Arab Nationalism

Why Islamists hate Arab nationalism? | Books on Trial

Arab Nationalism asserts that Arabs are one nation, bound by a common language, religion and culture, and should unite. Its heyday was the 1960s when Arab nationalists overthrew the corrupt monarchies of the Middle East, but its popularity waned after their defeat in the Six Days War.

Key figures: Gamel Abdel Nasser, Yasser Ararat, Muammar Gaddafi, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein

Tenets: Republicanism, secularism, anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism, socialism and pan-Arabism

Like Islamic fundamentalists, Arab nationalists seek to reclaim the glory of ages past and defy the Western powers who stand before that dream. Unlike Islamic fundamentalists, Arab nationalists are secular. Islam may be important, but Arab identity is the ultimate guiding principle – transcending differences between Sunni, Shia and Christian. Its colours are red, black, white and green.

The Ottoman Turks ruled the Arab world until 1918. The British and French who defeated them drew up the new borders. Rather than granting a single state, they split up the Arab territories into borders that suited their interests and appointed pro-Western kings out of touch with the people they ruled. Of particular frustration was the creation of Israel – a Jewish state on Arab land.

Egypt announced revolutionary new beginning today | Gamal ...

In 1951, Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser and a group of like-minded young officers overthrew King Farouk of Egypt. Charismatic and driven, Nasser dreamed of uniting the Arab world into one state. Ending British and French influence and reclaiming Palestine from the Israelis required Arab unity. In 1956, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canel and defied the Anglo-French-Israeli force who tried to reclaim it, instantly becoming the hero of the Arab nationalist cause.

Nasser’s triumph inspired nationalist coups in Iraq (1963), Algeria (1963), Libya (1969) and Sudan (1969). Arab nationalists established presidential dictatorships based on socialist principles and aligned with the Soviet Union against Israel and the West. In 1958, Syria and Egypt united into a single country – the United Arab Republic – until Syria seceded in 1961.

Baathism is a form of Arab Nationalism which grew out of the Palestinian struggle and Syrian intellectual circles that favoured a strong vanguard party. Syria under Hafez Al-Assad and Iraq under Saddam Hussein were Baathist states.

Arab Nationalism failed to catch on in the oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf. To this day, most remain in the hands of pro-Western monarchies.

The Six Days War of 1967
crushed the pan-Arab dream. Israel defeated Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan and ended hopes of a united front. Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970, and the movement split between different factions. Local rulers gave up on pan-Arabism and focused on maintaining power. In 1977, Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel. Many Arab nationalists and their successors ruled until the Arab Spring of 2011.

The Saudis had rejected the socialist and revolutionary aspects of Arab nationalism and championed Islamic fundamentalism instead. From the 1980s onwards, Jihad took over as the main ideological struggle against Israel and the West. Fatah, who rules the Palestinian West Bank, is an Arab nationalist movement, while Hamas, who rules the Gaza Strip, is fundamentalist.

The Queen’s Gambit

'The Queen's Gambit' Trailer: Anya Taylor-Joy's Netflix ...

The Queen’s Gambit (2020) is a period drama miniseries about a female chess prodigy. Set in the 1960s, it follows Beth Harmon from her beginnings as a penniless orphan to international grandmaster. The Queen’s Gambit is based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 book by the same name. It released on Netflix in November 2020. Anna Taylor-Joy (The Witch) stars, Scott Frank (Logan, Godless) and Allan Scott (Castaway) write and direct.

The Queen’s Gambit is a chess opening where white sacrifices their queen’s pawn to gain control of the centre. Beth employs both the gambit and the ‘Sicilian Defense’ throughout the series.

When her mother dies, eight-year-old Beth Harmon of Lexington, Kentucky transfers to the Methuen Home for Christian Girls. There she picks up a habit for tranquillisers and learns to play chess under the rough but loveable janitor Mr Schaibel. As a teenager Beth plays in local tournaments and rapidly rises through the ranks, becoming state champion by the second episode. Despite her success, loneliness and substance abuse beset her. 

