Do lockdowns actually work? The case of Florida

A year ago, on the 23rd March, 2020, Boris Johnson, in a public statement, announced that the country faced a “moment of national emergency” and that staying at home was necessary to protect the NHS and save lives. He said the restrictions would be in place for at least three weeks and would be kept under constant review. While the restrictions have been tweaked, relaxed, and reimposed at various times since then, they largely remain in place 12 months later.

Six months after Boris made that statement, on 24th September, 2020, the governor of the state of Florida, Ron DeSantis, held an online roundtable meeting with three prominent scientists: Jay Bhattacharya, a medical professor at Stanford University, Martin Kulldorff, a biostatistician and epidemiologist who is a professor in the medical school at Harvard University and Michael Levitt, a biophysicist and professor of medicine at Stanford University, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2013.

The following day he announced that he was lifting all restrictions on businesses statewide that were imposed to control the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Which, for example, meant that restaurants and bars in the state could now operate at full capacity.

That effectively ended the lockdown in Florida, since other restrictions, such as those on schools doing in person teaching, had already ended.

At the time, this raised eyebrows, and Anthony Fauci said ““When you’re dealing with community spread, and you have the kind of congregate setting where people get together, particularly without masks, you’re really asking for trouble. Now’s the time actually to double down a bit.” ”

However, outside the US, there was little coverage in the media of what was happening in Florida. To this day, the BBC has hardly covered it at all, though in a story this week, it said “Florida continues to be a coronavirus hotspot in the US. The state has recorded nearly two million of the country’s 29 million infections since the pandemic began.””

So – what actually happened in Florida?

If you look at the statistics at Worldometers, at the moment, Florida has had over 2 million Covid cases – making it the number 3 state in America for cases. However, since Florida is the number 3 state in America in population, that is not particularly surprising. It is more interesting that in terms of Covid deaths, Florida is at number 4, which suggests that they are doing better than some places.

However, the important thing is to look at the actual numbers, and see how Florida compares.

And if you do, you will see that in terms of Covid deaths per head of population, Florida is actually better than average in America – at 1525 per million, as opposed to the US average of 1678 per million.

But the crucial question that needs to be asked is “What difference did it make when the governor of Florida ended the restrictions 6 months ago? Did things in Florida get much worse?”

Here are the relevant figures:


Population: 332,399,717

Covid Deaths to 25th September, 2020: 209,409.

Covid deaths 25th September 2020 – 23rd March 2021: 346,536

Total Covid deaths at 23rd March 2021: 555,945


Population: 21,477,737

Covid Deaths at 25th September, 2020: 13,915.

Covid deaths 25th September 2020 – 23rd March 2021: 18,877

Total Covid deaths at 23rd March 2021: 32,792

So, for the USA as a whole, in the period up to 25th September, the covid death rate was 627 per million, and in the period between then and now it was 1043 per million.

For Florida, in the period up to 25th September, the covid death rate was 648 per million, and in the period between then and now, it was 879 per million.

In other words, while Florida’s Covid death rate before they ended the lockdown was 3.3% above the American average, in the period since they ended the lockdown, it has been about 16% below the American average.

To be honest, that is astonishing. Not only did things in Florida not get much worse than the rest of the country, they didn’t get actually get worse at all. If anything, they got better.

What is particularly interesting is to compare Florida with California, a state that has been notable in having what is probably the tightest lockdown in America. And the numbers are very interesting.


Population: 39,512,223

Covid Deaths at 25th September, 2020: : 15,549

Covid deaths 25th September 2020 – 23rd March 2021 : 41,818

Total Covid deaths at 23rd March 2021: 57,367

In other words, before Florida ended its lockdown, California had a covid death rate of 394 per million, whereas since Florida ended its lockdown, California had death rate of 1058 per million.

So Florida’s Covid death rate before they ended the lockdown was a whopping 64% higher than that of California, but in the period since they ended the lockdown, it has actually been lower than that of California – 17% lower.

What do we make of this?

How many people expected that? Not many I suspect. If lockdowns actually did save lives, we would expect that Florida’s COVID death rate, relative to the rest of the US would have soared following the lifting of restrictions. If Florida’s relative death rate had only gone up slightly, it would have raised questions about whether the lockdowns were really worth it. The fact that it actually went down considerably blows a massive hole in the case for lockdowns.

But even without that, the evidence that lockdowns worked was very thin. There have been over 30 academic studies that have suggest that lockdowns are not effective in controlling the virus.

Not that you would know any of that from the BBC, or the governments in London and Edinburgh, or their chosen experts – all of whom continue to talk as if there is no question at all that lockdowns work. It is not that they don’t know. The Florida story has been covered in the Wall Street Journal – one of America’s most respected newspapers,, and, on American TV. The latter was interesting – because it concerned a White House covid advisor who was asked how one could explain the Florida story. He basically said he had no idea, and then moved hastily on to what he wanted to talk about.

Last week, the governor of Florida called another roundtable of scientists to look back on the experience of the past 6 months. As in September, he had Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kuldorff. This time they were joined by Professor Sunetra Gupta, an infection diseases epidemiologist from Oxford University and Professor Scott Atlas, a radiologist from Stanford.

During the discussion, Bhattacharya was asked about the efficacy of lockdowns. He responded:

. . . the international evidence and the American evidence is clear. The lockdowns have not stopped the spread of the disease in any measurable way. The disease spreads by aerosol, by droplets. It’s a respiratory disease. It’s very difficult to stop. The idea of the lockdown is incredibly, in some ways, beguiling. If you just stay apart far enough, like rats in cages, we won’t spread the disease. But humans are not like that. . . . We created this sort of this illusion that we can control the disease spread when in fact we cannot and have failed to do so.”

That’s important. There is a widespread illusion, promoted by the much of the media and the political world, that we can control the spread of Covid. But all the indicators are that it is an illusion.

And it seems that there are plenty of people who want us to continue under that illusion. A year after the introduction of lockdowns, evidence is mounting that they don’t actually work. The fact that hardly anyone seems to be saying this, and the BBC seems determined not to mention it, is seriously worrying.

COVID, fact-checks, and the suppression of scientific debate

Martin Kulldorff is a professor at Harvard University’s medical school, specialising in epidemiology. On 19th November he tweeted : “The people on SAGE .. their work is so badly and obviously flawed, lethally incompetent, .. the effect of that advice has been to cost lots of innocent people their lives from non-COVID causes”. He was quoting Michael Yeadon, a British respiratory infectious disease scientist.

Fact-checks and video removal

In his tweet, Kulldorff included a link to Michael Yeadon’s “Unlocked” video about why the lockdown was a mistake. The next day, however, Kulldorff had to report in a new tweet that YouTube had removed the video, for “violating YouTube’s Terms of Service”.

That same day, Kulldorff also retweeted a tweet from Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine :

Earlier in November, I posted a link on Facebook to The Covid Cult – a speech by podcaster Tom Woods (a Harvard graduate himself), which considered the question of whether lockdowns killed far more people than they saved – and whether lockdowns actually worked at all. Within a few days, Facebook had slapped a Fact Check warning on it, declaring it to be “Partly False”, and linking to an article from a fact checking website entitled “Non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as lockdowns and wearing face masks, are effective measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission, contrary to claims in viral video.”

A couple of days later, YouTube removed the Tom Woods video – just as they had done with Yeadon’s video.

What do lockdowns do?

There are two issues here. The first is the big question of exactly what the effects of lockdowns are. Do they actually make any difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19? And if so, how much difference do they make? And how serious are the side effects? These are important questions – and they need to be debated.

A couple of days after Facebook “fact checked” The COVID Cult, Tom Woods put out a video in which he looked at the claims of the fact-checkers and responded to them. I think his responses were pretty convincing.

Stifling debate

Which brings us to the second issue – the matter of stifling debate. This year, YouTube have repeatedly removed videos which were contributing to discussion about the Coronavirus pandemic. Facebook have repeatedly “fact checked” articles and videos on this subject. Some of the fact checks have been pretty silly. The comedian JP Sears put out a satirical video at the beginning of September , entitled “New Revelations on the COVID death count”.

Within days, Facebook had fact-checked it. When fact-checkers start fact-checking satire, you know something is wrong. Sears has responded by putting up several videos mocking fact-checkers.

