Advanced Warfare and the ICRC

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Let's face it, last year's push by the ICRC to integrate law of war training into video games didn't result in an industry earthquake. First person shooters are still about shooting people with exotic weapons, and being heckled by impossibly-good thirteen year olds as they murder you repeatedly in online multiplayer. To combat this, the ICRC recently launched a design competition to get people to integrate medical evacuations into ARMA 3.

Should the ICRC be in the business of video game design? Maybe, maybe not. Then again, should Dave Anthony, the director and writer of Call of Duty, be in the think tank business? Given the reaction to his talk by national security journalists and scholars, the answer to that question is 'maybe not' (and that's being polite). Still, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare just dropped, which is this year's slab of super-insane FPS mayhem, this time with added robots. It even comes replete with a live action trailer, which neatly melds exactly where the series (and genre, for that matter) is going: a first person Hollywood film with you, the player, as the super soldier solving all problems with bullets and high explosives.

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Naming Privacy & the Yanomami

Are our names ‘dead personal information’? In The Fourth Revolution Luciano Floridi argued that people are constituted by their information, and that privacy breaches are therefore a form of aggression against the person. It is an intriguing notion, and one that makes an end run around the flaws in the 'information as personal property' model of privacy. I think Floridi is correct to point out that in this sense information 'expresses a sense of constitutive belonging, not of external ownership, a sense in which your body, your feelings, and your information are part of you but are not your (legal) possessions.'

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Amazon, Atwood and the NSA

I don't know why Amazon put Oryx and Crake into the little section marked "You might also like" after I added a copy of Woman on the Edge of Time to my digital basket. The last book I had bought by Margaret Atwood was A Handmaid's Tale, but I bought that in person, at Foyles in Charing Cross, in part because I had liked the thought of re-reading it and the particular paperback edition had red-edged pages. I doubt Foyles and Amazon share my data, but maybe they do. Either way, I don't know and I doubt that they would tell me. I doubt Amazon could know about the copy of Oryx and Crake that I grew up with, since the edition my mum owned probably predates the systematic storage of data in easily accessible computer form. Nor, for that matter, do Amazon probably know about my copy of The Blind Assassin, since that was bought for me by an ex-girlfriend, and Amazon would probably have had to consult data held on me by either Facebook or Google to figure that connection out, or maybe they could have talked to my mobile phone provider to figure out whom I was calling quite often three years ago. The point about all of that is that for some reason Amazon deduced that I might like to buy Oryx and Crake, at which point I clicked yes. A few days later, to the horror of independent book shops everywhere, the book was delivered by the postman. I managed to put off reading it again for a while, but eventually succumbed and enjoyed it more than I had previously done. No person actually looked at me while this happened, but I imagine that a human had a hand in designing the algorithm that checked against my previous purchase history, all sorts of other data that Amazon probably holds on me, and then served me the recommendation. As recommendations go, it was a good one. I really enjoy Margaret Atwood's work, even though I have read only a fraction of her published novels.

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5000 Feet is the Best


I will admit that I walked into the Imperial War Museum's (free) display of Omer Fast's film with low expectations. Most artistic takes on 'drones' have, for the most part, struck me as badly researched, ill-thought out or plain lazy reactions to a 'hot' topic in politics. This reflects my personal preferences (I prefer art that happens to challenge my beliefs, rather than re-enforce them, and bad 'drone art' does neither) and what I might call professional competence (I happen to know a bit about them and the reasons people use them). The other day, a friend showed me the leftovers from some piece, in which an artist had printed out a lot of pictures culled from a google image search of drones (yes, the people that write about this stuff know which basic images indicate a cull from google search, and which image indicates the author can't tell the difference between the US military and US Customs) and spread them around a space to incite debate. The reason this general laziness annoys me is that drones and other semi-automated ways of killing people don't exactly make criticism difficult. Hell, I'm not opposed to the things, and I could reel off a list of maybe 10 serious issues I have with them without thinking. Drones raise so many related issues that, well, producing work that incites debate is almost a given. Therefore the intermittent stream of work that resembles an intellectual circle-jerk copied verbatim from a Guardian comment piece is something of a disservice to the adults that it is aimed at, especially if the intent is to incite debate.

