How Britain wages war: John Pilger interrogates military tradition

The military has created a wall of silence around its frequent resort to barbaric practices.

Five photographs together break a silence. The first is of a former Gurkha regimental sergeant major, Tul Bahadur Pun, aged 87. He sits in a wheelchair outside 10 Downing Street. He holds a board full of medals, including the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery, which he won serving in the British army.

He has been refused entry to Britain and treatment for a serious heart ailment by the National Health Service: outrages rescinded only after a public campaign. On 25 June, he came to Down ing Street to hand his Victoria Cross back to the Prime Minister, but Gordon Brown refused to see him.

The second photograph is of a 12-year-old boy, one of three children. They are Kuchis, nomads of Afghanistan. They have been hit by Nato bombs, American or British, and nurses are trying to peel away their roasted skin with tweezers. On the night of 10 June, Nato planes struck again, killing at least 30 civilians in a single village: children, women, schoolteachers, students. On 4 July, another 22 civilians died like this. All, including the roasted children, are described as "militants" or "suspected Taliban". The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, says the invasion of Afghan istan is "the noble cause of the 21st century".

The third photograph is of a computer-generated aircraft carrier not yet built, one of two of the biggest ships ever ordered for the Royal Navy. The £4bn contract is shared by BAE Systems, whose sale of 72 fighter jets to the corrupt tyranny in Saudi Arabia has made Britain the biggest arms merchant on earth, selling mostly to oppressive regimes in poor countries. At a time of economic crisis, Browne describes the carriers as "an affordable expenditure".

The fourth photograph is of a young British soldier, Gavin Williams, who was "beasted" to death by three non-commissioned officers. This "informal summary punishment", which sent his body temperature to more than 41 degrees, was intended to "humiliate, push to the limit and hurt". The torture was described in court as a fact of army life.

The final photograph is of an Iraqi man, Baha Mousa, who was tortured to death by British soldiers. Taken during his post-mortem, it shows some of the 93 horrific injuries he suffered at the hands of men of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment who beat and abused him for 36 hours, including double-hooding him with hessian sacks in stifling heat. He was a hotel receptionist. Although his murder took place almost five years ago, it was only in May this year that the Ministry of Defence responded to the courts and agreed to an independent inquiry. A judge has described this as a "wall of silence".

A court martial convicted just one soldier of Mousa's "inhumane treatment", and he has since been quietly released. Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers, representing the families of Iraqis who have died in British custody, says the evidence is clear - abuse and torture by the British army is systemic.

Shiner and his colleagues have witness statements and corroborations of prima facie crimes of an especially atrocious kind usually associated with the Americans. "The more cases I am dealing with, the worse it gets," he says. These include an "incident" near the town of Majar al-Kabir in 2004, when British soldiers executed as many as 20 Iraqi prisoners after mutilating them. The latest is that of a 14-year-old boy who was forced to simulate anal and oral sex over a prolonged period.

"At the heart of the US and UK project," says Shiner, "is a desire to avoid accountability for what they want to do. Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary renditions are part of the same struggle to avoid accountability through jurisdiction." British soldiers, he says, use the same torture techniques as the Americans and deny that the European Convention on Human Rights, the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on Torture apply to them. And British torture is "commonplace": so much so, that "the routine nature of this ill-treatment helps to explain why, despite the abuse of the soldiers and cries of the detainees being clearly audible, nobody, particularly in authority, took any notice".

 

 

Arcane rituals

 

Unbelievably, says Shiner, the Ministry of Defence under Tony Blair decided that the 1972 Heath government's ban on certain torture techniques applied only in the UK and Northern Ireland. Consequently, "many Iraqis were killed and tortured in UK detention facilities". Shiner is working on 46 horrific cases.

A wall of silence has always surrounded the British military, its arcane rituals, rites and practices and, above all, its contempt for the law and natural justice in its various imperial pursuits. For 80 years, the Ministry of Defence and compliant ministers refused to countenance posthumous pardons for terrified boys shot at dawn during the slaughter of the First World War. British soldiers used as guinea pigs during the testing of nuclear weapons in the Indian Ocean were abandoned, as were many others who suffered the toxic effects of the 1991 Gulf War. The treatment of Gurkha Tul Bahadur Pun is typical. Having been sent back to Nepal, many of these "soldiers of the Queen" have no pension, are deeply impoverished and are refused residence or medical help in the country for which they fought and for which 43,000 of them have died or been injured. The Gurkhas have won no fewer than 26 Victoria Crosses, yet Browne's "affordable expenditure" excludes them.

An even more imposing wall of silence ensures that the British public remains largely unaware of the industrial killing of civilians in Britain's modern colonial wars. In his landmark work Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses, the historian Mark Curtis uses three main categories: direct responsibility, indirect responsibility and active inaction.

