The Commando (the life and death of Cameron Baird VC. MG.) by Ben Mckelvey

The Commando, is a biography of Cameron Baird the 100th (and to date last) Australian Victoria Cross winner who was killed in Afghanistan in June 2013.

It was quite a disturbing read, although I’m not sure it was intended to be so in the way I found it. It was written to honour a ‘hero” but (to me) it did more to expose a lot of uncomfortable issues related to Australia’s part in the war in Afghanistan and what it did to the special forces troops trained and posted to serve there.

It shows how Baird and his regiment lived to kill and were always impatient to be sent out on a mission to hunt down the “Taliban”. (The author notes at the beginning of the book that he used the term “Taliban” as a kind of generic name for any hostile Afghan – who weren’t necessarily associated with the religious group, but were assumed to pose a potential danger to western troops).

At one stage Baird and his Australian colleagues were used as the weaponised arm of the American Drug Enforcement Agency, with the aim of destroying Afghan drug cultivation and manufacture: basically as guns for hire, because apparently the US Government wouldn’t allow US troops to be used for that purpose.

Among his colleagues Baird was considered lucky because he died in action on one of the last missions in Afghanistan. Those surviving colleagues have found it hard to settle back into everyday life. One of the men interviewed for the book killed himself not long after giving the interview.

I’ve read or seen accounts of the other three Australians awarded a Victoria Cross for their service in Afghanistan and I was left in no doubt why they were deemed worthy of the award. However with this account I wasn’t so sure about the reason for Cameron Baird’s award. The book just didn’t make it clear why his final action stood out from what his colleagues had also done to earn his posthumous VC.

I feel some discomfort writing this because it might come across as being critical of Cameron Baird, a man who gave his life in service of political decisions made by his country’s leaders. That’s not what I want to do. He was clearly a very likeable man, fully committed to whatever he set his mind to – whether that was football during his youth or his military career as an adult. He wasn’t a man willing to compromise to make do with a second rate effort or to be happy with anything less than a first rate outcome.

Any deserved criticism needs to be directed at the political and military systems that train men to become killing machines but do little to help them return to normality when those “skills” are no longer required.

Afghanistan: 3 Books and a Song

The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb

Christina Lamb is a foreign correspondent with a close relationship to Afghanistan and its people. Long before the current crisis of the west’s longest war-without-end, Lamb was reporting from Afghanistan.

During the time of the Russian invasion of more than 30 years ago, she travelled with the Mujahedeen fighters opposing the Russian forces. Some of those Afghan travel companions afterwards became Taliban members, another of them became the Afghan President.

This book looks at the complexities of Afghanistan from the time of the Russian war through to more recent, post-Taliban years.

The book’s title refers to a group of women in the city of Herat, who took the risk of studying during the Talban’s rule, under the cover of holding a sewing circle. Those women reflect the persistence, the resilience and the stubbornness of one group of Afghan people determined to live their lives no matter what outsiders may try to inflict upon them

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Kahled Hosseini

Kahled Hosseini came to attention through his book The Kite Runner a book about male friendship and betrayal before and during the Taliban’s rule. This is his second book and this time his main characters are Afghan women of different generations, both of whom become married to the same man.
While the women’s relationship starts with resentment, shared experience binds them closer together.

This book also stretches across Afghanistan’s different political eras but starts well before the Russian invasion and ends after the Taliban was driven out. The changing politics also reflects in the changing attitudes and opportunities faced by Afghan women during the decades spanned by the story.

Beneath the Pale Blue Burqa, by Kay Danes

In December 2000, Kay Danes’ husband Kerry (the Laos based managing director of a British security company) was abducted by the Lao secret police and attempts were made to get him to make false accusations against one of his clients. Soon afterwards Kay was arrested and imprisoned to increase pressure on her husband. They spent nearly a year in custody, a year of being subjected to torture and mock executions, while diplomatic wrangling went on to secure their eventual release.

After such an experience it may be hard to understand why less than a decade later Kay would choose to work in Afghanistan, especially after suffering years of PTSD following the Laos imprisonment. But her experience and recovery motivated her towards involvement in humanitarian issues, where she could make use of the public profile her experience had given her.
Then, in 2008 she was approached about a planned visit to an Afghan women’s prison in Jalalabad…

Just don’t tell mum I’m going to a war zone.


(lyrics here:Good Morning Freedom)

Kabul Dreams holds to the claim of being the first rock band from Afghanistan; established in 2008 in Kabul.