The fact that Kulldorff and Heneghan – top scientists who are based at Harvard and Oxford – are not impressed by the behaviour of YouTube and Facebook, is significant. Whether you want to call it censorship, the stifling of debate, or propaganda, doesn’t matter. This just is not helpful.

As Vinay Prasad of the University of California San Fransisco writes:

“Science is not censoring. Over the course of the pandemic, YouTube removed videos by university professors with unpopular views, and Facebook and Twitter have labelled some posts as false or inaccurate. Even if we disagree with these speakers, this is dangerous. Science is the idea that we must confront, discuss, debate, and refute ideas. Using brute force, the power of the platform, to proclaim the truth is antithetical to our creed.

The simple fact is that most heretical ideas will turn out to be false, but some may be true. Academic freedom is the idea that we allow many people to be wrong, so that some may be right. That doesn’t mean we blindly accept everything folks say, in fact, it means the opposite, we must interrogate and challenge them, but we must create an environment where folks can argue their case, even if initially unpopular.

[And] Science is not a popularity contest. In an era of petitions, it seems as if science is the belief that most scientists hold. This is incorrect. Science is a process to make sense of the world, and folks in the minority may well be vindicated. In fact, throughout history, there have been many moments in medicine where the majority was wrong.

And fact-checking

I first encountered fact-checking on the internet almost 20 years ago with a site called I have not looked at it for years, but it is still there. When I first discovered it, I thought it was a great idea, and a useful resource. Over the years, accusations that some fact-checkers are often biassed have circulated, but it seems to me that 2020 has been the year when fact-checks really started to get ridiculous.

The concept of fact-checking is good. Statements made in public need to be examined. However, in practice, it seems that some fact-checks are not really the final word on a question, but merely a contribution to debate. Other fact-checks, it would seem, are positively misleading, and look like hit jobs. In the end, it all depends on the honesty of the fact-checker.

Perhaps it is no accident that the very first conversation in the Bible is about a fact-check. And the fact-checker, a serpent, turns out to be less than honest:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.
” (Genesis 3:1-4)

The moral, it seems to me, is that one should not be too quick to believe the claims of fact-checkers.

Covid-19: Are we living in a dangerous time?

This week, an article appeared in the Guardian with the headline “Sweden records highest death tally in 150 years in the first half of 2020“.

The subtitle explained: “Covid-19 caused about 4,500 deaths in six moths to end of June as Sweden opted against strict lockdown.”

The article came from Reuters, and similar articles with the same headline appeared in the Independent and the Daily Mail.

What would most readers conclude from this headline? I expect they would assume that there were a huge number of deaths in Sweden in the first half on 2020 – and that it was a dangerous place to be at that time. And they would probably also assume that the reason for this was that Sweden didn’t go into lockdown.

Looking at the numbers

However, if you start looking at the numbers, those assumptions turn out to be very questionable. In fact, paragraph three in the article tells us:

“In total, 51,405 Swedes died in the six-month period, a higher number than in any year since 1869, when 55,431 people died, partly as a result of a famine. The population of Sweden was about 4.1 million then, compared with 10.3 million now.”

Well, in any country with a steadily rising population, you would expect the number of deaths (and births) to rise steadily, so that years with a record number of deaths would not be very unusual. And Sweden does have a steadily rising population.

The more interesting and relevant statistic is found in the next paragraph:

“Covid-19 meant that deaths were about 10% higher than the average for the period over the last five years, the office said on Wednesday. “

But that leaves two important questions unanswered.

First, how does Sweden’s death rate compare with other countries over the same six-month period?

Calculating Sweden’s six-month death rate isn’t difficult: divide 51,405 by 10,300,000. That tells us that 0.499% of people in Sweden died during those 6 months – about 1 in 200.

I looked on the web for the figures for England and Wales, and discovered that 332,734 out of 59,439,840 people died in those 6 months. In other words 0.560% of the population of died.  That’s worse than Sweden.

In Scotland, the figure is 34,162 out of 5,463,300; i.e. 0.625% of those in Scotland died. Your chances of dying were about 25% higher in Scotland than they were in Sweden. In other words, Sweden wasn’t that dangerous a place to be at the time.

Second, how do death rates this year compare with death rates in previous years?

This is  interesting.    Look at the figures for previous the year in Scotland, and you’ll see that during the first six months of 2019, 0.533% of the population died – which is higher than Sweden this year.   So Sweden, without a lockdown, during the height of a Covid-19 epidemic, isn’t actually as dangerous as Scotland in an ordinary year – and 2019 was a pretty ordinary year in Scotland for death rates.

Incidentally, whereas in Sweden, according to the Guardian, this year’s six month death rate is up 10% higher than the average of the last 5 years, in Scotland the January – June death rate is 13% higher than average.


But here is something even more interesting – at least to me. If you go back 30 years, and look at the figures for Scotland in the first 6 months of 1990, you’ll find that 0.628% of the population died then. Not only is that worse than Sweden this year, it is worse that Scotland this year. Basically, Covid-19 has made life as dangerous in this country as dangerous as it was in 1990.

Would things have been much worse without a lockdown? Well, we don’t even know that. A new study by academics at the Universities of Loughborough and Sheffield suggests that “over the lockdown period as a whole Government policy has increased mortality rather than reduced it.”

The Loughborough University web site adds:

This final finding may be alarming to some, but the authors point out that the lockdown initiative was always intended to ‘flatten the curve’ (delaying the spread to avoid overburdening the NHS) and not necessarily to lower mortality rates. They also assert that the overall increase in mortality is a result of significant unintended consequences of the lockdown, for example, reduced A and E attendances and reduced cancer and cardiac treatments.

(NB: ” the lockdown initiative was always intended to ‘flatten the curve’ (delaying the spread to avoid overburdening the NHS) and not necessarily to lower mortality rates.”  A lot of people seem to have forgotten that.)

And that is not the only study indicating that lockdowns have caused large scale loss of life.

Who knows?  Perhaps the death rate would not have been very different if we had not had a lockdown.  It might even have been lower.

So yes – Covid-19 is a nasty disease.  And it can kill. But has it made the world a dangerous place?    Well, if you think that the UK 30 years ago was a seriously dangerous place, then I suppose it has.

Coronavirus, ignorance, and invisible deaths

In the film The Big Short (which is about the 2008 financial crisis), one of the characters saysHere’s a number for you: for every 1 percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die. Did you know that?”

Well, I certainly didn’t know that. And nor do I know whether it is true. A quick search, however, did turn up a 2002 article on the Yale University websitewhich reports that “In the largest study of its kind on mortality patterns in Europe and the United States, a Yale researcher has found a direct correlation between unemployment and mortality.”

The article continues:

The study showed that high unemployment rates increase mortality and low unemployment decreases mortality and increases the sense of well being in a community. Findings from the three-year study, commissioned by the European Union, will be presented to select members of the European Parliament and senior officials at a European Commission press conference on May 23 in Brussels.

Economic growth is the single most important factor relating to length of life,” said principal investigator M. Harvey Brenner, visiting professor in the Global Health Division of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Medicine. Brenner is also professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University and senior professor of epidemiology at Berlin University of Technology.

Employment is the essential element of social status and it establishes a person as a contributing member of society and also has very important implications for self-esteem,” said Brenner. “When that is taken away, people become susceptible to depression, cardiovascular disease, AIDS and many other illnesses that increase mortality.”

Prior studies on the impact of income on survival have focused on very poor countries with high poverty and infant mortality rates. This study shows that the same principles apply to highly industrialized and wealthy societies in which occupational differences based on skill level, wages and working conditions vary considerably. Brenner said this is compounded by ethnicity, and it is this distinction which still makes for the central differences in illness, mortality rates and life expectancy in industrialized countries.

The reference to poor countries with high poverty brings us to the matter of what is going on in India. Last week, the BBC had a story entitled “India’s poorest ‘fear hunger may kill us before coronavirus”  about how many people in India were terrified of the effect of the country’s lockdown.

Ramesh Kumar, who comes from Banda district in Uttar Pradesh state, said that he knew “there won’t be anybody to hire us, but we still took our chances”.

“I earn 600 rupees ($8; £6.50) every day and I have five people to feed. We will run out of food in a few days. I know the risk of coronavirus, but I can’t see my children hungry,” he said . . . .

