Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Saturday, 24 July 2021

The War on Terror - Guest Post - by Panda General


                                               Pic courtesy the denverchannel.com

I have decided to add a little variety by providing a guest poster. This person is less than half my age and has a unique viewpoint. He provides an original point of view, and his analysis is comprehensive. Let me know what you think.

 Though it's not really *over* over, I think it's fair to say that we're reaching a point where the War on Terror will no longer be the primary paradigm through which western powers engage militarily with the world in short order. So what I am thinking at the moment is - how will future historians define this era? Where does it start? Where will it end? 

The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US seem like the obvious starting point - however, there had certainly been related actions to these attacks leading back to the 80's. Osama Bin Laden had officially declared war on the United States in 1996 - and he had actually already organized attacks on US targets repeatedly before 9/11 (most notably embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the USS Cole near Yemen). 9/11 is probably when these conflicts entered the greater public consciousness, but even afterwards the goal of fighting terrorism became murky. Did they mean terrorism as a phenomenon? Did they mean Islamist terrorism specifically? Did they mean states that had sponsored terrorism? 

The answer was, of course, all of the above, but if that's the case then things go back much further than 2001. The countries that ended up on the 'axis of evil' - Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, were all countries that had had antagonisms for the US stretching back decades (back to the 50's in the case of North Korea). There were also secondary 'axis' countries - Cuba, Libya, and Syria. Ideologically, none of these countries have that much in common, exemplifying a series of world views that include Marxist-Leninism, Ba'athism, Khomeini-brand Islamism, Juche, and whatever the hell Qadhafi thought he was doing that week. They weren't really allies (Iraq and Iran, in particular, were sworn enemies) and had few formal connections or organised alliances between them. All they really had in common were the fact that the US had beef with them. 

Also notable, none of them really ideologically aligned with Osama Bin Laden's own perspective - Salafist Jihadism. No state was really. The Salafi movement had been around for a while, but it really began to pick up steam in the 80's, when various states including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan essentially started exporting it throughout the Islamic world, pumping money and Wahhabist clerics (the particularly conservative brand of Islam that prevails in the KSA) into every mosque and madras they could - partially for religious reasons, partially as an ideological counter to Soviet Communism, Arab Socialism, and Iran's newly emergent Shia-infused Islamism. 

The combination of the Siege of the Grand Mosque by the sons of Ikwhan fanatics, the Iranian revolution, and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan meant that much of the 80's was spent pushing this ideology everywhere they could. and it became very strong in the Islamic world. 

In the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the collapse of the USSR, these guys basically reached the height of their prestige within the Islamic world - there were seen as heroes who had destroyed an evil atheistic empire. Foreign veterans of the Afghanistan war returned to their home countries and used this momentum to attempt their own overthrows there - this happened in Algeria most notably, but also in Tajikistan. Islamist-aligned officers overthrew the government in Sudan, setting up an Islamist-themed military dictatorship. 

The Taliban defeated the Afghan Warlords, remnants of the Mujahedeen, and set up their brand of Deobundi Islamist Fundamentalism in the country. Salafist Jihadists joined in secessionist and ethnic conflicts in Chechnya (Russia), Xinjiang (China), Kashmir (India), Palestine, the Philippines, and Bosnia. A lot of these insurgencies would become targets of the War on Terror paradigm after 9/11, but at the time most Americans, in particular, had no idea they were even a thing. 

So where does it start? It's fair to say its origins lie in the Cold War. but where does this conflict actually begin? In the 50's in Egypt, when Nasser banned the Muslim Brotherhood and drove them underground (and into more militant formations)? In '79, when the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet-Afghan War, and the Grand Siege of Mecca all occurred within a few months of each other, leading to the violent (and state-sponsored) radicalization of Sunni militants? in '96, when OBL declared war on the US, marking it as a direct target for these movements? Or 9/11, when the largest terrorist attacks in history bought this conflict to world attention? 

Trying to map things after this gets even murkier - trying to figure out how a solid *end* point might be murkier still. A lot of the states the US has problems with are still around, but blocs have been forming between them and more powerful nations. Salafi terrorism is still around, but its ability to strike much outside of Islamic-Majority countries is becoming increasingly limited. US security infrastructure is in the midst of pivoting away from focus on those groups, abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban, and no doubt minimising their footprint in Iraq before too long. They aren't looking at the little fish so much anymore - Russia and China have captured their imagination far more (though they remain, as ever, fixated on Iran and Cuba). 