All of the band members were born in Afghanistan, but they were displaced to different neighbouring countries as refugees during the Taliban reign: Iran, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, returning to meet and establish the band after the Taliban fell.

In 2014, the band relocated to Oakland, California where they recorded and released their second album.

The Morning They Came For Us, by Janine Di Giovanni

the-morning-they-came-for-usIf I wasn’t already aware of it, Janine Di Giovanni would make me realise how little I’ve managed to fit into my life.

A journalist reporting in depth on more than two decades of wars and conflict in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Di Giovanni has also written several books, contributed political analysis on TV shows in Europe and the USA – and more.

Not only living an active and productive life, the importance of the work she’s done contrasts significantly with the weightless trivia at the heart of so many comfortable lives (such as my own).

In The Morning They Came for Us, she gives a brutal, confronting and uncompromising look at the Syrian conflict where torture, rape and murder are no less weapons of war than bombs and guns.

Accounts are given of the ongoing cost to women suffering sexual abuse.

“…for a Muslim woman, who is meant to be a virgin upon marriage, it is the end of life, or the life she was meant to live. If she was single before, she will probably never marry. She will not have children, a family. In other cultures, this might be fine; but in the Middle East, where large families are a given, it means isolation form the rest of society”.

Many victims resorted to suicide to escape their perceived shame.

Di Giovanni also reports the experience of a man consistently tortured in the worst possible ways while being held prisoner by Government authorities. What he describes stretches the willingness to believe – that such things can be done by one human being to another: surgical procedures conducted without anaesthetic, not to relieve suffering, but to cause it, both physically and mentally.

But in the war zone day to day the struggle to stay alive involves much more than avoiding the constant presence of snipers and the threat of barrel bombs dropped from government helicopters. She describes a mother preparing to take her young daughter to buy bread in Aleppo in December 2012:

“She stuffed her miniature hands into socks instead of gloves to keep them warm. She was taking her to queue outside the bakery… There was no one to leave the girl with, she said unapologetically, so she was bringing her to stand in line with her. They might be waiting all day she told us.

‘If we get there early we might be lucky’, she whispered to the little girl.
If she were lucky, she would not be living in Aleppo. If she were lucky, she would not have to cook on a wooden stove. If she were lucky, her children could play outside, or not be afraid of the balcony, where people shot at you when you stuck your head out. If she were lucky, her husband would not have been jobless for the past four months. If she were lucky, there would be no war.”

This is the background to the millions of refugees who try to escape to safety, the refugees who many in the west are intent to demonise.

Baghdad Burning by Riverbend (Clashes and Churches).

I’ve now finished reading the first volume of Baghdad Burning, by Riverbend; the blog of an Iraqi woman published in book form.

The blog is still available on line at

Whether in book form or the blog itself, I feel it should be essential reading: even compulsory reading for anyone who thinks the 2nd Bush war against Iraq was justified. However, anyone who takes that view, would be unlikely to have their opinion changed by the words of someone who was on the receiving end of Bush’s “crusade” who saw the effects it had on what was once a thriving nation (albeit one ruled by a malignant dictator).


baghdad burning

Last week churches were bombed- everyone heard about that. We were all horrified with it. For decades- no centuries- churches and mosques have stood side by side in Iraq. We celebrate Christmas and Easter with our Christian friends and they celebrate our Eids with us. We never categorised each other as “Christian” and “Muslim”… It never really mattered. We were neighbours and friends and we respected each other’s religious customs and holidays. We have many differing beliefs- some of them fundamental- but it never mattered.

It makes me miserable to think that Christians no longer feel safe. I know we’re all feeling insecure right now, but there was always that sense of security between differing religions. Many Iraqis have been inside churches to attend weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Christians have been suffering since the end of the war. Some of them are being driven out of their homes in the south and even in some areas in Baghdad and the north. Others are being pressured to dress a certain way or not attend church, etc. So many of them are thinking of leaving abroad and it’s such a huge loss. We have famous Christian surgeons, professors, artists, and musicians. It has always been an Iraqi quality in the region- we’re famous for the fact that we all get along so well.

I’m convinced the people who set up these explosions are people who are trying to give Islam the worst possible image. It has nothing to do with Islam- just as this war and occupation has nothing to do with Christianity and Jesus- no matter how much Bush tries to pretend it does. That’s a part of the problem- many people feel this war and the current situation is a crusade of sorts. ‘Islam’ is the new communism. It’s the new Cold War to frighten Americans into arming themselves to the teeth and attacking other nations in ‘self-defence’.

