“They shall not grow old…”

For Armistice Day, one of Edinburgh’s smaller memorials, a little plaque in Edinburgh’s Waverley Stations, probably passed by and largely ignored by thousands of people every day as they go around their busy journeys, a tiny reminder of the past, of maimed and injured soldiers coming home from the War to End All Wars, resting here on their way, hopefully cadging a brew-up and a fag from some Red Cross volunteers. A little corner of history, if you care to look for the echoes of the past that still sound in the present.

Great War memorial, Waverley Station

As they at last comprehend all their sacrifice, all their pain,
All their sorrow, all their suffering, all the death,
Did not change or alter a thing, was not a lesson learned
Nor an experience not to be repeated..
Realizing their friend’s painful, brutal, ultimate sacrifice
Was only a necessary evil of Mankind’s political process
Which has never changed, and never will,
For each generation brings anew to the world
Its own self-styled madness of universal death, tragedy and suffering,
In wars to be fought by the young, bright-eyed children of the world
Unknowingly raised as sacrificial lambs of slaughter,
To be killed and gone forever, for nothing.
That is why, all Veterans cry.

In this hallowed place of the dead
The lonely graves of war’s youthful victims
Who died for a thought,
an idea, for a cause
Promulgated by selfish, insane men in power
These war graves and cemeteries are Harbingers
Of the eternal, mindless death cycle of war.
Young men killed by politicians’ words and mindless acts,
Their promise and existence forever ended too soon.
Now, forever sleep beneath the green muffled grass
Sharing the earth with the youth and victims of past wars,
Too numerous to count, to numbing to contemplate,
The dead, as powerless and impotent as the now living
To change or alter, or detour the inexorable course of madmen,
They patiently wait for the next generation to join them
.”

a fragment from Harbingers, a poem on the occassion of the Normandy landings anniversary by Curtis D. Bennett

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

Do not despair

For Johnny-head-in-air;

He sleeps as sound

As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud

For Johnny-in-the-cloud;

And keep your tears

For him in after years.

Better by far

For Johnny-the-bright-star,

To keep your head,

And see his children fed.”

For Johnny, written by John Pudney on the back of an envelope as the bombs fell on London in 1941.

remembrance 6


The Remembrance Garden in Princes Street Gardens, right in the shadow of the Scott Monument; in the background were some anti-war protesters, although I should say they were quiet and not at all disrespectful; in fact I saw some talking to some old veterans. I don’t think they had anything against the soldiers or those paying respects to the fallen, just against the concept of war, and its hard to disagree with that.

remembrance 5
remembrance 1

Some of the markers in the Remembrance Garden are plain, many have names or regiments or ships or squadrons marked on them. This one touched me the most – it simply read “to dad”. I have no idea if the dad in question fell in one of the recent conflicts or half a century ago; I doubt it matters, the pain and loss and grief will still hurt as much.
remembrance 2

This one was marked to ‘Uncle Alex’ on HMS Hood; the Hood was a famous, huge Royal Navy battlecruiser. During a duel with the German pocket battleship Bismarck she was completely destroyed; its thought a lucky hit penetrated the weaker upper deck armour and set off a magazine. She exploded and sank almost instantly taking hundreds and hundreds of men with her to the bottom of the ocean; only three sailors from this enormous ship survived. Some say one of her turrets fired a last salvo as she sank. The comedic actor and former Doctor Who Jon Pertwee also served on the Hood and had transferred off her just shortly before the battle to train as a chief petty officer, or he may never have lived to become a famous entertainer.
remembrance - for all in Afghanistan

Not just historical battles remembered here but also the here and now as someone marks a cross for the men and women serving in Afghanistan right now.

Waltz with Bashir

For me, animation meant children’s films that you let them watch in order that they will leave you alone...” – respected Israeli war journalist Ron Ben-Yishai explains to the BBC that he was less than enthusiastic when Ari Folman approached him about contributing to the animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. Folman talked the 65 year old reporter around, fortunately – his segment, as the BBC article notes, is fairly brief, but as the first reporter to risk life and limb to enter the site of the refugee camp massacres his testimony is essential to the story; he’s now quite convinced by Folman’s animated efforts: ”The animation is adding a layer, a psychological layer of his trauma. In a normal documentary film you couldn’t have documented all these things – like the dreams…. Believe me, I have a lot of nightmares of this kind. After being in war situations… it comes to haunt you.”

