Wendy Woods (2019) Good Habits Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes Stick.

I read. That’s what I do. I’ve got books in the toilet. In the kitchen and hall. Down the side of my chair and in my van, stashed behind the passenger seat. I no longer keep a book in the glove compartment. I’m not therefore an addict.

Before deaths and Amens, there’s a line that goes something like this: lead us not into temptation and out of our boozers and strip clubs, or away from offers of half-priced drugs because it’s Black Friday on a Thursday.  

I inhale dopamine, because it’s free, but not for me. Habit habituates. The superhighway of our brains. Neurotransmitters are like Schroder’s cat. Chemicals and electrical impulses. They jump between neurons. Along the sensorimotor pathways. Knock around the pallidum. Shake hands with the midbrain and neofrontal cortex. And this is how you find yourself outside your front door shouting through the letterbox that you’ve lost your keys.

Wendy Wood quotes Mark Twain (more than once, which is a good habit to have) ‘Nothing needs reforming as other people’s habits.’

She tells the reader almost half of what we do is habitual. I’ve got friends that aren’t drug addicts or drunks, but they’ve crawled up inside their phones to die. Sometimes they pop their heads out. I warn them. That’s no good for you.

But it’s just like smoking was in the fifties and sixties. Around 80% of us smoked. Some of us smoked even more than that. They smoked 100%. They were the real addicts, like Laughing Boy on 80 fags a day.

What worked was making it harder for people to smoke. Wood calls that ‘friction’.  Increasing prices until it’s almost £12 a pack. Not allowing advertisements, which is a form of social cueing. It works at an unconscious level by suggesting it’s cool. Making it harder to get fags. Locking cigerettes up. Putting them behind bars. But people still smoke. Mainly poor people.

Wood has an answer for that. ‘Rat Pack’ I wrote in my notebook. I simplify some concepts so I don’t understand them. That’s when I know I’ve gotten them right. Rat Pack quite simply means some people in Drumchapel take drugs and booze because they there’s fuck all else for them. If they moved two miles and lived in Bearsden, they’d immediately live ten years longer, get better educated, get good jobs, pay their mortgages and live the life of a contented rat. You can’t do that with people from Drumchapel or they’d bust you. So they did it with rats in a maze. One end of the maze was marked Drumchapel and offered unlimited drugs. The other end was Bearsden. Equally unlimited drugs, but also the chance not to take drugs and go and do something else instead.

Wood argues almost 100% of those in rehab programmes do not take drink or drugs. But within two years the majority, around 60-80% are back on it. AA has a better strike rate, even though many of these programmes adopt the 12-step programme.

The medical model of addiction fails because it treats the addict in isolation. She or he is seen to have some kind of deficit that needs medicated.

Context is everything argues Wood. By context she means addiction isn’t innate. We’re all addicts that need to replace bad habits with good. Environment plays a large part in addiction. She shows this with a study of American soldiers, grunts, returning from Vietnam.

In the early 1970s there was a moral panic about these supposed addicts. Heroin was easy to get in Vietnam as were most opioids and other drugs. These returning veterans who had tested positive in urine tests were seen a danger to the American way of life. But less than 5% of these tested veterans became addicts in America. The majority quietly got on with their lives, got educated and married and brought up children that didn’t take drugs, because they were for mugs.

Friction is not fiction. When drugs were on tap as they were in Vietnam, the majority of eighteen year old men will take them.  Rat Pack. When they return home, drugs were no longer on tap.

Simple. Wood strays into dangerous territory. Neo-liberalism calls for no intervention in smoking, drinking or medicating for diseases like Covid.  Manning up. No nanny state. What it calls for is more prisons. More Rat Packs. And our old favourite, the black hole that money pours into as more and more an incarcerated.

Wood tells a story about this. We love stories. That’s what makes us human. I like her story. It goes something like this (I’ve modified it a bit). A doctor jumps into a river to save a man. He brings him ashore and gives him the kiss of live and saves him. But he’s no time to congratulate himself. A woman is floating face down in the same river. He swims out and resuscitates her on the bank. Another body floats towards him. He gets out and does the same things. Again and again. Upstream, supporters of the moron’s moron are pushing in men and women. If they sink they’re true believers with the right stuff. The doctor is warned he better let them sink or swim or he’ll be next. Rat Packers. Read on.         

PTSD: The War in My Head, BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC iPlayer, narrator Iwan Rheon.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p077ysvd/ptsd-the-war-in-my-head

Who are you? What are you? A simple way of telling a story involves both elements. To be identified as a soldier tells who you are. Lt. General Harold G. Moore, for example, proudly claims in his New York Times Bestseller, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young.   But it doesn’t tell what you are. The moron’s moron and Chief Commanding Officer of the United States Army, for example, was not a draft dodger, or conscientious objector like Muhammed Ali, for that takes courage of conviction. When you’ve no morals or convictions it’s pretty easy to claim to have a spur in your heel that stops you from walking properly and tell other poor fools to fight in Vietnam. George Bush, Junior, who did manage to steal an election using the Supreme Court and some chads as cover, claimed he was a recovering alcoholic. There were no physical ailments to mark him out as different. After the fall of the Twin Towers and what is referred to as 9/11 it would have been very difficult for an American President not to invade a small country. The Commander in Chief convinced Tony Blair the British Prime Minister to support his dubious claims of weapons of mass destruction and invade Iraq. In comparison, in the sixties, Prime-Minister Harold Wilson body-swerved supporting Lyndon B. Johnson’s veiled threats and diplomatic request to send British troops to help with the invasion of Vietnam.

Two of the dumbest Presidents in modern history, both commanders in chiefs. Ironically, we’re back here now with war in Ukraine. Afghanistan abandoned to the Taliban. Iraq dismembered and hundreds of thousands of lives lost. For what?

Who are you? What are you? This is the story of the three of these soldiers who fought in these wars. Listen carefully. When does the army’s duty of care begin and end?

Cost cutting under the false flag of austerity means that Tobias Ellwood, a former British officer and reservist, rehashes the Minister of Defence’s rhetoric about their duty of care, while quietly shifting the responsibility onto the NHS. The same NHS which the Tory Party has been attacking and underfunding and trying to privatise, while not admitting to such, because that would be political suicide of the Truss variety. British soldiers with mental health problems and suicidal thoughts would be uninsurable under such a scheme. And if you listen closely, Kevin Williams also developed testicular cancer, which he joked about to his sister of only having one ball. But he was under thirty. He might be a statistical outlier. What remains largely invisible and neglected as mental-health care in a world of crude propaganda of good versus evil is the armour-piercing shells and bullets we use are radio-active afterwards. Cancerous. Tens of thousands of Afghani and Iraqi children born and unborn are the unread litmus tests. Kevin Williams may have been a victim of friendly fire in more than one way, if there is such a thing.

The programme chooses to finish with those that made it to the other side. End on a high note. It’s a story of hope. But I’m not buying. A story of continued neglect would be nearer the mark.     

Notes:

This film tells the stories of three British soldiers who died in 2018 following lengthy battles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). John Paul Finnigan from Liverpool, Kevin Williams from London, and Kevin Holt from Doncaster were in the same regiment, 2-Rifles, which served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Paul Finnigan, who died aged 34 and Kevin Williams, who was 29, took their own lives.

Through personal videos, voice notes, interviews and letters, this film reveals the private battle these men fought with their mental health.

