News from Virginia – The most difficult retreat of all

24 Sep 2013 jane

pent_1725323cMika Minio-Paluello, Anna Galkina and James Marriott are travelling in North America as part of a book-tour to promote The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian to the City of London. You can find more info about their confirmed speaking dates in Virginia, the Bay Area, Toronto, Baltimore and Washington DC, New Orleans and New York here.

James Marriott writes the third in a series of blogs, this one from Virginia. You can also read the first and second posts in the series.

Cville Coffee, Charlottesville, Virginia

In the thick of the debate over US military action in Syria, we are asked to talk about our book, The Oil Road, at an event organised principally by David Swanson of and Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice. Much of the discussion rages over whether the Administration in Washington is standing up for international principles, or failing to put America’s interests first. Syria it seems is being used as the site for a wider geo-political struggle between the US, Iran, Russia and other powers, a common pattern. I’m struck by the recognition that the eastern states of the US, and what are now the eastern provinces of Canada, were once such a location, a ‘theatre’, in which other distant forces played out their conflicts.

A relative of mine, Captain Robert Cholmley, from Whitby in North Yorkshire, England, was 29 when he was ordered to sail for the colony of Virginia. As part of the 48th Regiment of Foot, under the command of General Edward Braddock, he boarded at Ireland in early 1755 and landed at Alexandria, on the Potomac River. Braddock’s army, in the service of King George III, was to attack the French forces at Fort Duquesne – later Fort Pitt, now Pittsburgh. Around two thousand people, British soldiers and colonial militias, marched west following an ‘Indian Path’ and cutting a 12 foot wide road through the forest – a line that is now Highway 50 and Highway 40. In the army was a young officer, an aide-de-camp to Braddock, George Washington. On the 9th July, within sight of the French fort, battle ensued. The British army met a force of 300 to 600 Native Americans – Delaware, Shawnee and Mingoe peoples, and some 30 French colonial troops. Braddock and most of the officers were killed or wounded. Among the dead was Captain Cholmley – he has no grave. The army retreated back east over the mountains. What strikes me about this story, is that beyond Appalachia this man, and perhaps 850 others, died in a war between the King of France and the King of Britain on a far distant continent. And there’s another twist. The events of this disaster made Washington famous, mainly because of his skill in conducting the retreat. In recognition of this he was appointed “Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all forces now raised in the defense of His Majesty’s Colony”

Arguably Virginia is the most fought-over state in the Union. The death toll through war in this state is immense. It is reknowned as the the site of the central battles of the Civil War – Bull Run, Fredricksburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbour, Petersburg.

Within its territory also took place not only elements of the the French-Indian War (which included the battle just described) but also repeated wars between the English settlers at Jamestown and the First Nations, such as the First Powhattan-Anglo War in 1622, the Second Powhattan-Anglo War in 1644, and so on. A hundred and fifty years later the state of Virginia was repeatedly traversed by the armies of Britain, France and the American Rebels during the American Revolution – General Charles Cornwallis sacked Charlottesville in August 1771. It was another 10 years before the surrender at Yorktown and the retreat of British forces.

Virginia also holds within its territory many of the key elements of the present US military infrastructure – first and foremost the Pentagon, but also the CIA at Langley, and the US Navy’s largest base in the world at Norfolk. The role of this machine in the construction and maintainence of The Oil Road is, and has been, essential. We explored it in detail in our book, for example in the events surounding the bombing of BP’s pipeline in Georgia by the Russian airforce.

At perhaps 4 a.m. Georgian time on 9 August 2008, data from US spy satellites observing the Caucasus conflict was being processed by several analysts at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) located at Fort Hood in Texas. It would have been 5 p.m. in Texas, the end of a regular working day for the members of the geospatial intelligence cell. Their imagery-extraction and models had picked up the bomb craters crossing the Baku-Supsa pipeline. The team’s analysis was passed up the ladder to the NGA headquarters in the wealthy Bethesda district of Washington, DC. Here, beside the Potomac River, a GEOINT staff officer wrote up the analysis into a brief presentation, and circulated it to the Pentagon, the undersecretary of defense (intelligence) and the CIA’s South Caucasus Desk.

