Menzie’s Excellent Suez Adventure

Many historians claim that the Suez Crisis of late 1956 was the end of the beginning of Britain’s retreat from Empire and its decline as a Great Power. Britain’s divestment of its non-Anglo-Celtic empire began with its withdrawn from Palestine and the independence of India in 1947 and 1948 and proceeded apace through the sixties and seventies until today when but a handful of dependencies remain.

Why Britain reacted as it did to the rise of Gamal Abd al Nasser and his seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956 has long fascinated scholars. Watching ‘The Crown’, recently, and its portrayal of Sir Anthony Eden, and recalling Dennis Potter’s marvelously surreal take on the Suez Crisis in ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’, I discovered one possible explanation (though It doesn’t quite explain the decision of France and Israel to join Britain’s last imperial adventure). 

The Suez Crisis had far-reaching consequences – though none as catastrophic on a political and human scale as when Britain and Australia joined America’s Iraq crusade in 2003. The humiliating withdrawal from Suez accelerated Britain’s slow decline from “great power” status, and the US’ steady ascent to world leadership. It was the harbinger of the end of an empire on which the sun never set. It burnished Nasser’s revolutionary credentials and gave rise to an anti-western, secular, and socialist Arab nationalism that challenged and, in many countries, toppled the established order in the Middle East. It led, in a short time, to the rise of the Ba’ath regimes in Syria and Iraq, which, it can be argued, set these countries on the road to ruin half a century later. And what might have been the consequences for Eastern Europe is “the West” had not been so distracted on the canal during Hungary’s quixotic revolution and its brutal suppression by the Soviet Union.

The Suez Crisis in brief

The Suez Crisis came to a boil with what Arabs called the Tripartite Aggression, and Israelis, the Sinai War. Historians refer to it as the Second Arab–Israeli war –  between the war that commenced with the conclusion of Britain’s mandate over Palestine, and ended with the establishment of the state of Israel and expulsion of over a quarter of a million Arabs from within the battle-won borders of the new state, and the Six Day War which has changed utterly Israel’s geography, politics, culture, society, identity and international standing.

It commenced with an invasion of Egypt in October 1956 by Israel, followed immediately by the United Kingdom and France. The aims were to regain control the Suez Canal a majority British owned strategic international waterway for the Western nations who depended upon it their oceanic commerce, and also, to remove Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had just nationalized the foreign-owned Suez Canal Company, which administered the canal. After the fighting had started, political pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Nations led to a withdrawal by the three invaders. It humiliated the United Kingdom and France and enhanced the reputation of Nasser. Although the three allies had attained a number of their military objectives, the Egyptians scuppered forty ships in the canal rendering it useless. As a result of the conflict, the United Nations created the UNEF Peacekeepers to police the Egyptian–Israeli border, British prime minister Anthony Eden resigned, and the Soviet Union, taking advantage may have been emboldened to invade Hungary.  

Fun in the sun

As with all international conflicts, the causes are much more complex than the actual casus belli that precipitate it, and beyond the intention and scope of this article.  Issues geopolitical, strategic, tactical, historical, cultural and indeed, psychological proliferated, aggregated and aggravated, converging on one or more ignition points. The Cold War, the rise of Arab nationalism, the Arab Israeli conflict, the decline of the British Empire and Britain’s need to hang onto its status as a world power, and the personalities of the players, particularly the Egyptian leader and the British prime minister.

Sir Anthony greets his troops

And into this complex and volatile maze stepped longtime Australian Prime Minister monarchist and empire loyalist Sir Robert Menzies.

But first …

The view from Down Under 

When many British folk of a certain age remember the Suez Crisis in the fall of 1956, they think of the “ Gyppos”, the jumped-up Arabs who defied then embarrassed Great Britain, brought down a prime minister, and dropped the curtain on the empire on which the sun never set. They might also at a stretch imaging a connection from this to Dodi al Fayyad and his dad, Muhammad, the one time owner of Harrods and the creator of that infamous shrine to his lad and the people’s princess who both perished in the Paris car crash that launched a thousand conspiracy theories – one of which was the the establishment’s fear that Diana would would bring forth an Egyptian baby.

As a youngster in Birmingham, the events in Egypt passed me by – I was however quite excited by the revolution in Hungary and the Soviet invasion that followed soon afterwards, and would spend hours drawing pictures of street battles, of tanks and fighters and security services men strung up on lampposts. But many young men doing their compulsory national service, including the sons and brothers of my friends and relatives, were fearful of being sent off to a foreign war, the last one being barely over a decade. This anxiety, and also the imperial angst of crusty ex-army civil servants, is beautifully portrayed in Dennis Potter’s brilliant Lipstick On Your Collar, and also the very commendable drama series The Hour. I have friends and acquaintances of British, Italian, Maltese and French descent who had been born in Egypt but had to leave with their families in during and after the crisis as the Egyptian government, vindictive in its victory, showed them the door.

When Aussies remember the Crisis – well, probably very few do. But way back then, in the days of the White Australia Policy (yes, we really did have that) and the early closing Six O’clock Swill (and yes, we had that too!), apart from many former soldiers who had memories of Egypt in both world wars, we just got on with the matters that preoccupied us in a year that Australian academic and author Hugh Richardson recounts in his highly informative and very entertaining 1956 – the year Australia welcomed the world. Richardson recreates the events of the year surrounding the Melbourne Olympics of November and December 1956,  including the introduction of television in Australia, the arrival of Rock Around the Clock, the British nuclear test in the South Australian outback, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, and immediately before it, the Suez debacle.

Nowadays, many commentators and writers looking back on the fifties paint Australia as an insular, inward-focusing and churlish nation which many now internationally famous Australian abandoned for greener, more cerebral and creative British pastures. Richardson acknowledges this too, but contends that the country was in fact changing, in the early stages of our development into the worldly-wise, technologically connected, creative, cosmopolitan and multicultural nation that we imagine ourselves to be today. Undoubtedly, we are, but some disreputable skeletons still rattle around at the back of our national cupboard and sometimes fall out into the public space to the embarrassment of ourselves and the discomfort of our friends and neighbours.

This is not to say that Australia was detached from world affairs. Our innate conservatism, and religiosity, a traditionally strong emotional attachment to Great Britain, the homeland of most immigrants to Australia in the since the days of the first settlement, and a firm commitment to our alliance with the UK and the US, saw us drawn into the mindsets and machinations of the Cold War.

We signed up for the United Nation’s euphemistically termed “police action” in Korea, a war that concluded with a forever armistice, and contributed troops to the Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party, from 1948 to 1960 in today’s Malaysia and Singapore. Australia’s commitment lasted 13 years, between 1950 and 1963 and until Vietnam and Afghanistan, was the longest continuous military commitment in our history.

 On the home front, Robert Menzies endeavoured to ban the Communist Party in an Antipodean echo of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition in America. There were other similarities with the USA as an adolescent ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Agency, encouraged dobbers and snitches to shop their neighbours and colleagues. The actual extent and effectiveness of this is unknown to this day. The Labor Party fractured as fervent anti-communist Catholics walked out to establish the Democratic Labor Party, a rift than kept Labor in the political wilderness where it had  … for a  further sixteen years. And in April 1954, Vladimir Petrov, a Soviet security officer in the Canberra embassy defected to the West with his reluctant, patriotic wife, Evdokia, a valued cryptographer at the embassy, much to the ire of Comrade Khrushchev. In 1956, therefore, Australia was very much on the radar of what President Robert Reagan would later call The Evil Empire.

When Robert met Gamal

In Richardson’s narrative, it appears that unbeknownst to the ordinary man or woman on the Bondi bus, Australia played a significant role in the Suez Crisis, and indeed,  there might’ve been a fair chance that our government would have volunteered our soldiers to join the party, much as we’d answered the old country’s call oft times before. But, as far as we know, Britain never asked and Australia never offered. It would appear that longtime Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies main preoccupation that summer and fall was Britain’s imperial anguish, and how he might help assuage it.

The following narrative is quoted directly from Richardson’s book.

“During the build-up to the Crisis, British prime Minister Anthony Eden became consumed with an obsessional hatred for Nasser, and from March 1956 onward, was privately committed to the Nasser’s ousting. The American historian Donald Neff has written that Eden’s often hysterical and overwrought views towards Nasser almost certainly reflected the influence of the amphetamines to which he had had become addicted following a botched operation in 1953 together with the related effects of sustained sleep deprivation (Eden slept on average about 5 hours per night in early 1956).

Increasingly Nasser came to be viewed in British circles—and in particular by Eden—as a dictator, akin to Benito Mussolini. Ironically, in the buildup to the crisis, it was the actually the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and the left-leaning tabloid newspaper The Mirror that first made this comparison. . Anglo-Egyptian relations would continue on their downward spiral.

US President Eisenhower and Gamal Abdel Nasser

During World War II British prime minister Winston Churchill asked Anthony Eden who was foreign minister, to help him identify an appropriate candidate for to be minister of state in Cairo, Egypt. The position was strategically important because of the war in North Africa, but the candidate did not have to be British. Robert Menzies by this time had lost the prime ministership in Australia to John Curtin and was therefore able to be considered. He did not get the job. Eden actually even admitted later Menzies had not been accepted because “he probably would not get on with the people of of the Middle East, being a somewhat difficult person“. Now, Eden as British Prime Minister, was about to send Menzies on a far more difficult assignment.

Edens original observation was perhaps born out several years later when Menzies was in Cairo on a different mission – an international delegation sent to meet Colonel Nasser himself in an effort to persuade him that the canal to be placed under United Nations stewardship). “These Gyppos are dangerous lot of backward adolescents, full of self-importance and basic ignorance”, Menzies wrote in his diary. The attitude, not uncommon at the time, extended beyond the Egyptians. A former Australian High Commissioner to India Indonesia Italy and Kenya, Sir Walter Crocker, noted in 1955: “Menzies is anti-Asian; particularly anti-Indian… he just can’t help it”.

… While race proved challenging for Menzies, perhaps the more confronting charge was his apparent lack of curiosity about other nations, his unshakable faith in English superiority, and his lack of engagement with European languages.

Menzies believed that a strong response might be required to get Nasser to appreciate Britain’s point of view. Menzies was, in the public eye, a “Commonwealth man”. He had walked that stage, found a spot of obeisance near the crown, and felt like a valued elder statesman within the Commonwealth club of nations. But this mission to Egypt propelled him into a new kind of universe where the old verities no longer applied. He was about to embark on a delicate international mission of diplomacy, trying to negotiate with a new leader who was driven by forces Menzies could not fully comprehend, in a region about which had little interest ….

… Menzies had worked assiduously in London to get command of the brief for his mission. He and four advisors had nine meetings exploring the finances of the canal, and had spoken to the canal’s directors and even an engineer who was an expert in the area. Yet there was no discussion about the social and personal elements he needed to understand: why the Suez Canal was so important to the Egyptians, and why Nasser felt it now is the time to express his independence of thought and action.

The consequences of this shortsightedness became clear early on during Menzies meetings with Nasser. Menzies conducted the discussions like the barrister he once was, laying out the evidence, interrogating opinions, prosecuting a case, just as us Secretary of State Dulles had expected him to do. Nasser, Menzies confided to his staff, was naive and uncertain. Menzies believed he could influence him. Menzies base view was far less hospitable. He told Eden that Nasser was “in some ways a likable fellow but so far from being charming, he is rather gauche … I would say that he was a man of considerable but immature intelligence”. Menzies had more generalizations to make: “like many of these people in the Middle East (or even India) who I have met, his logic doesn’t travel very far; that is to say, he will produce a perfectly adequate minor premise , but his deduction will be astonishing”.

Nasser had his own description of Menzies – he was ‘a mule’.”

Coda – “I did but see her passing by …”

Robert Menzies love affair with Britain has opened him to posthumous ridicule in some quarters. Many would not know remember that in 1952, he  ordered charges against the communist journalists Rex Chiplin for criticizing the coronation. That came to nought but Chiplin was later hauled before the Royal Commission on Espionage (1954-55), a copycat version of Senator McCarthy’s Committee of in-American Activities

usually connected to his public comment during the visit of the young Queen Elizabeth and her consort to Australia in 1952 when quoting 17th century poet John Ford, he said: “I did but see her passing,  and yet I’ll love her ‘til I die”.

And yet, Sir Robert was not alone in his adulation. As the Sydney Morning Herald wrote on the fiftieth anniversary if the Royal tour:

“Royalty can have a strange effect on people who come into contact with it. It had an extraordinary effect on an estimated 7 million Australians who flocked to see the young Queen Elizabeth 50 years ago …The estimated figure was about 70 per cent of the Australian population of nearly 10 million. Nearly one million people were thought to have crowded Sydney’s foreshores and streets when the Queen arrived on February 3, when the city’s population was 1.8 million. About 150,000 crammed around Sydney Town Hall and neighbouring streets when she attended the Lord Mayor’s Ball. A newspaper reported that 2000 collapsed in the crush”.

Until the abolition of royal honours by the Whitlam Labor government of 1972-76, Australian worthies were rewards with British knighthoods and were also entitled to sit in the British House of Lords as life-peers. It was Menzies’ fervent wish that he be accorded that honour, and after his retirement in 1966, prime minister William McMahon endeavoured to grant it – but he lost office to Gough Whitlam before he could satisfy Sir Robert’s hearts desire.

Sir Robert Menzies, monarchist, Empire Royalist,and consummate politician kept his hand on the steering wheel of a conservative and complacent Australia from 1949 until his retirement in 1966. Some believe that it was a stultifying hand. Others praise him – and praise him still – him for upholding traditional Australian values, and keeping us relaxed, comfortable and prosperous. But in his influential 1964 book The Lucky Country, academic, social critic and public intellectual Donald Horne wrote: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise”. It wasn’t meant as a compliment.

But the times they were a’changin’. Political, cultural and social change was already in motion at the time of the Melbourne Olympics, and continued apace through the sixties, reaching top speed with the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972.

I first arrived in Australia in December 1976 for a month’s vacation in my first wife’s home country, and immigrated a year later. Gough had gone by the time I landed, inauspiciously sacked by the Governor General at the instigation of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies’ creation. But the country that became my home of over forty years was no longer that of 1956. That past was, to quote the much-quoted LP Hartley, “another country”.

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For posts in In That Howling Infinite on the Middle East, see A Middle East Miscellany, on Australian history and politics, Down Under, and on history generally, Foggy Ruins of Time – from history’s pages.  

A House Divided – the nature of civil war

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Abraham Lincoln

The North would not let us govern ourselves, so the war came. Jefferson Davis

Perhaps is the personal dimension that makes civil wars so attractive to re-enactors in the U.K the US – the gloomy and yet paradoxically romantic concept of “a family divided” and “brother against brother”. When hundreds of ordinary folk meticulously don period garb and take up replica weaponry to replay Gettysberg and Shiloh, Worcester and Naseby, Towton and Bosworth Field, it is much, much more than a fun day out in the countryside. It might be good-natured play-acting, or participating in “living history”, but might it not also speak to some inner-need to connect with long-dead forbears who endured “the longest day” on those very fields in mortal combat with their own kith and kin.

This is just one of the many thoughts that entered my head on reading an article in the New York Review of Books in 2017 reviewing Civil Wars: A History in Ideas byDavid Armitage, and another in the Times in January 2022 reviewing a new book by american political scientist Barbara F Walter called How Civil Wars Start – And How To Stop Them. The review are reprinted in full below, but first, some of  of my own observations.

Notwithstanding the fact that civil wars are so devastating in terms of lives lost, the destruction wrought on the urban and rural environment, and the shattering of social and political institutions, fear of civil war and its consequences apparently does not deter belligerent parties from marching down that road. Often, one or another actually forces the issue, aware of the potentially disastrous consequences, but rationalizing it along the lines of national, ideological or sectional interest, and indeed, some concept of community, social, religious or ethnic survival, a perception defined nowadays as an existential threat, as happened historically, one could argue, in England, in the US, Russia, Spain, and Bosnia. Sometimes, it is an accumulation of seemingly minor events, perceived slights, discrimination, actual atrocities, miscalculations, or overreactions that ignite pyres that have been building for ages – generations even. I think of Lebanon here, and Syria.

So often, casus belli that are in hindsight viewed by historians as pivotal, are not seen as critical to the participants, and indeed, many would protest that they had “no idea that things would come to this”, and that even then, there may have been a sense that wiser heads would prevail, that it would blow over or that it would be all over soon. The idea of what people are fighting about often looks different from the perspective of those actually engaged in it to his outside observers, both contemporarily and retrospectively. Indeed, sometimes, reasons are tacked on afterwards, and indeed, actually mutate progressively as matters escalate.

Lebanon and Syria, again, and perhaps even the southern slave states that sought to secede from the Union in 1861, and the English parliamentarians who challenged the royal prerogative. But one can be damn sure Generalissimo Franco knew what he was doing when he flew the Spanish Foreign Legion with its Moorish mercenaries to the mainland in 1936, as did Leon Trotsky when he unleashed the Red Army against the Whites in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

A civil war can spawn from a wider, ongoing conflagration when factions or parties dispute the nature and terms of the post-bellum status quo and fracture along political and ideological lines. Many civil wars have arisen from the ashes of a prior war, when there are what are perceived as existential issues unresolved and the availability of weapons and materiel and experienced and discontented men to use them. The Russian Civil War which followed on from The First World War and the Chinese and Vietnamese civil wars which followed the second spring to mind, and historically, the Paris Commune which raised its red banner after the Franco-Prussian War whilst the victorious Prussian Army was still camped outside the city. Ireland’s civil war bled out of its independence struggle against British rule after  the Anglo-Irish Treaty left Ireland divided and dependent with the six Ulster counties excised as Northern Ireland.

The experience, cost, and legacy of civil war is often a powerful political and social disincentive to venture there again. It is this fear that probably prevents Lebanon from falling back into the abyss notwithstanding the many centrifugal forces at play in this perennially divided country. It most probably had a powerful influence on the political development of post-bellum England in the mid seventeenth century. The next and ultimate showdown between crown and parliament, and indeed “regime change” as we now call it, was a relatively peaceful one, and indeed, was thus named the “Glorious Revolution”. And yet, the deposition of James III and the ascension of Queen Mary and her husband,the Dutch Prince William of Orange, was preceded by what can be described as the last invasion of England by a foreign force. The spectre of the Commune haunts still the French soul. The beautiful church of Sacre Coeur was built as a penance for and as a solemn reminder of the bloodletting In the streets of Paris in much the same way as Byzantine emperor Justinian raised the glorious Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as a form of contrition after his soldiers had slaughtered tens of thousands of his rebellious citizens and buried their bodies under the Hippodrome.

There is a view that civil war can be retrospectively be seen as a crucible of nation, a fiery furnace through which the righteous must walk – an ex post facto rationalization  of the Nietzschean paradox of “that which does not kill us makes us strong”. Abraham Lincoln verbalized this in his Gettysberg Address in 1863 on a battlefield where the fallen had been only recently interred. Franco made a similar play as he laid claim to the wreckage that was Spain in the wake of three years of carnage, but then petrified his riven, country in autocratic stone until his death many decades later. The Russian Civil War was not accorded such a nation-building ethos as it was viewed by the Bolshevik victors as the crushing of a counter-revolution against a new world already being born.

 And finally, to conclude this conversation, let us briefly contemplate the article’s discussion of how and when protagonists actually define their internecine conflict as civil war. The American Civil War is a case in point, referred to at times as “The Rebellion” and “The War Between the States”. The American War of Independence, also know as The American Revolution was indeed a civil war as defined by the author, fought along political lines by people who had race, faith, culture and identity in common. The English Wars of the Roses, which staggered on for thirty years in in the  fifteenth century is largely viewed as a dynastic struggle between noble houses rather than civil wars per se. And yet, nearly thirty thousand Englishmen died on the snow-swept fields of Towton, near York, the largest loss of English lives on a single day (a third more than perished on the first day of the Somme in June 1916).

