In defence of strange obsessions: heritage, curiosity, and PhD research

o-XENOPHOBIC-ATTACKS-SOUTH-AFRICA-900                                                                                                                                                                                    Photo copyright: Ihsaan Haffejee

By Tom Vaughan

One of the great pleasures of self-designed PhD research is an unparalleled freedom to craft a vocation and professional identity from personal interests and convictions. Many of my peers here in the Department have been moved into academic research by their political passions, wielding their projects as intellectual weapons in many urgent and necessary battles. Unfortunately, I cannot claim such admirable motives.

When I began my PhD on South Africa and the global nuclear order in 2016, I was interested by questions of international equity and the possibilities for global nuclear disarmament. I wondered what insights this under-researched corner of the world nuclear complex (and pioneer of unilateral nuclear disarmament) could offer towards a retheorizing of international nuclear politics and the distant goal of a nuclear-free world.

However, as I got to grips with the subject matter, old curiosities and fascinations got the better of me. I found myself scouring ever-more-neglected corners of the internet and searching for increasingly scarce books to read about the technical specifications of long-decommissioned uranium enrichment plants and the whereabouts of filled-in warhead test shafts. I dug up images of boarded-up research centres populated only by dusty Bakelite telephones and eerie stacks of empty, unused bomb casings. I pored over satellite images searching for the ghostly imprints of long-gone supply roads leading to secret Kalahari military bases.

Remembering my exploits as a teenage ‘urban explorer’, a slightly strange hobby entailing ‘gaining access’ to and photographing abandoned buildings, it dawned on me that I was no activist-academic, however much I might like to claim that mantle. Rather, what drives and focuses my research is a fascination with the past; in particular its obscure, arcane, and often morbid relics, and their spectral presence in contemporary political life. South Africa’s nuclear infrastructure—some of it repurposed for civilian uses, much of it dismantled or left to rot—reminded me of the Victorian asylums and hulking East End flour mills which had captivated me as an oddball Sixth Former.

I was then, and am now, bewitched by heritage: not the mythic stories of national heroes or opulent National Trust mansions, but the ways in which we have inherited the actions, beliefs, and infrastructures of past generations, and how we attempt to organize contemporary public life around the physical and ideational ruins of the past.

In this sense, postcolonial scholarship is concerned with heritage. Put very crudely, postcolonial thinkers contextualize today’s global issues by looking to the past, exposing the genealogies of political structures and dominant ideologies by locating their intellectual heritage in imperial and theological thought which took root many centuries ago. I do not call myself primarily a postcolonial scholar but find such literature immensely helpful in framing the empirical questions of project on South Africa, a still-fractured state with a tumultuous past.

Ann Laura Stoler has famously written about ‘imperial debris’: the physical remnants of imperial formations, which ‘harbor political forms that endure beyond the formal exclusions that legislate against equal opportunity, commensurate dignities, and equal rights’ (2008: 193). Material ruins become deeply political when they are imbued with political significance, continuing to affect our daily lives and our politics but ‘ceasing to function in the ways they once did’ (ibid: 203). South Africa, as a post-colonial and post-apartheid state, is littered with debris. Keith Breckenridge and Antina von Schnitzler are two innovative researchers who have investigated the lingering socio-political effects of ‘apartheid debris’ on everyday life in South Africa, by examining how apartheid-era utility metering techniques and biometrics (respectively) have been inherited and put to use—in very different ways—by successive African National Congress (ANC) administrations. However, like many other aspects of South African politics, the ongoing significance of South Africa’s abortive nuclear weapons programme—not only in South Africa, but also internationally—has received precious little attention within the Western academy.

