civil war

  • Same place, different century

    (Photo by Emma Francis)

    Stuck for a good read? Try two books about the same place from writers who were there a century apart. I’ve done it twice now, by chance. I recommend it. 

    First, I read Siberian Journey: Down the Amur to the Pacific, 1856-1857 by Perry McDonough Collins, an incredible account of his trip as the first American to travel the length of the Amur River on the border of China and Siberia. 

    I followed this up by reading Black Dragon River: A Journey down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires by Dominic Ziegler

    Collins travelled the Amur as Slavs from Russia were craving out territory for the Tsar. He envisaged a new America in the Far East, rolling back the primitive Chinese. Ziegler’s contemporary travels revealed gleaming Chinese cities looking across the Amur at impoverished Russian settlements. 

    From US Grant to Kerouac

    It happened again when I read the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – American civil war hero and president. He published them in 1885, just before his death. They largely recount the civil war years and the battles he was engaged in. 

    I followed this up with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, published in 1957 and chronicling his road trips across the US in the late 40s and early 50s. I hadn’t intended them as comparison pieces, and yet they were. 

    Kerouac’s crazy drives from coast to coast, with almost no sleep, occasional fuel stops and bouts of drinking, happened to take him through both Vicksburg, Mississippi and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Both were sites of major civil war battles Grant described. 

    A hundred years from now…

    I was struck by how these two men were treading the same ground less than a hundred years apart, yet one was bogged down in constant mud, trying to pull mule trains of munitions and bedraggled soldiers through the mire, hitting the major obstacle of rivers they couldn’t cross. 

    The other was crossing the entire American continent from coast to coast in a matter of days, in an automobile on bitumen roads. For one, the conditions were so harsh they imperiled life itself, for the other, it was a joyride.

    Same place, different reality. 

    More travel and books? Here’s how to spend a long haul flight

  • Oh, there’s a war in Yemen

    The humanitarian crisis in Yemen
    War games in Yemen (Photo by rawpixel)

    It took the death of one man – Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – to bring international pressure to bear on the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen conflict. Given UN statistics suggesting the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with up to 14 million at risk of starvation, and a steady death toll, it’s ironic that one death can achieve so much.

    I know you aren’t surprised

    None of us are these days. But it was striking for how long Yemen – like Libya – had vanished. Syria faired much better in the media stakes, mainly because more is at stake geopolitically there, but even that war is starting to bore us.

    Syria has remained in our newsfeeds because it’s a war Western governments want to see end. As Russia and Iran back Assad towards victory, the plea from the West is united: STOP THE WAR.

    But in Yemen…

    In Yemen, the war could only begin with Western arms and tacit support. Arms sold by Europeans and Americans to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These weapons were intended to reverse a civil war in its closing stages, one the Houthi rebels were winning.

    The result has been a drawn-out disaster of epic proportions that has been barely visible in our newsfeeds. This is partly media fatigue. What else is there to say about a war no one much cares to talk about?

    It’s also awkward. It draws us all closer to the question of why governments in representative democracies – maybe your democracy? – are supporting Arab autocrats in a bombing campaign in the poorest country in the Middle East.

    I know every charity will trot out the same old images this Christmas, like they always do, telling us to spare a thought for a child in Yemen. It’s hackneyed and we’ve heard it all before. But this week I spared a thought, a brief thought, for my own sake more than anyone else’s.

  • Why Putin is Playing Nice

    The chess pieces of Putin's war
    War games (Photo by Jason Leung)

    The Syrian Civil War. Pretty clear-cut, right? A brutal dictatorship propped up by Putin’s Russia. Grinding to a conclusion. Nothing to see here.

    September 17. Two events: a deal between President Putin of Russia and President Erdogan of Turkey to halt the offensive on the final rebel stronghold of Idlib and the downing of a Russian surveillance plane off the Syrian coast during an Israeli operation against a Syrian air base.

    Being friends with Russia

    Russia and Assad are like that ????.

    An offensive against the last rebel stronghold? Actually, no.

    A Russian plane downed during an Israeli air raid. Actually, no.

    Imagine how comfy Assad is feeling right now: he’s heard that his offensive to take the last rebel stronghold in Syria isn’t happening. And he’s heard that a Russian plane with 15 servicemen aboard was shot down not by Israeli jets attacking a Syrian air base, but by Syrian antiaircraft fire.

    Keeping your friends on their toes

    My article for Fair Observer explains just why Putin was happy to cut a deal with Turkey on Idlib.

    As for the Israelis: they did fly a mission very close to the flightpath of the Russian plane, they did give less than a minute’s warning to Russia about the operation, and they may well have used the plane as cover against Syrian antiaircraft fire.

    But the measured response from Putin reveals everything about the Syrian Civil War. Assad is not an end for Russia, but a means to an end. Russia’s goal is not just to create a staunch ally in Syria, but to create great power leverage in the Middle East.

    Friends + guns = leverage. September 17 was about keeping friends.