"The overall figure [since 1945] is between 8.6 and 13.5 million," Curtis writes. "Of these, Britain bears direct responsibility for between four million and six million deaths. This figure is, if anything, likely to be an underestimate. Not all British interventions have been included, because of lack of data." Since his study was published, the Iraq death toll has reached, by reliable measure, a million men, women and children.

The spiralling rise of militarism within Britain is rarely acknowledged, even by those alerting the public to legislation attacking basic civil liberties, such as the recently drafted Data Com muni cations Bill, which will give the government powers to keep records of all electronic communication. Like the plans for identity cards, this is in keeping what the Americans call "the national security state", which seeks the control of domestic dissent while pursuing military aggression abroad. The £4bn aircraft carriers are to have a "global role". For global read colonial. The Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office follow Washington's line almost to the letter, as in Browne's preposterous description of Afghanistan as a noble cause. In reality, the US-inspired Nato invasion has had two effects: the killing and dispossession of large numbers of Afghans, and the return of the opium trade, which the Taliban had banned. According to Hamid Karzai, the west's puppet leader, Britain's role in Helmand Province has led directly to the return of the Taliban.

 

 

Loans for arms

 

The militarising of how the British state perceives and treats other societies is vividly demonstrated in Africa, where ten out of 14 of the most impoverished and conflict-ridden countries are seduced into buying British arms and military equipment with "soft loans". Like the British royal family, the British Prime Minister simply follows the money. Having ritually condemned a despot in Zimbabwe for "human rights abuses" - in truth, for no longer serving as the west's business agent - and having obeyed the latest US dictum on Iran and Iraq, Brown set off recently for Saudi Arabia, exporter of Wahhabi fundamentalism and wheeler of fabulous arms deals.

To complement this, the Brown government is spending £11bn of taxpayers' money on a huge, pri vatised military academy in Wales, which will train foreign soldiers and mercenaries recruited to the bogus "war on terror". With arms companies such as Raytheon profiting, this will become Britain's "School of the Americas", a centre for counter-insurgency (terrorist) training and the design of future colonial adventures.

It has had almost no publicity.

Of course, the image of militarist Britain clashes with a benign national regard formed, wrote Tolstoy, "from infancy, by every possible means - class books, church services, sermons, speeches, books, papers, songs, poetry, monuments [leading to] people stupefied in the one direction". Much has changed since he wrote that. Or has it? The shabby, destructive colonial war in Afghanistan is now reported almost entirely through the British army, with squaddies always doing their Kipling best, and with the Afghan resistance routinely dismissed as "outsiders" and "invaders". Pictures of nomadic boys with Nato-roasted skin almost never appear in the press or on television, nor the after-effects of British thermobaric weapons, or "vacuum bombs", designed to suck the air out of human lungs. Instead, whole pages mourn a British military intelligence agent in Afghanis tan, because she happens to have been a 26-year-old woman, the first to die in active service since the 2001 invasion.

Baha Mousa, tortured to death by British soldiers, was also 26 years old. But he was different. His father, Daoud, says that the way the Ministry of Defence has behaved over his son's death convinces him that the British government regards the lives of others as "cheap". And he is right.

www.johnpilger.com

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 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’

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In defence of La La Land

Accusations that the musical movie is sexist or for Hollywood insiders rest on the false idea that making art is more important than engaging with it.

Perhaps the most pivotal scene in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land takes place in a restaurant, one that Mia (Emma Stone) chances upon while walking the long journey home, with no idea that Seb (Ryan Gosling) works there playing the piano. But before that, as Mia approaches the restaurant, she passes a long, colourful mural. We see Mia walk past Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, WC Fields, and James Dean. The wide shot that follows reveals the full wall, a crowd of recognisable figures all sitting on red velvet seats in a darkened theatre, staring out at the street in front of them, as well as Mia, stepping out of a perfect empty frame of red neon light.

This is the “You Are The Star” mural, which sits at the southeast corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Wilcox Avenue in LA. Fred and Ginger dance in the aisle, while Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton sit up front. A nod to the Old Hollywood legends La La Land so often pays homage to, the mural plays with the idea of spectatorship, inverting the roles of artist and audience by seating screen legends in the cinema, and the average passerby on screen.

La La Land has been described by various critics as a “love letter” to lots of things: to Hollywood, to musicals, to dreamers, to LA, even to romance itself. It is, to an extent, all these things. Its familiar story (cynical, frustrated male creative seeks wide-eyed female creative, for the mutual following of dreams) necessarily romanticises the experience of being an actor, a musician, a writer – even, especially, if it involves struggle. But La La Land is also an ode to the audience.