One aspect of my research is the quest to uncover the continued, albeit hidden, influence of apartheid through South Africa’s nuclear infrastructure. Gabrielle Hecht (1998) has defined ‘technopolitics’ as the pursuit of political goals through technological projects and choices, and the apartheid regime of 1948-1994 sought to bolster its power, enforce social control (von Schnitzler, 2016) and stoke pride in Afrikaner identity through state-backed scientific and technical projects (Dubow, 2006). These projects included relatively benign public infrastructure like the Orange River Dam and the Koeberg nuclear power station, but—combined with Pretoria’s fears of encirclement, the growing influence of anti-colonial ideology in Southern Africa, and a Soviet-backed ‘Total Onslaught’—also encompassed the construction of nuclear weapons research labs, a uranium enrichment facility, six and a half functional nuclear warheads, and intermediate-range missiles to deliver them.

The National Party government, under Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk, had fully dismantled its nuclear weapons and facilities under supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by 1991 (foreseeing a transfer of power to a black majority administration), but only publicly confirmed their existence in 1993. Under Nelson Mandela and the ANC, South Africa quickly cemented its status as a disarmament success story and became a leader in global disarmament and non-proliferation efforts, putting pressure on the nuclear-weapons states and highlighting the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war.

This is an uplifting narrative, and we should certainly not discount the efforts of South Africa’s diplomats, many of whom like Abdul Samad Minty are veteran anti-nuclear activists, in pushing for a nuclear-free world and helping to bring about milestone agreements like the UN’s nuclear ‘Ban Treaty’ of 2017. However, I am interested in the ways in which apartheid’s legacy, specifically in the form of nuclear ‘debris’, might still affect the conduct of South African nuclear politics and diplomacy. The nuclear research infrastructure, technical expertise, ideas about South Africa’s position in the nuclear world, and even the highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that once made up the cores of nuclear warheads all remain from the apartheid years and continue to influence how South Africa relates to nuclear technology and politics.

Needless to say, much has changed since apartheid, and successive ANC governments have worked to repurpose South Africa’s inherited nuclear resources towards the ends of liberal democracy and international co-operation. However, technopolitical choices and the ideologies and attitudes they create (which Hecht calls ‘technopolitical regimes’) are durable and may well have persisted beyond the point of formal political ‘transition’. My research poses, and hopefully will answer, several intriguing questions about this heritage:

What happened to the scientists and officials involved in the apartheid weapons programme? How is their knowledge passed on and used? Have their attitudes towards nuclear technology and South Africanism persisted? If so, where? How do the technological and material choices embedded in the inherited nuclear infrastructure affect what the ‘new’ South Africa can do with it? How does the ANC use its inherited nuclear resources, domestically and internationally? Does South Africa need nuclear technology to stay globally relevant? Do today’s anti-nuclear activists see links between nuclear technology and the apartheid regime, and if so, does holding on to this heritage affect the pace or nature of ‘transition’? Is the international nuclear order itself complicit in these impacts, or responsible for any of South Africa’s historic violations of its own rules and norms? I anticipate that my fieldwork in South Africa, starting next year, will throw up unexpected answers to these questions, and of course present many more new questions which I have not yet thought to ask.

When my broader conceptual framework is applied to these questions and the data I collect overseas, I hope to sketch a broader picture of nuclear South Africa past and present, its interactions with the institutions of the international nuclear order, and question some of the assumed relationships between ‘local’ and ‘global’ political activity, between the material and ideational components of international politics (influenced by the work of Daniel Deudney and Gabrielle Hecht. While an ethnographic project would be an immense contribution to the state of the field, this is unfortunately not where my skills and expertise lie. Instead, I aim to foreground the role of technology in IR theorizing, as many scholars are increasingly advocating (Mayer et al. 2014; Fritsch 2014). Most of all, through my thesis I will try to demonstrate that South Africa’s tortured history and erstwhile nuclear encounter can provide scholars with a fresh perspective on the complexities of international nuclear politics, as well as the implications of nuclear technology for place-specific claims to democracy and post-colonial justice.

