Poem: The War Report

James Bell
Jul 4, 2018 · 19 min read

The War Report is an experimental narrative poem set between the Skripal incident on 4 March 2018 and the airstrikes launched against Syria by British, French and US imperialism on 14 April 2018. The piece is an attempt to depict the warmongering of British imperialism and NATO toward Russia, its reflection through the lens of the western bourgeois media and the growing reality that capitalist society is today plummeting toward world conflagration and barbarism. In order to achieve this, the poem draws upon the postmodern technique of pastiche to recontextualise the reaction of Modernism and war poets to the imperialist barbarism of the first world war. A short film poem — What We Said to the Thunderis intended to complement this piece and further develop the themes discussed throughout it.

In writing the poem, a conscious effort has been made to adapt poetic form to a manner of presentation and writing appropriate for social media platforms. This is in keeping with an analysis that will be developed more fully in my podcast, AgitProp, beginning in its third episode. Put bluntly: our present period is one of cultural transformation. The postmodern period — beginning proper in the early 1970s — is coming to a close, and a new cultural period is beginning. This is both a response to both the capitalist crisis and the dominance of a new media form — that is, the internet and specifically social media.

As The War Report is based upon a considerable amount of theoretical and political material with which the reader may be unfamiliar, these supplementary materials are intended to aid in its interpretation. For the sake of brevity, they are focused to only describe theoretical or political positions as they pertain to the poem itself. As such, these supplementary materials do not — for example — include a discussion on the detail of the cultural transformation noted above, but merely highlight an element of it that has influenced the work’s composition.

If you want to support this work, please make a donation. I would be immensely grateful for anything you can contribute, no matter how small. If you want to get in touch, don’t hesitate to drop me a line on Twitter.

Contents

Part one: Skripal and imperialism
Part two: Pastiche and social media

Part three: Annotated poem

Part one: Skripal and imperialism

As The War Report is primarily concerned with illustrating the Skripal incident in relation to the crisis of imperialist society, it is necessary to outline a clear political position upon the incident. Understanding the detail of this story is, however, incredibly laborious. Both the British and Russian narratives surrounding the matter have more twists, revisions and absences than it is perhaps sensible to discuss here. As such, the analysis presented here is more concerned with developing a political position on the matter than with chronicling every event related to it. For those who wish to develop a more thorough understanding of all developments relating to the incident, I highly recommend reading through the materials archived in the Twitter thread below. The comrade who has put this together deserves recognition for their efforts in attempting to retain an historical continuity to the story.

With that said, it is necessary to outline the basics here. On 4 March 2018, in the sleepy middle-England village of Salisbury, British police discovered the former MI6 double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, unconscious on a bench. After transporting the pair to hospital, medical staff concluded that they had been poisoned by a nerve agent. 21 members of the health authorities and general public were also checked for poisoning and three police officers were hospitalised. Almost immediately, Russia was accused of involvement, which it denied. This led to the case being handed to the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command on 6 March. Less than a week later, on 12 March, British Prime Minister Theresa May claimed that the nerve agent was ‘of a type made by Russia’ — Novichok — and demanded an explanation. Russia responded, stating that it could not comment on the question until it received samples of the nerve agent in question.

The following day, after a session of Prime Minister’s questions, Parliament discussed the incident. First, May read a statement in which she said that ‘there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter’, effectively accusing Russia of a war crime. She continued, announcing that Britain would be expelling 23 Russian diplomats in response to the incident — the largest number for 30 years. As the Prime Minister concluded, the floor was opened to MPs. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn offered an extremely mild position, arguing that whilst Russia needed to combated — preferably through a method similar to the Magnitsky Act — Parliament should wait for more evidence and attempt a dialogue with Russia. For this position — which still amounts to an attack upon Russia — he was jeered away from speaking. As the House continued to discuss the matter, it became clear that it was united behind May, with Kenneth Clarke going so far as to suggest that Britain needed to increase its military expenditure from around 2% of GDP to something like that seen in ‘more antagonistic’ periods of world diplomacy. Given the statistics, he was referring to either the world wars or the NATO campaign against communism (“the Cold War”).

Source.

If one were to take the British bourgeoisie at their word then this may even seen reasonable. Britain would appear to be responding to a chemical weapons attack — a war crime — upon its national territory. However, even before attending to the holes in the British narrative, examining the context in which the Skripal incident occurred undermines this notion.