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The Act Of Killing


The Act of Killing is a documentary about some ambling old men who also killed thousands of Communists in their youth. Documentaries about mass killing aren't new, nor for that matter, is it truly possible to shock with archival footage. Anyone born in the UK likely encounters footage of Auschwitz at some point before their 18th birthday, and as such, become somewhat vaccinated to imagery of mass killing. At a certain point, many documentaries cross the line between the attempt to convey the horror of atrocity, and the attempt to shock the viewer with genocide-porn. Much to its credit, The Act of Killing doesn't do this. The most cringe-worthy moment of footage were scenes where one of the characters visits the dentist, and where he also attempts some himself, with a pair of pliers. That's not to say that this film isn't shocking, but since none of the violence is real, it actively discards the 'authentic shock' in favour of a rather more chilling explanatory approach. I can think of few moments that caused my blood to freeze as when the rather friendly Anwar Congo explains how used to take a piece of wire, tie it to a post, and then use it to strangle one of the thousand-odd people that he killed during the 1965-1966 killings in Indonesia. Though Anwar isn't the sole focus of the documentary, he might as well be. The narrative arc of his realisation/reckoning with his actions in his twenties is so perfect that it could almost be scripted. His tears, though somewhat cajoled by a question from the director, appear heartfelt. As a means of challenging those who commit war crimes, getting them to act out their own torture/killing routines with themselves as a victim is rather novel, but it apparently works, at least in Anwar's case. His body reactions when being strangled with wire are also consistent with him actually being strangled, so it appears that safety took a back seat to realism when it came to filming those scenes.

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Kill Boxes and Rain Rooms


Why discuss automated targeting and art installations? In part, the genesis of this article (and some others that I have planned) is that I'm something of a war-junkie who can't switch off thinking about war when stepping into art galleries. I do my best to engage, but sometimes an artist's work makes me think about my 'day job' a little differently.

At the moment, I'm doing a fair bit of research about autonomous weapons and targeting. What's commonly known as drones, and what is commonly depicted as Skynet. Like many, I think automated machines are likely to be further integrated into the conduct of warfare. But I'm slightly unsatisfied about the way in which most people appear to think that it will happen, the, uhhh, 'Terminator' model for robot war. Think, for a second, about the development of UAVs and drones. They no longer attempt to replicate human-piloted machine capabilities, and instead provide capabilities that could never be attempted with humans in the cockpit. Furthermore, the personal robots are an area of growth - drones that can be launched and operated by infantry, rather than piloted from afar. Giving them lethal capability is a Rubicon, of sorts, and giving them some form of autonomy is another. Ensuring that autonomous robots with guns don't shoot the wrong person (or anyone) is an important issue, perhaps the most technically challenging one, but the opposition to it appears rooted in a very simplistic idea of how people are routinely targeted in war. Soldiers don't recognise fellow combatants as individuals with their own identity, they identify whether killing them adheres to standard rules of engagement, and theatre-specific ROE. To do that, they make quick and dirty calculations ("Does that guy have a gun? Is he pointing it at me?") and kill people on that basis. Computers can't do that, but they can make other calculations ("Is that drone on our side? Is blowing it out of the sky going to hurt anyone?") and I think this second, not directly lethal, way of thinking is likely to be an interesting area in future. Call it parallel robot warfare - humans kill each other, robots destroy the robots helping the humans on each side. One side might use robots to kill humans, but most Western militaries have serious reservations about that point, so might restrict themselves to building badass robot-killing robots.

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Targeted Killings article in WDS

I have an article in the latest edition of World Defence Systems on the use of targeted killings to contain al-Qaeda, it is available (for free) online here.

McDonald J (2012) Containing terrorist networks - the role of targeted killings. World Defence Systems 2012(1): 21-23 [link]

Targeted killings work, as Byman tells us, but they don't solve conflicts. Thinking about targeted killings in terms of containment allows us to consider the long term detrimental effect that such programmes have on a democracy. While proponents of the targeted killings programme would like to frame this debate in terms of purely military activity, I think that targeted killings pose questions that challenge the political philosophies that underpin liberal democracies.

[Edit - I'm afraid the link doesn't seem to be working, I will try and get a copy online asap. Jack]

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Notes on a part-time doctorate

Dan Rezner has been writing some good articles on PhD study, which made me think about mine (coming to the end right now). There isn't much out there on part-time PhDs, but when it comes down to it, I've always been a part-time student, considering the amount of paid employment I've done while studying. This article is therefore written from the perspective of someone without much money trying to complete a PhD.

So, without further ado: some thoughts on part-time PhDs, some (odd) benefits and some survival mechanisms for what is without any shadow of a doubt the most insanely knackering experience of my life.

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For Future Reference Re: Kony…

I wrote a post on the Kony 2012 video here, it went viral and got me mentioned on al-Jazeera, quoted in the National Post (online here) and The Age. I wrote another post on the subject here, got interviewed on Toronto talk radio and and did a podcast here. It's now a second past my fifteen minutes of fame so I'm going back to writing bits and bobs that no-one reads.

