I'll take the Oburger - the president at Five Guys in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cosying up to the Five Guys of the apocalypse is bad for your health – just ask Obama

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Five Guys is a US fast-food chain that’s been high-profile there for some years now. This is for two reasons: way back in 2009, President Oburger – sorry, I mean Obama – made a televised visit to one of its burger joints in Washington, DC and since then he’s been subject to holding press conferences there whenever it’s too rainy for the Rose Garden. So politically influential has Five Guys become that when the Washington Examiner was scrabbling for objectors to the president’s new health insurance scheme – not, as you realise, a difficult task – it alighted on a franchisee owner of eight Five Guys outlets, who did indeed oblige by saying that he’d have to jack up his prices in order to pay the mandatory employers’ levy.

The second reason is that, sprouting out from its modest Virginian roots in the late 1980s, Five Guys has now spread – like the culinary equivalent of kudzu weed – to ensnare most of North America in its flocculent convolvulus. There are more than 1,000 branches operating in the United States and Canada and another opens every four days or so. One of the newest branches is in London, which means – as against our leaders’ tedious perseveration that ours is a global financial capital – that in terms of the Englishchomping world the city is, in effect, twinned with Bumfuck, Saskatchewan.

Given this column’s commitment to prying apart the buns of the political class, I rounded up three guys of my own and set out for this new outpost of the American last century. (The original “guys” were the founder’s children – that’s so wholesome it makes me want to barf and then eat my own barf . . . ) With its red-and-white checkerboard tiles, brown-paper sacks of potatoes “stored” in plain view, its counter service and redshirted hand patty cake-makers, Five Guys clearly is trying to go for retro. “This,” everything seems to proclaim, “is what burger joints were like when you were a kid back in Bumfuck and the Fonz was getting the jukebox to play by parking his denim ass on it.”

My eldest guy had warned of tremendous queues, so we went mid-afternoon and the place wasn’t too manic. Just as well, as I don’t think I could’ve borne the humiliation of seeing hip Londoners stand in line for fast food that, according to Men’s Health magazine, is waaay over the recommended daily calorie intake. Sod the poor employees – the diners need health insurance to eat there. It singled out the fries in particular as the gustatory equivalent of fracking – releasing great reserves of energy into the unsuspecting gastric economy – and remarked also on the woeful practice of adding egg to the bun dough, which makes for a particularly sweet and sickly encasement. But all of this sugaring the meaty pill pales in comparison with the soda dispensers, which offer no fewer than nine flavours of Coke and Fanta – oh, and unlimited refills. My guys pretty much majored in hyperglycaemia but even they gave up after a single Styrofoam water butt-full.

As for the artisanal burger, the guys were on the whole negative – but what do they know? I rather liked mine. Mushy-sweetie-bun? Check. Salty-crispy-fry? Check. Wilty-crunchy-lettuce? Check. Crunchy-friablebacon? Check. Processed-plasticky-cheese? Check. As I nyum-nyummed my way through this perfect encapsulation of the American way, the cymbals clashed, the drums boomed, the triangles tinged and drum majorettes’ knees agitated the hems of their pleated skirts prettily. Meanwhile, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, a bunch of hairy protesters screamed, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids didja kill today?”

If Oburger had any meat between his buns, he’d release Chelsea Manning on executive order before he leaves office – but we all know he doesn’t and that his presidency, while in no wise as egregiously bad as the one that preceded it, still hasn’t stopped the flop of once-upstanding American civil liberties.

In his drive to avoid being perceived by his fickle and easily fed electorate as a halal chicken-eater, Obama cosies up to the Five Guys of the apocalypse in a truly nauseating fashion. He’s also gone for his own gender reassignment, as a red-blooded, red-meateating male; but it’s a mystery to me how he can stomach a bacon cheeseburger after the amount of shit he’s eaten since taking office. Still, as my old granny would say: better out than in; and he does consistently redress the balance – by talking shit as well. Yes, he can.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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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