Russia has been a principal target of the imperialist NATO alliance for years. This is easily observable by even a cursory look at the build-up of forces at Russia’s borders. Since 2014, NATO has accumulated more military forces at Russia’s western border than have been active in Europe at any point since the Second World War. These troops stand ready in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The motivation behind this concentration of forces finds it basis in the economic and political crisis of imperialist society. This process dates back as far as the postwar period, when a tentative alliance of western capital was forced by the economic and military dominance of US imperialism. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, capital investment from the EU (particularly Germany), US and Britain flooded the former Soviet countries. Today, these territories are all but divided up between the imperialist powers. Crisis conditions have reasserted themselves and only a handful of nations retain any independence from the domination of imperialist capital. Russia and China stand as the most noteworthy among them, with both the economic and military clought to confront the imperialists on a global scale. In an attempt to restore profitability to the imperialist system, they are to be opened for superexploitation.

The 2014 CIA-led carve up of Ukraine and the imperialist war on Syria have afforded great tactical advantages to NATO. They have secured for themselves a compliant fascist regime on Russia’s borders in Ukraine. The destruction of Syria has ensured that Russia is politically, economically and militarily isolated from the majority of Western Asia. Fascist Turkey, which borders on Syria, serves as a crucial land-bridge to the Caucuses and another potential line of attack (if it’s compliance can be secured). Beyond this, the US navy has a clear line of attack against Russia’s Eastern and Northern borders. The trap has already been laid.

Alongside their military noose, the imperialists in NATO have already demonstrated their willingness to wage economic war on Russian capitalism. The most extensive sanctions placed upon Russia to date followed in the wake of Russia’s actions in Crimea. Over September 2014, both EU and US imperialism placed sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses, principally military, oil and deep-sea exploration firms. The intent of these sanctions and others like them is to starve Russia, thus forcing its hand. In addition to this, Russia was expelled from the G8 in 2014 — a signal that the European and American imperialists no longer intend to even negotiate with it. Economically, militarily and diplomatically, NATO has repeatedly shown its desire to isolate and destroy Russia.

— Boris Johnson.

As a major player in NATO, Britain has both an antagonistic relationship to Russia and overtly predatory desires for its future. This is clearly shown in both words and actions. For its part in holding the NATO front on Russia’s borders, Britain has around 800 troops and 300 vehicles stationed in Estonia. In November 2016, then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that Britain would be ready for war with Russia by 2018 or 2019 at latest. The British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, recently stated directly the predatory character of British imperialism’s designs for Russia (see above left). In reality, therefore, British imperialism has been actively preparing for war on Russia since at least 2014.

That the Skripal incident has been used as a pretext to further the NATO campaign against Russia is made evident by the holes in the British bourgeoisie’s narrative. By now, it is well known that the British narrative cannot be considered an accurate representation of the facts of the case, thanks in no small part to the role played by the Foreign Secretary.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle on 20 March, Boris Johnson said that he had been told by scientists at Porton Down had told him that the nerve agent used in Salisbury was definitely from Russia: ‘They were absolutely categorical. I asked the guy myself, I said, “Are you sure?” and he said “there’s no doubt”. And so, we have very little alternative but to take the action that we have taken.’ On 3 April, Porton Down announced that they had positively identified the nerve agent as Novichok but could not confirm if it had been made in Russia, clearly revealing Johnson’s prior remarks as a lie. Following this, the Foreign Office deleted a tweet from 22 March which echoed Johnson’s sentiment, prompting a response from Russia (below). Whilst the British state attempted to paper over the breach, with security minister Ben Wallace stating that the accusations against Russia were supported by other (unpublished) evidence, that the British bourgeoisie have used the Skripal incident for their own design in lieu of evidence is clear from Johnson’s lie.

This, however, is but the tip of the iceberg. Aside from Boris’ lie, the British narrative surrounding the Skripal incident is haunted by a number of facts which contradict it:

This is not comprehensive, but it does indicate that the British narrative is built upon sand. Moreover, that the narrative has so many holes has clearly had an impact upon public perception of the incident. A study published by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab on 6 April revealed that storied critical of the British narrative surrounding the Skripal incident received far more attention on social media than those presenting it. For example, of the top six most seen stories around the incident, four were published by RT (see above left). This has been presented by the British state as the work of “Russian bots” — a pathetic attempt to make the narrative’s failure seem artificial, rather than the result of its own obvious inconsistencies.

