Another dissenting voice

Skepticism grows about the wisdom of locking down whole populations as the response to a disease outbreak, in particular when it comes to the neglected issue of the civil liberties that are being thrown in the trash thereby:

Politicians are there to take difficult decisions, by weighing up all the expert advice and choosing a policy with the least worst outcome depending on the options available. But in the current crisis over coronavirus, the damaging impact of drastic interference in our civil liberties has apparently barely been considered at all.

Since the nationwide lockdown was announced we have had no right of association, and so political parties, trade unions, businesses and every other form of organisation outside the state has been severely disrupted, if not destroyed. This has occurred with barely a whimper of protest from the political class.

Worse, it has been cheered on by most of the national media, with their shrill calls for lockdowns and punishments for people going about perfectly lawful activities. Thankfully, there are now some voices raised about particularly stupid examples of police harassment of dog owners, and the constables ignoring actual crimes while investing in drones to harass moorland walkers.

Emergencies create vast opportunities for abuses of power, and reasons can always be found to strip away your liberties. The lockdowns being inflicted across the West are ostensibly temporary but with moveable and sometimes vague expiration dates. While the restrictions will (presumably) eventually be lifted, they can and therefore will be imposed again during another (real, imaginary or self-inflicted) crisis. We are told that staying at home and practicing social distancing makes everyone safer by flattening the curve, such that going outside to socialize with your friends or make an unnecessary trip to the store is selfish and even tantamount to murder. After all, computer simulations show that if you don’t cooperate, we’re all gonna die. But is that true? And even if it can be proven that surrendering our freedom of movement, property rights and freedom of association to the state, even temporarily, saves lives – is that cost worth it? Everybody seems to think so, but if everyone felt the same way in, say, 1776, would there be a United States?

A powerful rebuke

Jonathan Sumption, the former UK Supreme Court judge whom The Guardian has described as “the brain of Britain” and “the establishment personified,” has delivered a powerful rebuke to the country’s embrace of authoritarian methods in its war against the Microbe that Ended the World. I believe Lord Sumption’s reflections also apply to the incredible stay-at-home orders being imposed across the US in places like Maryland and Virginia. Peter Hitchens provides the transcript. Please read it:

The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated. That’s what I fear we are seeing now. The pressure on politicians has come from the public. They want action. They don’t pause to ask whether the action will work. They don’t ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying. They want action anyway. And anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria.

Hysteria is infectious. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease.

Q: At a time like this as you acknowledge, citizens do look to the state for protection, for assistance, we shouldn’t be surprised then if the state takes on new powers, that is what it has been asked to do, almost demanded of it.

A: Yes that is absolutely true. We should not be surprised. But we have to recognise that this is how societies become despotisms. And we also have to recognise this is a process which leads naturally to exaggeration. The symptoms of coronavirus are clearly serious for those with other significant medical conditions especially if they’re old. There are exceptional cases in which young people have been struck down, which have had a lot of publicity, but the numbers are pretty small. The Italian evidence for instance suggests that only 12% of deaths is it possible to say coronavirus was the main cause of death. So yes this is serious and yes it’s understandable that people cry out to the government. But the real question is: Is this serious enough to warrant putting most of our population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hardworking people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt, depression, stress, heart attacks, suicides and unbelievable distress inflicted on millions of people who are not especially vulnerable and will suffer only mild symptoms or none at all, like the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister.

Q: The executive, the government, is all of a sudden really rather powerful and really rather unscrutinised. Parliament is in recess, it’s due to come back in late April, we’re not quite sure whether it will or not, the Prime Minister is closeted away, communicating via his phone, there is not a lot in the way of scrutiny is there?

A: No. Certainly there’s not a lot in the way of institutional scrutiny. The Press has engaged in a fair amount of scrutiny, there has been some good and challenging journalism, but mostly the Press has, I think, echoed and indeed amplified the general panic.

Q: The restrictions in movement have also changed the relationship between the police and those whose, in name, they serve. The police are naming and shaming citizens for travelling at what they see as the wrong time or driving to the wrong place. Does that set alarm bells ringing for you, as a former senior member of the judiciary?

