Archive for the 'History' Category

Questionable Time #50


questionable time 50 david dimbleby what the fuck

Good morning Lemmings and I imagine you have some questions about the above Photoshop. Why – for example – is David Dimbleby shirtless? Well let me tell you, I have it on good authority that this is his usual off-screen attire and a common sight around Dimble Towers. What about the burning church? And the kitten in his hand – what’s the deal with that? Ah, that’s because the kitten set the church ablaze and Dimbers is merely conveying the perpetrator to the appropriate authorities. And the shark? Err, the shark’s… Lost?

Alright… I confess. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in this picture but sometimes a man just needs to fire up his computer and place tenuously related visual elements against an apocalyptic background. If that is a crime then hang me. Anyway, enough of this, here’s your precious Questionable Time.

Delingpole let me down…

Another week, another lingering sense of opportunities lost as a Great On Paper panelist turns out to be Not So Great On My Telly. Now, I’d better qualify ‘Great On Paper’ as I don’t want to give the impression that the things he writes on paper are that great (they’re all just a bit ‘Hey guys, it’s not just my politics that are crazy. I’m ZANY as well’), but in terms of QT potential, this guy is solid gold. Does he have a clutch of suitably outlandish views that could animate some of the audience’s more febrile elements? Why yes he does. An ability and willingness to wind up people just for the sake of it? Roger that. How about an unshakeable belief in the veracity of his own claims and a tendency towards self promotion? That’s a big 10-4, good buddy. This, combined with the fact the fact that he managed to enrage most of Twitter with some very ill-advised comments just hours before the show bade well in my book. There would be blood and I intended to submerge myself in it.

Yet here I am, a scant hour after the event, clean, unsullied and conspicuously undrenched in blood. How the hell did this happen? Well, in all honesty it’s not entirely Delingpole’s fault as his naturally adversary, Zoe Williams, didn’t really clock in until the final question, but the fact of the matter is that he was really nervous. And how do I know this? Because as loath that I am to admit it, Delingpole and I share some similarities: We’re both tall, we’re both skinny and our anxiety is kinetic. This means that if we’re bricking it not only do our eyes start darting but our limbs start fidgeting and because of our gangly frames, this tells get amplified in a cartoonish sort of way. That’s not how I knew he was nervous though. No, the real give away was that he tries to hide anxiety in exactly the same way that I do – by conscientiously attempting to locks his frame and spit out responses as fast as humanly possible in the hope that no-one will notice.

So it was that despite the promise of unrestrained provocation I left last night’s episode feeling a little cheated. Sure, he touched base on some of his more out-there ideas (“Fracking, yah…”) but every time you thought he was going to get properly busy with the crazy, his body seized up while his mouth just wibbled. I don’t know, maybe his earlier Twitter balls-up put the jibblies on him but I must say that I’m a little disappointed. On paper, Delingpole has all the form to be a properly off-his-mash 5th panelist – almost like some sort of Reverso-Galloway – but what we got last night was just an overly twitchy blow-hard who was too distracted by his own jitters to foster any real conflict. And what does that deserve? It deserve a gif of a semi-naked James Delingpole as a wind turbine (see Fig. 1)

james-delingpole-wind-turbine-gif

Fig. 1

I never thought I’d say it but I feel a little sorry for Warsi….

You could say many things about the pre-reshuffle Warsi – overly headstrong, a little rash, prone to overplaying her hand – but at least she paid dividends in the entertainment sector and lent the show an air of unpredictability. The post-reshuffle Warsi though? Meh, I’m not so sure. She just seems a little muted, a little timid, a little too afraid of her own mouth to embark on those wild little hidings-to-nothing that made her so fun to watch in the past. Mind you, I have to admit that despite her rather transparent habit of hiding behind a garbled narrative (‘Rather than actually answer a question on Mali, why don’t I just blurt out a rough chronology of events AT A MILLION MILES AN HOUR?’), she didn’t stick her foot in it once last night and I guess that has to be worth something. I believe five points is the going rate.

A quiet reminder from Alan Johnson…

…I’m still here. I’ve held one of the big offices of state, I’m strangely untainted by New Labour’s less glorious episodes and I’ve still got that potent mix of humble origins and endearing self-deprecation. Just sayin’ Mr Milband, just sayin’…

And of the others?

As I said earlier, Zoe Williams didn’t really hit her stride until the end of the show but I think she can be forgiven in this respect as it was an odd clutch of questions in areas that she doesn’t particularly hold a candle for. However, when it did get on to her turf (Nick Clegg sending his kids to private school in this case) she came up with the goods and lo, the crowd did clap. Talking of clapping, the biggest winner on that front last night was Dom Joly who niftily maneuvered himself into the yawning gap left by a nonplussed Williams and a freaking out Delingpole. While I was disappointed that none of the claps were the direct result of either swan dives or oversized mobile phones, I can’t really argue with the people of Lancaster. Well, I could but bitter experience has shown that picking fights with entire municipalities rarely ends my way.

Tl;dr

Warsi: 5/10

(Appears) Hush (ed)

Johnson: 6/10

(Is the subject of a minor political) Crush (for me)

Delingpole: 4/10

(Was in an awful) Rush

Joly: 6/10

(Got dealt a straight) Flush

Williams: 6/10

Brush(ed off the cobwebs at the end of the show)

The Crowd: 5/10

(Fear) Thrush?


Well, would you look at that… Questionable Time #50… Surely some cause for celebration, no? Alas, owing to a troubled history of naming conventions this is technically Questionable Time #98 so the Cava will just have to stay in its tamper-proof enclosure for now. In two weeks time though we’re talking Cava AND crisps! Don’t stop me now Lemmings…

Next week Lemmings, next week…

Loudribs Curmudgeonry Corner Solemn Farewell To The Decade Without An Adequate Name…


Big old phrenology head full of fear and a silly hat

Hats FTW

Good morning and ‘Merry’ Yule, Lemmings. I’ve been racking my brains for a while, trying to come up with some sort of ‘end of decade’ post that would sum up the general state of perplexity that abounds, but short of jumping on the ‘list’ bandwagon (I think Cracked have got that covered) ideas were far from abundant. Earlier today however, I remembered something. A few months ago, I was manning a stall at a freshers fair at a large university. I was there on the company dime, all in the name of mental health promotion (which to those unfamiliar with the practice involves not only singing to choir, but doing so in a purpose built echo chamber whilst simultaneously webcasting it directly in their brains on an infinite loop). There was nothing unusual about the fair (aside from the Live Role Play Society giving a demo outside….things have changed since I was a student) which was essentially a Free Stationary Drive. But about 2 hours in, I had a chilling thought: “These guys were 10 when 9-11 happened”. Back when I was 10, we lived in a pretty self-satisfied world. The commies had thrown in the towel, history was over, Saddam was about to get a reality check and in the process set the tone of wars to come (largely bloodless, provided you’re on our side) while the excesses of Thatcherism were set to be replaced by the comfortable malaise of the Major years. Any clouds on the horizon spelt only scattered showers or maybe welcome shade from the frighteningly bright sun that appeared to be shining out of our arse’s (OK, I’m wantonly exaggerating, as we shall see later, but allow me this brief flight of fancy). Not so for this year’s crop of the Indebted Best and Maxed Out Brightest, for they came of age in a decade marked by one overriding factor: Anxiety.

I feel comfortable on the territory of anxiety. Not only am I a born worrier but I’ve also managed to make a living out of it so no matter how much it takes out of me, at least I get a pay cheque at the end of the month. However, I am alarmed by how anxious we are as a culture and the extent to which it has permeated every facet of our society. As a nation, we worry: We worry about how good we are at this, at how we’ve failed at that, about the damned uncertainty of it all and our impotence to do anything about it. We are fed on a diet of expectations we cannot meet, guidelines we cannot follow, and threats we can neither substantiate nor dismiss. You don’t need letters at the end of your name to figure out that none of this is a particularly healthy way to live, which in turn begs the question, “How the hell did we end up here”?