Waltz With Bashir rabid dogs.jpg

Waltz With Bashir is a film I had been waiting to see for some time, following the good word of mouth it had been picking up on the international film festival circuit. An animated, feature-length documentary is a fairly unusual beast in the film world, and as someone who is fascinated by animation in its many forms I was intrigued. Ari Folman’s film looks back to the war in the Lebanon in 1982, seen through the memories, dreams and nightmares of former Israeli conscripts. The film opens with a pack of rabid dogs, barking, growling, running through the city streets, eyes glowing red, terrifying people, before arriving outside a building where they bark viciously at the inhabitant. The scene cuts to a bar and Folman is listening to his friend recount the dream of the dogs, which he has repeatedly, a mental echo of the war when he was forced to shoot dogs before their patrol could enter a village so the dogs couldn’t bark a warning (Shakespeare’s line “let slip the dogs of war” sprung to mind). When he asks Folman what bad dreams he has from the war Folman answers that his memory is mostly blank from that period. His friend’s troubled dreams spark the first glimmerings of memories and images from the war in Folman’s mind and so he sets out to talk to former comrades, slowly piecing together events surrounding their time in Lebanon, culminating in a horrific massacre of civilians in refugee camps.

Folman travels to meet old comrades, some fairly open about their war experiences, others quieter, more troubled; in between he talks to his therapist friend, troubled by his own missing memories and wondering what he saw or did that caused his mind to blank so much out. As anyone would be in such circumstances he wants to know but is also worried what he may learn about himself in the process. The film itself is mostly non-linear, made up of frequent flash backs as the former soldiers talk to Folman. But this is no straight ‘talking heads’ documentary – many of the men have only fragmented memories and images, often dreamlike or even hallucinatory. Folman himself is jarred into remembering a scene of himself and some comrades floating in the sea like drowned men; slowly they come to life and, quite naked, shamble slowly towards the war-torn shore, the scene lit by the eery light of flares. It reminded me of one of cinema’s strong visual scenes, Martin Sheen emerging from the dark waters in Apocalypse Now (and like Apocalypse Now there is much of Heart of Darkness about this film) crossed with a sort of D-Day landing but by undead, zombie soldiers, slowly shambling through the surf, across the beach and into the war zone.

And much of the film is seen in this manner; while some scenes are related and shown fairly literally (such as an ambush on a column of tanks) many are hazy, drawn from confused images in the memories of men who saw more than they wanted to and still see it frequently in their dreams, or composed entirely of fantasy images and hallucinations (one man on a boat heading to the war imagines a giant naked woman, who lifts him gently from the ship and swims away with him nestled child-like against her stomach as the ship and his comrades behind them explode into flame; another distances himself from events by pretending he is taking photos of it for an article). Its something a live action documentary simply couldn’t capture but the medium of animation is suited perfectly for; the animation takes us as close as we can be to the dreams and nightmares of those men, as well as showing how different minds react to the stress, how they interpret what they saw and endured, the strains, the stress, the guilt over actions forced on them or simple guilt for being alive when friends are dead. The film doesn’t try to excuse actions, nor does it seek to judge and condemn, it simply shows and shares those events and memories.

Waltz With Bashir naked giant woman dream sequence.jpg

(escape fantasy, sexual fantasy or simply the childlike urge to have a mother figure taking you away from harm – one of Folman’s friends recounts his vision of a giant, naked woman who carries him from the boat taking him to battle)

Popular music of the period features throughout, especially in scenes where the soldiers are given leave to visit home. A home life which now seems alien and bizarre – at the front they dream of being home, at home they feel strange, uncomfortable. Around them people are playing music, video games, enjoying everyday life, all familiar things which now seem so odd compared to what the soldier has been living. In this Folman scores again, showing us just a bit of the contrast the soldier (of any war) encounters when they come home and try to be ‘normal’ but wondering how everyday life can be so ordinary after what they have seen (its no surprise that many former soldiers have to deal with mental health and a myriad of other problems when they return to civilian life. A peace treaty might end a war politically, but it doesn’t end in the minds of many who had to prosecute it).