Mohammed Sabir, who runs a tiny stall selling yogurt-based drinks in Delhi, says he had hired two people recently, anticipating more business during the summers.

“Now I can’t pay them. I don’t have any money. My family earns some money from farming in my village. But their crops were damaged this year due to hailstorms, so they were looking at me for support.

“I feel so helpless. I fear that hunger may kill many like us before coronavirus,” he said..


When it comes to Coronavirus, there is much that we don’t know. For example, different countries are reporting very different proportions of people who get the disease that die.   In Italy it is currently 11%, in the US it is 1.7%, in the UK it is 6.3%, in South Korea it is 1.6%, in Germany it is 0.8%.   Why these differences?

Is it because of where the countries are on the curve (which would mean that they will all be about the same at the end of the day)?  Is it because of the different strategies adopted in dealing with the outbreak? Is it because of cultural differences between countries, or because in some countries older people get the disease and in some countries younger people do? Or is it because of the different ways the deaths are counted? Undoubtedly these are all contributory factors – but at the moment, we just don’t know how much each contributes.

The the biggest thing we don’t know – the most important, in practical terms – is what the effects (and side effects) are of the different policies being adopted in response to the disease. What will the long term effects of lockdowns be? How many people will die as a result of them? In the long run, is it possible that imposing a lockdown could have such a serious impact on the economy that more people will die than will have died otherwise?

Swedish industrialist Jacob Wallenberg has warned that lockdowns can lead to 20%-30% unemployment rates.   If that is true – and of course we don’t know if it is – then if each 1% rise in unemployment leads to 40,000 deaths in America, we would be looking at an extra 700,000 deaths in America. If we assumed a similar effect in the UK, that would mean an extra 150,000 deaths. Frankly I am sceptical, but what do I know? However, even if it only led to an extra 20,000 deaths in the UK – that would be fairly serious.

Economics and sanctions

The problem is that a lot of people are framing the debate about Coronavirus, the economy, and lockdowns as being about weighing up the relative importance of preserving human life against preserving the economy. The reality is that the state of the economy makes a huge difference to whether people live or die. And this is something people don’t seem to be able to accept.

This is why imposing economic sanctions on a country is such an terrible thing to do, and yet hardly anyone bats an eyelid about it. In 1996, Madeline Albright, the US Secretary of State, was asked about UN sanctions against Iraq on television. “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” said the interviewer.   Albright infamously replied, “We think the price is worth it.” 

Obviously, we don’t know exactly how many children in Iraq might have died as a result of the sanctions, but the point is that hurting the economies of countries has enormous human costs.

More recently, a report, published by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) a Washington DC-based think tank, estimated that as many as 40,000 people may have died in Venezuela as a result of US sanctions that made it harder for ordinary citizens to access food, medicine and medical equipment, a new report has claimed.

And, while we are on the topic of sanctions, one of the countries which has been hardest hit by the Covid-19 outbreak is Iran. Even before the outbreak, the Iranian people were suffering real hardship because of sanctions. As one commentator wrote,

Most critics of U.S. sanctions miss this fundamental point: U.S. sanctions are doing much more than preventing Iran from importing the medicine and medical goods that it may need to tackle the virus. U.S. sanctions are proving a prohibitive bar to Iran providing the basic goods and services necessary for their people to survive this catastrophic epidemic.

Deaths visible and invisible

We don’t know how many people will die as a result of the Coronavirus. But the numbers dying are being reported regularly and I, like plenty of other people am glued to the worldometers web site and watching those figures. (At the moment, it stands at 34,034 worldwide, 1,224 in the UK, and 41 in Scotland – and who knows where those figures will end up.) 

But what I do know is that those numbers will be watched by the world, and people who die of Covid-19 will get plenty of coverage in the press.  

In the meantime, those who die because of sanctions on Venezuela and Iran will get hardly any press coverage.   In the same way, the estimated 290,000 to 650,000 who die annually as a result of influenza are pretty much unnoticed.   And it is quite possible that those who die because of the (perhaps long term) economic effects of the lockdown may get very little press coverage.

After all, the estimated 230,000 people who have died over the past five years in Yemen as a result of the Saudi led war on that country remain – mostly dying of hunger, disease, and lack of health clinics rather than bombs and bullets –  have been almost completely invisible in the western media.

(And yes, the picture at the top shows not a victim of the Coronavirus, but a child in Yemen who is a victim of the largest cholera epidemic on record.)

Murder in Mesopotamia: What the BBC isn’t telling you about Trump’s latest Iraq escapades

In April 2016, the BBC News website published an article about the Babylon Brigade, a group of Christians in Iraq who formed their own militia to protect people from ISIS. 

The writer of the article, Owen Bennett-Jones, tells of his interview with the head of the militia, a man called Rayan al-Kildani. Kildani explains

“I know the Bible says that if you get hit on one cheek you should offer the other. But we have really good defence forces now. No-one is going to do anything bad to the Christians. Some Christians had their homes taken over. I have personally been to those houses to tell the new people living there to get out. Christian suffering is over.”

Bennett-Jones then challenged him with a question:

“What about the commandment: Thou shalt not kill?”

The matter of whether a Christian militia is a contradiction in terms is one that I am not going to discuss it here. But even if one could justify having a “Christian militia” in certain circumstances, that doesn’t tell us anything about the merits of the Babylon Brigade.

But what is unquestionably true is that ISIS was on the march in Iraq in 2016, and was a threat – and not just to the Christians. It was a threat to anyone who wasn’t willing to fall in line with its extreme Sunni ideology – especially the Shi’ites, who make up about 60% of the population of Iraq.

The BBC article says that about 30 “Popular Mobilisation Units” (PMUs) had

“sprung up in the past couple of years and between them they have 100,000 armed volunteers. They were formed to block the advance of the so-called Islamic State group when it swept through north and west Iraq in 2014, even threatening Baghdad. When the Iraqi national army collapsed the militias stood firm. Most are Shia Muslim. A handful are Sunni Muslim, one is Christian – the Babylon Brigade.”

The article also explains that these PMUs were funded by the Iraqi central government.

By the way, notice the words “When the Iraqi national army collapsed the militias stood firm.” The Iraqi army was a mess, and when ISIS attacked and captured Mosul in 2014, much of the army ran away or joined the opposition. The PMUs have the loyalty and commitment of their members because they are based on religious, tribal, or political links – in much the same way that at the battle of Culloden, a lot of the troops were from clan militias.

America steps in

Almost four years later, PMUs have hit the news in a much bigger way. On the 30th December, 2019, the BBC reported on American air strikes on bases in Iraq and Syria.

Under the headline, US attacks Iran-backed militia bases in Iraq and Syria, the BBC announced

“The US has conducted air strikes in Iraq and Syria against an Iran-backed Iraqi militia blamed for an attack that killed a US civilian contractor. Weapons caches and command and control centres at five sites associated with Kataib Hezbollah were hit on Sunday, the defence department said. An Iraqi paramilitary force said 25 fighters were killed and 51 injured. The US secretary of state said it would not stand for Iran taking actions that put American lives in jeopardy. Kataib Hezbollah leader Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, who is also known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, warned that “the blood of the martyrs will not be in vain”.”

There were several things that were interesting about the BBC’s report.

First, the BBC didn’t seem to think it was very important. It was not among the top “World News” stories of the day.

Second, on the subject of PMUs, the BBC reported

A spokesman for the Popular Mobilisation, an Iraqi paramilitary force dominated by Iran-backed Shia militias like Kataib Hezbollah, said the US strikes had targeted its Al-Jazira Operations Command facility in the al-Qaim area of Anbar province, as well as fighters from its 45th and 46th brigades, ”

and added

Kataib Hezbollah (Brigades of the Party of God) is a powerful Iraqi Shia militia that receives financial and military support from Iran. 

There are three significant things the BBC report omitted to say.

First, most PMUs are actually part of the Iraqi security forces, and are under Iraqi government control. While they had been funded by the Iraqi government from early on, from December 11, 2017, “the PMU began to be entirely consolidated under the Iraqi Armed Forces, following a call by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to integrate.” The Kataib Hezbollah forces that the Americans attacked were among those that had been integrated into the Iraqi armed forces.