Before embarking on this exercise, perhaps it’s worth looking back at the world we came from because within it lies a paradox. Let’s start by turning the clock back to 1940. Britain is at war with an enemy who have proved themselves to be a) not fucking about and b) bloody good at fighting wars. America is dragging its heels, Russia have written themselves out of the game (for now) and more people are killed in a single night in Coventry than servicemen and women have died in the last 8 years of continuous war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The threat of national starvation is a real and worrying concern and conscription means that even if you, personally are out of harms way, someone you care for won’t be. To be sure, there was a great deal of anxiety around (fear of death, fear of loss, fear of subjugation, etc) but in a sense, that was a good thing as anxiety can be a blessing as well as a curse. When rendered in its purest form anxiety allows us to remain vigilant when we need it most. It allows our bodies to perform feats they are otherwise incapable of and on a sociological level it can be a great force for unity, galvanising us to act for a greater good. You can see it in the accounts and recollections of veterans: To be sure, there were moments of abject horror and scenes of indescribable carnage, but the overall picture we take from these years (propaganda, stiff-upper-lip and rose tinted glasses not withstanding) is one of shared purpose, a society greater than the sum of its parts and a good fight fought. Those that participated even got the honour of flaky sociologist naming them as The Greatest Generation.

Fast forward to 1963 and a different but not entirely alien picture emerges. On the one hand, Earth is poised on the brink of Armageddon. The two superpowers have amassed the most terrible stockpile of diabolical weapons and all that stands between Joe Public and a Fallout 3-esque wasteland is a shaky understanding that neither side really wants this. In fact, only a year earlier, the world was bought to the brink of total destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis that was only averted by desperate brinkmanship by the leadership of both sides. If you want something to worry about (and herein lies the paradox), I guess this is as big as it comes. Yet again though, this doesn’t appear to be a society racked with worry. There was a confidence on both sides of the Atlantic that things were getting better and that in many ways humanity was reaching an apex in its achievements. This was the year that Harold Wilson gave his ‘white heat of technology’ speech, Martin Luther King his ‘I have a dream’ and the great powers signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. On less dramatic fronts, there were other reasons for hope. Britain was becoming more equal and the stuffiness of post war society began to loosen up as the Beatles geared up for their assault on the world of popular culture. JFK’s assassination bought some rain to the parade late in the day, but in the face of the most titanic threat earth has ever seen, people managed to keep their shit together and even enjoy themselves. Again, there are caveats: To think everyone was swimming in a giant tub of happiness is clearly untrue and the very understanding of the term ‘anxiety’ at the time was very different to the over-pathologised version we used today. Doubtlessly, much was swept under the carpet with the blanket use of Valium, but in many respects it was a far mentally healthier period of time to grow up in.

Alas, all good things come to an end and by the turn of the decade the world was looking a lot less rosy. The cheery optimism of the early 60’s had been bludgeoned to death in the paddies of South East Asia, the streets of Memphis and in front of the stage at Altamont. While the headline event of Mutually Assured Destruction chuntered relentlessly away in the background, something more subtle was afoot in the way we view ourselves. On the one hand, the Hippy movement (though well intentioned) released the genie of individualism out of the bottle while at the same time the medical profession set about turning the world of mental health into something they thought could be ordered, categorised and treated. I’m not going to go into too much detail here because it’s already been comprehensively and brilliantly covered by Adam Curtis in both The Trap: Whatever Happened To Our Dreams Of Freedom and The Century Of The Self. If you haven’t watched them already, stop wasting your time reading this clap-trap and get amongst it. The long and short of it though was that the 70’s were the seed from which the world we recognise today grew. It was a decade characterised by paranoia, economic crisis, dented pride and a new found pessimism. The collective bonds that had done so much to hold everything together in the face of real and imminent danger were strained to breaking point and society was left adrift, buffeted by forces it couldn’t quite get it’s head round. This confused, lost decade finally groped its way to its inevitable conclusion with the Winter of Discontent in 78/79 and from its ashes rose the oddest phoenix: Thatcherism.

Thatcherism was never a certainty and had it not been for an opportune war, the chances were that the project as we know it now would have been stillborn. That aside, it does mark one of the greatest social upheavals in living memory. The old orthodoxy of ‘society’ as we knew it was turned on its head and was replaced by a collection of individuals, each with their own agenda and a god given mandate to fulfil their own desires. Things we had taken for granted as ‘ours’ (water, electricity, railways, etc) suddenly weren’t and a new cockiness seeped into the national discourse. Gone was the certainty of the ‘cradle to grave’ state and in was the law of the jungle, red in tooth and claw. But perhaps the biggest change was the most imperceptible: Class. Prior to this period, you were born in a bracket and there you died. What Thatcherism did (and it’s bloody clever) was not abolish class (the Tories were still as Blue Blooded as they had ever been) but to spin a mirage that it no longer mattered. There were some real changes at ground level (like the ability to buy council houses, a policy that we are still living with the consequences of) but the real meat of the matter occurred at a far more profound level. To the average citizen, it was no longer about the constraints of birth or the bondage of heritage that stopped one form advancing because Thatcher had declared these concepts obsolete. Instead the spotlight swung to glare directly on the individual: If YOUR lot is shitty it’s because YOU didn’t do anything about it. WE’VE given YOU the tools so the ball of failure is in YOUR court. Keep this in mind because it’s important and I’m going to be talking a lot more about it in the next part.

In practice, Thatcherism had two faces. To some, it represented a golden age where the individual, free from the constraints of an overbearing state, could apply themselves and reap the rewards. To the hordes of City traders, The Big Bang marked the death of the frail and infirm Britain of 70’s and ushered a brave new world where the sky was the limit. To a great many more people, it was an utter disaster. The safety nets that had made the 70’s bearable for those less fortunately were savagely cut and the idea that the state had anything other than the most basic duty of care was left to whither on the vine. More importantly, the glue of society was coming unstuck. As deprived communities struggled to keep their heads above water, the very bonds that kept them together weakened. Family breakdown, the lack of secure work and the rise of social ills such as heroin abuse rose steadily while the old touchstones of solidarity such as unions and churches lost their influence and began to perish. However, there was a unifying thread that ran through both these aspects and that was uncertainty. For those at the bottom of the pile, there was the knowledge that they had been effectively forgotten and from here on in, they were at the mercy of the gods. For those who were living the high life, there was still a voice at the back of their heads saying “if this goes sideways, we’re screwed” and a tacit understanding that the very system that created their wealth could also destroy it. As it turned out, a great many were screwed and as Thatcher departed Downing Street, recession set in and many of those who had rushed towards the mirage in hope of quenching their thirst found only sand. Thatcher was followed by Major who did precisely fuck all (oh no, wait…I forgot about the Cones Hotline) and it looked like the dream was over. Labour was resurgent and a great many of us hoped that their entrance would herald a redressing of the balance. The first three years of Labour certainly did provide some sunshine and a feeling that things could be better, but it was a fleeting moment that masked the arrival of a bizarre chimera that would dictate the terms for the next decade, New Labour.

I’ve been very scathing of New Labour in the past and while this is a giant ball of cathartic fun, I do admit that it’s all too easy. However, to really get to grips with how their project turned out to be as weird as it did, you have to look at the conditions from which it rose. Only then can you trace the line to the consequences we live with today. During the mid-nineties it was clear that the right had the ideological high ground. Labour had failed to make any significant gains in three subsequent elections and despite a hard core of traditional supporters it was clear that they couldn’t fight on their own terms any more. Any appeal to public sentiment that the current system was flawed were met with howls from the opposing benches that the solution they had in mind was no better. You want to redistribute wealth? Well, I hope you like uncontrollable inflation. You want people to have a greater say in their working lives? Then I hope you like being held hostage by the unions and their vested interests. In short, they were flogging a dead horse. The solution, it seemed was to play the Tories at their own game, yield ground where they had to, accept the bulk of the Thatcherite consensus but reconcile that with their reason d’etre by trying to nudge the debate in the direction of social justice and a more equitable deal for the many (the mythical Third Way). This strategy required sacrifices that were very hard for some to swallow, such as the abolition of Clause 4, but the result had the desired effect. Labour became electable (and not only electable, but landslide-electable). On the face of it, that was the heavy lifting done with. We’ve got the keys right? So let’s lets drive this baby as far left as we can! Wrong. Once in power, New Labour became paralysed by a fear of losing it again and a strange new breed of politics began its ascent: The politics of managerialism.