 The Syrian tragedy, as the author notes, is regarded by the concerned, and hypocritically entangled outside world, a civil war by any definition. But it is at present a harrowing work in progress, viewed by the Assad regime and its supporters as a rebellion and as an assault by extremist outsiders, and by the rebel forces, as a revolution, albeit a comprised and even hijacked one. Jihadis for their many sins, see it as a messianic prelude to Armageddon.

Once thing for sure, civil war, the Hobbesian “war if all against all” (Hobbes was thinking England’s) is undoubtably the saddest, bloodiest and most visceral of all conflicts. I leave the last words to WB Yeats:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
   The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
   The best lack all conviction, while the worst
   Are full of passionate intensity.

© Paul Hemphill 2017, 2022.  All rights reserved


This is a revised version of the original post of June 1st 2017

See also: Rebel Yell. Pity the Nation, Sic Semper Tyrannis, and A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

Now, read on…


What Gets Called ‘Civil War’?

Linda Colley, New York Review of Books, June 8, 2017
Civil Wars: A History in Ideas,  by David Armitage (Knopf) 

The end of the world is on view at Philadelphia. Hurtling across a twenty-five-foot-wide canvas in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Together, Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War ravage the earth amid blood-red banners and what looks like cannon smoke. Warriors fall before their swords and spears, and women, children, and babies are slaughtered.

Benjamin West completed this version of Death on the Pale Horse in 1817, two years after the Battle of Waterloo. It is tempting therefore to see in the painting not only the influence of the book of Revelation, and perhaps the elderly West’s intimations of his own imminent mortality, but also a retrospective verdict on the terrible catalogue of death and destruction that had been the Napoleonic Wars. Yet West’s original inspiration seems to have been another conflict. He first sketched out his ideas for Death on the Pale Horse in 1783, the concluding year of the American War of Independence. Bitterly divisive on both sides of the Atlantic, the war imposed strains on West himself. Pennsylvanian born and bred, he was a supporter of American resistance.

But in 1763 he migrated to Britain, and he spent the war working as a historical painter at the court of George III. So every day he served the monarch against whom some of his countrymen were fighting, knowing all the while that this same king was launching his own legions against Americans who had once been accounted British subjects. It was this tension that helped to inform West’s apocalyptic vision. More viscerally than most, he understood that the American Revolution was also in multiple respects civil warfare.

Tracing some of the histories of the idea of civil war, and showing how definitions and understandings of this mode of conflict have always been volatile and contested, is the purpose of this latest book by David Armitage. Like all his work, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas is concise, wonderfully lucid, highly intelligent, and based on a confident command of a wide range of printed sources. It is also ambitious, and divided into three parts in the manner of Julius Caesar’s Gaul. This seems appropriate since Armitage roots his account in ancient Rome. It was here, he claims, between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, that lethal conflicts within a recognized society, a common enough experience in earlier eras and in other regions, began to be viewed and categorized as a distinctive form of war: bellum civile.

How this came to pass is the subject of Part One of the book. In Part Two, Armitage switches to the early modern era, which is here defined mainly as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and shows how elite male familiarity with classical texts encouraged Europeans and some of their overseas colonizers to interpret the civil commotions of their own times very much in Roman terms. Part Three takes the story from the nineteenth century to the dangerous and precarious present. Whereas the incidence of overt conflicts between major states has receded during the post-1945 “long peace,” civil wars have proliferated, especially in parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The “shadow of civil war,” Armitage contends, has now become “the most widespread, the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence.”

But why ancient Rome to begin with? Armitage attributes its centrality to evolving Western conceptions of civil warfare partly to this culture’s marked success in establishing and stabilizing the idea of a distinct citizenry and political community. “Civil War could, by definition, exist only after a commonwealth (civitas) had been created.” More significant, as far as perceptions in later centuries were concerned, were the writings and careers of two brilliant Romans, each of whom in different ways was caught up in the rivalry between Julius Caesar and Pompey and destroyed by the violence of their warring successors.

Cicero, an opponent of Caesar, is the earliest-known writer to have used the term “civil war.” He also employed it in a speech that he delivered at the Forum in 66 BCE, close to the spot where his severed head and hands would be put on display twenty-three years later, as punishment for his activism and his words. In the following century, the youthful poet Lucan completed a ten-book masterwork, De Bello Civile, on how, under Caesar, “Rome’s high race plunged in her [own] vitals her victorious sword.” Lucan dedicated his saga to Nero, the emperor who later forced him to commit suicide.

Their writings and the gory fate of these men helped to foster and perpetuate the idea that civil warfare was a particularly nasty variant of organized human violence. It is in part this reputation, Armitage contends, that has made the subject of civil war a more impoverished field of inquiry than inter-state conflict. Given that the English, American, and Spanish civil wars have all long been historiographical cottage industries, I am not sure this is wholly correct. But it is the case, and he documents this powerfully throughout, that the ideas and negative language that have accumulated around the notion of “civil war” have resulted in the term’s use often being politically driven in some way. As with treason, what gets called civil war, and becomes remembered as such, frequently depends on which side eventually prospers.

 At times, the term has been deliberately withheld for fear of seeming to concede to a set of antagonists even a glimmer of a claim to sovereignty in a disputed political space. Thus the royalist Earl of Clarendon chose in his history to describe the English Parliament’s campaigns against Charles I after 1642 not as a civil war, but as a rebellion. In much the same way, an early US official history of the Union and Confederate navies described their encounters between 1861 and 1865 as a “War of the Rebellion,” thereby representing the actions of the Southern states as a mere uprising against an indisputably legitimate government.

For Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863, by contrast, it was essential to insist that America was undergoing a civil war. He wanted to trumpet in public more than simply the rightness of a particular governing regime. Since its survival was still in doubt, he needed as well to rally support for the Union itself, that “new nation, conceived in liberty” as he styled it: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Of course, had the American Civil War ended differently, it might well not have been called a civil war at all. Later generations might have remembered it as a “War of Southern Independence,” or even as a “Southern Revolution.” As Armitage points out, when major insurrections break out within a polity, they almost invariably start out as civil wars in the sense that the local population is initially divided in its loyalties and responses. But if the insurrectionists eventually triumph, then—as in Russia after 1917, or China after 1949—it has increasingly been the case that the struggle is redescribed by the victors as a revolution. Partly because of the continuing influence of the ancient Roman cultural inheritance, “revolution” possesses far more positive connotations than the more grubby and ambivalent “civil war.”

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Rebel–held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo,  recaptured by government forces, March 2017

As a searching, nuanced, and succinct analysis of these recurring ideas, linguistic fluctuations, and shifting responses over a dramatic span of time, and across national and continental boundaries, Armitage’s account is a valuable and suggestive one. But as he admits, it is hardly comprehensive. This is not simply because of the scale of his subject matter, but also because of his chosen methodologies.

In dealing with civil wars he practices what, in an earlier work, he styled “serial contextualism.” This means that he offers detailed snapshots of a succession of discrete moments and of particular intellectual, political, and legal figures spread out over a very long stretch of time. The strategy is sometimes illuminating, but one has to mind the gaps. Most obviously, there are difficulties involved in leaping, as he does, almost immediately from ancient Rome to the seventeenth century. By the latter period, for instance, England’s “Wars of the Roses” were sometimes viewed and described in retrospect as civil wars. But at the time, in the 1400s, commentators do not seem to have resorted to medieval Latin phrases such as bella civilia or guerre civiles to describe these particular domestic and dynastic conflicts. Although classical texts such as Lucan’s De Bello Civile were known to medieval scholars, the impress of this ancient Roman inheritance on contemporary interpretations of fifteenth-century England’s internal wars does not appear to have been a vital one.

Why might this have been? The question could be rephrased. Why should it be imagined that language and concepts drawn from the ancient Roman past supplied the only or even the dominant ideas and methods for subsequent Westerners wanting to make sense of the experience of large-scale civil contention and slaughter? After all, in the medieval era and long after, most men and even more women possessed no direct knowledge of the Roman classics. Multitudes in Europe and everywhere else could not even read, never mind afford books. Yet in the past as now, it was precisely these sorts of “ordinary” people who were often the most vulnerable to the chaos and bloodshed of civil warfare, and so had little choice but to work out some ideas about it. What were these ideas?

A practitioner of intellectual history from the so-called Cambridge School of that discipline, Armitage barely touches on such questions. More international in range than many of his fellow scholars, he shares some of this school’s leading characteristics: its fascination with the long-term impact of Aristotelian and Roman republicanism, its overwhelming focus on language and on erudite elite males, and its comparative neglect of religious texts. It is partly this deliberately selective approach to the past and its sources that allows Armitage to venture on such an enormous topic over such a longue durée. But again, there is a mismatch between this methodology and the full extent and vital diversity of his subject.

To be sure, many of the impressive individuals who feature in his book were much more than desk-bound intellectuals or sheltered and austere political players. One of the most striking segments in Civil Wars is Armitage’s treatment of the multiple roles of the Prussian-born American lawyer Francis Lieber, who provided Lincoln with a legal code for the conduct of the Civil War. Lieber had fought at Waterloo and was left for dead on the battlefield. During the 1860s, he also had to bear the death of one of his sons who fought for the South, even as two others were fighting for the North. As he remarked: “Civil War has thus knocked loudly at our own door.” The fact remains, however, that most men caught up in civil wars throughout history have not been educated, prosperous, and high-achieving souls of this sort. Moreover—and this has a wide significance—civil wars have often been viewed as having a particular impact on women.

In harsh reality, even conventional warfare has usually damaged non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. Nonetheless, the idea long persisted that war was quintessentially a separate, masculine province. But civil wars were seen as taking place within, and cutting across, discrete societies. Consequently, by their very nature, they seemed likely to violate this separation of spheres, with women along with children and the old and frail all patently involved. This was a prime reason why civil warfare was so often characterized in different cultures not just as evil and catastrophic, but as unnatural. In turn, this helps to explain why people experiencing such conflicts have often resorted, far more avidly than to any other source of ideas, to religious language and texts for explanations as well as comfort.

The major holy books all contain allusions to civil warfare and/or lines that can be read as addressing its horrors. “I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians,” declares the King James version of the book of Isaiah: “and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour.” It was often the Apocalypse, though, as demonstrated by Benjamin West’s great canvas, that Christians mined for terrifying and allusive imagery. Such biblical borrowings sometimes crowded out references to the Roman classics as a means of evoking and explaining civil war altogether, as seems often to have happened in medieval England.

At other times, religious and classical imagery and arguments were combined. Thus, as Armitage describes, the English poet Samuel Daniel drew on Lucan’s verses on the Roman civil war when composing his own First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke in 1595, a work plundered for its plots and characters by William Shakespeare. But it is also easy to see in portions of Daniel’s text the influence of the Apocalypse:

Red fiery dragons in the aire doe flie,

And burning Meteors, poynted-streaming lights,

Bright starres in midst of day appeare in skie,

Prodigious monsters, gastly fearefull sights:

Straunge Ghosts, and apparitions terrifie,

…Nature all out of course to checke our course,

Neglects her worke to worke in us remorse.

It was never just Christians who turned to holy books and religious pieties so as to cast some light on the darkness of civil war. Unlike allusions to the Roman past, such responses seem to have been universal. Indeed, I suspect that the only way that a genuinely trans-continental and socially deep history of civil warfare could conceivably be written would be through an examination of how civil wars have been treated by the world’s various religions, and how such texts and interpretations have been used and understood over time. In particular, the idea that Samuel Daniel hints at in the passage quoted above—that civil war was a punishment for a people’s more than usually egregious sins—has proved strikingly ecumenical as well as persistent.

Thus for Sunni Muslims, the idea of civil war as fitna has been central to understandings of the past. But fitna in this theology connotes more than civil warfare. The term can evoke sexual temptation, moral depravity—once again, sin. The First Fitna, for instance, the war of succession between 656 and 661, is traditionally viewed by Sunnis as marking the end of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the true followers of Muhammad.

As Tobie Meyer-Fong has shown, the civil wars that killed over twenty million Chinese in the 1850s and 1860s, the so-called Taiping Rebellion, were also often interpreted as divine retribution for immoral, decadent, or irreligious behavior.* Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist commentators on all sides rationalized the carnage and disorder in these terms. Poor, illiterate Chinese caught up in this crisis seem also to have regularly turned to religion to make sense of it, and not simply out of faith, or as a means to explain apparently arbitrary horrors. By viewing civil war as punishment for Chinese society’s sins in general, they could also secure for themselves a strategy and a possible way out, even if only in spiritual terms. They could make extra and conscious efforts to follow a moral pathway, and hope thereby to evade heaven’s condemnation.

Analogous responses and patterns of belief continue today, and understandably so. As the ongoing civil warfare in Syria illustrates all too terribly, vulnerable people caught up in such ordeals can easily be left feeling that no other aid is available to them except a deity, and that the only alternative is despair. David Armitage concludes his book with a discussion of how the “long-term decline of wars between states” (a decline that should not be relied on) has been “accompanied by the rise of wars within them.” As in his previous book, The History Manifesto (2014), co-written with Jo Guldi, he also insists that historians have a duty—and a particular capacity—to address such large and recurrent features of human experience:

Where a philosopher, a lawyer, or even a political scientist might find only confusion in disputes over the term “civil war,” the historian scents opportunity. All definitions of civil war are necessarily contextual and conflictual. The historian’s task is not to come up with a better one, on which all sides could agree, but to ask where such competing conceptions came from, what they have meant, and how they arose from the experience of those who lived through what was called by that name or who have attempted to understand it in the past.

Certainly, a close reading of Civil Wars provides a deeper understanding of some of the semantic strategies that are still being deployed in regard to this mode of warfare. Thus President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters frequently represent Syria’s current troubles as the result of rebellion, revolt, or treason; while for some of his Russian allies, resistance in that country is to be categorized as terrorism.

But historians can illumine the rash of civil warfare that has characterized recent decades more deeply than this. Whereas Armitage focuses here on the making and unmaking of states, it is the rise and fall of empires that have often been the fundamental precipitants of twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century civil wars. At one level, the decline and demise of some old, mainly land-based empires—Austrian, Ottoman, and Soviet—have contributed to a succession of troubles in Eastern Europe. At another, the old maritime empires that invaded so much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East frequently imposed new boundaries and yoked together different peoples in those regions in ways that were never likely to endure, and stoked up troubles for the future. In these and other respects, Armitage is right to insist that history can equip men and women with a better understanding of the past and of the troubled present. It always has done this. But only when its practitioners have been willing to adopt broad and diverse and not just long perspectives.

Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton. Her latest book is Acts of Union and Disunion: What Has Held the UK Together—and What Is Dividing It? 
. (June 2017)

Is America’s second civil war brewing? All the signs are all there

The Balkans conflict gives an ominous glimpse of potential future strife in the US. A democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory

David Aaaronovitch, The Times,  January 21, 2022

It turns out that there is a discipline that you might call “civilwarology” – the study of the factors that lead to civil war. It exists in think tanks and universities, and its experts are consulted by state agencies anxious to better understand the world in which they operate.

Barbara F. Walter became a civilwarologist nearly a quarter of a century ago and her entry is evidently well thumbed in the Rolodexes of the CIA and the US State Department.

In other words, she knows what she’s talking about – which makes this book rather scary.

The discipline is based on observation and measurement over time. Out of these have emerged a series of data sets and analytical tools relating to the progression towards or away from the conditions likely to lead to civil war. And it adds a word to the list of possible-ocracies.

Anocracy, disappointingly, is not government by assholes, but a troubling middle point between democracy and autocracy. An anocracy may exist during the transition from authoritarianism to full democracy, or the other way round, but it is less stable than either. Right now some states that lay claim to being democracies are in fact anocracies.

If anocracy is a key precondition for the outbreak of a civil war, “factionalisation”, Walter says, is another. Not to be confused with polarisation, this is “when citizens form groups based on ethnic, religious or geographic distinctions – and a country’s political parties become predatory, cutting out rivals and enacting policies that primarily benefit them and their constituents”. Winner takes all. Or loser loses all.

The postwar conflict that features most prominently in this book happened in the territories that had once been Yugoslavia. For 35 years the communist autocrat Marshal Tito had suppressed any latent ethnic rivalry between a series of closely related peoples. When he died in 1980 this settlement died with him.

As the component republics of the old state began to agitate for more autonomy, one group – the Serbs – saw themselves as losing out. This sense of loss on the part of a large group, Walter says, is a significant element in creating the conditions for war.

She reminds us that the election of Abraham Lincoln as US president in 1860 meant slaveholding Southern states no longer exercised a veto on federal policy; the other states could outvote them.

In Yugoslavia the new anocracy opened the way for what experts call “ethnic entrepreneurs” – a breed of politician that mobilises around ethnic grievances or anxieties. These included most notably Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Franjo Tudjman in Croatia and Radovan Karadzic for the Bosnian Serbs.

At a more local level ethnic politics became exploited by “violence entrepreneurs” – the men who formed and armed militias to take control and to kill their enemies. These militias do not need to be large. In the town of Visegrad one man with 15 gang and family members carried out a local genocide of Bosnian Muslims.

Rescue workers remove the body of victim following mortar attack on Sarajevo market in 1994.
Rescue workers remove the body of victim following mortar attack on Sarajevo market in 1994.

A common dimension in civil war development, Walter tells us, is a rural/urban divide, in which resentful “sons of the soil”, organising away from the supervision of the authorities, see themselves at cultural war with the more cosmopolitan town-dwellers. In Bosnia this was embodied in the bloody four-year siege of Sarajevo, with the Serb hicks from the hills mortaring and sniping the occupants of the city.

One of Walter’s reasons for reminding us of the horrors of the former Yugoslavia is to point out that to the population of these lands, civil war had never seemed likely until it happened and suddenly, one day, their good neighbours turned into their executioners.

And here we come to the nub of it. The title of the book is misleading. It isn’t really about civil wars generically, but about one conceivable conflict in particular: the Second American Civil War. Roughly at the halfway point, having established how fratricidal conflict occurs, Walter turns her attention fully to her own country. Naturally, she knows how absurd such a possibility will seem to many readers as they take the subway to their downtown offices or listen to the audiobook as they drive the children to school.

“No one wants to believe,” she writes, “that their beloved democracy is in decline, or headed toward war; the decay is often so incremental that people often fail to notice it or understand it, even as they’re experiencing it.”

Yet objectively the danger signs are there. So that “if you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America – the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or the Ivory Coast or Venezuela – you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”

My psychological disposition inclines me against claims such as these. In the Great Journalistic Division between the hysterics and the phlegmatists, I tend to side with the latter. But happenings in the US since 2016 – and especially the events of the past two years – have shaken my complacency.

There has been the loss of conventional politics from much of the national discourse, so that sharp political difference no longer concerns taxes or the environment, but (for one side at least) is almost entirely about ethnicity, identity, culture and loss. The Kyle Rittenhouse court case arose from armed men stalking the ungoverned streets shooting at each other in pursuit of political, not criminal objectives. Militias line statehouse steps openly carrying weapons of civil war lethality.

Erick and Jade Jordan guard the perimeter of Civic Center Park while activists protest the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on November 21, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Picture: AFP
Erick and Jade Jordan guard the perimeter of Civic Center Park while activists protest the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on November 21, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Picture: AFP

Then there was January 6, 2021, and the storming of the Capitol, in which political thugs sought to prevent the accession of a democratically elected president. Even more alarming than the mere fact of this act of what the CIA classified as “open insurgency” has been the way the Republican Party and its supporters have minimised this attempt at insurrection.

Walter shows how developments in the US match the conditions for other civil wars.

The sense of loss among many white-identifying voters (the US as a whole will follow where California and Texas have led by becoming minority white by 2045), the rural-urban divide, a failure of trust in politicians and other citizens, the factionalisation of politics, the rise of grievance-exploiting “ethnic entrepreneurs” (in this case most obviously Donald Trump), and all of this hugely exacerbated by the catalyst of that great creator of anxiety, social media.

Portland police officers chase demonstrators after a riot was declared during a protest against the killing of Daunte Wright on April 12, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Picture: AFP
Portland police officers chase demonstrators after a riot was declared during a protest against the killing of Daunte Wright on April 12, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Picture: AFP

The psychological fuel for civil war, Walter reminds us, is not hate, but fear. Between January and October 2020 a record 17 million firearms were sold in the US. In December 2020 one poll showed that 17 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics.”