A: Well, I have to say, it does. I mean, the tradition of policing in this country is that policemen are citizens in uniform. They are not members of a disciplined hierarchy operating just at the government’s command. Yet in some parts of the country the police have been trying to stop people from doing things like travelling to take exercise in the open country which are not contrary to the regulations, simply because ministers have said that they would prefer us not to. The police have no power to enforce ministers’ preferences, but only legal regulations which don’t go anything like as far as the government’s guidance. I have to say that the behaviour of the Derbyshire police in trying to shame people into using their undoubted right to take exercise in the country and wrecking beauty spots in the Fells so that people don’t want to go there, is frankly disgraceful.

This is what a police state is like. It’s a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes. I have to say that most police forces have behaved in a thoroughly sensible and moderate fashion. Derbyshire Police have shamed our policing traditions. There is a natural tendency of course, and a strong temptation for the police to lose sight of their real functions and turn themselves from citizens in uniform into glorified school prefects. I think it’s really sad that the Derbyshire Police have failed to resist that.

Q: There will be people listening who admire your legal wisdom but will also say, well, he’s not an epidemiologist, he doesn’t know how disease spreads, he doesn’t understand the risks to the health service if this thing gets out of control. What do you say to them?

A: What I say to them is I am not a scientist but it is the right and duty of every citizen to look and see what the scientists have said and to analyse it for themselves and to draw common sense conclusions. We are all perfectly capable of doing that and there’s no particular reason why the scientific nature of the problem should mean we have to resign our liberty into the hands of scientists. We all have critical faculties and it’s rather important, in a moment of national panic, that we should maintain them.

The backpedaling begins

It’s going to be interesting to observe how the global establishment walks back its panic-mongering regarding the Wuhan Flu, if and when the expected mountains of corpses fail to materialize. Perhaps we will be told that the media-fueled mass hysteria and draconian controls imposed on hundreds of millions of Westerners actually worked at crushing the outbreak.

I’m not sure that explanation will fly, though, given that 1) we have also been told that Western governments acted too late in imposing “lockdowns” on their own citizens, thus practically guaranteeing Wuhan-like outcomes across the US and Europe; 2) the controls have not been nearly draconian enough, as evidenced by the photos of packed subway cars in New York and London and the outraged reports of people going surfing, playing basketball at the park, meeting their friends for board game nights, etc., in defiance of public health guidelines.

Most inconvenient of all is the example of Sweden, which has stubbornly refused to subject its own population to a Chinese-style “lockdown” despite suffering a staggering 77 WuFlu deaths to date:

While the UK has been placed under virtual lockdown, Swedes are enjoying life with the fewest restrictive measures so they can go where they want and do what they want without the threat of police action. Schools for children up to 16 remain open and commuter trains continue to be jam-packed with workers on a daily basis. Stockholm argues life must go on despite the worrying increases in the death toll as the global pandemic continues to spread.

Johan Carlson, head of Sweden’s public health agency, last week said the country “cannot take draconian measures that have a limited impact on the epidemic but knock out the functions of society”.

In any case, the tide may already be starting to turn:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that his stay-at-home order for the entirety of New York State was “probably not the best public health strategy.”

In a press conference in Albany, Cuomo said the smartest way forward would be a public health strategy that complemented a “get-back-to-work strategy.”

“What we did was we closed everything down. That was our public health strategy. Just close everything, all businesses, old workers, young people, old people, short people, tall people,” said Cuomo. “Every school closed, everything.”

“If you rethought that or had time to analyze that public health strategy, I don’t know that you would say quarantine everyone,” Cuomo admitted. “I don’t even know that that was the best public health policy. Young people then quarantined with older people was probably not the best public health strategy because the younger people could have been exposing the older people to an infection. “

Cuomo stressed the need for both public health and economic growth. “We have to do both,” said the governor. “We’re working on it.”

Funny, it was on Wednesday that I asked the following question:

Have mass “lockdowns” ever been demonstrated to successfully contain a viral epidemic, outside of Communist China, which has a track record of lying about the current outbreak?

