There aren’t many stories in this horrible, death-strewn summer that lift my heart. But here’s one of them.
The London Times reports a plan to equip thousands of volunteers throughout the Middle East with 3D cameras. The idea is that they will take photos of every monument and artefact threatened with destruction or theft by ISIS or any other gang of iconoclasts intent on wiping out the pre-Islamic history of the region.
Teams from Oxford and Harvard Universities hope that before 2017 the volunteers will have taken 20 million pictures of objects, using digital cameras that cost as little as £20 ($30) each. What is subsequently destroyed will be able to be recreated using 3D printing.
I think it’s a brilliant idea. The only questionable aspect is whether they can find the volunteers to do the job. I hope they can, and quickly. Palmyra may be lost, but there are many more sites and museums not yet within the clutches of the barbarous ideologues with their sledgehammers and dynamite.
A few months ago, after the destruction of Hatra and Nimrud, I wrote a post called Daesh: the Destroyers of History? No Chance. I pointed out that whatever ISIS manage to destroy, there is much that they cannot reach, either because it still lies underground or because we already have extensive photographic evidence that is available to all of us via the very tool that they use so effectively for their own purposes: the internet.
This plan goes another step towards putting history beyond their reach. And when people use the hackneyed argument that we should be more concerned to protect the living than to preserve the heritage that the dead have left behind, I will always argue that it’s not a matter of choosing one or the other. Both are achievable, and both are important.
For the dead nourish the living, and without a record of what they thought, achieved and built, our ability to make sense of the world would be much diminished. Which of course is what ISIS want; in the world they seek to create, sense is irrelevant. Belief is all.
So the Oxford/Harvard project sends a message to the iconoclasts that no matter how many archaeologists and museum curators they decapitate, and no matter how many objects they destroy, what is remembered can no longer be forgotten.
So esteemed academics, please, please, make it happen, and soon.
So that’s how we sort the world’s problems out, is it? With apologies?
Jeremy Corbyn may have been quietly working away on the sidelines of the Labour Party for the last thirty years, but he certainly knows how to grandstand. And during his time in the sun, he’s clearly making the headlines while he can.
According to the BBC, he intends to apologise to the people of Iraq on behalf of the Labour Party for the 2003 Iraq War.
Now when I was a child, I was taught to apologise only when I meant it. And meaning it meant that I would endeavour not to repeat the action for which I was apologising. If Jeremy had the same responsible parenting as I received, presumably he is undertaking that his party would never again partake in what he views as an unjust war.
Fair enough. We would all endorse that sentiment, provided we could have a clear definition of just and unjust. But this is where things start to become problematic. And two of the most problematic areas are motivation and retrospection.
Is a war entered into for one reason, possibly malign, but remembered for another, possibly benign, an unjust war? The abolition of slavery was not the cause for which the north went to war with the south in the American Civil War. The principle at stake was the right of the southern states to secede from the Union. Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation eighteen months after the war started, and the amendment of the US Constitution abolishing slavery did not come into effect until after the war.
Americans might have a more nuanced understanding of the causes of the Civil War, yet outside the US the war is mainly remembered for its most fundamental outcome – the end of slavery.
Britain went to war with Germany in 1939 in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland. Whatever was known before and during the war of Hitler’s genocidal intentions towards the Jews, the Holocaust was not the cause of the war, yet the justice of the struggle has ever after been framed in the context of the Nazi regime’s murderous actions.
Looking at Iraq, does the failure of nations to take military action against one country whose regime oppresses its people and threatens its neighbours – North Korea, for example – invalidate the justice of going to war against another country whose regime is equally malevolent?
And if the war against Iraq had resulted in a stable government free of sectarian bias and dedicated to re-building the country for the benefit of all within its borders, would we now be describing it as a just war, even if the casus belli turned out to be false and potentially in contravention of international law?
Then there is the question of to whom Jeremy Corbyn is proposing to apologise. To the Kurds, whose villages Saddam Hussain gassed? To the Shia, whom the dictator ruthlessly persecuted in the aftermath of the 1991 war? Or to all the other ordinary Iraqis victimised by his regime – with which, incidentally, we had cordial relations for much of the period up to the invasion of Kuwait under both Labour and Conservative governments? Presumably he is not apologising to any of those people, even though many of them are the same folk who suffered in the 2003 war, and most likely would have been delighted with the fall of Saddam.