From the Baghdad Burning Blog (Saturday, August 07, 2004) full article can be found here:


I’ll get around to reading the second volume of Riverbend’s writings when I’ve had a short break to read other things. While the writing style is easy – the content is much more challenging to deal with. I could only read it in short sections – maybe one or two blog posts at most. The realities of what was done to Iraq and its people, all in the name of western political lies is hard to digest. And yet, if it was so challenging to read about – I can’t imagine what it was AND IS like to live through, day by day, year by year.

BB vol 2

Baghdad Burning : Girl Blog from Iraq by Riverbend

baghdad burningBaghdad Burning should be compulsory reading for every US, British and Australian citizen.

It clearly describes how those nations helped destroy peoples’ lives and culture, all in the name of family Bush and those nations who followed them based on blatant falsehoods.

The book should be compulsory reading for political or military leader who think their invasion of another country is in the best interests of the people of that country.

While published as books in two volumes, Baghdad Burning was originally written as blog entries, as events unfolded, by an Iraqi woman as the life she knew was destroyed by the Bush family invasion of her country and its aftermath.

Well written. Grippingly informative. Devastatingly frank. Even at times joyful and humorous.

It’s not easy reading.  It can’t be read quickly. It requires regular breaks to reflect on what has been said. To reflect on the injustice, outright criminality and corruption all carried out in the name of “freedom” and “democracy”.

The blog is still available on line, don’t forget to start at the beginning by using the menu on the side bar, and don’t read in reverse order by starting at the opening page and working downwards.


However if you are interested in the books volume one is available here, at the time of writing this it was half price:

Volume 2 almost half price:–v–2/9780714531335

BB vol 2

Baghdad Burning

An article in the Guardian, “Top 10 books about the Iraq war”* made me aware of the Baghdad Burning blog: vol2BBurn vol1

The blog content has been released in book form, with two volumes. After reading through the first few entries on the blog I didn’t hesitate to order the books.



Thursday, August 21, 2003 posted by River


Most of the emails moved me to… gratitude. Thank you for understanding… no, thank you for even *trying* to understand. Other emails, on the other hand, were full of criticism, cynicism and anger. You really don’t have to read my blog if you don’t want to and you certainly don’t have to email me telling me how much you hate it. It’s great to get questions and differing opinions- but please be intelligent about it, and above all, creative- if I want to hear what Fox News has to say, I’ll watch it.

And keep one thing in mind- tanks and guns can break my bones, but emails can be deleted.




Notes on an Exodus, Richard Flanagan

xnotes-on-an-exodusNotes on an Exodus : an essay is a small book by Man Booker prize winning author Richard Flanagan, illustrated by Ben Quilty.

Flanagan and Quilty travelled to the Middle East and Europe with World Vision, visiting refugees in camps and on the road, who were escaping from the violence of their homes in Syria.

While described as “an essay” in its subtitle, the book is more a collection of brief written portraits of the people Flanagan and Quilty met on their journey.

People who had fled villages, towns and cities to escape either the day and night bombing by Assad supporting Russian planes, from the violence and oppression of Daesh (ISIS), or both.

People who had fled prosperous lives to live in makeshift tents constructed from recycled garbage.

People who once owned productive farms and orchards but now have to survive on meagre rations of bread and tea or scraps collected from the floors of vegetable shops. Where a family survives (barely) with the help of their nine year old son, working as a welder for $3 a day. who has half his weekly pay retained by his employer to ensure his return the following week.

These are the kind of stories that we in the west prefer not to know so we don’t have to see the refugees as REAL people with REAL lives who probably weren’t so different from other people we know. Individuals we can’t disguise and dehumanise as a “flood”.

Flanagan’s vignettes of people he met bring focus to the plight of millions who have been driven from their homes and homelands. They should stir similar feelings to those stirred by the photos of the small body of Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach that briefly moved the conscience of the world. But sadly they won’t. All too quickly our collective hearts have rehardened.

Suspicion and hostility against the flood have been restored.



Refugees are not like you and me. They are you and me.

Richard Flanagan,  Notes on an Exodus, p 53


This has also been posted on my other blog: The Onesimus Files

The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire


This is a book of essays by Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy.

Some of the essays are spoken about in The Chequebook and the Cruise Missile, the book of interviews addressed in my previous post.

Roy’s views are both insightful and scathing. She pulls no punches when writing about the effects of the political ideologies driving the United States and other western governments.