Does the governor of New York read my blog? See, while it may seem “obvious” that confining people to their homes is an effective way of curbing an epidemic, the fact is that you don’t know that anything works until you try it in the real world. In this case, the observation that a virus spreads through human interaction does not mean that mass lockdowns will contain the outbreak, let alone produce a better public health outcome than a scalpel approach to identifying and isolating the sick. Cuomo, who has presumably discussed this issue with health officials, raises what seems like a very good point here.

In related news, a British scientist whose terrifying predictions were instrumental in shaping UK and US policy, has changed his tune a bit:

The UK should now be able to cope with the spread of the covid-19 virus, according to one of the epidemiologists advising the government.

Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London gave evidence today to the UK’s parliamentary select committee on science and technology as part of an inquiry into the nation’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

He said that expected increases in National Health Service capacity and ongoing restrictions to people’s movements make him “reasonably confident” the health service can cope when the predicted peak of the epidemic arrives in two or three weeks. UK deaths from the disease are now unlikely to exceed 20,000, he said, and could be much lower.

The need for intensive care beds will get very close to capacity in some areas, but won’t be breached at a national level, said Ferguson. The projections are based on computer simulations of the virus spreading, which take into account the properties of the virus, the reduced transmission between people asked to stay at home and the capacity of hospitals, particularly intensive care units.

Here is Ferguson’s explanation of why the simulations, which previously scared the shit out of Britain and the world by predicting up to 500,000 deaths in the UK, are now projecting less than 20,000 deaths. Judge it for yourself. I suspect we’re going to be seeing a lot more of these types of explanations and clarifications over the coming weeks.

UPDATE: Moving this section to the end of the post, as I thought this editorial co-authored by Anthony Fauci was new (March 26), but in reality it was originally published Feb 28. It is still of interest:

If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%. This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS, which have had case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively.

A pandemic similar to the “Asian flu of 1957” and the “Hong Kong flu of 1968” – which killed an estimated 116,000 people and 100,000 people in the US, respectively – certainly sounds better than the doomsday virus that was supposed to kill millions of Americans. This of course raises the question of whether a relatively normal Asian viral pandemic is scary enough to justify the “emergency” imposition of martial law on whole states and countries, and the cascading economic failure and collapse that will surely accompany it.

Britain becomes Airstrip One

1984 MinistryWell, that escalated quickly. All it took was a few hundred WuFlu deaths to turn the United Kingdom into a dystopian nightmare where you can’t visit your relatives, take a walk more than once a day, hold a wedding or baptism, or gather outside in groups of more than two. I wish I were exaggerating. You can read for yourself the remarkable list of things Britons now “cannot do” in their own country.

Some highlights (I won’t even paste the tedious list of everything that has been ordered closed):

Leaving home

Going out for these reasons is allowed, but limited:

Shopping for basic necessities: “as infrequently as possible”.

Taking one form of exercise a day, for example, a run, walk, or cycle: alone or with members of your household.

Dog walking is permitted as part of the exercise people can take per day. Households with two or more members can take it in turns to walk their dog so the dog gets more than one walk a day. […]

Social events that are banned

Weddings.

Baptisms and other events, including sporting events.

Visiting family members you do not live with.

More details:

Boris Johnson has placed the UK on a police-enforced lockdown with drastic new measures in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.

The Prime Minister ordered people only to leave their homes under a list of “very limited purposes”, banned public gatherings of more than two people and ordered the closure of non-essential shops.

Every citizen must comply with these new measures and the relevant authorities, including the police, will be given the powers to enforce them through fines and dispersing gatherings.

The Humberside Police, which covers an area of Northern England, has created an online reporting portal where people can snitch on their neighbors who aren’t following “social distancing” rules.

The important thing to understand is that these measures have nothing to do with the virus. It’s futile to try to explain why the Wuhan Flu justifies placing a kingdom of 68 million people under virtual house arrest. There is simply no logical connection between the two things.

If you still have any illusions about the nature of what is happening, consider the fact that while Britons are now prisoners in their own homes, flights from Beijing, Milan and Tehran are still arriving in London.