Walter admits that in light of all this she and her husband, children of European migrants to the US, considered leaving the US last year. A useful rule of thumb could be that when your experts on civil strife start moving abroad you may be in trouble.

Yet for all that, Walter is not fatalistic. If the forces of division have a playbook, then, she writes, “we have a playbook too”. She advocates better civics lessons in schools, prosecuting armed militias as terrorists, reform of what is a terribly inefficient and patchwork voting system, tech regulation and much greater attention to developing policies that benefit the majority of citizens. The threat can be averted. To which the watching Brit, otherwise powerless, can only whisper a heartfelt: “Amen.”

How Civil Wars Start – And How to Stop Them, by Barbara F. Walter (Viking)

David Kilcullen’s 2021 wrap up – a weak US emboldens its rivals

Commentator and counterinsurgency expert is always worth reading – and below is his latest piece  for The Australian.

As the time of the year would have it, I read his review of 2021 as I was completing my own for publication in the That Was The Year That Was series. Here is mine. Kilcullen’s follows.

As for the world at large, COVID19 continues to dominate the news, with more contagious variants popping up all over the place lake a game of “whack a mole”. As does the ongoing struggle to reach global consensus on the need to confront climate change. Tackling both looks a little like the story of Sisyphus, the Greek King of old who was condemned by Zeus to spend eternity rolling a huge boulder to the top of a hill only to have it roll back down as soon as he reached the top.

The year kicked off to a fine start with the January 6th Insurrection in Washington DC as Donald Trump endeavoured to cling on to office by inciting his supporters and sundry militias to storm the Capitol to stop the count of electoral votes that would cede the presidency to Joe Biden. Though he failed, and was impeached for a second time, and the Biden administration sought to calm America’s troubled waters, the Orange One haunts The US’ fractious and paralyzed politics and the prospect of a second Trump term is not beyond imagination.

Trump’s bestie, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime’s minister, also got the push in the wake of the third election in just over a year. The unique coalition that emerged from torturous negotiations spanned the political, social and religious spectrum – left and right, secular and orthodox, Arab and Jew, and promised little more than maintaining the unsatisfactory status quo, that pertaining to the occupation and the settlements, illegal migrants, and the disproportionate influence the Haredim, none of which are morally, politically, socially or economically sustainable.

China under would-be emperor Xi Jinping continues to aggressively build its military and economic power, determined to take its rightful and long overdue place at the top of the geopolitical ladder, causing consternation among its neighbours and also other powers and fears of war in our time. With Xinxiang’s Uighurs and Hong Kong firmly under its autocratic boot, it continues to expand its nautical footprint in the South China Sea and signals loudly that Taiwan’s days as a liberal democracy are numbered. It’s belligerency is increasingly meeting blow-back as other nations react in various ways to what they perceive as clear and present danger. What happens next is anybody’s guess.

Russia under would-be czar Vladimir Putin continues to aggressively rebuild its military power and influence, determined to revive the glory days of the defunct Soviet Union, whist channeling memories of its former imperial glory. Whilst in no way as powerful as China, it is taking advantage of the the world’s preoccupation with the ascendancy of the Celestial Kingdom Redux to reassert its influence in its own backyard – including the veiled threat to reconquer Ukraine – and also in the world, particularly in Syria and also, through the use of shadowy proxies and mercenaries, in Africa. What happens next is anybody’s guess.

America finally ended its “endless war” in Afghanistan, in a chaotic, deadly scramble that left that country’s forever unfortunate people in the hands of a resurgent and apparently unreformed and unrepentant Taliban. It’s over a 100 days since the last evacuation plane took off in scenes of chaos and misery, leaving behind thousands of employees and others at risk of retribution, and the new regime has yet to establish a working government. Meanwhile professionals, human rights workers, officials of the former regime, members if the old government’s security forces, and especially women and girls wait, many in hiding, for the worst. Meanwhile, winter is coming and th country is broke and on the brink of of starvation. A major humanitarian crisis is imminent. What happens next, everybody does indeed know. As St. Leonard said, “We have seen the future and it’s murder!”

Whilst the war in Afghanistan ended, there are still plenty to go around for the weapons manufacturers and arms dealers, the mercenaries and the proxies. The year began well for Azerbaijan when it emerged victorious from a vicious 44 day drone and missile war against Armenia for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave that saw Turkish and Syrian proxies engaged each side of the conflict. An old War was rekindled in Ethiopia as a Nobel Peace Prize winner sent his troops to rake pillage and conquer a fractious province which turned the tables and is now poses to seize his capital. Hubris extremis?  Meanwhile, war went on in the usual places – Syria, Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, and places too obscure to mention.

Meanwhile, back home DownUnder, the story that dominated political news – apart from COVID19 and the total fuck-up of the vaccine roll-out, was the delinquent behaviour of politicians and their staffers in Parliament House – commentators have likened the goings-on in there to a school yard or frat house, and more bluntly, to a Roman orgy, with tales of bullying and sexual harassment, drunken parties, mutual masturbation sessions, and even rape. The prime minister huffed and puffed and asked his wife how he should deal with the situation; commissions of inquiries were set up; and reports handed down. The motto is “we must do better – and we shall!” But as with most things these days, nobody believes what politicians say anymore.

And not just here in Australia, but all over the world. Trust is in short supply, and indeed, people’s faith in democratic traditions and processes is shaking as populism and a taste for autocracy spreads like … well, a coronavirus. The US was recently named a “backsliding democracy” by a Swedish based think-tank, an assessment based on the attempted Capitol coup and restrictions on voting rights in Red states. In the bizarro conspiracy universe, American right wing commentators and rabble-rousers are urging their freedom-loving myrmidons to rescue Australia from totalitarianism. Apparently we have established Covid concentration camps and are forcible vaccinating indigenous people.

In early December, US President Joe Biden held a summit for democracy, and yet his administration are still determined to bring Julian Assange to trial, a case that, if it succeeds, will limit freedom of speech. The conduct of the trial also poses a threat to the US’s reputation because it could refocus attention on the ugly incidents during the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were exposed by WikiLeaks. There is a strong humanitarian and pragmatic case to look for a way out of Assange’s Kafkaesque nightmare, but the bastions of freedom, America, Britain and Australia show no interest in doing so notwithstanding the harm it does to their democratic credentials.

Uncustomary for him – it must be the season of goodwill – Kilcullen ends his review on a note of cautious optimism:

“Given the events of 2021, all this suggests that in 2022, despite the darkening international threat picture, a more independent, self-reliant, resilient and capable Australia, stepping up to confront the challenges of great-power competition – amid a rising threat from China, declining US influence and an increasingly complex and dangerous security environment – will be necessary and achievable. We should all hope for a sense of urgency and commitment in the face of the new environment’.

I am more sanguine. To quote  the famous American coach Yogi Berra. As we leave 2021:
“Predictions are always very hard, especially when they’re about the future”
Over to David Kilcullen …

 

.Weak US emboldens China, Russia and Iran  
The security picture for Australia has never been darker or more complex. But several key events this year offer clues into the challenges we’ll be facing in the year ahead.

David KilCullen, Weekend Australian 18th December 2021

 

Afghans struggle to reach the foreign forces to show their credentials to flee the country outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul.

Afghans struggle to reach the foreign forces Hamid Karzai International Airport,Kabul.

    As we look forward into next year, the geostrategic and security picture for Australia has never been more complex and rarely more challenging. In security terms, this year was one of American weakness, Afghan betrayal, rising Russia-NATO tension and the emergence of space warfare and advanced technologies as domains in a new Sino-American Cold War.

    But it was also the year of AUKUS and the year Australia found its feet despite increasingly belligerent bullying from Beijing. Several key events shaped 2021, and these in turn give us a clue as to how things might develop next year.

    US weakness  

    The year began in chaos as Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol, seeking to stop what they saw as a stolen election. Belief that an election has been stolen is one of the most well-documented triggers for revolutionary unrest.

    Many Republicans, independents and even some Democrats still see the election as rigged – and, by extension, the Biden administration as illegitimate – boding ill for US stability into next year. The unrest that peaked during deadly riots in 200 US cities and all 50 states through the summer of 2020 seems to have subsided. But this is an illusion, since last year’s tension was stoked by the media and anti-Trump politicians.

    Now back in charge, establishment institutions have an interest in damping dissent and, as a result, media amplification of unrest has been more subdued this year. But the underlying issues remain: riots continue in places such as Portland and Seattle, racially charged trials have triggered deadly protests, extremists are active on left and right, and murder rates are at levels not seen for 30 years. All of this is likely to come to a head next year around the US midterm elections. The worst inflation in four decades, supply-chain disruptions, labour disputes, retail shortages, soaring fuel prices, persistent Covid-19 restrictions (800,000 Americans have now died during the pandemic) and the most illegal border crossings since records began in 1960 complete the picture of a superpower in decline whose domestic weakness encourages its international adversaries.

    Afghanistan: a triple betrayal

    US feebleness was evident in August when, without bothering to consult his allies, President Joe Biden insisted on the rampantly incompetent withdrawal from Afghanistan that prompted apocalyptic scenes at Kabul airport. The botched evacuation was not only a betrayal of our Afghan partners – in whom the international community, at Washington’s urging, had invested unprecedented effort since 2001 – but also a betrayal by Biden of NATO and non-NATO allies, including Australia.

    Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the group's feared hardline brand of Islamist rule.

    Afghans climb atop a plane at the Kabul airport in Kabul,lAugust 16, 2021, 

    It was a defeat on the scale of Saigon in 1975, though the comparison is unfair to that withdrawal, which was more profes­sional and less self-inflicted than this one. The resulting contempt in coalition capitals (and military headquarters) has been quietly intense, even as Americans’ trust in the armed forces plummeted to its lowest level this century, reflecting the military’s recent inability to win wars and its failure to hold anyone accountable when it loses.

    It was a triple betrayal: Afghan leaders from president Ashraf Ghani down abandoned their people in the moment of truth, fleeing to safety while leaving them to the Taliban and the prospect of famine. The UN estimates that more than 20 million Afghans are at risk of starvation this winter, meaning 2022 may well turn out to be an even worse year for Afghans than 2021. Even while many of us continue working frantically to help evacuate his people, Ghani is calmly writing a book in Abu Dhabi – perhaps a sequel to his well-received Fixing Failed States – while his henchmen live large on money squirrelled away in advance of the collapse or carried with them as they fled. Some, such as the leaders of the National Resistance Front, Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, fight on, while others (including former president Hamid Karzai) proved courageous in the crisis. But with these few exceptions, never was a people so ill-served by their own leaders or so badly left in the lurch by their self-styled friends.

    Russia: playing a poor hand well

    America’s enemies, and not only the terrorists emboldened by the Taliban victory, have noticed its weakness. Vladimir Putin moved quickly to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan’s Central Asian borderland, partnering with China on several military and economic initiatives, deploying troops to the Afghan-Tajik border and signing a weapons deal with India, a move that parallels his efforts to win Turkish support through arms sales. In the Pacific, Indian, Atlantic and Arctic oceans Russian ships, submarines and aircraft are more active than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago next week.

    Putin always has been brilliant at playing a weak hand well, and this year has been no exception. In the early months of 2021, with Biden distracted after the Capitol riot, and congress impeaching Trump for the second time, Russian forces pressured Ukraine with a troop build-up and threatening deployments on its border. The result was a conciliatory summit meeting between Putin and Biden in June, seen in Europe as mostly benefiting the Russan side.

    President of Russia Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast with vodka during a signing ceremony in Shanghai, China.

    Vladimir Putin and  Xi Jinping toast with vodka during a signing ceremony in Shanghai

    After the Afghan fiasco, Russian activity in the Baltic States and Ukraine ramped up, and Russia’s ally Belarus tested the frontier defences of Poland and Lithuania with a manipulated flood of refugees, copying a Russian technique pioneered in Norway in 2015 and repeated several times since. Now Russian forces, including missile, tank and artillery units – perhaps 175,000 troops in all – are again massing within striking distance of the Ukrainian border, prompting urgent concern in Kiev.

    Again, the US response reeked of appeasement, with Biden allegedly urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to offer formal autonomy to the eastern region of his country that has been under de facto Russian occupation since 2014, while assuring Russia and NATO that the US has no plans to fight for Ukraine’s freedom. These assurances were given the same week Biden hosted the Summit for Democracy, posing as leader of the free world. Neither Ukraine’s elected leaders nor Afghan parliamentarians – now on the run for their lives – commented, though Russia and China issued stinging critiques.

    With winter approaching, Russian energy exports remain essential for Europe, while Russia – as a side effect of US policies targeting domestic energy production in pursuit of the Green New Deal – is the second largest source of US petroleum imports, giving Putin yet another card to play. The northern hemisphere winter of 2021-22 is thus likely to see Russia making use of its “energy weapon” within a broader suite of coercive tools.

    China’s uneasy rise

    If Russia played a weak hand well this year, China continued strengthening its hand. Beijing’s navy is growing at an astonishingly rapid pace while the modernisation and professionalisa­tion of its land, air, cyber and rocket forces continue. The regime’s nuclear arsenal is undergoing substantial expansion, with hundreds of new missile silos discovered in remote desert areas. Cyber attacks, economic coercion and diplomatic bullying remain core elements of the Chinese repertoire, even as Western business leaders and sports stars (again with honourable exceptions) turn a blind eye to its crackdown in Hong Kong, bullying of Taiwan and oppression of the Uighurs.

    China’s completion last year of its BeiDou satellite constellation, equivalent to the US Global Positioning System, threatened the dominance of GPS for the first time since 1993, with implications for every aspect of Western society, from EFTPOS transactions to infrastructure and transportation. Then in mid-October China tested a fractional orbital bombardment system, a shuttle-like spacecraft moving at hypersonic speed, able to evade missile def­ences and deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world with limited chance of interception.

    The Chinese test demonstrated how far US technology is lagging in this area, while marking the emergence of space warfare as a domain of conflict. Russia’s demonstration of a counter-space capability, destroying one of its own satellites in orbit (and creating a debris cloud that threatened the International Space Station) showed China is not the only adversary in space. Moscow and Beijing have announced joint plans for a permanent moon base, while China’s space station appears to include military modules.

    More broadly, hypersonic technology – missiles moving at more than five times the speed of sound that can manoeuvre to avoid defences – are proliferating.

    The so-called tech war among the superpowers includes these technologies alongside directed-energy weapons, robotics, nanotechnologies, bioweapons, quantum computing and human performance enhancements. These are among the most important areas of competition in the new cold war, along with the contest to control commodities (rare earth metals, copper, cobalt, lithium and uranium) and assets such as silicon and gallium nitride semiconductors that sustain them.

    The first big event for China next year will be the Winter Olympics in February. Australia has joined a US-led diplomatic boycott of the Games, with Britain, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Lithuania. Others may follow, but a diplomatic boycott – where athletes still participate – will have limited impact.

    The Olympics are important for another reason: Admiral John Aquilino, newly appointed chief of US Indo-Pacific Command, has argued that Beijing is holding back on any move against Taiwan until the Games are over, meaning that from next March the risk of war in the Taiwan Strait may rise significantly.

    Reservists of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces line up during military exercises at a training ground outside Kharkiv, Ukraine December 11, 2021.

    Reservists of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces Kharkiv, Ukraine, December 11, 2021.

    Beijing may be emboldened towards any future conflict by US failure in Afghanistan, of which China is the biggest beneficiary. China’s control of mineral res­ources in the country (and its de facto recognition of the Taliban) gives it leverage, while Beijing’s alliance with Islamabad allows the currently dominant Taliban faction in Kabul, which is heavily influenced by Pakistan’s intelligence service, to draw on Chinese support to consolidate control.

    Indirectly, the failure of two decades of intervention in Afghanistan is seen as discrediting Western attempts to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, vindicating China’s transactional approach.

    Beijing’s 25-year strategic co-operation agreement with Tehran, signed in March, lets China import oil directly from Iran, helping to draw Afghanistan into a Chinese-dominated regional economic and security order.

    It also reduces China’s reliance on seaborne petroleum imports through the Malacca Strait and South China Sea, making it less vulnerable to US action in the Pacific.

    Iran: further than ever from a nuclear deal

    For its part, Tehran has made great strides in developing its nuclear capability since 2018, when Trump suspended US participation in the multilateral deal signed by Barack Obama in 2015. This prompted severe concern about Iranian nuclear weapons in Israel and in the Sunni Arab states of the Middle East, while European diplomats warn the 2015 deal will soon be beyond saving. Iran suspended its involvement in talks to rescue the deal, conducting an internal review after its presidential election in June. Though talks have resumed, and Tehran seems willing to co-operate with UN monitoring, a return to the previous deal appears further away than ever. The fact Iran is revising its stance largely because of pressure from Russia and China, rather than in response to US sanctions, underlines American impotence and Sino-Russian influence, even as the two US rivals meet this week to discuss joint responses to what they describe as increasingly aggressive US rhetoric and sanctions threats.

    Iran’s dominance in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (and Lebanon’s ongoing humanitarian and security crisis) has helped cement Tehran’s influence across the Middle East and Levant while reinforcing the regional role of Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, and the Russia-Iran and China-Iran partnerships that made that position possible. This will persist next year. After the Afghan withdrawal it is hard for Washington to justify its troop presence in Iraq (where the anti-ISIS combat mission has officially ended) or eastern Syria, where US forces are deployed without approval from congress or any clear mission or end state. Something to watch in the coming year will be whether progress towards any resumption of the nuclear agreement coincides with further US withdrawals across the region.

    AUKUS: doubling down on a weak partner?

    As this overview shows, Australia’s environment this year has been more threatening and less predictable than at any time since the 1930s, as recognised in last year’s strategic update and cyber-security strategy, and underlined by the AUKUS agreement in September. Much has been made of the nuclear-powered submarines to be acquired under the agreement, a truly transformational move for Australian naval capability, though one that will take a long time to implement. Much sooner, indeed starting next year, long-range strike capabilities including Tomahawk and JASSM-ER missiles for the navy and air force, Apache attack helicopters for the army, and self-propelled artillery (under a separate deal with South Korea) will represent an immediate step up in Australia’s military posture. A new national critical technologies strategy, part of the broader technological component of AUKUS, is another important element of the new, more assertive stance.

    As 2022 unfolds, AUKUS will represent an important indicator of the way ahead. If the agreement becomes a broadbased framework on which to build expanded co-operation with like-minded players – particularly Britain, which is rediscovering a role East of Suez and partnering with Australia on more issues than ever – then it will strengthen our leverage in the face of this new era of conflict.

    If, on the other hand, AUKUS becomes another way to double down on the US relationship, increasing our reliance on a declining partner, the agreement could quickly become a net negative.

    Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces the AUKUS pact with the President of the United States Joe Biden and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson in Canberra. Picture: Newswire/Gary Ramage

    Scott Morrison announces the AUKUS pact oe Biden and  Boris Johnson 

    The alienation of France (given that the French have more citizens and more capable military forces than any other European power in the Pacific) carries significant risks, as the South Pacific increasingly looks like a new theatre of conflict with China. Likewise, as India’s recent weapons deal with Russia illustrates, AUKUS can neither replace the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – the informal partnership between the US, Japan, India and Australia – nor should it.

    Encouragingly, 2021 seems to have been the year Australia found its feet despite bullying by Beijing since Canberra’s call for accountability on Covid-19 last year. China’s diplomatic high-handedness, shrill anti-Australian propaganda, economic coercion, cyber attacks, political interference and aggressive deployment of intelligence assets near our coastline were designed to teach us a lesson and show every Western-allied power what happens to those who step out of line. This backfired badly, pushing Australia into closer relations with allies, helping Australia’s economy diversify away from a damaging dependence on China, and prompting a sharp decline in Australians’ perceptions of China.

    As a global energy shortage began to bite in late 2021, and China’s growth slowed, Chinese dependence on Australian iron and coal revealed itself as a key aspect of economic leverage – naturally prompting Beijing to threaten Australia over it.

