Over and Over Again: As at Gallipoli so in Afghanistan

Critics may charge that following this course would meet the definition of insanity—which, as that old adage has it, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

So write Kosh Sadat and retired US Army General Stan McChrystal about America’s persisting strategy of train & assist and limited engagement in Afghanistan. For them, there are no better alternatives.

America’s longest war drags on

Perhaps this almost inevitable status quo – unchanged by the small additional deployment of troops authorised by President Trump – is why Afghanistan fails to ignite passions in the same way as it used to amongst Western publics?

Indeed the same could almost be said of the civil war in Syria, which no longer dominates the headlines as in years past. When President Bashar al-Assad seemed on the verge of defeat, or when he turned the tables and subjected his countrymen to savage military reprisals, or when the Islamic State overran vast swathes of the battered nation…then you couldn’t pick up a newspaper without seeing the word ‘Syria’ on the front page.

Now, with Assad pretty much back in control, the rebels subdued if not eradicated, and IS on the run from a motley coalition of Syrian, Iranian and Russian troops – perversely backed by American air power – the same air of inevitability as with Afghanistan has set in. Whereas America’s longest war looks set to continue in perpetuity, Syria almost certainly looks set to be rebuilt in Assad’s image, whatever Western leaders may desire.

The Assad regime’s destruction of Aleppo drew worldwide attention only a couple of years ago. Now the city is firmly back in his grasp

This selective war fatigue, for lack of a better term, is not unique. Citizens, and the journalists who thrive off their reaction, need to be shocked to allow events to remain at the forefronts of their minds. Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency has therefore contributed to ‘bigger issues’ being increasingly overlooked.

Car bombings in Baghdad or drone strikes in Syria just doesn’t register with people in the same way that a mass shooting or a lorry ramming into civilians on home soil does.

Even global war cannot alter this fickle public temperament, the extremities of the time forming unfathomable perceptions about what constitutes a noteworthy event.

Take the First World War and, as an example, the comparison between British public reaction to happenings on the Western Front and during the Dardanelles Campaign.

On the charge during the Battle of Verdun

For the British, the Turks were not the real enemy; that dishonour belonged to the Germans and the tragedy of the Western Front consumed everyone back at home.

Even General Charles Monro, who had replaced Ian Hamilton has commander of the Allied forces at Gallipoli in October 1915, had no time for this Levantine Front. He wanted to kill Germans in France and Belgium and he wanted his soldiers to have the opportunity to do likewise.

Similar parallels can be drawn with today, with the likes of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda now viewed as little more than a distant menace rather than the fear-inspiring terrorists of post-9/11. IS and the ‘lone wolf’ or ‘deranged gunman’ have taken their place in the public consciousness.

Al-Qaeda was seared into the public consciousness by inspiring images such as this

Like Sadat and McChrystal’s assessment of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Allied tactics during WWI involved doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This was as true of the Dardanelles Campaign as it was of the Western Front, with trench warfare, and the incessant shelling that accompanied it, favoured over more adventurous strategies.

There were calls for Naval action in Turkey and, of course, this was how the campaign had begun, with the Royal Navy very narrowly failing to force through the Ottoman defences and minefields to gain a run on Constantinople. Pleas for a repeat performance were rejected by Monro; he wanted to kill Germans and he wanted the peninsula evacuated. End of.

An Allied shanty town at Gallipoli: the endless waiting, the lack of progress and the public detachment have erased the campaign from many memories

Whereas the Dardanelles received relatively little press coverage or public attention back in Britain, however, the Western Front was a never-ending topic for conversation and commiseration. Equally monotonous as Gallipoli may the tactics have been, yet the casualties and the carnage were simply monstrous. What’s more, they were visible.

Soldiers returning wounded or on leave from the French and Belgian battlefields told their stories with an uncompromising forthrightness. Those injured fighting the Turks were usually evacuated to the Greek islands under British military control. Nobody back home saw them.

Soldiers wounded on the Western Front engage in a spot of croquet

Today the number of American casualties in Afghanistan is minimal, whilst the British have as good as left. As with Gallipoli in the Winter of 1915/16 they left defeated, whatever spin the Government tried to put on the 2014 withdrawal.

Helmand province, a territory that claimed scores of British lives at the height of public awareness in the late 2000s, is now back under Taliban control. Death and humiliation; perhaps that is why memories fade so fast.

