FICTION: Amnesia


She loses the words she writes down. They travel from head to hand and fall from her fingers. She is a gardener sweeping up the words that mouths release, raking up the sentences collected on pages by lawyers and academics. She sweeps the words and sentences into a pile, then chooses just a few to display. Once they have been planted in print they leave her.

When she reads her words in the newspaper she cringes at their inadequacy. At all she could have written, but didn’t. Errors of grammar and style scream out at her. But if she returns to the reports a few weeks later, she thinks perhaps she did the best she could, considering the pressure of time, considering the restriction of word limits.

Decades later she finds her reports on a civil conflict, reads them as if for the first time.

We were in our yard when we saw the group coming. We went inside but they broke the windows and climbed inside. They stabbed me three times, on my back, then they threw stones at my wife. They chopped our hands with a bush knife.

Later that night our five-roomed house was burnt down. Our younger sons took the dogs but we don’t know what happened to our pigeons.

This is what we lost in the fire or have left behind:
A truckload of sand and 12 bags of cement to plaster the house
A fridge.
A hi-fi.
An orchard which produced oranges, naartjies, peaches, pears, loquats, grapes, lemons, apples and sugar cane.
A vegetable patch which yielded mealies, potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkins.

She remembers her week in that small city. She stayed in a hotel at one end of the street. The Supreme Court was at the other end.

The conflict was between an ethnic political party and the new civic front. The front claimed the ethnic party had the tacit or even active support of the state: their warlords were known to the police but remained free. The civic front brought interdict after interdict against the warlords. But no one was arrested. The warlords remained at large. The conflict raged on.

We had two rondavels and a seven-roomed house of concrete bricks. It was not yet completed. We were just about to put the roof on. The children ask about our three cows, 28 chickens and three dogs. More than anything the older ones want to go back to their school.

She has a vague memory of interviewing refugees in suburban servants’ quarters. Her report says she also interviewed a woman hiding in a church room:

My 70-year-old father was murdered. This happened after he brought an application against warlords who threatened him because my brother supported the civic front. My father’s murderers were the same men he named in his affidavit. They stabbed him to death. They stabbed me twice. The police have arrested no one.

She cannot recall the face of this woman.

She remembers driving out of town. The hills green and dotted with homesteads. Her report has a photograph of a warlord she interviewed. He denied calling for violence at a public meeting. He said members of the civic front had attacked leaders of his ethnic party first. But he added: The police were, however, able to protect us and we reached home safely.

She remembers spending days sifting through affidavits collected by religious groups and human rights lawyers. Her reports contain the names of the priests and attorneys she interviewed. She can’t recall their faces. She can’t remember writing the words she wrote.

She remembers what she didn’t write down.

Her first night in the city. She phones the older brother of a childhood friend. A tall measured man. They speak haltingly over dinner about their jobs and relationships. They sit side by side in a movie theatre while an actress boils her married lover’s pet rabbit in a pot. They part quickly afterwards.

Her last night in the city. Her hot humid hotel room. A ringing phone. A human rights lawyer saying come for supper. She has already eaten. A ringing phone. A lawyer listing the reasons why she should join him and another journalist and another lawyer. A restaurant in an old colonial building. The lawyers are hilarious.

What was won


Edwin Starr’s 1970 Motown hit, War, defined the views of a generation of Americans. Tired of watching their sons and daughters being slaughtered in a seemingly senseless conflict halfway around the world, people adopted the song as a mantra, and the lyrics are still widely known today.

Ian Morris, however, is not Edwin Starr. Something of a celebrity historian and an accomplished author across several genres, he writes powerfully and persuasively about the mechanics and forces that shape humanity and civilisation. Previous books include Why the West Rules – for Now, which was released to significant critical acclaim and has provoked serious examination of how Western powers have dominated the world over the past few centuries.