While candid conversations with soldiers’ friends and families, document how their illnesses affected those around them.

As pressure mounts on the MOD to admit that they missed cases of PTSD in the wake of traumas experienced by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the film raises serious questions around the whole culture of mental health care in the army, which the Minister for Defence, People and Veterans, Tobias Ellwood says he is trying to change.

I need to unscramble my thoughts and get myself back together piece by piece.

3 soldiers who died, not the battlefield last year (2018) but in their own homes.

Commentator: These soldiers died after long battles with PTSD.

Kevin Holt 1988-2018.

Jess Holt. Kevin’s sister. He used to play outside building forts with those little green soldiers.

Kevin Holt (filmed by BBC 3 in 2012). I joined up because I wanted to get out of Lancaster. And obviously, when I were little, I watched a few Rambo film and that. Hmmmm.

Jess Holt [JH] He tried to join the first time, but they wouldn’t let im. Because he was far too skinny. He had to get those protein [drinks]. He never stopped eating.

Kevin Holt grew up in a big family. The only boy with four sisters.

JH. He was very full of himself. He always thought he was god’s gift. If you asked im about himself he’d say he was invincible.

KH: To be honest, I just wanted to be…get out there. Like get out on tour.

When Kevin joined the army, Britain was already at war in Iraq. He completed his basic training and went straight to Basra.

Kevin Williams 1988-2018.

Jennifer Williams [JW] Kevin’s sister. The family’s reaction to Kevin joining the army was not the best. Em, on the one hand, we saw it as a very honourable career choice.

Kevin Williams [KW own footage] Here we are Rifleman Williams the owner of this camera…And we have Rifleman Collison, say ‘Hello’ Rifleman Collison.

JW: I would definitely describe my brother as being not a mature 18-year-old. He’s definitely a boy. He wanted to join as soon as possible. Say, 15 and nine months, or whatever it was. So he basically, he broke my parents down until they said finally, yeh, we’ll sign the papers.

Rachel Kaden,  KW’s close friend,

Rachel Kaden met Kevin years after he left the army. She’d go on to make a documentary about him.

Rachel [looking at picture of him] I always remember him talking about meeting the Queen and serving in the army at 16. And one of the girls I worked with said I think he makes all this stuff up. You can’t join the army at 16. I remember feeling so angry. And I was never going to let Kevin know this and I searched the internet. And found a picture of him meeting the Queen. Just so I could go in the next day and say, hmm, he’s not a liar. See!

KW deployed to Basra on his 18th birthday.

John Paul Finnigan 1983-2018.

Liverpool.

Steven Finnigan [JP’s brother]

SF. We did have a difficult upbringing. Don’t get me wrong. We never really had any real inspiration where he was going. But once we seen he was joining the army, we just seen this glow in him.

Leah Finnigan [JP’s ex-wife]

LF: Me and JP were 18 or 19 when we met. And it wasn’t a magical love story. It was just 2 friends and we fell in love. And, yeh, it was that simple.

[footage of their wedding]

LF: we decided when he got his dates for Iraq, OK, let’s get married. We got a formal wedding. Then it was straight onto the party. And drunken dance and Karaoke. We got Karaoke.  He/We just wanted to have fun.

Letter to family from JP in Iraq 20/11/2006 [read by SF his brother]

Don’t know if you’ll get this, but I’m writing it anyway. I’m missing everyone at home and the wife. I’m missing Leah much more than I thought I would, but hey things must go on. I got hit by a Chinese rocket. 25 meters away. A bit too close for comfort.

Lee Harding was one of JP’s best mates in the army. He lived near him in Liverpool and they served in Iraq, alongside Kevin Williams.

LH: It was just the ferocity of the contacts we were in. It was relentless. The minute we got there to the minute we got home. It was constant.

[Commentator] One day JP was out fixing the Bulldog fighting vehicle he drove. When they came under attack.

LH: 12 mortars from 6 different locations in the city. JP was out of the wagon and it landed no more than a couple of feet away. 

It burst JP’s eardrums. But at the time, you literally, laugh it off. Out there you have feelings. You don’t get hurt. Everything gets buried, deep down on you.

Commentator: In fact, JP was left with ringing in his ears. He later got diagnosed with an ear infection. Which left him with life-long hearing problems.

Commentator; [transition]

Keven William was in the same company as JP.

KW’s personal video.

Believe it or not I’m in a fucking place. Where most folk are being fucking killed.

Commentator: For 7 months the battalion endured daily attacks. They lost 3 young soldiers.

Jennifer Williams [JW] Kevin’s sister: When Kevin was in Iraq, he did lose one of his best friends. And that hit him really hard. Because Kevin is the type of person, when he likes you, he really likes you. And for him to call this person ‘his best friend’, it’s like more than a brother to him. 

Commentator: Aaron Lincoln was killed when out on patrol in 2007.

Footage from RKaden: KW speaking: I lost possibly the closest friend to me that served alongside me. He wanted to leave the forces. I convinced him to stay. And no long after he was killed.

Commentator: Kevin Halt was on tour for one month in Iraq, but what he saw in that month was to shatter any illusions he had about life of the front-line soldier.

Jess Holt. Kevin’s sister

One of the things that stuck with him most in Iraq was he went on patrol, and he saw this little girl, she must only have been about 3 or 4, and she was obviously in distress, really hot and dusty. And he gave her a bottle of water. Went on his patrol. Came back the same way. And they’d hung this little girl, cause she took the water from, obviously, a soldier. And they didn’t like that. But he always blamed himself for that. It really got to him.

Commentator: After any active tour, the army gives its soldiers a few days away before coming home. They call this period: decompression.

KW’s personal video, army base, Cyprus.

Daniel Holleran was friends with JP and KW and served in Iraq with the Rifles:  They basically just left us in the camp. And they’d a container with crates of lager and cider and everything you wanted.  We’d a bit of R&R in the daytime. Where we could go jet-skiing or paragliding. That was the joke, get out of bad habits before you get home and batter your wife.

Tobias Ellwood is the defence spokesman for veterans. He’s a veteran himself, who is still a reservist in the army.

TE: the decompression period is actually very important. What we didn’t want was them going from the violent arena, where they’ve seen things. Witnessed things. Or being aware of lost colleagues or so forth. Going straight back to seeing their families. Taking them to another arena such as Cyprus, were we have military bases there. They’re still together as a unit, but it’s not an operational environment. You have psychologists. You have padres there which offers the pastoral care, which allows people to start thinking, reflecting on what they’ve just been through. And being able to vent and share concerns. And so forth. Move on. Have something else. A bit of distance between what they’ve endured, before they meet their families.

KW’s personal video, army base, Cyprus:

Totally pissed.

TE: I’m not aware of huge quantities of alcohol. If that is the case then it’s a breach of the rules. And the controlled programmes that we’re trying to…eh. Have in place.

Commentator: KW’s struggle with mental health pre-dated his first tour. Unbeknown to the army, he had attempted to take his own life before he had joined. But after Iraq, he was diagnosed with a new condition. PTSD.

Filmed for BBC 3 in 2012: KW.

Mostly anger. At one stage I smashed up my room. Turned the TV over. Everything. And I don’t even know why.

PTSD is an anxiety condition that can occur after experiencing a frightening or distressing event.

Shirley Holt (KH’s mum).

2007, he got diagnosed with the condition.

