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A Counterfire book reviews round-up for 2014, revisiting some and introducing others

Once again this year, the government has dragged Britain into a war, the Third Iraq War as it has been dubbed. Once again, the rhetoric demands that this is seen as a war of good against evil, humanitarianism against ‘barbarism’, and a ‘necessary’ action in view of terrible dangers. To be convincing, this story requires us to forget the last fourteen years of disastrous interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, all of them wrecking entire societies, while producing the very consequences military intervention was supposed to prevent.

If the contemporary background is unpropitious territory for imperial self-justification, it may have seemed a boon to some in the establishment that collective memory could be cast back far further, a whole century, to a war whose recollection could be used to rehabilitate the whole idea of justified military intervention. If this was the intended programme, it has not come off as intended. A determined resistance to all glorification of war, and to revisionism about the horrors of World War I, has been a marked feature of 2014, despite the efforts of the likes of Michael Gove or Max Hastings.

To End All Wars

Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War (Pan 2011), xx, 448pp.

A great number of people have contributed to countering the story the war-mongers wanted to tell, but Adam Hochschild deserves particular thanks for his early intervention in the book To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War. Although published as long ago as 2011, it deserves a place as a book of 2014. Hochschild’s brilliantly written narrative demolishes a great range of the talking points of the pro-war party, in the course of describing the background, outbreak and course of the war from both the military and anti-war perspectives. His picture of a belligerent and aggressive empire, whose elites were increasingly drawn to war as a solution for problems looming both domestically and internationally, describes not Germany, but Britain. It is not necessary to have any sympathy for the militaristic semi-autocracy, semi-democracy of the Kaiserreich, to spot that the wish of the British ruling class to go to war with the former was based not on a defence of liberal values, but of imperial interests. It is a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Hochschild’s book deserves highlighting because it will be a resource for the anti-war side for some time to come. This year was dominated by arguments about which states were to blame for the war, but anniversaries of events during the war will be continuing to 2018, and so also will the arguments. To End All Wars tells the moving stories of heroic conscientious objectors and anti-war activists throughout the war, as well as detailing the horrors of the war zone. There will be further attempts to re-habilitate the idiotic military leaders of the war, who were so careless of human life, but Hochschild’s book is a first stop for the counter evidence.

The Darkest Days

Douglas Newton, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (Verso 2014), xxix, 386pp.

Another outstanding book in the crop of World War I publications is Douglas Newton’s The Darkest Day. This is a detailed account of the weeks in the run-up to Britain’s declaration of war, which resoundingly demonstrates that Britain’s rulers sought war deliberately. However much the German elite may be portrayed as aggressively war-like, the British elite were no better, and bear at least as much of the blame for the war. Too often the pro-war party seeks to portray anti-war movements as somehow soft on, or sympathetic to, unpleasant foreign regimes. Newton’s book shows up the bad faith behind this sort of accusation in the case of 1914. The status of the German realm was irrelevant to the real issue, which was the imperial belligerence of the ruling class at home. The Darkest Day may cover only a few weeks in 1914, but it too has lasting value for the anti-war movement, due to its splendid dissection of the strategy of the pro-war clique in dragooning the country into war; the rhetoric and manoeuvres involved are familiar from many a recent war, as if there was a template. Newton provides us with many clues to look out for next time.

Worth Fighting For

Rory Fanning, Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey out of the Military and Across America (Haymarket 2014), 210pp.

The legacy and damage of war carries on a long time after the conclusion of hostilities, and while the victims of imperial aggression lie overwhelmingly in the nations that are attacked, the blowback of war as the potential to destabilise the rule of the elites at home. Worth Fighting For is the account, by a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, of a journey by foot across American to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation. The title of the book could be read as almost sardonic in its ambiguity, but certainly Rory Fanning came to conclude that the war was not worth fighting, and he declared himself to be a conscientious objector, while in the middle of special-forces training. He was able to extricate himself from the military, but as he was doing so, his fellow solider Pat Tillman was killed by ‘friendly fire’ in Afghanistan.

Tillman’s legacy is ambiguous. On the one hand, Fanning tells us that ‘Pat Tillman was the first person to suggest to me that it was possible to stand up to the US military’ (p.2). On the other, Tillman ostensibly represented the imperialist’s dream citizen. An American Football star, who gave up a $3.6 million contract, he joined the military in 2002, in the sincere wish to serve his country. His death wrecked the patriot story, not least because the military was exposed in the attempt to cover up the circumstances of his death. The case also became something of a focus for doubts about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fanning’s account reveals how far Tillman’s legacy remains highly ambiguous.

Fanning in the course of his journey meets plenty of people who remain loyal to the US ruling elite and its disastrous wars, yet there is also a sense that Tillman’s death stands for the arrogance of the elite, which demands sacrifices from its citizens in a cause decidedly not in their interests. The book is an account of the ambiguous feelings of many Americans that Fanning meets along his hike across the country, but he intersperses it with historical vignettes of America’s internal imperialism, from atrocities against First Nation peoples, to slavery and the civil rights movement.

The possibility of change is central to Fanning’s message. The experience of war and leaving the military had a huge impact on Fanning: ‘I have gone from a devout Christian to an atheist and from a conservative Republican to a socialist. My time in the military and the cover-up of Pat’s death led me down a road that challenged the core of who I was. I began to question everything – and ended up here’ (pp.5-6). What Fanning demonstrates is the thin line between people’s support for their rulers’ ideas and interests, and their rejection of it all. The possibility of social transformation lies in this ambiguity. The right wing might seem to be in the ascendant right now in the US as in Britain, but its hold upon the consciousness of millions is demonstrably a fragile one, and quite different ideas lie untapped beneath the surface.