Its very powerful material, extremely emotional and often very, very uncomfortable to watch – but then, it should be. The last act leads up to the slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in refugee camps (spoiler warning, you may not want to read this last bit if you are going to see the film), the very event that Folman has been wondering about as he probes the gaps in his memory. The Israeli soldiers themselves are not directly involved, but they are ordered to encircle the camps while their Christian militia allies enter them, ostensibly looking for terrorists. They see women, old folks, children, being rounded up and loaded onto trucks; Folman flashes back to an earlier generation of his own family being loaded onto trucks by the Nazis. What happens next is, sadly, a matter of historical record – hundreds of innocents were slaughtered. Ben-Yishai, the reporter, was on the front lines and following leads from Israeli soldiers troubled about what they suspect is going on inside the camps, he investigates, bringing it to the attention of the government.

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(Lebanon, once called ‘the Paris of the East’, shattered and ruined by war; a scene probably familiar to many from news bulletins in the early 80s)

In the very last scenes animation is suddenly, jarringly, dispensed with in favour of Ben-Yishai’s news footage. Its simply horrific and the sudden move from animation to news film re-enforces that horror. Its dreadfully hard to take – I found myself seriously struggling to maintain some emotional control – but its something that should be seen by a wider audience (and I wish we could make our so-called world leaders sit and watch it before they decide on more foreign adventures). Like Apocalypse Now it is by turns fascinating and yet often horrific, but its engrossing and powerful. Sad to think Folman must have been working on it when Hizzbolah were firing rockets at Israeli civilians and Israel was bombing Lebanon once more just the other year. Which, regrettably, makes this not just a look at a historic event from decades ago but very contemporary to ongoing strife in the Middle East and elsewhere, while the animated nature of the bulk of the film guarentees images that will stick in the viewer’s mind long after the film has finished. One of the most unusual and remarkable animated films I’ve seen; as I said, it can be hard to watch, but you should try.Waltz With Bashir is on general release in the UK now; a graphic novel version of the story is due soon.

I originally wrote this review up for the Forbidden Planet blog

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

Young Croesus went to pay his call
On Colonel Sawbones, Caxton Hall:
And, though his wound was healed and mended,
He hoped he’d get his leave extended.

The waiting-room was dark and bare.
He eyed a neat-framed notice there
Above the fireplace hung to show
Disabled heroes where to go
For arms and legs; with scale of price,
And words of dignified advice
How officers could get them free.

Elbow or shoulder, hip or knee,
Two arms, two legs, though all were lost,
They’d be restored him free of cost.
Then a Girl Guide looked to say,
‘Will Captain Croesus come this way?’

“Arms and the man”, Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon, often referred to as the most innocent of the Great War poets, turned his poetry and his inventive sarcasm not only on the war and the enemy of the time but on the damned fool politicians (we could use more of that today – sadly we still have stupid fools who seem to make the decision to send people out to fight and die all too easily; perhaps each leader who would consider leading us into war should be forced to put forward a blood guarantee by only being allowed to send us to war if a close blood relation of theirs goes to. Then maybe they might suddenly think on other ways…).

Incidentally Sassoon escaped full censure from a less than forgiving military and political elite for speaking his mind by being classes as ‘shell-shocked’, which in truth he probably was but it doesn’t lessen his criticisms. He was sent to recuperate at Craiglockhart, not far from where I live in Edinburgh where among those being treated by psychiatrists (officers only, enlisted men didn’t get such treatment, needless to say) he met and befriended another of that dreadful slaughter’s greatest makkers, Wilfred Owen. They might have walked some of the same streets near me or the ones in the centre of Edinburgh when they sneaked out for the day. Then they were sent back to a man-made hell. Damn every bastard who thinks the sword, the gun and the bomb is the simplest and quickest way to achieve their aims.