Beth is a fictional character. There has never been a female world champion and, to this day, 99 of the world’s top 100 players are male. The Queen’s Gambit presents a heroine who challenges the norm and excels in a male-dominated field. 

Her career resembles Bobby Fischer, an American child prodigy who unseated the Russian world champion Lassky in 1973, 18th-century master Charles Morphy and modern female champion Judit Polgar.

You don’t need to be a chess fan to enjoy this show. Its strength lies in its ability to build emotional suspense through games on a board and balance triumph with despair. Without seeing every move, we can tell the way a game’s course through body language. Chess theory is still a common topic, however, and will delight anyone with even the slightest interest in the game. In the US, chessboard sales went up 87% and books about chess 603%. saw 2.5 million registrations the week after Queen’s Gambit’s release. I was one of them.

 The chess community praised the show’s portrayal of the game. Former world champion Gary Kasparov was a consultant.

The Queen’s Gambit makes chess sexy. Beth Harmon is alluring and sympathetic and her fashion-sense enticing Locations like Las Vegas, Mexico City, Paris and Moscow are gorgeously portrayed. Though Beth is central, a supporting cast of characters includes her orphan friend Jolene, and dorky yet good-hearted Harry Beltik and the cocky Benny Watts. Queen’s Gambit popularity spread rapidly through word of mouth; by December, it was Netflix’s most popular show. The New Yorker called it ‘the most satisfying show on television.’ It will likely scoop Emmys in February.

Sources: Bangkok Post, CNN

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Movie Review: "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (2019 ...

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, the penultimate in his promised ten. Set 50 years ago, it follows the plight of a fading television star and his stunt double as they cross paths with Sharon Tate and the Manson Family. Its cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, in their first film together, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning and many more. Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski,  Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen and Charles Manson are depicted.

It was one of the most anticipated films of the year, unusual considering it is neither a sequel, remake or superhero flick. DiCaprio and Pitt are two of the only film stars, Tarantino one of the only directors, whose names can still draw box office millions with something original. The trailer is especially well done.

Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) once starred in a popular 50s Western series but now gets by with villain roles in TV pilots. The times they are a changin’ and Rick Dalton is failing to adapt. Hollywood shuns his double Cliff Booth (Pitt), who possibly ‘murdered his wife and got away with it’, (alluding to Robert Wagner and the death of Natalie Wood) and is now Rick’s chauffeur and drinking buddy. While self-pitying Rick plays the tough guy on screen, Cliff is the real deal.

Sharon Tate Murder.*Warning – Graphic Images* | This is my ...In this fairy tale if Rick is the knight and Cliff the squire, then ‘doomed’ Sharon Tate is the princess. In reality the actress (right) was married to director Roman Polanski and brutally murdered – along with her three friends and unborn child – on August 1969 by the Manson Family. In the film, her moving next door to Rick’s mansion on Cielo Drive with her husband is a chance for Rick to renew his career. Tarantino took flack for Robbie’s lack of lines, though this was likely on purpose as the naturally shy Tate had only just hit the spotlight when she died. Publicly she was seen but seldom heard.

Though set in ‘69,  Once Upon a Time depicts a romanticised Hollywood past. Gone are the politics and social issues that defined the time.  Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are old-timers, more symbolic of the 1950s than the cultural decade – and they are fading fast. The soundtrack is celebratory, not rebellious.  Vietnam is mentioned once, Hendrix or the Beatles not at all and the hippies – those long-haired agents of social change – are the bad guys.

Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Posters Released ...

Once Upon a Time spends most of its 165 minutes panning through Tarantino’s late ‘60s Hollywood, blending comedy, nostalgia, drama and near horror before culminating in an explosive finale. For Tarantino it is a personal project, his ‘love letter’ to the old Hollywood in its final days. Both Tarantino and production designer Barbara Ling grew up in 1960s Los Angeles and they pay careful attention to its aesthetic and world-building. Easter eggs and Hollywood trivia abound. For those indifferent to the film industry, or unfamiliar with the Manson murders however, it can drag on. Though cinematography, dialogue and acting are tight, the narrative is loose.  Others disliked its violence. It was too much for me – but considering the director and subject matter, I knew what I was in for.