Mia and Seb both hope to be performers: Seb wants to run, and play at, his own jazz club; Mia wants to make it as an actress. But when we meet them, working low-paid, dead-end hospitality jobs, they are primarily audience members. We see Seb obsessively playing jazz cassettes and records on loop, Mia gushing about a childhood spent watching Notorious, Bringing Up Baby and Casablanca.

In fact, Seb and Mia fall in love as observers – their romance blossoms as they share experiences as audience members. They stroll around the Warner Bros lot together, watching films being shot. “I love it,” Mia sighs. They go to a jazz club together and bond over the music. Shifting in red velvet seats, their hands inching towards the other’s during a screening of Rebel Without a Cause. They even go to a literal observatory together (the Griffiths Observatory – yes, the same one they just watched on screen in Rebel), where their romance takes off. We even see them watch a home movie of their own potential life together in the film’s epilogue.

Theatres, music clubs and sets therefore become significant sites of communion, both culturally and personally, and fetishised by Seb and Mia. In fact, Mia leaves her uninspiring boyfriend, Greg, when she sinks into the jazz melodies underscoring their dinner at a posh restaurant. Meanwhile, Greg and his brother and sister-in-law discuss the advantages of their expensive home cinemas compared to public theatres: “You know theatres these days, they’re so dirty. And they’re either too hot or too cold. And there’s always people talking.” (After comments like these, Greg is a write-off.)

We often use films, books and music as tools to make connections with each other, even form lasting relationships. The experience of being “Someone in the Crowd”, as the film’s soundtrack describes it, doesn’t just inspire the creative careers at the heart of La La Land, but every area of life.

When Seb suggests taking Mia to see Rebel Without a Cause, he’s embarrassed – it seems too obviously like a date, and Mia isn’t single. “I can take you,” he says, before adding, “You know, for research.” “For research!” Mia repeats. “Yeah. Great. For research.” The joke, of course, is that both Seb and Mia know their date is just that, a date – but the script also plays with the idea that watching movies can be a kind of emotional research, not just for an actress preparing for a new role, but for anybody. For Seb and Mia, their “research” brings them to each other, a life-changing (if not lifelong) relationship.

We see Seb and Mia’s relationship play out as a series of performances, with Seb playing and Mia watching. There are five scenes that explore this dynamic – their first meeting at Seb’s restaurant, their run-in at a pool party where Mia requests “I Ran”, a few weeks into their romance at The Lighthouse, at a huge gig where Seb performs in his new band, The Messengers, and, finally, in Seb’s own club. Each of these scenes reveal incremental changes in Mia’s perspective on her life, her ambitions, and her desires, as she moves from awe to playful cynicism to optimism to disillusionment and, finally, to a bittersweet compromise of all the above.

Critics have raised eyebrows at the gender politics of this film on the back of these scenes – arguing that they present the male lead as the artist, the female lead as mostly observer, contributing to decades of fetishising male artists while dismissing women as primarily muses or facilitators of male art and ambition.

“Guy gets Madeline, Andrew gets greatness (and Fletcher), and Sebastian gets his club (if not Mia),” writes Morgan Leigh Davis, of La La Land and the plots of other jazz movies Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and Whiplash. “And women? All they get to do is listen.”

But scenes of Seb’s performances don’t actually focus on Seb, nor do they form deep explorations of his career ambitions – they are important to us as an audience because Mia is watching. We rarely see him perform if not through her gaze, and we see her emotionally develop through her evolving reactions to his music, while the film’s most fantastical scenes are all her projections, her imaginative response to what she hears. We repeatedly see Mia writing, auditioning, and performing without Seb present – and the film’s opening and closing scenes are all shot through her eyes. For me, this is Mia’s film, the story of her ambitions realised.

Criticisms of the focus being on Seb performing also rest on the idea that making art is fundamentally more important than engaging with it, envisaging culture as a series of monologues rather than a great, messy dialogue. But watching is a key part of Mia’s artistic life. It’s as important to her as performing, and La La Land suggests that watching and listening are not passive activities. When Mia notices the jazz in the posh restaurant, for instance, listening is positioned as something that requires skill, practice and attentiveness; while going to see Rebel Without a Cause can end in a beautiful dance sequence at the Griffiths Observatory. Watching and listening are figured as active, creative, transformative acts. Here, consuming art can have as much personal and cultural value as making art: both must occur for “culture” to exist.

Mia is always open to art that is new to her – music she hasn’t yet heard and films she hasn’t yet seen. Ultimately, staying open to new kinds of watching and listening is what allows her to create genuinely original work. Her time spent watching film with her aunt inspires the audition that bags her her breakout role – and we know those also shape her final performance (the film she gets a part in has no script; the producers want to work with Mia to mould the role over three months of rehearsals and a four-month shoot in Paris).