Second, as readers of the 2016 story would probably have guessed, what these particular PMU forces were doing was fighting ISIS.

And third, the sites in Iraq that the Americans bombed were acutally Iraqi government bases, which housed regular units of the Iraqi army alongside the PMUs.

What actually happened

What actually happened is reported by veteran Middle East reporter Elijah J Magnier

“On 27th December 2019, several rockets were fired from unidentified attackers against the K1 Iraqi military base in Kirkuk, north of Iraq. In this base, as in many others, Iraqi and US military are present on the same ground and within the same walls, even if they have different command and control HQs. Two Iraqi policemen and one American contractor were killed and 2 Iraqi Army officers and four US contractors were wounded.

The following day, Defence Secretary Mark Esper called the Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister to inform him of “his decision to bomb Kataeb Hezbollah bases in Iraq”. Mr Abdel Mahdi asked Esper to meet face-to-face, and told his interlocutor that this would be dangerous for Iraq: he rejected the US decision. Esper responded that he was “not calling to negotiate but to inform about a decision that has already been taken”. Mr Abdel Mahdi asked Esper if the US has “proof against Kataeb Hezbollah to share so Iraq can arrest those responsible for the attack on K1”. No response: Esper told Abdel Mahdi that the US was “well-informed” and that the attack would take place “in a few hours”.

In less than half an hour, US jets bombed five Iraqi security forces’ positions deployed along the Iraqi-Syrian borders, in the zone of Akashat, 538 kilometres from the K1 military base (that had been bombed by perpetrators still unknown!). The US announced the attack but omitted the fact that in these positions there were not only Kataeb Hezbollah but also Iraqi Army and Federal Police officers. Most victims of the US attack were Iraqi army and police officers. Only 9 officers of Kataeb Hezbollah – who joined the Iraqi Security Forces in 2017 – were killed. These five positions had the task of intercepting and hunting down ISIS and preventing the group’s militants from crossing the borders from the Anbar desert. The closest city to these bombed positions is al-Qaem, 150 km away.

In short, rockets were fired into an Iraqi military base by unknown people. A US contractor and 2 Iraqi policemen were killed. The American government proceeded to bomb 5 Iraqi positions 400 miles away, killing several Iraqi soldiers and police officers who were fighting ISIS. The Americans told the Iraqi government that they were going to do it, without asking permission. They did not offer any evidence that Kataeb Hezbollah was responsible for the first attack. And they still have not done so.

There are two big differences between Magnier’s report and that of the BBC. One is that Elijah Magnier doesn’t say anything about links between Kataeb Hezbollah and Iran, and mentions Iran only peripherally in the story, while the BBC makes the story about Iran. The other is that the BBC completely omits any reference to ISIS.

It seems to me that the BBC is basically reporting the perspective of the US and UK governments, whereas Elijah Magnier is reporting how it looks to the government and people of Iraq – i.e. the people on the ground. The US government talks non-stop about Iran – but from the point of view of ordinary Iraqis – this was about mostly about Iraq. Which brings us back to Rayan al-Kildani, the leader of the “Christian militia” that has been fighting ISIS. Kildani’s tweeted responseto the attack was “Mr Trump, we are standing here & have not come from Iran. We are Iraqis & the children & brothers of those you killed. This is the widespread rage of Iraqis.”

A lot of Iraqis were angry that another country, which their government had invited into Iraq in 2014 to help them fight ISIS, was now killing members of the Iraqi security forces who were involved in the battle against ISIS. Not surprisingly, protests took place at the American Embassy in Baghdad.

Things got worse. On the 3rd of January, Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian Major General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was blown up at Baghdad airport by an American fired drone. Also killed in the drone strike was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of the PMUs. Two days later, the Iraqi Parliament voted to ask the America to remove its troops from Iraq.

We’re not leaving

This did not go down well with Donald Trump:

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, the U.S. president said: “If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” Trump said.

The president added that “If there’s any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate, we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions on Iraq.”

The “We’re not leaving unless they pay us back“, comment, while typically Trumpian, is worrying, since “the U.S. already has binding legal agreements with Iraq which stipulate that the bases, and all fixed installations the U.S. has built there, are the property of Iraq.”

Everything that has happened since, has indicated that, despite the fact that American troops are in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government, that they have no intention of leaving. Later that week,the US State Department said that the U.S. will not hold discussions with Iraq regarding American troop withdrawal from the country:

At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership — not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.

A couple of days later, Iraqi officials said that the Trump administration had warned Iraq that it could lose access to its central bank account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York if Baghdad expels American troops from the region. If that were to happen, it would cripple the Iraqi economy.


Which brings us back to Trump’s threat of “sanctions like they have never seen before” against Iraq. Because there is another thing that the BBC has not mentioned in its coverage of this story – something which I think is relevant.

In 1998, Denis Halliday, the the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq resigned from his post. He did so because of the effect of the UN’s sanctions against Iraq. He stated:

I was driven to resignation because I refused to continue to take Security Council orders, the same Security Council that had imposed and sustained genocidal sanctions on the innocent of Iraq. I did not want to be complicit. I wanted to be free to speak out publicly about this crime.

And above all, my innate sense of justice was and still is outraged by the violence that UN sanctions have brought upon, and continues to bring upon, the lives of children, families – the extended families, the loved ones of Iraq. There is no justification for killing the young people of Iraq, not the aged, not the sick, not the rich, not the poor.

Some will tell you that the leadership is punishing the Iraqi people. That is not my perception, or experience from living in Baghdad. And were that to be the case – how can that possibly justify further punishment, in fact collective punishment, by the United Nations? I don’t think so. And international law has no provision for the disproportionate and murderous consequences of the ongoing UN embargo – for well over 12 long years.

Note the words “genocidal” and “murderous”.

In fact, two years earlier, in 1996, a famous exchange took on American TV. The presenter of the asked Madeline Albright, the US Secretary of State, “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright replied, “We think the price is worth it.”

And now Donald Trump is threatening “sanctions like they have never seen before” against Iraq – and almost nobody is saying anything about it.

I have commented on sanctions before.

I quoted a piece by Patrick Cockburn:

The record of economic sanctions in forcing political change is dismal, but as a way of reducing a country to poverty and misery it is difficult to beat. ” But, as I said then, and will say again – perhaps the most helpful thing about the article is it’s title: “It’s time we saw economic sanctions for what they really are – war crimes.

A form of military action that kills children and other civilians in large numbers, but does not actually take action in the field of battle against combatants does, indeed, look suspiciously like a war crime – not to mention a violation of the sixth commandment.

Which brings us back to the Owen Bennet-Jones question: “What about the commandment: Thou shalt not kill?”  Perhaps the question needs to be asked of western political leaders as much as of Iraqi militia commanders.


Truth, fiction, gullibility, and the Iran crisis

Over the past two weeks, world news has been dominated by events in the Middle East, and in particular, what has been happening in Iraq. While the Iraqi government and Iraqi people have played some role in this, the story has mainly been about the governments of America and Iran.

The question that any honest person should ask – or at least any honest person with a modicum of intelligence – is “What is the truth?” In other words: “What actually happened? What are the relevant facts? How true are the claims being made?”

I am not sure that many people are seriously asking this question.  Most people simply ask “Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?”, and then take it from there. But honest people need to start by asking “What is the truth?”, because the claims are flying.

In times of international crisis, it is the habit of many people to accept what their own governments are saying. This is a bad habit. It is better to look for the facts – and also to look at the records of the governments involved. However, looking at the record of governments requires a bit of effort, since most media outlets tend to reflect that positions of the governments of their own countries.

Let’s take a look at the record of western governments and the western media in the Middle East in recent years.


With regard to Syria, here is what Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Aid, said back in 2016:

The Christian community in Syria is already suffering as a result of the unrest there and this will surely only intensify in the event of Western-backed military intervention. Christians in the West should not stand by and allow their governments to destroy Syria – and the Syrian Church – in pursuit of their own political interests in the region. I urge Christians not to accept blindly all the mainstream media reports about this conflict but to read for themselves the carefully considered arguments of dissenting voices.

Basically, America and Britain supported Islamic militants in Syria, while claiming that they were supporting “moderate rebels.” And most of the western media went along with it.