I’m fine with his apologising for the consequences of the war. We and our American ally made some disastrous mistakes. But it should not be on behalf of his party. It should be as prime minister on behalf of the nation. But should that moment come, he should apologise not just for failing to see through the motives of the Bush administration and ignoring the frailty of the pretext. He should express national contrition for standing by while Saddam murdered his own people and made war on Iran. And while we’re at it he should apologise for other decisions made where good intentions seemingly coincided with the national interest but which had disastrous consequences in the Middle East: the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Gulf mandates, the Palestine mandate.
But of course that way madness lies. Personally I would like Mongolia to apologise for the massacres of Genghis Khan and for the destruction of Baghdad. I would like Uzbekistan to apologise for the mountains of skulls Timur left across the plains of Mesopotamia. I would like Turkey to apologise for the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.
And in my own country, I seek apologies from Italy for the Roman conquest, from Germany for the Saxon invasion, from France and Denmark for the Norman conquest. Except that I am as much a Roman, Saxon and Norman as I am an ancient Briton. Who knows – I might even be a descendent of Genghis Khan or have the genes of Ottoman janissaries in my blood. So to whom am I apologising? Myself?
Yes, I know that this is different. The Iraq war is recent history, and that many of the decision-makers are still alive. Yet to apologise for 2003 is a meaningless gesture unless it is accompanied with a genuine intention to learn from mistakes, and backed by the power to do things differently in the future. And Jeremy Corbyn cannot change the way we do things until he stands at the dispatch box in Parliament as the leader of a Labour government elected on a manifesto that enshrines those intentions.
The six hundred thousand people – one percent of the population – who might elect him leader of his party in September will not give him that mandate. What’s more, if he eventually achieves power, it would be an insult to suggest that the governments in the United Kingdom and the USA that succeeded those in power when we invaded Iraq have learned nothing from that conflict and are doing nothing to avoid future ill-advised wars, even if many, including Corbyn, would disagree with their policies.
The bottom line is that motivations for war are usually muddy and multi-layered. The pursuit of war is always fraught with risk. The short-term consequences might be predictable, but the long-term outcomes are frequently not. And the verdict of history usually depends on who is writing it.
If you dismiss these words on the grounds that I am unqualified to utter them – not a general, a politician, a historian, a lawyer or an academic – I will plead guilty as charged. But I do think I have a nose for unproductive rhetoric, especially when it comes from a person who has never had to face the challenge of doing what he advocates. Apologising to the people of Iraq might make Jeremy and his supporters feel good, but it won’t make a jot of difference to the lives of those who are living with the consequences.
Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn should have a word with Alexis Tsipras about the difficulties of turning rhetoric into results. Failing that, there must be a thousand equally cogent examples of good intentions failing the test of reality in the public libraries that I hope he supports and sustains should he have the opportunity to do so in the future.
I have never met a migrant who has managed to enter the UK illegally – at least as far as I’m aware. I’ve seen a few on a number of occasions when passing through Calais. So beyond what I read in the media, I can’t say I’m cognisant of the individual motives of these people or the circumstances that are driving them to risk their lives trying to enter the UK and other EU countries.
But I do know that they are being exploited, directly and indirectly. Directly by people smugglers who charge them huge sums for the privilege of boarding an overcrowded boat in conditions that slave traders of previous centuries would regard as common practice. Indirectly by newspapers whose pundits have also never met an illegal migrant, and by politicians using them to incite a wave of paranoia and xenophobia among their prospective electors.
I also know that on the political extremes there are many who find in the flood of desperate people a rich opportunity to blame their selected scapegoat for their plight. It’s because of Blair and Bush. It’s because of the Turks, the Sunni, the Shia, the Saudis, the oil companies, the arms dealers, the neoconservatives, New Labour, the Bilderberg group, the Zionists, the Freemasons, the Safavids, the atheists, the capitalist system. And so on.
Somebody or something is always to blame for something. And the more we blame, the less we think forward and look for solutions. The more we wring our hands and point fingers, because that’s far easier than effective action. And also because we don’t seem to have coherent solutions.
But for what they are worth, here are a few thoughts.
Without laying blame, we need to accept above all that these people are human beings, not marauding swarms. We need to look back to 1945 and ask ourselves whether these people are any less deserving of our assistance than the victims of Hitler and Stalin.
