Archive for May, 2010
With the flotilla carrying mainly medical and food supplies, most of the world’s governments have condemned Israel’s provocative actions. Israeli police are on high alert across the country to prevent any civil disturbances. Meanwhile in Gaza, the Hamas government held an emergency meeting chaired by premier Ismail Haneya, following the Israeli Television Channel 10 report that 16 activists on the ships were killed and 30 wounded, including the Israeli-Arab Islamic activist Sheikh Raed Sallah (though the Jerusalem Post said he is injured not dead).
The IDF version of events needs to be treated with extreme caution but they said soldiers were attacked with knives and clubs as they boarded the six vessels. It said the violence turned deadly when an activist grabbed a weapon from one of the commandos. “The weapon discharged,” they said ambiguously not making it clear whether the activist fired it or if it went off accidentally.
The six ships of the flotilla sailed under Turkish and American flags and set off from Cyprus yesterday. Israeli forces said they would not allow them land and the flotilla deliberated slowed down so that any forced landing would happen in daylight hours to maximize the media exposure. Meanwhile at the port in Gaza City Hamas prepared a welcoming party with marquees and a buffet to greet the flotilla which was expected mid-afternoon today.
The first contact happened 200 kms off the Gaza shore. The IDF contacted the flotilla by radio and told them the Gaza Strip was a closed military zone. They offered them two options either follow the navy to Ashdod Port is Israel or else be commandeered by commandos. “If you ignore this order and enter the blockaded area, the Israeli navy will be forced to take all the necessary measures in order to enforce this blockade,” the IDF told them. The flotilla radar detected three Israeli ships in the area. After boarding the vessels and going on a shooting spree, the IDF towed the vessels to Ashdod.
The Hamas Government in Gaza said it considers the dead activists “as the martyrs of the Freedom Flotilla, adding that “the world should put an end to the biggest country of pirates.” Meanwhile Gaza premier Ismail Hanaya called the attack an international crime and a political scandal carried out according to an Israeli military order. “I call on the Palestinian Authority to immediately suspend its negotiations with Israel,” he said. He also called for street protects and the Arab states to respond to “end the unfair Israeli siege.”
Israel justified its actions saying it already allows 15,000 tonnes of aid into Gaza each week. However the UN said this is just a quarter of what the Gaza Strip needs. Somewhere between 35 and 60 percent of Gaza’s agriculture industry was destroyed by Israel’s three week long invasion in 2008-2009 which left the land contaminated and cratered. This is the ninth time that the Free Gaza movement has tried to ship in humanitarian aid to Gaza since August 2008 but only five have been successful and none since Operation Cast Lead turned Gaza into a wasteland. The latest action confirms Israel is prepared to thumb its nose at international criticism as it lurches further into right-wing extremist nationalism.
“Why don’t we just move back,” said one, reasonably. “After all Europe is a big place, one hill is not going to make any difference.”
The other is mortally offended.
“Our High Command would never consider it. The place is filled with German blood. You simply don’t understand war,” he concluded imperiously.
Understanding war is indeed a difficult task, particularly something as nasty, brutish and long as the First World War. Indeed, the anonymous and unimpressive Hill 60 (deserving only of a number not a name) was a senseless battlefield in a senseless war that changed hands several times both before and after the events depicted in the film.
Those events are a little known adjunct to the 1917 Battle of Messines near Ypres in Flanders, Belgium. Based on the diaries of Captain Oliver Woodward, David Roach’s screenplay tells the stories of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company a group of miners and engineers cobbled together for the task of digging passages under enemy lines. Woodward was a Queensland miner brought in specially for the task. The plan at Messines was to lay 21 mines with almost 500 tonnes of ammonal explosives underneath German lines deep in the blue clay 25 metres below the soggy upper-level soil.
The plan was the brainchild of Viscount and Field Marshal Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer. Despite the name and the Blimp-like reputation of many fellow World War I generals, Plumer was one of the finest army commanders on the Western Front. It helped he had an infantry background not cavalry and was not addicted to the grand but futile charges so beloved of many of his peers.