Iraq 2003

Then there is the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The American government based its invasion in 2003 on the fact that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction – and also that the Iraqi government had been involved in the 9/11 attacks. Both these claims turned out to be completely false. They were, however believed by the vast majority of Americans back in 2003, partly because American media coverage encouraged such a belief.

Patrick Cockburn, of the Independent, an award-winning journalist, wrote:

The extreme bias shown in foreign media coverage of similar events in Iraq and Syria will be a rewarding subject for PhDs students looking at the uses and abuses of propaganda down the ages. 


Then there is Libya. In 2011, America, Britain and France intervened on behalf of rebels in Libya – leading to the toppling of the government there, and ongoing civil war and chaos ever since.

In 2016, the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee published its report “Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options.” The report showed that many of the claims of western governments about the situation in Libya were simply untrue,  and that much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events.

I pointed out at the time that it was worth noticing that Western media are biased in exactly the same direction as their governments.


And then there is Afghanistan. Just a month ago,

An extensive investigation by The Washington Post into a trove of confidential documents has found that the government has been deliberately misleading the public about the war in Afghanistan with dishonest claims of progress senior officials knew to be untrue:

Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.

And on and on it goes.


Col. Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell when America and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003, and who has been very critical of the lies told by the Bush administration in the lead up to the invasion, was scathing about the claims coming from the Trump administration. In a recent interview, he commented that at least the lies had some credibility; the lies coming out of the White House in 2020, by comparison, were so utterly bizarre and silly as to be laughable:

These lies are not nearly as good as Dick Cheney’s lies or Donald Rumsfeld’s lies. Go back and look at some of those press conferences that those guys conducted. I mean their lies were pretty well-rounded and pretty well shaped. These lies are risible. They’re laughable – especially Pence’s.

And yet – they are being reported by the western media with a straight face, and are being widely believed.

A week ago, (in an article that is well worth reading), Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, wrote

The ruling Establishment has learnt a profound lesson from the debacle over Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. The lesson they have learnt is not that it is wrong to attack and destroy an entire country on the basis of lies. . . .

No, the lesson they have learnt is never to admit they lied, never to admit they were wrong. They see the ghost-like waxen visage of Tony Blair wandering around, stinking rich but less popular than an Epstein birthday party, and realise that being widely recognised as a lying mass murderer is not a good career choice. They have learnt that the mistake is for the Establishment ever to admit the lies.

The Establishment had to do a certain amount of collective self-flagellation over the non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, over which they precipitated the death and maiming of millions of people. . . . These situations are now avoided by the realisation of the security services that in future they just have to brazen it out. The simple truth of the matter – and it is a truth – is this. If the Iraq WMD situation occurred today, and the security services decided to brazen it out and claim that WMD had indeed been found, there is not a mainstream media outlet that would contradict them.

And he concludes:

What we are seeing is the terrifying rise of the zombie state narrative in Western culture. It does not matter how definitively we can prove that something is a lie, the full spectrum dominance of the Establishment in media resources is such that the lie is impossible to kill off, and the state manages to implant that lie as the truth in the minds of a sufficient majority of the populace to ride roughshod over objective truth with great success. It follows in the state narrative that anybody who challenges the state’s version of truth is themselves dishonest or mad, and the state manages also to implant that notion into a sufficient majority of the populace.

These are truly chilling times.


Perhaps all times are chilling. Two thousand years ago, Jesus said

“For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth.”  (John 18:37)

The man he was speaking to responded by muttering “What is truth?”

He was, of course, someone who had a lot of experience in politics.

I suspect that most people today don’t take much more interest in truth than Pontius Pilate did. But there is such a thing as truth. It is often unpopular. But it matters. And honest people will look for it with an open mind, and stand up for it.

How should Christians vote in elections?

With an election coming up in the UK, a lot of Christians will be thinking about how to vote. Of course, it isn’t just Christians who are wondering how to vote – all sorts of people will. But the priorities of Christians will, inevitably, be different from the priorities of most other people. So what should the priorities for Christians be?

Does the Bible have anything to say?

Of course, if you ask Christians what their priorities are, and what they think the most important issues are, you will get a variety of responses. So I want to ask “Does the Bible give us any guidance on this?” And I think that it does. And my starting point is something that the apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to Timothy:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”      (I Timothy 2:1-4 )

What does Paul want more than anything else? He wants as many people as possible to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. This was what he spent his life doing. In fact, that is the mission of the church. When Jesus sent his disciples out, he told them to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

So – what does this have to do with politics?

Well, when Paul urges prayer for all people, he singles out one group of people in particular: kings and all who are in high positions – in other words, rulers – which for us in the west today, basically means politicians. It does not just mean politicians – it also includes judges, but primarily, it means those who hold political power. And Paul tells us why we are to pray for those who rule.

What does he want us to request when we pray for them? He says that we are to pray for rulers so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (I suspect that, if we didn’t know what he was going to say, that we probably wouldn’t have guessed that.)

Praying that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life

Many people have been surprised by those words. Gordon Fee comments, “For many scholars, this sounds terribly bourgeois, even selfish“. But Paul’s point is that the lives of all people are affected by those who hold power – and that includes Christians who seek to proclaim the gospel and live a godly life. Paul says this, of course, because his big concern is that Christians should proclaim the gospel and live godly lives. And that should be true for Christians today as well.

And Paul connects the matter of proclaiming the gospel and living a godly life with rulers, because he knows from personal experience that his own ability to proclaim the gospel, and the ability of Christians in his day, to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way,” was much affected by those who ruled.

To quote John Stott’s comments on this verse:

Paul is quite specific in directing why the church should pray for national leaders. It is first and foremost that we may live peaceful and quiet lives. For the basic benefit of good government is peace, meaning freedom both from war and from civil strife. Paul had many experiences of this blessing, when Roman officials had intervened on his behalf, not least in Ephesus itself when a great disturbance about the Way had arisen, and the city clerk had succeeded in quelling it.

Prayer for peace is not to be dismissed as selfish. Its motivation can be altruistic, namely that only with an ordered society is the church free to fulfil its God-given responsibilities without hindrance. . . .

[Another] benefit of peace is implied in verse 3. . . . The logic of this seems to be that peaceful conditions facilitate the propagation of the gospel. . . . The ultimate object of our prayers for national leaders, then, is that in the context of the peace they preserve, religion and morality can flourish, and evangelism go forward without interruption.

Stott adds:

Here is important apostolic teaching about church and state, and about the proper relations between them, even when the state is not Christian. It is the duty of the state to keep the peace, to protects its citizens from whatever would disturb it, to preserve law and order… and to punish evil and promote good… so that within such a stable society the church may be free to worship God, obey his laws, and spread his gospel.

Conversely, it is the duty of the church to pray for the state, so that its leaders may administer justice and pursue peace, and to add to its intercession thanksgiving, especially for the blessings of good government as a gift of God’s common grace. Thus church and state have reciprocal duties, the church to pray for the state (and be its conscience), the state to protect the church (so that it may go free to perform its duties) ….”

In other words, the most important thing that government does, as far as the apostle Paul is concerned, is to ensure that Christians can do what Christians are supposed to do. And this means he wants to see governments keeping the peace, preserving law and order, giving the church freedom to perform its duties, and allowing evangelism to go forward without interruption.

Matters such the economy, housing, education, healthcare, the environment, and yes, even Brexit – which are of considerable interest to most of us, are not the sort of things that Paul was concerned about. And I believe that they are not the sort of things Paul would be particularly concerned about today. So, while these things are not irrelevant, and are worth thinking about – they should not be the big issues for Christians who are serious about being faithful to the Bible, and who are serious about the mission of the church to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

Voting in Britain in 2019

Which brings us back to elections. If the one thing that the Bible tells Christians to pray for with regard to politicians is that they would let us lead peaceful and quiet lives – then that should be the main thing, or even the one thing, that we want in politicians, and that we should look for at election time.

In practice, what does that mean for voters in Britain today? The answer, it seems to me, is that there is, on the surface, not much to choose between the different parties. They all have similar policies with regard to law and order, and protecting citizens from things that would disturb it. And it doesn’t seem that there is much to be concerned about. Britain has been, and looks like continuing to be, a place where Christians can lead peaceful and quiet lives.

There are, however, two things that I think we should be concerned about – and that we should be praying about, and that we should be thinking about at election time.