As the number of American troops in Afghanistan has significantly declined, so have casualties and, simultaneously, public attention

The British and their Allies won the war against the Ottomans in the end and the Dardanelles Campaign almost single-handedly created an ANZAC identity. Yet how many British schoolchildren could tell you anything about Gallipoli? Of Suvla Bay? Of Winston Churchill’s pivotal role? Of Mustafa Kemal and the beginning of a Turkish legend?

Suvla Bay just before the evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula

Probably too few…the Western Front, on the other hand, lives on, commemorated and venerated a century later in as forceful a manner as it was reported on at the time.

America’s involvement in its longest war will end, as Britain’s understated hand in Afghanistan already has. How it will be remembered remains to be seen, though one doubts it will trouble the annals in the same way as Vietnam, as Verdun and Ypres or Normandy, maybe even as Iraq.

It is a pity because for so many the commitment hasn’t died and never will. There is a cause to fight for, be it with drones, small arms or simply compromise. Stated in the most basic of terms, the war in Afghanistan can be won but the need for political capital and will is wanting. With a disinterested public, that will remain the case.

And so we drift, as at Gallipoli, waiting for a new Front to fight on, to capture the public’s attention, to spur the politicians into action, to do something new…before it all slowly fades away into dust.

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The ‘Mine Beneath the Sea’: resource extraction in a day of ingenuity

The Cornish landscape is strewn with reminders of its industrial – not to mention industrious – past, a throwback to the ‘good old days’ of British ingenuity and invention.

Long disused chimney stacks stand sentinel above the wind-battered coastlines, their silent reverie eerie yet captivating. Ramblers and dog-walkers step over concrete plinths and rubble-strewn compounds, the bricks stamped with the emblems of manufacturers long since liquidated.

On a recent visit to the Southwest I visited one of the better-preserved bastions of Cornwall’s industrial archaeology. The Levant Mine at Pendeen is managed by the National Trust and provides a snapshot of a long-forgotten era in British history. It was an era of exploration and extraction, of daring commercial ventures and technical gambles, of wondrous profit and devastating loss.

‘The mine beneath the sea’ as it came to be known, Levant opened in 1820 as a copper concern. Located on a remote, windswept headland, one can only imagine the conditions working at the surface, let alone down in the murky depths.

By the 1850s tin had become the major preoccupation, with tunnels reaching out more than 1.5km into the sea, an incredible feat of engineering given the relatively primitive technology of the day.

Surface workings at Levant Mine c. 1910. Formed with a capital of £400, the mine made £170,000 from copper in its first 20 years. In its heyday it employed 320 men, 44 women and 186 children

Hoisted to the surface by beam engine, the mined materials were then transported by an internal tramway system to the dressing floors where the valuable ores were separated from the worthless rockface by women and children.

Not satisfied with manpower alone, dedicated pit ponies were hoisted down the shafts tail first where they were fed and stabled for up to three-year periods without seeing daylight. Their ability to lug wagons full of ore from beneath the sea bed to the foot of the shafts was invaluable, though how happy the poor beasts were in their subterranean netherworld is another matter.

Either way, Levant remained one of Cornwall’s most productive mines throughout the rest of the 19th century and it only closed in 1930 when further extraction became uneconomical.

Today such enterprises draw scorn (particularly in the Western world), the environmental, financial and political costs often considered too great for an idea of merit to be pursued.  This is not to advocate a resurrection of the British mining industry but the regulations surrounding the exploitation of natural resources dissuades the type of ingenuity embodied by the Levant Mine.

This is particularly important when it comes to energy security.

With our staple energy reserves of oil and coal fast depleting, a renewed mistrust in nuclear power after Fukushima, and a contested environmental debate regarding fracking, where is the spark of tomorrow to come from?

Scotland has recently put a moratorium on fracking

Renewable energy is seen as the great hope, a relatively uncontroversial and inherently safe source, though heavily reliant on the unpredictable elements. Solar and wind farms will continue to spring up, their dull, sanitised designs unable to hide the flaws in the policies behind their propagation.

What of human ingenuity? What of the great engineering discoveries of the future? Doubtless we are capable of ever deeper oil extraction, of drilling into the earth’s core to harness geothermal energy, of converting disused quarries into pumped storage facilities. But who is backing our engineers, our geologists, our scientists?