He was bad for it. An he were bad from word go. As soon as he came home. You could always tell when he were gonna have an episode cause his eye used to change. I can’t explain it, but they do. Load of change.

Commentator: In the army, KW was given mental-health treatment. Including a period of hospitalisation in late 2007. The army makes judgement about who can handle weapons and go on tour based on mental as well as physical fitness. But Kevin assured medics he was able to cope.

Official report: Rfn Holt reported that he would like to soldier on.

   2009. KH deployed to Afghanistan. Where Britain had been at war for 8 years.

Jess Holt. Kevin’s sister

JH: He wanted to go to Afghanistan. He was obviously nervous. A bit apprehensive about it. But he had this mindset where he wanted to go. Not to make things better but…it just…get it done.

KW [personal video]: The last tour were Afghan, we spent 7 months there and my role were the valour man? Obviously, it’s just you holding a metal detector (mine sweeping) and you’re detecting any metal content in the IEDs.

Commentator: IDs, improvised explosive devices were responsible for most deaths and injuries for British soldiers in Afghanistan.

On the 10th July, KH’s company was out on patrol. When a series of ID’s were triggered.

JH: I remember the day it happened. He weren’t supposed to be ringing. He were supposed to be like radio silence in the camp. But he rang my mum. I remember answering the phone. And he as just…He was crying. And I was like er, trying to get him to say what’s the matter? He were like, just put mum on. That was when we’d found out, he’d er…what had happened.

Commentator: 5 soldiers died that day. Including JH’s best friend James Backhouse.

JH: For him it wasn’t the initial explosion that kinda got to him. It was er afterwards. Picking all the bodies up. We can’t even imagine. The stuff of nightmares. He was an overthinker. It got to him. He just couldn’t shut it off. His head just couldn’t move on from that day, really.

Commentator: KH had been leading the patrol with a metal detector. Despite his feelings of guilt. The MOD recognised him as faultless in the incident. He even received a citation for his bravery. For continuing to search the area for further ID’s after the explosions. 

BBC 3 film, KH: Lot of people on the platoon, deserved it more than me. Everyone. . .

Commentator: The events of that day would cut short KH’s dreams of an army career.

KH: At first I were keen. I wanted to step up the ranks. The thing that stopped me being keen were seeing people I lived with, I worked with, that I care about, like get hurt. Or die.

Commentator: KH was discharged from the army at his own request.  But this was later converted to a medical discharge. In acknowledgement of his PTSD.

Liverpool.

Commentator: JPF couldn’t go to Afghanistan in 2009 because of the problems with his hearing. Instead, he was given a role in a welfare unit in England. In practice, this meant ferrying the families of the dead and injured flown back from Afghanistan so they could attend the repatriation ceremonies.

Leah Finnigan [JP’s ex-wife]:He had all these people in the back of his car. Taking them to hospitals or pick up the well…the dead. He felt guilty. He should have been there. In Afghanistan. He didn’t want to be driving the families. The guilt. The injury. That would have caused the trauma if he’d never done the tour. That’s when he started to shut off his emotions, actually. When he was ill. Really ill.

Commentator: Kevin Williams did not deploy to Afghanistan. He’d been discharged from the army in 2008. The year after he got back from Iraq, the recreational drug use increased. His sister believed by that time he wanted out. When she’s visited him on base in the UK a few months earlier, it was clear things were going badly wrong in his head.

Jennifer Williams [JW] Kevin’s sister: One of his friends actually pulled me aside. Aidan said, ‘I’m worried about Kevin.’ I went…OK… I was, he was saying he’d cut himself and he’d written some message in his own blood on the walls.  And so I broached  the subject with Kevin. And he was like yer, I did do that. I just had a bit of a meltdown. And he said that he was given a card to call a number to get help. And I asked him, ‘did you call the number?’ And he said ‘No’.

Well, you really need to call the number.

Commentator: It would be years before KW was diagnosed with PTSD. After his dismissal from the army he returned to his family home. But his increasingly erratic behaviour was difficult for his family to deal with. Or understand.

JW. It was quite a scary time for us, with KH in the house, cause he would have rages. All of a sudden a fist would go through the door.  So my mum arranged for him to see the doctor to try and get help. He was very clearly depressed.

Commentator: eventually KW got a diagnosis of PTSD through a veteran charity. And his friend Rachel, started making a documentary about him.

Kevin Williams – This is Me. A film by Rachel Kaden 2016.  

KW: Returning to civilian life was a big shock. The skills I learned, especially being in the infantry regiment was all combat based. So civilian life doesn’t really have much combat. I was pretty much, you know? Useless.

Commentator: KW began communicating with Rachel through voice notes. They provide a unique insight into his battles with PTSD. And are broadcast here for the first time.

KW: 7/3/2016. For some good reason I believe the battle field will be my home?  When I’m in conflict, I’m a nicer person than when I am not. You know, when I leave the house today, I just want to hurt everyone. You know when I’m in combat, I’m like, I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you. You know I don’t want anyone to get hurt. And I think, this is where I’m coming from.

Commentator. John Paul Finnigan was medically discharged from the army in 2010 because of his ear injury.

Steven Finnigan [JP’s brother]

Like when JPF came back to Liverpool, we found it very hard to get him out of his rut because he was in denial of what he was and was in denial. He’d fly off the handle. Fighting all the time.  He was like a yo-yo, basically. He’d go up and down with his moods.

Leah Finnigan [JP’s ex-wife] I told him, he needed help. And he went to the doctors and got CBT

Commentator: CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) is the key treatment for PTSD. It requires the sufferer identifying the emotions driving their behaviour. In JP’s case he was asked to start writing this down.

JP (read by SF] I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety which leaves me low and at a loss. Tight, on edge, unsettled. When things happen my heart races. My chest feels tight. My muscles tense and I go stiff. I usually lash out at walls and doors. But this still has affected my relationship with my wife and child. 

Commentator: But JP found it hard to keep following the therapist’s instructions at home.

LF: He wasn’t doing the techniques. They teach you techniques to do at home. But he just wasn’t doing them. And that’s not the way it works. In the end, it killed our marriage. It was the PTSD that done it.

Kevin Holt

To be honest, after I got out the army, that’s when like all the help stopped. An I were just like going down. From there.

Doncaster.

Commentor: After Kevin Holt was discharged from the army he moved back to Doncaster.

KH’s mum: He got a job in a kitchen place. He told them he had PTSD. They said they understood that and they’d have a quiet word. But it only lasted a week. Thought everybody were talking about im. So he got paranoid and he went on er sick.

Commentator: Kevin was given every available treatment for sufferers on the NHS. Including CBT and counselling. But his inability to talk about his problems was a barrier to the treatment working.

KH 2012: Everything I’ve been to, I feel it hasn’t really helped…I don’t really like talking about things…  That’s probably why.

Commentator: Tobias Ellwood agrees they struggled to get the right support, when they leave the army.

TE: We must make sure they get the right support. Nobody is left out. They must be slid across to the civilian operation. And given the support they needed. And it’s taken a little time, because this whole mental-support mechanism has grown and evolved. I go back to the fact, we’re dealing with a very macho environment. And sometimes there’s a reluctance to admit that there’s an issue. And that’s part of what the NHS now needs to do. Make sure they ask the right questions so they can provide the right support.

Commentator: The solution he says lies in specialist training for GPs. And new NHS units tailored specifically to veteran care. For KH help came in another form.