Labours astonishing success at the polls was bought about because they had been willing to give up some very deep rooted ideas in the hope that the end (a more equal and socially just country) justified the means. However, that experience had a lasting effect on the party and over time it was the means (obtaining and sustaining power) that became the end. I doubt whether this was a conscious decision (I’m a big fan of headless conspiracies) but the end result was that Labour was a hostage to its own success. From here on in, their modus operandi was triangulation (whenever confronted by two opposing viewpoints, go straight down the middle) and politics was no longer about a battle of big ideas and more a glorified beauty contest. So, for example, if public opinion seems to be drifting left, then that’s where we shall go. If it drifts right, there too we shall follow. On the face of it, there is not a great deal to dislike about this approach as at the end of the day, the majority of people are getting what they want. That’s democracy, right? In theory, yes, but the one thing the theory didn’t take into account were the quirks of the UK’s electoral system. Because we use an outdated and frankly lunatic way of electing politicians, the actual outcome of elections are decide by a relative handful of people in marginal constituencies, most of which fall broadly in the category of ‘Middle Britain’. As a result, these people (who tend to be inclined to the right)  have enormous political clout, their own mouthpiece (the Daily Fail) which sold papers by invoking spectres and demons and then berating the government for not doing enough about them (creating an unholy feedback loop). Labour were well aware that if they didn’t keep theses people onside, they’d lose the next election and all the sacrifice would be for nowt. Thus Labour turned its back on it’s political heritage and became little more than an electioneering machine, constantly trying to protect it’s flanks for fear of failure. You can still see it today, as we shift through the ashes of an economic crisis, bought about Thatcherite economics, that they still can’t bring themselves to depart from the script. Fear does funny things to people.

So there’s the backdrop. How, you may ask, has this got anything to do with us being a uniquely anxious society? A lot, so far as I’m concerned. Allow me to elaborate. I worked for three years as an NHS therapist specialising in mild to moderate mental health problems. During that time, I estimate I treated around 450 different individuals, a large proportion of which (perhaps a majority) presented with anxiety related problems. In a very unscientific nutshell, these people could be lumped in to a 3 of broad categories.

1) Those who were anxious because something horrible had happened to them or that they had seen something horrible. This is pretty standard stuff and it’s a case of your body doing what its supposed to, just with too much gusto. Most of the time, you could help them, things would get better and they could chalk up whatever it was that bought them there to life being a bastard at times.

2) Those who, for want of a better word, had shit lives. Be it an alcoholic partner, unemployed for 18 years, whatever, there were aspects of their lives that were crap and as a consequence, they felt crap. Sometimes you could help take the edges off the nastiness of it all and sometimes you could even present them with a picture of a better life. Quite often, you couldn’t and they tended to float around the system, bouncing from therapeutic post to the next.

3) Those, whose lives were completely unremarkable or sometimes even quite good by regular standards, yet who were beset with inner turmoil for reasons that they could not comprehend. These are the ones I want to focus on.

Predominately, but by no means exclusively, they were young (early-20’s to early-40’s), well educated, conscientious and at first, their problems were just as perplexing to me as they were to them (they certainly weren’t covered in my whistle-stop training but that’s a different story altogether). However, after a year or so in the job, I began to see some common threads running through their cases and in some respects, I recognised them from my own life. One thing that struck me was that there lifestyles weren’t usually extravagant, but neither were they impoverished. In fact, when compared to historical and international examples, their lot was good. But that wasn’t the full story. While it was true that grinding poverty wasn’t the issue, much of what they had was built on very shaky foundations. They were often homeowners who had bought completely overpriced housing on easy credit and much of their lifestyle was financed by similar tenuous arrangements. When asked whether they needed all this stuff, the answer would usually be “No”. So why did they do it? This stuff wasn’t exactly necessary and many of them were either racked with guilt at having it or somewhat stressed by the inescapable thought that one day they would have to square the bill. The answer was invariably that they thought this is what they ‘should’ be doing. This is what life ‘should’ look like.

Hand in hand with these confusing notions of material worth was their own self worth. As I mentioned earlier, many of these people were very well meaning, thoughtful people who wanted to be liked and wanted to be useful. A frighteningly large proportion of them were also teachers and in many respects, they pegged their own merit against what they perceived as how ‘good’ they were in their chosen field. Now, anyone who worked in the public sector during New Labour’s long reign will be familiar with the following:

Everyday, I go to work and try to do the best I can. I teach a class of kids who don’t want to be taught, I don’t have the resources to do the job and every day I live in fear of being found out. When OFSTED time approaches, I don’t sleep. I can’t. I think about what they’ll find and the fact that I haven’t met target X or benchmark Y. I’ve done everything I can, but it’s not enough. I’m just a shit teacher and I’ve failed myself and my students.”

In the cold light of day, this appears to be a nonsense statement. It’s hardly their fault that the system is too rigid to allow for circumstance or that the decisions that set the targets were carried out in a parallel universe astride the Thames? The problem is that truth is subjective and if that’s how the truth feels, that’s what the truth is. These problems weren’t just confined to the sphere of work either. People would constantly fret that they were drinking too much, that they hadn’t had there 5-a-day, that they watched far too much telly even though they were in great physical shape and their lifestyles were generally very balanced. New Labour’s preoccupation with securing its political flanks from a hostile and at times irresponsible press (who are equally, if not more culpable) had grave consequences for some people. Throw into the mix the various paedo/terror/cancer/binge drinking hullabaloos, a freaky cult of celebrity and nation in awe of consumerism and you have yourself a heady mix indeed.

Another part of the problem were their own standards. If you always aim for 100%, you are always going to fail. I could help with that a little, but it was only half the battle. There were some other specific problems. We, as a nation have grown accustomed to the notion that once we reach a certain level of success, our lifestyle should change to reflect this. However, this has become untenable in an age when nearly a third of young people end up in university but here there are precious few jobs available that reflect that level of education. What were once the trappings of an elite are now heading towards commodity status, but our perception of how we should reflect this hasn’t caught up yet. As Orwell once said “Here I am, for instance, with a bourgeois upbringing and a working-class income. Which class do I belong to?”. To large extent, cheap credit has managed to fill this yawning cognitive gap, but it’s a fragile and temporary solution that will one day (very soon, I believe) run out of road.

The other problem was much deeper and it is the part that connects the political to the personal. All their lives, these people were told that they could achieve their dreams, that constraints were purely self inflicted and that hard graft would always result in success. This is a lie. A pernicious and dangerous lie that fails to take into account that life isn’t geared that way. The truth of the matter is that we can’t all be winners. The maths simple doesn’t work. But the difference between now and 50 years ago is where the blame lies. Back then, if you weren’t from a background that gave you opportunities, the chances were you wouldn’t really go anywhere and would end up pretty much where you started. That is somewhat tragic, but there is some compensation in the fact that you are not the victim of your own design. “It was life wot did it”. If Thatcherism has left us with one overriding legacy, it is this and it is neither helpful nor healthy.

So what is to be done? The government know there is a problem (they got a Lord to look into it) and have convinced themselves that something must be done, partly because that will generate huge savings from the benefit bill. Their solution is the snappily named IAPT or Increasing Access To Psychological Therapies programme and it aims to provide a staggering 10’000 extra therapists to salve our tortured minds. Having survived a fair few DoH mental health policy drives myself, I have grave misgivings about how it’s all going to work, but that’ll have to wait for another time. The main point about IAPT is that it totally misses the point. It simply serves to patch the holes and mop the brow of mischiefs largely inflicted by a wonky system. What does need tackling is the way we think about ourselves, as people, as a society, as a culture. Some of that will mean curbing some nasty habits (like our addiction to stuff) and facing some hard truths (that admitting that the way we live now is probably not a great way of doing things) and finally get back into the business of ideas. Not ideas about how we can offer A World Class Customer Experience That Cements Our Reputation As A World Leader In Field Of Bollocks or Innovative Solutions To The Challenges Posed By An Economy That Rides Upon A Chariot Of Bullshit. We need to start think about the big things again, stuff that really matters. If we don’t, we’ll only have ourselves to blame when we’re still ‘documentaries’ about Peaches Geldof in 2019.

Happy New Decade y’all.

Loudribs Curmudgeonry Current Affairs Corner


1st Battalion, Internetz Regiment, yeah?