His latest offering, War, is both provocative and convincing. Morris argues that war — far from being a “…Friend only to the undertaker…” — has in actual fact decreased levels of violent crime, improved living conditions, and made the world a safer and more humane place to live. In meticulous fashion, Morris compiles his argument drawing on evidence spanning thousands of years, including archeological findings, documents and the opinions of other noted historians. The conclusions he draws at times seem controversial, not least being the notion that the USA’s current position as the “Globocop” is not only good for humanity as a whole, but necessary even to prevent more serious international conflict. However, one gets a sense that each idea has been weighed and measured, and there is real gravity to the narrative.

My most serious concerns with the book (as I packed it into my backpack at the beginning of my holiday) were its length and severity of the topic it covers. Is this a tome that a non-history buff should read? Is it worth the many hours and mulling over of ideas that is required simply to get to the end? The answers to those questions are yes and yes. Make no mistake, this is a serious book. And yet, I sped through it despite being on the beach. I found it captivating, thought-provoking and challenging. We are really afforded an opportunity to think deeply about how the fabric of global society has been woven. Morris’s talents not only as a historian, but as an accurate and empathetic writer are obvious.

As Morris argues, conflict is ubiquitous in human culture. As I write this review, several nations around the world are involved in various forms of war. Understanding the origins of war, and how it has played its part in forming contemporary society, is very much a part of the fundamental analysis of human nature. Through War, Ian Morris has delivered a fine a tool to facilitate that understanding.

War is published by Profile Books and is available from

Lest we forget, or wonder why


Writing in The Guardian in January 2013, the eminent British journalist Simon Jenkins declared that he needed to “apologise to the Germans. They are about to suffer an avalanche of often sickening Great War memorabilia, often at their own expense”. Then, with the war’s centenary activities already swamping European – and especially British – television viewers and history bestseller readers, Jenkins was already fed up. Not only, he moaned, were there “war horses everywhere”, there were still “four years of it to come”. As he concluded, ‘the essence of the outbreak of the Great War is that it was a sabre-rattling face-off expected to last a month or two… to revel in these squalid miscalculations is gratuitous.”

Returning to this theme in an August 2014 issue of The Guardian, Jenkins again threw up his hands in despair at Britain’s commemoration of the First World War, a literary and visual festival which, in his view, had come to resemble “an indigestible cross between Downton Abbey and a horror movie”. He may well have a point, at least when it comes to endless, vicarious immersion in the gore and the grime of the nightmare world of the trenches.

Still, as even an irritated Jenkins has conceded, the centenary of the global catastrophe of 1914 — 1918 has been marked not only by questionable indulgence. On the upper slopes of a huge centennial literary mountain are new books which tackle what remains one of the war’s more enduring puzzles. They are mostly rather fat, like Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. At a whopping 699 pages, it certainly does go on a bit. And the concern of these volumes is not with the conduct and the experience of the war, nor with its consequences. Instead, what they pick away at is perhaps the most baffling question of all — the causes of that terrible conflagration. Why? Whose fault was it ? How was it that an increasingly educated, prosperous, and advanced Europe could unleash such an unimaginably destructive conflict ? It left millions dead, some of its grandest empires on their knees, countries bankrupted, and parts of the continent either ungovernable or scarcely worth the bother of governing.

Europe’s march towards a world war in 1914 is, of course, a well-ploughed field of historical questioning and debate. For, while there is broad agreement about the consequences of the conflict, its causes have always been a proverbial bone of contention. As we are reminded by Macmillan’s elegant and absorbing account, at the end of the hostilities the victorious Allied states put all the blame on Germany at Versailles. In more recent years, some scholars have blamed France and Britain for an encirclement or a squeezing of Germany. In central Europe a restless and dynamic German nation found itself hemmed in by European rivals who were blocking its ambitions for greater world power. By 1914, Berlin had had enough of being painted into a corner and tried to gain the upper hand, embarking on a war of conquest which aimed at surrounding Germany with Germany.

