Tag Archives: rules of war

“Under the Wire – Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment” by Paul Conroy

Under the Wire: Marie Colvin's Final Assignment

Journalist Marie Colvin (1956-2012) was an American war correspondent who reported on some of the most violent conflicts of our times – in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Libya. By the time she reported on the Syrian Civil War with photographer Paul Conroy, she had achieved iconic status. Blinded in one eye by a grenade in 2001 in Sri Lanka, she wore an eye patch and had a reputation for courage and fierce, incredible persistence. Her story has been told in books and a movie.

Conroy’s account of the Syrian Civil War (from the rebel viewpoint) is hard to read. The statement “war is hell” hardly begins to describe the conditions and suffering Colvin and Conroy saw and ultimately experienced. They escaped from the besieged rebel city of Baba Amr, but returned at Colvin’s insistence. She and a French photographer died there. Conroy escaped a second time, with terrible injuries and severe PTSD.

For another look at this book, see this blog entry. The author highlights important aspects of the narrative that I won’t attempt to cover.

Why do journalists do expose themselves to such nightmarish danger? Their answer is simple. They do it to bear witness, to see and to tell the terrible story of human suffering and in particular the suffering of non-combatants and the innocent – children in particular. Throughout Conroy’s book runs outrage and the frantic hope that someone is listening, that someone will intervene on behalf of 28,000 civilians trapped in Baba Amr.

Less idealistically, war zone journalists are adrenaline freaks, hooked on the chemistry of fear and often on other chemicals as well – alcohol, nicotine, etc. But where would we be without adrenaline freaks? Who would rush into burning buildings or fly into space? I don’t “understand” this behavior, but I respect it.

In this blog, dated October 9, 2013, you will find my review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Why does Baker choose that date as the end of civilization? Because it marked the end of a distinction between soldiers and civilians during war. He blames the change on the emergence of aerial bombardment as a primary military tactic.

  • Aerial bombardment was rarely accurate.
  • Each side killed civilians.
  • Accusing the foe of breaking the old “rules of war”, both sides proceeded to bomb cities indiscriminately.

The climax was the American destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This action was NOT unanimously approved by American citizens.

The Syrian Civil War may be (almost) over, but peace is not assured and any form of “reconciliation” seems remote. The magnitude of human suffering is staggering.

If civilization ended in 1945, what has been going on since then? Civil wars seem more and more common. “Guerrilla” war is a new norm. Wars are no longer declared, and are not fought by countries, but often by “non-state entities”. There’s a great deal of “proxy” behavior. Superpowers are competing for influence and access to resources. The invention, production and distribution of weaponry has become a large and permanent feature of the global economy. What else? I’m not educated enough to take this analysis further.

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“The Flame Bearer” by Bernard Cornwell

Copyright 2016, 280 pages.

Historical fiction is great! You can be distracted from your worries and at the same time be (gently) reminded that there have been difficult times before. “The Flame Bearer” takes place in Britain around 900 AD, before its (still uneasy) consolidation into a single, country with a commons language. Now I understand the Roman wall (built to keep out the wild Scots) a bit better. Christianity was fighting it out with paganism. Some characters were hedging their bets, praying to both sets of gods and waiting to see which rewarded them.

“The Flame Bearer” is written in the first person, from the perspective of a displaced warlord named Uhtred. Wait, wasn’t I just writing about a REAL warlord? Yes, see my blog entry of January 15, 2017, about Dostum, a contemporary Afghan warlord and politician. One thousand years have passed, and the descriptive term “warlord” still has meaning. What would these two men have in common? Both fought on horseback. Each relied on a cadre of loyal followers. Each was motivated by family and tribal loyalty. Each lived in a time of rapid change, and worried about betrayal. Each carried responsibilities well beyond the range of military concerns. Each “appealed” for divine intervention in battle. (Read Williams “The Last Warlord” for details on that aspect of his campaign.)

Differences? Uhtred dismounted for hand to hand combat and was an expert in deploying a shield wall. Dostum advanced from horseback to trucks and tanks, and faced a pace of technological change Uhtred would not have believed. Uhtred lived in a pre-modern world. Dostum is “modern”, with some traditional personality traits. (He’s also in the news lately. I’ll refrain from trying to comment here.)

What can we say about warfare based on these two “warlord” portraits? Each had available some mechanism for negotiation, temporary truce or surrender. Uhtred approached his enemies with a lowered sword, carrying a green branch. Dostum suffered the loss of soldiers when a surrender attempt went bad. War is seldom “total”. In each case there was some concept of protecting prisoners and non-combatants, but that was often violated. Do meaningful “rules of war exist”?

Cornwell has written scores of books, “The Flame Bearer” being #10 in his “Saxon Tales”. He admits in his “Historical Note” that the book contains little actual history. Maybe it’s more of an adventure novel. Cornwell obviously enjoys writing about battles and the psychological complications of fighting. The plot is revenge and redemption, with lots of BLOOD.

Another of Cornwell’s series follows a character named Richard Sharpe from 1799 to 1821, in 20 novels. What is Cornwell trying to do, outwrite Patrick O’Brian? I suppose I should not judge based on one book, but I don’t think his work equals the stature of O’Brian’s. (Yes, I’ve read the awe inspiring Aubrey-Maturin series.)

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels work because they convey the arc of history, the sweep of the Napoleonic Wars. He invented his charmingly quirky protagonists, but the battles (I understand) are ALL taken from the naval records of the times. And sometimes they are surprising! I wonder if Richard Sharpe is as interesting as Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

But Cornwell is good, and I’ll undoubtedly read more of his books. I think they would be excellent in audio format, for long car trips. Pre-modern Britain is more interesting than Route 95.