Sunday, August 16, 2015

The killing of Cecil the Lion

When I was a young man, many years ago, a few of us pretend-intellectuals used to kick around this ethical conundrum. “Suppose that by hitting a button, some random Chinaman would die and you would receive a million pounds. Would you do it?"

Probably, one of us would quote the story attributed to George Bernard Shaw, in which he asks a society lady at the dinner table if she would go to bed with him for a million pounds. After some hesitation she says, Yes she would. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a million pounds,” he says; “Would you do it for ten shillings?” Certainly not! What do you think I am? “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now, we’re just haggling over the price.”

In recent times, science has brought the conundrum of the random Chinaman into the realm of the practical. Now, it’s available to all – or all who volunteer to be a drone-pilot in the NATO army, at least. A few weeks training is all that’s required to zap an anonymous family in a faraway village. Not a random family, no, but close enough. Some anonymous military bureaucrat chooses the family on the authority of some anonymous political commissar whose future pension depends on the perpetual war that emanates from the killing of anonymous foreign villagers.

Anonymity is the general theme, in the West’s slaughter of foreign civilians. The button-jockeys and their superiors are never publicly named. Their identities are as hidden as those of ISIS soldiers’ in their hoods, and for much the same reason: their deeds are too shameful to bear exposure. Nobody ever brags about being a drone-pilot – any more than they do about being a torturer in some CIA prison-camp.

Like a notional killer of the random Chinaman, each armchair pilot receives his promised reward. Salary, performance bonuses, medical cover, guaranteed pension – those add up to a million pounds, over a lifetime. What a deal! Many of them seem to enjoy a high level of job satisfaction.

Not all of them, though. There is a downside to the job, for sensitive souls. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is more common than it is among, say, infantry soldiers. Maybe it’s just not enough of a challenge. Nobody is shooting back. After all, a villager in Afghanistan is in no position to defend himself. He’s a sitting duck. Press the button, and it’s game over. Villager and family die in a cloud of dust, as do their nearest neighbours.

What in the trade are called “double-tap” engagements, are more fun, but no more demanding. Those require the button to be pressed a second time, after an interval just long enough to permit other villagers to assemble and begin rescue efforts. Wham! Bam! And thank you, ma’am! With any luck another dozen families can be killed or mutilated, all in complete anonymity. (I don’t think the pilots’ bounty or bonuses increase according to the number of dead or mutilated; it’s not piece-work, to that extent.)

Job satisfaction or not, it’s hard to imagine the work as being socially acceptable: hence all the anonymity, of course. Morally corrupt though it be, by most people’s standards, it is actually more socially acceptable than hunting wild animals. Remember the recent hoo-hah when some fellow shot a wild lion in Africa?

Animal-hunters tend not to be anonymous. Indeed, they post photos of themselves and their victims on Facebook – and, sometimes, newspapers publish the names of the victims. That almost never happens in the case of drone-killings. The name of the dead lion was Eric. No, it was Cecil, of all innocuous names. Eric was the name of his brother. It’s hard to keep up with the names of wild lions. Cecil, King of the Jungle, anyway.

It seems bizarre – and rather unfair – for one wild lion to become famous for being shot, when Afghan and Syrian and Iraqi villagers remain anonymous. I think the difference in treatment must be because lions are fine-looking creatures, whereas villagers in the Middle East are not, in general. Our Western leaders dismiss the villagers as a humanoid sub-species – like monkeys, but not as cute.

Until they are given Western names like Cecil or Eric, they will remain where they are now – with no claim to sympathy, or even dignity. I mean – Abdul, Fatima… What kind of names are those? Huh. Not cute, that’s for sure!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Rum and Coca Cola (Bahamas)

The first thing Linda and I had to do after our travels was replenish our bank accounts. We'd travelled very much on the cheap through the Middle East and Eastern Europe, but the money had to run out eventually. Linda’s sister lived in Canada, so it made sense for her to go over there.

So she did that, and became the chef of a hospital in Barrie. My old employers in London arranged a transfer to their Toronto office as an auditor. First, I drove my Mum around England and Scotland, at her expense, then hit her for the airfare across to the new job.

Canada wasn’t my first choice, actually, but its immigration line was shorter than the US’s - a story told in The Turning Point in January 2014. Linda and I were on our (separate) ways home to Australia; Canada was just a place to save money so as not to go back broke. Linda met me off the plane, which was nice…

That was in 1965. Eventually, she lost patience with my reluctance to commit, and headed back to Melbourne to make a new life for herself. By the time I finally did commit, by phone, and in writing (as demanded...!), our logistics were all skewiff, and I was out of town when she arrived.

Touche’s office down in the Bahamas had asked Toronto to lend them three or four young and single audit clerks for a few weeks in December. Rum and Coca Cola on a tropical beach instead of hot coffee in a cold motel room in Windsor, Ontario, seemed like a good deal, and I jumped at the chance.

Linda reckons she landed with only $30 on her, which in all the confusion she left behind in a phone booth at the airport. Poor Linda! Poor Jon, my flatmate, who had to stake her to the airfare down to Nassau – plus $30 pocket-money, I guess. The details are fuzzy, after all these years.

So we got an early honeymoon in the old Royal Victoria Hotel, and wondered if we might come back to live in Nassau one day. But Touche didn’t want me, except for the few weeks; and the trust company I’d been auditing chose somebody else for the job they had advertised. Bummer.

Sigh. As a second-best, I persuaded Touche Toronto to recommend me to its office in Kingston, Jamaica. A few months after our wedding, we signed up with an agency that delivered snowbirds’ cars to them in Florida. A leisurely drive down to Orlando took five days, staying at motels along the way.

Jamaica ahoy! But - never say die, eh? Our personal schedule left us two weeks to knock on doors in Nassau, and we landed jobs halfway through the second week. Linda began teaching at a government school, me at the trust company I'd audited before. The chap who had beaten me for the job had failed to turn up. 

A warehouse in Miami had let us park our belongings with them until we sent for them – to Nassau if we got lucky, or to Kingston if we didn’t. We phoned and sent a cheque, and all our suitcases and boxes came on the next boat. No problem. Imagine making an arrangement like that these days! Our gear would be blown up by Big Brother the first day. Simpler times, back then.

Our first house and car in Nassau were provided by Tim, who also worked for the trust company. He was off the Island with his family on “long leave”, and didn’t find out about the deal until he got back. That was par for the course, apparently. 

“Long leave” was a carry-over from the Good Old Days when the sun never set on the British Empire, in which anywhere in the tropics was a “hardship post”. Two weeks in the hill stations of India or Kenya or anywhere else were a refreshing break from the stinking heat of the population centres, but it needed three months in Blighty every two years to prevent the chaps from “going native”. Mad dogs and Englishmen, and all that.

By the time Tim and Mrs Tim and the little Tims came back, we had our own accommodation and car. We blew all our savings on the car  - as reported in  Me and Miss Ohio, in April 2013. 

We finally made it to Jamaica for the Easter of ’68 – a second honeymoon, or a third, or a fourth. We loved it, and did all the usual tourist things – Dunn River Falls, rafting on the Rio Grande, the hot spa at Milk River, rum and Coca Cola on the beaches… Those were good years for expats in Jamaica as well as Nassau.

But the latter was a tax-haven, and by gosh didn't we flourish in the absence of Income Tax! When the time came to move on, we looked for another tax-haven.