The idea for tunnels (attachment is a rich text file) came from the Germans. When the trench warfare was deadlocked in 1915 German Engineers realised the possibilities of literally undermining British morale by building a system of tunnels under their lines and detonating large charges of explosives. The British retaliated and began a rapid recruitment program of English and Welsh miners. The Government and mine owners objected and the net was cast further wide to Canada and Australia.
For almost 12 months ahead of the Messines battle, Plumer organised the digging of the mines which would be detonated prior to a ground assault. The evening before the attack, he told his staff, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”
19 of the 21 mines laid exploded and according to the British newspapers, Londoners were startled out of their sleep at 3.10am by the sound of the huge explosion. German defences were shattered and their menacing high ground defence disappeared in an instance. The British advanced a few miles but the poor condition of the shell-torn terrain prevented them from following up the advantage.
In the end Hill 60 was just another death-ridden postscript to a vengeful war of attrition that destroyed a generation of young men across the “big place” of Europe and its imperial outposts. As ominously foreshadowed by the equally vicious American Civil War 50 years earlier, here was industrialised nations fighting with technologically advanced, mass-produced weapons which enabled killing and wounding on an unprecedented scale. 20 million people died and 20 million more were injured. The callous lack of regard for life it showed up led to the real war to end all wars 20 years later.
Jeremy Sims’ film Beneath Hill 60 gives us a window into that world. It is a below-basement level window and the claustrophobia of the Australian tunnellers it depicts is deftly handled. Though set in the months leading to June 1917, the weather is invariably cruel, wet and miserable. It is truly T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Sims takes us under the dull roots of the waste land to confront a human-engineered hell. The story contrasts Springtime fertility with the black and muddy stench of death. The Australian flashback scenes invert the seasons as well as tone of the film. But as the only Australian scene in the film that is not a flashback shows, there is little chance for redemption for those who have visited the circles of hell under Hill 60; the best anyone can hope for is a painful and memory-scarred survival.
No wonder so many survivors don’t like talking of their war experiences. War is the very antithesis of life. That’s why so few people understand it.
It was no coincidence Cornell quoted in her pre-requiem, Tom Fitzgerald, the founding editor of Nation. Its successor newspaper the Nation Review was in many ways a print template for what New Matilda aspires to be on line. But like Nation Review it has apparently outlived its relevance, or at least its paying clients.
The owner Duncan Turpie gambled on stopping subscription shortly before it became fashionable again. That was unlucky.
Nevertheless he was rewarded by greater numbers reading the engaging content but they were not followed by advertisers. They should well ask themselves why not. Why weren’t there enough people with products to sell interested in reaching the audience gained by New Matilda? Was it that forgetting that news fills a “hole” or “brings audiences to advertisers” means we also forget how exactly communication is paid for? Was it the ultimate postmodernist paradox that those wise souls that normally read New Matilda paid no attention to the advertising that paid for the news?
I do not know. But while sad we’re about to lose a valued publication I feel certain that great content will continue to emerge somewhere. The available media will expand to cater for it.
Phil Gomes thinks the answer to a post-media future will have to be amateur but I think he is aiming too low. Certainly those still in charge don’t think so. Just witness today’s The Australian ads for itself on the ipad.
Where there is a wheel there is a way.
Yet while Grose is not afraid to talk of what then Territories minister Paul Hasluck called in 1955 a day “of national shame”, he also uncovers another story of personal heroism and dogged counter-attack he says deserves a place in the record books. The force that attacked Darwin on 19 February 1942 was the same one as that attacked Pearl Harbour two months earlier. Led by renowned “Tora Tora Tora” pilot Mitsuo Fuchida(who lived until 1976), the force learned from their Hawaiian mistakes and caused more damage in Darwin, taking more civilian casualties and sinking more ships. At the time Darwin stood with Coventry as one of the biggest air attacks of the war. Its death toll of around 300 people remains the deadliest single event on Australian soil.The chief villain of the book is not Fuchida but Charles Aubrey Abbott a former NSW Country Party politician who dabbled with the extreme right. He was appointed NT’s administrator in 1937. When war arrived in 1939, the town of Darwin accepted it apathetically believing it was still half a world away. But by 1941 things had changed as Japan looked like entering on the Axis side. Darwin was suddenly a target. On 7 December Japan launched a double strike hitting out at Pearl Harbour while launching a large ground based invasion of Malaya supported by a bombing campaign from Hong Kong to Singapore. Disaster followed disaster. McArthur’s indecisiveness cost the Philippines, Guam fell as did the citadel of Singapore. Japan could now turn its attentions to its real target: Java’s oilfields.
