Friday, August 30, 2013


In the rhetoric of war or that of the justification for war whether you are in Sparta or Sarajevo is a pattern of amplification of the political insults against those who are considered irrational either in their support or opposition to that war in parallel to the very deliberate propaganda against those who are perceived as the aggressors. The current bombast on the part of politicians and leaders in countries likely to be embroiled in any action against the al-Assad regime in Syria has brought some notable examples.

Following the defeat in the Commons (lower chamber) of the UK Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s tabled motion for a sanctioning of military intervention in Syria by a specially recalled Parliament, Ed Milliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, when interviewed after the vote accused David Cameron of “cavalier and reckless leadership”. 

Whether it was deliberately scripted in advance or an accidental coincidence, Milliband’s use of the word cavalier was both pointed and apt. 

"Cavalier" Cameron

The word cavalier was first used as a term of reproach by Parliamentarians for the supporters of King Charles I in June 1642 when in a law case those supporters were described as,

 “Several sorts of malignant Men, who were about the King; some whereof, under the name of Cavaliers, without having respect to the Laws of the Land, or any fear either of God or Man, were ready to commit all manner of Outrage and Violence.”

"Round Ed" Milliband

The put down could not have been any more pointed and I have to admit that I never thought that “Round Ed” Milliband possessed of such incisive rhetoric.

The American-Russian rhetoric on the Syrian question is, like the current deployments of US and Russian naval forces off the coast of Syria, less incisive and more crude.

For example Dmitry Rogozin, one of the Russian Federation’s Deputy Prime Ministers and the man who currently heads the all powerful Military-Industrial Commission and who currently is also special envoy to the breakaway Russian enclave of Transdnestr in Moldova posted in his Twitter account on the 27 August that, 

The West in its relations with the Islamic World behaves like a monkey with a grenade.”

Most commentators felt that this was a deliberate and derogatory barb aimed directly at US President Barack Obama

Rogozin, whose wife is the daughter of a former high-ranking KGB general, was previously founder and head of the ethic hatred inciting Rodina or Motherland Party is only crude when it suits. He is a multilingual graduate of journalism and holds a PhD for a thesis entitled “The Russian Question and Its Influence on National and International Safety." The Twitter feed is like much of his populist rhetoric in the past, aimed primarily at the lowest common denominator.

Finally on a domestic level US Secretary of State John Kerry was very pointed in his press conference today on the known use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and its justification for intervention. He said,

"...So what do we know now that we can talk about?

Well we know that the Assad regime has the largest chemical weapons programs in the entire Middle East.
We know that the regime has used these weapons multiple times this year...

We know that for three days before the attack (Aug 21), the Syrian regime's chemical weapons personnel  were on the ground making preparations...

We know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time.
We know where they landed and when...

So the primary question is really no longer what we know. The question is ... what are we in the world gonna do about it?..."

This impassioned speech, in addition to being a direct appeal to the world community, was also a direct riposte to an interview with former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the man who will forever be remembered for his "unknown unknowns" justification of the Iraq war, where he called the Obama administration's handling of the Syrian question "mindless."

C'est la guerre.

And the words? 
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Krak de Chevalier Castle, Syria.

On the 9th October 2010 I rested in the shade of the Gothic-style Loggia building of the famous Krak des Chevaliers ( Qalaat al-Husn) castle to the west of Homs in Syria. On the hoodmould of a vaulted arch window of the late (mid-13th C) addition to the famous crusader stronghold was a carved Latin inscription, which is generally translated as:

“Grace, Wisdom and beauty you may enjoy but 
beware pride which alone can tarnish all the rest”.

Latin inscription on Loggia window of
Krak des Chevaliers Castle, Syria.

It is a poignant message across the centuries from a contemplative mason of a soon to be eradicated crusader Syrian kingdom of the past to the Syrian government of today.

Location of Chemical Attacks in towns of Ghouta 
agricultural belt east of Damascus, Syria.

In the early hours of the morning of the 21 August 2013 a series of attacks involving chemical weapons were used on a number of towns in the Ghouta agricultural belt to the east of Damascus. The town of Zamalka was most affected with reports of up to 1000 casualties with many of those being children, murdered while they slept and the collateral deaths of many of the medical staff who rushed to treat the victims.

Responsibility for the atrocities was bounced back between the rebel Syrian Free Army and the government of Prtesident Bashar al-Assad and in trying to make a determination of the nature and cause of attack the professional chemical experts of the international community, led by the UN’s chief weapons inspector Angela Kane, were immediately blocked by the Syrian government from entering into the affected towns, telling them it was outside the territories defined by their mandate.