The brief would have been read carefully, for the pipeline system is both the USA’s and Britain’s primary political and economic interest in Georgia. The staff officer’s job description also covers liaison with private industry, so his next call was most likely to BP America. How did the conversation go? ‘Sir, your pipeline in the Caucasus has just been bombed. You might want to check it. No, not BTC – that was shut down a few days ago. The small one, Baku–Supsa.’ BP head office in London will have quickly passed the message on to Bill Schrader, President of BP Azerbaijan in Baku, and Neil Dunn, head of BP in Georgia. Schrader and Dunn probably decided, as Matthew Taylor, head of BP Georgia External Affairs, told us, that ‘We had no interest in perpetuating the story, so we closed it down to the media’, and came up with a response plan.

Platform is based on a small island in the north Atlantic, where for at least the past 500 years military endeavour has been ingrained in our culture. A state whose foreign policy seems, since World War II, to have become unquestioningly tied to providing military assistance and political cover for US foreign policy. By the time Platform was formed in1983, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was only too eager to heed President Reagan’s request to site nuclear-armed Cruise missiles on US bases in the UK. In our early years Platform was involved in direct action against those US nuclear bases and the British military structures underpinning them. We also created performance pieces exploring the imminence of  ‘Nuclear Winter’. In 2003, Prime Minister Blair arguably encouraged President GW Bush to wage war on Iraq. The role of oil companies, such as BP & Shell in this conflict and its aftermath was a focus of Platform’s work and is incisively described in Greg Muttitt’s Fuel on The Fire. But massive opposition to war can breed peace. At the time of the talk in Charlottesville it appeared that the Administration in Washington was looking for a face-saving way out from an untenable position on Syria. As David Swanson wrote on the same day:

Something extraordinary has just happened. Public pressure has led the British Parliament to refuse a prime minister’s demand for war for the first time since the surrender at Yorktown, and the U.S. Congress has followed suit by making clear to the U.S. president that his proposed authorization for war on Syria would not pass through either the Senate or the House.

Now, this may all fall apart in a week or a month or a year or a decade. The forces pressing for a war on Syria have not gone away. The civil war and the humanitarian crisis in Syria are not over. The partisan makeup of the Parliament and the Congress played a role in their actions (although the leaders of both major parties in Congress favored attacking Syria). Foreign nations’ intervention played a role. But the decisive force driving governments around the world and U.S. government (and military) insiders to resist this war was public opinion. We heard the stories of children suffering and dying in Syria, but we rejected the idea that killing more Syrians with U.S. weapons would make Syria better off.

Those of us who believe that we should always have the right to reject our government’s arguments for war should feel empowered. Now that it’s been done, we cannot be told it’s impossible to do it again … and again, and again.

At the talk I read the final passages from The Oil Road:

In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Azerbaijan, Georgia and other states asserted their independence, there was a wave of articles and discussions as to how the great, and seemingly eternal, monolith of the Soviet Union could suddenly melt into thin air. The German writer, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, wrote about the figure of President Gorbachev. He declared him to be a modern hero: ‘A hero of a new kind, representing not victory, conquest and triumph, but renunciation, reduction and dismantling.’

Enzensberger explained that the most difficult of all manoeuvres was retreat – the art of withdrawing from an untenable position. Gorbachev had assisted the process of withdrawing from the untenable structures of the Cold War, of two opposing nuclear-armed blocs, and of Mutually Assured Destruction. The head of the USSR had understood that the only way forward was by retreating.

He went on to write that the West must undertake ‘the most difficult retreat of all, from the war against the biosphere which we have been waging since the Industrial Revolution. Certain large industries – ultimately no less threatening than one-party rule – will have to be broken up’; that this task would require courage and conviction.

A member of the audience, Heather Peck, picked up on these last lines and asks: “Where in the West has this retreat been most effective in this war against the biosphere?” A discussion began. It seems to me that the most significant shift is in the popular consciousness of, and attitudes to, the use of oil and gas, and industries behind the exploitation of fossil fuels. That the scale of opposition to these habits and structures has grown exponentially over the past generation. That it is possible to imagine this opposition will grow to such an extent that successful retreat will be undertaken.

With thanks to David Swanson, Diane Wittner, Lorne Stockman, Catherine Barnes and Anna Galkina.


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