Sunday, 16 February 2014


I am reading Dracula at the moment. I wasn’t terribly impressed at first, though it is picking up (the action has just switched from Transylvania to England). The passage below, with its description of Whitby in North Yorkshire, took my fancy.

Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of Marmion, where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits. There is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows. Between it and the town there is another church, the parish one, round which is a big graveyard, all full of tombstones. This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbour and all up the bay to where the headland called Kettleness stretches out into the sea. It descends so steeply over the harbour that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed.

Dracula was published in 1897, though Stoker visited in 1890 and drafted this scene at some point following his visit. Marmion, which I’ve not read, is an 1808 epic poem by Walter Scott about the Battle of Flodden Field.

There is quite a lot going on here – at least, if you interpret the passage in a certain way. Immediately of interest is the reference to Scott’s Marmion. It got me thinking – when can a fictional work directly reference a real-world work of literature without ‘breaking the fourth wall’? That is, without seeming to belong simultaneously to both the real world of literary authors (who have agents, and read other novelists, etc.) and the fictional world of the narrative? 

I intuitively feel that the reference to Marmion here does not cause an ‘alienation effect’ – just as there is no such effect when, e.g., Howard Jacobson’s characters refer to Hamlet. But I probably would feel something odd was happening if Stoker referred directly to a contemporary such as Robert Louis Stevenson, or if Jacobson referred directly to Julian Barnes’s Sense of an Ending.

I don’t feel there is an obvious explanation why the one type of reference is more disruptive, and maybe even unsettling, than the other – I will have a go at approaching the matter later. Suffice it to say for now that there is clearly some sort of distancing effect that distinguishes the two – the works of Walter Scott are sufficiently distanced (in time, say) that reference to them does not flag up in our minds the current writer’s similar status as a writer of literary texts in the real world.

Going back to the passage itself, what is interesting is that there is a direct reference to Scott, together with an indirect allusion to Wilkie Collins, who had died in 1889 shortly before Stoker started drafting Dracula – we know that Stoker was influenced by Collins (because it says so in the ODNB, here) so it is reasonable to wonder if the legend of the Whitby ‘white lady’ recalls Collins’s The Woman in White, a novel whose content and structure directly fed into Dracula (ODNB, again).

So this is maybe a direct example of the distancing effect I was talking about – Scott is directly referenced but Collins only alluded to because Collins belongs more closely to the literary context that produced Dracula. It would be veering into overly playful self-reference to directly refer to Collins. 

(Contrast, coincidentally, Collins’s Moonstone, in which narrating character Gabriel Betteredge evangelizes the benefits of living one’s life according to the wisdom of Robinson Crusoe. This is ‘meta-literary’ but only inasmuch as the 18th -century novel Robinson Crusoe is a part of the real world’s historical fabric, and as such an uncontroversial and unmarked part of fictional descriptions of that real world – it does not in any way impute, or bring illicitly into focus, the literary context that frames the Moonstone itself).

But still – there is, I think, a meta-literary aspect to this passage, if I can write those words without sounding like a PoMo-addled undergraduate. The different intertextual techniques used for both authors confirm Scott and his Gothic-Romantic style (the ‘beautiful and romantic bits’ Mina sees in the abbey) as belonging firmly to (in fact by means of this comparison, being relegated to) a bygone literary past, and Collins as belonging to the literary present that frames the narrative of Dracula itself. By confirming Collins as too close to home to be referenced directly, Stoker lays out his own programme – he has relegated older forms of Gothic to the past, and instead follows the more sexually and psychologically sophisticated fiction of Collins.

That all three authors share a (vaguely) Celtic background is also (vaguely) interesting.

If there is any validity in this interpretation, then I should probably take a step further and note how the topography of the scene is probably significant too. The idea of a literary fault-line, between the old and new Gothic genre, has a fairly clear metaphor in the shoreline on which the abbey stands – indeed, the ‘romantic’ edifice stands there facing a sea which will soon bring against to shore Dracula himself (and also Dracula).

I’ve written before about Vergil’s metaphorical use of shorelines to represent boundaries between metaphysical worlds – e.g. between life and death, between reality and representation (it’s here, in my very much unrevised thesis). I’m not sure how far I would want to take a similar interpretation regarding the Dracula passage – it would involve saying something like ‘the shoreline delineates a number of boundaries simultaneously – a physical one between land and sea, a meta-literary one between old and new styles of Gothic, and a metaphysical one between the notional fictional world in which Dracula takes place and the literary real world of Stoker, Collins, and Scott to which it simultaneously belongs. Like the shoreline itself, it is a border that is always risk of being encroached upon.’