KH Mum: He just wanted to settle down and have somebody. And kids. He always wanted kids. Whatever girlfriends he had couldn’t cope with his PTSD. So we got him a dog. The veteran charity helped train Kevin with his PTSD.

KH sister, JH: The thing that helped him most was Dash. That dog was like his kid. It was trained to lick him and wake him up when he was having a nightmare. I think having the responsibility of having to get up and look after something else. And having that routine back. Was important for im.  

Commentator: To add to his struggles, Kevin was diagnosed with testicular cancer. During his treatment, he moved into a caravan next door to his mum.

JH: He used to allow his paranoia and phases when he wanted to be on his own and shut the world out. But I think focussing on thinking about getting himself better from the cancer distracted him a little bit.

A few weeks before he passed away, he was…he’d come around for a drink. He was joking about losing one of his balls. That was just the sort of person he was. He didn’t let anything like that sorta bother im. It was the big stuff that got to him most.

KH Mum: He told me the day before he wanted to be by himself. And [I said] I’m still goin to make sure you’re alright. But he waved to me through the kitchen window. And he smiled at me. So I seen im the day before.    

Commentator: On 13th July 2018, KH was found dead in his caravan. The coroner ruled his death was by misadventure. KH accidentally overdosed on the morphine he’d been prescribed for his cancer. He was 30-years-old when he died.

JH: It feels like a massive blur. But I don’t think it’ll hurt properly. It looked like I said I lost my brother. But when he came back from Iraq, as much as I loved him and he was my big brother, he never really came home from there.

Basildon.

Commentator: Kevin Williams also struggled to find the right treatment for his PTSD. For him, Thai boxing seemed to relieve some of the strain. But in January 2018, things started to get on top of him.

KW voice note: 15/1/2018. I’ve been feeling very weird lately. My head playing games and everything else. It all plummeted at once. It was like I was supporting the bridge and all the suspension cables decided to fucking go off. One by one. Right after the other. It’s like I need to take a big step back from everything. And unscramble all my thoughts and my mind. And just get myself back together piece by piece.

Kevin Williams – This is Me. A film by Rachel Kaden 2016. 

RK: Well, he said it about the suspensions and the bridge. Just completely go. All I wish is I said, Let it all go. Come ere. I’ve got a spare room. Let it all go. Just come. Be still ere. So…hindsight is very easy to, er, make you think, isn’t it?

Commentator: Kevin’s final voice note was sent a week before his death. And he sounded back on track.

KW: 6/3/2018. 11/3/2018. Rachel, Rachel, Rachel, what are you doing today? It’s the tattoo artist again. I need your help. I’m going to look to book…

Commentator: On the 18th March 2018, KW took his own life at his own home in Basildon. He was 29-years-old.

Jennifer Williams [JW] Kevin’s sister: When people talk about PTSD in particular they talk about walking the black dog. And…I just think that is just a really lame way of putting it. And the reason I’m saying it is anyone can walk a black dog down the park. These are soldiers. They can walk in the park. It’s more like being chained to a dark wolf. That it trying to eat you, constantly. And you have to fight it every day, every minute, every hour. And sometimes you get a lucky punch. That wolf goes down for… a few hours. Maybe a day. Maybe two days. But eventually that wolf comes round. And that wolf is always there. You’re chained to it. So you can’t get away from it.  

Steven Finnigan [JP’s brother]

JP was just talking to me. And I knew something was up, just by his voice. And he said he was goin for a walk. Now, I knew where, he’d walk, you know. Know what I mean?

So I jumped in my car and shot down there. And he was standing out at the bridge and I beeped me horn and that startled im. And he was out of that vision of what he were goin to do. Instead, he was thinking what were that? You know what I mean? Where I’d that time to drag him back over and throw him back into me car. And don’t get me wrong, he was fighting me all the way. To do it, but…

Yer, he was fightin me all the way to do it, but… No. That’s not the way he was going. In my eyes, yeh, know what I mean? He deserved better than that.

Commentator: After JP’s marriage ended he met and moved in with Danielle Miller fiancee.

DM: JP’s sister said to get in touch, she was worried and to get in touch with her. He had been having kinda suicidal thoughts. To me it was a shock.

Commentator: Danielle’s mother had taken her own life. So she knew how it felt to lose someone to suicide.

DM: I did say to JP, you know how much I don’t  agree with suicide. And JP promised me, he did, er think about it. But he wouldn’t do it. It was kinda spur of the moment talk. And promised me he couldn’t live without me. His children. His family.

Commentator: But it was a promise he was unable to keep. On 27th May 2018, Danielle found JP’s body in the garden of the home they shared.

DM: I still don’t understand why JP done it. It’ll never leave. 

Steven Finnigan [JP’s brother]

Well, I felt hopeless. Because I was in a completely different country. An, I felt that he knew, I’d stopped im before. So with me out of the way, I’d no stop im, you know what I mean?

Leah Finnigan [JP’s ex-wife]

All day, every day, he suffered so much. And I…My heart breaks that he wasn’t able to get the help he needed. He shoulda got help. He shoulda. He shouldn’t have been up to im to ask for it.  It shouldn’t ave. That should have been given to him… It should be an automatic thing… It’s men and women… it’s so sad.

Commentator: After Afghanistan the army attempted to screen soldiers [eg video Expressing my Emotions – This is Belonging: Army Jobs 2018] for mental-health problems. But it wasn’t effective.

Instead the MOD is trying to change the whole culture in the armed forces. As this recruitment video shows.

Tobias Ellwood:

When I was in the armed forces, you were reluctant to say anything, you were intimidated. You were told to grab a mansuit and sort yourself out. Em, certainly, there was no recognition that there was perhaps that there was something there that might need attention. And if you dealt with it right away it wouldn’t incubate into something…worse. And eh, that’s what we’re trying to change now.

Commentator: But any change will come too late for combat, front-line soldiers of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of whom 17% are suffering from probable PTSD. (source: KMCHR, October 2018 and refers to ex-serving personnel).

Commentator: Those sufferers include friends of JP. Men who fought alongside him. Daniel and Lee have both been diagnosed with PTSD. But it wasn’t until JP’s death, they faced up to their own thoughts to suicide.

Daniel: speaking about JP. I’d say he was one of the strongest soldiers. One of the strongest men I knew. Took his own life. But I understood why. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t judge him. To my shame, the first thought in my mind was he’s out of the pain now. And er, he hasn’t got all these things going round in his head. It was just complete and utter jealousy.

Lee: I didn’t know I was suicidal until you battle these demons and you feel numb.

Commentator: In the years since JP’s death, both have sought help.

Daniel: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, JP’s death gave me life. Something changed in me. From that day I put the drugs down and I went into treatment and I got better. It was all down to JP’s death. Give me my life.   

Lee: Just getting over that line to say I needed help was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. [Pictures of him with his wife and family, toddlers and baby]. Going back to therapy. That first session, was hard, really hard.

Commentator: The family and friends in this film had done so in the hope more veterans would have the courage to seek help.

JH:It was hard, the first week, I couldn’t even say his name, but it’s what he wanted. Baby Kevin Holt III. Now I’ve got a little mini Kev. I hope he’s not as naughty as Uncle Kev.

Vice, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, Writer and Director Adam McKay.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0011p18/vice

Described as comedy-drama, a biographical film about former US vice-president Dick Cheney. Christian Bale won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of the most powerful vice-president in modern history. There is a contemporary joke that nobody is ever called Dick, but that’s about it.

