Security Scholar suggests: music and memories of war

Everyone carries a room about inside them. —Franz Kafka

With the passing this week of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, I started thinking about the ways we look back on the war in Iraq. In 2005, when asked about his memories of his ill-fated UN speech justifying an invasion, Powell described them as “painful”. Indeed, everyone carries a room about inside them. For something different this week, I’d like to suggest exploring Iraq and war through the memories not just of military men but of musicians.

My first pick is British composer Max Richter whose music you might have heard featured on movie soundtracks such as Waltz with Bashir, Prometheus and Arrival. Richter wrote The Blue Notebooks (2004) in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War as a “protest album”, inspired by the idea of music “as a place to think.” Of note, the album’s “On the Nature of Daylight” (featured above and linked here) is a 7-minute sea of melancholy harmony and stately beauty. Richter has said he thinks of the piece as “a meditation on violence and its repercussions.”

In 2016, when the British public enquiry into the war was finally published (we know it as the Chilcot Review), Richter penned a Guardian op-ed. In it, he reflects on the demonstrations against the invasion, the war’s aftermath and what he sees as Tony Blair’s continuing evasion of responsibility. For Richter, Blair’s actions continue to “insult the memory of those hundreds of thousands whose lives were taken.” Looking back on the 13 years between the article and his composition of The Blue Notebooks, he says:

When I perform The Blue Notebooks now, it seems at once familiar and strange. Time has passed; I am a different person but the events of 2003 and their aftermath still resonate daily. All of us were changed during that political moment, but I remain convinced that human creativity can influence the world, or at the very least our perception of it, in some small way.

The second suggestion is the Iraqi singer Kadim Al Sahir, one of the country’s biggest acts and famed throughout the Arab world, whose 2006 song “Baghdad Tata la elami” (“Baghdad Don’t Hurt”, above and linked here) became an “anthem of Iraqi suffering.” Even if you don’t understand Arabic, the yearning and heartbreak in Al Sahir’s voice project the anguish around him with more conviction than his lyrics ever could. A must-listen for his raw emotion, accompanied by the lush, sombre waves of Middle Eastern and Western stringed instruments.

The Iraqi singer’s devotion to his country has been long woven into his music, including in his most popular songs. In “Beauty and His Love” Al Sahir confesses to his girlfriend of someone he loves more than her, someone who fills his dreams: Baghdad. In February 2003, he toured the US to ”show another face of my country” and inspire Americans to ”think good thoughts—not all bad thoughts—of my people.” While he no longer lives in his motherland, in a 2020 interview with Vogue Man, Al Sahir’s devotion to his mission remains clear:

I carried Iraq with me to the most remote corners of the world through my voice, drawing the best picture of it so people can understand that Iraq doesn’t deserve war.

Ending on a high-energy note—and crank the volume for this—my last pick is US rock band Green Day and their 2004 hit “American Idiot” (above and linked here), inspired by their disgust with cable news coverage of the Iraq War. While some of the lyrics aren’t—unlike Wu-Tang—for the children, the song is a punchy, punk-influenced, hard-hitting protest against blindly going along with media-generated paranoia. Behold, the opening lines:

Don’t wanna be an American idiot! / Don’t want a nation under the new media / And can you hear the sound of hysteria? / The subliminal mind fuck America!

Performing in an abandoned warehouse in front of an American flag in faded black, white and green whose colours start to run halfway through the clip, the trio get drenched in fluoro green liquid spraying from their amplifiers. As lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong holds two fingers to his chin to simulate shooting himself, his message is clear: I’d rather be dead than believe this toxic shit.

“American Idiot” is the title track from an entire protest album of the same name which captures the angst and culture wars Green Day’s members observed in George W. Bush’s America. That said, in a 2017 Rolling Stone interview that touched on the legacies of the American Idiot album, bassist Mike Dirnt clarified:

I mean, American Idiot wasn’t fuck George Bush. That was a personal question that Billie was writing. “I don’t want to be an American Idiot.” We’re watching the fucking war take place on television for the first time in our lives and we were like, “This is bullshit.” But it was not a Bush record.

From contemplation to anguish to angst, here’s just a handful of music that the Iraq War generated. If you’ve got some music that makes you think back to, reminisce or remember that era, feel free to leave it in the comments section. Image courtesy of Flickr user The US Army. Catch you next week! —NS

Security Scholar suggests

It’s Friday! So grab a burger to go with a side of my reading, listening and watching picks below.

Myanmar’s military mindset. Kicking off today is Andrew Selth’s newly dropped tour de force report on the Tatmadaw aka Myanmar’s armed forces because, you know, there’s still a coup there. Even if you’re not focussed on Myanmar, his methodology on studying leadership is worth getting your head around and applying to China, Pakistan and other regimes. In a 45-year career spanning government and academia writing about international security and Asian affairs (including shit-tonne of books on Myanmar), Selth sheds light the country’s strategic culture and the military’s mental landscape. Breaking that landscape down into personal, institutional and national levels, he covers aspects like Buddhism, ethos, suspicions of civilians, fear of foreign interference and, super importantly, implications for interlocutors. A must-read for the civil-military, intelligence, Southeast Asian studies or strategic/military culture types. Full report here (PDF, 40 pages).

[Update] Quadrilateral thinking. Over on The Strategist, Dominic Simonelli argues why the Quad, in light of issues with ASEAN’s special envoy (sigh), could step into a greater humanitarian role in Myanmar. Work those quads!