Across the sea in Darwin, authorities drew up plans for its evacuation. But Abbott sat on the plans and argued a state of emergency would cause unnecessary panic. Most women and children were eventually taken out by boat in a chaotic evacuation. Darwin’s port was transformed into a supply base for the defence of the Dutch East Indies. Ships piled up in the harbour as its inefficient design and strike-prone wharfies made for painfully slow loading and unloading. There were also fighting ships from the Royal Australian and US Navy making a total of 45 ships in the harbour at the time of the bombing.
On 19 February, the Japanese Nagumo Force with its four aircraft carriers rendezvoused in the Timor Sea south of Maluku, 350km north of Darwin. It unleashed 188 aircraft, five more than in the first wave at Pearl and set a course for Darwin. They flew southward in the gap between Bathurst and Melville Island before turning in a loop to approach Darwin from the south-east. This had the double advantage of having the sun behind them and being the least likely direction of attack.
They arrived in Darwin without warning around 10am. They divided into two groups one attacking the port while the other strafed the airfield. The bombers exerted maximum damage on the port locomotives, railway trucks and scattering oil lines which caught fire in the water killing those who had dived in for safety. The town lay just beyond the port and suffered heavy damage. A direct hit took out the post office and communication building killed nine civilians inside.
Anti-aircraft guns did their best to return fire but lack of practice and problems with the shells in the tropical heat meant they were mostly ineffective. Over at the airfield, the second force strafed and bombed knocking out planes and communication equipment. Out on the harbour ships struggled to get away from the carnage. The US ship Peary sank with 91 dead aboard. 15 more died on the William B Preston, also sunk and 12 died on the hospital ship Manundra though it did not sink and continued to accept casualties. By the end of the raid, Darwin was a smoking mess.
After the all clear was sounded, dazed Darwinians emerged to survey the damage. But the Japanese were not finished yet and 54 aircraft arrived for a second attack two hours later. They concentrated on the airfield dropping 13,000kgs of high explosives before flying off at 12.20pm. It was from this point on that local officials displayed their incompetence. Neither Abbott nor the army commander took control of the situation. Abbott directed police away from rescue efforts to pack his valuable glass and china and take it south to safety.
Then there was the “Adelaide River Stakes”, a mass exodus from Darwin as rumours filled the void left by the absence of any official information. A convoy of vehicles set off to Adelaide River about 120kms to the south based on the false rumour civilians had been ordered to leave town. Anything that could move, did and the road jammed as drivers groped their way blindly in the red dust. Meanwhile the Army neglected to start a salvage operation, blowing any chance of giving the surviving aircraft a chance if the Japanese came back. With no orders transmitted, army units dispersed to other parts of the Territory.
Worse was to follow when those left behind decided Darwin was ideal for a spot of looting. Army personnel including military police were involved taking goods away by the truckload. By nightfall matters turned violent within drunken military personnel firing over the heads of crowds as they gathered to leave Darwin. There were no sanitary services and all the wharfies had fled leaving surviving ships with no way of unloading. The military police were out of control but as Grose writes “the Administrator’s port, sherry and other fine wines were in safe hands. Otherwise, Darwin was a mess.”
On the day after, the military finally took control. They took eligible men from Adelaide River and signed them up for the army back in Darwin. Non essential people were evacuated and a week later the whole of the NT was placed under Army control. There just remained the tricky problem of what to tell the world.
Unlike Roosevelt after Pearl, the Curtin administration would not trust Australians with the truth. At the time Curtin was engage in a furious row with Roosevelt and Churchill about withdrawing Aussie troops from the middle east. The three journalists in Darwin had splashed the news of the attacks but the Government was keen to underplay the news. Initially they reported the death tally as 19 with damage as minimal. Abbott also pretended in his communications Darwin was back to normal.