This is a very different world to the one that dominated headlines for most of the 00's. 

Friday, 16 July 2021

The Librarian


Image courtesy Braceworks - not the librarian

Back in the seventies, I worked as a teacher in a special school in Brisbane. 

The school was the location of a great deal of innovative practice, and the charity it serviced was equipped with a pretty comprehensive library that specialised in books and journals about cerebral palsy.

The resident librarian was a young woman with cerebral palsy, who, despite the fact that she was aphasic, ran a very efficient library.

If you failed to return a book or journal by the due date, you pretty soon heard the hum of her powered wheelchair at your classroom door, as she chased you down to deliver a reminder. She used notes tapped out on a communication machine to let you know the details, and she'd turn up with these notes pegged to her wheelchair. It paid to read them. 

In the three years I taught there, I got to know her pretty well. Both of us attended evening lectures after work at the University of Queensland, St Lucia, and I used to give her a lift once or twice a week after school to the campus. Her parents would collect her at the end of the class to get her home. 

We shared a couple of Education faculty subjects, and her machine ticked away as she took copious notes at lectures. Her notes were always more comprehensive and better organised than mine, which was useful as she shared them generously.

At one stage she had to have surgery on both her legs to remedy contracting large muscles, a common problem when you have athetosis. Both legs were set in plaster which became a problem when I had to get her into my Renault R12 to drive to uni. No matter how far back I set the passenger seat, she would not fit behind the dashboard with legs unable to bend, so I got creative and put her in the back seat sideways.

This was fine until we were driving through Fortitude Valley on the way out to St Lucia, and I had to brake hard to avoid skittling a careless pedestrian. I heard a muffled thump and looked around to see my passenger on the floor wedged between the rear seat squab and the backs of the front seats. I pulled over and attempted to lift her back on the seat, but when I got one end of her located successfully on the seat, the other end would fall again. My few unsuccessful attempts attracted the attention of a passing police constable, who thought initially that I was up to no good.

With him at one end (the traffic side) and me at the other, we managed to get her back on deck. What sticks in my memory is that she thought the whole thing was hilarious. She had an amazing capacity to find the funny side of most situations, a talent that no doubt stood her in good stead given the issues she had to deal with daily. 

She had a very dim view of the notion of charity for people with disabilities, as I discovered one day when I drove her out to the airport to meet a plane. In those days, Brisbane domestic airport was adorned with one or two plaster statues of a child with cerebral palsy complete with a little money box into which you could stuff coins and notes if you felt inclined. Jess (not her real name) carried a walking stick which allowed her to occasionally stand upright with assistance for short periods.

She motioned me to push her wheelchair (a manual chair - the powered one stayed at work in the library) over to one of these plaster monstrosities. Thinking that she was going to generously donate to the cause, I did as I was asked.

When she was close enough, she grabbed the stick and began to bash the living daylights out of the statue, which caused great embarrassment to me, and confusion and consternation to the people behind the counter in the store where the statue was installed.

Offending statue (Pic courtesy Pinterest)

I wheeled her away in a great hurry. A little later she typed a note which read - "Sorry, but I hate those bloody things".

I lost track of her after I left the school to work elsewhere, but she has left me with lots of memories of a courageous, talented and assertive person.

She completed her course at the same time I did but could not be awarded a B Ed St, as she wasn't a registered teacher. I think she went on to earn a B A using her Education subjects.

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Friday, 9 July 2021

The Graveyard of Empires

Pic courtesy Britannica.com

The news emanating from Afghanistan lately has a familiar ring.

 The same cadence emanated from Saigon on 20th April 1975.

There are some similarities when the situation is compared with Vietnam. Each conflict persisted for more than a decade, the most powerful military in the world has failed in its attempt to stabilise each country, and locals who supported the West's commitment are now in fear of their lives.

Both countries were utterly devastated by the conflicts. In the case of Vietnam, the best figures indicate that over 2 million civilians were casualties by 1975, and over 562,000 Afghans have been killed and about 6 million have fled as refugees since 2001.

Both countries were cockpits during the cold war, with the Russians invading Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, 1979, and the Americans deploying into Vietnam most significantly in 1965 after the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

The proxy wars fought were similar in nature and outcome, with the Americans supporting the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, and the Russians the Communists in Vietnam.