The best part of Once Upon a Time is the second act, which follows Rick, Cliff and Sharon Tate on three different adventures on the same day. Tate sees a film, Rick acts on set, and Cliff picks up a hitchhiker. Here, the film’s carefully constructed characters, its theme and world truly shine. What it says about Hollywood or the ’60s, exactly, is up for debate.

Verdict: 4/5


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Spartacus (1960) is a swords and sandals epic starring Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier. Action, adventure, romance and intrigue abound.  The film follows the rise of a Roman gladiator from the lowest rung of society to public enemy number one.

Last week my local cinema was showing classics on the big screen. I’d seen Spartacus only once, when I was a boy. This was back before I could tell when a film was dated. Back when I enjoyed every movie I saw. I remembered the battles and the “I am Spartacus” scene but little else. Naturally the senatorial politics and Crassus’s monologue on liking both ‘snails’ and ‘oysters’ flew over my head. I also didn’t appreciate just how well written and acted this masterpiece was.

Related imageSpartacus is the story of a man who challenges the might of Rome. He is born a slave in the end days of the Roman Republic and forced to fight his fellow men as entertainment.  But Spartacus has other ideas. During a dispute in the kitchens, he kills his trainer and inspires the gladiators to revolt.  They escape and roam the Italian countryside, ravaging Roman estates and freeing slaves as they go. Using the techniques he learnt as a gladiator, Spartacus builds a formidable army and humbles the legions sent his way.

That much is true. Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who instigated the ‘Third Servile War’ of 73-70 BC, the largest slave rebellion of the ancient world.  When Crassus eventually crushed it, he crucified 6,000 rebels along the Appian Way.

Spartacus’s director, lead actors and screenwriter were among the best in history. They made the film at the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when technicolor was new and exciting but before television diminished the movie-going audience.

Image result for kubrick trumbo douglasKirk Douglas plays Spartacus. Well-built and charismatic, he fits the role well.  At 45, Douglas was conscious of being upstaged and used his position as executive producer to insist no one younger be cast as a gladiator. His performance makes up for this nonetheless.

Stanley Kubrick was chosen to direct two weeks into filming.  As much Douglas’s vision as his own, Spartacus is the only Kubrick film in which he did not have total creative control. With CGI not yet invented, Kubrick used 10,000 extras from the Spanish infantry for the final battle scene, filmed on a plain outside Madrid.

Dalton TrumboDalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay from behind the Hollywood blacklist. Once Hollywood’s best paid writer, he fell victim to the Red Scare after refusing to ‘name names’ of other Hollywood communists.

Howard Fast, who wrote the book, was also under blacklist. It was only by chance that his self-published work found itself in Kirk Douglas’s hands and was consequently adapted for the big screen.

Though Trumbo wrote Spartacus in exile under a pseudonym, Douglas insisted he take full credit for his work and personally accept its awards. Trumbo did so at risk of arrest and was exonerated only after a newly-elected John F Kennedy defied a conservative embargo to see the film. His endorsement broke the Hollywood blacklist. “Thanks Kirk,” Trumbo said, “for giving me back my name.”

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  • Best Supporting Actor (Peter Ustinov)
  • Best Art Direction
  • Best Cinemotography
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Film Editing (nominated)
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (nominated)

Pictured right: Peter Ustinov as the slave trader Bataiutus

Good quotes:

“You don’t want to know mine. I don’t want to know your name….. Gladiators don’t make friends. If we’re ever matched in the arena together, I have to kill you.” – Draba

“When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” – Spartacus

“I’m not after glory, I’m after Spartacus!” – Crassus

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Part of Spartacus’s draw is the universal appeal of his struggle. He is fighting for freedom. Not freedom in a nationalistic, Braveheart sense, but literal emancipation. His army juxtaposes beautifully with the Romans. While they are scheming and factional, his people are fiercely united. While the Romans buy their love with money and force, Spartacus and Varinia are mutual and pure. While the Romans hold the material advantage, Spartacus holds the moral.

