I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Donald Trump continually assures us everything is on track with his project to make America great again. Well, good for him. And a part of this vision is his determination to see his country start winning wars again. This particular element of the Donald's big dream makes the rest of us feel a tad edgy. Basic logic dictates that to be able to win a war you need to find yourself a war to fight. Of course it is rare for America to find itself in the position when it hasn't got a war going on somewhere. Right now the bad guys are of course those long bearded bad boys of ISIS and in his election campaign the Donald promised his supporters he was going to 'bomb the shit out of them'.

So is this about to be the first evidence of Trump helping America to turn the corner and get itself back on the road to greatness again? Well Donald certainly thinks it is. This kind of language comes straight out of the many 'how to succeed in business' self help books he must have read over his years of borrowing loads of money and losing it all. 

First is first, second is nowhere.

Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser.

You know the kind of thing. It is the beating heart of the American dream which has always worshiped at the alter of winners. Trump is pretty sure his can take the tacky bravado which has served him so well down the years and to succeed where the likes of Hitler, Napoleon and Alexander the Great failed. There will be no lost wars for the Donald. Only the sweet taste of victory.

Because winning is everything, right? We know this. That's why the 1% own more or less everything and the rest of us make like schmucks.

The problem is that what works in the testosterone fueled world of American capitalism doesn't always play out the same in the world at large. Sometimes a heroic defeat can have a much greater potency than an easy victory. The right kind of heroic defeat can be like money in the bank. A canny investment for the future. It can mean the chance to fight and win another day.

I don't think Donald has quite got his head around this. He isn't alone of course. A common feature of many modern leaders is their complete inability to read history. They like to live in the now. They like to live in their own bubbles. Well many, many moons ago I got myself a 2-1 in History and I still think it is a pretty good idea to look back before being too cocky about the immediate future. I vividly recall reading a superb article by Robert Fisk on the day GW Bush rolled into Iraq. Fisk urged readers to get a hold of a copy of 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom' by TE Lawrence. As in Lawrence of Arabia. The book provided a perfect manual on how to get a result in Arabia. It showed how Bush and Blair were sleep walking into a prolonged nightmare which would do for them in the end.

How right he was. 

The lesson Tony and GW should have learned wasn't exactly difficult. If you go into the Muslim with overwhelming force and all guns blazing, the people who live there will see you as Crusaders and they will fight you to their last breath. No matter how many battles you win, you will never win the war. So we won a bunch of battles and we killed half a million people and we lost the war. Just like TE Lawrence predicted all those years before.

When a war becomes a battle for survival, heroic defeats can be pure gold. They inspire everyone else to dig deeper and fight on in honour of the memory of those who fought with such heroism. A heroic defeat can have a much greater impact than an easy victory. Big victories won by overwhelming force are seldom remembered with any kind of reverence. Heroic defeats are a different matter altogether. They are remembered forever. Statues are erected. Public holidays are called. Movies are made and re-made. 

We've had a few of our own down the years. We all love watching Zulu every Christmas. Most of us have heard of Rorke's Drift. Not many of us have heard of Ulundi where a punitive force of Brits taught the locals a lesson they weren't about to forget in a hurry. We had Gatling guns and cannons. They had spears. Ulundi duly became one of the many forgotten massacres we carried out in the name of Empire which we now prefer to not to talk about much.

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To this day we recall our gallant defeat at Dunkirk with much more fondness than our turning point victory at El Alamein. 

History is filled with any number of examples of heroic defeats which become inspirational for future generations. As things unfold in Mosul, I think it is worth looking at two in particular.

First up is the Spartan stand at Thermopylae. On one side was a monumental Persian army made up of over a hundred thousand infantry and cavalry. On the other side were 300 Spartans who blocked the narrow road to the heart of Greece. We've all seen the movies. The Spartans took the idea of defying the odds to a whole new level. The narrowness of the strip of land between cliffs and sea meant the vast numerical superiority of the Persians could not be made to count. Wave after wave of attackers were sliced to bits as they met the Spartan shield wall. The Persians won in the end. Of course they did. But the Greeks were duly inspired by the heroism and sacrifice of the 300 and they duly united around the magnificence of the defeat and found a way to turn it all around at the battle of Marathon.

Nobody remembers Emperor Xerses and his vast army. Instead we watch blockbuster movies about King Leonidas and his 300 hundred Spartans. Maybe winning isn't everything after all.