Despite the narrative’s failure to land, British imperialism was able to heighten the NATO campaign against Russia considerably. First and foremost, Britain was able to secure for itself an escalation against Russia from across the NATO alliance. The US and the EU imperialists both followed Britain’s lead, expelling over 100 diplomats across the NATO imperialist alliance. Russia respond by expelling the same amount of diplomats from each country. Beyond this, Britain has made substantial moves in building its war infrastructure. Under the auspices of responding to “Russian aggression”, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that Britain would be launching a new £48m chemical weapons defence facility on 15 March. Following their lead, the US took the opportunity to call for a bolstering of NATO’s rapid response unit on 29 March. A date was agreed upon to further escalate the campaign, with military drills larger than any seen since the “Cold War” planned upon Russia’s doorstep in October. Further moves still have been taken by Britain, with an announcement on 6 June that powers to stop “spies” entering Britain will be provided to border guards.

What emerges from this understanding of the Skripal incident is an understanding of its unique character. Although the shock tactic designed to galvanize the general public — that is, the transformation of the Skripal incident into a pretext for war in lieu of evidence — objectively failed to grasp public opinion, British imperialism and its NATO allies were able to secure their tactical objectives anyway: an increase in military infrastructure, criminalisation of opposition to the campaign and plans for further escalation. The material preparations for war made by British imperialism were allowed to proceed without opposition, even as their ideological justification was torn apart. Reality was suspended.

In this sense, the British handling of the Skripal incident may be considered as a manifesto. It tells us that one can absorb an entire society into an ideological process which deconstructs the justifications for war, whilst simultaneously making material preparations for war that are completely ignored. In late March, the NATO secretary general captured the essence of this new period, stating that we are now living through a period in which the boundaries are blurred between peace, crisis and war. The meaning of this observation is beyond the scope of this article, but it is crucial to highlight. I will be returning to this question frequently throughout my work.

Artistically, the analysis outlined above is reflected in the poem’s structure, content and several of its motiffs. For example, the “tick tick tick (tick, tick)” sequence repeated throughout the poem refers to a BBC report published on 16 March, which chillingly reported that the British response to the Skripal incident was ‘going to plan’. The slide beginning ‘Madame Theresa, famous clairvoyant’ (left) refers to the debate in Parliament, with the cards representing differing propaganda tactics, the one-eyed merchant representing Corbyn and ‘Death by Water’ representing the “soft” imperialist tactic of the Magnitsky Act. That the Skripal incident represented a new mode of propaganda tactic — an observation inextricably linked to the cultural transformation today confronting our society — is registered in the artistic form of the work, discussed in part two of these materials.

We are today standing upon the verge of world imperialist war. This is evident from both the British handling of the Skripal incident and the reasons for its slow-down, a reflection of broader imperialist rivalries more than the ideological defeat of the campaign. This is reflected in my choice to mobilise Modernism and war poetry — both a reaction the imperialist barbarism of the first world war — throughout the work, as well as my decision to conclude the poem’s narrative with the airstrikes launched against Syria on 14 April. As I have argued before, Syria is the epicentre of this global war — a proxy through which all of its antagonisms find themselves released by the shedding of blood.

The position of communists toward the Skripal incident is simple. British imperialism and its NATO allies are waging a predatory war upon Russian capitalism, which threatens to spill into a world consuming confrontation. Though we would obviously not argue that Russian capitalism is something to aspire to, this necessitates a defence of its sovereignty. The position in no war on Russia, nothing less.

Part two: Pastiche and social media

To return to an observation made at the beginning of these materials: social media is the dominant media form of our present cultural moment. This is made evident by statistics published in a recent study by We Are Social. The current number of active social media users across the globe stands at around 3.2 billion people, or 42% of the world population. Significantly, this is a growing dominance. The number of social media users world wide increased by 7% in between 2017 and 2018.