1st Battalion, Internetz Regiment, yeah?

Another day, another turgid outpouring of near random anger. Today, ladies and gents, it is the lucky old war in Afghanistan that gets to have a bunch of my bile slowly dribbled all over it. To be fair, that’s the least of their problems but being one never to miss an opportunity to make a bad situation worse, I feel obliged to get stuck in with a good old surge of nay-saying.

Alright, let’s get this show on the road. By their very nature, wars are messy affairs that often blur the lines between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and consequently need mythologising the fuck out of if they are going to go anywhere. Sometimes the myths work really well and we all get to pat each other on the back in the name of a ‘good’ war while thousands die untimely deaths as a result of stuff they had absolutely no control over. Fig. 1 in ‘The Good War Fun Book’ is WWII for the following reasons:

A) We really didn’t start that one. Further to that, the guy who did start it seemed to really enjoy being Global Dickhead #1.

B) We won…it’s really hard to have a ‘good war’ without winning.

C) By the time we did win, we had uncovered some of the most unholy bullshit ever perpetrated which lends a whole load of credibility to the ‘good war’ claim.

D) Our armed forces appeared to be composed of wholesome stereotypes (like the Cock-er-ny Tommies whistling ‘Knees-Up Muvver Brahhhn’ and “Gawd blessing” ‘er Majesty as they march off to certain death or the unflappable, pipe-chomping chaps from the home counties who quaintly understate everything before unleashing several tonnes of high explosives over a civilian area).

E) You can legitimately claim that the war fell into the category of ‘Battle for Existence’. I mean Hitler wasn’t really pissing about, was he?

Of course, if you scratch the surface a little, then things aren’t quite that simple. The bombing of Dresden doesn’t fit in quite so well with the glorious narrative we grew up with and to think it was only the bad guys who committed war crimes is plain old wishful thinking. However, those are the things that history tends to gloss over and our enduring memory is of how we bailed Jonny Europe out of a tight spot and thus gave the Daily Mail an Unlimited Ammo cheat code for the next 60 years of bitching about foreigners. So there’s World War 2. File it under ‘G’ for ‘Good’.

At the other end of the spectrum is your ‘Bad War’ and although many start out in popular perception as ‘Good Wars’, it usually isn’t too long before they’re quickly shunted over to the ‘Bad’ pile and then consigned to fester on history’s naughty step. The First Opium War is a great example (and one of many outstandingly ‘Bad’ British wars) for the following reasons.

A)    We really did start that one. The Chinese were happily minding their own business when the British took it upon themselves to sell shitloads of opium to the Chinese people. When the Chinese government understandable took umbrage to this turn of events, we killed over 22’000 of them and nicked Hong Kong. Yoink!

B)    OK, we didn’t lose that one (in fact, we won pretty convincingly) but      it was a case of the school bully beating seven bells out of the fat and slow kid who isn’t allowed to do PE because his mum won’t let him.

C)    We didn’t exactly act too sorry about it all, even though it was pretty clear that we had been utter cads. The Chinese didn’t get Hong Kong back for another 150 years.

D)    Although the soldiers were still generally stereotypically wholesome, the government that sent them to war certainly didn’t end up looking too rosy and the war divided the nation.

E)    There’s absolutely no fucking way you play the old ‘Battle for Existence’ card with this baby. Seriously, a war to ensure the future of our narcotic distribution infrastructure and the profits that go with it? Pull the other one.

So clearly, this ends up as a ‘Bad War’. And herein lies one of the many problems with Afghanistan: No one has been able to file it properly. Some want it in the Good pile, some in the Bad, but no one has been able to convince enough people that it’s one or the other. Being creatures who like to deal in certainties, this puts us in an uncomfortable position, like fancying a BNP member or harbouring a taste for human flesh. Although I’ve been quite firmly at the Bad end of the spectrum, it’s fair to say that it’s never been a crystal clear position and part of that is down to the fact that we’ve never been able to get a handle as to what this war is all about.

When the war kicked off in 2001, the rationale seemed pretty clear. The alleged mastermind of 9-11 was being sheltered by the government of Afghanistan and I think it’s fair to say that although quite a few of us had some misgivings, opinion in general was that America needed its pound of flesh and if that meant a bunch of Afghan civilians getting caught in the crossfire, then so be it (or as the sublime ‘Get Your War On’ put it, “You can’t make a freedom omelette without breaking a few human rights eggs”). Britain, wedded as ever to the ‘Special Relationship’ (shorthand for “We don’t have an independent foreign policy”) signed up without argument and I think it’s safe to say that most people felt comfortable in putting into the Good War bracket.  And there it would have stayed, if only Bin Laden had been good enough to be easily captured, the Taliban capitulated without a fight and a vibrant democracy spontaneously bloomed in a nation with very little history of central government.

What actually transpired was a somewhat different kettle of fish. Bin Laden (the cad) managed to evade the most powerful military on earth while the Taliban went to ground and started a bloody insurgency that lasts to this day. Not only that, but it started to become clear that the original pretext wasn’t quite as plausible as it seemed. For starters, people started to point out that the vast majority of those involved with 9-11 were Saudi’s and perhaps we were barking up the wrong tree. No one doubted that Bin Laden was a de-facto war criminal, but did that really justify the tearing apart of a nation that was only really implicated by association (not mention the fact that he probably wasn’t in Afghanistan at all and more likely over the border in Pakistan)? Also, Rumsfeld’s brand of warmongering (which can be described as ‘on the cheap’) was running out of road as it became clear that you need more than a couple of divisions to build a nation from scratch. And just to top it all off, NATO as a whole was also looking decidedly unimpressed with the way things were shaping up. From their point of view, this should have been a quick smash-and-grab with everyone home in time for tea and cake. While the ‘smashing’ component went terrifyingly well, the ‘grab’ aspect was found to be somewhat more elusive. From this angle, the Good War hypothesis was starting to look shaky. Luckily, a distraction was at hand in the shape of the Iraq War (which, I’m pretty sure, will forever be in the Bad War pile) and as we all ohhhhh-ed and ahhhhhhh-ed at the fireworks of Shock and Awe, Afghanistan proceeded to slip inexorably down the news agenda and festered away like an angry sore.

By 2006, the grim realization that this democracy lark wasn’t doing what it said on the on the tin began to set in and the war entered a new phase. Concerned that large tracts of the south effectively belonged to the Taliban and their copious cash crops of opium, NATO decided that more troops were needed with the hotspots of Helmand and Kandahar falling under the purview of the UK and Canadian forces respectively. Cue John Reed’s now infamous ‘without a shot being fired’ speech (OK, so he might not have really that but the last I heard, British forces had got through 12 million rounds) and much talk of hearts and minds. However, the reality turned out to be far more grizzle. The Taliban, far from being a rag-tag militia, turned out to be Central Asia’s Society of Double Hard Bastards who flat out refused to play war by western rules (i.e. standing about in the open, waiting to be airstruck the fuck out of). Recruitment was hardly a problem for them either, what with NATO’s fondness for bombing wedding parties and the Afghan’s government excellence in the field of corruption. Furthermore, attempts to cut off their cash supply by torching opium fields simply made the problem even worse by driving otherwise sympathetic civilians into the arms of the Taliban. Three years on and things are worse. ‘Victory’ is as far off as it is ever has been, but the level of killing has accelerated. What was once a conflict on the fringe, playing second fiddle to the spectacle in Iraq is now in voters living room every night, a relentless drip-drip of tragedy that shows no sign of abating. The narrative is in serious trouble as well. The ‘avenging 9-11’ line no longer has any purchase and anyone with half a brain can see that the ‘fighting them there, not here’ argument is of the purest bullshit. As a result, governments have had to fall back on ‘nation-building’ and ‘counter-narcotics’ arguments to try and shore up the ebbing support for the war, but the line doesn’t match the reality of elections where no-one votes and heroin that’s as available as it’s ever been. The grim reality is that we’re now in a similar position to that of the Vietnam War in ’69. Everybody knows the reasoning is bollocks and destined to failure, but somehow we can’t admit that to ourselves andend up throwing away lives to save face on the world stage. But that can’t go on for ever. At some point, something has to give and we will withdraw. The government know that. They just can’t let that happen on their watch. In short, it’s a clusterfuck. A giant clusterfuck that’s heading firmly to the ‘Bad’ pile.