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Frontline – A Year of Journalism & Conflict by Sky News

I saw this and thought of George Romero

Seeing as this is located about a stone's throw from my PhD room, it has taken a little too long to go and see it. Frontline is in name a year of journalism and conflict, but in actuality what was viewed in four places: Libya, Syria, Egypt and Hackney (okay, 'the UK riots'). It is all very modern, coming equipped with Ipads, and the opportunity for "augmented reality" on your smartphone (if the wireless is working, which it wasn't, and when finally downloaded, the app was confusing to the point of non-use). App bugginess aside, there is perhaps something a little disquieting about viewing information about people on a device that none of them could afford. One wonders if they had that in mind, but I doubt that the exhibition was aiming for a post-post-modern critique of viewing conflict. What follows is more criticism, but shouldn't be taken as criticism of individual journalists. The people that went there were brave, some of them died. What I'm more concerned with is the structure of journalism, and why it bugs the hell out of me.

Technology issues aside, the problem that this exhibition has is that anyone likely to go there has seen it all before. I wouldn't go so far as to say it is pointless, but perhaps a little more consideration needs to be put into a similar effort in future. The ubiquity of image in contemporary life is such that it doesn't take much awareness to have encountered every single image and moving picture in the gallery, or at least something strikingly similar. The net effect is that walking through the short exhibition is rather like trawling through a meme tumblr, only with added blood and bullets. The four conflicts covered in the exhibition have been, for want of better words, done to death over the past calendar year. So much was said, pictured, recorded and discussed about these matters that what original matter could be compiled on them would take a genius to distil into such an exhibition. Unfortunately, genius was in short supply.

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Major Plot Hole, Bro!

So yesterday, as part of Rosie and I's mission to watch funny Hollywood action films, we went to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. (Spoiler alert from here on in blah blah blah). Actually, I shouldn't even need to bother with the spoiler alert, since the trailer shows about 80% of the decent stunts, and the opening credits to the film show 90%, in sequence. This is a new horizon of bad directing that I hadn't previously considered, but it has potential. For instance, if, after watching the credits and being tipped to the plot structure and major sequences, one decides not to view the rest of the film, the director has, in effect, saved you 90 minutes of your life, at the expense of suspense that never really existed anyway.

But anyways, the plot of Mission Impossible is pretty straightforward: Tom Cruise gets betrayed, he then jumps of impossibly high things, cars go flying, fist fights occur and in the nick of time, the world is saved. In this, the directing is pretty much completely spot on. The action sequences are at times so viscerally brutal that they made me wince. The stunts on the world's tallest sky scraper made me queasy and the OTT "get in a car to drive it off the edge of a building" bit at the end had just the right amount of "Oh wow!" factor that it didn't feel tired and old. One does, however, wonder why Tom Cruise didn't spend a minute brutally killing the mad scientist, then getting the briefcasethatwillsavetheworld and saving the world. Instead he spends a couple of minutes grabbing for the briefcase while the aformentioned scientist sneaks up and pulps him every fucking time.

As for the dialogue. Fuck. Clunker central. Simon Pegg occasionally drops in the good line or two, but usually, it is a facepalm frenzy of cliches and tired crap. Less said about that, the better.

My only real problem with the film is the major, major plot hole in it towards the end. The plot hole being that a Russian sub launches a nuclear missile, they then race to shut the missile down before it hits Seattle or something (would the nuclear annihilation of Seattle been all that bad? That's another question entirely). The point being that you can't do that, ever. The whole point of nuclear missiles, particularly sea launched ballistic missiles as in the film, is that once they launch there is no turning back. That's why there's all the funny dual key turns, launch codes, authorisations and so on. Of course, us Brits have the additional safeguard of a polite letter from the Prime Minister saying what to do in the event of a nuclear holocaust, but that's another matter. The point is, all nuclear policy is based on the idea that once a missile is launched, there's no way to disable it. That's why the Russians get so mad at America for trying to build missile defence shields. Nuclear deterrence doesn't work if you can say "My bad" and flip the warhead off, mid flight, then someone else might be able to do it as well. If they can, then nuclear deterrence fails, and a state couldn't be sure its missiles would work. Hence why they're dumb, "fire and forget", objects of impossible destructive force. Which is to say that Tom Cruise et al failed the moment the terrorists managed to launch the missile (or con the Russian sub commander into firing the missile).

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Sherlock Holmes 2

The usual spoiler warning: This contains spoilers.

I won't bother to check for the overblown subsidiary title, which is something to do with shadows and darkness. It reminded me of Pirates of the Caribbean: Keep Reading This To Distract You From The Fact That Only The First One Was Any Good. Duff title aside, this film was pretty damn good, but an exercise in poor structure, which marred the overall effect. Guy Ritchie has, it seems, decided that three acts are not enough to tell his story of Robert Downey Jr. being Robert Downey Jr. (in tweed) and instead decided to shoot four. Now, obviously, there are five act films out there, and books, but four acts is a novelty. Mainly because it doesn't work. One, two, three, five. That works. Four? Nope. Despite this, the film is pretty decent, even though the third act could have been squeezed into the second, and therefore not make the entire climax of the film feel like the denouement.