There are also some significant differences.

The outcome for the Vietnamese was unification under a culturally Confucian style of Communism, but for the Afghans, although it is not yet resolved, the likelihood of a cohesive central government seems remote.

If history is a guide, and the country returns to default mode, a series of tribally based spheres of influence, competing with each other in a deadly struggle for land, wealth and raw power seems the most likely result.

The Talibs will have their work cut out trying to establish a national government.

Afghanistan has defeated both colonialism and enduring central governance for centuries.

The Duke of Wellington, who knew a thing or two about military attempts to establish empire, spoke in the House of Lords in 1838 condemning the British invasion of Afghanistan saying that the real difficulties would only begin after the invasion's success, predicting that the Anglo-Indian force would rout the Afghan tribal levy, but then find themselves struggling to hold the terrain of the Hindu Kush mountains. 

He noted that Afghanistan was a land with no modern roads, and called the whole operation "stupid" given that Afghanistan was a land of "rocks, sands, Deserts, ice, and snow".

I've blogged before about the difference in scale between the Australian casualty figures in Vietnam and Afghanistan, but this difference probably matters little in terms of the individual grief shared by their friends and families.

Whether our involvement in these wars was ill-advised or not, they died in the service of our country and should be honoured for that. Unfortunately, the enduring controversy about the behavior of Special Forces in Afghanistan has put at risk the reputation of those involved. They deserve better, just as those returning to Australia after Vietnam deserved better.

Whether the same honour is due to the politicians who committed them to both conflicts is another matter entirely. 

Given the history of well-intentioned, but ham-fisted attempts to impose Western-style democracy on a pair of countries whose cultural history would indicate that it was an impossible task, these governments were either completely ignorant or more focussed on domestic politics than the welfare and collective freedom of Vietnamese and Afghans.

You decide...

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Saturday, 3 July 2021



My youngest daughter has been left in limbo in the UK after the recent National Cabinet decision to cut the cap of returning Australians by 50%.

She is a very well-organised young person and had booked her return airfare at the expiry of her two-year working visa. She had vacated her accommodation and resigned her job in Bristol to correspond with the expiry of her visa.

Now she is vulnerable, at the mercy of her friends. 

She paid about four times for the return fare as it cost her to travel to the UK in June 2019, before Covid was around. 

Her dream of working in England, and travelling all over the continent, financed by working two jobs in Brisbane for two years turned to dust. She got as far as Iceland and Portugal, and that was it.

Now, her government has prevented her from coming home.

Consider the strange historical symmetry in this situation remembering that fifty-two years ago, I was forced by my government to leave my home and fight as a conscript in a civil war on foreign soil.

And on each occasion, the government in power is the Coalition.

For the second time in a little over fifty years, young Australians are convenient political collateral.

So much for the Liberal Party's regard for personal freedom......

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Friday, 2 July 2021

SinĂ©ad O’Connor & The Chieftains

An inspiring piece of music.

The words -

I was down the glen one Easter morn
To a city fair rode I
There armed lines of marching men
In squadrons passed me by
No pipe did hum, no battle drum did sound its loud tattoo
But the Angelus Bells o'er the Liffey swells rang out in the foggy dew
Right proudly high in Dublin town
Hung they out a flag of war
'Twas better to die neath that Irish sky 
Than at Sulva or Sud el Bar
And from the plains of Royal Meath
Strong men came hurrying through
While Brittania's huns with their long range guns
Sailed in through the foggy dew
Their bravest fell and the requiem bell
Rang mournfully and clear
For those that died that Eastertide in the Springing of the year
While the world did gaze with deep amaze
At those fearless men but few
Who bore the fight that freedom's light
Might shine through the foggy dew
And back through the glen I rode again
And my heart with grief was sore
For I parted then with valiant men
Whom I never shall see n'more
But to and fro in my dreams I go
And I kneel and pray for you
For slavery fled oh glorious dead
When you fell in the foggy dew. 

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

The Consent Dilemma


Image courtesy ICT works

Lately, gentle reader, we've been hearing a great deal about consent.

The discussion has generally been about consent for sex, against the background of a high profile incident in parliament house, the awarding of Australian of the Year to Grace Tame, and school students becoming active about the issue.