The first is the matter of freedom. If the church is to be free to perform its duties, evangelism is to be allowed to go forward without interruption, there must be certain freedoms in society. I suppose some people might want to work to ensure Christianity is in some way recognised as being the official religion of the state. It seems to me that in the current climate, that is not likely to happen. I would also add that when it has happened in the past, it has often meant that some Christians were not particularly free. Think, for example, of the way that Christian England put John Bunyan in prison for preaching.

In other words, one of the issues that we need to be thinking about at election times is freedom. To quote a recent article article in Spiked by Inaya Folarin Iman (who is actually a candidate in the upcoming election)

“Over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen a significant erosion of our fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. Yet few political parties seem to consider this erosion of freedom a problem. This is not surprising, as both main parties have long sought to drastically expand the scope and power of the state at the expense of individual liberty. In my opinion, a society that promises ‘freebies’ without defending our fundamental rights is one that has lost its way.”

The article mentions the case of Oluwole Ilesanmi a 64-year-old man from Nigeria who came to the UK nine years ago, and who has toured the country reading aloud from the Bible, spending hours outside train stations. He was arrested after calling Islam an ‘aberration’.

Then there is the case of Harry Millera 53-year-old docker and former police officer, was investigated by Humberside Police for retweeting a supposedly transphobic poem. Speaking to a police officer on the phone, Miller asked whether he had committed a crime, to which came the ominous response: ‘We need to check your thinking.’

In Finland, a member of parliament is being investigated by the police who are considering charges against her over a 2004 pamphlet she wrote defending the Lutheran Church’s traditional teaching about marriage. She reports that during the investigations, the police “asked about the contents of the Letter to the Romans.”

As Iman says, “These cases may be extreme, but they are also the logical result of giving the state the power to arrest people on the grounds that they have expressed hatred.

It is pretty clear that neither Ilesanmi, nor Miller, nor Rasanen was motivated by hatred, or was doing anything that was hurting anyone. The fact that the police got involved in all three cases is an indication that freedom of speech in the west is a concept that is under threat. That is something that should concern Christians, and it is something that should be an election issue.

A peaceful life

The second matter of political policy that Christians should be seriously concerned about at election time is peace. Paul urged prayer “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” But that raises a question: “Who is we?” The answer is obviously Christians.

Which Christians? Again, the answer is obvious. Paul meant all Christians everywhere. Which means that when we pray for rulers so that “we” may be able to lead a peaceful and quiet life, we shouldn’t just be praying that Christians in our own country would be able to lead a peaceful and quiet life, but that rulers would act in such a way that Christians all over the world would be able to lead a peaceful and quiet life. One obvious implication of that is that Christians in the UK will pray for rulers in, say China, to rule in a way that allows Chinese Christians to live a peaceful and quiet life.

But there is a second implication, which has relevance not just for the way we pray, but also for the way we vote. The actions of the rulers in one country can have a big impact on the peace in another country.

Atthe 2nd International Conference on Persecuted Christians in Budapest last week,  Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syrian Orthodox Church spoke about what has happened in the Middle East in recent years, and said “Our estimation is that more than 90% of Christians have left Iraq and almost 50% of Christians of Syria have left the country. ”

The reason why so many people have left these countries is that they have been breakdown of peace. Twenty years ago, for all the problems that these countries had, Christians were pretty much able to get on with living a peaceful and quiet life, and the church was able to go about the work of evangelism. The coming of war to those countries changed all that completely. In Iraq, that war came about completely because of the actions, not of the Iraqi government, but of the governments of America and the UK. In Syria, the breakdown of the order and descent into civil war was largely due to the actions of the governments that were hostile to the government of Syria, and wanted to see it brought down. America played a large part in that, and the UK was also involved to some extent.

The foreign policy pursued by our government is something that has very little impact on the life of people in this country – but it has had a huge impact on the lives of people in other countries – and often not for the better.

It is probably true that there are other things that the governments do which can affect the ability of Christians to lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. But it seems to me that at the moment, the two big issues are civil liberties – especially freedom of speech – and foreign policy, particularly with regard to war and peace. Sadly, very few politicians and voters seem to be talking much about these things at the moment.

How to vote

So how should Christians vote in elections?

By that, I don’t mean “Which candidate, which party, should they vote for?” I mean “How should they approach the question of who they might vote for?” And the answer I would give is “Vote according to what the Bible says.” And it seems to me that there is no other passage in the whole of the Bible that speaks more clearly about what Christians should want to see in their rulers than what Paul has to say in I Timothy 2.

Yes, I know that many Christians want governments that will, by political action, promote Christian values in society. To be honest, I think that it is completely unrealistic in the present climate to hope for that. Indeed, perhaps it always was. But more importantly, there is nothing in the New Testament which suggests that Christians should look for that.

And yes, the Bible has a huge amount to say about rulers, good and bad. But much of that is in the Old Testament, and was about what kind of king God wanted as ruler of his own people. As the Old Testament comes to an end, and Jerusalem is conquered by the Babylonians, we come to a time when God’s people live under pagan kings. We see that some of those kings are better than others from the perspective of how they treat God’s people. And much the same is true in the New Testament. And that suggests that we should want rulers who are honest rather than dishonest, and merciful rather than cruel, and who are fair and impartial rather than biased or prejudiced. But surely fairness, honesty and mercy are very much qualities in rulers that allow people to lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way.

I Timothy 2 may be the only place in the Bible that explicitly says what Christians should look for, hope for, and pray for in their rulers – but it also fits with everything else we read in the Bible about good and bad kings.  And so, it seems to me, it is the place in the Bible that we should go to for guidance about how we should vote.

War and remembrance, then and now: What – and who – should we be remembering?

A year ago today marked 100 years since World War I came to and end, and all over the world, people gathered to remember.  The day before yesterday also marked an important anniversary: 40 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which (symbolically), marked the end of the Cold War – or, at least, the beginning of the end.

The Cold War was not a war as such, but

“a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union with its satellite states (the Eastern Bloc), and the United States with its allies (the Western Bloc) after World War II.” 

And while it was not a war as such, it did include some serious wars, such as the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Anniversaries like these are always opportunities for people to look back, and to remember. The questions are “What (or who) exactly are we to remember – and why?” One obvious reason to remember is so that we can try to learn from the past. Learning from the past isn’t always that easy – two people can study an event that happened in the past and come to different conclusions as to what they ought to learn from it. Looking back at the Cold War is a case in point. Andrew Bacevich, formerly a colonel in the US Army, and now a professor at Boston University, reckons that America learned the wrong lessons from the Cold War, and Daniel Larison agrees:

One of the wrong lessons that U.S. policy-makers drew from the events of 1989-1991 was that the U.S. was chiefly responsible for ending and “winning” the Cold War, which inevitably overestimated our government’s capabilities and effectiveness in affecting the political fortunes of other parts of the world. The far more critical and important role of the peoples of central and eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself in overthrowing the system that had oppressed them was pushed into the background as much as possible. The U.S. took credit for their success and policy-makers frequently attributed the outcome to the policies of the late Cold War rather than to the deficiencies and failings of the other system. After waging stalemated and failed wars in the name of anticommunism, U.S. policy-makers wanted to be able to claim that they had “won” something, and so they declared victory for something that they hadn’t caused.

And, having misread history, the US government made serious errors in policy:

The U.S. not only congratulated itself for achieving something that was accomplished by others, but it also assumed that it could achieve similar results in other parts of the world. . . . That triumphalism sowed the seeds for many of the more significant post-Cold War failures that we have witnessed since then. 

And Larison concludes:

American policy-makers are not known for sober re-examination and acknowledgement of error, but these are exactly the things that are needed if we are to stop making the same blunders and learning the wrong lessons from the past.

But an even more basic mistake with regard to war is to forget what we are remembering. 

Four Days

If one looks up Remembrance Day on Wikipedia, a note under the title says

“Not to be confused with Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day.    This article is about the military memorial day on 11 November. “

The article then says

“Remembrance Day (sometimes known informally as Poppy Day owing to the tradition of the remembrance poppy) is a memorial day observed in Commonwealth member states since the end of the First World War to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. Following a tradition inaugurated by King George V in 1919, the day is also marked by war remembrances in many non-Commonwealth countries. “

If one goes to the page on Armistice Day, the note says

“This article is about the memorial day to honour the war dead following the Armistice at the end of World War I. For memorials on 11 November after World War II, associated traditions in Commonwealth countries and more details of related memorials in other countries, see Remembrance Day.”