Meet the new boss

Did you know that Britain even had a “Supreme Court”? I didn’t:

Britain’s all-consuming debate over Brexit has dragged another of its respected institutions into uncharted territory, as the Supreme Court struck down Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament, an extraordinary intervention by the judiciary into a political dispute.

The unanimous decision, handed down on Tuesday, is an unalloyed defeat for Mr. Johnson and will propel Britain into a fresh round of political turmoil. But it is even more significant for what it says about the role of the country’s highest court, which has historically steered clear of politics. […]

At issue was whether Mr. Johnson, in suspending Parliament for five weeks in the middle of a dispute over Britain’s departure from the European Union, had stymied the ability of lawmakers to have a say in that process. The court, in upholding a previous ruling by a Scottish high court, judged that he had.

Not only did the court declare the prime minister’s action unlawful, it also declared the order itself, which Queen Elizabeth II issued at Mr. Johnson’s request, “unlawful, void, and of no effect.” The request, said the court’s president, Baroness Brenda Hale, might as well have been a “blank sheet of paper.”

Stephen Tierney, a professor of constitutional theory at Edinburgh University, said it was “astonishing” that the court had ruled decisively that it “can review something as fundamental as that, done by Her Majesty, as unlawful.”

Amusingly, it looks like the British court is mimicking its nominal counterpart in the US:

The Supreme Court routinely exercises judicial review by actively interpreting the American Constitution.

Britain, however, relies on a partly unwritten set of traditions and conventions that have treated a sovereign Parliament as the supreme power in the land. Once the courts venture into the political sphere and begin to pass judgment on Parliament’s actions, some legal analysts say, there is no going back.

This will end well.

“A constitutional outrage”

Wow, just wow. I am coughing and spluttering with indignation at this gross violation of Democracy:

Parliament will be suspended just days after MPs return to work in September – and only a few weeks before the Brexit deadline.

Boris Johnson said a Queen’s Speech would take place after the suspension, on 14 October, to outline his “very exciting agenda”.

But it means the time MPs have to pass laws to stop a no-deal Brexit on 31 October would be cut.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said it was a “constitutional outrage”.

The Speaker, who does not traditionally comment on political announcements, continued: “However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of [suspending Parliament] now would be to stop [MPs] debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country.”

In the meantime:

Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was at the meeting with the Queen, said the move was a “completely proper constitutional procedure.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Remember, folks, democracy is good… except when the people vote for bad things, like Brexit, in which case the people’s will can safely be ignored. But when the prime minister tries to implement the people’s long-thwarted will by using ruthless but entirely lawful tactics, like suspending parliament for an extra two weeks, this is “a smash and grab” on democracy and even “dictatorship,” and it must be stopped in its tracks, because democracy is good. Except of course when it isn’t.

I am reminded of Turkish PM Erdogan’s wise words: “Democracy,” he declared, “is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”

By the way, wasn’t Britain supposed to leave the EU on March 29 by statute? What happened to that?

English royal swears off tea

This official position of this blog is that there is no form of peer pressure more obnoxious than that which attempts to make people eat or drink certain things. As such, I do not judge Prince Harry for his rather un-English acquiescence to his wife’s demand that he abstain from tea, among other beverages. It’s still funny though:

THE royal family is said to be “amazed” at the difference in Prince Harry, as he celebrated his first dry New Year without even tea or coffee to get him through.

Meghan Markle is said to have banned her husband from drinking the hot drinks and he has replaced alcohol with mineral water, in support of her pregnancy.

Former party-lover Prince Harry looked leaner and bright-eyed at Sandringham at Christmas – and the royal family is said to have noted the change.

Interesting choice of words:

Another allegedly said: “Now his regime doesn’t make him the most entertaining party guest in the world, but he’s definitely more chilled and relaxed.”

Sounds like a broken man.