But consent operates in a range of other contexts, notable amongst them the use of personal data. How often have you given consent for your information to be shared online, and how much thought do you put into that question? Look at the image above to get a handle on the complications.

Now we're hearing about consent in relation to medical matters, specifically the AstraZeneca vaccine. I had the first dose back in mid-April, with no ill effects. The flu vaccine, on the other hand, left me with a very tender left arm for a few days. 

I needed no persuasion to have either, so consent was not an issue, but in the past, it has been.

Many years ago (1982) my bride and I lost our first baby (full-term) through stillbirth. A post mortem revealed the cause was a cerebral aneurism, the consequence of a minor malformation which meant the baby could not survive the rigours of birth.

We were asked by the obstetrician at a debriefing appointment after my bride's discharge from the hospital whether we were planning to have more children. When we answered in the affirmative, he suggested that future births should be cesareans.

We made no decisions at the time, but went home and discussed the suggestion at length. It was clear that my bride did not want to go down that path, so we went back to the doctor, and asked him to explain simply the dimensions of the risk we were managing. He said that there was an 80% likelihood of safe childbirth.

Put this way, it was easier to make a decision, which was to opt for normal delivery, and four healthy babies later, that worked out well. What the experience did for us, was to highlight the issue of consent, and which player (or players) in the scenario have the right to provide it.

I was reminded of consent again when completing my St John's CPR refresher the other day. The instructor reminded us that first aid cannot be provided to a conscious lucid individual who refuses it. 

I hope I'm never put in that situation.

Now we have National Cabinet deciding that the AstraZeneca vaccine can be provided to people under forty if they give informed consent. Again, that consent needs to be weighed against the background of a risk/benefit analysis. 

Sometimes I think that the medical profession has a problem with allowing consent to be the prerogative of the patient, and I'm sure I understand why. It must be mortifying to know that the decisions the patient makes may not be in his/her long-term interest. It must butt up against the "first do no harm" principle something fierce.

Consent is also a critical factor in any discussion about euthanasia, but maybe I'll look at that another time.

In summary, medicine, whilst a noble profession, runs the risk of assuming a power it does not have. I'm talking about the "playing God" cliche.

I hope my GP brother doesn't read this.

Sunday, 27 June 2021


Picture courtesy ABC - Not my bride.

 June 22nd started up as a routine Tuesday. 

I went to the gym, and my bride headed out to meet a friend for coffee, something that happens most weeks. I got home first and emerged from the shower, got dressed, and heard the car draw up, but my bride didn't come into the house.

This was strange, so I went into the garage and found her standing beside the car with its back door open, looking with a puzzled expression at a bag of bits and pieces obviously bought from a nearby shopping centre. She asked me "Where did this stuff come from?".

I rummaged in the bag and found a docket that showed the items had been bought half an hour earlier at a shop that my bride frequents, but she was adamant that she hadn't bought them. 

We went inside, and she kept repeating questions like "Where have I been and how did I get here?" I phoned her friend who reported that they had parted company after a chat and a coffee, and a mention that she was going to do a bit of shopping on the way home. My bride had no recollection of any of this.

By this time I was very concerned, so sat her down and went through the stroke test that I'd learned when I did my first-aid certificate. All seemed normal, but I drove her to casualty at the hospital less than a kilometre away. There, the triage nurse put her through the same stroke test I had applied, and then when the emergency registrar tured up, he did the same. That made three stroke tests in one hour. The registrar ventured a diagnosis, (probably a bit premature at that stage) of TGA (Transient Global Amnesia)

Then followed an admission after a bed had been found and the beginning of a series of tests across the next three days including an electroencephalogram, an MRI, a Carotid duplex, and a CT scan. She was discharged on Friday evening after an examination from a visiting Neurologist who came from the big smoke.

He endorsed the registrar's diagnosis.

My bride is back to her old self, after one day (Wednesday) when she said she felt a bit fuzzy, and all memory has returned with the exception of a gap lasting from about noon Tuesday until Wednesday morning. For her, the most frustrating consequence was being locked out of her phone because she kept punching in the wrong login sequence during her confusion on Tuesday. 

An hour on the phone with the helpful Glen from Apple online help fixed that.

It was certainly a great relief that recovery was so quick and complete, and also that there were no nasty migraines that apparently can accompany these episodes.

Typically, the origin is unknown, so we're left with a mystery. 

It was, whilst it lasted, pretty frightening.

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