    Given the events of 2021, all this suggests that in 2022, despite the darkening international threat picture, a more independent, self-reliant, resilient and capable Australia, stepping up to confront the challenges of great-power competition – amid a rising threat from China, declining US influence and an increasingly complex and dangerous security environment – will be necessary and achievable. We should all hope for a sense of urgency and commitment in the face of the new environment.

    Tim Page’s War – a photographer’s Vietnam journey

    Photographs of guns and flame
    Scarlet skull and distant game
    Bayonet and jungle grin
    Nightmares dreamed by bleeding men
    Lookouts tremble on the shore
    But no man can find the war
    Tim Buckley 1976 

    Marines, Operation Starlite

    Tim Page had already been two years “in country” when as an undergraduate I’d participated in the violent melees in front of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square protesting what Kenny Rodgers would call “that crazy Asian war”. Our undergraduate passions were inflamed by the fear that our government would answer US President Lyndon B Johnson’s call to join him and his forces in Vietnam – our Antipodean kin in Australia and New Zealand has already committed troops, and Johnson was applying the economic screws. But Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson held firm and Britain avoided the débacle that has haunted the US for half a century.

    This is the story of a war, and a young man who wandered into that war.

    Chaos without a compass

    A ship is waiting for us at the dock
    America has trouble to be stopped
    We must stop Communism in that land
    Or freedom will start slipping through our hands.
    I hope and pray someday the world will learn
    That fires we don’t put out, will bigger burn
    We must save freedom now, at any cost
    Or someday, our own freedom will be lost.
    Johnny Wright, Hello Vietnam

    The Twentieth Century’s “Thirty Years War” was waged in South East Asia initially by the colonialist France, and then by neo-imperialist America. France’s war ended in defeat and ignominy for French arms and prestige, and a partition that was but a prelude to America’s Vietnam quagmire.

    America’s War has since been defined as chaos without compass. It was inevitable that acclaimed historian Barbara Tuchman would chose it as one of her vignettes in The March of Folly, her celebrated study of débacles through the ages characterised by what would appear to be a single-minded determination amounting to tunnel vision that is akin to stupidity.

    As Tuchman saw it, exceptionalism and manifest destiny are historically proven folly. Self-belief in American power and righteousness has historically created delusions of grandeur, obstinate attachment to unserviceable goals, stubbornness, and an inability to learn from past mistakes or even admitting error – a wooden-headedness that often sees the US persisting on erroneous paths that lead to loss of blood, treasure, reputation and moral standing.

    Why did the US’ experience of backing the wrong horse in China in the forties not provide an analogy and warning in Vietnam in the fifties? Why did the experience in Vietnam not inform the it with respect to Iran right up to the fall,of the Shah in1978? And why hadn’t it learned anything when it stumbled into Salvador in the eighties? And then, of course, we arrive in the 21st century with no-exit, never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Middle East that end in retreat and betrayal with the ‘freedom-loving’ USA still backing the wrong horses by supporting autocrats and tyrants against their own people.

    But, back to Vietnam …

    As historian Per Yule noted in The Long Shadow: Australia’s Vietnam Veterans Since The War, the Vietnam War was based on an assortment of unproven assumptions and half truths. It wrongly identified a dictatorship as a democracy a civil war as an international conflict. Our armed forces were sent to fight in support of a corrupt military regime which received solid support only from the catholic minority and the small landowning class. Few willingly fought for the regime.

    Many in the US military reckoned that if given a free hand by the administration of President Johnson, they could have prevailed against North Vietnam – by destroying it utterly with overwhelming firepower. But the US had backed the wrong side and no amount of support could make the South Vietnamese fight and die hard enough for their corrupt, incompetent, puppet government. We hear a similar rationale with regard to the the Afghan army’s rapid collapse and the US’ shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan

    The US wanted to convince the North Vietnamese that they couldn’t win on the battlefield. The North Vietnamese wanted to convince the American people that the cost in blood and treasure was too high. Both sides continued to believe that they could improve their positions through escalation and both continued to focus on military rather than political means to end the conflict. And so we were left with an almost certainly unwinnable strategy of bombing the enemy to the negotiating table when that enemy shows no willingness to negotiate under duress. The bombing campaign, code name Rolling Thunder, was described by a commentator in Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War as “the dumbest campaign ever designed by a human being”.

    The many names for a war lost before it began

    All we need is a little determination;
    Men, follow me, I’ll lead on.
    We’re waist deep in the big muddy
    And the big fool says to push on.
    Pete Seeger, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

    Vietnam has been called the pointless war and the needless war. It was certainly a costly war. The butchers bill was horrendous. No one really knows how many people perished. Civilian deaths range from 1.3 to 4.5 million.of which over 80% were Vietnamese and 7% Cambodian. American soldiers dead numbered 58,220 and wounded,153,303. The number of Vietnamese and Cambodian wounded is inestimable.

    As for the American forces, it most certainly “the poor man’s war” – most who were perished or were maimed were not rich folks, and a disproportionate number were black. Amd the more who died, the more were sent to replace them. And like here in Australia, thecdraft caught mainly the poor and unconnected. Even as soldiers started going home, actual or attempted murder by enlisted men of their superiors increased alarmingly.

    As to the monetary cost: an estimated $1 trillion in today’s dollars. But that is doubtlessly an understatement – what about the rebuilding, the rehabilitation, the recompense? Vietnam was the most heavily bombed country in history. More than 6.1 million tons of bombs were dropped, compared to 2.1 million tons in WW2. U.S. planes dumped 20 million gallons of herbicides to defoliate VietCong hiding places. It decimated 5 million acres of frostbite and 500,000 acres of farmland.

    It has been called “the helicopter war” because choppers were the primary mode of ground combat and transport, and also “the television war – it’s triumphs (few) and tragedies (many) were beamed Into American homes nightly, fuelling the public’s confusion and unease about this Asian war, and eventually, the anger that forced the US government to eventually withdraw over half a million soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors and abandoning South Vietnam’s puppet government, its demoralised and abandoned army, and its unfortunate, battered and bloodied people to the tender mercies of the hardline and heartless ideologues in Hanoi.

    Vietnam was also, notoriously, a pharmaceutical war. In its final year’s, as raw and reluctant draftees made up an increasing proportion of the US forces, indiscipline and substance abuse transformed, in the words of one professional soldier, an officer, a fine army into a rotten one. Alcohol, marijuana, acid, coke, heroin, and a cornucopia of pills were freely available on base, on leave in Saigon, and often, in the field, and many soldiers actually made it a business. The press too were sucked into the machinery.

    And, it was a promiscuous war. So far away from home and loved ones, like warriors in all wars since time immoral, US solders took comfort and solace where they could find it. Historians, memoirists, veterans of both the French and American wars in Indochina write and talk of the beauty of the Vietnamese women. Economic deprivation and social dislocation create a flesh market supplying lonely, frightened strangers in a strange land.

    It was chemical warfare – not the mustard gas of older wars, and the Zyklon B of the Nazi death camps, nor the recent wars in the Middle East, in the first Gulf War, between Iraq and Iran, and in Syria – but the broad-acre use of chemical defoliants designed to deny the enemy of jungle and forest concealment that left behind a bitter harvest, a legacy of disease, deformity and death that ricochets to this day.

    And, in the United States, it was a war that divided a nation. The protest movement emerged during 1965. It grew and grew, and by the Moratorium of October 1969, it became the largest outpouring of public dissent in American history. The moratorium movement was massive and unprecedented – and peaceful. Nationwide, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people across the US were marching. The children of politicians and officials and soldiers were also marching. They were marching not about winning or losing the war but demanding an end to the war.

    It was a journalists war too, and the photographers’ War. The military had a relaxed and tolerant attitude towards the press that would seem profligate and foolhardy in today’s tightly managed and manipulated combat media. Journalists and photographers would be permitted and indeed invited along on patrols and sweeps, carrier landings, on helicopter “dust offs” (a euphemism for evacuating the wounded and the dead), and the controversial “search and destroy” operations that destroyed so many fields, villages and lives. Needless to say, the coopted fourth estate were often in harm’s way. They were taught how to use weapons and often actually did use them in self defence and, sometimes in anger. And like the officers and men with whom they worked, many were wounded and slain. More than two hundred would die covering the fighting in South East Asia.

    And English photojournalist Tim Page, who ran away from boring ‘sixties Britain to the exotic East at the age of seventeen, taking the ‘overland’ route that decades later would be called ‘the Hippie Trail’, washed up in the war of our generation, and left it critically injured and indeed clinically dead in a medivac chopper.

    Tim in a tight spot

    Cameras and Comrades

    There is no decent place to stand in a massacre
    But if some women takes you’re hand
    You go and stand with her.
    I left a wife in Tennessee and a baby in Saigon
    I risked my life but not to hear
    A country-western song
    Leonard Cohen, The Captain

    Tim Page literally and figuratively ambled into the last of the “great” wars of the Twentieth Century; and reading Tim’s autobiography, you wonder whether this peregrinating, ever-restless bloke had more lives than a cat!

    Page ran off to join the circus. Leaving England in 1962,was was to be twenty years until he saw his folks again. A restless soul, he split for Europe with his girl friend, and when she baled, headed ever-eastwards, an early pioneer of that famed trail in a succession of secondhand vehicles and a caravan of colourful comrades. The further east he wandered, the more drugs he savoured, sampling the local toke through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Burma. Many a time, he was flat broke and broken down, and laid low with a variety of exotic, intimate and excruciating ailments. But we needn’t go there.

    Though photography was a teenage hobby, he drifted into the profession almost by accident, and virtually ambled into the Vietnam War, the Great War of our generation, almost by accident: – a road -trip to Vientiane, the sleepy capital of the Kingdom of Laos to renew his expired Thai visa saw him hanging out there just as the the US’ fateful foray into Indochina was escalating into the quagmire that it was to become.

    For Tim, it was the worst of times, it was the best of times. “Hot and cold running …” he says, using the vernacular of those days … booze, drugs, girls, he meant – battle injuries and diseases – and action, lots of it, in the air in helicopters and on occasion, fighter bombers, on the land in jeeps, armoured vehicles, and motor bikes, on the rivers in patrol boats, and on foot.

    The lure of sex, drugs, and excitement – and paid work for a major news agency saw him wash up in Saigon and the celebrated, inebriated Frankie’s House, a kind of home-away-from home and party house for transiting bao chi – ‘round-eye’ newsmen – a decadent, dissolute, de facto foreign correspondents club. From here, they would fan out though war-wracked South Vietnam under the often dodgy and dangerous protection of Uncle Sam.

    Like the soldiers they accompanied, many came back in body bags or on stretchers. Many just disappeared @and it has been Tim’s mission in life to trace these lost souls. They include his best buddy Sean Flynn, the son of famous actor and pants man Errol Flynn.

    Tim’s number almost came up in a blood-soaked friendly fire debacle on a navy river boat. Patched up and R&R in the US, he photographed the burgeoning antiwar demonstrations wracking the nation and ‘fesses up in his chronicle that he didn’t quite get the rage of the protesters – to Tim and his Saigon peers, the war might’ve been hell, but it was also a helluva buzz, and he was itching to return to the maelstrom.  

    But his intoxicating and intoxicated Nam days came to an explosive end in a dry paddy field when he and his helicopter crew landed to help an injured GI and walked into a minefield. Dead on arrival and resuscitated three times, he was medivacced stateside minus part of his skull and with injuries that hamper him still half a century later. Photographs of that almost fatal encounter turned up out of the blue just a few years ago.

    Post-op and recuperating in the US, Tim took himself off to Woodstock, New York State. where it was being said that there was going be a cool scene – which indeed there was, as we all remember:  the famous music festival held over three days in August 1969 on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York (65 km) southwest of the town of Woodstock. But Tim never got to hear any of the great music – complications from his injuries meant that he had to be medivacced out of Woodstock, probably on the same chopper that had just brought in the legendary Crosby, Stills and Nash.

    And today he is still alive and kicking, despite multiple surgeries, PTSD, and suicidal impulses, and is still shooting pictures, revisiting Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and hanging with those of his bao chi who have also survived the journey. He’s now a neighbour of ours, over the hill, across the forest, four thousand miles and a lifetime away from his Asian war.

    Of our elaborate plans, the end
    Of everything that stands, the end
    No safety or surprise, the end
    Jim Morrison 1967

    A Vietnamese woman grieves for her dead husband

    Author’s note

    Internationally acclaimed photographer Tim Page has been the subject of many documentaries, two films and the author of ten books, including his latest opus Nam Contact. He has been recognized as one of the ‘100 Most Influential Photographers of All Time’ and is the recipient of many awards. After a career spanning sixty years, world renowned photographer Tim Page has settled quietly into the Bellingen Shire, where he and his wife Marianne live what Tim describes as “a peaceful life. The choice of the word Peaceful’ is pertinent considering that his photographic assignments during the of the Laos Civil War, the Vietnam War and the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967 brought him directly into the firing line. He still carries the injuries to prove it.

    This piece was originally conceived as a forward for an autobiography of Tim, now a friend and near neighbour on the edge of Bellingen’s Tarkeeth Forest. It was but a fallback option – I’d suggested to Tim and his Marianne that the book would be better served with a forward by either Paul Ham or Peter Fitzsimmons, Australian historians who have written about the Vietnam War.  It eventuated that the book was not published – but the story grew with the telling, informed by a re-watching of Ken Burns’ excellent documentary The Vietnam War and historian Max Hasting’s masterful tombstone of a book Vietnam., an epic tragedy 1945-1975  

    The photographs featured in the post are but a few from Tim’s large archive. They are used with his kind permission ©Tim Page. These and many more can be viewed on his website timpage.com.au and in Nam Contact .

    Also in In That Howling Infinite: The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy ; and Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited

    Nam Contact: Symphonic coda to Tim Page’s Vietnam

     

    The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy

    One of the most poignant stories in Ken Burns’ powerful documentary The Vietnam War is that of a young man called Denton Winslow Crocker Junior, born June 3rd 1947, class of ‘65.

    The story opens with Bob Dylan singing With God on Our Side …”Oh my name it ain’t nothin’, my age it means less; country I come from is called the Midwest”.

    Denton’s family nickname is “Mogie”. “He’s a right little mogul, the way he rules our lives”, says dad of his infant son. Young Denton loves history, is proud of America and its heroes, and hates “Reds”.

    It is 1964 and Mogie is restless. He wants to do his bit. So he runs away from home for four months returning only when until his folks consent to him joining up before he turned 18.

    He enlists in March 1965.

    Eager for combat, he wants to be a paratrooper and is delighted when he is able to join the celebrated 101 Airborne, the famous “screaming eagles” who had led the way on D Day back in another war. 

    Posted to a support unit, he is disappointed, writing home that he “felt no sense of accomplishment whilst one’s friends are facing all the dangers”.

    He finally gets reassigned to a combat unit at Qan Duc on the Cambodian border.

    May 11 1966. Paul Simon sings The Sound  of Silence.

    Denton’s buddy is mortally wounded beside him. He carries his dying friend from the battlefield, earning an Army Commendation Medal.

    He’s in the field and at the sharp end, hoping he’ll be taken off the line. He writes home: “I was religious for a while, sending out various and sundry prayers mainly concerned with staying alive. But I am once again an atheist – until the shooting starts”.

    Hopes of withdrawal are an idle dream.

    It is his 19th birthday, June 3rd 1966, nighttime, “in country”, on the Cambodian border, and yet another operation.

    His unit is ordered to climb to the crest of a hill overlooking a besieged ARVN (South Vietnam Army) outpost to organise artillery support for the morning’s offensive.

    Mogie is the point man. Out of the darkness, a Vietcong machine gun opens up.

    Denton Crocker Junior never made it to the top the hill.

    Back home, officers come to the door. His mother recalls: “it was just lovely day to be out in our garden”, in Saratoga Springs, New Jersey.

    Bob Dylan sings “One to many mornings and a thousand miles behind”.

    “Our children are really only on loan to us”, says his mother, who by the end of 1965 was already having doubts about what America was doing in Vietnam – she was well aware of the politics and the protests in South Vietnam and in the US.

    But she never let on, least of all to Mogie.

    At the going down of the sun, and in the morning. we will remember them.


    Authors Note:

    This piece was collated from Ken Burn’s chronological account of the Vietnam War and retold as one narrative.

    The photograph heading this post is by internationally acclaimed photographer Tim Page who spent three years “in country” in Vietnam from 1965.  But his intoxicating and intoxicated Nam days came to an explosive end in a dry paddy field when he and his helo crew landed to help an injured GI and walked into a minefield. Dead on arrival and resuscitated three times, he was medivacced stateside minus part of his skull and with injuries that hamper him still half a century later. Photographs of that almost fatal encounter turned up out of the blue just a few years ago.  Hes come through, despite multiple surgeries, PTSD, and suicidal impulses, and is still shooting pictures , revisiting Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and hanging with those of his ‘bia chi’ who have also survived the journey. He’s now a neighbour of ours, over the hill, across the Torest, four thousand miles and a lifetime away from his Asian war.

    For more in In That Howling Infinite with regard to the ‘sixties:

    Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold ; Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968Encounters with EnochRecalling the Mersey PoetsThe Strange Death of Sam CookeLooking for Lehrer; Shock of the Old – the glory days of prog rock; Window on a Gone WorldBack in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club.  

    Cross the Green Mountain – Bob Dylan’s Americana

    Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.
    WB Yeats, The Second Coming

    Recently, I’ve been enjoying very much the Definitely Dylan podcasts produced and narrated by broadcaster Laura Tenschert, a board member at the Institute of Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma (and yes, you’ve read it right – the Bobster is now a legitimate focus for the academy). With an enchanting Celtic lilt, she brings a fresh, and indeed very original perspective in her exploration of Dylan’s work. Listen, do!

    This week, the New York Review of Books published an essay by one of Laura’s Institute colleagues, addressing Bob Dylan’s lyrical narratives of American history. Across the six decades of his career, Bob Dylan has mined America’s past for images, characters, and events that speak to the nation’s turbulent present. And Sean Wilenz discusses in some detail the chronological development of Dylan’s historical songs from With God on Our Side, to Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, to Blind Willie McTell, to Tempest, and the to the history overload of his latest album of original songs Rough and Rowdy Ways, and most specifically in Murder Most Foul. But what caught my  attention, was Cross the Green Mountain.

    Now, I’ve been tangled up in Bob Dylan for near on sixty years. Neither a fanatic nor a completist, I bob (yes, I know – bad pun!) out and back in. And sometimes I miss stuff. I missed Blind Willie McTelI, and it is now one of my Dylan favourites. I missed Love and Theft, but caught up with great pleasure – Mississippi is a gem! And I deliberately ignored his take on The Great American Songbook. Diana Krall does it better and she’s also a hot pianist and gorgeous.

    And I missed Cross the Green Mountain, which he wrote for the soundtrack of Ted Turner’s American Civil War film Gods and Generals. Though based on a successful book, the film sank without trace. Ted was a Civil War aficionado – he joined the serried ranks of Civil War recreationalists in the epic, hours-long Gettysburg – in the forlorn hope that was Pickett’s Charge, the denouement of that harrowing two day battle. Bob’s song ended up in one of his many Bootleg releases.  Here is a truncated version featuring footage from Turner’s film. You can listen to the the complete song together wit Sean’s essay, below.

    It is a remarkable song, drawing on a multitude of theological, literary, and historical sources. Sonic ally, it seems to me to reflect the mood and ambiance of the 1997 album Time Out Of Mind, and specifically It’s Not Dark Yet, and also, 2001’s Love and Theft. A blog called Waxing Lyrical describes it thus.

    Cross the Green Mountain is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.

    In the his NYRB essay, Sean Wilentz writes:

    “Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song”.

    And he concludes his review of Bob Dylan as a historian thus:

    “It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.”

    Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
    It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there

    It’s a gloomy conclusion. For many, however, the glass is half full rather than half empty. As Paul Simon sang In American Tune, “we come in the age’s most uncertain hour and sing an American tune”. But he also added: “you can’t be forever blessed”.