OK, well done: That’s the history bit over and done with (sort of). Now to the serious business of bile and its venting. As a nation, it seems that we have absolutely no concept of what war is. Look out your window right now. Is there a war on? Do you feel like part of a ‘war-effort’? Do you wake up in the morning terrified by what the news will bring today? I’m guessing that you don’t because unless you happen to know someone deployed in Afghanistan, you have nothing to fear. This is in stark contrast to the people in Afghanistan who really do know what fear is. It’s a night letter from the Taliban or a raid by NATO troops. It’s the sound of a jet plane, unloading death as it passes, all of this paid for by you. For all the talk of ‘smart weapons’ and ‘precision strikes’, the currency of war is still the same as it ever was. It’s dead kids. It’s grieving mothers. It’s lives destroyed and burning homes. You don’t see too much of that on the breakfast news.

On top of this is our perverse attitude towards the military. We seem to have this grotesque duality in our dealings with them where we laud their bravery and heroics (bizarrely illustrated by the macabre and, I suspect, media engineered circus that is Wooton-Basset), yet we (and New Labour) treat them like civil servants whose role is to do our governments bidding just so long as they promise not to get killed. Well I’ve got news for you. War doesn’t work like that. Take the helicopter shitstorm for instance. Men and women are being killed in Afghanistan because the Taliban mine the roads. Some would say (myself included) that that is what happens when you invade a sovereign nation, but that is by-the-by. In response, the media (encouraged by the Conservatives) whips up a sweaty fuss about choppers and vehicles designed, it seems, to batter the prime minister and score some cheap points. ‘Outrage’ ensues and the 6 o’Clock News is littered with vox pops of red faced shoppers, deploring the governments decision to send our boys to war without the right kit while generals are conjured up to confirm that they want more of this or that (which is, of course, their job….do you seriously think that if you asked a general “Hey there Big Hat, want some more shit hot toys to blow the crap out of stuff with?” he’s going to say ‘”No, that’s quite alright, old chap. Plenty to be getting on with and all that.”?). The fundamental point missing in all this is a tolerance for the grim fact that if you send people to war, a lot of them are not going to come back. You can rock up in god damn 100 ft Japanese robot battle suits that shoot lasers out of it’s adamantium maw, but give it enough time and someone will figure out how to blow them up. Instead of engaging with this reality and thinking about just why the fuck it is we’re there in the first place, we hide ourselves in blame games, angrily jabbing at the screen with pointed fingers whilst denying that we, as a nation, are in a hell of our own making. We need to start making like the Canadians and set a date for withdrawal.

OK. I feel better now. I’m filing this sorry page of history under a resounding ‘B’ for ‘Bad’. If you fancy reading some hefty tomes on this sort of thing, I wholeheartedly recommend Robert Fisk’s The Great War For Civilisation, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Towers, Richard A. Clarke’s Against All Enemies and Seymour Hersch’s Chain of Command. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to killing some dusky looking fellows on Call Of Duty 4. Hypocrite? Moi?

Loudribs History Corner Special Part 3: This Time It’s War


It's a holiday in Mongolia, it's tough kid but it's life...

It's a holiday in Mongolia, it's tough kid but it's life...

….and we’re back….again. Sorry for the delay in posting this third and final part, but I had to move house. It was a saga, an ordeal, a trial no less and I now vow never to move again. I shall die, right here, where I’m sitting now, tormented by the memories of what I am about impart. That’s right. It’s time. Time for some crazy.

We left the Baron last time happily ensconces in his own playground of madness (Dauria), joyfully torturing all those unlucky enough to be near him and generally making one of histories most horrific episodes all the more appalling. However, things weren’t quite as rosy as they seemed. The Red Army was finally getting its shit together and by 1920, they were starting to hammer the Whites in Siberia. While his comrades-in-arms (in the loosest possible sense) soon found themselves staring down the wrong end of righteous vengeance, the Baron began to develop other plans. Plans that would raise the bar in the batshit stakes a fair few notches.

The unwitting subjects in this unholy project were the inhabitants of Mongolia, a large but backwards country, sandwiched unenviably between China and Russia. Just looking at the map, it’s pretty easy to see why Mongolia falls into the category of histories Shit Out Of Luck countries, much akin to the likes of Poland and Belgium. Over the years, its two large and belligerent neighbours had generally interfered, meddled and invaded from time-to-time while poor old Mongolia appeared to be tottering around the world stage with a massive geopolitical ‘KICK ME’ sign taped to its back. While it had somehow managed to gain a few years of independence, by 1920 the Chinese were demanding it hand over its dinner money and sent troops in to restore their authority. Ungern, sensing that things were going sideways in Siberia resolved that not only would it be great fun to put a stop to these shenanigans, it would also serve as a launch pad for his wider goals of, you know, restoring monarchs to the throne left, right and centre whilst simultaneously ensuring that the working classes were bloody well put in their place. Oh, and I think he also penciled in wiping out as many Jews as he could…..just for a good measure. With this in mind, he gathered 2500 men and set off to conquer Mongolia….as one does.

Ungern, at this point, was looking pretty damn fruity.  Observers at the time reported that he had a “disconcerting habit of skipping into battle” (tra-la-la!) and had taken to wearing some suitably ‘ethnic’ garb (robes that resembled “a yellow dressing gown” apparently). Like all good warmongers, the Baron went to the trouble of consulting a fortune teller before marching off to war and was delighted to hear that October the 26th, 1920, was “an auspicious” day to attack the capital, Urga. Armed with this precious knowledge and an unshakable faith in the rantings of charlatans he promptly started his attack but then, rather disappointingly, got lost. 5 days later he tried again, but this time got a thorough thrashing from the Chinese garrison and was forced to retreat to a place in the middle of wtf-istan called Zam Kuren. Unable to overthrow the Chinese and wary of return to a fast imploding Siberia, Ungern was left with no choice but to spend the winter with his army in the frozen wastes of Outer Mongolia.

Generally speaking, armies work best when they are paid, fed and have some sort of purpose. During the winter of 1920/21, they had precisely none of these things and were forced to live a feral existence in one of the world’s least hospitable areas. Luckily, the Barons despotic skill set was ideally suited to the task in hand and he lost no time in instigating a regime of such brutal and bizarre punishments that his men would rather freeze/starve/atrophy to death than take a chance at legging it. His own unique brand of discipline at this particular junction warrants further attention. His first move was to get rid of useless mouths so he had his Medical Bastard In General kill anyone who looked a bit too sick. If ever there was incentive to turn up to work if you were feeling a bit peaky, this was it. He also made sure that he, personally, was seen to be putting in the hours. To this end, he would walk around the camp, looking for people he didn’t like the look of and then lash them with bamboo canes. 100 Lashes was classed as ‘mild’. One guy, who had sense enough to desert, but not sense enough to ensure he didn’t get caught was lashed 50 times daily for 10 days. He was then sent to hospital so he could recover enough for more lashing. This went for 20 months until he finally went insane. Just in case that wasn’t brutal enough for you, he had some further incomprehensible punishments up his sleeve. Top of the list was ‘tree-sitting’. This involved getting the poor sod in question to stand at the top of a tree for a whole night. If they fell (which I’m guessing was quite likely) and hurt themselves, they would be shot for being useless. If they were lucky, that would be the end of it, but as past form suggests, it probably wasn’t and for those who were deemed not have presented their pound of flesh, there were further tree-based horrors, chiefly amongst them execution by tree. I bet that’s got you thinking “how the hell do you execute someone with a tree? Throw it at their heads? Roll a tree trunk over them?” Close, but no cigar. In what seems to be a precursor to the cartoon violence of Tom And Jerry the Baron would have his men bend back a tree, bind the victim to it and then let it go, tearing the unfortunate  limb-from-limb. If I was him, I’d sue the fuck out of Tex Avery for unpaid future royalties. Oh, and he was very fond of “execution by fire”.