The article begins:

“Armistice Day is commemorated every year on 11 November to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France at 5:45 am, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I,”

Well, I was confused – and I suspect that I am not the only one. Apparently today is both Remembrance Day and Armistice Day. I honestly wonder how many people in the UK know that? I doubt that there are many.

To add to the confusion, in America, today is Veterans’ Day:

“Veterans Day (originally known as Armistice Day) is a federal holiday in the United States observed annually on November 11, for honoring military veterans, that is, persons who have served in the United States Armed Forces (and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable). It coincides with other holidays including Armistice Day and Remembrance Day which are celebrated in other countries that mark the anniversary of the end of World War I. Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. At the urging of major U.S. veteran organizations, Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.”

And to complete it, yesterday was Remembrance Sunday.

“Remembrance Sunday is held in the United Kingdom as a day “to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts“”

That quote, by the way, comes from the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

What should we remember?

Which brings us to the question: what exactly are we supposed to be remembering at this time of year? And who is to tell us? The Department of Culture, Media, and Sport?

Well, if we go back to Wikipedia’s article about Remembrance Day, it says “Remembrance Day is observed on 11 November in most countries to recall the end of hostilities of First World War on that date in 1918. . . . The tradition of Remembrance Day evolved out of Armistice Day.”

In other words, Armistice Day was the original – and everything else is either a renaming or a spin off. The whole thing started with celebrating the coming of peace, and remembering the carnage, and ended up, thanks to politicians, being about remembering the service of members of the armed forces.

Hence Danny Sjursen (a retired U.S. Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at the United States Military Academy at West Point, in an article entitled “Why we must reclaim Armistice Day”  writes

The original spirit was ‘never again.’ Today, thanks to endless war, we celebrate veterans with a mere ‘thank you.’ 

and goes on to say

for all of World War I’s horror, futility, absurdity even, the veterans of the war collectively emerged from the sodden trenches imbued with a vocal philosophy of never again. Indeed, they celebrated the moment the guns finally fell silent, the 11th minute, or the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, 1918, as Armistice Day. It was, romantic as it now seems, widely believed that theirs would be the last war. In fact, millions of lucky survivors left the war deeply dedicated to ensuring that be the case. Much of the finest Western literature of the 20th century, unsurprisingly, generated from the pens of disgruntled, damaged veterans—Hemingway, Graves, Fitzgerald, Sassoon, and many more—forever changed by the experience of needless war.

If the original spirit was “never again” – that is certainly a worthy goal. And one of the reasons why World War I was the war that gave us Armistice Day (and Remembrance Day, Veterans’ Day, and Remembrance Sunday) – is because in some sense, that war was particularly horrific and costly. 

Remembering the forgotten

But war goes on, and it continues to be incredibly costly. Last month, a UN Development Programme report came out that said “If fighting continues through 2022, Yemen will rank the poorest country in the world, with 79 percent of the population living under the poverty line and 65 percent classified as extremely poor.”

Yemen was poor before the 2015 war began, but the poverty has gotten much, much worse. For over a year now, the situation in Yemen has been recognised as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and it is entirely man made. Daniel Larison again:

“Yemen’s civil war has killed more than 100,000 people since 2015, a database project that tracks violence said Thursday.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, said in a new report its death toll includes more than 12,000 civilians killed in attacks targeting civilians directly.

The report is counting only combat fatalities and civilian casualties, but the war has been much more destructive than this number alone would suggest. The estimated loss of life from starvation and disease caused by the war and coalition policies is more than 130,000, and that is likely to be on the low end. “

In 1914, Lawrence Binyon, in a poem entitled “For the Fallen”, wrote a line that is heard by millions every year at this time: “we will remember them.” By “them”, Binyon meant members of the British Armed forces killed in action in World War I.

But when the words are said today, they apply to many other people. What about including the people in Yemen who have died as a result of starvation and disease caused by war? Is there any chance that we will remember them? 



I like what Danny Sjursen says about “never again”. 

But when he says “It was, romantic as it now seems, widely believed that theirs would be the last war. In fact, millions of lucky survivors left the war deeply dedicated to ensuring that be the case“, one does not quite know whether to be wistful about their idealism, or just to smile sadly at their lack of realism. 

And I go back to what Daniel Larison said about the hubris of US policy-makers, who “wanted to be able to claim that they had “won” something, and so they declared victory for something that they hadn’t caused.”    We – i.e. people – tend to think that we can achieve things that are simply beyond us. 

However, I do believe that there will be a time when wars will cease.  It won’t be human effort that will bring that about.  Almost 3000 years ago, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote:

In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.   Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.”

That tells me that the hopes and goals of those idealists who said “Never again” were sound.  But furthermore, I believe Isaiah is right.  I don’t know exactly how it is going to happen.    But Isaiah also say something about how it will happen, and about the person who is going to bring it about.

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan — The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.  You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.  For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.  Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.  

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.

The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”   

There are some things that we can’t achieve.   In the meantime, however, we can get on with doing as much as we humanly can to keep war (and the damage it causes) to a minimum – and to look to the government of the Prince of Peace (rather than the kind of governments this world has at the moment) as the answer to the problems that the world faces.


Are governments above the law?

The Bible tells us that before the Israelites entered the promised land, God gave them some instructions about how their kings should rule. There were not too many of them. After briefly stating that the king shall not acquire many horses for himself, or many wives, or excessive silver and gold, we come to the big one (Deuteronomy 17:18-20):

“And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.”

In short, the king must know the law, and stick to it. It was not the duty of rulers to make laws, but to keep them – and also, presumably, to enforce them.   The law was central, and rulers were not above it.

Thus the Bible sets out what is known today as the rule of law, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as

“The authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.”

In theory, western countries hold to the principle of the rule of law. But in practice, it often is not so. I was struck by this when reading about a news story on the BBC website, entitled “NATO alliance experiencing brain death, says Macron” 

According to the BBC,

“President Emmanuel Macron of France has described NATO as “brain dead”, stressing what he sees as waning commitment to the transatlantic alliance by its main guarantor, the US. Interviewed by the Economist, he cited the US failure to consult NATO before pulling forces out of northern Syria. He also questioned whether NATO was still committed to collective defence.”

The article raises a few interesting points. It says

“Originally set up to promote “stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area”, NATO was faced with finding a new purpose after the demise of the Soviet Union. ”

Or, to put it another way, NATO had lost its purpose, but instead of just deciding to wind it up, the members set about finding something new for it to do.

So – what was America doing in Syria, and why should NATO have been consulted about the US pulling forces out? The article doesn’t explain what American forces were doing in Syria, though it does say that Kurdish forces were “helping the US fight the Islamic State (IS) group”,  and that Turkey (a NATO member) was pushing into Syria (in order to expel the Kurdish forces), and that Mr Macron at the time criticised NATO’s failure to respond to the Turkish offensive.

In other words, one NATO member was working with some forces that another NATO member was attacking. (The Turks were attacking the Kurdish forces because they considered the Kurds to be a threat.) The BBC also mentions that Article Five of NATO’s founding charter stipulates that an attack on one member will produce a collective response from the alliance.  This presumably means that if Kurdish forces attacked the Turks, the Turks could invoke Article Five, and other NATO countries would have to attack the Kurds. Which raises big questions about NATO.

But the important thing is what BBC does not point out. The elephant in the room is that America’s presence in Syria is illegal under international law, because they are not there at the invitation of the Syrian government. You can’t just move your armed forces into any country you want to carry out military operations.  The Syrian government was fighting ISIS, and had allies (principally Russia) assisting them in the task, and were doing a pretty good job.  They would rather get on the fight ISIS (which they have been doing) without the Americans there to get in the way. Indeed, as I have pointed out before, on one occasion, when the Syrian Army was fighting ISIS, America stepped in to do ISIS a favour by bombing Syrian Army positions. (America claimed afterwards that it was an accident, but that is somewhat questionable.)