By Dominic Alexander

Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World (Princeton University Press 2014), xiv, 293pp.

The eruption of the Tambora volcano on 10th April 1815 killed around 100,000 people on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, making it the most deadly volcanic eruption in recorded history. The damage caused locally was horrific. According to a Dutch colonial official, the Sanggar peninsula, where the volcano stood still looked like ‘a horrendous scene of devastation’ sixteen years later in 1831, (p.14), and has never been substantially resettled. Indeed, the entire island, once a reasonably prosperous place, is now a byword locally for its poverty and backwardness as a result of the long term effect of the eruption.

The volcano did not just ruin Sumbawa. The ash cloud released by volcanic eruptions, once it reaches the stratosphere, causes colder than average weather by blocking the sun. In Tambora’s case, the eruption (combined with an earlier volcanic eruption somewhere in the tropics in 1809) was enough to give much of the world’s climate a decade of extreme weather. The worst year, 1816, in England was known as ‘the year without a summer’ (a Scottish meteorologist recorded no sunny days at all for the entire year); in Germany, it was ‘the year of the beggar’ because of the widespread starvation that followed successive harvest failures and soaring food prices.

D’Arcy Wood makes a persuasive case for the unprecedented weather’s role not just in agricultural crises but in social and political developments. There was the first American depression of 1819, which punctured the optimism of the new state. There was the development of the Chinese opium trade, as the inhabitants of the Chinese province of Yunnan reacted to years of Tambora-related famine by turning from subsistence farming to the drug. As a crop this was ‘as good as money and more reliable than food’ (p.119). These and epidemic cholera all, it appears, have their roots in Tambora.

It is clear also that the revolutionary struggles of the nineteenth century should also be seen against the backdrop of the effects of the Tambora eruption. This is not only true of events like the Peterloo Massacre, which took place in 1819 within the period of Tambora’s most marked effect on the climate, but of struggle later in the century as well. It is noticeable for example that the years of worldwide major cholera epidemics are also among of the high points of revolutionary struggle: 1831-2, 1848 and 1871. As D’Arcy Wood argues, repeated cholera outbreaks across the world had the effect of making sanitation a key social justice issue. Cholera politicised class, ‘exposing both the vulnerability of the new global marketplace to disease and the gross economic inequalities evidenced in the slums that harboured it’ (p.94).

We’ve reviewed a number of books this year about climate change, concentrating on what we can do to avoid the worst effects. It is perhaps not the most cheery of festive messages, but this story of a volcanic eruption two hundred years ago is a reminder of just how far-reaching and unpredictable the consequences of extreme weather can be. As D’Arcy Wood puts it, in Tambora’s story is also ‘our own fate, in cautionary ways, foretold’ (p.11).


Joe Sacco, Bumf (Jonathan Cape 2014), 120pp.

The publicity for Bumf claims that it will be ‘puerile, disgusting and beyond redemption’. There is certainly a lot of full-frontal nudity, but it is not gratuitous. From the nude, hooded figures, some bound and piled up like in the pictures from Abu Ghraib, to the child running from the fire bomb like the famous photo of Kim Phuc in Vietnam in 1972, all this naked flesh is a complex comment on the US way of imperialist war that includes indiscriminate killing, torture and sexual humiliation.

The storyline moves eclectically from the First World War to the President ceding the entire planet to the Andromeda, so that everyone can be classed as an alien, taking in on the way President Nixon’s resurrection in the body of President Obama (he wakes up as Nixon after a terrible dream in which he dreamt he was a community organiser in Chicago). This last is a reference, according to Sacco’s co-author on Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges, to the remarkable fact that none of the crimes for which Nixon was investigated are now still actually crimes, and allows Sacco to create some remarkable images, like Nixon on his laptop in bed, eating crisps while directing drones to kill children.

Not everything involves the President: another particularly effective sequence involves secret service agents panicking when they realise that a ‘nondescript citizen-suspect’ they notice has no mobile phone and so is not transmitting. ‘”She’s stopped again!” “Perhaps she’s thinking something. Perhaps she’s forgotten something.” ‘”Thinking what? Forgotten what?” “Oh, God!”’ (p.50). At whatever level of society, however, this bears out the opening statement, moving from the Creation and the Garden of Eden to a modern, urban dystopia: ‘”There’s been a serious fuck-up”’ (p.3). 

Quotation alone can never capture the effect of Sacco’s words and pictures combined, but Bumf’s final scene is irresistible. Nixon has ascended from President to dog-headed godhood and a naked, hooded Sacco is leading a school class in obeisance. The President, Sacco explains, is the most powerful being in the entire universe:

‘”He could have this whole class wiped out in an instant. Your parents could come to him with your broken bodies in their arms, and his lawyers would tell them to go fuck themselves. The entire episode would be classified top secret and in the name of national security your ashes would be flushed down a toilet in the dead of the darkest night.”

“Is it true he knows when I don’t brush my teeth?”

“He doesn’t care about your teeth, you idiot. He doesn’t care if your teeth rot out. He doesn’t notice you at all – “

Here the dog-headed god leans down to look at the cartoonist

“- until he does.”’

By Elaine Graham-Leigh


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