I mentioned last time that the Baron had, at this point, cleaned up his act a little and had quit drinking (but had taken up opium instead…just in case you were getting worried). Much like modern day reformed-smoker Nazis who zealously persecute their former comrades with theatrical splutterings and sanctimonious lectures, Ungern decided to take the moral high ground and reserve some extra special punishment for anyone found to be drunk in his army. Those unlucky enough to get busted were stripped naked and left on frozen rivers for a few nights with only raw meat to eat. Even a turning up to work with a hangover was enough to land you a whole load of bizarro bullshit. A bunch of officers who did just this were forced to stand to attention all night whilst continuously reciting their names and ranks. With a hangover. Cold blooded. Yet despite all these elaborate and frankly ridiculous punishments, the Baron still reserved the fondest place in his heart for good, honest, flogging. He loved it and marveled that “a man can still walk when the flesh and bone are separated”. It’s good to be passionate about what you do.

As you can imagine, being in Ungern’s Army in the winter of 1920 totally sucked. Yet somehow, the army actually grew during this time and eventually numbered around 5000. Part of this was down to some quirks in Mongolian and Buddhist culture. As I mentioned earlier, Buddhism in Mongolia’s neck of the woods at this time was much more warlike and bloodthirsty than we tend to think of it these days. Along with a fair smattering of gore-soaked deities, there were also legends of a great warrior who would come from the north and restore Mongolia to its rightful place as the ruler of fucking everything. The Baron, being a) from the north, b) a double hard bastard and c) already pally with the Mongolians after his year of pissing about there  neatly fitted this bill and soon Mongolians were referring to him as a ‘god of war’. The Baron, for his part, wholeheartedly bought into this and his already fractured mind was given an additional helping of delusional lunacy. He was a GOD OF WAR, OK?! Heartened by this talk of cosmic grandeur and a decent sized army, the Baron (after consulting fortune tellers, of course) marched on Urga in New Year, 1921. After a messy battle with the Chinese, the city fell and Ungern restored the Bogd Khan (the Mongolian monarch, of sorts) to the throne. The remaining Chinese fled (only to be hunted down by the Baron’s cavalry) while 3 days of looting and untold mayhem ensued. To tie things up nicely, Ungern finished it off with a pogrom and then declared everything to be mellow and groovy. The Bogd Kahn (a man with an impressive clutch of vices by all accounts) was no fool and realized that without Ungen, he was nothing. Anxious to keep him onside, he declared the Baron “Outstanding Prosperous State Hero”, issued a bunch of currency (that was redeemable in livestock) in his name and then let him get on with the job of being de-facto dictator of Mongolia.

Given past form, it’s fair to say that the Barons style of governance was hardly going to be sedate. True to form he kicked off with a series of Bolshevik witch hunts (in which pretty much everyone was a Bolshevik) while his army set about the systematic looting of everything. All those appalling methods that the Baron had perfected in Dauria and out in the frozen wastes were now conducted at a national level and Mongolia soon became a close approximation of hell-on-earth. Naturally, some Mongolians were horrified by this and before long revolutionaries started to form an army and establish bases. Not that the Baron gave a hoot. He had bigger fish to fry in the shape of invading China, restoring the Qing Dynasty and then saving the rest of the world in the name of all that is regal and godly. There was a problem though. Invading China isn’t something you just knock together over a few beers at the weekend. It’s a bloody big place and you need a bloody big army. However, what with all the institutionalized flogging/looting/terror, the Mongolians were fast falling out of love with this savior from the north and decided they wouldn’t play ball. Further to this, the Baron was delivered a cosmic slap in the chops when his fortune teller told him that he only had 130 days to live. The Baron was shocked by this. There was so much more killing to do! So little time! However, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t particularly the emo type and reacted to the news by saying this:

“Goodbye for all time! I shall die a horrible death, but the world

has never seen such a terror and such a sea of blood as it shall see

now!”

I doubt that those within earshot were filled with hope for the future.

Freshly motivated by his freshly stamped ‘Use By’ date, the Baron began to rethink things. Even he still had a tentative enough grasp of reality to realize that the bets were now off on the whole China deal. However, he was mad enough to think that he might be able to re-invade Russia, restore Prince Michael (who had now been dead for 2 years) to the throne and thus save the world. Spurred on by his rapidly diminishing days, the Baron gathered what was left of his army and headed north. It didn’t start well. As soon as he was across the border, the Red Army caught up with and gave him a thrashing… twice. Now forced to head back to Mongolia with the Reds on his tail, he was horrified to find the Mongolians siding with the commies. Ingrates!

And so we enter the final stretch of this sorry tale. Ungern, now looking a right state (he had lost most of his clothes so would stride about bare chested and covered in talismans) found himself and his dwindling army in a snake infested swamp (although he promptly banned his men from killing snakes because he thought it was ‘bad luck’) while rebellion fermented in the ranks. Always one to try and nip this sort of thing in the bud, Ungern gathered what men he could and looked for some of his own officers to kill. When he couldn’t find any, he then turned north into Russia and attacked some Reds who were garrisoned in a monastery. While he managed to win this battle (and flog some monks) he was left with 500 men and dwindling options. Never one to let reality intrude on his schemes, the Baron declared that they were all off to Tibet (which was hundreds of miles away and on the other side of the Himalayas). For his men, this was the final straw. They’d been flogged, treed, burnt, and generally tormented so hard that they figured nothing the Baron could be do was any worse than things already were. As a consequence, most of them deserted while a group of officers hatched a plot to kill him.

Considering there was always someone wanting to kill him, the Baron thought he was on top of this. In an effort to discourage others from getting any uppity ideas, he made a Colonel sit in a tree all night, but it was too late. The die was cast. That night, a group of officers tried to ambush the Baron in his tent, but he somehow got the drop on them and legged it into the night. Unperturbed, the officers seized command, executed a couple of loyalists and then began the long march to Manchuria where they hoped there might be someone around who they hadn’t yet pissed off. The Baron, now thoroughly irked, chased them down and confronted them in what was to become one of the more surreal scenes from his already demented life. Totally outnumbered and with a bunch of guns pointing at him, Ungern began to berate his former men and hurl abuse at them. The conspirators, despite having an awesome amount of firepower pointed at the Barons head, completely froze, terrified by this rambling psychopath. The stand off continued some while (with the Baron going completely off his mash the entire time) until someone finally came to their sense and pulled the trigger. What followed was a hail of bullets that would surely kill anyone stuck in the middle. Yet somehow, the Baron escaped, weaving through the fusillade and even finding enough time to turn around and shout “Bastards!” before disappearing into the night. Alone and quite, quite mad, the Baron ran into a group of Mongolian troops who quickly betrayed him and handed him over to the Russians. Finally the game was up.

Considering the mayhem he had instigated, Ungern was quite the catch for the Reds who promptly shipped him off to Novonikolavsk for a rousing show trial. The Baron, now certain of his fate, took every opportunity to ramble about “Hanging, shooting, flogging” and even took the time to ask why an office smelt “strongly of garlic? Why do you employ so many Jews?” The trial itself was pretty much your standard totalitarian affair and the Baron happily played his part by nonchalantly ‘fessing up to pretty much everything (“do you often beat people?” he was asked, “Not enough” he replied), expressing zero remorse, blaming the Jews and advocating the crushing of the working classes. Given that this was a communist court, his line of defense probably wasn’t the wisest and unsurprisingly, sympathy for him was thin on the ground. He was found guilty and shot in secret.

So there you have it. One, big, fat, steaming pile of infernal, apocalyptic horror. If this whole affair tickled your fancy, then definitely check out James Palmer’s ‘The Bloody White Baron’ from which this was largely cribbed. It’s fully great. Oh, and just in case your wondering, the people of both Mongolia and Russia went on to live blissful existences in lands of milk and honey. YA RLY. That’s it from me and the Baron for now. Hopefully I’ll be back in a week or two with some cynical mutterings about this or that so watch this space.

Loudribs Curmudgeonry Corner History Special Part 2 : The Revenge


Baron Roman Nickolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg.: Selflessly providing history with a whole crapload of wtf?!

Baron Roman Nickolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg.: Selflessly providing history with a whole crapload of wtf?!

And we’re back….OK, in case you missed the last post a quick recap on the all-encompassing madness that is Baron Roman Nickolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg.

Born to an aristocratic German/Estonian family in 1886 –> Proves himself to be a first class shit of a school kid–> Joins army –> Spends time in army boozing, flogging and fighting his colleagues in Siberia –> Colleagues in Siberia lose patients –> Transfers to reserves and bums around Mongolia –> Gets super-stoked for WWI and spends the next three years killing anything that moves or stays still too long –> WWI ends, Russian Civil War starts.