    The United States of America is more than North and South, Red and Blue. There are probably more than two Americas: North, South, Black, White, East and West Coast, and the Mid West; the heirs of the Mid 19th Century Know Nothings, nativists and immigrants, and indigenous, and more. It is the country of Trump and his carpetbaggers and of the tele-evangelists, the bitter and twisted, revanchist and retro America, the dangerously blinkered and overconfident America driven by its creation myths of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. But it is also, the America of Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Quad compadres. It is Walt Whitman’s America and the America of Herman Melville and John Steinbeck. It is the America of Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. It is Leonard Bernstein’s America, Paul Simon’s America, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan’s America.

    As Leonard Cohen said, America is “the cradle of the best and the worst”.

    But outsiders do indeed look at America today and shake their heads in wonder.

    I have prayed for America
    I was made for America
    It’s in my blood and in my bones
    By the dawn’s early light
    By all I know is right
    We’re going to reap what we have sown
    Jackson Brown, from Lives in The Balance

    Both the NYRB and Waxing Lyrical articles are republished in fill below.

    Also in In That Howling InfiniteLegends, bibles, plagues – Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture; Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana; Still tangled up in Boband Tales of Yankee Power

    Bob Dylan, Historian

    Sean Wilentz, New York Review of Books, June 19, 2021

    This essay is adapted from a keynote lecture delivered at a conference to honor Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday, “Dylan @ 80,” convened by the Bob Dylan Institute at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 24, 2021.

    Bob Dylan performing at a SNCC voter registration drive, Mississippi, 1963

    Two American presidents, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, bite the dust on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan’s latest record (his thirty-ninth studio album, released last year), and a third, Harry S. Truman, pops up on the next-to-last track, on Mystery Street off Mallory Square in Key West, where Truman had his winter White House. Elsewhere on the album, we cross the Rubicon with Julius Caesar; and on the beautiful song “Mother of Muses,” three Union senior officers from the Civil War as well as two great commanders from World War II (one American, one Soviet), clear the way for Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr. This is not the same phenomenon as the appearance of Ma Rainey and Beethoven, emblems as much as people, in “Tombstone Blues” on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan brings a different kind of history to bear on this album, though hardly for the first time in his writing. Mystery Street doesn’t actually exist—it’s the one spot in the Key West song that’s imagined—but it is at the center of everything in that liminal paradise, just on Dylan’s horizon line. Once you get to the Mystery, it seems, you’ll find History dwelling there.

    This in itself is highly unusual, as few songwriters if any have exhibited Dylan’s historical knowledge, let alone his historical consciousness. In Dylan’s case, though, history is only one branch of knowledge and creativity that absorbs him: whether it’s a Juvenal satire or a picture at an exhibition or a recording of Robert Johnson, Dylan responds by breaking things down, trying to understand how they work and what makes them different from everything else. As the critic Greil Marcus recently noted, it’s helpful to think of Dylan as a scholar, as well as craftsman. Do so and we might better understand how his art works.

    But what difference does history—and more specifically, American history—make to Dylan’s work? Dylan has long populated his songs with historical characters, as well as characters from the territory where history shades into legend, and his work is never too far from the larger American mythos emanating from its rough and rowdy past, with its gamblers, prophets, false prophets, and outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Lenny Bruce. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Dylan writes, convincingly, of reading deeply in history books once he’d reached Greenwich Village, and of how figures such as the antislavery and civil rights congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who had “a clubfoot like Byron,” made a deep and lasting impression on him.

    Dylan has also often seemed to depart from the mental clatter of the present, by living according to a time-warped calendar, in which the Galveston flood or the great Mississippi flood or the sinking of the Titanic have only just happened. Long ago, he has said, he discovered in folk songs a parallel universe of old-fashioned virtues and actions; and in time, that universe became real, so that if someone asked what was happening, the answer was (to take another assassination) that President Garfield had been shot down and there was nothing anybody could do, just as Bascom Lamar Lunsford sang it. “All of this was current, played out and in the open,” Dylan writes, of his Village days. “This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.” It’s hard to listen to the last two decades of Dylan’s compositions especially and not hear him living in some version of that time warp and pulling his listeners into it, too.

    How does he go about it? Well, for one thing, he studies. For a historian, it was fascinating, even thrilling to read, in Dylan’s memoir, of the young rising artist’s visiting the New York Public Library and researching in American newspapers from the Civil War era on microfilm to help calm his mind. Of course, it may never have happened: although I can attest to the book’s spiritual accuracy about the Village in the early Sixties, the author of Chronicles also fabricates, which tells you something about Dylan and his relationship with history. (Indeed, I’m not entirely certain whether he really first encountered Thaddeus Stevens in the early Sixties, when most historians portrayed Stevens as a deformed, vindictive radical, or if he only discovered him later.)

    Still, Dylan builds his fantasies from facts, and it was exciting to read of his carefully studying primary historical sources, as assuredly he does. Such was the routine until the Internet made microfilm largely obsolete—and the thought of an ambitious Bob Dylan’s seeking inspiration by threading one of those strips of film into one of those plastic or metal reels on one of those archaic machines, then turning a knob or pressing a lever, trying to keep everything in focus, just as we once did, felt like a kind of validation of his work and, I suppose, of mine. That Dylan remains fascinated with documents from the nineteenth century was affirmed recently by the historian Douglas Brinkley, reporting on Dylan’s research into the details of the gruesome Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.

    What Dylan takes from the past obviously isn’t the same as what the average historian does; the differences and the similarities are equally important. Dylan is no stickler for the kind of factual accuracy that the historian’s craft demands but that the songwriter’s safely ignores. When someone asked E. L. Doctorow if Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit ever met, as they do in his novel Ragtime, Doctorow replied, “They have now.” That’s the spirit Dylan works into his songs.

    “A songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.” Yet to discover and express that kind of truth requires knowing as much as you can about what actually happened, as much as any historian might hope to. This is surely the reason, I imagine, why Dylan pressed Brinkley for all that he knows about what happened at Sand Creek (which turns out to have been be much less than Dylan had already learned from his studies.).

    A trained historian commonly dives into sources with a particular topic or line of narrative in mind and can block out the rest. Dylan, though, can get disoriented and nearly overwhelmed by the unexpected. “The issue of slavery wasn’t the only concern,” he writes in Chronicles of the 1850s. “There were news items about reform movements, antigambling leagues, rising crime, child labor, temperance, slave-wage factories, loyalty oaths and religious revivals. You get the feeling the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everyone will perish.”

    Once over his bewilderment, though, Dylan soon surpasses most historians in quickly building a syncretic sense of the whole. For example, Civil War–era America, as he says he discovered it a century later, was an unrealistic, grandiose, immensely suffering land, riven by clashing comprehensions of time itself. Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality, the Declaration of Independence, checks and balances, everything Americans supposedly prided themselves on—indeed, reason itself—could carry you only so far. “After a while,” he continues, “you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.” Shine a light on that America, he writes, and “you could see the full complexity of human nature,” in a place that did not at all resemble the America of the Sixties, “but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way. Not just a little bit, but a lot.” A reasonable man tracking unreason, Dylan offers a summary metaphor, more pithy and powerful than any historian would ordinarily use: “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected.” As important is where Dylan later claimed that perception took him: “The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”

    That shows how seriously Dylan takes history. And looking back at some of his major efforts at historical perception, from his early songwriting through Rough and Rowdy Ways, it’s plain that his use of history has matured and become more sophisticated and nuanced over the decades.

    A mural by Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2020 Brian Peterson/Star Tribune via Getty Images

    Dylan debuted his first obviously historical song, “With God on Our Side,” written when he was twenty-one years old, at Town Hall in April 1963. Although it became something of a favorite over the next couple of years, most famously as performed with Joan Baez, it fell out of his repertoire in 1965, and has remained largely untouched ever since. A sanctimonious lecture about American sanctimony—a counternarrative to what he portrays as the false one the history books tell us—the song is in keeping with an easy iconoclasm, asserting that the American history you’ve been fed is a pack of lies designed to glorify war and conquest. That easy iconoclasm is very much with us amid today’s social and political turmoil, but many of the feelings, as well as observations, inside that song are long out-of-date, stuck inside the high cold war, ban-the-bomb period of American antiwar protest, when every day felt as if human existence was on the brink of superpower thermonuclear annihilation. (In 1989, just as the Berlin Wall was falling, the Neville Brothers recorded an updated version of the song that substituted a new verse about Vietnam for the original one about World War II and the Holocaust. It didn’t catch on.)

    As a songwriter’s history lesson, “With God on Our Side” is barely coherent. It has a point to make about the US military’s slaughter of the Indians, and maybe another about the futility of World War I. About the Spanish–American War, though, all it can is say is that the war had its day, whatever that means. It doesn’t know what to make of the Civil War, by which, a historian might point out, the US Army and Navy, with upward of 200,000 Black recruits, nearly half of them formerly enslaved, killing and dying to the strains of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” effectively brought about slavery’s abolition—something the emancipated reasonably regarded as a godly outcome. The song’s most graphic, unsettling line concerns not American war crimes but Nazi Germany’s eradication of the Jews. The song’s final betrayal, of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, though assuredly timeless, invokes absolute evil in ways that reduce American history into foreshortened fable.

    What can be said on behalf of the song is that it expresses an outrage, utterly innocent of tragedy, which encapsulates the first two critical lessons anyone needs to learn about American history alongside its achievements and promise: first, that the deadly gap between reality and the nation’s proud, sometimes messianic professions has, at its worst, been real and too often wide; and second, that America the beautiful also has some twisted roots planted in dark and bloody ground. “With God on Our Side” is a preachy song that Dylan had to outgrow, but without its historical foundation, there would have been much less for him to grow on.

    “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” written less than two years later and released on his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, is no less a protest song than “With God on Our Side,” but the similarities end there. One of the first efforts in Dylan’s shift from folk to rock, it is seemingly a song about what used to be called the discovery of America, and it is as rollickingly uplifting and zany as its predecessor was sententious and leaden. The recorded version opens with a carefully edited false start, but the musicians regroup for a six-and-a-half-minute roller-coaster ride, more joyful than scary, a display of clackety exuberance that brushes the guardrails yet stays on course. Dylan has written of how much, in his early New York years, he came to admire the frenzied comic work of the downtown artist Red Grooms, and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” sounds like a Red Grooms composition put to music. That Dylan has thought to perform it publicly only six more times since that recording session fifty-odd years ago might signal that, unusually for him, he’s decided he likes the recorded version well enough that there’s little to be gained from revisiting it.

    Unlike “With God on Our Side,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” puts us in a real, if also fantasized, historical place—“I think I’ll call it America,” Captain Ahab/A-rab announces early on from his ship as the place comes into view. The song gives us a couple of actual historical names and events—but, as in a dream, the names slip: A-rab’s ship starts out as the Mayflower then morphs into the Pequod; and at the end, when A-rab and the crew prepare to shove off back to sea, they spot the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailing their way, to discover an America that’s already been discovered. And so, as the names slip, time does, too.

    The song’s protagonist, one of A-rab’s men, was already familiar to Dylan listeners from an earlier song, the Chaplinesque figure, assumed to be a traveling salesman, forever getting in and out of jams in “Motorpsycho Nitemare” (of which “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is a rewrite, with the identical melody). But this time, the maybe salesman is a hipster sailor traveling across a historical landscape where it’s sometimes 1620, sometimes 1851, sometimes 1492, but always 1965 as well—and could just as easily be America today, which is really the point. From the start, when A-rab, momentarily transformed into Peter Minuit on Manhattan, sets about writing deeds, building a fort, and buying the place with wampum, America’s history collapses into stories of sharp dealers and confidence men, with a handsome ambiguous male waitress dressed in a powder-blue cape, and an undertaker who’s only interested if you’re dead, and people demanding not “Ban the Bomb” but “Ban the Bums” along what Peter Stuyvesant knew as the Bouwerie—an America that always has been and always will be: a newfound land that is frantic, exasperating, jumbled, and irrational beyond the point of absurdity.

    Eighteen years later, in 1983, Dylan wrote what some have considered a historical masterpiece.“Blind Willie McTell” is as allusive as “With God on Our Side” is didactic, and as spare and exact as “115th Dream” is rambunctiously ramshackle. It’s another traveling song, but this time, the road is time, starting in a condemned Southland soaked with martyrs’ blood, moving back to the closing-down of a nighttime country tent show, then further back to slavery days and the Civil War, then up to the present via a chain gang and rebel yells, ending with the traveler on the road, his mind on the recurring, punctuating presence of Blind Willie McTell, the Georgia songwriter and bluesman who made his name recording in the 1920s and 1930s. The song offers a lesson about human greed and corruption, envisaged inside Southern history, born of slavery’s whips, the Middle Passage, and Sherman’s March to the Sea, yet with a trace of redemption, or, at any rate, of enduring beauty, and heard as sung and played in a blind black man’s blues.

    I’ve sometimes seen “Blind Willie McTell” described as an updated protest song, intended to chart the continuing tragedy and suffering of Blacks in the American new world, and that’s there to be heard in the version recorded nearly forty years ago. But Dylan famously had doubts about the song in 1983 because he didn’t think it was finished, which is why it didn’t appear on Infidels, and, although it’s now esteemed, even beloved among Dylan’s songs, he’s struggling with it still. In contrast to “With God on Our Side” and “115th Dream,” he’s performed it frequently in concert (more than two hundred times since 1997), but over the years, the song has changed and continues to. None of Dylan’s work is fixed, but some songs are less fixed than others, and “Blind Willie McTell” is one of those—though even so, as with every song he alters, the original version never disappears. It is a matter of multiplication, not substitution.

    Dylan’s current version of “Blind Willie McTell” eliminates the verse about burning plantations and slavery’s ships; and the chain gang and the rebel yells are gone, too. The song now confines itself historically more or less to McTell’s own time, or maybe as far back as the 1880s; and the verse that is now one of the two remaining historical verses, involving a woman and a fine young handsome man, notes that “Some of them died in the battle/Some of them survived as well,” leaving both “them” and the battle they fought to the listener’s imagination.

    I can’t say why Bob Dylan has struggled with the song or why the struggle has led him here, but just as history seriously rendered has ironies and ambiguities as well as certainties, so a master of ambiguity has made this historical song more ambiguous, the suffering less specific, less singular, and less explicit, yet leaving nothing easy about it; while the “power and greed and corruptible seed” that the singer sees everywhere taint us all.

    Ironies, more than ambiguities, mark what was, until recently, Dylan’s most ambitious and dedicated work of history: “’Cross the Green Mountain,” written nearly twenty years after “Blind Willie McTell” as part of a film soundtrack, one bright spot in an otherwise abysmal Ted Turner movie about the Civil War. In a mournful arrangement notable for Larry Campbell’s keening fiddle, and written in the style Dylan showcased two years earlier on Love and Theft (released, as luck had it, on September 11, 2001), it is a song of war that the precocious author of “With God on Our Side” could scarcely have imagined writing, yet with a curious possible connection to that older song.

    Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song.

    Two striking verses, both reworkings of relatively obscure Civil War poems, spring cruel ironic traps, with a touch of Ambrose Bierce’s spirit, as well as Whitman’s. The first, containing a line lifted from an Ohio-born Confederate poet, relates the moment of the death of “our Captain,” “killed outright he was by his own men.” The second, a condensed rewrite of one of Whitman’s lesser-known poems, relates a mother’s initial shock at receiving a letter that her son has been severely wounded, shock relieved by the letter’s assurance that he has survived and is recovering in a hospital bed—“but,” the narrator encroaches, “he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.”

    The living God’s presence pervades “’Cross the Green Mountain,” as something real and not an instrument for warmongering propaganda. But as the song’s cruel ironies dramatize, God’s ways are as inscrutable as His purposes. In that inscrutability, there is an important restatement of “With God on Our Side,” with a twist and a much deeper resonance. There is no godly side in “’Cross the Green Mountain”—Dylan certainly chooses no sides, either in the poetry borrowed or the stories related. And while we know that both Northerners and Southerners prayed to the same God and proclaimed He was on their side, in the song, at least, the Almighty picks neither.

    Instead, Dylan writes of “an avenging God,” to whom all must yield—but whom or what, exactly, is God avenging? Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, began at one point to indict blasphemous Southern justifications of slavery—slavery, which he called the fundamental cause of the war—but he stopped short, lest he turn pharisaical, remarking, “Let us judge not that we be not judged.” Lincoln ventured, rather, that God had inflicted terrible carnage on both the North and the South, as both sides had shared in “the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” Dylan, who has certainly read Lincoln’s address, is chiefly interested in other aspects of the war, but his invocation of God the Avenger, smiting “the land of the rich and the free,” squares with Lincoln’s.

    Just past sixty years old when he recorded “’Cross the Green Mountain,” Dylan has, over the two decades since, seen the world in which he started out crumble to dust, and watched fiercely urgent events he wrote about in traditional forms pass into history. He was drawn, early on, to the ballad form, not simply as the source of mythic archetypes like John Henry and Stagolee but also as a means of rendering deadly incidents of injustice that touched him. He has lived long enough now for his once-current ballads to become as ancient-seeming as the original ones that inspired him. Give or take a few years, today we stand as distant in time from the killings of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Hattie Carroll as Dylan stood, in 1963, from the killings of William “Billy” Lyons in “Stagolee,” Albert Britt in “Frankie and Albert,” and Delia Green in “Delia.” Longevity has similarly shaped Dylan’s most recent approaches to history, as he has inhabited old ballads about monumental catastrophes from well before his time and invented new ones about catastrophes he remembers well.

    Other songwriters’ ballads about the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912, form a subgenre all their own, with a dozen or more different compositions, of which Lead Belly’s “The Titanic” and the campfire favorite “It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down” are among the best known. Of all these, Dylan’s “Tempest” (from the album of the same name, released in 2012) is by far the longest, its melody and some of the lyrics lifted from the Carter Family’s “The Titanic,” recorded in 1956. Dylan must have thought the Carters’ version unfinished, and he supplied the missing material, including a couple of time-warp cameos by Leonardo DiCaprio, borrowed, in turn, from James Cameron’s overblown movie. There is a recurring tragic note of a sleeping watchman, but otherwise, the song is a plain yet progressively riveting account that turns to horror: a chaos of floating dead bodies, flooded cabins, and exploding engine rooms, at times resembling a Civil War battle in which, as Dylan sings of the sinking ship, “Brother rose up against brother/In every circumstance/They fought and slaughtered each other/In a deadly dance.” The song offers vignettes of unreflective heroism alongside vignettes of betrayal, human nature in all its complexity amid the disaster.

    And so, finally, eight years after that song—that is, in the plague year of 2020—Dylan’s historical quest brought him to the venerable presidential assassination genre with the song “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. He would have known the traditional songs “Charles Guiteau” (about James Garfield’s assassin) and “White House Blues” (about William McKinley’s death) no later than when he first listened to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952, in which both appear. Around the same time, he would also have heard Bascom Lamar Lunsford performing “Mr. Garfield” on Lunsford’s Smoky Mountain Ballads album, which had been released by Folkways in 1953.

    Long-mislaid manuscripts from late 1963, rediscovered and later obtained by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, and Nash in 1989, show that Dylan was deeply affected by John F. Kennedy’s assassination, scribbling lines that included what would become the central image in “Chimes of Freedom.” His only public reaction at the time of that event consisted of his notorious, bungled, confrontational remarks three weeks later, upon receiving a civil liberties award, about seeing something of Lee Harvey Oswald in his own alienated self. He later denied that Kennedy’s killing had stunned him: If it had so affected him, he asked, why hadn’t he written a song about it? Today, just at the point when his songs from 1963 are passing from memory into history, he has written “Murder Most Foul” as a kind of incantatory ballad.