By the end of March the secret Lowe commission to investigate the attack reported back to Curtin that 240 died but censors made sure newspapers did not make much of it. Curtin’s secrecy policy backfired as the Japanese went on to attack Broome, Wyndham and other towns but used the excuse of the “national interest” to avoid any further comment or scrutiny. Darwin disappeared from public gaze. As Grose concluded “The full horror of the attack on Darwin was [the government’s] best chance to jolt Australians out of their apathy. Unwisely it chose not to take it.”
The roads in and around the main Ratchaprasong rally site have been barricaded by the military, with water and food trucks being prevented from entering the site in an attempt to force the protesters to disband. Police have also set up checkpoints on Sukhumvit road at Soi Udomsuk to prevent more red shirts from coming in from rural areas. Transport services have been suspended for two days and protesters have barricaded MRT exits with tuk tuks delivering tyres to barricade points across the city. The latest round of fighting in the two month stand-off began late on Thursday as the army moved to isolate a fortified protest camp. Over the next two days 25 people were killed and another 215 injured as the two sides clashed on the streets with reports of army snipers picking off protesters.
Both sides have heightened the rhetoric as more blood has been spilt. This morning an army spokesman announced that some areas of the city would be subject to a curfew. Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said the curfew would be needed “so that police and soldiers can differentiate people from terrorists.” The army has not yet carried out its threat to move against the demonstrators’ main rally site unless they dispersed but the curfew is likely to a precursor to a full-scale assault. But as Al Jazeera’s Aela Callan said the threat has not fazed the defenders. “Some of the red shirts I have spoken to have said they’re not willing to leave,” he said. “They’re really hunked in there, they’ve set up their homes.”
More than 50 people have been killed and 1,600 wounded since the protests began in March. Tensions rose dramatically last week after the Red Shirts rejected Prime Minister Abhisit’s “roadmap” to an election on 14 November. Abhisit wanted anti-government protesters to accept his reconciliation plan and restore peace and stability. Not only did they reject that plan but Red Shirts demanded the prime minister and deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban hand themselves over to the Department of Special Investigations for their involvement in the deaths of 20 civilians following the April 10 clashes. On Thursday Abhisit ran out of patience and sent in the military.
Last night the Prime Minister made a public broadcast from the safety of an army barracks where he defended his decision to use force in the dispersal of the Red Shirts protesters. He argued that it was the only resort after peace negotiations broke down with the key opposition leader Jatuporn Prompan promising to “fight to the end”. The end may well be near for Prompan’s forces but the enmity Abhisit’s actions have caused are likely to have long-term repercussions that may leave Thailand fatally split for years to come.
I was reminded of all these things as I went to watch The Hurt Locker last night. The film tells the story of a US bomb disposal team in the early years after the invasion. The title of the film refers to the place where an explosion sends you to – a private world of pain. It is a fitting allegory for the film because despite the fact it was filmed on near-location (Jordan) using many Iraqi refugees in minor parts, it fails to humanise anyone other than the three American participants of the bomb squad.
This is hardly unusual in American war films. But The Hurt Locker is a particularly disappointment given the positive critical reception it has received. It was based on the Iraqi accounts of embedded freelance journalist Mark Boal, who also wrote the screenplay. As a journalist Boal should have been honest enough to look at the conflict from both sides. But the film never rises above a depiction of Iraqis as “the other”.
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s stated desire was to immerse the audience into something that was “raw, immediate and visceral” and to some extent she succeeded. But ultimately her movie put us in the position of the “fourth man in the humvee” and not the women looking fearfully out the window, or the boys in the alley or the men at the mosque or the souk. The Iraqis were never humanised. Significantly one of few Iraqis to be named was the boy called “Beckham” in honour of a footballer of a country that was also at war in Iraq. The name “Beckham” was a mask, and even peeled off it was never fully resolved as the American protagonist mistakenly believes he is dead. All these native boys look alike.