Now, the Russian Civil War is one of those conflicts that doesn’t get a great deal of attention, mainly for the following reasons:

1. It was utterly, utterly bonkers.
2. The likes of us really didn’t come out of it looking too good.
3. Like most things Russian, it was supendously vast in scope and brutality.
4. The names involved are often long and largely impossible to pronounce.

In a nut shell, the origins can be traced back to 1905 when the seams of the old Russian Empire started to unravel. p With Russia being poor, backward and ungovernably large, people started to notice that a) their lives were largely rubbish, b) the lives of privileged were pretty damn great, thank you very much and c) there were some fairly volatile ideas kicking about such as Marxism. At some point, all of this had to spill over and in 1905 it did. Joe Public (or Joseph Publeski….context is important) decided to take matters into his own collective hands. Peasant revolts, mutinies and strikes became the order of the day and even Ungerns family found some of their mansions reduced to charred ruins. The Russian monarchy began to take notice and did what Russian leaders tend to do best: Repress the fuck out of these jumped up rabble rousers. They also instituted a parliament of sorts, but this was mainly window dressing and largely a distraction from the far more invigorating job of putting large chunks of the population to the sword. This early stab at a revolution was duly crushed and life soon started to return to normal. However, brutalising your own people does have the nasty side effect of really pissing them off and while all the really impressive stuff (such as bread riots….they always sound really fun, like a big pillow fight, but with bread) might have calmed down a little, the revolution was merely postponed and carried on simmering away in the background.

The Romanov’s (like most monarchies) didn’t seem that bothered about all this and were soon back to their old ways of alienating the population whilst swanning around and getting involved in World Wars. The main problem here was that Russia wasn’t very good at this world war business and soon found the Germans and co to be really rather good it (a recurring theme). Despite some early successes, it all started to go horribly wrong at the battle of Tannenberg in 1914 and from then on it was pretty much downhill all the way. The Germans happily nommed up plenty of territory, the Russian military fell apart like a turd in the rain and the lot of your average Russian (already a pretty ropey deal) became further complicated by even more food shortages and millions of Germans bullets flying in their direction. By 1917, the jig was up. The tsar belatedly tried to placate the masses by setting up a Provisional Government, but they weren’t falling for that again. By October, the Bolshevics had seized the reigns of power and so began the Russian Civil War.

I realise that there hasn’t been much Ungern in all this yet, but fear not…our raging ball of lunacy is waiting in the wings, ready to crazy the crap out of this situation, but first you’ll just have to sit through a little more history. When the revolution kicked off, Russia appeared to split into two factions, known today as the ‘Reds’ (the Revolutionaries) and the ‘Whites’ (the monarchists). In actual fact there were hundreds of different factions, each with their own agenda but for now lets just go with the Red and White thing. The Reds had control of the major metropolitan areas like Moscow and Petrograd and were keen to destroy the Whites as soon as possible so that they could get on with the rather daunting task of remodelling Russia to their own designs. The Whites on the other hand were a more disparate bunch who could only really agree on one thing: They hated Commies. Despite not being the most organised bunch, they did control the vast expanses of Siberia and had a few sympathetic friends overseas (Britain and America being two of them). Naturally, Ungern was a White and not just your average “I’m not so sure about these Red chaps and wouldn’t it be nice to see the tsar back on the throne” type White. He was more your sort of “I WAS BORN TO KILL ANYONE WHO DOESN’T ENTIRELY AGREE WITH MY SOMEWHAT UNHINGED OUTLOOK OF THE WORLD” type White. You can see where this is going.

As I mentioned in the last post, Ungern’s worldview could be pretty much boiled down to the following: “Monarchies are great. Great great great. Monarchy monarchy monarchy. ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME!?”. To him, WWI had been nothing more than a jolly wheeze. It was monarchies doing what they do best: Having a good scrap, tearing the world asunder and then getting back to their good old stock-in-trade of being obscenely rich and powerful. It didn’t matter if you were a Catholic King or a Muslim Sultan (but God forbid if you were a Jew. That really wouldn’t be cricket). So far as he was concerned it was all good red faced boyish caperings and afterwards they’d all shake hands and then go hunting peasants. Lovely. The Civil War, on the other hand, was an entirely different beast and one that threatened the existence of everything the Baron held dear. These Commies weren’t just messing about with politics, they were messing about with the god-given order of things. Was he going to stand for this? Was he hell!

Now riled to the n-th degree, Ungern made his way to Siberia and met up with another notable nutter of the era, a Cossack by the name of Colonel Semenov. A brilliant (and also brilliantly corrupt) commander fighting on the White side, Semenov had carved himself out a little niche in Siberia and happily welcomed Ungern on board. There was plenty of killing to be done and Ungern had the look of a chap who might quite tasty in that department. Together, they established a base in a region called Dauria and put together a plan to get this whole revolution deal reversed. As I mentioned last time, Ungern had some pretty way-out-there spiritual beliefs and at last he found himself in a totally lawless neck of the woods where he could do pretty much whatever he wanted. What he really wanted to do was to get a bunch of hard as nails super soldiers, reconquer Russia and then kill everyone who wasn’t Ungerns kind of guy. But in order to properly fulfill his dreams of hell on earth, Ungerns first needed to establish himself and raise an army. Before he could even do this, Semenov asked him to go and disarm a Russian garrison across the border in Manchuria that had mutinied. Sounds like a good opportunity to display your trademark brand of insane scariness, no? Yes! With a single Cossack assistant, Ungern marched into the town and told the commander there were more troops on the way and that he should give up his weapons. In what was to prove an understandable yet costly error, the commander simply laughed at him. Ungern then punched him in the belly, told him he was going nowhere and then disarmed the garrison himself (that’s several hundred troops in case you were wondering). That’s how fucking scary this guy was.

Luckily for Ungern, scary was a positive asset in his quest to build an army. At this point in time, Russia was awash with all sorts of people, drifting about the place and getting drafted into whatever army (and there were a few) that happened not to be killing them at the time or threatening to kill them if they didn’t join. As a result, Ungern built up a fair few men and could now spend his time putting down mutinies (he really did love to put down a good mutiny), ‘requisitioning’ stuff (stealing) and just to spice things up a bit, he’d get onto trains, find someone who looked suspicious (which, in the Baron’s eyes, covered pretty much everyone) and then beat them up on the platform. Ahhh…the personal touch. He also got a chance to take some of his more genocidal ideas for a spin as well. Civil wars tend to be more brutal than regular wars and the Russian Civil War was no exception. After a years worth of fighting, both sides had given up taking prisoners which then created another problem: What do you do with the guys you do catch? Luckily, Ungern was happy to turn Dauria into a mass execution/torture centre to cater for this very need. Oh, and he also quit the drink. And started smoking Opium instead. And hanging out in fields covered with the bones of his victims to, you know, just chill out. Nice guy.

Generally speaking, these were good times for Ungern. He slowly built his army up, mainly out of Buriats and Mongolians. He had a soft spot for these guys as a) the Buriats were the only people who’d hang out with him during his earlier years in Siberia, b) he’d gotten quite the taste for Mongolians after bumming around there for a year and c) they were hard bastards. He’d also become quite enamoured with Central Asian culture. We often think of Buddhism to be all touchy-feely Richard Gere type navel gazing but this isn’t entirely the case. In fact, Buddhism has plenty of blood thirsty deities, fables of mass carnage and legends of divine warlords. Furthermore, Ungern saw Asia to be much ‘purer’ than the west. By ‘pure’ he meant that their populations seemed to know their place (which, generally speaking, would be somewhere underneath his iron fist, seconds away from being smashed to oblivion) and weren’t riddled with uppity ideas such as democracy and other assorted flounce. The rest of his army (which he fetchingly called the Asian Division of Cavalry) were mostly either desperate, crazy or unlucky Russians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, a few Chinese, and some Tibetans (to name but a few). Together, they spent the early part of the civil war having a gay old time repressing, robbing supply trains (even if they happened to belong to the Whites who’s side they were technically on) and being harshly disciplined by their Nutter-In-Chief. They even had the odd opportunity to fuck about with the armoured trains that gave the Russian Civil War its distinctly Mad Max tinge. All good fun, but sadly not the sort of fun that lasts. Change was afoot.