    Kennedy’s murder inspired an important song in 1966, perhaps Phil Ochs’s finest, “Crucifixion,” even if its starry imagery, recalling Whitman’s elegy to President Lincoln, at times whirls a little grandly. (Ochs suggested his song was not only about JFK but about Dylan himself, also.) Like Ochs, Dylan presents Kennedy as a lamb led to ritual slaughter. Dylan, however, wishes for little imagery: although the song warps time and constructs its own truth, “Murder Most Foul” is as literal as can be, as literal as the Zapruder film (the footage that is described by the song’s narrator as ugly, vile, and deceitful, but which he has watched thirty-three times or more, trying and failing to make sense of what happened). Unlike the older assassination songs, which focus on the assassin or the deed’s aftermath, “Murder Most Foul” dwells on the actual killing, one cold fact after another feeding the tale, to the point at which Kennedy himself—though, in reality, his head would have just been shattered by the assassin’s bullet—describes falling into his wife’s lap, realizing in a flash he’s been caught in a trap.

    The song begins by describing the assassination as a coolly calculated conspiracy, with Kennedy, like Julius Caesar, murdered shamelessly, mockingly, in the broad light of day. The singer then calls upon a mysterious wolfman to howl about the evil deed, when suddenly the song jumps from 1963 to 1964 and the Beatles’ arrival in the US, and then moves ahead in time to the rise and fall of the hippies’ Aquarian Age. Yet the irrepressible evil deed just as suddenly intrudes, uncontained; time slips, bits and pieces from the assassination story swirling around and piling up and blotting out the rest.

    The Who’s Acid Queen flashes but swiftly disappears into the song’s most horrible couplets, placing us inside the presidential Lincoln at the fatal instant. We then encounter what seems like an odd reference to Patsy Cline, which in turn refers to Lee Harvey Oswald as a “patsy,” no longer a fellow alienated young man as Dylan had pegged him in 1963 but a fall guy.

    Then, out of nowhere, the mysterious wolfman reappears, and he’s none other than the famous rock-and-roll disc jockey Wolfman Jack, crazed, shouting, speaking in tongues, just maybe a prophet, and it’s radio request time, and thence begins the better part of the entire second half of Dylan’s longest song ever, a six-hundred-word cascade of callouts, from Nat King Cole to On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy to Etta James to Charlie Parker, some of the best of what America has had to offer the world (plus Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata), tilting to the years since World War II. As in “Blind Willie McTell,” redemption or at least beauty glimmers out of a monstrousness that one of the song’s characters suggests has marked the arrival of the Antichrist. Yet nothing seems to work, and as the requests rampage, the fatal day returns to the song like a revenant, one more time. The perfectly timed bullet left the nation forever changed, forever conflicted, forever haunted: “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell,” the song concludes, Dylan’s voice combining elements of fear, resignation, and menace, “Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’—play ‘Murder Most Foul.’” The song becomes a part of the mercurial history it has just related, a history from which there seems to be no escape.

    Dylan has studied the events closely, right down to the minute when Lyndon B. Johnson got sworn in. He connects Dealey Plaza with different layers of American culture, from the horror franchise Nightmare on Elm Street to the legendary Dallas barrelhouse and red-light district from which the traditional song “Deep Ellum Blues” takes its name, two miles from the old Texas School Book Depository sitting at 411 Elm Street. He sees the assassination as a ripping point, not a tipping point, when the three Graces died and when the nation, its soul torn away, began “to go into a slow decay.” With the full story unknowable, never to come out—“What is the truth, where did it go/Ask Oswald and Ruby—they oughta know”—“Murder Most Foul” is in part about the nation’s calamitous failure to come to terms with what happened. You don’t need to buy into the song’s conspiratorial set-up, reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s paranoid fantasy film JFK—which might even appear to be a symptom of the cynical nihilism that the assassination unleashed and that has poisoned the nation—in order to find its larger point deeply moving, the point about reckoning and failing to reckon with the dreadful moment in November 1963, when the fall of America began.

    More history appears in the songs that precede “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. In “Mother of Muses,” which sounds inspired by something he’d seen in the Nobel Prize medal that he finally picked up in 2017, Dylan looks back in honor to the military he’d denigrated in his 1963 song, when he sang about “the names of the heroes/l’s made to memorize/With guns in their hands/And God on their side.” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” weaves subtle references to the dead bluesman into a juxtaposition of holiness and sex that is at least as old as the tent show in “Blind Willie McTell.” The awful killing of President McKinley as rendered by Charlie Poole’s slightly macabre 1926 recording of “White House Blues”—not the shooting itself, which the song barely mentions, but McKinley’s unexpected death from gangrene eight days later—is the entryway to Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a dreamlike song about a divine paradise, way down at the end of the line.

    Bob Dylan performing in Hyde Park, London, England, July 12, 2019
    Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for ABA

    Thus, then nearing eighty, Dylan concluded his latest meditations, with American history all over the place. It turns out that Dylan was being straight in Chronicles, if not necessarily about every detail of what happened in 1961, then about a deeper truth in all that followed: if the songs have been, as he has said, his lexicon and prayer book, the American past has come to serve as his template for viewing, in a multitude of ways, an explosive culture of feeling, a place where human nature is visible in its full complexity. In his historical view, this is an America utterly different from our own and yet, in some mysterious and traditional way, not so different at all.

    Along with the raging mayhem of history, there has been, also, a powerful elegiac quality to Dylan’s recent songwriting in this vein: a backward glance over traveled roads that appears elsewhere in his recent output, especially in the paintings of American cityscapes and byways in his “The Beaten Path Series,” first exhibited in 2016. That quality, which pervades Rough and Rowdy Ways, actually dates back many years, before Chronicles, and is tied to a feeling that a time is soon coming, if not already here, when truth will be erased and, with it, traditional songs and even history itself. Then, he intimates, anything that came before the here-and-now will be time out of mind. “Look out! there wont be songs like this anymore, factually there arent any now,” he wrote in his liner notes to World Gone Wrong, back in 1993. It’s become a late autumnal feeling in his work—call it November-ish, while recalling that November 22, 1963, was a hot, sunny day in Dallas—a feeling that speaks to a wider condition that has built to this very moment.

    It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.

    Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton. His most recent book is Richard Hofstadter: Anti-­Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays, 1956–1965, the first in a multivolume edition of Hofstadter’s work that he is editing for the Library of America. (July 2021)

    ‘Cross the Green Mountain by Bob Dylan – A Lyrical Examination

    In a lifetime of writing and performing music, Bob Dylan has constructed a considerable body of work comprised of innumerable songs that speak to individual listeners in distinct yet profound ways. It is my belief that Dylan’s song writing abilities have only increased with the passing years, and that the some of the songs he has composed since his creative “rebirth” in the late 1980’s are equal – if not superior – to anything he wrote in the halcyon days of his youth. I think that whilst his earlier lyrics captured the desired spirit of a generation – which ultimately catapulted Dylan to the forefront of public consciousness – in a more powerful and immediately persuasive manner, I think that in reaching maturity, Dylan has even more to say; and his breadth of understanding of history, contemporary society and his craft has allows him to  articulate lyrics that are considerably more controlled than the lyrics of youth, but that don’t compromise the extent to which evocative imagery and alluring ambiguity operate as key components of his style.

    Songs such as “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Ain’t Talkin” and “Not Dark Yet” are magnificent songs that contain lyrics of the highest calibre. It is the depth and complexity of ideas and feeling that render them works of such stark beauty. They also typify Dylan’s current style of ambiguous and resonant simplicity, as opposed to the unrestrained, passionate imagery of earlier times. Each of these songs deserves fulsome analysis, if only to ensure time is actually given over to enjoying them. But it is “’Cross the Green Mountain – Dylan’s contribution to the largely unwatched civil war film, “Gods and Generals” – that in my opinion sits on par with his finest ever lyrics. It is a bold, rich, evocative and ultimately redemptive exploration of conflict on earth. It may take the American Civil War as an inspiration, but the implications of the themes it contains transcend historical connections. It certainly seems to have been designed to encourage listeners to forge meaningful connections between events, peoples and concepts; the very kinds of connections that I would argue that Dylan views as necessary to avoid the kind of bloodshed that he evokes so poignantly.

    The song opens with a multilayered invitation to an experience grounded in reality and reflection, via the allusion to dreams and flood. The framing of the ensuing narrative with the context of “monstrous” dream lends the entire lyric a reflective and meditative air. The image of something rising out of the sea seems an image readily associated with the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2005; an event contemporaneous with the song’s origins.

    The final lines of the opening stanza attain a level of authoritative ambiguity that Dylan sustains throughout the lyric; the ominous notion of something rising Leviathan-like out of the sea – a kind of vengeful force. But what is interesting is why a vengeful force would strike a land rich and free; intriguingly, the “otherness” of ‘something’ obscures motive, and Dylan’s selection of “rich” as opposed to brave suggests some uncomfortable possibilities.

    The image of a “merciful friend” in the song’s second verse conjures an image of death as saviour or one capable of offering release from struggle or strife; but Dylan blurs this redemptive distinction through the placing the image within a question, and then transfers the narrative from the present to the future tense in a manner that accentuates doubt and emotive resonance, rather an any kind of reassuring certainty.

    The concluding lines of the second verse are amongst Dylan’s very best. He twists the Shakespearean sentiment of parting as sweet sorrow into a subversive rejoinder, where in death, the departed meet. In the context of a lyric penned as an accompaniment to a civil war dramatisation, one wonders of whom Dylan is thinking when he “thinks of the souls in heaven who will meet”, as the notion of those on opposing sides meeting and accepting each other in death is a tragic counterpoint from which to consider lives lived and lost in brutal conflict.

    The apocalyptic imagery of burning altars in the first couplet of the song’s third verse acts an horrific counterpoint to the battleground imagery of advancing troops in its second. Significantly, Dylan moves fluidly, if mysteriously, from either side of the rather abstract conflict that he recounts, so that listeners cannot easily align themselves to the conflict’s heroes. His shifting, elegiac and compassionate narrative dissolves the hero-villain dichotomy into something far more human, and more tragic.

    The notion of a foe having crossed over from the other side is mordant and obtuse, an image that, in the context of far-reaching flames most strongly evokes the notion of the devil walking amongst man. It’s a disconcerting image, as is the notion of those soldiers with “more brave blood to spill”, whose sacrifice is simultaneously poignant and pointless, driven both by honour, desperation, and bloodlust. No wonder the flames fall wide, and that the foe has crossed over; it is as though the actions of man have enlarged hell itself.

    The shift from foe to God in the fifth verse is startling; suggesting perhaps that an  “avenging God” and the foe could be one and the same. The wide streets and dim lines seem oddly redolent of the chartered world of Blake’s “London”; a comparably savage mediation on troubled times. It segues poignantly into one of those eminently quotable Dylan lines sagely reminding us that “lessons of life can’t be learned in a day”. In this context, the grey world seems a neglected pot of wisdom, unwisely discarded.

    It’s here that again the boundaries between historical account and contemporary reflection blur darkly. And the fact that our narrator listens while he “stands” is a fascinating detail. Within lies the possibly that this is an act of remembrance, and that the music from a far better land is that of the past, or of Heaven. It’s curious that the natural tendency is to extrapolate forward or backwards in order to locate the better land, even though it may be a lateral leap that is required. Perhaps inevitably, Dylan has drawn upon the innate ethnocentrism inherent in all cultural examinations. The important question that remains all but unanswered is the source of the superiority of the better land; but the return to conflict and loss in the following verse gives a world-weary clue.

    The death of the Captain seems drawn with the broad brush-strokes of an oil painting; the lament for what horridly would be termed today a “friendly fire” death seems a poetic tragedy, reclaimed in this context from the self-serving euphemism of the ‘friendly fire’ cliché. There is also, buried within these lines subtle allusion to rebellion and to mutiny; and the “great” is as much an affectation as it is affection. Again, Dylan has selected imagery that is readily interpretable, but with multiple, frequently contradictory possibilities.

    In the following stanza, where a seeming time of judgement draws inexorably closer, the “unknown world’s” nature can be simultaneously seen from opposing sides: one on hand it is the hellish uncertainty subsequent to an annihilated world, but on another, it is the world beyond the vicious vices of mankind, where even virtue – perhaps no longer needed in Dylan’s utopia – exists only as memory. The “happy year” images makes the former more plausible than the latter, but both readings exist on an implicit level, and it is the latter interpretation’s presence that shades the deathly imagery of the lyric with such profound melancholy.

    The assertive declarative tone of the lyric’s eighth verse is fascinating yet elusively troubling. The notions of blasphemy are disturbing, as is the persona’s exhortation of loyalty to truth and right, in spite of blasphemy being on “every tongue”, which logically must include its own. The irony is resolved only through an embracing of the kind of pluralism that accusations of blasphemy logically preclude through their very existence.

    The hectoring self-righteousness of the persona at this point seems satirically designed to induce a knowing inscrutability, one that ultimately coheres with the lyric’s weary blend of compassion and indifference to those involved in the central conflict, albeit in a rather opaque manner. The stated fealty to “truth and to right” seems to be advocating a kind of declarative autonomy fused with an ambiguous incarnation of faith or

    fidelity, whereby the writer has simply conveyed things as they are, which serves, bewilderingly, to obfuscate the meaning and message of the lyric still further, behind yet another layer of possible interpretations.

    The next verse is one of Dylan’s finest ever creations. It delves further into an exploration of the relationship between purpose, perspective and meaning, with the command to “serve God and be cheerful” seeming both logical and ludicrous in equal measure, in that it may be the only sane choice, in spite of an insane context of war.  The choice to link the instruction to serve with being cheerful is fascinating, in that being cheerful can be read as either the end product of serving God, or a second (necessary or tautological) instruction. Depending on how this enigmatic half-line is read, it is either comforting, cynical or something else again. And yet, the concluding, tense-defying “look upward beyond” with its otherworldly overtones seems to yolk together an existence both earthly and spiritual into a single decree, startling in its fusion of futility and its lack of stated alternatives.

    These words connect with the following line via one of Dylan’s better employments of the technique of enjambment, as two distinct meanings emerge from within lines that are distinctly (and rhythmically) complete. The notion of looking upward “beyond/the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn” is a surreal subversion of night and day imagery, as the song (and particularly the music)’s somnambulant creep staggers through a world of dark, disturbing visions; and, rather than emerge into a clear, comforting world, it is the night that becomes the place of certainty – underscoring its allure – thereby reinforcing the notion that our day’s actions are little more than an illusory defence against the true darkness and the empty anxieties of each new day.

    In this context, the men’s position within the “green grasses of the bloodstained world” seems strangely logical; as though our day’s delusion will inevitably hold sway over other possibilities. At a stroke, Dylan gently, implicitly endorses the notion that reality is little more than smoke and mirrors, but to set it aside is akin to abandoning consciousness, which is as unfathomable in war time as it is in peace time.

    The tenth verse is almost unbearably poignant, with its evocation of a world where ghosts permeate every pore of existence. With a deft shift in emphasis, Dylan’s directs the reader/listener’s gaze from the stars above – and their heavenly associations – to a world where the living are “walking in dreams, whoever you are”. Walking in the dreams of the living, including one’s own. And even more powerfully, walking in the dreams of the dead. It’s a startling image of the spirit world; one that simultaneously decries the futility of war, whilst painting the entirety of existence as a sacred place. The final couplet is tightly focused, suffused with sense of stifled grief that comes in acknowledgement of all that must needs be unspoken in times of tragedy and loss,  both in terms of the loss of human lives in conflict and in the loss of human possibility that inevitably comes from clinging to the coldly familiar and shunning the bright unknown.

    The lyric’s penultimate verse is its most personal, with the tantalising personal touch of a wounded soldier and his mother, where the solider lives on – if only for a fleeting, tragic moment – in the illusion of a letter that lists him as wounded, rather than deceased. It’s a deftly cutting dramatic touch, positioning the reader/listener to feel – apart from sympathy for the mother and her son – that the real tragedy is the delusion.

    It’s at this point that the narrator detaches from his worldly reportage, signified initially by notions of being “lifted away”, but ultimately realised in its shift to a collective first-person point of view. Here, Dylan pulls off the astonishing narrative trick of rendering the present and future into the past tense, and acts as the conscience and consciousness of the entirety of humanity. In it, two key understandings are offered: that the fate of humanity rests of the surrendering of fear – or perhaps the fear of fear – and the embracing of the uncertainty and weakness inherent in change and growth; and secondly, that the past, present and future are tangible, malleable and extant, and that the world we inhabit is a stranger, darker, more beautiful and more tragic reality than our limited perspectives allow us to see.

    “’Cross the Green Mountain” is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.

    They say artists hold a candle to the world so we all can see it a little more clearly. On this occasion Dylan’s light is searing, and we can see just how rocky are our surroundings, and just our precarious our footing. But certainty – however daunting – must eventually hold sway over delusion. It’s just that reality might be a little more complex – and considerably less tangible – than we would like it to be.

    Bob Dylan – ‘Cross the Green Mountain

    I crossed the green mountain, I slept by the stream
    Heaven blazing in my head, I dreamt a monstrous dream
    Something came up out of the sea
    Swept through the land of the rich and the free.

    I look into the eyes of my merciful friend
    And then I ask myself, is this the end?
    Memories linger sad yet sweet
    And I think of the souls in heaven who will meet.

    Altars are burning with flames falling wide
    The foe has crossed over from the other side
    They tip their caps from the top of the hill
    You can feel them come; more brave blood to spill.

    Along the dim Atlantic line
    The ravaged land lies for miles behind
    The light’s coming forward and the streets are broad
    All must yield to the avenging God…

    The world is older, the world is grey;
    Lessons of life can’t be learned in a day.
    I watch and I wait and I listen while I stand
    To the music that comes from a far better land.

    Close the eyes of our Captain; peace may he know.
    His long night is done; the great leader is laid low.
    He was ready to fall; he was quick to defend;
    Killed outright he was, by his own men.

    It’s the last day’s last hour, of the last happy year
    I feel that the unknown world is so near
    Pride will vanish and glory will rot,
    But virtue lives and cannot be forgot.

    The bells of evening have rung
    There’s blasphemy on every tongue;
    Let them say that I walked in fair nature’s light,
    And that I was loyal to truth and to right.

    Serve god and be cheerful, look upward beyond
    Beyond the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn
    In the deep green grasses of the bloodstained world
    They never dreamed of surrendering; they fell where they stood.

    Stars fell over Alabama, I saw each star;
    You’re walking in dreams, whoever you are.
    Chilled are the skies, keen in the frost
    The grounds froze hard, and the morning is lost.

    A letter to Mother came today;
    Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say.
    But he’ll be better soon; he’s in a hospital bed.
    But he’ll never be better. He’s already dead.

    I’m ten miles outside the city and I’m lifted away
    In an ancient light at the start of day
    They were calm, they were blunt we know them all too well,
    We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell.

     

    Rhiannon the Revelator – In the dark times will there also be singing?

    In the dark times will there also be singing?
    Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.
    Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

    Brown girl in the ring, raise your voice and sing

    Rhiannon Giddens, a multifaceted singer, musician, folklorist and storyteller brings American history alive in her her drive to unearth the stories of forgotten people so that her audiences and listeners may remember them.

    On Moon Meets The Sun, a defiantly joyous song, Giddens and her comrades of Our Native Daughters sing in the round over a polyrhythmic lacework of banjo and guitar, vowing not to let radical suffering diminish humanity. “You put the shackles on our feet, but we’re dancing”, she sings, “You steal our very tongue, but we’re dancing” “Ah, you sell our work for your profit, but we’re dancing,” she scoffs. “Ah, you think our home we have forgotten, but we’re dancing.” Then she recedes into the jubilant tangle of voices: “You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing). You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)”. 

    As Leonard Cohen sang, “that’s how the light gets in”. 