The film opens with witty fight scene, Robert Downey Jr. and the female protagonist from the first film getting offed pretty sharpish. Now, obviously this is a Sherlock Holmes film, and it revolves around Holmes, but I'm getting a bit tired of obvious franchises not bothering to franchise the female lead. I suppose we can turn a blind eye to James Bond having a different lady friend every film, due to the fact that he is by definition a cad, and liable to get his other half killed by way of his job. In this context, however, having the major female protagonist of the first film bite the dust almost as soon as the film starts is a bit lazy. It is used to dramatic effect, obviously, as a reason to make Holmes hate Moriarty, except that Holmes already hated Moriarty and was going after him anyway. So a bloody hankerchief is used to add weight to the hatred Holmes feels, y'know, "this time it's for keeps old chap". This would be okay, except that nothing is made of it for pretty much the rest of the movie. Holmes has a weepy bit, and then gets on with being Holmes. The replacement female lead has two dimensions printed into her character, which is rather unfortunate.

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Grouch days revisited

I enjoyed writing that last one. So I'll continue. Again, absolutely none of this is intended to be "Things were better back when...", more of "Now I come to think about it, such and such was really important."

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Notes from a grouch

Wild Bro!

Between the ages of sixteen and twenty seven I went to about one gig a week, minimum. Sometimes two, sometimes three. During insane summer touring seasons, maybe more. I used to do a lot of things to do with DIY, but this isn't about that. When I got back to the UK in Autumn 2008, I basically ceased being an "active" DIY person. Life took over. Well, more specifically, my PhD did. I kept my hand in helping Bryony out with Big Take Over shindigs, but that has been about my limit.

Now, there's a strange thing that happens on the "other side", which happens to most people. Apart from the usual "Where have you been?" questions, most people in my position feel the need to justify themselves in one way or another. Me? I think, for the first time, I shut up. I didn't talk about DIY and got on with doing what came to hand. I am generally happy with this state of affairs. Other classes of response fall into a few really fucking boring typesets. There are the "Oh it's so childish" brigade. These people flake out and then turn around and badmouth everything they previously held dear. DIY punk and hardcore made me who I am, I'm not going to join those chumps any time soon. Then there is the "Oh, it's all bad these days, it was so much better back in the day (when I was the centre of attention)." brigade. Again, these people tend to forget the ephemera nature of the beast. I was at a gig the other day at the Cross Kings (wait, "The Star of Kings", way to go with bad cross-branding, chumps). The basement was as packed as any with probably a hundred people I have never seen. DIY scenes generally work around lynchpins, the people that get shit done. I guess I used to be one of those people. The point being, we're all replaceable. There is no single person that every made themselves indispensable. The world continues to turn and it doesn't require anyone to give it a push. So yeah, I might prefer older bands, but that doesn't necessarily make them any better than what's going on today. The only people that really get to pull that line with a straight face were all coming of age in the late seventies anyway. The last set of people tend t be the ones who get really fucked up on drugs and start partying. Never had any truck with that, but hey, it's a free country. So, having singularly failed to fall into the three basic categories of ex-scenester, I shut up and got on with my life.

Fast forward a couple of years and I have to move house for the nth time because London rents are insane and east London is populated by people paying rent on their parent's credit card forcing rents through the roof. I have to move, but this time I get to plan it. One thing tat I have been carting around is a big box full of photos. I used to take a lot of photos at gigs. Anyways, prints are totally ephemeral, I decided to finally get shot of all the duff pictures that garnered a few decent band pictures. There was a time not long ago when gig photos were not digital. I used to have to scan negatives to stick them on the internet. I would go and get stuff developed at Jessops or whatever and end up with a handful of decent pictures and tons of duff shots spoilt by stagedivers, stage potatoes, moshers and all the other chaotic elements that make a hardcore gig. So I dumped those and kept the good ones. Or, more specifically, the ones that were worth keeping for a variety of reasons. The thing that amazed me ten years down the line was quite how much got away. The amazing gigs that I never took a picture at, or bands which I wasn't able to get a decent picture of. I thought I'd put some up here with reflections. You know, because otherwise this stuff would be condemned to a dusty box.

Why? Man. That's the most stupid, and oft repeated, question anyone ever asked about hardcore. The only answer is "because".

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In Time Misses a Trick

Spoiler Alert - Yeah, the entire plot of In Time is up for grabs here, and I'd give it a 7/10 so you might not want to read this before watching it.

