John Buchan and Osama bin Laden

Recently I returned to a childhood favourite: the novels of John Buchan. These were first published between 1915 and 1924. I found an ancient volume containing all four books, in which Buchan's British hero, Richard Hannay, does battle with the evil Boche, before and during World War One.
In Greenmantle, the second adventure after The Thirty-Nine Steps, Richard Hannay uncovers a dastardly plot. The Germans, led by a vast, bull-necked monster called General Stumm, have come up with a novel way to win the war. The plot involves a propaganda ploy: they will produce a Prophet, Greenmantle, who will ignite the flames of jihad in the Muslim world. Greenmantle will be an instrument of German power. Once the Muslim masses are inflamed, and ready to follow Greenmantle's bidding, they will become a force that can be wielded by the Prophet's German masters, in their pursuit of victory and world domination.

After Richard Hannay has foiled the plot, his next adventure, Mr Standfast, has him trailing the German villains to a house in France. There they are manufacturing biological weapons, which they plan to unleash on the British troops. I had a frivolous picture of the young Osama bin Laden in the dorm of his posh school, browsing through translations of these ripping tales. The middle child of fifty-two, a bit of a dreamer, tall, gangling, always with his head in a book. Or perhaps in America, some bookish youth, who would go on to make schemes for the CIA, might have mused over General Stumm's devilish plans...

Osama bin Laden went to Afghanistan, where the Americans were harnessing jihad for themselves. Armed and funded by the United States, he helped to drive the Russians out. But as the Germans in Greenmantle might have discovered, jihad is a weapon that's hard to control. Soon Osama would be turning on his masters, and raining down hell on the streets of New York.

Long before the War on Terror began, back in 1991, I was working at the law firm, Simpson Grierson. I lived in a flat on top of the old CML mall in Queen Street, and every lunch time, I would sneak off home to watch the first Gulf War on TV. I was in the middle of my love affair with CNN. I couldn't get enough of the coverage. I learned what a Scud missile was. I watched as they fell in Israel, and caused some damage, but never enough to be taken seriously. I watched journalists wearing gas masks, waiting for Saddam's chemical weapons. The poison gas clouds never came.
It was War on Television. It had its own logo; it was a spectacle and a phenomenon. It was all hype and hysteria, alarm and anti-climax came in waves. But there were realities you could draw from it, if you watched it all the time. There were things you could clearly see. After September 11, when the Bush Administration hinted that bin Laden and Saddam were linked, and began selling the line that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, I knew instantly and absolutely that it was a lie. If you'd watched the first Gulf War, you knew exactly what the awful Saddam had up his sleeve: nothing. Overstretched, out of friends, all he could manage was to lob a few Scuds into Tel Aviv. To this day I'm amazed when I hear it said, as I did again on the radio this week, that the security services believed Saddam's lethal weapons were real. I can't see how they could have believed it – and if they did they were frighteningly inept.

In London back in 1997 we stayed up all night, watching the British elections. Tony Blair led Labour to victory; it was a new dawn, the end of 'Tory sleaze.' We were pleased; it seemed promising – but it was all downhill from there. Blair destroyed everything he ever achieved by following George Bush into Iraq.

I fell out of love with a few literary heroes over this. I disapproved of Ian McEwan's soft treatment of the war in his novel, Saturday. And Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens seemed to have collapsed into heavy breathing, sabre-rattling and melodrama. It was an irony to see Amis, the author of The War Against Cliché, writing about the War on Terror as if it were a rational proposition. Cliché makes bad art; sloppy thinking makes bad politics. In this case, bad politics has left thousands of Iraqis dead. At that point I felt like washing my hands of Amis. When someone is being that much of a jerk, there's just no choice. You have to move on. It's better to have loved and lost...
When they invaded Afghanistan I said to my husband, 'You wait, this will end in a total mess.' We argued about it for a moment. Perhaps it might do some good in Afghanistan, he optimistically said. The optimism, he would later agree, turned out to be misplaced.

Operation Shock and Awe was unleashed on Iraq, and I was outraged and appalled, as so many people were. Years later nothing has been achieved but destruction, destabilisation and death. In June, we watched coverage of George Bush on his farewell trip through Europe. As one British commentator coldly remarked, the only trip that man should be making is to the War Crimes Court in The Hague. 

First published in Metro Magazine NZ
August 2010