All of this is very complex, and perhaps sounds as ambitious and high-minded as anything that an ‘activist academic’ might hope to produce through their research. However, what motivates my intellectual curiosity is not, alas, the very honourable impulse to make the world a better place. It is a long-standing, perhaps odd, and definitely geeky fascination with the hidden, the abandoned, the off-limits: the inherited. Activist approaches to academic research are immensely valuable and perhaps needed more than ever. However, I have come to believe that an attraction to the esoteric, the arcane, and the downright weird might be just as good a place to start.



David Lloyd George and the Formation of the Royal Air Force

By Martin Wade

The leafy Welsh village of Llanystumdwy is not traditionally known as the cradle of the world’s first independent Air Force.

But it was here, in his home town, that the wartime British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, came to ponder how the Great War could be won.

Among the problems he tussled with was the slaughter on the Western Front, but also the nightly German bombing raids on London which killed hundreds.

There was clamour for action as the bombers ranged over the city seemingly without challenge.

It seemed also air power could by-pass the quagmire on the Western Front and end the slaughter in the trenches.

These two problems would, in different ways, focus attention on how air power was used in ways that live with us still.

For much of the First World War British air power was wielded by the Army and the Navy. For the Army, the Royal Flying Corps was set up in 1912 and was designed for artillery spotting, reconnaissance and generally to support ground troops. The Royal Naval Air Service was born later with the aim of mounting coastal patrols, mounting ship-borne and surveillance over water. Both services were intended to fight in support of the aims of the Army or the Navy.

When the First World War broke out, air power was in its infancy. The first powered flight in an aircraft had only taken place 11 years previously in 1903. But as the war continued into its third year, it became clear that the potential for this new power was not being used effectively.

By 1917, aircraft had grown from the flimsy, underpowered and lightly armed craft of 1914 to heavy bombers capable of carrying heavy bombloads.

Then raids by German aircraft like these brought the terror of war to people at home, far away from the Western Front.

Although Zeppelin airships had carried out raids on Britain earlier in the war, they were small beer compared to the attacks by twin-enigined Gotha bombers.

Through the summer of 1917, the German bombers launched further raids on London, killing hundreds. There was dismay at how the air defences and fighters of the RFC and RNAS seemed unable to stop the attacks.

The raids became fiercer still when the Gotha bombers were joined by Riesen (or ‘Giant’) planes. These aptly named aircraft carried a crew of five and a bomb load of 1,000kg.

Around 1,000 British civilians died as a result of air raids in the First World War. While this is much lower than the number killed in the Second World War, these raids had a psychological effect out of all proportion to the physical harm done.

During one attack, 100,000 rushed to take shelter in the London underground; on following nights, hundreds of thousands more did the same whether or not there was a raid.

This terror and new measures, such as black-outs that now had to be taken, made the British people very aware of their new helplessness.

Importantly, while reporting of news from the battlefield was subject to censorship, there was no such restriction on reporting the raids on London.

And so, the clamour for action grew. As Lloyd George later recalled in his war memoirs, he recognised that call:

“At the slightest rumour of approaching aeroplanes, tubes and tunnels were packed with panic-stricken men, women and children. Every clear night the commons around London were black with refugees from the threatened metropolis.”

He saw that people were not cowed by the attacks, rather they wanted to take the fight to Germany: “It is right, however, to record the fact that the undoubted terror inspired by the death-dealing skies did not swell by a single murmur the demand for peace. It had quite the contrary effect. It angered the population of the stricken towns and led to a fierce demand for reprisals.

That summer, as the raids continued, and defences again failed to stop them, Lloyd George saw that existing air power should be bolstered.

On 13 June, he proposed a large increase in the production of aircraft, even if this meant at the expense of other weaponry. The War Cabinet agreed, and soon it was decided that the Royal Flying Corps should be almost doubled in strength from 108 to 200 squadrons, and that the Royal Naval Air Service should be similarly expanded.

But problems remained with reliance on the two services to play what was a subsidiary role for them. After raids on June 13, two squadrons were withdrawn from Field Marshal Haig’s command to reinforce home defence but, were returned on 6 July, the day before the next big raid. After the raid they were called for again, but Haig only agreed to release one.

