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What does it do to a man’s soul to be a warrior in Barack Obama’s game of drone warfare, being holed up at a remote military base in the Nevada desert as you go about your business eliminating, at a mere touch of a button, the “enemy” in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen, as if you’re doing no more than playing the latest iteration of Call of Duty?
In Robert Greenwald’s documentary film Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, Brandon Bryant, a young US air force veteran, speaks with searing honesty about his experiences as a drones operator. He was trained to carry out attacks but was never prepared for how he might react to or feel about what he was doing – all that remote-controlled precision killing. He talks about one day watching on his console as a man, injured in a drone attack he initiated, bleeds to death: “He’s just, like, rolling around, but you can see, like, where his leg is missing and the blood is spurting out and landing on the ground and it’s cooling …”
Bryant is a patriot and he believes in God – or, at least, did. “Doing this, I had to really think … why was I here? Why am I doing this? I was pretty religious at the time and I went to talk to the chaplain … under the orders of my commander, actually, and I got nothing out of it. He was just basically, like, ‘It’s God’s plan.’ It’s God’s fucking plan for people to die? Like, I don’t want to hear that shit. I didn’t feel like I was a part of anything good or wholesome or healthy or contributing to the greater good. I felt like I was destroying myself. I was taking who I pictured myself to be in my head and chopping it down and breaking it down, taking a sledgehammer to it. And it crumbled.”
Unmanned is a work of ruthless propaganda – in the best sense. It makes no attempt to contextualise or create space for opposing views. It’s not balanced or deliberative. It wants only to build a prosecutor’s case against Obama and America’s drone war and it does so with immense power and anger. Do watch it at: unmanned.warcosts.com.
Scratching the surface
I was intrigued to read that Lord Ashcroft is writing a biography of David Cameron, aided by Isabel Oakeshott, the Sunday Times’s fragrant assassin. What could be the purpose of such a project? There’s already in print a more than adequate biography of the Prime Minister, Cameron: Practically a Conservative by Francis Elliott and James Hanning, the most recent edition of which I reviewed in these pages last year. The trouble for any biographer of Cameron – as Elliott and Hanning discovered – is that the man Anthony King calls “Britain’s first dilettante prime minister since Herbert Asquith” is a politician of surfaces and superficial effects. He lacks a distinctive philosophical world-view or any apparent hinterland. He’s fluent and articulate – and he looks nice in white tie – but is he anything more than that? He has written nothing of worth – nothing even to compare with, say, Jesse Norman’s recent biography of Edmund Burke. Where do you turn for deeper insight into his thinking, values and motivation? His speeches are on the whole so feeble or self-contradictory that the Conservatives were compelled to erase them from the internet: a sinister and egregious act from a party that ought to believe in institutional wisdom.
Perhaps Ashcroft will discover a cache of letters as Charles Moore did when researching his biography of Margaret Thatcher, or something equally revealing of the Prime Minister’s inner life. Still, it’s safe to assume that Ashcroft, whose polling has proved such a valuable public service, is no admirer of Cameron. So what is he up to?
Missing in action
I was a guest at British GQ’s 25th anniversary dinner, held at Phillips auction house in Victoria, London. In a witty speech Nicholas Coleridge of Condé Nast said that during its 25 years GQ had had six editors and three publishers. All three publishers were at the dinner. Many of the editors were conspicuously absent. “You can compare our six GQ editors to the six wives of Henry VIII and their similar fates,” Coleridge said. “In English schools, we used to memorise this rhyme about the wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. With GQ editors, it goes: dismissed, promoted, died, dismissed, dismissed, survived.” So that cleared up the mystery of the absent editors.
Coleridge said GQ had become a “superbrand”, with its “glamorous Men of the Year ceremony”, which proved such a hit with our old friend Russell Brand. GQis often ridiculed for being in thrall to the vacuities of celebrity culture – for indeed being an embodiment of it. What is seldom, or never, mentioned is its commitment to good writing and reportage at a time when British newspapers have lost confidence in long-form journalism. For this reason, one wishes it well.
Rules of the game
On the subject of anniversaries, we have just sent to the printers the second of our two New Statesman Century magazine anthologies. In volume one, we featured many of the most celebrated pieces from our archive, such as J B Priestley’s “Britain and the Nuclear Bombs”, the essay that led to the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In this second volume, we have concentrated on encounters, appreciations, profiles and character sketches.
We lead off with Kingsley Martin’s January 1939 conversation with Winston Churchill, in which he speaks, even before the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, of his campaign for rearmament and warns of the terrors to come. In the interview, Churchill says that, with adequate leadership, “democracy can be a more efficient form of government than fascism”. What mattered above all – then as now – was adherence to the rule of law. “The laws are based on Magna Carta, habeas corpus, the Petition of Right and others. Without this foundation there can be no freedom or civilisation, anyone being at the mercy of officials and liable to be spied upon and betrayed even in his own home.” Good words, and true. You can buy the special edition at: newstatesman.com/century.