Prevent

The home of the Magna Carta continues its transition into Airstrip One, as the University of Reading warns students reading a Marxist essay on political violence that the authorities might be watching:

Part of a larger anti-terrorism strategy, Prevent was designed to prevent radicalization and seeks to monitor supposedly vulnerable people for evidence of extremism in the materials they peruse and the ideology they express. The idea is that, once identified, these individuals can be steered by authorities away from negative outcomes. […]

Primarily targeted at potential recruits to Islamist terrorist groups, but also at Northern Ireland-style sectarian violence and extreme right-wing terrorism, Prevent suffered mission-creep pretty much right out of the gate. In 2015, a politics student at the University of East Anglia was interrogated by police after reading assigned material in an ISIS-related publication.

The kid clicked a problematic link, which was thereafter removed from the course materials.

Younger students are being scooped up for alleged radicalization, too. In 2016-17, 272 children under 15 years of age and 328 youngsters between ages 15 and 20 were flagged under the Prevent program “over suspected right-wing terrorist beliefs.” The proportion of individuals referred to government officials “as a result of far-right concerns has risen from a quarter in 2015 to 2016 to over a third in 2016 to 2017,” according to Britain’s Home Office, so that likely represents only a fraction of young people questioned and “mentored” for their suspected ideological deviance.

Under 15 years of age? Guess you have to nip these things in the bud.

Where do these referrals come from? Well, anybody can contact the authorities, but the situation is complicated by the duty the law imposes on both public and private institutions to report people seen as being at risk of radicalization, with very little guidance as to what that means beyond cover-your-ass. The imposition of the duty resulted in a surge in referrals by schools to the authorities.

Informing on your fellow citizens for potential thoughtcrimes is just part and parcel of living in a country full of extremists. Comrade Pavlik would have approved.

“Laws such as this restrict the core democratic right to freedom of expression,” a legal analysis published last year in the Utrecht Journal of International and European Law charges. It “indicates a concerning trend of liberal States embracing opportunities to impose severe restrictions on ‘extreme’ speech.” […]

Parliament is currently considering a Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill that would go beyond monitoring people for extremist ideology and hauling them in for questioning. The proposed legislation would criminalize voicing support for banned organizations, and even make it illegal to view or otherwise access information “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing acts of terrorism.”

I would say this defies belief, but sadly, it all fits a familiar pattern. Outlawing speech in defense of an organization is the sort of thing one would normally associate with, say, Cuba or North Korea, but it seems the British have met Big Brother and he is them. Seriously, what is happening in Britain is almost as bad as the garden-variety repression seen in certain dictatorships. Not quite as bad, but moving in that direction fast.

If hauling students in for questioning because they clicked a link to “extremist” material sounds like something out of Orwell, Facebook’s AI monitoring system could have been ripped out of a Philip K Dick story:

A year ago, Facebook started using artificial intelligence to scan people’s accounts for danger signs of imminent self-harm.

Facebook Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis is pleased with the results so far.

“In the very first month when we started it, we had about 100 imminent-response cases,” which resulted in Facebook contacting local emergency responders to check on someone. But that rate quickly increased.

“To just give you a sense of how well the technology is working and rapidly improving … in the last year we’ve had 3,500 reports,” she says. That means AI monitoring is causing Facebook to contact emergency responders an average of about 10 times a day to check on someone — and that doesn’t include Europe, where the system hasn’t been deployed. (That number also doesn’t include wellness checks that originate from people who report suspected suicidal behavior online.) […]

In the U.S., Facebook’s call usually goes to a local 911 center, as illustrated in its promotional video.

I don’t see how the quantity of emergency calls proves that the system is working well. It could just as easily indicate rampant false positives.

More importantly, is this a technology that we really want to work “well”? As the article points out, “There may soon be a temptation to use this kind of AI to analyze social media chatter for signs of imminent crimes — especially retaliatory violence.”

There is a well-known story and movie that explores the concept of pre-crime. Do we really want to go there? And just as AIs patrol Facebook for signs of suicidal tendencies and Community Standards-violating speech, will AIs also be used to augment the growing efforts by governments in Britain and elsewhere to flag, investigate and prosecute people who read the wrong materials and think the wrong thoughts?