The myth behind the might. Courtesy of El Diablo, I highly recommend this Foreign Affairs essay by Michael Beckley and Hal Brands that rigorously lays out the case for why we’ll see the end of China’s rise (yeah it’s paywalled but beg/borrow/steal). From dwindling demographics to Evergrande and economics to inert innovation, it appears Beijing’s got more than 99 problems. But puncturing myths about China’s inexorable rise isn’t cause for calm. Au contraire:

Revisionist powers tend to become most dangerous when the gap between their ambitions and their capabilities starts to look unmanageable. When a dissatisfied power’s strategic window begins to close, even a low-probability lunge for victory may seem better than a humiliating descent. When authoritarian leaders worry that geopolitical decline will destroy their political legitimacy, desperation often follows.

Target: Taiwan. If desperation sounds grim, it should. ABC journo and former CNN correspondent in Beijing, Stan Grant, follows up on Beckley and Brands, unpacking why Xi Jinping is obsessed with controlling Taiwan—”at the risk of a war that could shatter all China has built.” Also, check out his latest book With The Falling Of The Dusk (published March this year) with chapters on his firsthand experiences in China, the feelings of the Chinese people he met and his reflections on the regime and history.

Bombers and birds. For something a little different, in 1924 the BBC Radio delighted the public by broadcasting the sounds of nightingales singing alongside the cello of Beatrice Harrison (and y’all know I love the cello). In May 1942, amidst World War II the BBC was back recording the birds this time with the sounds of bombers flying overhead en route to bomb Mannheim. Read the story of how nightingales, Beatrice’s cello and war intertwined, take in the extraordinary recordings.

Battle Rhythm is a great podcast series run by two Canadian thinks, the Canadian Defence and Security Network and the Network for Strategic Analysis. Their latest episode #58 kicks off with a discussion about a reset (maaaaybe) between Ottawa and Beijing over the two Michaels and Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou. Interested in moral injury? Skip ahead to 25:20 for an interview with Stephanie Houle for her research on the Canadian Armed Forces. (49mins)

Bring da AUKUS (live). If you haven’t had enough about nuclear subs and regional order, check out this La Trobe Asia–US Embassy Canberra panel event in two weeks’ time featuring Aussie, American and Kiwi scholars. Apart from yours truly, you’ll hear from Dr Anna Powles, Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University, NZ; Assoc Prof Maria Rost Rublee, Politics and International Relations, Monash University; and Prof Peter Dean, Director, Defence and Security Institute, UWA, chaired by Dr Rebecca Strating, Executive Director, La Trobe Asia. Log on Wednesday 27 October at 2.30pm UTC+8 (Perth, Singapore etc) / 5.30pm UTC +11 (Sydney, Canberra etc). Register here.

And, to end on a lighter note, check out the The Juice Media poking fun at Scotty from Marketing with this “Honest Government Ad” on AUKUS. Image courtesy of Flickr user Marc Veraart. See y’all next week! —NS 

Security Scholar suggests: three military memoirs

Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door. —Saul Bellow

This week’s instalment is a little less sassy and a bit more sober in subject matter. It’s a quick round-up of three military memoirs I’ve recently read. As Bellow’s quote suggests, a memoir is more than just a record of certain events in your life. Memoirs help create meaning out of the past in service of the present. They are a selection of memories, strung together to tell a story. Every memoirist dances between candour and concealment. The very act of writing a memoir, in some cases, is a therapeutic catharsis.

So with that in my mind, the first book for today can be described as devastatingly honest. Exit Wounds (2013) a no-holds-barred look into the life of Australian Army officer, Major General (rtd) John Cantwell. Cantwell lays out how he dealt with his demons (or, at times, not) from his time in Gulf War 1 and how trauma took its toll after gruelling deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Read it for a senior officer’s perspective on war and PTSD, especially one who grew up before mental wellbeing formed a greater part of our public conversation. My winter morning companion, I couldn’t put it down. If you prefer listening to things, check out Life On The Line’s two-part interview with Cantwell here (part 1) and here (part 2).

Next up is Survivor: life in the SAS (2021) by Mark Wales, which chronicles his dream to join Australia’s special forces, multiple deployments and struggles in dealing with moral drift. Written in no-bullshit language, it’s another exceptionally candid story of highs and lows. Read it for special forces officer’s view on how he navigated life after the SAS and how, after finding the courage to try new and daring things, he found light at the end of the tunnel. Wales’ comeback at Wharton was some much-needed inspo for the week. Life On The Line also nabbed him for a two-part interview here (part 1) and here (part 2).

The last one is a wild card, so bear with me: it’s an important memoir written by the man who literally opened and closed the gate on Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor* and a review essay of his book. While many accounts about the Indonesian military’s time in East Timor speak of the human rights violations (and rightly so), Lieutenant General (rtd) Kiki Syahnakri’s memoir Timor Timur: the untold story (2013) is an Indonesian perspective that not just defends the TNI’s actions in the province but criticises them as well. Yes it’s in Indonesian, so I strongly suggest reading Bob Lowry’s 11-page review essay on Kiki’s book (PDF), published in the Australian Army Journal. Having served as Army Attaché in Jakarta, Lowry is a fount of knowledge on the TNI (the man wrote a book on them) so he adds considerable depth to Kiki’s reflections and much-needed context to how Indonesia experienced that era. A must-read for Australian strategic and military thinkers (and super helpful to my thesis).

*As background, Kiki was posted as a junior officer on the border between East and West Timor in 1975, opening the border to Timorese fleeing to the west. Some 24 years later, as Commander-in-Chief of Martial Law in East Timor, he handed over authority for the province to then-Major General (rtd) Peter Cosgrove who headed up INTERFET after a referendum in August 1999 rejected Indonesian rule.

Fitting in with this week’s theme (one to ponder), the music is brought to you by Avenged Sevenfold, suggested by El Diablo. Image courtesy of Department of Defence. See you next week! —NS