So – Macron has criticised America for failing to consult NATO allies about moving troops. He has criticised America for failing to respond to the Turkish offensive. But he has said nothing about the much more basic problem that the very fact that American forces are in NW Syria is illegal. In other words, he isn’t that concerned about the rule of law. In fact, there are French & British forces with the Americans in NW Syria, so Macron is not just unconcerned about rule of law, but is also violating it. 

So far, this has not been a big problem for the French and British governments.  But the fact that the Britain and France remain involved with the US in NW Syria when Donald Trump is talking about seizing Syria’s oil means that Britain and France could find themselves complicit in his oil grab.   As explained by Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria:

“Legally this matters because if Trump puts into practice his promise to seize Syrian oil production, that will constitute, according to authoritative legal experts, a violation of international law against ‘pillaging’ enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention and thus constitute a war crime. Any party complicit in pillaging, and that would surely include other parties in the Joint Task Force, even if only headquarters staff and not boots on the ground, could also be culpable. The British government might find itself challenged in a UK court even if no international court could be found willing to act. “

Our values

The BBC article about Macron mentions “the liberal democratic values that lie at NATO’s core. ” I don’t have a problem with liberal democratic values, but whatever these values are, they don’t seem to include respect for the rule of law. And, to be honest, it seems to me that the rule of law – that governments are as subject to laws as anyone else – is about the most important and most basic political value that there is.

If you want to understand the Kurds, look at Catalonia

Catalonia is in the news again.  This time, Scotland is involved.   Clara Ponsati,  a 62 year old lady who is a professor at the University of St Andrews is wanted by the Spanish authories, and a European arrest warrant has been issued against her because of her role in the 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia.

Over the past few weeks, Catalonia has been in the news a lot – and so have the Syrian Kurds. Strangely enough, they go together. Perhaps people don’t often think of Barcelona as having significance for the Middle East, but in this case, it does.

In fact, curiously enough, the Catalan referendum of two years ago (1st October 2017) almost coincided with a referendum that took place in Kurdistan (25th September 2017). In that case, it was Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Catalan referendum asked “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?   The Iraqi Kurdish referendum asked “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Region to become an independent state? ” Both referendums got had large majorities in favour of independence – but neither went well. Neither the Spanish nor the Iraqi governments approved, and both clamped down pretty hard as a result.

Well, the Kurds and Catalonia are both back in the news. In the case of Catalonia, it really started with the news is that “Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to between nine and 13 years in prison. “

However, it isn’t the Iraqi Kurds that are in the news this time, it is the Syrian Kurds. Turkey, which considers elements of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a terrorist organisation, invaded Syria in order to push the SDF forces away from the border area. After Turkey announced that it would be invading, American President Donald Trump announced that the American military, who have been embedded with and working with the SDF forces for the past few years, would get out of the way, and not stop the Turks. There was much concern in America, with claims that Donald Trump was betraying America’s loyal allies, the Kurds, and allowing them to be slaughtered. In the event, that didn’t quite happen. An agreement was quickly hammered out between Turkey, Russia, Syria and the SDF.

The situation on the ground, however, remains messy.

The fact of the matter is, what was happening in Spain sheds a lot of light on what is happening in Syria. To say that the Spanish government didn’t like the fact that the Catalan authorities held an independence referendum is putting it mildly. They viewed the holding of the referendum as a dangerous crime, as is evidenced by a Tweet from ‘Catalans For Yes‘:

catalans for yes_crop

The Catalans didn’t take up arms, they didn’t use violence, but they were, in the eyes of the Spanish government, criminals who had done something seriously wrong.

The SDF in Syria, by contrast, took up arms (and used violence) to break free of Syrian government control. What the ordinary Kurds thought of all this is not recorded – but Kurds, like people elsewhere, don’t all agree about politics. The SDF don’t actually have any electoral mandate. 

The truth about “the Kurds”

And the truth about the SDF is rather messy. The SDF is, in fact, not a purely Kurdish group, but an alliance which is dominated by the Kurdish separatist group, the YPG. The YPG is closely related to a Kurdish group in Turkey, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party); both were  founded by Abdullah Öcalan, and look to him for leadership, and both have very similar flags.

Turkey regards the PKK as a terrorist organisation, and hence considers the YPG to be a terrorist organisation, and takes the view that an area on their border controlled by the SDF – in reality, the YPG – is a serious threat.

The USA also regards the PKK as a terrorist organisation, but was quite happy, for political reasons, to work with and arm the YPG. (For more on the intellectual and legal gymnastics involved in the USA arming a group that it effectively considered a terrorist group, see Scott Ritter’s recent article “Our Kurdish Hero…the Terrorist?” )

Ritter explains that the SDF commander that Donald Trump wants to invite to Washington, and who is feted as a hero by Trump, Congress, and the American media, was involved in PKK attacks in Turkey in the 1990s that killed dozens of Turkish soldiers and civilians. But today, there are plenty of Americans who, in all seriousness, refer to the SDF “loyal allies”. In fact, they were not really allies at all – but proxies or mercenaries.   (Turkey, on the other hand, being a member of NATO, really is an ally of America.)

So why was America working with the SDF?

Barak Obama explained in a highly revealing 2012 interviewin which the interviewer, Jeffrey Goldberg, said to Obama: “But it would seem to me that one way to weaken and further isolate Iran is to remove or help remove Iran’s only Arab ally. ”

Obama replied “Absolutely”, adding

And it is our estimation that [President Bashar al-Assad’s] days are numbered. It’s a matter not of if, but when. Now, can we accelerate that? We’re working with the world community to try to do that.

When Goldberg asked: Is there anything you could do to move it faster? Obama replied:

“Well, nothing that I can tell you, because your classified clearance isn’t good enough.”

And so the CIA launched Operation Timber Sycamore  co-operating with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to support various militias (notably the Free Syrian Army), which in turn worked closely with Jihadists, and in practice were dominated by al-Nusra, which was basically al-Qaeda in Syria.  The chaos in Syria and Iraq led to the rise of ISIS, at which point the American military got involved, and worked with the YPG / SDF  against ISIS. 

Needless to say the militias supported by the CIA and Turkey  didn’t exactly get along with the YPG / SDF, and often were in conflict with them.  Eventually, in 2017, Operation Timber Sycamore came to an end, and America worked exclusively with the SDF – i.e. “the Kurds”.

Taking the oil

Following America’s decision not to stand in the way of Turkey’s invasion, America has shown no interest in getting out of Syria, and America’s position, which was always untenable, has now become totally bizarre, with Trump talking about taking Syria’s oil. Retired US General Barry McCaffrey tweeted:

“Trump comment US intends to keep the oil in Syria. Guard with US armored forces. Bring in US oil companies to modernize the field. WHAT ARE WE BECOMING…. PIRATES?   If ISIS is defeated we lack Congressional authority to stay. The oil belongs to Syria. “

Indeed.   This is piracy, it is theft, it is contrary to international law, and it is proclaimed and done blatantly and openly.

This is not just illegal, it is plain stupid. In the words of Daniel Larison:

“The president thinks that seizing Syrian oil is worth boasting about, but in reality it is one of the most absurd and indefensible reasons for deploying troops abroad. In addition to damaging the country’s international standing with allied and friendly governments with this open thievery, Trump’s “take the oil” fixation is a propaganda coup for hostile governments and groups.”

In other words, America’s behaviour in Syria has been appalling over recent years – including supporting Jihadists and seizing oil (not to mention maintaining an illegal base at al-Tanf for the past 3 years). (Turkey’s behaviour has been at least as bad.)

So, when you consider America’s terrible behaviour in Syria over the past few years, the fact that the Kurdish-led SDF were willing to act as America’s proxies doesn’t say much for them.

Spain and Syria

The way Spain has reacted to the Catalonian referendum is a reminder that sovereign states don’t like it when separatists try to secede and become independent – even when those separatists go about it peacefully and democratically. Spain considers itself to be a unity.

No country has condemned Spain’s actions, and we can be pretty sure that no country will. When the EU Parliament was asked to debate the situation in Catalonia, they refused.   Which is hardly surprising. The vast majority of countries would respond in pretty much the same way that Spain did to the threatened break-up of their country.

And yet Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, America – and no doubt a few other countries – have all gone into Syria, and felt absolutely free to tear it apart.  The map of Syria is multi-coloured, thanks to all the countries that have felt free to pile in – without the permission of the Syrian government.  And the cost to the people of Syria has been terrible.