A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture

Like many “leftish” Brits who crossed the Atlantic to criticise imperial America from the belly of the beast, Cockburn soon discovered that America barely exists.

A Colossal Wreck: a Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture
Alexander Cockburn
Verso, 498pp, £20

The introduction to Alexander Cockburn’s posthumously published ramble across the American landscape contains a shot across the bows from his brother Andrew for anyone from this magazine who dares to review it. “Some fool back in the 1990s excoriated Alexander in the leftish English weekly the New Statesman for being ‘anti-American’ . . . It may have been the very stupidest of all the insults hurled over the years at Alexander.” If “anti-American” is the most stupid slur Cockburn attracted in more than 40 years of condemning the failures of US politicians, his life as a campaigning journalist must be deemed a failure.

It is true that “anti-American”, like “un- American”, is an abusive term often misapplied by sloppy thinkers, but Cockburn’s elegant ambiguity about his adopted home was designed to throw people off the scent. Like many “leftish” Brits who crossed the Atlantic to criticise imperial America from the belly of the beast, Cockburn soon discovered that America barely exists. It is not so much a nation as a mishmash of disparate cultures, spread thinly across a vast continent, and any attempt to reach (let alone hammer a stake through) its hard heart is a fool’s errand.

As with most of his family – a distinguished clan of sub-aristocratic radical writers – Cockburn’s shtick was to pose as an outsider. The son of Claud Cockburn, the communist editor and reporter who first identified the Cliveden set as a nest of appeasers in the run-up to the Second World War, Alexander was brought up in County Cork. He was despatched to the rugger-bugger public school Glenalmond in Perthshire and then he went to Keble College, Oxford, where he rubbed shoulders with fellow members of the complacent class he claimed to despise.

A not-so-distant relation who saw the Cockburn universe in reverse was Evelyn Waugh, a bourgeois curmudgeon with his envious nose pressed firmly against the pane of privilege. The author who played this ohso-English game of inverted snobbery most successfully was George Orwell. Old rivalries continued into the next generation, leaving Alexander to defend his father from Orwell’s ghost: “Unlike Orwell, he didn’t rush to squeal, secretly squeal, on his comrades to the British secret service . . . Orwell certainly was suspicious of Jews, blacks and homosexuals. My father was a communist agitator.”

By the time Alexander was ready to right the world’s wrongs, the world had moved on. The British empire was defunct and the battle between Labour and the Tories had become a consensual sham. He headed instead to the new capital of world imperialism: Washington, DC, which a distant relative had burned to the ground in the war of 1812. For the best part of 50 years, Cockburn kept that flame alive, writing elegant, idiosyncratic prose for everyone from Murdoch’s Village Voice to the house organ of capitalism, the Wall Street Journal. His writing was always eloquent, erudite and original.

Inevitably he found himself cast in a grudge match against the compulsive attentionseeker Christopher Hitchens, a fellow New Statesman alumnus whose lust for fame and ability to perform casuistic somersaults put him at a distinct advantage in the age of hate radio and cable TV scream-fests. His pent-up frustration at watching Hitch chain-smoke his way to drunken stardom reached its peak at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, when Cockburn’s louche nemesis abandoned the triangulating Bill Clinton and turned on a dear friend, the president’s sidekick Sidney Blumenthal.

“I’ve long thought that Christopher Hitchens has been asking himself for years how it would feel to plant the Judas kiss,” Cockburn wrote. “And now, as a Judas and a snitch, Hitchens has made the big time.”

Cockburn calls as evidence of Hitch’s ideological depravity his dislike for the German Red Army Faction, whose members, to show their disdain for capitalism, mounted grisly killing sprees against public officials and their blue-collar helpers. At a typical late-1970s dinner party in Washington, Americans lined up to watch the pair of literary Brits claw each other over long-forgotten slights. Hitch accused the murderous Germans, then on the run, of giving the left a bad name.

“If one of them came to my front door seeking shelter,” Hitch said, “I would call the police in an instant and turn him in.” Cockburn backed the killers: “Wouldn’t you just, I remember thinking at the time. I’ve often thought about that outburst since, and whether in fact Christopher was at some level already in the snitch business.”

For Cockburn as for Hitch, the internecine battles of the early Soviet revolutionaries were an inspiration against which everything was measured. Through what appears to be a ragbag of journalism, diary entries and blogs, behind all the critiques of America – particularly its interventionist foreign policy – Cockburn’s belief system remains intact. His first point of reference is often the Roman history that he learned at school: so the demands of the military-industrial complex on Bush and Gore in 2000 are compared to the Roman praetorian guard auctioning off the imperial throne in 193AD after the assassination of Emperor Pertinax.

It was this effortless cultivation of references that made Cockburn so loved in the US, where journalism is not the knockabout trade it is in Britain but more of a smug priesthood. American journalists can rarely write like an angel nor can they deliver a left hook; Cockburn could do both. If from an Englishman’s point of view there was too often a Pooterism in his writing, it did not, in this volume, prevent him being endlessly refreshing in his observations.

Timorous Americans, who even in brutal, mannerless New York recoil from no-holdsbarred argument, deemed Cockburn unduly “mordant” and “acerbic” – both adjectives that appeared in his New York Times obituary. In reality – and alas – he was a pussycat who barely laid a finger on the American empire that took him to its bosom.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash that Defined Modern Economics” is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

Decline and fall: relics of an American empire. Image: Tema Stauffer.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times