As she starts one of the essays (first presented as a speech to the Riverside Church in Harlem), she says:

Some of you will think it bad manners for a person like me, officially entered into the Big Book of Modern Nations as an ‘Indian citizen’, to come here and criticise the US government. Speaking for myself, I’m no flag-waver, no patriot, and I’m fully aware that venality, brutality, and hypocrisy are imprinted on the leaden soul of every state. But when a country ceases to be merely a country and becomes an empire, then the scale of operations changes dramatically. So may I clarify that tonight I speak as a subject of the American Empire? I speak as a slave who presumes to criticise her king.

I’ve enjoyed both of Roy’s books that have marked the beginning of my reading for this year, however this one would be my personal preference, being an example of Roy’s own writings, where her observations and ideas are considered and crafted in a way that the book of interviews could not be.

I’d recommend both, but if it came to choosing between the two I’d go for The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.

Below are links to:

1) an hour long video of Arundhati Roy’s speech: “Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy”, included as an essay in the book. (note, patience may be needed, the video can be slow to load)

And also the title essay can be found here, as a magazine article:

The Chequebook & the Cruise-Missile

chqbook cruise

A collection of interviews with Arundhati Roy, conducted by David Barsamian between 2001 and 2003.

Topics discussed include the political influence of big business; the uncompensated displacement of 1000s due to the building of dams in India; the continuing effects and influences of Imperialism in its multiple forms; and the role played by the media.

A few excerpts:

I’m still taken aback at the extent of indoctrination and propaganda in the United States. It is as if people there are being reared in a sort of altered reality…

Osama Bin Laden and George Bush are both terrorists. They are both building international networks that perpetrate terror and devastate people’s lives. Bush with the Pentagon, the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. Bin Laden with Al Qaeda. The difference is that nobody elected Bin Laden. Bush was elected ( in a manner of speaking), so U.S. citizens are more responsible for his actions than Iraqis are for the actions of Saddam Hussein or Afghans are for the Taliban. And yet hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have been killed, either by economic sanctions or cruise missiles, and we are told that these deaths are the result of “just wars”.

Terrorism has become te excuse for states to do just what they please in the name of protecting citizens against terrorism. Hundreds of people are being held in prisons under the antiterrorism law in India. Many of them are poor people, Dalits and Adivasis, who are protesting against “development projects” that deprive them of their lands and livelihoods. Poverty and protest are being conflated with terrorism.

Referring to the timing of the Iraq war, a Bush administration spokesperson said, “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August”. They were asking themselves, what’s the best season to introduce this new product? When should you start the ad campaign? When should you actually launch it? Today, the crossover between Hollywood and the U.S. military is getting more and more promiscuous.

War is also an economic necessity now. A significant section of the U.S. economy depends on the sale and manufacture of weapons. There has to be a turnover. You can’t have cruise missiles lying around on the factory floor. The economies of Europe and the United States depend on the sale and manufacture of weapons. This is a huge imperative to go to war.

Fences and Windows, Naomi Klein

Since September 11, I have spoken with friends from South Africa and Iran who are furious about the outpouring of grief demanded of them in response to the attacks. They say it is racist to ask the world to mourn and avenge U.S. deaths when so many deaths in their countries go unmourned, unavenged. I have argued with these friends that this is a moral dead end, that mourning each other’s terrible losses is surely what it means to be human. And yet, I’ve come to accept, with much reluctance, that perhaps I am asking too much. Perhaps from those who have seen so much indifference to the loss of their own loved ones, so much asymmetry of compassion, we in the West have, at least temporarily, forfeited the right to expect compassion in return.

fence&windowsI’d forgotten all about the Fences and Windows until I started looking for No Logo, Klein’s first book that I knew was somewhere in my collection and I was surprised to find this one alongside it. I’ve had both books for several years but I don’t recall how much I read in the past.

Fences and Windows is a collection of articles, essays and speeches written just over a decade ago, about the erosion of democracy within the context of so-called free trade and globalisation policies of Western governments.

The articles are a diary-like record of Klein’s observations of people affected adversely by political decisions and economic practices over which they have no control, and are given no voice.

terrorKlein also looks at the various ways those decisions and practices were being challenged by activists.

In the middle of this record the attacks of September 11th 2001 were carried out. Those attacks added another level to the political situation at the heart of Klein’s reporting. She suggests how reaction to those attacks was exploited to further galvanise pre-attack political agendas, and the subduing of those challenging them.