and contextualizing the conflict, later it describes the belief of Ugandans that Congo is a place where you can steal cars, meet women, and make money, the ways Uganda/Rwanda have plundered Congo, the role of the international community and the elections that have been held since the war ended. The result is a book which is slightly clunky, two chapters of in-depth analysis on the impact of the war in the provinces of North and South Kivu I found a particular slog but unfortunately unenlightening. It is a useful book nonetheless.

The African Stakes of the Congo War is special because it is an edited volume of articles by different authors. This has some disadvantages: the authors don’t all necessarily agree and they are not made to link up. On the other hand, each chapter has to both be short and make a well-argued point, which is always good. The two introductory chapters are very good: John Clark explains the situation in Congo/Zaire that made the war possible very well and Crawford Young very originally puts Congo’s invasion by Rwandan guerrillas in a continental context (IE, pointing out that this sort of thing also happened to Chad, Uganda, Rwanda…).

The other chapters each explain a single theme or factor in the war. I found those on the conduct of individual states to be the best: the reasons behind Rwanda’s and Uganda’s invasions, and Angola’s and Zimbabwe’s interventions alongside the government, are explained as is South Africa’s neutrality. I found the chapter on Rwanda particularly good: it dispels a lot of illusions about Rwanda’s current government, and how its shadier actions (counter-genocide, invasion, economic pillage) tend to get overlooked because these are the same people who ended the Rwandan Genocide (much as Israel was cut some slack in the early years because of the Holocaust). This book, despite a format not usually aimed at non-experts/students, I think is probably the best introduction to the topic.

There is not all that much literature out there on the Congo Wars yet. For most people, if there is any awareness at all, it is a dark blur of rather aimless, incomprehensible violence (spiced with morbid reports of massacres, rapes and, occasionally, cannibalism). These things occur, but they must be comprehensible in some terms, whether it is driven by state-interests (Rwanda/Uganda), state collapse (of Congo), natural resources, ‘tribalism’ (think Bosnia x100) or international neglect (the former Yugoslavia receives loads more per capita aid and troops than Congo). These books are a contribution to understanding ‘the horror’ of war in the Congo, a horror which we should not complacently believe, forgetting our the world's history starting with our own, is unique and limited to Africa.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Rebels in N'djamena

There's 1,000-2,000 rebel forces in Chad's capital, they arrived yesterday. They have fought around the presidential palace, but it is not clear what the situation is. There's no info on who they are, only that they come from eastern Chad (which borders Darfur).

This is a recurring theme in Chadian history. Although it's rather surprising that this government should be so near to falling, because it is the only one who has exploited Chad's oil wealth, and usually that kind of easy money can prop up a regime.

If President Idriss Deby falls in the coming days, the rebels will be the 'legitimate government' tomorrow.