Iceland proposes to drill boreholes more than 5km into the earth to harness geothermal energy but such techniques are likely to receive short shrift elsewhere

The private sector can only do so much, and companies investing in the power of tomorrow are often put off by a lack of governmental support or initiative. The political concerns of the few – whether it be a need to appease environmental groups or vote-winning constituencies – tend to outweigh the needs of the majority.

This is not the 19th century and, to be honest, that’s a good thing. But the overregulated, intellectually and technologically stifling climate of the 21st century certainly has its pitfalls.

You will not get another Levant Mine, especially not in the UK. At least as a monument, it stands as a reminder of what we have sacrificed in the name of inclusivity, consensus and caution.

Gone are the days when people, and companies, could just do things.

The Lament of Baghdad: from the centre of the world to war-torn chaos

It sometimes seems as if Baghdad is the most lamented city on earth. The sectarian violence, the terrorism, the ruined infrastructure and uncertain future; in short, encompassing insecurity for all its inhabitants, both domestic and foreign.

The damage caused at an ice cream parlour in Baghdad after an ISIS suicide bomber struck in late May

How can one reconcile this devastated capital with the city that embodied the greatness of the Abbasid Caliphate, that unsurpassed centre of learning and commerce that held together an empire stretching from Andalusia to Central Asia?

In the 760s the second Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mansur, built the Madinat al-Salam on the banks of the Tigris, the fabled ’round city’ that would become what we know as Baghdad. His astute, economical and, when necessary, ruthless rule firmly entrenched the Abbasids as the successors of the Umayyads, in the process etching Baghdad onto the world map.

The famed ’round city’ of Baghdad, with the Great Mosque at centre

Al-Mansur’s successors prospered thanks to his tightfisted ways, the imperial treasury overflowing by the late 8th century, ushering in a period of territorial expansion and bold cultural expression. The Abbasids would soon reach their zenith under the rule of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), a formidable ruler whose life directly inspired many of the tales spun in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.  

This rapid period of Abbasid consolidation and growth soon made Baghdad one of the preeminent cities of the Middle East, an equal to Aleppo and Damascus as a place of religious, cultural and educational authority. The cities of western Europe could barely compete with the splendour of the Abbasid capital or its all-seeing Caliph.

Caliph Harun al-Rashid receives a delegation from Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne

Very little, if anything, remains of the original ’round city’. Like so many of Iraq’s archaeological treasures, centuries of warfare have caused them to be obliterated, the rise of ISIS and its complete contempt for anything of historical importance a continual threat to this magical legacy.

Of course, anyone that sees ISIS as an unusually barbaric incarnation of terror would do well to remember the intermittent horrors of Iraqi history, from the Abbasids up to the rule of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent US occupation.

ISIS recently blew up the 12th century Al-Nuri mosque in Mosul. The self-proclaimed Caliphate fortunately never engulfed Baghdad but suicide bombing remains a threat to the Iraqi capitals historic wonders

A particular episode in this bloody narrative that creates pause for thought occurred in the early 15th century and is related below:

In 1401, the Turkic warlord Tamerlane, the Conqueror of the World, stormed the city [Baghdad] and ordered every soldier in his army to bring him a Baghdadi head – or two. And they did: 90,000 severed heads were piled into 120 towers – Tamerlane’s terrifying battlefield signature. (Marozzi, p.30)

This followed an almost equally brutal ransacking of the city by Tamerlane’s Mongol predecessor Hulagu Khan in 1258, whose destruction of Baghdad and execution of the caliph Al-Mustasim signalled the end of the Abbasid dynasty.

Even ISIS has not been able to recreate such staggering atrocities, though that has not diminished the fear the terrorist group is capable of provoking in ordinary citizens and politicians alike.

What the people of Baghdad have proven throughout their history, however, whether in times of prosperity or destitution, is an uncompromising resilience. A city that was the envy of the world has been taken to the brink of destruction on more than one occasion, only to rebound. Its people are the reason why, their proud sense of history overcoming the humiliation of foreign invasion, the scourge of insecurity and the devastating personal losses to rebuild, to resurrect the rubble of the past and create the vision of a future.

The Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258. Iraq’s capital has been a constant target for foreign invaders for centuries

The glory days of the Abbasid Caliphate may seem unattainable but the prospect of peace is enough to make people fight on and despite the pessimism of many in the international community, Iraq and Baghdad will continue to fight.

“Who will change old lamps for new ones?… new lamps for old ones?” (Aladdin, One Thousand and One Nights)

Source

Marozzi, Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood (2014)