Seb, on the other hand, is a closed book to the new. He’s never genuinely interested in The Messengers, and prefers to stay stuck in the past, listening obsessively to the same pieces of music over and over again. We first meet him rewinding cassettes in his car, and later see him dropping the needle of his record player on the same spot on the vinyl in his kitchen. His hands instinctively move to the same keys on the piano. In the end, he decides to move away from original work, instead choosing to become a facilitator of the music of others, in a club that only plays traditional, nostalgic jazz.

Seb might spend a lot of time explaining what makes art beautiful, but we can never take him seriously – his insistences on “pure” jazz, fists clenched with passion, or claims that he is a “serious musician”, are usually played for laughs. Mia’s dreams aren’t (even if she is a lot more likely to laugh at herself).

The visual landscape of La La Land creates a world hovering somewhere between fantasy and reality. Through melodic camera movements, oversaturated colour palettes, dreamlike fabrics, dance and song and references to Old Hollywood’s most iconic scenes, the ordinary becomes fantastical. Bathroom lamps become spotlights, hilltop sunsets become perfect movie sets.

And it works both ways: a cinematic tracking shot of Mia auditioning, slowly focusing on the emotion of her face, is interrupted when an assistant outside the door enters the right of the frame. Many of the film’s most dramatic moments are punctured by the mundane: phones ring, smoke alarms go off, records abruptly finish, analogue film eats itself just before the romantic climax. These both serve to disrupt and reinforce classic tropes (the interrupted kiss is as familiar as the dramatic, orchestral one), and as a result we’re never sure when we’re in La La Land and when we’re in the real world.

This is an impulse that seemingly comes from Mia. She gets herself work on a film set, to immerse herself in the fictional landscape, and we watch her twirling along the streets like she’s in a musical in her own mind. She writes in her play blurb that she’s interested in the “porous border between” dreams and reality, and we know that her play “So Long, Boulder City!” is concerned with windows, like the one from Casablanca that sits opposite her cafe, which offer a portal from one world into another. (“The whole world from your bedroom?” Seb says of her play, while the stagehand is left baffled by “that whole window thing”.)

We see lush posters of Ingrid Bergman taking up space in Mia’s apartment, then we see Mia, lying on her bed in sweatpants, shot in a similarly dramatic fashion. She literally steps into the movie at the screening of Rebel Without a Cause, the film projecting onto her face, then takes Seb to the film’s real sets.

Mia’s touchstone for inspiration is the story of her aunt jumping into the Seine in the snow. We see a picture, in Mia’s living room, of a woman in a red bathing suit frozen in a dive above a swimming pool – then see that moment recreated at different LA parties across town, never fully sure if it’s coincidence or a trick of Mia’s mind, while snow suddenly falls after her “Somewhere in the Crowd” solo.

In the film’s epilogue, places from her memory become movie sets, from the lamppost Seb danced on at the LA hilltop where they first danced, to the motorway where they were stuck in traffic at the movie’s opening. As Seb plays, she’s writing the movie of their perfect, alternate lives.

La La Land’s own audience can never fully escape the fact that they are watching a movie: though it is undoubtedly immersive, the experience of watching La La Land is too referential and self-consciously cinematic to transport its audience out of their seats into another specific place. But the dreamy, technicolour panorama of La La Land encourages audiences to revel in the moments when life feels like a movie, and to find the connections between life and art.

The “You Are the Star” mural is a strange cultural artefact. It shouts that anyone can make it in Hollywood, anyone can have their dreams come true, but if you look at the selection of celebrities sat in the theatre, it’s hardly the most broad selection of humanity. If you squint, you might see a few faces that aren’t white, but they’re few and far between. The vast majority of the stars are white, chiselled young men and women; and so the trick of the mural works better if you fit a similar description. La La Land functions in a similar way, and at the end, Emma Stone seamlessly slots into the role of successful Hollywood actress – as she’s already a rail-thin, white, traditionally beautiful, successful Hollywood actress. As Ira Madison III wrote on the film’s US release: “La La Land opens with a stunning and visually masterful dance sequence sung by an incredibly diverse group of Los Angeles denizens”, but they “are quickly whisked away so the Caucasian sing-along can begin”.

Life mostly happens inside our own heads. Two hours of one movie can sometimes have a bigger impact on us than two weeks of our day-to-day lives at our jobs and homes. The kind of creative internal landscapes La La Land explores through Mia are, of course, not limited to the narrow selection of people Hollywood reveres, and the film itself fails to recognise that. But the idea that borders between our imaginations and our realities are more porous than we believe, and that art and life can have a tangible relationship, is a hopeful one for anyone who has felt that their life has been changed by an album, an old movie, a painting, or a TV show. It’s an optimistic way of viewing the world – one that is as open to the observer as the performer.

***

Now listen to a discussion of La La Land on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.