The Ghouta agricultural belt is the main provider of food for Damascus and if the attack was perpetrated by the Syrian government then it is a policy akin to the “scorched-earth” gambit of retreating armies over the millennia. It was in the past and is now a sign of acute desperation and implosion dictated as much by panic as by wind-direction. If on the other hand the chemical attack was perpetrated by rebel factions as a “necessary” expedient to orchestrate the international community and particularly the USA into directly intervening in the Syrian conflict, then whatever the outcome of the conflict is the legacy of Zamalka will ensure a perpetuity of recrimination and an abortion of any hope for a better future.

A specific concern in the “problem” of Syria, and indeed most of the middle-east at present, is how the implosion of the traditional tribal strong-arm governance model and the extraordinarily aggressive internecine Islamic confrontation should be tackled. The explosion of a myriad of external professional experts (government, military, human rights organisations, medical and refugee care organisations etc.,) trying to resolve the “problem” creates a problem in itself.

In a 1977 essay entitled Disabling Professions by Ivan Illich, the multi-lingual anarchist philosopher and Roman Catholic priest who died in 2002, Illich wrote that, ‘Professional environments are the last refuge of addicts to remedies.’ I was given the essay by a colleague recently and Illich’s searing condemnation of the abuse of “experts”, within society, where increasingly the ‘value’ of a direct witness to truth is subverted by the professional ‘truth-analyst’ whose hearsay interpretation is given more weight.  

Illich identified at the beginning of the essay the mid-20th C as the ‘Age of Disabling Professions, an age where people had “problems”, experts had “solutions” and scientists measured imponderables such as “abilities” and “needs”.

On a grand scale Syria, and the greater middle-east beyond, is and will be for many years a “refuge of addicts to remedies.” It is now too late to help the people killed by the atrocities in the villages and towns of the Ghouta but it has sharply focused the experts efforts to try and prevent something similar happening again. If the mid-20th C was Illich’s age of Disabling Professions then the early-21st C is the age of the Threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction and of the fears and need for a remedy it creates (or promotes) in our society. The use or implied use of non-nuclear but equally devastating WMDs (nerve gas, biologic agents, weaponised civilian aircraft etc.) has created a need that the experts have addressed by advocating the war in Iraq and entrenching the US imperium under the umbrella of ‘Homeland’ anti-terrorism measures.

I have to admit that I am one of Illich’s “addicts” or medical-science individuals who are remedy-driven and who in identifying a “problem”, or what might be perceived as a negative “outcome” that requires solving, would embark on trying to analyse the factors (blissfully ignoring the very notion of “imponderables” ) that might influence that outcome, and following this analysis then ascribe a certain predictive statistical weight or probability to that factor. In doing so of course I gradually become an expert on “imponderables”, and on the solutions to a newly identified “need” thereby perpetuating the “illusion” that Illich decries.

One of the primary tools of this professional expert-generating analysis is Logistic Regression Analysis, the basis not only of medical science but now also of war games, economic modelling, and estimates of collateral damage.  In its binomial essence death or life, win or lose, wealth or poverty, provide defined outcomes. One good piece of regression analysis research can make someone an 'expert' for life but it flounders when confronted by imponderables.

Syria is a case in point. 

What model can determine the probability that because you are Alawite you will use a weapon of mass destruction? What analysis can incorporate the fact that your religious practices are suspect by orthodox Sunni and main stream Shia alike, that those practices originally developed in secret as a result of the Ottoman Sultan’s Selim I orders to his general Yunus Pasha in 1512, before he set off to confront the Safavid Persian Emperor Ismail I, to exterminate all Alawite and Alevi disciples of the Safaviyya missionaries of 14th C Sadr al-din Musa, in Ottoman territories and that as a consequence 400 years later because of your religion you remained the most-marginalised and economically deprived community within the Ottoman Syria.

What logistic (or even logical ) analysis could have predicted that one of the first acts of the French General Maxime Weygand (himself the bastard son of a General  Van der Smissen and Mélanie Zichy-Mitternich, the lady-in-waiting to Empress Carlota of Mexico, who was brought up by a Jewish family and yet became a strident anti-Jewish enforcer of Vichy France’s German appeasement) on his appointment to the French mandate for Syria following the Treaty of Sevres of the 10 August 1920 was to confirm the secession of the ‘Territory of the Alawites’ in 1923 as a first step to the establishment of the Government of Latakia in 1930. Who can determine the probability effect on the current crisis of the French arming and training the Alawite minority in the 1920s as a foil to the majority Sunni that would ultimately result in highly-trained Alawite army officers such as Hafez al-Assad first joining and then dominating the Syrian Ba’ath Party in the 1960s and Syria thereafter?