By 1920 the Reds had started to get their shit together and fighting back in the far east. Semenov and the other White commanders soon found themselves feeling the squeeze and before long, they were on the back foot. I’m sure by now, you’ve picked up the feeling that Ungern wasn’t the ‘back foot’ kind of guy and that hanging out with people who get beaten by Goddamn Pinkos wasn’t going to get you very far in life. Writing off Siberia as a bad job he gathered his army and headed for Mongolia. Now an independent warlord in his own right with precisely nobody to attempt to keep him in check, he started to hatch possibly his most disproportionately ridiculous plan. It went a bit like this:

1. Take over Mongolia.
2. Install a monarch of my choosing who will do exactly what I say.
3. Restore the Qing Dynasty in China.
4. Take over pretty much the rest of the world. Simples!

Taken at face value, these are clearly the ramblings of a madman and have absolutely  no basis in reality, right? Right? Oh god, he wouldn’t would he? Well, you’re just going to have to wait and see. I realise that I said I’d get this done in two posts, but the brutal truth is that there just isn’t enough space to do justice to the epic levels of lunacy that the Baron was going to unleash. Seriously, the shit that he’s just about to go tear-assing into is so horrifically inexplicable in its WTF?!ness that even the act of me writting it down could result in my face melting off like that guy in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I’m even thinking about asking WordPress to clad their servers in adamantium and holy water so that terror doesn’t escape from the internetz and rip the space/time continum asunder. That being the case, stick about for the next (and hopefully final) instalment of a tale that goes from ‘worse’ to, erh, ‘worser’. See you next time and don’t forget to bring your nerves of steel.

Loudribs Curmudgeonry Corner History Special! Pt 1


Baron Ungern von Sternberg...A poster boy for blood drenched space cadets everywhere...

Baron Ungern von Sternberg...A poster boy for blood drenched space cadets everywhere...

You know one thing I hate about being me (other than not being able to reliably pull off a Dragon Punch despite 17 years of practice)? It’s that most of the things that really fire me up are things I hate. War? Check. The Daily Mail? Check. Circus skills? Check check check. Can it be right to take so much pleasure from the act of hating stuff so damn hard? Anyhoo, the circle of hell that I reserve for the bizarre dichotomy of paramount hatred yet total fascination is dictators and related historical nutters. Seriously, since I was kid pretty much all my reading has been geared towards Histories Greatest Shitheads, their associated wrongs and how the hell we ever let them get to positions of power. So imagine my surprise and weird mix of seething anger/boundless joy when I stumbled across this guy: Baron Roman Nickolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg.

Right from the get go, this guy is ticking boxes left right and centre. His name is appropriately weird, right up there with the likes of ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, Saparmurat Niyazov (who will definitely get a post of his own at some point) and Slobodan Milošević. A solid start. Every dictator needs some form of childhood ostracisation in order to truly live up to their potential and a bat shit crazy name ensures the best possible start in life (although you can tell the really hardcore ones are those who change their name to something even battier….Stalin/Pol Pot, I’m looking at you guys). Next in line is his appearance. Does he look mental? Bet your sweet ass he does! Check out those eyes…someone’s been skewing his X-Axis and that is a sure fire sign that this guy is just full to the brim with atrocious awesome. But names and looks alone don’t cut it. I want to see some deeds. Devious deeds, hopefully of the blood drenched variety. Can you help out here, Baron Roman Nickolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg? You bet he can!

Like the bulk of the uber-brutal genocidal maniacs, the Barons early years are marked by fully fledged losserdom. Despite coming from an aristocratic family, he made fine work of being expelled from numerous distinguished institutions and finally ended up in the army (after transferring from the navy, a time that was characterised by disobedience and drunkenness….recurring themes throughout his life) and was sent to the notorious shit-hole-of-a-posting that is Siberia. Given that the best entertainment on offer at the arse end of the Russian Empire amount to little more than massively extended rounds of ‘Spot The Tree’ and ‘Huddle For Warmth’, Ungern managed to pass his time doing what he did best: Drinking, disobeying orders and fighting with fellow officers. Good times. Obviously, this sort of thing didn’t really endear him to his peers so he spent most of his knocking about with native Mongols and Buryats. So far, so meh. But wait, what’s this? The Baron starts describing his religious outlook as ‘Military Buddhism’? Now this I gotta hear! Basically, the Baron’s worldview panned out something like this:

Monarchism – Yay!

Hoi Poloi – Boo!

God – Awesome! Not even bothered about which God it is!

War – Super Awesome!

Wimmin – The what now?

Pinko-Commies – Sub Prime

Jews – Dangerously sub-prime

Meshing together all these weird beliefs with a hint of Eastern Mysticism and lashings of fanatical devotion – Fuck yeah!

It’s this sort of crazy that really sorts your common garden psychopath from your top-flight pro-athlete maniac and the Baron really pushed the boat out on this front. Unfortunately, when you start to reach this level of insanity, people start to notice and what with all the boozing/flogging/duelling and all that, he soon found himself being shunted from one bottom-of-the-barrel posting to the next. Finally, he got the message, asked to be transferred to the reserves and spent a year or so buggering about in Mongolia (as you do).

The story could well have ended here with Ungern as an oddball who simply fades into obscurity but as luck would have it, indescribable carnage was just round the corner in the shape of World War 1. Most sane folk tend to try and avoid war. It has a nasty habit of killing and WWI was about to crank up the horror a fair few notches. Not Ungern. To him, this was Christmas, Birthday and a pogrom all folded up into one marvellously horrific ball and without a moments hesitation he blagged himself back into active service. Unsurprisingly, he turned out to be a natural, happily descending into the swelling tide of carnage and even going to the pains of continuing to fight on horseback, despite the epic number of machine guns pointed at him. Whilst no-one debated the fact that he was a stone cold solid super soldier, it does seem that his fellow officers were just a tinsee bit wary of him. Accordingly, he was promoted very slowly, despite numerous awards for bravery and you get the feeling that pretty much everyone in the Russian Army (apart from those who served under him….they apparently loved him and his Terminator-esque skill set and tolerance for his men getting absolutely blinding drunk…more on that later) would do absolutely everything in their goddamn power not to be stuck in a room with him. Not that he gave a shit, no sireee. He had way to much killing to do, although he did find the time to send back his coat, riddled with bullet holes and blood stains to his family (nothing says ‘I’m fine’ like blood-drenched apparel). Another measure of just how chuffing good he was at this war business was by taking a look at the regiment he served in. Now, the Russian Army have never really been known for their touchy-feely attitude towards human resources, but Ungern got an even shittier end of the stick by being assigned to a regiment that was notorious for getting an absolute hammering where ever it went. So bad was their luck that the casualty rate in that particular unit was 200%. That’s right, 200%. That means that not only pretty much everyone who signed up at the start of the war ended up coming to a sticky end, but also the guys who replaced them. Nice.

Unfortunately for Ungern, all good things have to come to an end and Russia’s involvement with the war came to an abrupt halt with the Revolution (even though I’m quite sure that he would have single handedly carried on fighting the German Army if given half a chance). Luckily, this new turn of events meant that Ungern had a whole new war to dick around with (the Russian Civil War) and could now turn his attention to slaughtering Commies, Jews and anyone who wasn’t entirely on board with his own trademark brand of absurdity. This is when the story starts getting really loopy. Seriously, all that craziness above? Just the tip of the lunatic iceberg. From here on in we’re talking conspicuous madness practiced with heroic dedication and an unerring eye for detail. Sadly for you guys, you’re just going to have to hang on until I’ve finished the rest of James Palmers “The Bloody White Baron” (from which I’ve cribbed most of these chosty factoids). If you’re into history with a wild streak of insanity, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’re not, then this conversation is over. OVER!

Also, Barontastic info can be found from these interweb pixel pushers:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Ungern_von_Sternberg http://militaryhistory.suite101.com/article.cfm/themadbaronofmongolia http://newdawnmagazine.com.au/Article/The_Bloody_Baron_von_Ungern-Sternberg.html

Or you can be a real man and JFGI. See y’all in a week or so with the rest of this sorry tale.


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