Despite being old, Spartacus is still worth a watch.

Update 05/02/2020: Kirk Douglas, who played Spartacus has died, age 103.

The Laotian Civil War

indochina.gifThe Laotian Civil War (1959-1975) was a Vietnam proxy conflict that left 40,000 dead. Officially uninvolved, the CIA recruited an army of hill tribesmen to fight the North Vietnamese and Lao communists while making Laos the most bombed country in history. It was not enough. By 1975 Laos was the last of the Asian dominoes to fall.

In 1953 the French colony of Laos, a  thinly populated and landlocked backwater situated between Thailand and Vietnam, gained its independence. The French transferred power to the old royal family, who established the Kingdom of Laos.

Image result for royal lao flag vs pathet lao flagLike Cambodia and South Vietnam, a Marxist insurgency threatened Laos. The North Vietnamese Army invaded in the 1950s to support the Pathet Lao, a local communist group. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which supported the insurgency in South Vietnam, flowed through Lao territory. Heavily backed by North Vietnamese troops and Soviet and Chinese arms, the Pathet Lao sought to overthrow the Lao monarchy and establish a socialist state.

Image result for royal lao flag vs pathet lao flag

The Royal Lao Government was weak in comparison. Despite American support, they could not match the Communists’ numbers or determination. Internal division and low morale beset them.

From 1964, the CIA conducted a ‘Secret War’ on Washington’s behalf. While the 1962 Geneva Convention obliged foreign powers to respect Lao neutrality, North Vietnam ignored it and the USA only pretended. They never officially stationed troops in Laos and never declared war. Using $3.3 billion a year, the CIA outsourced operations to Hmong militias and Air America. Their base at Long Tieng housed 40,000 people, was Laos’s second-biggest city and one of the world’s busiest airports, but appeared in no Atlas and officially did not exist. In fighting this Secret War, the CIA hoped to divert North Vietnamese manpower and halt the spread of communism.

Related imageThe main strategy was aerial bombardment. From bases in allied Thailand, American planes bombed communist territory daily.  The CIA dropped two million tons of explosives on Laos from 1964-73, an average of one planeload every eight minutes. More explosives were dropped on Laos than Germany and Japan in WW2 combined. Today unexploded ordinance still kills an average of 300 Laotians a year. The American public was kept in the dark.

As the Royal Lao Army proved ineffective, CIA operatives trained and equipped a ‘Secret Army’ of 20,000 Hmong militiamen under major-general Vang Pao. An ethnic minority from the mountains, the Hmong proved capable fighters; rescuing downed American pilots and matching communist guerrillas at their own game. A further 20,000 Thai mercenaries assisted. With 60% of Hmong men serving in the Secret Army, the CIA turned a blind eye to opium trafficking and child soldiery in their ranks.

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In 1973 President Nixon made peace with North Vietnam and abruptly ended US involvement in Laos. Abandoned by their allies, the royalists resisted for another two years alone before they surrendered on the 2nd December 1975, eight months after the fall of Saigon. The Indochina Wars had come to an end.

The Pathet Lao established a one-party dictatorship and exacted brutal reprisals against the royalists and the Hmong, whom they promised to wipe out. 300,000 of Laos’s 4 million people, including a third of the Hmong and 90% of the intelligentsia, fled Laos by the 1980s. Thousands of others suspected of working with the Americans and the old regime were sentenced to ‘re-education camps’. The royal family were worked to death.