Fast forward to 1863. A company of 63 officers and men of the French Foreign Legion were patrolling a forgotten corner of Mexico in an unnoticed colonial war. Their leader, Captain Jean Danjou knew there were enemy forces in the area. He didn't know how many. The Mexican commander, Francisco De Paula Milan, knew all about the presence of the French and he knew exactly how many they were. 


Not enough.

Milan laid his trap and waited. The company of Legionnaires duly walked straight into the trap and found themselves holed up in a hacienda and surrounded by a force of 3000. Danjou gathered his guys about him and got them to swear an oath. The oath? Oh that was simple enough. Fight to the last man. Fight to the last breath. No surrender. And for what? For a few square yards in a forgotten war fought thousands of miles from France. Danjou had been around the block a time of two for the Legion and had a wooden hand to prove it. As it happened, he was killed early in the battle but his guys were true to their word.

They fought on and on and on. After eight hours there were only five men left and the farmhouse was ablaze. For the umpteenth time, Milan called a halt to the fighting and offered the Legionnaires the chance to surrender. When they had been down to 12 men, the officer in command had given a one word reply to the offer of surrender: 'Merde'. This time the French chose a different option. 

They fixed bayonets and charged. All five of them. Not surprisingly it didn't go so well.

As defeats go, Camerone was about as complete a defeat as you could find. Once the dust settled there was only one man left alive.
But it didn't take very long for the legend of Camerone to make its way back across the Altantic to France and to this day the men of the Foreign Legion stop whatever they are doing on April 30 to celebrate their most legendary heroic defeat. Danjou's wooden hand remains their most treasured possession.

For a hundred and fifty years, armies all over the world have been terrified at the prospect of coming up against the men of the Foreign Legion for a very simple reason. Legionnaires never give up. Their reverence to the 63 men of Camerone means they never throw in the towel. The legacy of that particular defeat is still strong and so long as there is a Foreign Legion, it will always be strong.

Which brings me to ISIS. To Mosul. To right now. 

Donald promises to bomb the shit out of ISIS. What does he think his air force has been doing for the last few years? Recent Pentagon estimates suggest at least 40,000 ISIS fighters have been killed care of American airstrikes since the campaign began. I would have thought such a figure is more enough for them to have had the shit bombed out of them. Obviously not as far as the Donald is concerned.

Now the net is being tightened around Mosul. We see it on the days when the home news is quiet. Not much happening today? OK. Nae bother. We'll fill up with five minutes from Mosul. It's always good for padding out.

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a World Service podcast whilst I was splitting some logs. The topic was Mosul and the battle which is taking so long to win. And suddenly I stopped what I was doing and listened a little harder. The presenter described the forces facing each other. 

In the blue corner was a mixed force of just over 80,000 - British and American Special Forces, British and American fighter bombers and drones, The Iraqi Army, the Kurdish Peshmerger, and various Shia Militia groups.

In the red corner.....

400 ISIS fighters.


As in 80,000 and two air forces versus 400.

As in a force of just a hundred more than King Leonidas commanded so many centuries ago.

The 400 know they aren't going to win. They are completely surrounded now and they have a simple choice. It is the same choice as the Spartans had at Thermopylae and the Legionnaires had at Camerone. Fight or die? Nobody is in much doubt as to which option they will choose.

We don't hear much about the 400 against 80,000 part of the Mosul story. We hear lots of stuff about how they are filthy terrorists and cowards. We hear how they are nothing more than human cockroaches who deserve to be exterminated. Who need to be exterminated.

And of course they will be exterminated. With extreme prejudice. Because 80,000 against 400 is a foregone conclusion. But does this mean we will win? Or will the legend of the 400 who fought down to the last man go on to sustain ISIS and similar groups in the years to come? It seems to me the guys with the long beards are rather better at reading history books than our leaders. They will capture the heroic defeat on their mobile phones and bequeath it to history. They will become legends among the millions who feel they are being oppressed by the Crusader nations of the West.

ISIS are not looking for victory in Mosul. Instead they are creating their very own Thermopylae. From where I am sitting, it looks like we are playing ball every step of the way. In a few weeks we will beam pictures around the world of a bombed flat city and 400 dead guys. Sadly we seem incapable of understanding how this looks from the other side of the fence. We will see the dead 400 as nothing more than so many cockroaches. Many in the Muslim world will see them very differently. 

I wonder how they will be remembered in a few hundred years? 
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1 comment:

  1. That's bang on, Mark.

    The idiots don't see what they are doing. You can't win with people so committed.

    And every bomb, ever kid killed, every house or business ruined, recruits another group of fighters.

    If Trump thinks he's going to make America great again this way... I suspect he is very wrong.