John Pilger on Afghanistan and Obama, the prince of bait-and-switch

I interviewed a woman who had lost eight members of her family, including six children, to a US bomb.

On 12 July, the Times devoted two pages to Afghanistan. It was mostly a complaint about the heat. The reporter, Magnus Linklater, described in detail his discomfort and how he had needed to be sprayed with iced water. He also described the "high drama" and "meticulously practised routine" of evacuating another overheated journalist. For her US Marine rescuers, wrote Linklater, "saving a life took precedence over [their] security". Alongside this was a report whose final paragraph offered the only mention that "47 civilians, most of them women and children, were killed when a US aircraft bombed a wedding party in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday".

Slaughters on this scale are common, and mostly unknown to the British public. I interviewed a woman who had lost eight members of her family, including six children. A 500lb US Mk82 bomb was dropped on her mud, stone and straw house. There was no "enemy" nearby. I interviewed a headmaster whose house disappeared in a fireball caused by another "precision" bomb. Inside were nine people - his wife, his four sons, his brother and his wife, and his sister and her husband. Neither of these mass murders was news. As Harold Pinter wrote of such crimes: "Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest."

A total of 64 civilians were bombed to death while the Times man was discomforted. Most were guests at a wedding party. Wedding parties are a "coalition" speciality. At least four of them have been obliterated - at Mazar and in Khost, Uruzgan and Nangarhar provinces. Many of the details, including the names of victims, have been compiled by a New Hampshire professor, Marc Herold, whose Afghan Victim Memorial Project is a meticulous work of journalism that shames those who are paid to keep the record straight and report almost everything about the Afghan War through the public relations facilities of the British and American military.

The US and its allies are dropping record numbers of bombs on Afghanistan. This is not news. In the first half of this year, 1,853 bombs were dropped: more than all the bombs of 2006 and most of 2007. "The most frequently used bombs," the Air Force Times reports, "are the 500lb and 2,000lb satellite-guided . . ." Without this one-sided onslaught, the resurgence of the Taliban, it is clear, might not have happened. Even Hamid Karzai, America's and Britain's puppet, has said so. The presence and the aggression of foreigners have all but united a resistance that now includes former warlords once on the CIA's payroll.

The scandal of this would be headline news, were it not for what George W Bush's former spokesman Scott McClellan has called "complicit enablers" - journalists who serve as little more than official amplifiers. Having declared Afghanistan a "good war", the complicit enablers are now anointing Barack Obama as he tours the bloodfests in Afghanistan and Iraq. What they never say is that Obama is a bomber.

In the New York Times on 14 July, in an article spun to appear as if he is ending the war in Iraq, Obama demanded more war in Afghan istan and, in effect, an invasion of Pakistan. He wants more combat troops, more helicopters, more bombs. Bush may be on his way out, but the Republicans have built an ideological machine that transcends the loss of electoral power - because their collaborators are, as the American writer Mike Whitney put it succinctly, "bait-and-switch" Democrats, of whom Obama is the prince.

Those who write of Obama that "when it comes to international affairs, he will be a huge improvement on Bush" demonstrate the same wilful naivety that backed the bait-and-switch of Bill Clinton - and Tony Blair. Of Blair, wrote the late Hugo Young in 1997, "ideology has surrendered entirely to 'values' . . . there are no sacred cows [and] no fossilised limits to the ground over which the mind might range in search of a better Britain . . ."

Eleven years and five wars later, at least a million people lie dead. Barack Obama is the American Blair. That he is a smooth operator and a black man is irrelevant. He is of an enduring, rampant system whose drum majors and cheer squads never see, or want to see, the consequences of 500lb bombs dropped unerringly on mud, stone and straw houses.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide