Newsletter No. 456
KwaZulu-Natal February 2014
The first meeting of the New Year on the 16th January 2014 was opened by Chairman Charles Whiteing, who welcomed the impressive turnout of members and guests. Before calling on the first speaker, he requested Ken Gillings to brief those present about the forthcoming Conference in Dundee to coincide with the 115th anniversary of the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War. The conference will take place on the 20th, 21st and 22nd October 2014 at Talana Museum. The programme will be e-mailed and posted to all members once the speakers have been finalized.
The topic for the Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture was ‘Tintin at War’, an unpacking of the famed comic-strip hero who has enthralled children and adults alike with their blend of humour and satire, since the late 1920s. Cartoons themselves have for centuries been used to make some sense of the world of warfare. George Remi, who wrote the classic stories under the name of Hergé, was born on 22 May 1907 and died on 25 February 1983.
Between the wars a formidable and right-wing Catholic cleric by the name of Abbé Norbet Wallez ran the Belgian newspaper, Le XXe Siécle. This newspaper incorporated a children’s weekly supplement, Le Petit Vingtiéme, and it was here, on 10 January 1929, that Tintin was ‘born’ and immediately dispatched to Bolshevik Russia. Wallez intended his intrepid reporter to uncover the perceived evils of Bolshevism and Communism, from corruption and dictatorships to failed economies. Wallez wasn’t alone in his alarm about the threat from Bolshevik Russia. Bolshevik revolutionary rule was for many years far from assured and relations with the West were complicated and tense. The story caught perfectly the rabidly anti-communist worldview of the average Belgian parent.
Tintin’s next adventure, to the Belgian Congo, proved his most controversial. It is regarded in some circles as racist, in others as paternalistic.
The Congo colony that was Belgian King Leopold II’s personal fiefdom some 30 years before Tintin’s visit epitomized all that was evil in colonialism, with soldiers enforcing the extraction of resources such as rubber and ivory. In the process millions were killed or worked to death in mass murder on a genocidal scale. The odd thing is that condemnation of this title is strongest in first world Europe and elsewhere. In the Congo itself (or the Democratic Republic of the Congo) as it became, locals are actually proud of the fact that the famous boy reporter was sent to their country.
Hergé, in Tintin in America, then dispatches Tintin to the United States. The military angle in this otherwise crime-detective story concerns the conquest of the West and of the Native American Indian tribes. In Cigars of the Pharaoh, the first of Hergé’s two-part adventures. Tintin finds himself embroiled in a gun running tale set in the Middle East. Tintin uncovers an arms cache that includes machine-guns and sten-guns, and the reader notes, and not for the last time, that he is adept at handling weapons, and frequently finds himself in front of firing-squads! The Blue Lotus, set in China in the 1930s, is the sequel to Cigars of the Pharaoh, and is probably the Tintin story with the most immediate and identifiable military plot. The story takes place against the background of the Japanese invasion of China. The Japanese were sufficiently upset about this story that they lodged a formal complaint to the Belgian Foreign Ministry, and in February 1933 resigned from the League of Nations.
The Broken Ear represents Hergé’s first foray to South America, and especially to the world of petty and often brutal military dictatorships. In this story they are represented by the Republics of San Theodores and Nuevo Rico. The two fictitious countries are a close parody of Bolivia and Paraguay, who fought a four-year war from 1932 to 1935 over border oil reserves. The conflict, the War of the San Chaco, claimed 100 000 lives. The caricatures extend to the shady arms dealers intent on exploiting the conflict situation. Despite the many military escapades, fights and explosions, death is never depicted in a graphic manner in the Tintin stories.
King Ottokar’s Sceptre was Hergé’s most ambitious attempt to portray and satirize the Europe of the late 1930s, divided as it was between democracies and benign monarchies on the one side, and Nazi/fascist-like dictatorships on the other. In this story Syldavia, a benign Balkan kingdom, is threatened by the obviously fascist state of Borduria. The plot was inspired by the Anschluss of March 1938 when Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria.
Upon the outbreak of war Hergé donned his uniform, but not for long. When the Wehrmacht swept through Belgium, occupying Brussels on 17 May 1940 he remained in the country. However, Le XXe Siécle, along with its supplement, Le Petit Vingtiéme, containing the Tintin strips, was closed by the Germans when they occupied Belgium, and Hergé went to work for a paper called Le Soir that carried Axis propaganda. Following the Allied liberation of Brussels on 3 September 1944, Hergé was one of those accused of collaboration, presumably because his Tintin strips attracted readers to Le Soir who then read the German material, including the Axis propaganda. Hergé, to his credit refused to become a Gestapo informant or to assume the post of official illustrator of the Belgian Fascist Movement. The post-occupation authorities felt that they couldn’t prosecute the creator of the beloved Tintin. So he was off the hook.