The key to great science fiction is crafting a world out of an idea, usually a twist on something we can dream of happening, that illuminates something about us (humans) and what we do. Tweaking the limits of reality to show that they exist, if you will. The quite simple premise of In Time does this (though conspicuously jacking a Harlan Ellison tale, and I swear I've seen something on the theme before as well), but fails to carry out its premise to its logical conclusion. What with the 99% and Occupy Wall Street, this could have been a damning indictment of contemporary Capitalism, but because it consciously tries to become this, it kinda flops.

The premise: people are born with a year to spend after they're 25, time is money and poor people live day to day trying not to die. When the clock runs out, people fall over dead. Despite the fact that there are (sparsely populated) ghettos full of poor people living on (literally) borrowed time, only a couple of people actually clock out the entire time. The plot is poor kid gets given lots of money, impresses rich girl, they become a Robin Hood duo and eventually give all the poor people all the time in the world. There are three bad guys: The rich guy (and dad of the heroine), the law abiding cop (was a poor guy, now defending the system) and the common criminal (you know, because criminals keep poor people in line). The basic thread of the film is that the system is bad, the system kills poor people and the system keeps them poor so rich people can live like kings. Like capitalism, get it? Despite its politics being something of a blunt force trauma to the head, kinda like any given China Mieville book, it does so in such a way that invalidates half of what it argues.

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Why Warrior is the best film of the year

There are a million spoilers in this, so it's all going after the jump. Don't read this until you've seen the film.

So today I sat down and watched this year's "MMA Movie", fully expecting shitty Hollywood plotlines (which occurred) and a million moves that are either one in a million, or pretty much impossible (yup, that happened too). After all the way through, all my initial thoughts were confirmed, and yet, it is the best film I've seen this year.

The reason? Everyone loses. Everyone.

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London’s Burning.

It is quite odd to see the city I've grown up in turn upside down in the space of seventy two hours. I'll skip the reasoned arguments and flippant comments for the time being.

This morning I went for a run in Victoria Park. It was a fine morning, and slightly at odds with the sirens of the night before and the grainy youtube videos on repeat. While I was running, I passed a kid who had to be maybe twelve or thirteen running the other way. That got me thinking. That kid had to have a goal, or something in his life that he was working towards, because it is the middle of the summer holidays, and it was 7.30am, and that kid was out there running around Victoria Park with all the adults. All the adults, we've got goals, sure, personal fitness, weight loss, yadda yadda yadda. We've had twenty, thirty, fifty years to figure out why we're running around a park at 7.30am. And then there's a kid, yes, a kid, who's got something in his head that has him out of bed and running around on his own like the rest of us. When I was his age, I didn't have that, it took me twenty five years to find a reason to get out of bed early in the morning and run (though I'm now twenty eight).

I look at all the footage on television, and I hear the police sirens tearing past below me and the one thing I can really be certain about is that kid. I don't know the kid. I don't know what is stuck in his head, or what goal he has that means he's up with the fat-burners, the yuppies, the Men's Health fanatics and me. I don't know whether he's rich, or poor, whether he goes to a good school, or a bad school. I am pretty much clueless about that kid. All the same, I'd bet a lot of money on that kid achieving more in his life than the looters currently burning my city.

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The Origins of Political Order – Francis Fukuyama

I read this book (which is good) and immediately embarked on something of a Fukuyama kick, revisiting State Building, After the Neocons, The End of History? and The End of History and the Last Man. This review is therefore not restricted to Fukuyama's most recent work, but more of an attempt to figure out how he progressed from proclaiming the end of ideological development, to a kind of cold realism about the world that he has always professed to dislike.

In a sense, Fukuyama hasn't changed all that much. His overarching views, and belief in liberal democracy, has remained constant throughout his work. What I find extremely interesting is the process by which his methodology has changed from liberal philosophy to a type of argumentative history rooted in biological explanations (via some developmental economics). Viewed in this manner, On The Origins, and its as-yet-unfinished second volume, form something of a replacement to the contorted Hegelian take on liberalism of The Last Man (I name it thus in this review to differentiate it from his original National Interest article which kicked up such a fuss). Over the last year I've developed something of an interest in post-cold war political discourse, and it appears to me that the replacement of liberal philosophy by other disciplines or sources of knowledge forms a large part of the explanation of the changes in the discourse itself. It is perhaps easy, if not lazy, to sit back from a viewpoint of over twenty years of hindsight and sneer at the naivete of liberal discourse and practise after the end of the cold war, and that is not something that I wish to be a part of. I have no intention of damning Fukuyama, or any other commentator for that matter, on the parts of their argument that turned out to be grossly wrong. In The End of History Fukuyama predicted the longevity of the 1 party communist system. When he revisited the title with the Last Man, some three years later, this prediction was proved incorrect. In the Last Man, he failed to appreciate the terrible effects of nationalism on Yugoslavia ('the Balkans') and so on. World events are a harsh mistress, as confident writers in 1913, 1938, 1988 and 2000 would probably attest. Fukuyama is still, however, in the habit of hedging his bets. The end is clear, but it will be along sometime soon, just not now. In fact, On the Origins now includes the concept of political decay which Fukuyama now uses to explain any results which don’t fit his end-state trajectory, more on that later.