There is nothing funny about Vice. At a push, I could probably name most of the President since the first wold war since it mostly involves saying Roosevelt over and over.

Vice President can become Presidents. General Eisenhower and Harry Truman spring to mind. And if you take a circular route, Republican, Vice President Richard Nixon finally got his feet under the desk at the Oval Office. Most were in agreement Vice was no more than a token job. A bit like being the President’s wife. Good for photoshoots and opening fetes.

Kamala Harris’s power, in contrast, lies her ability to cast a tie-breaking vote in a split Senate. But really, she’s waiting for Joe Biden to die so she can step into a real job.

Robert A. Caro shows how Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) spiralled into depression when his attempts to control the Senate were rebuffed and his attempt to manipulate the new American President, and darling of the media, John F. Kennedy were swatted aside with a smile. The man that had once controlled Congress and Senate reduced to a comic figure that was left out of briefings in the new Camelot.

Vice follows the path of an American boy made good. Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) telling him after a couple of drink driving convictions and barroom fights he was on the road to nowhere. He better ship up or ship out. He did both, while staying out of Vietnam and the armed forces on deferments.

Like LBJ, Cheney had a talent for politics. In one scene, he asks another intern what party  guest-speaker Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) belongs to. When told he’s a Republican, he says he’s a Republican too.

When working for Rumsfeld as an intern he asks him Cheney what he believes in. Here’s the joke part of the film. Rumsfeld slaps him on the back and laughs so long and hard, the viewer knows it’s a joke. The purpose of power is power.

Realpolitik. Rumsfeld points to a closed door. He tells Cheney behind it is Nixon and Defense Secretary Henry Kissinger are having an unofficial meeting. When the meeting was finished tens of thousands of Vietnamese would die. Subtext. They are plotting mass murderer.

Drawing a line in the sand, Cheney gave his support to gay marriages since one of his two daughters, Mary (Alison Pill) came out as gay.  

There were other shifting lines in the sand. He was a hawkish Secretary of Defense (1989–1993) following the precepts of the Eisenhower Doctrine—any (oil rich) Middle Eastern country could request American economic assistance or aid from U.S. military forces if it was being threatened by armed aggression. 1st August 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi forces into neighbouring oil-rich Kuwait.

President George W Bush (senior) unleashed coalition (mainly US) forces in Desert Storm under the command of General Norman Schwarzkopf. February 24. Within 100 hours, Iraqi forces had been expelled from Kuwait in the ground war. With aerial dominance, they were sitting ducks.

[Not in the film, but worth quoting Cheney’s perceptive response to the invasion of Baghdad, in the first Gulf War: how many American dead is Saddam worth?]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Cheney

 ‘Because if we’d gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone. There wouldn’t have been anybody else with us. There would have been a U.S. occupation of Iraq. None of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq. Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of it – eastern Iraq – the Iranians would like to claim, they fought over it for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq. The other thing was casualties. Everyone was impressed with the fact we were able to do our job with as few casualties as we had. But for the 146 Americans killed in action, and for their families – it wasn’t a cheap war. And the question for the president, in terms of whether or not we went on to Baghdad, took additional casualties in an effort to get Saddam Hussein, was how many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth? Our judgment was, not very many, and I think we got it right.’

Vice Presidency (2001–2009).

We all know about what’s now called 9/11.

But if you asked me who the Vice President was at the time, I couldn’t have answered. The tone of the film is set early. George W. Bush (junior) (Sam Rockwell) is in the air metaphorically and literally when the planes hit The Twin Towers. Dick Cheney takes charge of the 9/11 fallout.  

But Dick Cheney had always been—more of less—in charge. The coup that LBJ had attempted had failed, but Cheney was the real power in American politics. The dithering George W Bush President, but the Vice President pulling the strings. Ironically, the power grab going in the other direction. The American President grabbing more executive power as the Twin Towers fell. Extra-ordinary rendition. Repealing the Geneva Convension. Spying on American citizens.

The invasion of Afghanistan was payback for 9/11.

Payback for his old bosses at Halliburton Corporation by adding billions of dollars to shareholder value. The invasion of Iraq’s oil-rich fields with evidence from a list drawn up before Saddam Hussein was found to have mass weapons of destruction—he didn’t have and links to Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida hidden network in the paperwork with the weapons of mass destruction.  

Cheney, a hawk abroad, and conservative at home. No surprise with his fortune coming from a fossil fuel, Times 500 Company, he helped in the pushback for the ideas of global warming. He helped reframe the debate, through think-tanks sponsored by Times 500 companies as simply climate change, which sound much more palatable and less threatening. The kind of idea picked up the moron’s moron.

Cheney endorsed Trump in the 2016 Presidential election, but didn’t shut his eyes to how he got elected. Russian interference, or what he moron’s moron would call Russian help from their cyber networks, Cheney classified as ‘an act of war’. But he’d also have to have declared war on that American institution Facebook that cashed the cyber cheques made in Russia and created the images of hate that polluted politics (from a very low base which Cheney’s think-tanks helped fuel) and still does.

The film ends with the viewer finding out the narrator of the film is the man that provided Cheney with a new heart after his failed. I guess they should have saved it and given it to someone more deserving. But money talks loudest. Worth a look, but don’t expect to giggle.  

.

How the world laughed when the moron’s morons’ foot-soldiers stormed the Congress buildings.

 Captain America.

But the price of freedom is high, it always has been. And it’s one I’m willing to pay. And if I’m the only one, so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.

I was scared the moron’s moron would, inadvertently, take us into the Third World War (delayed). I’ve got a roof over my head, enough to eat, and quite like being alive. As Malcolm X said before he was murdered ‘the chickens have come home to roost’.

The 45th American President, the pedlar of hate and conspiracy theories—who got into the highest office in the land, with Fox News help, a Facebook disinformation campaign, and the Russian President Putin providing logistical support—under the pretext of a taking back control, incites riot and unlawful assembly. A mob army to dispute an election he lost, we’re back at Charlottesville here, with ‘those very good people’ that are gun-toting, flag-waving white and right.

Not since 1812, we’ve been told has this happened. General MacArthur brutally dealt with a citizen army, many of them veterans of the first world war, that had come to Washington and demanded government help during the hungry thirties. It will be interesting to see what happens to those moron moron’s supporters, who, for examples, filmed themselves sitting in Presiding Officer’s chair. That’s how dumb they are.

They believe that the purity of their brand of patriotism will protect them from the law. Without the moron’s moron in office how can there be any law? Just or otherwise?

The bankrupt 45th American President, who when called to fight for his country in Vietnam, but said he’d a sore foot, ends in farce. When it comes to taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich, I’m a revolutionary. This was no storming of the Congress by Captain America surrogates, but was dis-United America showing its face for the television and the mass media. Andy Warhol’s everyone requiring their fifteen minutes of fame in La-La land. Poetic justice as the moron’s moron bows out.   

Documentary of 2020: Once Upon a Time in Iraq, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, Narrator Andy Serkis and Director James Bluemel.

Once Upon a Time in Iraq, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, Narrator Andy Serkis and Director James Bluemel.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000kxwq/once-upon-a-time-in-iraq-series-1-1-war

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000l43w/once-upon-a-time-in-iraq-series-1-2-insurgency

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p08kr4ws/once-upon-a-time-in-iraq-series-1-3-fallujah

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p08kr52c/once-upon-a-time-in-iraq-series-1-4-saddam

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p08kr5t9/once-upon-a-time-in-iraq-series-1-5-legacy

Waleed Nesyif was a teenager when President George W. Bush gave Saddam Hussein just 48 hours to leave Iraq. He was, like many Iraqi teenagers at that time, infatuated by the West. But while many of his generation grew up enjoying songs by The Backstreet Boys, Waleed formed Iraq’s first heavy metal band. By comparison to the American movies Waleed and his friends enjoyed, life under Saddam was oppressive, fuelled by fear and paranoia. If war meant life would eventually be more like the way it was in the movies, then in Waleed’s words, ‘let’s get this s**t done’.

Omar Mohammed, a young Iraqi student in 2003 explains the difference between the Iraqi and the American soldier during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He thought they were Rambo. Nobody could defeat them.

For others, it was more complicated. Um Qusay, a farmer’s wife from a small village near Tikrit, was under no illusions about the cruelty of Saddam’s regime. That did not mean however that she wanted a foreign army to invade her country to dispose of him. There were benefits to living in a police state. The streets were very safe, and if you did not oppose the government directly, you were free to live how you wished. Life might not have been perfect, but many felt that a war with America would be something that Iraq would not survive. Sally was just eight years old when American troops entered Baghdad. She had been told to be fearful of them, but when a soldier offered her a sweet, she decided that the stories she had been taught at school about the foreign imperialist devils were wrong, as only good people could be this kind.

As the statue to their former dictator falls in Firdos Square, there is a real sense of hope felt by many Iraqis. Maybe, just maybe, Iraq would emerge a better country – perhaps even as one of the best countries in the world. That was the very real hope of Ahmed Al Bashir. Now Iraq’s most famous comedian, as a teenager in 2003, Ahmed was excited by the opportunity to speak English with real Americans, waving at the invading troops and inviting them into his house. From his hotel room in northern Iraq, photographer Ashley Gilbertson watched, along with the rest of the world, as Saddam’s statue was torn down. ‘I’ve missed the war’ were his initial thoughts. What he and many others did not realise at the time was that this was not the war. The war was still to come. The initial hope, felt by many Iraqis, would be tragically short lived once the realities of occupation with no postwar plan hit the streets of Baghdad

When Lieutenant Colonel Nate Sassaman arrived in Iraq in 2003, his belief in the task ahead – of delivering democracy and stability to the Iraqi people – was unquestioning. Sassaman was an inspirational leader to his men, and many felt that he was destined one day to become a general. Six months into his tour, caught in the political and literal crossfire of the insurgency, his good intentions and belief systems were shattered. Unprepared for the hostile environment he found himself in, with little support coming from Washington and taking daily attacks from insurgents, Sassaman was pushed to the very darkest regions of his psyche.

Alaa Adel was 12 years old in the summer of 2003, when she too was caught in crossfire on the streets of Baghdad. She suffered life-changing injuries when she was hit in the face by shrapnel from one of the first roadside bombs, which were planted by insurgents and intended for American forces.

Looking back at that time, both Sassaman and Alaa question the benefits of the war in Iraq. While one struggles with the guilt of their actions, the other lives with bristling resentment and ongoing anger.

At the start of the Iraq War in 2003, over 600 journalists and photographers are given permission by the US government to follow the war as embedded reporters. Dexter Filkins and photographer Ashley Gilbertson are working for the New York Times when they enter Fallujah with Bravo Company in November 2004.

It is the most intense battle of the entire war and the biggest the marines have fought since Vietnam. For the duration of the battle, both journalists live with the marines, filing their stories as they are constantly shot at. Illustrated by thousands of photographs taken by Gilbertson that week, many of them never before published, as well as unseen material taken by the marines themselves, this film takes viewers into the heart of the battle. Gilbertson’s decision to capture an image of an Iraqi sniper shooting from inside a minaret changes not only his life but the lives of the soldiers with him.

Nidhal Abed has lived in Fallujah her entire life. On 4 November 2004, her two-year-old son Mustafa is running a high fever. She leaves her home to take Mustafa to the doctors just a few streets away. What happened next ensures their lives too are never the same again.

With unique archive of the battle itself, this story is told through the marines, journalists and residents of Fallujah

CIA analyst John Nixon is the first person to interrogate Saddam.

The emergence of ISIS concludes the legacy of the Iraq War. But it has begun before this by what David Armstrong describes as the Bush administration ‘Drafting a Plan for Global Dominance 2002,’  in response to 9/11,  a strategy of threatening and attacking countries in pre-emptive strikes to prevent terrorism. ‘Iran would be next, then Syria, North Korea, even China…Sweep it all up’.

Felicity Arbuthnot, reports in Iraq: The Unending War 1998-99, humanises it by reporting on the case of Jassim, the Little Poet – R.I.P.  

Until he’d been ill he’d been selling cigarettes in his home town of Basra, in northern Iraq. Bombed in the 1991 Gulf War and Desert Storm.

A six-fold increase in childhood cancers linked to the use of missiles and bullets coated with depleted uranium, which remains radioactive for 4500 years.

‘Iraq’s childhood mortality rate will go down in history as one of the great crimes of the twentieth century, alongside the Holocaust, the bombing of Dresden and the excesses of Pol Pot. Between 6000 and 7000 children under five are dying of embargo-related causes,’ said Denis Haliday, a former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN.  

Jay Gordon, Cool War, Economic Sanctions as a Weapon of Mass Destruction 2002, reminds us before the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s government, despite the well-known mass murder of Kurds and Shi’ites would not have survived without substantial backing from the United States, especially with an expensive war with Iran from 1980-1988.

After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War, in 1991, the US secretary-general envoy predicted ‘imminent catastrophe’. Immediate crises in food, water, sanitation, and infrastructure. His report concluded with the suggestion of ‘epidemics and famine’.  According to a Pentagon report that was the intention.

In the Oil for Food Programme, for example, around $170 per person per year was allocated. Around half the annual per-capita income of the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, Haiti. Less than the $400 spent on dogs UN used on de-mining operations.

The destruction of the fresh water system caused outbreaks of cholera and typhus, which disproportionately killed infants and children. Prior to 1990 around 95 per cent of city dwellers had drinkable water. By 1996 all sewerage-treatment plants had broken down, confirming the Pentagon report’s analysis. Thirteen percent of Iraqi children died before their fifth birthday.

Jassim, the Little Poet’s last written words, ‘Identity Card’.

‘The name is love,

The class is mindless,

The school is suffering,

The governorate is sadness,

The city is sighing,

The street is misery,

The home number is one thousand sighs.’

Ocean Vuong (2019) On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a book worth reading more than once—I won’t, of course, too many other books to discover and read, but sometimes we need to pause. The mark of a wonderful book is you can open it any page and learn something. Here’s the start, which is so important (as us writers know) for setting the tone.

‘Let me begin again.

Dear Ma,

I am writing to reach you—even if each word put down is one word further away from where you are. I am writing to go back to that time…’

First-person narratives draw the reader in. A cosy arrangement, saying you can trust me. We all love our mum right?

Who are you, becomes what are you? Here Vuong is a dutiful son. His father Paul, an arthritic, pot-smoking Vietnam veteran is not his father. His mother Rose’s real name is not Rose, but an aid agency contacted him in the nineteen-eighties after he’d been married eight years telling him he’d a wife and son in a Philippine refugee camp. She cannot speak English, neither can her sister, or her mother Lan, Vuong’s grandmother.