    Songs of Our Native Daughters is at once a harrowing ride through early America’s darkness and also, a celebration of resilience and resistance. As  Rhiannon Giddens describes it:

    “There is surely racism in this country — it’s baked into our oldest institutions – just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice — in large, public ways that are only beginning to be highlighted, and in countless domestic ways that will most likely never be acknowledged.” (NPR – First Listen to Our Native Daughters)

    ‘… slavery is not a historical event but rather an intrinsic, dominating, and ultimately destructive part of everyone’s day-to-day reality’ (CE Morgan’s “great American novel”)

    When the day is done
    The moon meets the sun
    We’ll be dancing
    When the day is done
    The moon meets the sun
    We’ll be dancing

    You put the shackles on our feet
    But we’re dancing
    You steal our very tongue
    But we’re dancing

    Brown girl in the ring
    Raise your voice and sing
    Sing us solace
    Sing us freedom
    Hold us steady
    Keep us breathing
    We’ll endure this
    You can’t stop us
    And we’re dancing

    You steal our children
    But we’re dancing
    You make us hate our very skin
    But we’re dancing 

    We’re your sons
    We’re your daughters
    But you sell us
    Down the river
    May the God
    That you gave us
    Forgive you
    Your trespasses
    We’re survivors
    You can’t stop us
    And we’re dancing

    When the day is done
    The moon meets the sun
    We’ll be dancing
    When the day is done
    The moon meets the sun
    We’ll be dancing

    Like the rabbit
    We won’t bend to your will
    Like the spider
    The smallest will still prevail
    The stories of our elders
    We find comfort in these
    We smile to the sky
    We move to stay alive
    And we’re dancing

    You steal our work for your profit
    But we’re dancing
    You think our home we have forgotten
    But we’re dancing

    Step into the circle
    Step into the ring
    Raise your voice and sing
    Sing freedom
    Sing freedom
    You can’t stop us now
    You can’t keep us down
    We’ll be dancing

    When the day is done
    The moon meets the sun
    We’ll be dancing
    When the day is done
    The moon meets the sun
    We’ll be dancing

    You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t stop us now
    You can’t keep us down
    You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
    You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)

    Quasheba, Quasheba
    You’re free now, you’re free now
    How does your spirit fly?
    Blood of your blood
    Bone of your bone
    By the grace of your strength we have life

    From the Golden Coast of Ghana
    To the bondage of Grenada
    You kept the dream of hope alive
    They burned your body
    They cursed your blackness
    But they could not take your lights

    Raped and beaten, your babies taken
    Starved and sold and sold again
    Ain’t you a woman, of love deserving
    Ain’t it somethin’ you survived?

    Quasheba, Quasheba
    You’re free now, you’re free now
    How does your spirit fly?
    Blood of your blood
    Bone of your bone
    By the grace of your strength we have life

    You dreamt of home, you dreamt of freedom
    You died a slave, you died alone
    You came from warriors who once built empires
    Ashanti’s kingdom carries on

    You were forgotten, almost forsaken
    Your children founded generations
    Your strength sustained them
    They won their freedom
    Traced their roots to find you [waiting?]

    Quasheba, Quasheba
    You’re free now, you’re free now
    How far your spirit’s flown
    Blood of your blood
    Bone of your bone
    By the grace of your strength we are home

    Blood of your blood
    Bone of your bone
    By the grace of your strength we are home
    By the grace of your strength we are home
    We are home
    We are home
    We are home

    Also in In That Howling Infinite,  Soul Food – music and musicians, a collection of posts on matters musical, My Country ’tis of thee, a collection of posts on american history, politics and music, Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana, and The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan’s “great American novel”

    Postscript

    I am reminded of  Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the old Baptist hymn:

     My life flows on in endless song
    Above earth’s lamentation.
    I hear the real, thought far off hymn
    That hails the new creation
    Above the tumult and the strife,
    I hear the music ringing;
    It sounds an echo in my soul
    How can I keep from singing?

    and of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem

    I can’t run no more
    With that lawless crowd
    While the killers in high places
    Say their prayers out loud
    But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
    A thundercloud
    They’re going to hear from me

    Here is the wondrous Éabha McMahon of Celtic Woman:

     
     
     

    That was the year that was – a year of living dangerously

    Last December, when we wrote our review of the year that was ending, fires were ravaging Eastern Australia, and civil unrest had broken out across the world, from Hong to Chile, Beirut to Bolivia. Calling it The End of the Beginning, we wrote:

    “We enter a new decade with an American election that will focus our attention; Britain’s long farewell to Europe; an end, maybe, to Syria’s agony (accompanied by renewed repression and victor’s revenge); the rise and rise of China and the geopolitical challenge it presents to the senescent “Old World”. And that is just a few things we have to look forward to”.

    As they say, “be careful what you wish for”, or more prosaically, when men make plans, god laughs.

    This was a year unlike any other in my, dare I say it and invite the evil eye, long lifetime. It started so well with the abatement of our smoky, fiery Black Summer, and then the rains came. This was the year optimists hoped would be one of 20/20 vision: progress on tackling climate change, perhaps, and end to the entertaining but scary presidency of Donald Trump, a cure for … well everything.

    But it was to be the year of the virus. By year’s end nearly eight million people will have been infected and almost two million will have perished, with the US recording more than any other country – by New Years Day, its death-toll will very likely exceed its dead in World War II. Economies have been shattered, livelihoods threatened or destroyed, borders closed, cities, towns and homes closed, locked-down and isolated.

    In its turbulent and divisive election year, the death of George Floyd at the hands of – or more specifically under the knee of a policeman, painted a brutal portrait of the implacable indifference to black life that defines American policing. It reopened America’s long-festering wounds of racial and social injustice, white racism and vigilante violence. Rather than douse the flames with water and retardant, The White House reached for a can of petrol. The Black Lives Matter Movement, like #MeToo in recent years, an incendiary spark ignited protests around the world, showing that police violence, injustice and inequality do not belong to the USA alone.

    Armed protesters on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses

    Whilst most of the world had entered into a kind of limbo, awaiting the vaccine that will end our travails and reopen our countries and indeed, the wide world, others dropped down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that alternatively deny that the pandemic exists or that it had been deliberately created and spread by mysterious and malevolent cabal that seeks total control, like some villain from an old James Bond film or an Avengers movie. Social media has enabled a veritable eBay of ideas and explanations where the isolated and excluded who do their own research and follow the breadcrumbs into the Matrix can buy one and get four free.

    On a saner but nonetheless destabilizing level, denizens of the so-called “cancel culture” had a field day exercising its democratic right to be easily offended by demanding the deplatforming, defenestration and demolition of persons, ideas, careers, and monuments. Long-dead slavers, imperialists and generals bit the dust; JK Rowling and Nick Cave got a serve, the latter for devaluing that “cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society”; and an episode of Fawlty Towers was temporarily committed to the naughty corner. 

    In the cold-blooded, brutal real world, there was no abatement in the wars and insurgencies that have been grinding on years now in Africa and the Middle East, whilst an old conflict over blood and soil broke out anew between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Donald Trump’s much touted “deal of the century” that would reconcile Israelis and Palestinians was revealed to be no more than a shifty and shitty bribe, whilst US-brokered “peace” deals with a bunch of autocracies who had never gone to war against Israel are but smoke and mirrors that like Kushner’s Peace to Prosperity plan throw the unfortunate Palestinians under the bus. It is as if there is, beyond the planets COVID, Conspiracy and Cancel, a parallel universe of misery and carnage, power games and proxy wars.

    Meanwhile, China, or more precisely, the Chinese Communist Party, having let loose the virus, has taken advantage of the world’s distraction and confusion by pressing forward in its quest its political, military and economic predominance. Uighurs, Mongolians and Tibetans face cultural extinction whilst in Hong Kong, the flame of freedom flickered and went out. Sooner or later, something is going to give – what some pundits perceive as President Xi’s impatient recklessness will be followed by a reckoning.

    Michelle Griffin, World Editor with the Sydney Morning Herald provides a brief but excellent run down of 2020: The 2020 Pandemic – our year of living dangerously. And on 2020 as the year of “cancel culture”, the reflex response of the easily offended, here is 2020, the year we finally broke our culture. Both are well worth a read.

    Time during 2020 has been elastic and confused. On 21st December, The Guardian asked readers to sum up how they felt about 2020 in one word – and likewise their feelings for 2021. As of Xmas Eve, the standout words were respectively (a) shit, fucked and challenging and (b) hopeful and better. My poll responses were “fascinating” and “unpredictable”.

    The year ahead?

    Our year in review

    And so to our review of what In That Howling Infinite published during the plague year. Curiously, deliberately or by mere circumstances, nothing about the plague.

    The year began with the fires and smoke abating here on our Mid North Coast, though raging still in southern New South Wales and eastern Victoria. Inspired by an early Cat Stevens song, we opened with a light, nostalgic history of the first the schools of the Tarkeeth, where we live.

    Before we knew it, Australian Day was upon us. Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we were perhaps too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words. Elizabeth Farrelly asked what it means to be Australian: “As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up” … It was Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid.

    February saw the first of several cynical and futile attempts by the international community to resolve the morass of the Libyan civil war. In Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East, we pointed out that Libya was not the only quagmire of outside powers and their local proxies. Then there the Trump administration’s “deal of the century”. Intended to end half a century of conflict between Israel and Palestine, it was the beginning, dead in the water: Clouded Vision – no peace, no plan, no Palestine, no point.

    The unfortunate Palestinians were viewed more sympathetically in a retrospective of the life and work of one of Palestine’s most celebrated artists: Visualizing the Palestinian Return – The art of Ismail Shammout.

    The ominous drumbeats of the novel coronavirus we now know as COVID19 drew close and closer during January and February, and by mid March, it was all on for young and old. A tiny but loud minority protested that all a cod. It was to misapply Bob Dylan, “just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme babe that sucks you into feeling like this”.  With enough being written about the pandemic on mainstream and social media, we took the pasty now very well traveled with The view from the grassy knoll – the resilience of conspiracy theories.

    The onward March of the “Conspiratualists” merged by midyear with anti-lockdown protests in otherwise rational western democracies, the violence on America’s streets following the death of George Floyd, and the anticipation of open war between rival militia in the Land of the fearful – home of the heavily armed. As the US descended into a social and political division as contagious as the coronavirus, the calls to right historical wrongs led to the demands that statues of morally dubious long-dead white be torn down led to Arguments of a Monumental Proportions.

    It was time for In That Howling Infinite to retreat into history, with The Bard in the Badlands 2 – America’s Shakespearean dreaming, a sequel to an earlier piece on America’s historical fascination with William Shakespeare. The lockdowns and self-isolation of the pandemic’s first wave saw people going out less, homeschooling, drinking more (and sadly, in many instances, beating each other up more. But many of us were also avidly FaceBooking, Tweeting and Zooming; and also binge-watching Netflix and Scandi-noir and reading large books.

    In Bad Company – how Britain conquered India, we reviewed The Anarchy, the latest in a long list of excellent histories of the sub-continent by Scottish scholar and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple – the daunting and depressing story of the rise and fall of the British East India Company, a quasi-military industrial complex that earned the misleading sobriquet The Honourable Company.

    Flashman in the Great Game

    Just in time for the lock-down, Hilary Mantel gave us the finale of her magisterial and magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy – The Light and the Mirror. In That Howling Infinite took up two themes that threaded through all three books. We know how the story ends, but are fascinated with how Mantel takes us there. Taking as it theme the golden bird-boy flying too close to the sun, Beyond Wolf Hall (2) – Icarus ascending asks the question “could Thomas Cromwell have avoided his doom?” Beyond Wolf Hall (1) – Revolution Road reviews Cromwell’s legacy, the Protestant Reformation that changed the course of English (and British) history.

    Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

    Fast forward from the life and dangerous times of Henry VIII to the present, and Netflix’ release in November of the third season of The Crown, a sumptuous soap that beguiles even ardent republicans. The latest serve, highlighting the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher and the salacious pas de trois of Charles, Diana and Camilla, is deliciously seditious. And there was an entertaining Australian interlude, as described in The Crown – the view from Down Under  even if it was actually filmed in Spain.

    In August 2020, the largest man-made explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki rippled the heart out of Lebanon’s capital. Over two thousand tons of illegal, combustible, unstable, and almost forgotten ammonium nitrate went up in a fireball that resembled an atomic blast. Social media shared memes and messages, hearts and flags, and “we are all Lebanese” profiles. Expatriates and others wrote and spoke about the country’s present turmoil and fears of a return to the bad old days. Many shared  videos of songs by Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz – most particularly, her poignant Li Beirut, which she wrote during the civil war as a tribute to the city’s timeless beauty and the suffering of its people people. O Beirut – songs for a wounded city presents Fairuz’ songs, and also Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s famous O Beirut, Mistress of the World, and Khalil Gibran’s iconic Pity the Nation.

    And finally, as this strangest of years was ending, we published a frolic that has been several years a’making. A cowboy key – how the west was sung takes us on a leisurely jaunt through some of those grand old songs, films and musicals that have shaped our more pleasant perceptions of America.

    Happy New Year.

    Our reviews of previous years: 2019, 201820172016; 2015

    Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view

    A cowboy key – how the west was sung

    Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
    Don’t fence me in.
    Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
    Don’t fence me in.
    Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze,
    And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
    Send me off forever but I ask you please,
    Don’t fence me in.
    Cole Porter and lyrics by Robert Fletcher and Cole Porter.

    Outlaw songs and cowboy gothic

    “An old cowpoke went riding by one dark and windy day …”

    In his informative and entertaining Way Out West series, in The Immortal Jukebox, British blogger and music chronicler Thom Hickey reminds us that the Western Writers of America declared Ghost Riders In The Sky the greatest of all Western songs.  I’m totally with Thom  here. Written and recorded in 1948 by Sons of The Pioneers alumni Stan Jones, it is probably the best of a glorious herd. The lyrics echo the Seer of Patmos’ four horsemen of the apocalypse …

    Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
    Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
    A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
    For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

    It’s as far way from “Whoopee ti yi yo, get along little dogies” as Kansas is from Oz.

    Stan Jones also wrote the haunting and evocative theme for John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers. It is a quixotically existential song

    What makes a man to wander?
    What makes a man to roam?
    What makes a man leave bed and board
    And turn his back on home?
    Ride away, ride away, ride away

    The Searchers is regarded by many to be the best ever western, and many modern filmmakers pay visual homage to it – recall Kill Bill and Westworld. I would argue that it is the second best, after Clint Eastwood’s redemptive avenger saga The Outlaw Josie Wales –  which also had a memorable song, the corny Rose of Alabama, which would not be in Thom’s or anyone’s else’s cowboy song pantheon.

    The Searchers and Kill Bill

    And there’s Marty Robbins’ fatal fight for the affections of flirtatious Feleena at Rosa’s cantina in the West Texas town of El Paso. Yes, El Paso of 1959 is up there near the summit. It’s a crowded peak, with these songs tussling for space alongside a swag of worthy contenders.

    Western movies provided irresistible opportunities for city songwriters to try their hands at moralistic cowboy carols. These included the Tin Pan Alley ring-in written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung so well by Gene Pitney: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Those who tamed the wild west had cleaved to an ambivalent moral code …

    But the point of a gun
    Was the only law that Liberty understood
    When the final showdown came at last
    A law book was no good

    From the moment a girl gets to be full grown
    The very first thing she learns
    When two men go out to face each other
    Only one returns

    The cowboy hero faced many challenges in his lonesome quest – none more so than Marshall Will Kane in Stanley Kramer’s showdown classic High Noon (1952) with its iconic theme song written by Ukrainian-born Dimitri Tiomkin and sung by the Chicago son of Sicilian immigrants Francesco Paolo LoVecchio – known to us as crooner Frankie Laine.

    Oh, to be torn ‘tweenst love and duty
    Supposin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty
    Look at that big hand move along
    Nearin’ high noon

    The song is iconic. But rather than platy it here, here is something completely different – the Ukrainian version performed by a shadowy, iconoclastic Australian combo:

    Frankie Laine became a master of the genre with a swag of hits, including Gunfight at the OK Corral, Mule Train, The Hanging Tree, Cool Water, and Rawhide.

    And on the subject of films, let’s never  forget the luminous, numinous, pulchritudinous Jane Fonda as Cat Balou on that “hangin’ day in Wolf City, Wyoming”, serenaded outside her death cell by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kayes as celluloid Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs.

     Pancho was a bandit, boys –  outlaw chic

    There is a multitude of latter day tributes to the genre. Many have tried their hand, and many have given us songs that endure. One is most certainly the mysteriously poignant, mariachi fever-dream Pancho and Lefty by the doomed Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt, a song that has been covered by Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan. Townes later said that when writing the song, he had in mind President Nixon – figure that one out (as Neil Young did when he declaimed in The Old Campaigner that “even Richard Nixon has got soul …”).

    Pancho was a bandit, boys
    His horse was fast as polished steel,
    Wore his gun outside his pants
    For all the honest world to feel

    “Dying outlaw’ ballads are a breed of their own, ranging from the maudlin and admonitory “take a warning from me” Streets of Laredo, to the syrupy Seven Spanish Angels sung so beautifully by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson:

    There were seven Spanish angels at the altar of the sun
    They were praying for the lovers in the valley of the gun
    When the battle stopped and the smoke cleared
    There was thunder from the throne
    And seven Spanish angels took another angel home.
    Troy Seals and Eddie Setser

    Bob Dylan gave us an outlaw Romeo and Juliet on with Romance in Durango, not one of Desire’s outstanding tracks, but what a grand chorus.

    No llores, mi querida, Dios nos vigila
    Soon the horse will take us to Durango
    Agarrame, mi vida, Soon the desert will be gone
    Soon you will be dancing the fandango

    El Paso, Pancho, Durango, those attendant Spanish angels it is passing paradox that notwithstanding America’s ambivalent relationship with its Latino demographic, a Hispanic mystic permeates so many gorgeous songs!

    Cocaine canyon bad-boy Warren Zevon, never lost for a cowboy and rebel riff in his outstanding gothic oeuvre (think, his ingenue Frank and Jessie James and his ruinous Play It All Night Long), and his ballad of how two-timing Jeannie needed “a shooter, a shooter on her side”.

    Neither songs’ protagonist came out alive. But not all our trigger-happy troubadours end up with a bullet or a noose. The Everly Brothers sent a Message to Mary from a cold cell where the failed stage-coach robber was doing a long stretch, advising Mary that she ought to court a better beau; and Marty Robbins’ would be lucky enough to be spared at The Hanging Tree.

    Bob Dylan’s wonderful Blood on the Tracks included the cowboy-noir ballad Rosemary, Lily and the Jack of Hearts, a characters-driven saloon story of payback and pay-dirt which would not be out of place in decadent Deadwood and wired Westworld.

    And, of course, there are the songs to the cowboy’s best pal, his Four Legged Friend. Roy Rogers blazed this equine trail, with that very song about his photogenic palomino Trigger. St. Leonard of Montreal, who had aspirations once upon a time to join a cowboy band, has given us his lyrically gorgeous paean to the pony and its desolate rider with the Ballad of the Absent Mare:

    Say a prayer for the cowboy
    His mare’s run away
    And he’ll walk til he finds her
    His darling, his stray

    And from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s Lyle Lovett calling up both Roy and Trigger and singing of how “… we could all together go out on the ocean, me upon my pony on my boat”.

    And Lee Hazelwood, “the wayward guru of cowboy psychedelia” and onetime mentor of Nancy Sinatra (yes, he wrote The Boots Were Made For Walking – all over you), with his Great Plains drawl and his hankering for the outlaw Bad Girl who’d “took my silver spurs, a dollar and a dime, and left me cravin’ for more Summer Wine” with its “strawberries, cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring”. He was the inspiration for a kind of cowboy gothic that saw urban roustabout cos-play with Wild West dress-ups and bad-boy cowboy noir that found its apotheosis in the cover of the Eagles’s Desperado.

    Emmylou Harris’ beau, Carolina coast-born Gram Parsons, who brought the Byrds eight miles down to the Sweetheart of the Rodeo,  pioneered “country rock”, Hes went on to muster Keith Richards into the rockabilly ambiance of the Rolling Stones’s Devils Banquet, and on the brink of stardom, he exited on an overdose at the Jericho Tree Motel, close to the primeval vegetation that provided the title for Irish band U2’s excellent album – but that is not part of this story.