AP

The BBC has a short but excellent slideshow with audio celebrating the work of AP, Associated Press’s photographers, focusing on those who have recorded combat areas. There are some remarkable shots on offer and no less than two Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalists sharing their insights. Even in a time of 24 hour rolling satellite news the power of a well composed single image like these is quite amazingly powerful, a single moment of time, frozen, captured; our brains see more detail, create meaning around the still image in a way that we simply don’t with video news footage.

99.9% need not apply

The Royal Marines are running recruitment ads in cinemas and TV again, which stress how tough the course is (and it certainly is) and that “99.9% need not apply”. While not bashing the Royal Marines, who make most countries special forces look like traffic wardens, it does make me wonder why air such an ad via the biggest mass media available? If you are aiming at .01% of the population but are paying for national advertising isn’t that possibly the worst use of mass media?

Blockbuster

Who the bloody smegging hell helped Hutton write his report? Was it the same group of people worked on the Warren Comission who proved that Kennedy and the Texas Senator were all shot by a single magic bullet fired by Oswald? Tony Blair, his government and, even more incredibly, Alastair Campbell, the most evil and canniving of all the evil gang of sub-humanoids sent by the Lord of Hades to plague mankind (that’s Spin Doctors I’m talking about in case you didn’t get it) are ALL TOTALLY FUCKING INNOCENT, FRESH, FRAGRANT!!!!! THE BBC ARE THE SPAWN OF EVIL ATTACKING THAT POOR MR BLAIR….

Does anyone with a brain and eyes still believe a fucking word of what’s going on here? No wonder there are so many consporacy theorists out there when shit like this is pulled on the public. Blair’s still pretending to be a man of the people while fucking every student in the land, being a good leader while taking his own party to the edge of destructionto satisfy his own ego, pretending to be a civlised man while sneind British forces out on an unprovoked war of agression and pretending it was all for our own good and that those pesky weapons we went to war to defend the world against will turn up anyday… He’s been taking lessons from that smeghead Bush in artificial reality poltiics, hasn’t he?

Okay, the Beeb fucked up seriously in the way they handled the whole tale. However they did, as public service broadcasters, have to report the allegations. And given the utter lack of WMDs found, still a relevant story. And frankly, I cannot believe for a moment that Campbell’s spin office did not have a hand on the whole Dr Kelly name leaking. Nothing, but nothing is released by this paranoid and control-freak led government without going through a carfeul airbrushing from what was then Campbell’s office. And if he was in on it then so was Blair since he faithfully reports all to his master.

Paranoid? Look at it this way – Blair just this week took his own party to within 5 votes of defeat and possible government collapse over student top up fees and variable charging at universities. When your party has a majority in parliament which runs way into three figures then coming within 5 votes of defeat takes some skill. And shame on almost all of the Scottish Labour MPs who voted for Blair to save his worthless ass – including my own MP Alistair Campbell (the same one i pillorried a few months back for not even being able to recall we have a parliamen tin Scotland and not a mere ‘assembly’ even although it sits inside his constituency). Shame on you all for abandoning all of your principles and those your apry stood for for decades to protect your political careers. And Blair? Well, not doing all of this was a MANIFESTO PROMISE! He promised the British people if elected again he would not do this. He was then prepared to split the government over it. HE LIED! Yes, folks, he fucking lied and broke a promise. Now how can we possibly beleive anything now from or about a man who cannot keep his word?

I’m now waiting ont he blockbuster, four-hour movie that Oliver Stone is going to make of the whole thing… “Blair and to the right…Blair and to the right…”

The BBC – yes those pesky evil doers who I still trust more than any government on the planet – have the entire report available to download here.

The Rockford Files in Iraq

I was somewhat taken aback when I saw Jay Garner arriving to the new dictator – Sorry, new interim leader of Iraq. That is, of course, nothing like being a colonial overlord governor-general (although he is indeed a general), because America does not and never has believed in colonialism (except for the Philippines, Cuba, Hawaii and countless spots of military of commercial significance around the world, many borrowed from the former British Empire). This is certainly a good way for us to show the Iraqi people who we fought a war to liberate them and give them our wonderful gifts of liberal democracy for the people, by the people and of the people. Just not those people.