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The Suicide Run – William Styron

I picked this books up in New York a month back, but it got caught up in my travel bags and I didn't read it on the plane. It has since languished in my room due to furious amounts of PhD work since I got back.

I'll freely admit to not having read any of Styron's work before. After finishing The Suicide Run it seems his best stuff was highly controversial and not at all related to this book. As literature, it is four short stories revolving around life in the US Marine Corps. What is interesting is that the stories are the forgotten half of service. Styron never saw action in WW2, and being denied the experience of combat seems to have had just as great an effect on him as it has on others. While I was reading, I couldn't help but think of Jarhead by Anthony Swofford and, perhaps more tangentially, the blustering paratrooper commanding officer in The Eagle Has Landed, and David Schwimmer's first episode turn in Band of Brothers. To put it mildly, I'm quite interested in the experiences of war that lie outside the normal infantryman-goes-to-combat-zone-and-shoots-people paradigm. Admittedly, the bang factor of the paradigm probably sells more than the sorts of stories I'm interested in. It seems to me that there's a hidden seam of experience in soldiers that never got to shoot anyone. I think part of its hidden nature is that it is not the most thrilling of stories, but also that we're culturally conditioned to forget it. We remember battles, we remember bangs and we remember body bags. We're not inclined to remember the people that staffed training facilities, or held clerical roles. Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket might go against this grain, but I doubt that the movie would have been commercially viable without the midway transition to Vietnam.

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The Tree of Life – Terence Malick

I had the misfortune of seeing this film within 24 hours of Gaspar Noé's Enter The Void. I think this might have prejudiced me against the film from the start. It is better than Enter The Void, but pretty much as empty. Whereas Noé filled his drugs trip with completely pointless, meandering dialogue, Malick took the high road and filled The Tree of Life with overtly meaningful lines that are equally pointless.

Malick makes the key mistake of opening the film well, laying it on thick with the Vietnam telegram (in complete contrast to The Messenger's scenes) before wandering off somewhere. For some inexplicable reason, he treats the audience to fifteen minutes of shots straight out of a BBC nature documentary. Well, if those documentaries were filmed on less than a shoestring. The problem is that most of the time you see these things, someone is telling you what is going on over the top. The baffling natural spectacle makes sense that way, and it satisfies our curiosity about it all. Instead, there's waffle. The kind of ethereal waffle that is so lofty as to bore the average viewer to tears, but likely provide a guiding light to simpletons.

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The Messenger

I went to the cinema at the last minute today and ended up going to see this based on the fact that Woody Harrelson was on the poster and the alternates looked boring.

Luckily enough it was damn, damn good. The film centers around two soldiers, a gulf war 1 veteran played by Woody Harrelson and a recent Iraq veteran played by Ben Foster who have the unenviable task of delivering the bad news to the next of kin of deceased soldiers. It is not quite apparent in the opening scenes of the film, but the two of them deliver some of the best on-screen chemistry that I've seen recently.

The standout moments of the film are when the pair of them deliver the bad news. It is hard to convey in words quite how loaded these are with raw emotion, and a handful of quite brilliant cameo performances. The moment is depicted in quite a few films, but the intensity of these scenes renders them bland in comparison. The skill of delivery is in the details, for instance the way in which they flex their fingers waiting for the door to open. Foster, the lead, is entirely convincing as a soldier torn between trying to re-connect with the civilian world, yet shoe-horned into a role that requires him to be entirely inhuman in response to recently bereaved parents. His failure to successfully navigate this line leads to his entanglement with Samantha Morton's character. The oddity of this plotline is that while roughly fifty percent of the scenes feel unrealistic, both actors manage to keep their characters entirely believable.

I think this film is going to be important, because like The Hurt Locker, it is one of the films coming from the War on Terror that doesn't echo the divisions in society at large over the wars themselves. Even though there's overtones of Jarhead ("All I ever wanted was to get shot at, is that too much to ask?") the film's focus on the neutrality of the main characters means that there is no room for polemics and grandstanding. This restriction allows the characters themselves to develop and play themselves out/tear themselves apart without reducing the film to a "war is bad"/"support the troops" tagline. Because of this, the film can explore the contentious issue of the dying soldiers without inspiring groans from either side of the political spectrum. This film might have zero bangs (and studiously avoids violence) but I think it will require inclusion into any future collection of War on Terror films. I haven't seen a "home front" film to equal this in recent years.