I’ll return to paradoxical literary self-reference in my next post.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Death 2: Bin Laden

'A violent loser, and a mutt.'

One death I’ve been thinking about is that of barely-remembered Osama Bin Laden, and in turn the wider policy of extra-judicial killing.

The killing of Bin Laden was, according to Barack Obama, ‘one of the greatest military operations in our nation's history.’ Fair enough – even if it is an over-statement, his death was legitimately an occasion for overstatement. And the intelligence build-up leading to his death was by the sound of it an extraordinary achievement.

But… one can't help wonder if, over the long years of the War on Terror, the US has lost sight of the days when her fighting men took on other soldiers, rather than over-excited holy men. To recap: a large team of soldiers, trained at eye-watering expense to the taxpayer, successfully shot an unarmed old man in the face; while also killing or injuring one armed opponent, and five unarmed women. Along the way they also, inexplicably, lost a $60-million helicopter.

This was no Iwo Jima, Mr President.

'This was no Iwo Jima, Mr President.' 
(I mean, the killing of Bin Laden wasn't - this picture was Iwo Jima, obviously. Read the above bit before you read this caption, it'll make more sense).

But I’m snarking. I agree with the case that Bin Laden was an enemy commander in the field and a fair target, rather than a civilian felon – al Qaida were, still are, a heavily militarized outfit, and the notion that one single set of anti-terrorist laws can provide grounds for action against e.g. both Baader Meinhof-style groups and, say, Hezbollah, is a clear nonsense.

And, frankly, I think in some ways it was a classily executed affair. It delivered a sickener to other violent losers in a way that will probably save lives – you won’t get a blaze of glory, you’ll disappear with a ‘splosh’ and the world will forget about you, like the mutt you were. And you can forget about the seventy virgins too.

However I’m not too interested in delving into rights and wrongs in these two posts (though I accept both are highly debatable, and am not trying to draw the question to a premature close). I’m more concerned with looking at neglected possibilities, and disturbing corollaries that weren’t immediately obvious to me. I’ve not read round this topic a great deal, so it’s more than possible that they have proven obvious to a great many others, on an immediate basis.

The first query. A participant in the raid (Mark Owen, the one that wrote the book – N. B. not Mark Owen) described it as routine in most aspects and no different to many targeted killings he was involved with before (the so-called 'decapitation' strategy targetting the mid-level leadership of the Taliban). We know that in Iraq and, with less success, Afghanistan, thousands of such ‘kinetic’ operations have taken place (what is it with the macho posturing of soldiers from certain countries? surely when you're the real thing, you don't have to speak like you're pretending to be the real thing?). As one source rather unpleasantly put it – the Americans, supported by the British, have been killing ‘on an industrial scale’.

Is it implied therefore that the casualty rate of the operation (one target, one armed combatant, and five unarmed non-combatants mostly female) was also uncontroversial and typical? We know that certain aspects of the operation were controversial, as chuntering ensued – the intrusion into Pakistani territory, and the ethics of the intelligence operation (the sneaky obtaining of DNA samples, the possible use of torture) for example. But there seems to have been no attempt to hide or query the fact that, in a so-called surgical strike, only two of the seven casualties were valid targets.

Now it might be that behind closed doors commanders were furious about this rate of 'collateral damage' or 'attrition' or 'accidental neutralization of enemies of freedom' or whatever silly term they use. Perhaps such things are done behind closed doors.

Possible, but then contrast the public contrition and the punishments doled out when US forces accidentally killed a hostage by throwing a grenade at her (the deeply unfortunate Linda Norgrove). We certainly heard about the fallout that time.

So given this, and given the general openness and leakiness of the United States and its institutions, it seems reasonable to conclude that within military circles this was a non-controversial operation, with a casualty rate that was entirely to be expected.

In which case, if these operations have killed, let's say, a thousand Al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, then it follows that another 3,500 non-combatants might have been killed and injured on top of that.

This would clearly be a great wrong – and inexcusable from a modern, technologically superb power. Indeed, looking at accounts of the raid, it seems likely that the casualties piled up because of a culture of risk aversion which is massively stacked in favour of trained combatants, and against non-combatants who never asked to be involved in the first place. 