Up until now, however, I thought this might be okay – that this J. Garner might be good in the short term. Then I realised today I had misheard Jay Garner for J. Garner. I thought we were talking about the esteemed actor James Garner. I thought the man who shone in The Great Escape, the man who was Maverick would be able to sort things out. Jim Rockford would know what to do and would always sort out the bad guys. Then I discovered that it wasn’t James Garner at all and some bloody retired general. That is a particularly sensitive move – pick not a diplomat or a UN representative but a US general.

Great. Couldnt we at least have some advisory council to work with him composed of actual Iraqi people from a cross-section of their society? Then we may at least have a fig-leaf of pretence that we are not imposing rule at the force of a gun on that shattered country. That sort of thing is not only immoral and illegal (much like the war itself) but makes an utter mockery of the supposed (and rather belatedly voiced) reason for the damned war.

With malice toward none, with charity for all

Stuffed up with a cold I’ve been browsing through books most of the day, when I found a quotation that seemed extremely appropriate to the current situation in a devastated Iraq. The eloquent words of one of the great leaders of democracy and equality, speaking in the end days of a dreadful war, he looks beyond the battlefield slaughter to building a lasting peace, rebuilding the land and taking care of the injured, the orphaned and those freed of oppression.

With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Abraham Lincoln, 2nd presidential speech of inauguration, March 3rd, 1865.

Shock and awe (TM)

Well the first Gulf War was referred to as a video game war. Night-sight graphics tinged in green, on-screen displays with read-outs taken direct from fighters and even the missiles – it did look like a video game. Were those really people dying there or was it just a multimedia extravaganza, lead by the happy, smiling face of Norman Schwazkopf.

Today in the Guardian I read about how Sony (amongst others) are planning to capitalise on this new war by registering the phrase shock and awe with the US patent office, so it is now Shock and Awe (TM). Sony say they are not necessarily going to make a game of Desert Storm II – although other software makers have already announced just this. Oh no, Sony are sensitive – they are only registering their trademark now in case they wish to use them on a future product, if it is suitable. Nice how they went to the patent office while the bombs were still falling, a fine touch.

War and commerce, my how well these pillars of our civilisations work together. The British Empire, the world’s largest, was powered by mighty commerce and awesome military power. It was also supposedly based on our 18th century Enlightenment theories of liberty. Liberty, massive armed forces and commerce. 18th century Imperial era – 21st century post-modern world. Anyone spot the difference? In France in 1940 we had the Phoney War. Today we have the Sony War. Plus ca change.

Victory?

So it’s all over – the newspapers and other media are all proclaiming victory in Iraq. A little presumptuous considering that there are still firefights going on and no-one knows where Saddam is. Hopefully the allies won’t end up with another Afghanistan on their hands where they can’t find the top folk of the regime after the dust settles.

And what a stunning victory it is as our brave boys valiantly overthrow the evil regime to ‘liberate’ the poor wee folk in Iraq. That would sit a little more easily with me if it wasn’t for the fact that our leaders kept changing the reasons why they were so bloody determined to have this seedy little war so many times over the last few months. You’ll note that the noble aim of liberating an oppressed people – which they clearly were – was a justification only added in the very last weeks before the bombs started. Nobility may be something the men and women of our armed forces can display but not I fear our political masters. When applying the term to them I advise prefacing the word ‘nobility’ with the letter ‘k’.

Iraq

I made the mistake of reading a discarded Metro on the bus this morning. I’m sure many of you saw it, an image designed to go right pass all our cynical armour and go straight for the jugular of the emotions, the picture of the wee Iraqi lad who lost both arms in a raid. Lost both his arms, his mum, his dad, his sisters and brothers, his home… This is obviously some strange usage of the world ‘liberation’ that I haven’t come across before. Still, he is alive, so I guess that’s what our enlightened leaders would call a surgical strike. Was this a calculated bit of media to get a reaction from us, running this pic and story? Yes. Did it work. Yes. I think I preferred it when they were shooting themselves. Speaking of which, isn’t it against the Geneva Convention to bomb John Simpson? I’m sure there is a special article relating to John Simpson in war zones.