Facebook Zuckerberg VR dystopia

The Good and Bad War

A review of The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion by Peter Hitchens

The Phoney Victory Peter Hitchens“Facts are better than dreams.” – Winston Churchill

The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion by journalist Peter Hitchens is a powerful and unsettling book that aims to correct the historical record surrounding Britain’s involvement in World War II. It casts a cold eye on British decision-making before, during, and immediately after the greatest conflict in human history, and finds that large swaths of the conventional wisdom about the Good War are simply not true.

The argument goes something like this. Britain, wanting to preserve its credibility as a great power, foolishly committed itself to a war it was unprepared to fight. This tragic folly led to a long series of disasters. By June 1940, after the costly evacuation at Dunkirk and the German occupation of the Channel Islands, Britain had lost the war it had declared nine months earlier – chased out of continental Europe and defeated though not conquered by Germany.

The world’s greatest empire was reduced to a bankrupt, marginal power at the fringes of the war, essentially out of the fight in Europe, and had to be rescued by the United States. Why did this happen? The origins of this disastrous situation can be traced back to March 1939, when Britain and France made an unconditional guarantee to protect Poland’s borders and independence, knowing full well they were unable to enforce this pledge militarily. When Hitler invaded Poland in September, they were forced to declare war, although they did nothing practical to help Poland, then or later.

German occupation Guernsey

German occupation of the Channel Island of Guernsey (Source)

In examining the background to the guarantee, Hitchens finds evidence that the Chamberlain government was actually looking for a fight. As he argues:

Far from blundering into a guarantee they did not mean to fulfil, they wanted the guarantee to commit them irrevocably to an idealist war whose practical details interested them very little. For they had resolved to fight such a war that year to reassert their fast-shrivelling power and importance. [Italics in the original]

Hitchens asserts that Hitler needed to be overthrown at some point. His quarrel is with the motives and circumstances of Britain’s ill-timed intervention:

I am saying that we might have done better to follow the wise example of the USA, and wait until we and our allies were militarily and diplomatically ready before we entered that conflict.

The book later delves into “the wise example of the USA,” specifically the cold, harsh calculations of American self-interest that undergirded Roosevelt’s policy towards Great Britain. In a fascinating couple of chapters, Hitchens records how the US took advantage of Britain’s helplessness to strip the empire of its assets and its naval supremacy in exchange for desperately needed aid.

Stalin FDR Tehran

Stalin and Roosevelt in Tehran (Source)

Under the “cash and carry” agreement, a hopelessly indebted Britain shipped its life savings in the form of gold bullion and securities across the Atlantic to pay for war supplies. Much of this loot still remains in Fort Knox. Under the Destroyers for Bases deal, Churchill handed over British territories across the Caribbean, Bermuda and Newfoundland to the US, a humiliating loss of imperial possessions, in return for 50 decrepit ships. The ruthlessness of these bargains is stunning and very damaging to the trope of the Anglo-American “special relationship.”

The Churchill myth also takes a severe beating here. There is no doubt that Churchill was a great leader with many admirable qualities. But as the book reveals, he was also prone to absurd posturing and hubris that led to a number of damaging errors. One of these was his refusal to send reinforcements in time to Malaya, which paved the way for the devastating loss of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. Churchill was also bizarrely fixated on Egypt, sending scarce resources to the Mediterranean and Middle East theater at the expense of nearly losing the all-important Battle of the Atlantic. A failed intervention in Greece “was also begun for reasons of prestige, not military ones.”

In the book’s most upsetting chapters, Hitchens addresses the British bombing of German population centers during the war, and the ethnic cleansing of Germans from large parts of central and eastern Europe under the post-war Potsdam Agreement. The first issue tends to ignite strong emotions. Many people believe that the deliberate mass bombing of German civilians in their homes was a justified response to Nazi aggression and was necessary to break the will of the German population.

Operation Gomorrah Hamburg

Effects of Operation Gomorrah (Source)

The chapter titled “Gomorrah” – named after Operation Gomorrah, the carpet-bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 which annihilated ten square miles of the city and killed over 40,000 civilians – dismantles these arguments, showing that the “area bombing” of entire towns and cities was futile and morally indefensible. The bombings had limited military value, and were done mainly for psychological and PR reasons, because they pleased Britain’s ally Stalin, and because, as Churchill put it, they were “better than doing nothing.” Huge numbers of British airmen were sacrificed in the raids, which accomplished little compared to the targeted bombing of industrial and military sites. The suggestion here is that Britain turned to carpet-bombing, a savage and largely pointless policy, because this was one of the few ways it could project power after having blundered into a war it was physically unable to win.