The most ambitious two-volume adventure was the mission to the moon. The military component in these tales is of a Cold War variety, with a shady un-named power seeking to hijack the mission. The prototype rocket, the X-FLR 6, bore an uncanny resemblance to Werner von Braun’s World War II V-2. Von Braun was to prove instrumental, working for the Americans, in developing the Saturn rocket that put men on the moon.
In The Calculus Affair the reader is introduced to a sound weapon invented by the pacifist scientist Calculus and highjacked by the dastardly Bordurians (read Communists), whose leader, Marshall Kurvi-Tasch bears a passing resemblance to Joseph Stalin. Such a weapon was tested in Germany during World War II. Tintin in Tibet is one of Hergés most critically acclaimed works, and although the plot and characters are not military related, the background of war and conquest is ever-present. In 1950 when the Communist Chinese, battle-hardened from a decade-long conflict with the Japanese followed by a civil war, invaded and occupied Tibet the Tibetan Army was no match for them.
Hergé's final foray into issues of a military nature came in Tintin and the Picaros, his final competed work. Once again he returned to the context of corrupt military dictatorships. One of the most curious things about Hergé, one of the most renowned and beloved creator of stories for children was that he never had any children of his own, and, in fact, reputedly didn’t even like them! So ended a voyage back to childhood for many in the audience, and probably some surprise that so much of military interest lurked in the Tintin albums.
The Main Talk, entitled “Update on Syria”, was presented by Major Peter Williams, who has spoken to the Branch on several occasions. Our speaker began by pointing out that in two years, staring initially with protests and civil disobedience which culminated in anarchy and civil war the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has not been unseated.
Up to 1967 the region had an air of nationalism that was intended to re-launch the Muslim world. Arabs felt a resurgence of new nationalism was going to take over, driving the Middle East into a prosperous and united new era.
After the 1967 Arab Israel war when Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 6 days however, the region began to fall apart, and two things occurred that had existed before but became much more prominent and would affect our present situation :- extreme Islam and the rise of autocratic leaders such as Mubarak in Egypt, UAE’s house of Saudi and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad - the father of Bashar al-Assad. The Arab dictators dominated for over 50 years; the people had been oppressed for so long that the time was ripe for a revolution.
Our speaker described the background to the so-called “Arab Spring”, which was initiated by one Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fresh produce street vendor doused himself with fuel and set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in protest of harassment and humiliation basically because he was disenfranchised. He became the catalyst for the Tunisian revolution which then spread to other Arab states.
The protests in Africa, however, were quickly quelled by military force and Angola was the only country in the world that took drastic steps and banned Islam closing all mosques. The sentiment spread like wild fire fuelled by social media platforms causing turbulent events to destabilize the Arab regions with despot leaders fearing the worst and purchasing armaments and military equipment to quell the mass protests.
If one defines the Arab spring by the 22 Arab countries or the 250 million people in the region it is wrong because the failure of the social contract of “haves and have nots” is applicable anywhere in the world even to South Africa.
In Syria the revolutionary cycle spread very fast; people protested in ever growing numbers, were arrested, masses counter protested against arrests, government used violence to quell unrest, people took up arms so the government took up ever increasing counter military actions using air superiority to bomb the population and finally unleashing chemical attacks on civilians. Traditional cultural and religious feuds were used to polarize the revolution into different splintered factions which called on likeminded ethnic organizations abroad to become involved in support and assistance. This merely exacerbated a complicated an old fashion civil war situation with atrocities being committed by all sides. The intervention of what Maj Williams described as the “toothless incompetent UN” divided the superpowers between the main factions resulting in a stalemate with no end in sight.
The major problem with the Arab spring is they are not moving in a common direction, nor a given direction they are not moving towards communism, or any other doctrine. The situation is further splintered by conflicting forces inside their respective countries and the major issue is a lack of competent leadership; there is not one statesman in entire region able to rise to the occasion, which is likely to result in a period of major regional chaos. The situation is further complicated because several foreign powers are split on making any decisions of who and how to support. Many countries are supporting groups in a proxy war favoring their ideology.