Today, the consensus over the causes of the war seems to be that there is no real consensus, aside from acceptance of one or other degree of particular German responsibility. Accordingly, even though The War That Ended Peace does not blame Germany alone for what happened, its author suggests that although the ridiculous Kaiser and his scheming generals clearly had more power than anyone else to have prevented disaster in July 1914, they chose to release the dogs of war. In leading us to an understanding of how that fateful choice was made, the twenty chapters of Macmillan’s hefty, sprawling book make up three big themes. Roughly the first third of this volume plots what its author calls “the great diplomatic realignment of Europe”, as the Entente Cordiale of Britain, France and Russia squared up against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and a puny and unreliable Italy.

The second chunk explores an ambitiously wide political and social environment, one of rampant and increasingly poisonous nationalisms, blind patriotism, and popular beliefs in life as a lethally competitive jungle in which only the fittest would survive. One such belief was that war was not only inevitable but also necessary. For it would purify countries, arrest their slide into moral degeneration, and would renew their national virility. The final third of this gripping story charts the immediate pre-1914 crises of imperialist Europe, like the Franco-German tussle over Morocco and, above all, over the volatile and vicious circumstances of the Balkan countries.

At the heart of a scholarly book bulging with detail, and composed in a reflective and elegant style, are human weaknesses, stupidities, wilfulness and self-delusions. For Professor Macmillan, the signs of these were all around, and they matter greatly when it comes to pointing fingers at those who, despite always having a choice between peace and war, chose war without seeing what it could mean. Thus, Tsar Nicholas II was too weak-willed to stand up to Russia’s generals, who despised him and got their way regardless. The absurd Kaiser Wilhelm was an infantile and “puerile” figure, whose idea of a joke was to smack the bum of the king of Bulgaria in public or to pull the ears and pat the bald heads of other foreign statesmen. General Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of the famous clockwork Schlieffen Plan which was supposed to produce German victory in double-quick time, had both age and injury against him. Already 75 in the decade before the war, he was kicked by a friend’s horse and was laid up for months, dreaming of a retirement that was slow in coming. With men such as these lies a colossal failure of imagination, an inability to sense the disaster to which their actions were leading.

Richly detailed and insightful, The War That Ended Peace is history on an epic scale. Digesting it all may require the stamina for a lot of chewing. Arguably, too, anyone with an interest in the First World War may find themselves marching across some fairly familiar ground. That notwithstanding, the story of what led to this fundamental tragedy of the 20th century has perhaps never been told before in so sensible, so meticulous, and so enthralling a manner.

The War That Ended Peace is published by Profile Books and is available from

EXTRACT: Why States Recover by Greg Mills

On 13 June 2013, President Obama declared that his Syrian counterpart Assad had crossed a ‘red line’ by the use of chemical weapons against his domestic enemies, and America would, as a consequence, send arms and ammunition to assist the Free Syrian Army attempting to overthrow Assad. Then, following the use of sarin nerve agent in the Ghouta district of the Syrian capital, Damascus, on 21 August 2013, killing 1 400 people, the US president declared on the twelfth anniversary of 9/11 that ‘[o]ur ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used’. He made the case that the US must act when dictators such as the Syrian president ‘brazenly’ violate international treaties intended to protect humanity.67

The red lines, it seemed, had been criss-crossed as the US administration sought to cobble together an international response, ultimately taking the form of a joint plan with the Russians to destroy the estimated 1 000-tonne Syrian chemical weapons stockpile.

Western policy towards Syria had exemplified the primacy of narrow domestic political constituencies over policy, on the one hand, and the disjuncture between pronouncements and policy, on the other hand – put differently, between ‘ends, ways and means’, where domestic politics has trumped strategy. While the West rhetorically has routinely condemned the Assad regime since the outbreak of civil war in 2011 and recognised the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (once the Syrian National Council), they did not provide the support necessary for its military victory. Nor, indeed, did they provide the means to ensure their more liberal interests pervaded over less enlightened strains within the rebels. If the ‘end’ was to remove Assad, the ‘ways’ and ‘means’ would have to reflect that goal. And if the objective was further to ensure a better type of regime came to power, the West would need to not only support those ‘better’ elements where they existed, but ensure their ascendancy.