The follies continued long after Hitler self-terminated in his Führerbunker. The chapter “Orderly and Humane” covers the brutal, chaotic transfer of between 12 and 14 million ethnic Germans, mainly innocent women and children, out of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia under the aegis of the victorious Allied powers. An estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million people died in this process, which is shockingly unknown to most people in the Anglo-American world.

Pointing out these facts is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Hitchens goes to considerable lengths to fortify his book against the predictable misunderstandings. He makes it perfectly clear, for example, that condemning certain actions by the Allies in no way amounts to a defense of Nazi Germany or an argument that the two sides are morally equivalent. The book is also careful to praise the undeniable courage and sacrifice of the men and women who fought in and otherwise lived through the war, even as it shines a harsh light on the political and military decisions that were made by the people in charge.

Not being an expert on WWII, I am in no position to assess the book’s historical claims. My opinion is that Hitchens’s arguments are well supported and have the ring of truth. However, The Phoney Victory has attracted a couple of highly critical reviews, by Sir Richard Evans – described as “arguably the pre-eminent historian of 20th-century Germany” – and by Daniel Johnson, editor of Standpoint magazine (and son of historian Paul Johnson). Hitchens has also responded in detail to these reviews on his blog:

You can judge for yourself whether the above critics have successfully undermined Hitchens’s arguments. In my humble opinion, the book survives these attacks virtually unscathed. The sneering, dismissive article by Professor Evans can be, and is, easily demolished by Hitchens. It’s not clear whether the great academic even bothered to read the book.* Johnson’s review is far more thoughtful and detailed, but also ignores key parts of the book’s argument and veers off into embarrassing Churchill-worship.

I should also note that the book includes a highly entertaining and well-written index, which could almost hold its own as a separate work. Here’s a sample:

Great Britain, moderately important country off NW coast of Europe; its principal concern in 1939 preservation of its standing as a great power, 34; actively obstructs single largest escape route for persecuted European Jews, 34; naval weakness in Mediterranean, 34; seen by many Americans as selfish, mean and bullying, 37 […]

===

*A reader posted the following astute comment on Hitchens’s blog:

Sir Richard’s rant reaffirms my belief that Mr. Hitches is correct about the lingering power of the WW2 myth: it’s striking to witness a historian of his standing react so emotionally and with so little grace; especially the nitpicking that Mr. Hitchens highlights, a common refuge of those who duck and weave around a challenge they’re unwilling to face head-on.

Just as the Great Patriotic War’s been dragooned into service by successive Soviet and Russian governments eager to prop up their ramshackle hold on power, so the Second World War’s been used by successive British governments to mask imperial decline.

===

UPDATE: The book has also been reviewed by Ross Grainger, Dr Nicolas Lewkowicz, and Niall Gooch. And Mr Hitchens has kindly mentioned my review on Twitter:

Peter Hitchens tweet

Putin doesn’t like Skripal much

Of that we can be reasonably certain:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has labelled poisoned ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal a “traitor” and a “scumbag”.

In a speech, he complained that the media were treating Mr Skripal as “some kind of human rights defender”, insisting he had betrayed his country.

Mr Skripal and his daughter survived an attack in Salisbury, which the UK says was carried out by two agents of Russian military intelligence.

But a British woman died in another poisoning that police say was linked.

UK authorities believe Mr Skripal’s door in the southern English city was targeted with the nerve agent Novichok.

It was sprayed from a modified perfume bottle that was later picked up and given to Dawn Sturgess, who died in July, they say.

Last month, President Putin insisted that the suspects named by UK police were civilians not criminals, and urged them to come forward. They later gave a televised interview.

