The arts of darkness
3 April 2012
It had been a week of dank madness in politics. Rupert Murdoch’s empire stood accused not just of hacking the phones of countless ‘targets’, great and small, but now of deeds more terrible and savage than any other in the capitalist rule book. The Sun King’s minions were charged with the commercial sabotage of pay TV rivals, a crime vastly more serious than the exploitation of missing teenagers and their hapless parents. Rupe responded on Twitter by labelling his accusers “toffs and right-wingers”. What a hoot.
The great man’s effort was only topped by Gina Reinhart resorting to poetry to call for a flood of cheap imported labour for the mining industry. It was a moment of myopic self-defeating honesty. Tony Abbott, who’s staked his career on posing as a redneck Australian nationalist and the mining industry worker’s friend, must have wanted to strangle her with his bare hands.
And there was more lunacy besides. The US Government was negotiating with Australia for the use of the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean as a base for drone flights over the Middle East and the South China Sea. It was a snake-belly low moment in our long dishonourable history of grovelling to the Yanks.
They’re billing them as merely “spy flights” of course, but the Cocos Islands are seen as a replacement for the current base on British-owned Diego Garcia, and no doubt a couple of other bases on the West Asian landmass where tolerance of America’s “manifest destiny” is wearing rather thin. Inevitably, the Cocos Islands would soon host armed flights raining missiles down on countless village compounds across Asia and Africa where vague “intelligence” suggested an enemy lurked.
The technology, and the range of the ordnance, has changed of course, but we have seen all this before, I reflected. I strolled to my cobwebby bookshelf and took down Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, first published in 1899. I flipped the pages until I found the classic passage where Marlow, the narrator and protagonist, describes a European warship off the west coast of Africa, casually lobbing shells into an unseen village in the interior.
There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives – he called them enemies! – hidden out of sight somewhere.
In Conrad’s time, the warships could lob 12 inch high explosive shells almost 20 kilometres, but the US can now deliver a payload of high explosives on a native village thousands of kilometres way.
Which will change nothing much at all, even in the short term. In Afghanistan, things are spinning further out of control in spite of Obama’s surge, years of drone attacks, and tens of thousands of innocent casualties. Years of “mentoring” what were, in Conrad’s time, termed “native levies”, but which, in modern corporate-speak, we call “our Afghan allies”, are coming unstuck. A spate of deadly and unexpected attacks on Western coalition forces by Taliban sleepers from within the Afghan army and police have eroded trust to the point of non-existence, creating the conditions for madly vengeful massacres of civilians of the sort allegedly perpetrated by US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales.
Thanks to our own SBS TV, more evidence has emerged that Bales didn’t act alone – that he’s just the fall-guy. Locals from the two villages where Bales massacred 17 people including nine children and burned down houses, in what was allegedly a freelance mission, have come forward with very detailed and credible accounts of many US soldiers being present at the time.
When the story first broke, reports painted a picture of Bales slipping out of his patrol base to a village immediately adjacent, but in fact the official account would have him walking over three kilometres to the second village lugging not just his personal weaponry but also a jerrycan of fuel to burn down the houses he was targeting, which seems very unlikely.
Inevitably, the Western coalition will declare victory and pull out of Afghanistan, after which our unseen drones will continue to vengefully lob missiles down from the sky. If Conrad were alive today, he would conclude he wrote in vain.