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The Massacre at Mỹ Lai

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50 years ago, on the 16th March 1968,  100 American GIs of the 23rd Infantry Division slaughtered 500 men, women and children in the village of Son My, South Vietnam. The soldiers herded the unarmed civilians into ditches and opened fire. Others went from house to house gang-raping the younger women. Houses and granaries were burned, the water supply defiled and bodies scalped and mutilated. Not even the livestock were spared.  Despite the death toll no weapons were seized and no Americans killed. The perpetrators claimed they were ‘just following orders’.

Son My, or ‘Pinkville’ to the US military, was a network of rural hamlets in the contested Quang Ngai province, a Viet Cong stronghold and the presumed base of operations for the notorious 48th battalion. Whilst the Saigon government controlled the cities of the south and benefited from US armaments and military support, the Viet Cong fought from the jungles and rice paddies of the countryside, drawing supplies and recruits from sympathetic villages like Son My.

The US strategy was ‘search and destroy’. Mobile helicopter-based squadrons sought out enemy hideouts, destroyed them and retreated to friendly territory. Success was measured by ‘body count’.

The 23rd ‘Americal’ Division was tasked with regaining the advantage lost in the Tet Offensive of January 1968. In the leadup to My Lai, Charlie Company lost 28 men, mostly to land mines, booby traps and sniper fire. They itched for revenge.

When Charlie Company assaulted the hamlets of My Khe and My Lai 4 they were expecting to engage the 48th battalion. Captain Ernest Medina, informed his troops that, with all innocents supposedly at the market, those who remained would be ‘either Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathisers’.

Colonel Barker, the task force’s commander, gave orders to ‘neutralize the area’; destroy the houses, food supplies, wells and tunnels. No mention was made of the village’s inhabitants.

At 7.30 AM, first the artillery and then the gunships opened fire on My Lai 4. The first recorded ‘hostile’ casualty was an old man running from his home, arms waving. By 8.40 the ground troops had landed and were forcing the villagers into ditches. Overhead, the gunships rained death upon anyone who dared an escape. By 9.40 the reported kill count ended at 138 dead ‘Vietcong’. At 11.00 the task force stopped for lunch then continued the slaughter.Image result for my lai massacre

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Although not every soldier in Charlie Company partook in the killing, not one reported or attempted to prevent it.

A division chaplain noted:

“I became absolutely convinced that as far as the United States Army was concerned there was no such thing as murder of a Vietnamese civilian. I’m sorry, maybe it’s a little bit cynical. I’m sure it is, but that’s the way the system works.”

Image result for hugh thompsonNoticing the plumes of smoke, Major Hugh Thompson of the 123rd Airborne division landed his helicopter at the scene. He witnessed corpse-filled ditches and Captain Medina shooting an unarmed woman at point-blank. Thompson threatened to open fire if Medina’s men continued the killing. Reluctantly they complied, and he evacuated the survivors.

Knowing it would reflect badly, the division command covered the incident up and instead touted it as a victory.

Image result for seymour hersh 1970Journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story to the American public. His 1969  New Yorker piece exposed the full horrors of the massacre and the men responsible.  He heard of the event from GI Ronald Ridenhouer, who had pieced together the evidence independently reported it to the Pentagon. Hersh extensively interviewed the soldiers and officers of Charlie Company. His story won him the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism and contributed massively to the antiwar movement.

Because he testified, Hugh Thompson’s comrades shunned him as a traitor and departed mess halls at his entrance. The US military did not recognize his heroism until 1998, 30 years later, when he and his two crewmates were awarded the Soldiers Medal. Thompson lived the rest of his days plagued by substance abuse and PTSD.

A single officer, Lieutenant William Calley, was quietly charged with the murder of 22 civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. 69% of the public believed Calley was unfairly scapegoated, however, and President Nixon intervened. He reduced Calley’s sentence to three and a half years of house arrest. 26 other soldiers, including Captain Medina, were court-martialed. All were acquitted the following year.

Garry Crosley of Charlie Company:

“We didn’t believe this would be such a publicity stunt. We felt this was happening many times before, and it had probably happened many times since.”

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