To sum up, though it occasionally loses itself, it's still well worth watching.

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Our War

o then, BBC3's Afghanistan war documentary comes to an end with an IED, a dead British soldier, a saved kid and six dead Afghan National Police. As motifs of the war in Afghanistan go, it was pretty much a grab bag of the headline items. For that reason, it was by far the least interesting episode of the three part series.

The strength of the series has been its use of the intimate footage from the helmet cameras of the soldiers themselves. This footage, particularly in the first two episodes of the series, has been quite extraordinary. From an outsider's perspective, the fact that the Ministry of Defence has authorised the use of such footage, which has included dead and dying soldiers, IED attacks and the "colourful" language of British infantry privates, is quite extraordinary. The power of this footage, while it has included some intense firefights (including some from the much maligned platoon houses), is the connection of the ordinary viewer to the soldiers themselves. Guns and deserts aside, much of what went on in front of the camera was entirely human, and dare I say it, civilian. Take any group of 18-20 year old men and coop them up together for six months, and the results would be largely similar to what went on, and what was said, in front of the cameras.o then, BBC3's Afghanistan war documentary comes to an end with an IED, a dead British soldier, a saved kid and six dead Afghan National Police. As motifs of the war in Afghanistan go, it was pretty much a grab bag of the headline items. For that reason, it was by far the least interesting episode of the three part series.

The strength of the series has been its use of the intimate footage from the helmet cameras of the soldiers themselves. This footage, particularly in the first two episodes of the series, has been quite extraordinary. From an outsider's perspective, the fact that the Ministry of Defence has authorised the use of such footage, which has included dead and dying soldiers, IED attacks and the "colourful" language of British infantry privates, is quite extraordinary. The power of this footage, while it has included some intense firefights (including some from the much maligned platoon houses), is the connection of the ordinary viewer to the soldiers themselves. Guns and deserts aside, much of what went on in front of the camera was entirely human, and dare I say it, civilian. Take any group of 18-20 year old men and coop them up together for six months, and the results would be largely similar to what went on, and what was said, in front of the cameras.

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Imperial Life in the Emerald City

I must admit to missing this book the first time round. It is, however, rather indispensable for an outline of the lunacy that was the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

On reflection, it's rather grating that Rajiv sticks, in true journalistic fashion, to the facts. I'm normally not a fan of comment pieces, but the world that he painstakingly reconstructs is begging for some form of authorship and voice in the form of his opinion on the matter. He is clearly angry at many things, not least the sheer amateurism in the enterprise that was fostered by reliance upon republican political connections. As a body of work, the book is a damning indictment of the post-war reconstruction effort (though notably even handed towards Bremner and Garner, unlike Ricks who is decisively more critical of the former). But it lacks the coup de grace of a cohesive argument. It is eye opening, and in many places, jaw-dropping, but this lack of thesis hamstrings the book. Furthermore, the reader is left wondering whether anything could have been done. The recollections of former CPA staff mourning their individual missed chances at times drowns out the wider question of whether they would have changed anything had those chances not been missed.

In short it is a worthy read, but one that is about as constructive as the insane world that it documents.

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Colum McCann – Let the Great World Spin

I picked this up in New York City's rather overwhelming Strand Bookshop. While I spent about half my time in NYC reading classics that I'd never gotten around to, the other half I devoted to American fiction by authors that I hadn't heard of. This was one of the better in that latter category.

I must admit to picturing Man on Wire in my head almost the entire time that this book began to describe it's fictionalised account of Philippe Petit's audacious tightrope act. I think, however, that words fall short describing the raw power of that image. I think the author admits this, since a photograph of Philippe mid-walk is present roughly two thirds of the way through the book. That the photo includes an aeroplane flying over and seemingly into the World Trade Centre provided a moment of cold-blood and dread the moment I saw it. It took me a second or two to realise that Philippe was in the shot, and that it wasn't a grainy photo from 9/11.

September 11th, 2001, casts its shadow over the entire book. I couldn't help but think "I know how this ends" while I was reading. This does, however, add a suitable tone of dread and foreboding that accentuates a story which revolves around a doomed Jesuit priest. As enjoyable as it is to read (it really is a joy) the book's problem is that by invoking a past with a known future, it does not leave much room for drama and suspense. Seventies NYC is brought to life in a bubble, and there it stays.