In his book Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson discusses a framework for the dominance of media forms in his discussion of experimental postmodern video (chapter three, beginning p.69). Although Jameson’s reasoning as to why this has occurred is nonsense (a point I will expand upon elsewhere), his observation that postmodern video acts a distillation of the general dominance of video — emphasising its fundamental characteristics — is useful: ‘released from all conventional restraints, experimental video allows us to witness the full range of possibilities and potentialities of the medium in a way which illuminates its more restricted uses’. The opposite is true of the relationship between social media and the internet in general: the internet is this new form ‘released from all conventional restraints’ and social media is ‘its more restricted use’.

Where the internet is a relatively open field, which can be shaped according to one’s ability in the skilled labour of coding, social media platforms are closed, corporate spaces. In terms of use, this means that where one can construct their own spaces through the exercise of skilled labour on the internet in general, one mobilises content upon a corporate platform with rules decided in advance by monopoly capitalists when one engages with social media. The dominance of social media as a media form, rather than the internet in general, is the product of a population that is generally deskilled in the labour form required to shape the internet to its own uses. This reality is further reified by the emergence of tablets, mobile phones and apps, which remove any necessity or ability to code from the equation.

This is one expression of what Marx means when he says that at ‘a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto’. This is evident when one considers the conflict between different sections of the bourgeoisie over control of the internet described in the Twitter thread below.

The dominance of social media, therefore, means that culture is more organised by structures decided upon by the bourgeoisie than at any other point in capitalism’s development. Social media platforms position themselves as endless expression of self, where every interaction, like, share or comment is merely an addition to an affirmation of the user’s online identity. These minute to minute interactions are, therefore, both enormously significant as they pertain to our “online selves”, and seemingly inconsequential as they appear to our “real selves” (we are, of course, “really” both of these selves). All cultural products are today mobilised to suit this environment, through screenshots or even new cultural forms, such as the meme. Each mobilisation is, in turn, repurposed for the use of another social media identity. The end result is that the dominant media form of our society is a ludic, living form of pastiche, which Jameson defines as ‘blank parody’ (p.17). Where the, now archaic, postmodern form of pastiche was a kind of blank irony, in which all the older cultural products were repurposed in a relentless pursuit of defining the uniqueness of the postmodern historical period (reducing history to historicism by the destruction of these older form’s historical context), this new form represents both an extension and a contraction of its sphere. We are now at a stage in which continuity has been destroyed, cultural artifacts only relevant to the definition and redefinition of our “online selves”.

A more detailed analysis of our present cultural moment is beyond the scope of these materials, the transformations noted above going far enough to explain the composition of The War Report. In order to make art for our present cultural moment, we must take account of its dominant media form. As I have said, culture today only pertains to the expression of our “online selves”. This cannot be ignored or prevented. There is no guarantee that any work will appear in its intended, aesthtically unified form. Today, all it takes to disrupt the basic notion of a work’s internal unity is a screenshot and a social media post. As such, the poem has been deliberately composed in a form of pastiche capable of existing in this environment. Although there is an “intended” structure to the work, the combination of graphic design and verse is openly willing disruption. This itself is intended to reflect the malleability of the poem’s content — that is, the Skripal incident — which stands as the first attempt to mobilise the new cultural mode toward propaganda proper.

Part three: Annotated poem

The tweets linked below include annotations on the main reference points within each of The War Report’s “slides”, “plates” or “posts”. This is an attempt to render the poem’s intent as a reflection of our moment of cultural transformation concretely in its presentation.

Colour has been used throughout the work to indicate a certain referrent for the speaker. Red slides pertain to the general content of the poem’s subject — that is, the historical development of the Skripal story. White slides indicate that what is rendered is the speech of the bourgeoisie (all that is put forward in a clear form by the bourgeois media). Black slides are original verse, free of the rest of the poem’s consistently referential structure, and are intended to represent the psychological impact of the propaganda campaign surrounding Skripal upon those who attempt to analyse it from the standpoint of rationality.

Following the annotated poem, I have included a further section with adaptations of the work. If you would like to add to or edit The War Report, don’t hesitate to send your versions to me on social media.


Adaptations


James Bell is Marxist-Leninist writer, artist and critic. They host the Marxist art podcast AgitProp.

If you would like to contribute toward this work, you can do so here. For more frequent updates, make sure to follow James on Twitter.

James Bell

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Marxist-Leninist writer, poet & critic.

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