We need to ask themselves what it is about these desperate people that is different from the displaced Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, and yes, Germans, whom we fed, sheltered and protected after the war. Is it race, ethnicity, religion, level of education? Is it because Eritrea’s vicious regime oppresses its citizens in a faraway country of which we know little? Because Syria has become a vicious battleground for factions and religious extremists? Because Afghans like to beat their wives and force them to wear burkas? Because Sudanese cut off the clitorises of their women? Is it because “these people” are seemingly far more alien than the white Europeans who suffered equally in the shattered ruins of their countries?
This is not to say that our post-war record was as white as the skin of the refugees we allowed into the country. We abandoned many Europeans to their fate as boundaries were re-drawn and ethnic revenge flourished under the benign gaze of Josef Stalin. We also stood by as millions were slaughtered after the partition of India and Pakistan.
But should we help the migrants out of a moral obligation formed of guilt over our past actions or inaction, or because we can? Because we are a wealthy nation that has the resources and the humanity to welcome the few thousand in Calais, and perhaps another hundred thousand waiting in other countries? Just because we’re an island at the western edge of Europe, does that mean that we shouldn’t take a significant share of migrants?
We can and we should. And I personally would accept a hike in income tax to support and assimilate them into the workforce, confident in the belief that the vast majority of people seeking entry into the country don’t want to live on benefits, but do want to work hard to create a future for themselves and their families. Damn the consequence for our social cohesion. This is an emergency, for goodness sake.
But that’s not enough. We need to be part of a strategy on the part of the same players who negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran to make a concerted effort to eliminate the reasons why the migrants feel compelled to come to our shores. I’m not just talking about Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya, Ethiopia, Mali, South Sudan and Somalia too. To resolve the conflicts in each of those countries, let alone ones that subsequently flare up elsewhere, will take time, effort, resources and patience.
And no, I’m not stupid enough to believe that China, Russia, the US and the EU will suddenly set aside considerations of national interest for the sake of a few thousand people about to drown in the Mediterranean. But big problems are often solved step by step, in little increments.
All this is obvious. But here’s a final thought.
If a super-volcano wiped out most of France, leaving a million or so starving people on the margins of the devastation, would we in the United Kingdom not take a goodly proportion of them in, feed them, shelter them and enable them to build new lives here?
Why then do we categorise man-made disasters – the legacies of war, political mismanagement and other human failures – as different from natural ones? Are we not life forms also? And in that respect are the results of our folly not also natural disasters?
If one species achieves dominance over a particular domain – and I’m not talking about humans now – and as a result manages to so devastate the habitat of hundreds of competing species that it drives them to extinction, would we not consider the event as a disaster of the natural world? We think of our species as the only one capable of doing this. Yet in South Georgia, the arrival of rats over 200 hundred years has, according to one report, wiped out 90% of the sea birds that use the islands as a nesting place. A man-made disaster? Yes, because we brought the rats there on our whaling ships. A natural disaster? Surely also true.
So if we thought of the current wave of migrants as the result of a natural disaster caused by the malign genetic disposition – to make war, to oppress, to ignore the fate of those whose lives don’t matter to us – of our species, then surely we would open our hearts, our purses and yes, our land, as generously as we might to the victims of earthquakes, volcanoes, flooding and crop failure in countries close to our shores.
Thirty years ago, when famine devastated Ethiopia, the well-meaning and the wealthy came together to stage Live Aid, and event that raised both awareness of the plight of the starving Ethiopians and money for their relief.
I see no sign of a massive wave of sympathy for those who are flocking to the borders of Europe today. No rock stars ready to perform at Wembley for the boat people. Is this because as a continent we feel threatened, diminished by the European project, keen to hold what we have after the successive financial disasters of the past seven years? Does self-preservation trump generosity? Do we see the migrant crisis as a problem for our governments to sort out, not a disaster that should engage each and every one of us?
I have no smart answers that might transform the lives of those so desperate that they risk everything on a boat that might never arrive. But what is happening in the Mediterranean is a natural disaster, and the sooner we start thinking of it in those terms, the sooner we start following the best instincts of humanity rather than the worst.
It’s our chance to prove that as a species we’re more than just another colony of rats mindlessly eating seabirds out of South Georgia.