Vuong inhabits two worlds, a child of immigrants, he is there voice to the English speaking world. There face is his face. A face that does not fit inside the eyes that look back at him.

His mother finds work in the toxic environment of a nailbar. They are the lowest of the low. His mother has no health insurance and psychotic episodes. Grandmother Lan flings a hand over Ocean’s mouth, whispering for him to keep quiet when fireworks go off, or the mortars will find them.

Normal life for Voung is Lan calling him ‘Little Dog’ to confuse the spirits that might blight his life if they believed he was someone important.

Vuong inhabits there world of ghosts and demons and boys at school who bully him.

‘That time at the nail salon, I overheard you consoling a customer over her recent loss.

“I lost my baby, Julie. I can’t believe it, she was my strongest, my oldest.”

“It’s okay,” you said in English, don’t cry. You’re Julie…how she die?”

“Cancer…and in the backyard too.”

“My mom, too, she die from cancer.” The room went quiet. You’re co-workers shifted in their seats. “But what happened in the backyard, why she die there?”

The woman wiped her eyes. “That’s where she lives. Julie’s my horse.”

You nodded, put on your mask… “ A fucking horse you say in Vietnamese.”.’

Contrast 1964 and 1997 when Tiger Woods wins his first Major’s golf tournament.

Back then: General Curtis Le May “promised to bomb the Vietnamese back to the Stone Ages”.

The US military would end up releasing over ten thousand tons of bombs in a county no bigger than California—surpassing the number of bombs dropped in all of World War II combined.’

Rose and Lan’s experience was of being hunted. Their experience of being in America is to keep their heads down. And reminding Voung that being Vietnamese is enough of a burden and he must remain invisible.

Voung makes a comparison with Tiger Woods to make the immigrant experience more understandable to outsiders. Earl Woods names his son after a Vietnamese comrade who saved his life on his final tour of duty. Lieutenant Colonel Dong Vang Phong—“Tiger Phong”, Earl had named him because of his ferocity in battle. Earl had married a Vietnamese women and had his apartment vandalised with slogans painted on the walls.

Ocean Voung makes a literary joke about this experience, playing his mother’s lack of English against her, telling her that it was a message of support. As evidence he pointed out red paint was used, a propitious colour.

Ocean also falls in love with Trevor, who like many of his friends living in a mobile park-land, was hooked on Oxycontin after an injury and then heroin.

‘First developed as a painkiller for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, Oxycontin, along with its generic forms, was soon prescribed for all bodily pains: arthritis, muscle spasms, and migraines.’

Horror story, hearing Trevor’s voice… four years after he died.

He’s singing “This Little Light of Mine” again, the way he used to sing it—abrupt against lulls in the conversation, his arm hanging out the window of the Chevy, tapping the beat on the faded red exterior.

Ocean Vuong offers an insider story of an immigrant’s experience, a marginalised outsider, in the so called land of the free.  Not exactly a fuck you, because that’s too simplistic, too black and white, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’. Read on.

Robert A.Caro (2012) The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume 4, The Passage of Power.

We’re all aware that with great power comes great responsibility, after all these were the lines mouthed by Batman with the pointy ears before he jumped off a tall building. The moron’s moron, who anybody with any sense would like to see jumping from a tall building, reaches new lows in grasping one and abdicating the other. But that’s another story unless the moron’s moron stumbles into an Armageddon strategy to remain power, a historical aside.  Cato charts for the reader the Cuban Missile Crisis and Armageddon obverted.  

Here we have two heavyweights Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ) and John F Kennedy (JFK) (chants of let’s make America great again would be met with a snort of derision). The United States was at its peak and entering a ten-year period of post-war prosperity. The Soviet Union was in decline and to feed its citizens having to purchase wheat at lock-bottom prices from the American surplus. The plan to place Chiang Kai-shek a sympathetic and Congress backed Protestant-Christian nationalist ruler in China had backfired, but the largely agricultural country was experiencing famine and lockdown under Chairman Mao (with the odd breakout of one million soldiers to challenge American might in Korea in the early 1950s).   America was the only game in town and the most powerful man on the planet was by some way, the American President. Robert A.Caro goes with the maxim, power corrupts, but twists it a little, in adding, power also reveals.

Here in the penultimate volume is  he sets out of show what it reveals about LBJ,  (seven years later we’re still waiting on the final volume and I’ll guess we’ll hear more about Vietnam) but also the American dream before it turned sour in South East Asia and in the flower-powered sixties.  The Passage of Power had me thinking of John Irivine’s classic A Prayer for Owen Meany in the way that when the call came LBJ, despite all his faults, many of which he shared with the golden boy of American politics, JFK,  the Vice President was ready. He’d been ready all his life to be American President. He’d gambled that he was only a heartbeat away from the top job as Vice President and that gunshot put him in the seat of power. Kamala Harris odds are a lot less than the four of five to one that LBJ gambled on.  

Johnson VS Kennedy 1960. Both are running for President. When it becomes clear that LBJ doesn’t have the numbers for the Democratic Nomination to run for the Presidency and JFK does, they cut a deal in which LBJ agrees to become his running mate and when they win the election, they’ll be number one and two. President and Vice President of the—then—greatest nation on earth.

Coming second, unless it’s the Second Coming, means coming nowhere. Vice President is an honorary position with as much (or as little) power as the President’s wife.

Caro begin where he left off with Master of the Senate. LBJ is running the world from his Senate office. Eisenhower is relinquishing power and his Vice President, the young Richard Nixon, is the Republican Candidate for the top job. LBJ has two strategies that he tries to implement to retain power in the Senate (where if a President proposed a Bill, LBJ had the power of Caesar to give it a thumbs up or down) and to change the roles of President and Vice President to more of a job share. LBJ’s plots were simply brushed aside.

Here we have LBJ’s low period, when the Master of the Senate is no longer courted but avoided by Senators and a bit of a joke figure—nicknamed Rufus Cornpone, because of his flailing arms and long-winded stories—in  JFK’s new Camelot. ‘Power is Where Power Goes’ declares Caro and there were few Presidents as popular as the youthful JFK. LBJ is Vice President, but hears about the Bay of Pigs fiasco from the media. He’s so out of the picture he reverts to what worked before for him with older, more powerful men, and becomes a sycophantic arse-licker and sends JFK one—unwanted gift—after another. JFK instructs his cabinet to deal with the Vice President with the greatest courtesy.

JFK’s brother Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy (RFK), the Attorney General and former committee member and supporter of J. Edgar Hoover’s Committee on UnAmerican Activites, but as Caro shows, also JFK’s alter-ego and real number two, hates LBJ. It’s one of the great American no-holds barred feuds. Before and after the fall. Both men never forget or forgive and hold a grudge longer than Satan.

When JFK is President, Rufus Cornpone is regularly savaged by RFK. With another election on the horizon JFK assured LBJ that he’ll still be on the ticket as Vice President, but that seems doubtful, as LBJ does not seem to be in positon to deliver the Southern States in the Electoral College that gave JFK the 1960 Presidency. JFK is an idealist, but he’s also a pragmatist.

