Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The 'War of Needs'

Even as a callow student long, long ago I could be provoked to rail against the unhelpful conflation arising from the use of the terms 'First World War' and 'Second World War'. To me the danger was that somehow WW2 could be viewed as a further iteration of something that had happened just a couple of decades earlier. To be sure, in both cases the conflicts were transnational in character. Similarly there were stories of heroism, sacrifice and unforgettable human tragedy writ on the same page as accounts of horror, villainy and astonishing military exploits.

But in the twenties it was for most people sufficient to speak of 'The War', as if there had not been such calamities, even on a grand scale, since the dawn of history.  Wikipedia tells us that The term 'World War' was coined speculatively in the early 20th century, some years before the `Great War' (as it was soon afterwards designated') broke out, probably as a literal translation of the German word Weltkrieg. German writer August Wilhelm Otto Niemann had used the word in the title of his anti-British novel Der Weltkrieg: Deutsche Träume ("The World War: German Dreams") as early as 1904, published in English as The coming conquest of England. Also the term was used as early as 1850 by Karl Marx in The Class Struggles in France. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first known usage in the English language as being in April 1909, in the pages of the Westminster Gazette.

As the second half of the 20th century opened there was no lack of warnings that WW3 could be imminent. As always, there would be new and even more terrifying tactics and weapons. The Battle of Agincourt in 1415 is notable for Henry V's introduction of the English longbow into military lore. Belligerence is the mother of invention. The Great War had pioneered the madness of trench warfare, seen poison gas deployed and bombs dropped from airships. WW2 saw the adoption of Blitzkrieg as a strategy, advances in espionage technologies and the conflict ended only after the first two atom bombs had wreaked apocalyptic devastation. WW3 would mean intercontinental guided missiles with nuclear warheads and ‘mutually assured destruction’ may have saved mankind for the rest of the century, Korea, the Balkans and Vietnam notwithstanding.

Ill-advised politicians found it expedient to resort to facile and bellicose language when speaking of waging a ‘War on Drugs’ or, worse, the ‘War on Terrorism’ against an ‘Axis of Evil’. Neither of these conflicts has been resolved, no clear winner or loser as yet irrefutably distinguishable.

My worry, a century after the outbreak of the ‘Great War’, is the ‘New War’, the one for which our rulers seem to have articulated no viable battle plan. The origin of this conflict which is already claiming far too many lives cannot be traced back to a shot fired in Sarajevo and the death of an Archduke. And yet it is coming to resemble a Weltkrieg, transnational and in fact transcontinental in character, erupting concurrently in America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

I might for convenience call it the ‘War of Needs’, in recognition of the foot soldiers marching as best they can from the lands of the ‘have nots’, desperate to reach the nations where the ‘haves’ enjoy freedom from persecution, relative prosperity and the rule of law.

Their ‘needs’ drive them on, when either violent death or brutal destitution is the price of taking no action. They press across the border from Mexico. They flee Myanmar where they are victims of pitiless discrimination. Their number moves the Australian government to outsource their detention facilities. From the most poverty-stricken regions of Africa the hungry and hopeless make their way northward. Lives are lost above all when the Mediterranean has to be crossed.
We split hairs when designating some of them ‘refugees’ and others ‘economic migrants’; they are on the way, for the most part unaware that they are in fact combatants in a war not of their choosing. They are not arrayed in uniformed battalions; they are shod in flip-flops and sneakers, not jackboots. Of course they are not an ‘enemy’ to be opposed by military might, nor will they for long be constrained by fortified frontiers.

In the ‘War of Needs’ the very latest weaponry - smartphones, social media and the internet - is not the exclusive property of one side or the other, the selfsame arsenal being also in the hands of the agents provocateurs profiteering from the smuggling of human cargo. In this instance there is no King Henry V giving his army the superior technical advantage of the longbow. Nor in the case of the ‘War of Needs’ is there any implacable clash of mutually incompatible ideologies. I repeat my contention that none of these transnational conflicts can be seen as encore performances of a previous tragic scenario.   

I wonder how the historians of the future will chronicle the ‘War of Needs’?       


Re-reading what I posted yesterday, I think I should add that I am by no means ignorant of the welcome extended in Munich to the thousands arriving at the central station. The Guardian reports:

  • "Under handwritten signs reading “welcome to Germany” in English and Arabic, volunteers hand out bottles of water from a supermarket trolley and bars of chocolate. There is even a baby pack containing nappies, baby cream, wet wipes and a jar of baby food."    

This is heartening, of course, but it in no way lessens my concern that Europe's governments are paralyzed, squabbling among themselves instead of acting with wisdom and resolve.  

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Rentrée et adieu

Today the forecast promises another day of cloudless sky and 30 degrees, but a change in the weather is due. Then on the first autumn breeze I shall hear the faint tolling of the school bell. I fear I have blogged about this every year, but it remains a fact that the arrival of September always makes me aware of the impending rentrée des classes.