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No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy

The frankly brilliant conversion of this book to the silver screen is what introduced me to Cormac McCarthy in the first place. I did, however, manage to read The Road before seeing that book's relatively lacklustre conversion.

The film understandably hangs itself on the pursuit of Llwellyn Moss by Chigurgh (with one of the most inspired castings since Mickey Rourke getting tapped to play the lead in The Wrestler). The book reveals a lot more depth to the character of Sheriff Bell, ably played in the cinematic version by Tommy Lee Jones. The problem with the cinematic version is that Sheriff Bell's soliloquies don't translate to the big screen very well. For sure, the final scene of the movie is about as good a translation as could be done, but the film itself would have suffered had it included all of Bell's words. Having read the book, the film is revealed to be a slightly unbalanced adaptation. The Coen brothers did a good job of translating two of the three leads, and I think Tommy Lee Jones did a good job of filling out an unfinished adaptation. But the overriding theme that connects all three, that of old age and purpose, is somewhat hampered by the lack of a rounded Bell in the film adaptation.

What I like most about McCarthy's later works (this and The Road) is the purpose that drives the characters. I'm not a fan of Blood Meridian, precisely because the wanderlust that drives the main character doesn't seem to contain the same burning drive that defines the characters in No Country or The Road. I can understand Blood Meridian and All The Pretty Horses for what they are, road books that encapsulate that wandering spirit of the old west, but I much prefer the singular purpose that propels the characters in his later books.

As sexist as it might seem, I think the central question of the book is "What makes a man?" And it's the way in which all three central characters, good and bad, answer this that makes the book so satisfying to read. Of course, there is Llewellyn, for whom tragedy strikes because he cannot let a man die of thirst in the desert. The kind of man for whom this is not an act of kindness, but what is right. As bad as Chigurh is, throughout the film he is a man of his word. And Bell, facing his old age and mortality, spends most of the book reflecting on his life and if he's lived it well. I think McCarthy answers this central question with fidelity. No Country displays a relaxed amorality about the actions of the characters, except where they stray from their own standards.

On balance, I think it's the best book that I've read by him.

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Wired for War by P. W. Singer

Writing is a learning experience, something re-enforced by discovering (slightly to my dismay) that Virtual War appears to be out of print (though thankfully freely available). The excerpt today is perhaps the logical outcome of some of the processes discussed in Virtual War. I selected this piece because in my mind it reflects unexpected changes in the experience of war derived from increasingly automated methods of war fighting.

Some of the most interesting accounts that I've been reading about contemporary wars involve the collision between today's highly technology-literatate teen generation and the wars that they volunteer to fight. There is, I think, a reinvention of the wheel in complaints about them: that they are unfit, that they listen to Ipods on patrol, and so on. Military life, especially that of 'teeth' arms is in a sense hyper-generational. Almost all "newborn soldier" accounts seem to agree on this. 18 year olds arriving in the armed forces look to 2nd Lieutenants a few years their senior for guidance, and to Sergeants maybe ten years older than them for ultimate authority. In civilian life, the gap between an 18 and a 28 year old is large, but not one that would warrant such authority. Similarly, from all but a 22 year old's perspective, the idea that a 22 year old should be considered vastly more "grown up" than an 18 year old is quite laughable. In this manner military life appears to compress the age range of authority and standing.

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Virtual War by Michael Ignatieff

One of the most interesting things that I got to do last year was a lecture on War and Literature for the first year Experience of War course for King's College London's War Studies BA. As part of the lecture, I pulled together about sixty different poems and segments of books which, in my mind, would give students and idea of the range of literature that deals with or gives us an experience of war. I'm currently in the process of scanning these in (so that I don't have to photocopy the same pages repeatedly for next year) and I thought this would be a good point to start writing about them.

The first passage that I have selected is Virtual War by Michael Ignatieff. This book is at once alien to the contemporary reader, and yet stunningly familiar. It is hard for readers in 2011 to imagine (or remember) the point (somewhere in the year 2000) where virtual war was something of a reality or a perceived future. Similarly, the first decade of the 21st century prevents us from reading these arguments without a trace of irony running through our heads. The reason I selected this particuar bit of the book is its opening and closing. In particular these three statements:

Virtual wars fought in the name of virtually mobilized but largely passive electorates for the sake of virtual victories are not likely to produce long-lasting advantages to those who wage them.

Technological superiority is thus not a guarantee of national security and there is no reason to believe that zero-casualty, zero-risk, zero-defect warfare will actually result in a safer world, or even a world safer just for Americans.

Virtual reality is seductive. We see ourselves as noble warriors and our enemies a despicable tyrants. We see war as a surgical scalpel and not a bloodstained sword. In so doing we mis-describe ourselves as we mis-describe the instruments of death.

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