Looking west towards the sea over Latakia from the ramparts
of Qalaat Saladin (Saone Castle)

What is almost certain however is that the “experts” who are now contemplating military intervention in Syria have determined the probability of the factors that will influence the yes/no outcome of a  Latakian Independent State (including Tartus where Russia has its only naval base outside of Russia) being declared again where the Alawites and the al-Assad regime, following an inevitable if protracted destruction of the present Syrian state, will retreat to and wait once again. Even for 400years!

Window in the Great Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

It is perhaps completely redundant given the atrocities of last week that any other aspect other than an intervention to prevent further loss of life could be considered but even in the depths of the crisis  there are the imponderables of human existence that regression analysis cannot never fully compute: grace, wisdom, beauty and the deceit of pride. It can only be hoped that the Syrian people will soon have the opportunity to experience these again.


Derham RJ, Hawkins DF, De Vries LS, Aber VR, Elder MG. Outcome of pregnancies complicated by severe hypertension and delivered before 34 weeks; stepwise logistic regression analysis of prognostic factors. British Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology 1989;96(10):1173-81.    

Thursday, August 15, 2013


This evening the sunset leaked its light from low on the horizon underneath the garage door. I was struck by the patterns etched on the concrete floor and wondered whether 'Paddy the Builder' of our house had left a message for eternity. Ogham script is a particular feature on standing stones in the south-west of Ireland and appears particularly associated with a Celtic tribal group that migrated to Ireland in the 1st Century BCE and used as an early alphabet for the Old Irish language.

Real Ogham stones in the collection of UCC, my old University.

Academic Translation


My Fanciful Rough Translation: 

Here (K) is the gathering( cutting/killing) (NG) of the high (neck)(M) branches(I), the branches of the fork(N) of the willow(S).

Friday, August 09, 2013


A few weekends ago in one of the newspaper supplements I read an interview with an author, whose name now escapes me, in which he described the reading patterns in his house where his wife reads a lot of fiction and he does not. He stated categorically that ‘older’ or ‘old men’ do not read ‘stories’. By this he meant fiction, literary or otherwise, and this comment has since haunted my dreams like half-sleep thoughts of a hot ember falling out from a winter fireplace and causing first the shagpile to ignite and then the house itself.

Every writer truly believes that his or her next work will be the best, the affirmation of everything that they have strived for. And this is true for those who have become wealthy by penning a bestseller, or enshrined in literature’s pantheon for having written something worthy or extraordinary, even if remaining penniless. But do they read 'stories' themselves? I wonder whether aging male writers in particular not only stop reading fiction but also stop writing it.

I say this because whenever I begin to think about writing a new book, a book of literary fiction which would be character and plot driven rather than anchored to the minutia of detailed research I struggle to sustain that thought, that intention. Are there any ‘stories’ left to write that have not already been written? Is there an avenue to be explored that has not been trodden on before? Have I lost the will to write ‘stories’ as distinct from commentary?  These blocking thoughts derail me and I return time and time an again to unfinished projects, that have notes attached, with suggestions for further research, further illumination. Well perhaps illumination is too strong an aspiration, it is far more likely to be partial elucidation. 

Yet the thought of the research excites!

By way of a calculation I decided to recall the last nine or ten books I had read for pleasure rather than for any specific research intent. Only two were books of true fiction, Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamasov (which I struggled with and have now given to my brother-in-law) and the other a re-edit and re-issue of a book by Thomas E. Kennedy that I had published for the first time many years ago. It still excited me, for its beautiful writing but also more I think for its itinerary of drinking dives and diving drinkers in Copenhagen than the love story at its heart. Another was a book on Persian food, spotted one day in a local restaurant and then purchased on Amazon, which brought happy memories back of my time in Iran a number of years ago.So much so that I have dispatched a copy of the book to a wonderful Iranian couple who were my guides and friends in Iran. Apart from these and a book on the history of pain relief given to me after a tooth extraction by my dentist a few weeks ago the rest were general histories or travel itineraries with history at their core.

But I have a second chance. With my grandson Leon reaching the stage where he wants ‘stories’ read to him Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, Moby Dick, Swallows & Amazons, Oliver are waiting in the wings for his pleasure … and mine. If he likes those stories then in the reading I will too. And my thoughts of a novel based on the one case of confirmed Human Spontaneous Combustion in September 2011 here in the West will perhaps ignite into actual sense, or even perhaps a love story where the impossible is always possible.