That is: the person you are shooting at might or might not be a threat, but it is preferable for an enemy non-combatant to be killed than for a friendly combatant to take the risk of being killed. Expendability shifts from soldiers, whose lives and expertise are politically and economically valuable respectively, to enemy non-combatants, whose deaths don’t sell newspapers or swing elections.

I think someone wrote a book on this topic about ten years ago, calling it something like The Western Way of War. I suppose it could be argued that this argument is now out of date – the ‘heroic restraint’ drive (gist – upon seeing a non-white person with a firearm, at least wait a bit before calling in a massive airstrike) identifies and has possibly solved this very problem. We should be prepared to accept that the US military, with its extraordinary flexibility and adaptability, has turned the tanker around. But if the Bin Laden raid was representative – maybe not yet.

My second point is wider. As suggested above, the media’s utter beguilement at anything to do with the special forces, and their frequent inability to discover the truth surrounding them, produces a kind of ‘moral hazard’ for the soldiers. By 'moral hazard' I mean, to borrow OED's definition,  the lack of incentive to avoid risk where there is protection against its consequences, e.g. by insurance.The reluctance of the press to criticize America’s elite forces (itself possibly a consequence of popular support for them – witness the success of recent film Lone Survivor starring Mark ‘we’re going to land somewhere safely’ Wahlberg) is likely one factor among others that enables the soldiers’ heavy-handedness - see e.g. here.

An altogether more pernicious enabling factor is the patronage military elites attract from the political elites that should be overseeing and crosschecking them. An elite, that is, is all too often someone's elite - a would-be Praetorian Guard. The result is an out-of-control military cabal, and the subversion of democratic principles at the hands of their supposed guardians.

Think, for instance, of the love-in between Thatcher and the SAS during the 1980s (and doubtless beyond) which culminated, bizarrely and disturbingly, with Thatcher using them to quell a prison disturbance in Scotland (HMS Peterhead). Think the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, and its extensive political power; Putin and Russia’s paramilitaries; and any number of South and Central American tinpot dictatorships, probably.

A certain ideological narcissism is involved – Thatcher saw in the SAS not just a flag-waving, tab-pleasing vote-spinner, but also a self-flattering reflection of her own buccaneering, brawny, and pitiless free-market individualism. More to the point, this seems also to underlie the Pentagon’s fairly recent espousal of unconventional soldiering, having until recently been unsold on the idea (which stands to reason – why faff around with unconventional warfare when you have more conventional power than any nation in history?). 

Donald Rumsfeld (now forgotten about, in a way eerily similar to his nemesis Bin Laden) saw in US special forces not just the right tool for the job he was about to make an absolute pig’s ear of – viz. fighting the war on terror – but also a chance to radically downsize the US military and with it the federal government. As a small-government fundamentalist, this was a higher ideological end (an end served also by replacing professional soldiers with the nightclub bouncers, tubby ex-policemen, and other cowboys that make up Blackwater / Xe / Academi).

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, for instance, civilian Rumsfeld insisted that the country could be conquered by 15,000 special forces soldiers backed by airpower. The generals didn’t listen to him, obviously, and instead fielded 150,000 soldiers from the US alone (‘shut up, Don’).

So it is easy to see how an anointed elite can come to operate in isolation from the moral and political pressures that should circumscribe its actions. There is a dangerous feedback loop – the politician identifies in the soldiers an aspirational image of himself and his ideology, a hefty dose of reflected glory (decisive, strong, daring, a cut above, etc.), and the soldiers are more than happy in turn to exploit this affection – it protects their budget (likely contested anyway) and gives them more opportunity to do all the fun things they train for but never actually get to do.  And the more ‘fun’ they have (think back to the ‘killing on an industrial scale’) the more glory accrues to their political paymaster.

This mutually reinforcing pattern is the very opposite of the accountability ministers must impose on the military, as a sort of inertia mechanism. And the results are real, and bad – many of the ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques that proliferated over the past decade plus were traced back to the resistance-to-interrogation training inflicted on elite soldiers. This was where the rot was coming from.

It is under this culture of tutelage, then, that the Navy SEALs shot the five unarmed occupants in Bin Laden’s compound. Did a similar culture see British soldiers and /spies – in the high watermark of Thatcherite cowboyism during the Troubles – use Loyalist terrorists to systematically murder Republicans during the late 80s and early 90s, as is alleged? We don’t know yet – but you wouldn’t rule it out, despite the implausibilities.

There's another post I want to write, about how, sadly, such unaccountable and shady military adventurism is the likely future of the British Army. But I'll leave it here for now.