This year is somewhat different. After two decades my daughter’s formal education is over… yesterday she submitted her MA dissertation at noon... in time to spend the afternoon with her posse sunbathing on the banks of the Eisbach. Her submission brought to an end five years of a wonderful adventure which started when Jessi commenced her three years of BA studies in at the University of Maastricht. There and afterwards at King’s College London, the language of instruction was English, her second language, and so I was able to help with the proofing and correction of essays and papers. I soon found myself reading much of what was assigned for her courses, discovering writers I had not hitherto encountered. I am currently totally fascinated by the work of Pierre Bourdieu!

Oh well, time to move on… for Jessi and for her Auld Da! 

Sunday, August 30, 2015


Actually, no! In Munich there was the feeling that many were away on holiday, street parking was no longer a problem for motorists. But while I was constantly hearing of horrible weather in England on the BBC Radio 4 Today program, here in Bavaria it was mostly glorious sunshine with only a few cloudy days. Today's high 33 degrees, so the month ends very pleasantly.

And it was a productive month, too. No 'fermeture' by any means! Proof-reading Jessi's dissertation chapter by chapter demanded discipline but it was also great fun to bombard her with off-the-wall web discoveries and strange anecdotes to incite her to consider further research inputs. 

All in all, I find myself looking forward to the 'rentrée'. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


As a youngster the mention of a 'picnic' made me cringe. The issue arose most often on the Yorkshire coast during family holidays in what passed for the summer season. Most often the cheese and tomato sandwiches were soggy and clammy and the Lucozade flat and of a colour and temperature wich gave rise to unhelpful associations. If a beach picnic, then wind-driven sand would be an inevitable garnish adding to the excruciating ritual.

It was when we emigrated to the United States that I discovered that a picnic need not be an event to be endured but to be celebrated. Boston baked beans are flavoured either with maple or with molasses and are traditionally cooked with salt pork in a beanpot. The beans are cooked in a beanpot nestled in a bed of embers placed near the outer edges of a hearth, about a foot away from the fire, for six to eight hours. I remember New England days filled with diverting outdoor activities in anticipation of our unearthing of the delicious and hearty meal which awaited us. This was my introduction as a teenager to a charming 'culture' of open-air eating and drinking, although the beverage served was of course Root Beer.

The culture of the suburban back-garden barbecue was one I never encountered, given my antipathy in respect of anything remotely suburban.

Then in Munich, where the Biergarten is a properly urban amenity, I came to appreciate the way in which the cool beer could be best enjoyed... at a table laden with victuals prepared at home and transported to the selected verdant venue in a capacious basket. 

But there is more! A tablecloth is mandatory, as is proper china and silverware. If the view is of the sunset over a peaceful lake, as it was yesterday at Seehaus in the Englische Garten park, if the neighbours at adjacent tables oblige by taking the precious souvenir photo of our picnic, if the delicatessen set forth is a further credit to Mickey's culinary talents, then it is hard to imagine any more pleasant way of passing time. 

That our family trio was augmented by the presence of Franzi, who had studied with Jessi in Maastricht, made the evening even more fun and worthy of this unashamedly nombrilist blog post! 

Don't fence me in

Just over twenty-five years ago we breathed a sigh of relief when the wall dividing Germany crumbled. The 'anti-fascist rampart', as the East German regime called their fence,  was recognized for what it was, a medacious abomination.  Surely the erection of such barriers would henceforth be unthinkable, completely unacceptable wherever fundamental human rights are claimed as essential societal values. 

"I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
And I can't look at hobbles and I can't stand fences
Don't fence me in!"

A quarter of a century later, however, fences are back in fashion. And there is no Cole Porter to articulate the plea of the thousands  of north-bound refugees. Hungary is fortifying its border with razor wire. There is new fencing in Calais. 'Anti-migrant ramparts' are en vogue. How tragic!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Progress reports

I now find that my acquisition of a smartphone was fully justified. It is a huge advantage to have a hi-res camera in my pocket whenever I venture forth on my daily late-afternoon outing. 

If the girl looks a bit smug, then the photo below explains why she is entitled to look rather pleased with herself!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The learning curve

Okay, I should have read the manual! But in soft focus my other new piece of kit can be made out. For my birthday Mickey and Jessi promised that they would gift me with a long overdue replacement for my 'craptop'. Now the migration is complete and the refurbished Dell tower PC seems to be working well and running Windows 7, which is quite an adjustment after being perfectly happy for so long with XP.

Now... should I go for the upgrade to Windows 10?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sitting on a packed suitcase

'Alphabet' is the new holding company, the umbrella spanned over the disparate and diversifying activities of Google Inc. The very choice of corporate identity hints at a future full-spectrum hegemonic presence in our digital lives from 'A' to 'Z'.

And here I am with my shiny new Android smartphone, well aware that the device is far more intelligent than its user. It will, I fear, take an age before I can claim to have mastered its complexity. In the meantime the phone will learn more about me than I am able to imagine, my habits and proclivities, my attitudes, my strengths and my weaknesses.    

There was a time when persons who felt themselves threatened spoke of "sitting on a packed suitcase", ready to flee tyranny and oppression when the moment arrived. Is the option still valid? Or will Google and the others inevitably be able to track my valise, should I seek to escape.