In October 1963, LBJ’s protégé and bagman Bobby Baker was involved in a sex and cash scandal that mirrored the Profumo affair in London. The media had begun investigating ‘Lyndon’s money’ and made a direct link between the tens of million dollars he’s made in his Texas radio and television empire, which he purchased for peanuts, and his political office, where he sold ad space for political influence. Quid pro quo, something for something. Oil men like Brown & Root, for example, pledged millions and bought Congress, then Senate and then the Presidency.    

LBJ did something remarkable after President Kennedy’s death, he united the American nation in a way not seen since President Roosevelt, perhaps even more so. But he did something even more remarkable, he faced down Senators from the South who’d formed a coalition to stop people of colour integrating and committing what they saw as the sin of miscegenation. Roosevelt, Trauman, Eisenhower and Kennedy were unable to pass civil-rights legislation because of the way the Southern senators used arcane rule, filibustered and top-loaded influential committees with their supporters and held hostage the passage of other bills in the legislative chamber to bend the will of their rivals and force them to retreat. LBJ had been a key player in this cabal led by the Georgian senator Richard Russell, who like many opposed the desegregation of the army and believed men of colour lacked natural courage and moral leadership. LBJ had in the previous volume helped fund Russell’s run for the Presidency. LBJ was the ultimate insider. As President who’d stolen his seat in the Senate, nevertheless he flipped the Southern Senators and passed civil-rights legislation, created Medicaid and a nascent welfare state in America.  Power is as power does asserts Cato. LBJ stands tall among his Presidential peers.

Robert Kennedy’s assertion that JFK would have got around to achieving those great legislative peaks shows the Attorney General’s loyalty but also his political naivety. Only one President, supreme master of politics, LBJ, could have achieved what he did. His time had come, but at the peak of his power—it was gone. He won the election by one of the biggest landslides in American history, but we know what comes next, or at least we will know when Caro finishes his final volume. If you want to know about how we came to be where we are, read his history of LBJ. The old hates never went away, they remain, and are in the White House now with the moron’s moron as President. God bless America, indeed, and God help the rest of us.

Frank Woods (2019) Where the Bridge Lies.

where the bridge lies..jpg

Where the Bridge Lies was Scottish novel of the week recently, which is quite an achievement for debut author Frank Woods. He can be proud of that. This novel should tick all the boxes for me. It’s set in Clydebank. And Clydebank is where I set most of my stories. It features a family that died in the Clydebank Blitz. I’d guess it’s loosely based on the Rocks’ family, who apart from the father, who agreed to work his son’s shift, died not far from a street in which I lived for years. It also has a second-strand story-line set in a castle used as a school. Yeh, that one that’s on the way to Drymen. I know somebody that worked in it and I wrote an unpublished novel, loosely based in another castle, Lennox Castle. I know exactly how Ervin Goffman’s total institutions are organised and most schools, especially residential schools, tick the boxes. And some of us remember Billy Connelly’s story of working in the shipyards and setting a rag alight in the troughs they used to shite in and sailing it like a model ship down wind and burning the worker’s arses. Hilarious. Not really.  In other words I’m like one of those street bores that ask you how you are and you can’t get a word in edgeways as they yitter on about themselves. I should be talking about Frank Wood’s novel and not my own well-documented addiction to scribbling words nobody bothers reading. And I don’t blame them. So what I’m trying to say is I never finished this novel. I got to page 58.

The protagonist Keir Connor, a photojournalist who suffers from post-traumatic-stress disorder after working in Vietnam, is taking a sabbatical in Clydebank and trying to trace his long-lost family is in alternate chapters with the night of the Clydebank Blitz and the aftermath. I even get a mention, Father O’Donnell.

You’ve got to love your characters. I didn’t. You might. Read on.

M. Scott Peck (1983 [1990]) People of the Lie. The Hope of Healing Human Evil.

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I sped read through the 309 pages of this book in two sittings. It didn’t take me long. I’m good at that kind of thing, but I’m not sure if good is the right word. I read lots, but remember very little. M. Scott Peck is of course better known for his ten-million bestseller, The Road Less Travelled. Yep, read that too. Writing this now I can’t remember a word of it, but I’m guessing it’s full of folksy wisdom.  Americans love that kinda shit. As a lapsed Catholic I can’t say I’m immune either.

Scott Peck is a psychiatrist, but he’s also a Christian. He believes in the risen Christ. The flip side of this is the devil, Satan, who has fallen from grace. He wasn’t sure about that archetypal character. As a scientist and a Christian he looked at the evidence. You’ve guess it. The devil does exist he concludes and evil is a real force. He offers some case studies of people he feels are evil. And touches on the use of exorcisms to drive out the devil. He believes a very small number (my analogy would the around the number of what can be truly called compassionate conservatives) have something inside them which is not of them, which is fundamentally evil. The old argument of whether a person is mad, bad, or sad when they commit crime finds Peck siding with the rhetoric that some people really are bad, or in this case evil.

What I found interesting was this book written in the early eighties describes the American President Donald J Trump to a tee. Remember those games you played when you were younger when it was shown conclusively that by allocating Hebraic letters and mixing them with Greek numbers to Hitler’s name and finding conclusively it matched the number of the beast, as did, Emperor Nero. Peck does much the same thing here, but he does it blind. At the time of writing Donald J Trump was a multiple bankrupt who cheated and lied his way into maintaining the front of a business tycoon and property-estate entrepreneur encapsulated by the vainglorious Trump Tower. Now, of course, he’s the American President and more importantly Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Emperor Nero could only burn Rome. Trump can burn the world.

Peck offers as a case study of group evil the Vietnam war in general and, in particular, the case of My Lai, in a morning1968, and the cover-up which happened almost immediately afterwards. Anyone that has been watching the series on Vietnam, as I have, know that neither President John F Kennedy or his successor the Texan Lyndon B Johnson  believed in this war, but they admitted privately that to say so would end their hope of becoming President. Richard M Nixon was of course asked to stand down because of the lies he told about Watergate. These Presidents look like rank amateurs when placed next to the father of lies Donald J Trump. The coming war with North Korea is based on the same great lie. As one veteran said I killed one human, after that all I killed were gooks. The metrics used in Vietnam was the number of bodies killed. Some soldiers kept human ears as trophies. What Peck doesn’t say is most of the Task Force Baker had taken turns raping their young female victims before killing them. Most of the men serving that day got away with their crimes. Gooks don’t count. Demonization of the other is the first step in the murder of the soul.

Peck’s first case study is titled ‘The Man Who Made a Pact With the Devil.’ I guess there’s a similar story in Stephen King’s Needless Things.    An innocuous old man sells people exactly what they want. Trump has been selling fear and hatred for a long time now and drawing evil to him like a magnet. His lies got him elected to the highest office in the land.

Pecks gives us a loose definition between those that are mad, bad and sad.

If people cannot be defined by the illegality of their deeds, or the magnitude of their sins, then how are we to define them? The answer is by the consistency of their sins. While usually subtle the consistency of their sins. This is because those “that have crossed over the line” are characterized by their absolute refusal to tolerate sense of their own sinfulness.

This is something Richard Holloway the agnostic former arch-bishop talked about. Those who are narcissistic enough to believe they are always absolutely right and have a God-given right to do exactly what they want, are absolutely wrong. The problem here, of course, Trump would rather see the world burn than admit to getting things wrong. There’s a race running between his impeachment and him ending it all with a bang. God, I hope, is on our side and if He’s not available, perhaps we should phone Stephen King.