The ‘means’ would have to be more – much more – than simply the supply of weapons, not least since the rebels had no shortage of these, but rather a dearth of the tactical and technical skills to employ them properly and effectively. It would have to involve influence through training beforehand, over a lengthy duration. It would involve air supremacy – on the ground and in the air – rather than only air superiority over the relatively sophisticated Syrian armed forces. A no-fly zone would be insufficient; one would have to be able to hit group targets in order to have a material impact on the regime’s calculations.68

Above all, such a strategy would demand foresight and vision, where actions could match rhetoric.

The political objectives have to be clear before military and security effort is committed. These objectives have to take into consideration the lack of coherence among opposition groups and equally have to reflect a consensus among allies capable of taking this forward.

The aim of removing Assad was premised on the hope for a better society. But in whose judgement was that assessment being made – Western media, regional actors and rivals, sectarian interests, the Syrian opposition, Syrian Sunnis, minorities? This is not to say that Assad should not have been removed from power. Certainly the regime in Damascus had perpetrated horrific crimes against the civilian population. But were the alternatives to his bloody rule any better in the shape of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and Ahrar al-Sham?69 For sure the Syrian opposition was not, as Russian President Vladimir Putin tartly put it in response to Obama’s June 2013 red line, men ‘who kill their enemies and eat their organs’, but it encompassed a full spectrum of disparate causes, from moderates fighting to topple the regime to sectarian extremists. If humanitarianism and human rights are the key considerations for intervention, then would the extremist elements observe these niceties any better than Assad? The record in Iraq suggests not.

Nor should the clamour for Assad’s removal have been allowed to drown out a cold (and preferably empirical) assessment of the status of his domestic support base – rather than the volume level of his critics. Such realpolitik was described by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. Saying he was ‘baffled’ by Mr Obama’s June 2013 decision to become more deeply involved, he asked: ‘What exactly is our objective? It’s not clear to me that every non-democratic government in the world has to be removed by force. The Syria war is a struggle for power, not democracy,’ he said. ‘Is that something we should be engaged in?’

President Obama had, on his assumption to office, vowed to close the Guantanamo detention facility and get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Going to war in Syria has run against his personal grain and America’s mood. The very notion of a ‘red line’ supported the primacy of domestic, political calculations in this decision. But it was a wholly ambiguous criterion. Setting a red line over the killing of 150 people with chemical weapons in June 2013 after more than 90 000 had died in the civil war, smacked of polemic, not policy. This is why, while President Obama was willing to support the rebels post-red line, he was not willing to establish a no-fly zone over Syria, the White House calling it ‘dramatically more difficult and dangerous and costly’ than it had been in Libya in 2011.70 The same dilemma remained, if exaggerated, after the August 2013 chemical weapon attack in Damascus.

The problem is, however, that far-away problems usually do not stay there. The Syria conflict had, by mid-2013, already drawn in Lebanon and Iran on the side of Assad, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in support of the rebels, while it threatened to destabilise an already wobbly Iraq and vulnerable Jordan. The latter had accepted over 500 000 Syrian refugees by the time of President Obama’s June 2013 declaration, or one-tenth of its population, akin to the US accepting the entire Canadian population. There are other important implications, not least in letting the use of chemical weapons go unpunished as they are against international law. And the criss-crossing of the red lines may also have had an impact on the perceptions of American resolve, as evidenced by the Russian actions on Ukraine in March 2014, and more directly still by the rapid advance of the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Iraq in June 2014. This is what comes of a doctrinaire foreign policy; simply saying things do not change the facts on the ground.

Politicians willing to pronounce on problems are two a penny. Finding those politicians with the courage, constancy and integrity to not only follow their principled instinct but offer both the determination and necessary means to see them to fruition, indifferent to public opinion, is apparently much more difficult.

Why States Recover by Greg MillsExtracted from Why States Recover, published by Picador Africa and available from