Now, this doesn’t prove that Putin had him poisoned, of course, although the evidence appears to point in that direction. But then there’s this strange report that Skripal himself rules out the idea of Moscow’s involvement:

The former employee of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), who was poisoned in Salisbury, UK, said he does not believe that the Russian special services could have been involved in the attempted murder. He said this in a statement to BBC journalist Mark Urban, who published an excerpt of the conversation in his book called The Skripal Files.

The reporter was able to talk to Skripal when the ex-colonel regained consciousness. The book says that the intelligence officer had to go through a difficult process of psychological adaptation.

Urban claims that Skripal refused to believe in the Kremlin’s involvement in what happened. Moreover, the former GRU colonel said he supported Russia’s policy, such as the reunification of the Crimea and Russia. However, Skripal did not say what his theory was regarding the incident.

And then there is the absolutely bizarre, hilarious televised interview mentioned above, in which the two poisoning suspects protest their innocence to RT. It really needs to be seen (or read) to be believed:

RT interview Boshirov Petrov

What were Petrov and Boshirov doing in the UK?

Petrov: Our friends have been recommending that we visit this wonderful city for a long time already.

Boshirov: It’s a touristic city. There’s a famous cathedral there, the Salisbury cathedral. It’s famous not just in all of Europe, it’s famous all over the world I think. It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock, the first clock made in the world that still runs.

Petrov: In fact, we planned to go to London and let loose, so to speak, it wasn’t a business trip. We planned to go to London and in Salisbury in one day. In England on March 2 and March 3 there was a transport collapse – snow so powerful – we couldn’t get back.

Petrov: We were there three days. We came on March 2, we looked at the train schedule.

Boshirov: We planned to go for one day and look around. Salisbury is a normal touristic city.

Petrov: We came to Salisbury on the March 3, we were there for, we tried to walk around the city, but since the city was covered in snow, we were able to only for a half an hour, we got wet.

Boshirov: No media, no TV channels are showing that on that day, the third, there was a collapse in that city, a snow collapse, it was impossible to go anywhere, we got wet to the knees.

Petrov: Of course we went to visit Stonehenge, Old Sarum, the cathedral of the Virgin Mary, but it didn’t work out because it was slush, as we’d say in Russian, total slush. We got wet, returned to the train station and went back on the next train.

What did they do in Salisbury?

Boshirov: We were drinking hot coffee because we had gotten all wet, on the third we spent no more than an hour there.

Petrov: The trains were going with big gaps because of the transport collapse, we went back to London and continued our travels.

Boshirov: We walked around London. On the third yes (an hour in Salisbury).

Petrov: It wasn’t possible to go anywhere. On March 4 we returned because London had thawed out, it was warm weather.

Boshirov: The sun was shining.

Petrov:We wanted to visit Old Sarum and the cathedral, we decided to finish this task on March 4. To visit them.

Boshirov: To see this famous cathedral, to look at Old Sarum. We saw them.

Petrov: On March 4 we saw them, but again around lunch snow started, that’s why we left early.

Boshirov: The cathedral is very beautiful, there are lots of tourists there, there are lots of Russian tourists, there are lots of Russian-speaking tourists there.

Petrov: There should be many photographs (with us). Of course we took pictures.

Boshirov: We were sitting in the park, we were sitting in a cafe and drinking coffee. We were walking around and enjoying this English Gothic, this beauty.

Petrov: For some reason they’re not showing this. They’re only showing us at the train station.

Did they visit Sergei Skripal’s house?

Petrov: Maybe we went by there.

Boshirov: Do you know where the Skripals’ home is? I don’t.

Petrov: If we would have known where it was.

Boshirov: Maybe we passed by it, maybe we didn’t pass by it, I don’t know, I hadn’t heard. I hadn’t heard this surname, I didn’t know anything about them before this situation, this nightmare with us started.

Did they have Novichok in a perfume bottle?

Boshirov: No.

Petrov: I think this is total nonsense.

On and on it goes, like a bad Coen brothers movie. A total PR disaster for these guys and for Putin. I thought Russian intelligence operatives were supposed to be smart? What is going on here?

The complexities and unknowns of the Skripal affair are way above my pay grade, but it is entertaining to watch.