    As big as all outdoors

    Lost my heart in the Black Hills
    The Black Hills of Dakota
    Where the pines are so high
    That they kiss the sky above
    Sammy Fain, and Paul Francis Webster

    There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
    There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
    The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,
    An’ it looks like its climbin’ clear up to the sky.
    Oh what a beautiful morning, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

    It was inevitable that cowboys should infiltrate that most American of theatrical excess, the musical. And the contributions of the great musical songwriters – many of them urban Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe – have endured with countless outings on screen and stage. Oklahoma gave us songs  “as big as all outdoors” with the title song, its standout ballad Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’, and the hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’ The Farmer and the Cow Man  (“Territory Folks should stick together”). Seven Brides For Seven Brothers brought the backwoods to the city with its retelling of the old tale of “the sobbin’ women who lived in the Roman days (“… least that’s what Plutarch said!”) and songs like Wonderful, Wonderful Day, Bless Your Beautiful Hide, and Goin’ Courtin’. The rags to rodeo soapie Annie Get Your Gun gave us Doin’ What Comes Naturally and Anything You can Do. As they say, “there’s no business like show business”, and any excuse for a barn dance, shindig, hoedown or hootenanny.

    My personal favourite is Calamity Jane. Doris Day could not be further from Robin Weigert’s foul-mouthed, drunk of Deadwood, but boy, could she “whip crack away” as she drove the Deadwood Stage into town. And didn’t we all yearn for “the Black Hills and the beautiful Indian country that I love” – notwithstanding the brutal irony that the seizure of that Indian country was the prelude to the annihilation of the Plains Indians.

    Musical movies give film stars with terrible voices a chance to let it all hang out. Paint Your Wagon, was brought painfully and rib-ticklingly to life on the big screen by Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, who were not, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s word, “born with the gift of the golden voice”. Gruff Rod Steiger’s darkish Poor Judd is Daid  in Oklahoma gave Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris license to break out in dubious song in Man of La Mancha and Camelot. There is something evocative and timeless about Lee’s croaky I Was Born Under a Wondering Star: “wheels were mean for rollin’, mules were mad to pack; I never saw a sight that don’t look better lookin’ back”. One can’t help but like it.

    And whilst we’re breaking out the corn that sometimes is “as high as an elephant’s eye”, I have to admit that I have also always had an inexplicable affection for Tony Orlando’s melodramatic, latter-day revenger tragedy and El Paso clone I Did What I Did For Maria, and the overblown, whip-crackin’ Legend of Xanadu by that peculiar British band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch (the video is below – very cowboy cosplay and “all a bit Zorro”). Which brings us ineluctably – to the irreverently awful, bowdlerized Rawhide by the strange Scottish The Chaps (as in blokes or cowboy leg coverings?) and Sting’s eminently forgettable Cowboy Song. Here’s Tony grooving it with the dolly-birds during the decade that fashion forgot. And we never did find out “what he did to Maria”.

    My cowboy days

    How many Aussies of a certain age did not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:

    He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
    Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
    Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
    The man that holds his own is good enough.

    Though I was immigrant and a townie, I had my ‘cowboy’ days. I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again. See In That Howling Infinite‘s The Twilight of the Equine Gods.

    My riding days are over, but as this post will aver, I am still into westerns, and as a onetime musician myself, I have, in days gone by, penned songs in a cowboy key.

    The Ballad of The Drover’s Dog is twin to iconic Australian poet Henry Lawson’s Harry Dale The Drover, that wistful if overwrought tragedy of the homeward bound stock-man who, along with his faithful hound, comes to grief in the flooded creek. Playing at a pub in Pontadawe, in South Wales, we sang the story of Bluey, the brave blue cattle dog. As ever, the audience took the song seriously albeit sardonically. But this time it was different – knowing smile flickered across many faces. Afterwards, folk came up to us and asked if we heard of Swansea Jack. Read the notes that accompany the song. Greater love hath no dog. Inspired by Henry, this story references council by-laws governing Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach.

    From The Ballad of The Drovers Dog, it is only a hop, step, and a boot scoot to that song that dares not mention its name, a rollicking cross between The Man From Snowy River and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, It is likewise loosely based on a true story, as is Capricorn Cowboy. We were doing a gig in cairns, in the tropical far north of Australia, against a backdrop of frogs and cicadas, street noise and broken and breaking glasses. One of the floor singers was Henry, a wannabe country & western singer. And country music of the cowboy variety is a thread that runs through most of these songs and stories. Three quarter time, regardless of the subject matter. I Still Call Mongolia Home, notwithstanding its title and subject matter, is a cowboy song through and through, dedicated as it is to The Duke himself. And Summer Is The Time, a Viking saga that meanders all over the map , resolves into a finale that would not be out of place in Oklahoma! Well, sort of. Listen to it and also the story of Henry below.

    My Cowboy Days with Twopence & Trigger

    Postscript – a cowboy like me

    Americans love their outlaws and really love them running wild, and if that means going out in a blaze of glory, so much the better. We recall the closing camera pan of Bonny and Clyde, and the fade to sepia freeze-frame ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In part, this is because the world’s most powerful country, and indeed, as recent history has shown, most libertarian, cleaves to its foundational “don’t tread on me” and “us against them” identities. In the American noir series Justified, an inept backwoods criminal declaims “he who is not with us – is not with us!”

    But it is not only America, the land of the free and the Boogaloo Bois. England has its perennial and ageless Robin Hood – “age cannot wither nor custom stale” his infinite screen resurrections (there’s another on the way in 2021). And aren’t we still fascinated by those East End bully boys, the Kray Twins, DownUnder, the ghost of Ned Kelly haunts our ethos still, alongside those our famed and favoured bushrangers Captain Lightfoot and Ben Hall.

    But the fascination with the cowboy is much more than outlaw chic. It is a deep and colourful repository of folk memories and foundation myths where fact and fiction coexist. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. And it was always thus. As German cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse, “Like love and the stock exchange, our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”.  [See: The Twilight of the Equine Gods]

    The sad irony is that even as these songs, films and musicals were being created, the world of the cowboy was fast disappearing. Films such as The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid saw its protagonists exit in a blaze of bloody glory. But the reality was more poignant: a slo-mo and allegorical lone rider heading into the sunset for one last time, an American archetype that is lost forever, as country singer Ed Bruce tells us in The Last Cowboy Song, the end of a hundred year waltz”, the video illustrated with a fine gallery of old photographs that recall Frederic Remington’s iconic paintings.

    An Oklahoman friend reminded me of the famous Chisholm Trail, the rout for arduous cattle drives that traversed her state from Texas to Kansas. And there it is in Ed Bruce’s song too, together with references to Lewis & Clark, The Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand and other American epics. I had visions of visions of Rawhide and a young Clint Eastwood, but I also recalled our own  Long Paddock, the “travelling stock routes” where stockmen would walk their cattle to market over hundreds of miles exist today largely as tourist drives. Like the cowboy, our “drover” is a precious but passing of artefact of historical iconography.

    We all get that cowboy vibe, the idea of a life lived on the edge. Though long “civilized” and sedentary, we harbour atavistic folk memories of running wild and free – from the law, from the tax man, from ‘civilization and its discontents‘. Even Taylor Swift has got the drift – albeit as image rather than actual.

    © Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

    For more posts on matters America in In That Howling Infinite, see My Country ’tis of thee, and on music, Soul Food- music and musicians.

    Arguments of Monumental Proportions


    Our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking. Ulrich Raulph

    There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…The opening of the film Gone with the Wind

    The past is another country – they thought things differently there; and if the past shapes the present, the present also shapes the past.

    With the spread of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the defacing and destruction of monuments to dead and dubious white men is back in vogue – not that the practice has ever actually gone out of style.

    Fallen Idols

    There is a certain historical irony that the statue of a 17th century slave trader (and on account of his wealth, philanthropist) Edward Colston has been consigned to the watery depths of Bristol Harbour from whence his ships sailed. He’d built his fortune as an influential member of the Royal African Company, a private company which branded its initials on the chests of some 100,000 men, women and children before shipping them to the Americas and the Caribbean. Thousands never made it, tossed into the ocean after drawing their last breath in the filth below decks. Ted and his fellow slavers have a case to answer. In the hundred years after 1680, some two million slaves were forcible removed from their homes in West Africa to the work camps of the West Indies. By 1750, the numbers of slaves had reached over 270,000 per decade, and by 1793, Liverpool handled three fifths of the slave trade of all Europe.Historian Peter Ackroyd wrote in his History of England: “No more than half of the transported slaves reached their destination; some plunged into the sea and were said to hike up their arms in joy from the brief sensation of liberty before they sank beneath the waves”.

    Bristol owed its past prosperity to the slave trade – as did Liverpool. The statue had stood in the city centre for 125 years with a plaque that read: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’. Streets and buildings were also named after Colton though most townsfolk have probably never have heard of him. 

    Activists have drawn up a hit list of 60 monuments in the United Kingdom that “celebrate slavery and racism”. London mayor Sadiq Khan paves the way for the legal removal of many of historic statues in the British capital and the changing of street names. Slave owner and West India Docks founder Robert Milligan has already been taken down. On the same day, Belgium’s bloody King Leopold, whose rule of the Congo – it was his private property – became a byword in colonial barbarity, was removed from his plinth in Brussels 

    As an Aussie and a Brit of Irish parents, and as a history tragic, I find the long running monuments furore engrossing. Statues of famous and infamous generals, politicians and paragons of this and that grace plazas, esplanades and boulevards the world over, and their names are often given to such thoroughfares. They represent in visual and tangible form the historical memory of a nation, and as such, can generate mixed emotions reflecting the potentially conflicted legacies and loyalties of the citizenry. 

    It is about the control of history – and who controls it. We all use history, incorporating perceptions of our national story into lessons that guide or confirm our present actions and outlooks. Our history is written not only in scholarly narratives, but also, in commemorations, in statues, flags and symbols, in the stories that children are taught about their country and their community from their earliest school years, and in the historical figure skating  they are taught to remember and honour. History, it is said, is written mostly by the victors  – but not always. So the inevitable tensions between different versions of the past fosters tension and conflict, and grievance and offense in the present. Particularly in onetime colonialist and settler countries, and the lands these once ruled and exploited.

    Juxtaposing controversial British statuary, and those of American Civil War generals, against the empty plinths of the former People’s Republics of Eastern Europe, and the images of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein, I have always contemplated our own monuments to reputed bad boys past. 

    There are statues of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell all over the place in England where his legacy is still debated. He stands authoritatively outside the Houses of Parliament and is remembered as one of the godfathers of that institution. And yet, when he died, and the monarchy he deposed restored, his body was disinterred and hanged. In Ireland, for so long “John Bull’s other island”, however, he is reviled. He did, after all, march through the land with “fire and fury”, to borrow Donald Trump’s hyperbole, and killed quite a number of Irish folk. In my southern Irish mother’s day, people would put his picture upside down, facing the wall. This may be apocryphal, but whatever.

    Oliver Cromwell, Parliament Square

    A statue of Lord Nelson stood in O’Connell Street, Dublin until March 1966 when the IRA blew him up, celebrated by the Clancies in the song below. The IRA also blew up that other famous English mariner, Lord Louis Mountbatten, inveterate pants-man, victor of the Burma campaign and facilitator of Indian Independence). It wasn’t that Horatio had inflicted anything unpleasant upon the Irish, but rather his renowned Englishness that earned him the TNT. And yet, in the wake of intermittent US monuments barnies, beady British eyes were always focusing on the admirable admiral and his ostensible racism (not a word in use at the turn of the eighteenth century) and support for the slave trade. After Colston’s dip in Bristol harbour, it won’t be long before Horatio is harangued – not that anyone actually believes that Nelsons Column should be evicted from iconic Trafalgar Square, and it would be damn difficult to paint-bomb his myopic visage. The British attachment to Lord Nelson is long and strong. In Birmingham, my hometown, the city centre around the Bullring has been refurbished, redesigned and reconstructed numerous times during my lifetime, but the immortal mariner and his battleship stand still on their plinth of honour – as in the featured picture.

    The ongoing controversy in England over statues of Cecil Rhodes, colonialist and capitalist, and ostensibly an early architect of apartheid, still rages with respect to his African legacy, with many demanding that he be demolished. his statue in Cape Town, South Africa, was removed after extensive protests in  2015. as As I write, Cecil may not survive the week. There is a statue in Parliament Square, close to Cromwell and Winston Churchill (who some also abhor), of South African soldier and statesman Jan Smuts. His Boer War (on the enemy’s side) and segregationist sympathies were outweighed by his military and diplomatic record in service of the British Empire, and to date, none has called for his eviction. Perhaps he will be spared as he did not have a pariah state named for him, as it was with Cecil. Nor was he associated with the apartheid regime as it was decades before his time – although this wouldn’t satisfy some iconoclasts. But most likely, he is safe because most folk have never heard of him.  

    Cecil Rhodes, Oxford University

    Winston Churchill gets a paint-job

    I have heard mumblings, however, of doing for General Smuts, and also for his Parliament Square neighbour Sir Winston Churchill, who has now been graffitied. Now, he might have saved Britain from Hitler’s hoards, but he did not like the Irish, nor Indians (and Pakistanis for that matter), and said some gross things about Arabs and Jews. And we Aussies, and Kiwis too, still blame him for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign – although he did give us our indefatigable and untouchable ANZAC legend and a long weekend. And whilst on the subject of the Middle East, an equestrian Richard the Lionheart stands close by. He did dastardly things to tens of thousands  of locals – Muslim, Christian and Jew – during the Third Crusade, almost a millennium ago. Watch out, Dick and Dobbin! 

    Richard the Lionhearted

    Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the world scout movement, of which I was a relaxed and comfortable member for half of the sixties, sits on the seafront in Poole, Dorset, under twenty four hour CCTV protection. In a 2007 poll, he was voted the 13th most influential person in the UK in the 20th century. But critics say that he held racist views, and in 2010 declassified MI5 files revealed he was invited to meet Adolf Hitler after holding friendly talks about forming closer ties with the Hitler Youth. If old “bathing towel” as he was once affectionately called by us Boy Scouts, becomes persona non grata, what will become of Baden Powell Park in Coffs Harbour, our regional centre? It sits behind the Dan Murphy’s liquor mart, one of the town’s most popular retail outlets, and provides an opportunity for our discussion to segue DownUnder.

    Dark deeds in a sunny land

    In this strange, copycat world we live in, politicians and activists call for the removal of statues of our Australian founding fathers for the parts they played in the creation of our nation. In his challenging revisionist history of Australia, Taming of the Great South Land, William Lines tells us that if we look up the names of the worthies who’ve had statues, squares, streets and highways, building and bridges, parks and promontories, rivers and even mountains named after them, we will uncover a dark history of which few are aware. Try it sometime; you’ll be surprised.

    There has inevitably been much fuss about Captain James Cook, the renowned and courageous navigator who “discovered” the place two hundred and fifty years ago (notwithstanding that the Aborigines, Javanese, Dutch, Portuguese, and French had been here first). His “discovery”, many argue, led to genocide and the dispossession of our First Peoples (Columbus no doubt also gets more than pigeons shitting on him!). And also, there’s Lachlan Macquarie, fifth and last of the autocratic governors of New South Wales, who laid the economic and social foundations of the new colony. He is in the cross-hairs as responsible for initiating the ‘frontier wars‘ and for ordering the massacre of Aborigines. 

    The captain, his chopsticks and his lunch. James Cook, Whitby, Yorks

    Lachlan Macquarie, Hyde Park,Sydney

    Inevitably, right-wing politicians, shock-jocks and  commentators, came out swinging, venting against political correctness and identity politics, defending what they see as an assault on our “Australian values”. When Macquarie got a paint job three years back, for a moment it seemed that our intractable history wars” were on again – the “whitewash” brigade versus the “black arm-band” mob. Statues were vandalized, voices raised and steam emitted as opposing sides took to their hyperbolic barricades. But once the graffiti had been removed from the statues of Cook and Macquarie in Sydney, and The Australian got it off its chest with a week of broadsheet history and a swag of indignant opinion pieces by the usual suspects, things appeared to have calmed down. 

    But not for long, perhaps.

    All sorts of emotions, hopes and fears lie behind our various creation myths. No matter the source of our different “dream-times” we are all correct in one way or another. People wheel out the wise old “blind men and the elephant” story to illustrate how blinkered we are; but in reality, if those blind men were given more time, they would have expanded their explorations and discovered a bigger picture.

    For more on our Aussie worthies, see, for example, from The Guardian, on Australia, Statues are not history, and regarding former Soviet monuments, Poles Apart – the bitter conflict over a nation’s history. Below is a review of Alex von Tunzelmann’s recent book Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History

    And, in In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness, and America’s Confederate legacy, Rebel Yell 

    Fallen Idols: up they went and down they come

    Jim Davidson, Weekend Australian, 17 Sept 2021

    A statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, Cape Town, South Africa.

    For as long as there have been statues, says Alex von Tunzelmann in this new book, they have been subject to attack. The Egyptian pharaohs regularly disfigured or smashed images of their predecessors. And so, what we have witnessed over the past few years, for all its urgency, in one sense has been a recurrence.

    Von Tunzelmann demonstrates this very well by the way she has shaped her new book, Fallen Idols: it may end with the statue of George Washington being pulled down in Portland, Oregon, but its first focus is the statue of George III pulled down by New Yorkers. This occurred immediately after a public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

    Attacking statues is as old as the United States itself.

    Von Tunzelmann has been fascinated by statues for years. She challenges the notion that statue attacks are aimed at “erasing our past in its entirety” and she is sceptical that a man of his time (for they are nearly always men) can hold, say, racist assumptions, and yet be justified by good works. She says orderly removals are all very well, but the process is protracted and cumbersome: street action is sometimes necessary.

    “Statues do not have rights,” she says. “They stand at the pleasure of those who live alongside them.”

    The book examines 12 case studies. Each culminates in attack or removal, when statues had functioned as instruments of dominance. The massive Stalin statue that loomed over Budapest – 25 metres high – was partly constructed from melted-down Hungarian ones, and people were enjoined by the Communist Party to go and respectfully converse with it. Friendly little Stalin – and yes, he was in fact quite short, and sensitive about it.

    Worse (in some respects) was Rafael Trujillo, who graduated from outright criminality to becoming police chief, supervising an election so that he came to power and stayed there. He employed state terror to rule the Dominican Republic for 31 years, peppering the place with statues and public busts – nearly 2000 of them. Almost certainly a serial rapist, he gloried in what he saw as his virility: a couple of his column-centred monuments were in-your-face phallic. In case people didn’t get the point, at one unveiling his vice-president spoke of Trujillo’s “superior natural gifts”. All these statues came down, with others like them. In India as in Eastern Europe they have been put in special statue parks, where they stand largely neglected. A relatively benign relegation, sometimes leaving behind blank spaces. In one way, the recent attacks are a reversal of the statue-building mania across the Westernised world that accelerated through the 19th century. In 1844, London had 22 statues; by 1910, there were 10 times as many. The attacks are perhaps best seen as part of the reset following through the implications of the collapse of the European colonial empires. Hence the speed with which the Black Lives Matter movement spread: 13 days after George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota, a crowd in Bristol, England pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the harbour.

    The book also gives a highly contextualised account of the “Rhodes must Fall” movement. It is shown how deeply – indeed brutally – racist Cecil Rhodes was; how his belief in the superiority of the British race led him to conclude that it had a right to occupy those lands “at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings”.

    So the first statue to go, after it had been smeared in excrement, was that at the University of Cape Town. Oxford, where he gazes down at the High Street from the facade of Oriel College, has proved a tougher nut to crack. The college has prevaricated – people threatened to withdraw bequests if it moved to take Rhodes down – so he is still there. But the agitation has led to some improvement in Oxford practice, including the appointment of the first black head of a college.

    Toward the end, Von Tunzelmann retreats a little from a generally abolitionist stance when it comes to statues, admitting that she is quite fond of a few. As are the British public, polls show. Certainly, some statues should be statements of what the people who live around them admire, but some are needed to remind us of who we, as people, were, when they went up. There should always be room for that: in the recent frenzy in America, a statue celebrating an antislavery abolitionist was toppled, as was another celebrating women’s rights. For there is a broader problem: the technological imperative has brought with it a flattened sense of the past.

    Jim Davidson’s book, Emperors in Lilliput: Clem Christesen of Meanjin and Stephen Murray-Smith of Overland, is to be published by Melbourne University Press next year.

    Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History, Alex von Tunzelmann (Headline 2021)