The West is not as dependent on oil as it was 30 years ago, has become tired of Arab squabbles and internal strife with a vast number of players in a complex situation and in effect simply wishes they would disappear. The vacuum of power caused by the Arab spring is real however and has brought a resurgence of the global threat of Al Qaeda, who have never had a home base; they move from Afghanistan to Somalia to Yemen to the Sahara and other parts of the world. Now however they have visions of grandeur of finding a home base and forming their own state. From the Arab spring they have looted weapons, munitions, equipment and many supporters even though not always popular they are spreading their ideology of Sharia law. Those who do not comply are simply executed. Our speaker felt that the resurgence of different autocratic leaders or military officers in the Arab world was likely to be the best thing to hold the melting pot together. This has worked in the past and Egypt has gone the full circle of changing a dictator for the Muslim brotherhood and removing them for an ex- military officer. The powers that control Islamic expansion was quick to support the overthrow CAR’s dictator and replace it with the Seleka Muslim based rebel group.
The Arab spring appears very similar to the events of the Cold war with many proxy wars being fought in support of super power puppets. The post-cold war puppeteers are those countries that are sitting on vast oil reserves in an energy hungry world.
Maj Williams then dealt with the factions within the Syrian conflict. The Sunni comprise the largest single group with 74% of the population. President Bashar al-Assad took over power in 2000 from his father, whose Bha’ath party came to power following a coup in 1964. Influence and power of the Bha’ath party in the Arab region cannot be overstated and it is far more powerful in this region. The Alawite are concentrated on the Western sea board which is the strategic coastal area which is home to the Russian Mediterranean fleet and through which all gas and oil pipe lines pass. The Alawite on the western seaboard supports the ruling Ba’ath party and all of the military senior officers are from that ethnic group. The Alawite are the most moderate of all Arabs and they treat their women on a par with eastern Europeans. Christians are a small minority squeezed in between three other groups. Kurds to the north comprise 12% in two distinct regions in the North-West and the North-East. Kurdish issues of a conglomeration of various groups from different countries.
The Syrian government has a very powerful and well equipped military. Air superiority is ensured with 22 air bases around the country. They are supported by soldiers from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Each group has got its personal opposition countering its actions; for example, Hezbollah is countered by Jahbat al Nustra who are fighting both Al Assad forces and the Free Syrian Army rebels against the Assad regime, which include some groups that become more radical with time and then join opposition movements.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which is al-Qaeda-linked has gradually increased its presence because they have abundant resources due to financial support. The cadres or jihadi on the ground are well disciplined. Mainly extremist radical Islamic groups exist which splinter and regroup at will. The ISIL should not at all times be considered as part of the revolutionary opposition. It has fought the Free Syrian Army (FSA) divisions as well as Kurdish groups; it has assassinated FSA and more moderate Islamist commanders and abducted revolutionary activists. It serves the regime's agenda by terrifying minority groups, deterring journalists, and influencing the calculations of men whose opinions are referred in the region such as the former US ambassador to Syria, Ryan Crocker.
Our speaker then gave us a background to his activities in Syria (and other conflict zones), which are by and large humanitarian. He also dealt with the likely scenarios in several other Arab states, such as Iraq, Iran, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Lebanon. He also speculated about the outcome of the peace talks scheduled to take place in Geneva at the end of January 2014. Without all the role players, the prognosis is bleak.
After a lengthy and lively question time, Roy Bowman expressed the thanks of the meeting to both speakers for their fascinating, well researched, interesting and very relevant talks.
Next Meeting: 13th February 2014. 19h00 for 19h30. (NB – back to the 2nd Thursday):
The speakers will be:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture (“DDH”): “The Eclipse of the Luftwaffe” by Bill Brady
Main Talk: (This will be the first of the WW1 100 series): WW1 100: “Gallipoli” by Robin Smith
Venue as usual will be the Murray Theatre, Department of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard College Campus, Durban.
Thursday 13th March 2014:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “Guadal Canal – The Naval Battles” by Roy Bowman
Main Talk: WW1 100: “The German Invasion and Occupation of Belgium and North-East France, from August 1914” by Paul Kilmartin. Note that Paul will be travelling to South Africa from the UK on holiday to present this talk.
Thursday 10th April 2014 (NOTE: This will be the Society’s AGM throughout all Branches):
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “RN Gunboats & Motor Launches - I was on them” by Prof Ken Knight
Main Talk (as part of our WW1 100 series): “Prelude to the First World War” by Capt (SAN) (Retd) Brian Hoffmann. Note that Capt Hoffmann will be travelling from Cape Town to deliver his lecture.
Thursday 8th May 2014:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: WW1 100: “Forts in Belgium and France” by Prof Philip Everitt
Main Talk: WW1 100: “The War against disease in German East Africa, 1916 – 1918” by Donald Davies.