The film reveals the massive problem the US faced in its invasion of Iraq and still does in its Afghan incursion. There is a local lack of empathy with the people whose lives they have interrupted. Hardly any of the invaders speak Arabic (even less so Pashto and Dari), and no one has any cultural affinity with the places they must serve. Yes, their job was difficult and they faced hostility but nowhere in the film did anyone ask what they were doing in Iraq in the first place. There is no political context and not even a hint of the role oil played in the invasion.
The Hurt Locker does a wonderful white knuckle job of getting into the day to day stresses of a bomb disposal squad. But it offered no insight to American audiences on why the bombs were there in the first place. Saddam Hussein was a cruel and vicious tyrant but he was created in America’s image. When the Republican Guard crumbled in 2003, the US was unprepared for what might follow. A county that had suffered almost continual war or sanctions since 1980 was on the brink of collapse and many desperate people had nothing to lose by declaring jihad on the invaders. “The poor man’s air force” did much to harden opinion against the invasion in both Iraq and the US. The nasty legacy is that many will remain attracted to the violence well after Obama has withdrawn the troops. Iraq has a long way to go before it can escape the Hurt Locker.
Estonia meanwhile was also invited this week to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development alongside Israel and Slovenia bringing its membership to 34 countries. All three countries were reviewed by 18 OECD Committees with respect to their compliance with OECD standards and benchmarks. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said Estonia has been receptive to OECD recommendations on important issues. “The OECD accession process has delivered real policy changes and reform in all candidate countries,” Gurría said. “Once countries become members, this transformational process continues.”
There is little doubt that Estonia has undergone an astonishing transformation in the last 20 years. After a 51 year absence, it returned to the world map in 1991 as an independent country during the collapse of the USSR. According to The Economist Estonia confounded its critics in the years that follow. It had a fast-growing economy, based on flat taxes, free trade and a currency board. In 2004 it joined the EU and NATO. Despite property values collapsing last year, the economy stabilised with the help of flexible wages and prices. It said Estonia was one of two EU countries (with Sweden) that met the common currency’s rules.
The European Central Bank has issued a cautionary note offering amore negative assessment of Estonia’s qualifications. It says that while Estonia is well within the limits on government spending and debt, the country’s current low inflation rates reflect mainly temporary factors. The ECB says Estonia has a history of high inflation that raises concerns. “Maintaining low inflation rates will be very challenging given the limited room for manoeuvre for monetary policy,” said the ECB. “Once output growth resumes, with a fixed exchange rate regime, the underlying real adjustment is likely to manifest itself in higher inflation.”
However the ECB did not explicitly say that Estonia should be denied and its opinion is not binding on the final decision makers, the EU governments. The New York Times said political leaders have form in brushing brushed off central bank concerns in their eagerness to expand the zone. “Greece won admission even after the central bank reported in 2000 that the country’s debt equalled 104 percent of gross domestic product, far above the limit of 60 percent in the Maastricht Treaty,” the NYT said. That decision has of course rebounded on the EU as it embarks on a $106 billion rescue of Greece’s wrecked economy in conjunction with the IMF.
Estonia has no such worries at the moment. Its inflation rate is 2.9 percent and its economy has rebounded out of the GFC with expected growth of 1 percent in 2010. BusinessNewEurope said judicious use of reserves accumulated during the boom years means government debt levels are currently the lowest in the EU. It also said the country’s pioneering adoption of a flat-rate tax system in 1992, combined with the “safe haven” label that membership of the Eurozone confers (Greece notwithstanding) “should make Estonia an interesting investment destination in the future.”
The Estonian finance minister has been playing down negative impacts of the euro to his country. Jürgen Ligi said that there is no real danger of the euro bringing major price increase to Estonia despite the temptation of traders to round prices up after the conversion. There will be parallel posting of prices in both euros and kroons for the obligatory six months before adoption of the euro. Ligi said that the country’s planned sales tax might mess up things but general studies show that “we don’t have the room for price increases for anything substantial to take place”.
Estonia has two more hurdles to jump before it is confirmed as a member. An EU committee meets at the end of May to discuss the move, followed by a finance ministers’ summit in early June for final confirmation. By January next year they will join the 329 million people that use the euro every day, nearly two-thirds of the EU population.