By this time both the RFC and the RNAS had 1500 aircraft each but co-operation between them was still poor. Also, anti-aircraft defence was not controlled by either of them, instead was organised by the army.

There had been earlier attempts to co-ordinate air power more effectively and for the Army and Navy to co-operate in this field.

Earlier ineffective responses began with the Derby Committee, set up in 1915 after the Zeppelin raids. The aim of the committee had been to co-ordinate air policy, but the exasperated Lord Derby resigned saying: “It appears quite impossible to bring the two wings closer together…unless they are amalgamated into one service”.

There were calls then for a stronger air policy which prompted a candidate to stand at a by election in 1916 when Noel Pemberton Billing contested the Mile End seat as an independent candidate in 1916. He fought on a platform of support for air power and the creation of a separate air force, unattached to either the British Army or the Royal Navy.

Later an Air Board was formed in 1916. When David Lloyd George became Prime Minister, he put Lord Cowdray at head of committee. This too, failed to improve the supply of aircraft and engines and to make the Army and Navy co-operate effectively.

As the raids carried on, Lloyd George could see that a more radical approach was needed.

Lloyd George responded to this with the appointment of General Jan Smuts to head a committee to investigate.

Formed on July 11, the committee was made up of the Prime Minister, Smuts, together with representatives of the Admiralty, the army general staff, the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, and other experts as required. They examined, ‘the defensive arrangements for home defence against air raids’ and ‘the existing general organisation for the study and higher direction of aerial operations’.

The part dealing with organization and the higher direction of air operations was delivered to the War Cabinet on August 17. Lloyd George’s biographer John Grigg, tells how its significance was “immense”.

Smuts’ emphatic answer, which he gave with the full support of Lloyd George was: “Unlike artillery, an air fleet can conduct extensive operations far from, and independently of, both Army and Navy. As far as can at present be foreseen, there is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use.”

But there were other pressures which made clear in Lloyd George’s mind the need for a new way of organising air power.

While civilians in their hundreds were being killed as German bombs rained down on London; hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were killed as the Passchendaele offensive ground to halt in the mud of Flanders.

As Grigg noted: “David Lloyd George was acutely aware that the Passchendaele offensive was going nowhere but to a great many graves”.

Lloyd George had become Prime Minister because he was expected to prosecute the war more vigorously and effectively. He was determined that the war should be fought without such profligate waste of British life.

So the idea that there might be a new way of achieving victory, ending the bloody stalemate and by-passing the trenches appealed greatly to the Welshman.

Lloyd George could not have failed to be impressed by Smuts when he said: ‘while our Western Front may still be moving forward at a snail’s pace in Belgium and France, the air battle will be far behind on the Rhine, and … may form an important factor in bringing about peace’.

These then were the two main points which Lloyd George seized upon as he pondered how best to use air power.

There was much opposition from both the Admiralty and from the Army, but Lloyd George recalls in his memoirs how there was no firm decision until the middle of October. In that time, he held firm against the opposition from the two existing services.

Once the decision was taken to create a separate air arm and an Air Ministry, the Bill was debated in Parliament. Lloyd George told the House how this power could transform the war: “The heavens are their battlefield. They are the Cavalry of the Clouds. High above the squalor and the mud, so high in the firmament that they are not visible from earth, they fight out the eternal issues of right and wrong. They are struggling there by day, yea and by night in that titanic conflict between the great foes of light and of darkness. They fight the foe high up and they fight low down.”

The bill to establish an Air Ministry was given the royal assent on November 29. The work then began to create the world’s first independent air force in April 1918.

That momentous decision taken by Lloyd George then was driven by the same need faced in later years. The need to protect the skies over our country – as vital now as it was in the Second World War and the years since. It was driven also as a means of delivering power and avoiding the heavy cost in lives that battles on the ground will bring.

His role in creating the RAF was commemorated at Llanystumdwy in January when Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier was joined by the Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sport, Dafydd Elis-Thomas and other distinguished guests at the David Lloyd George museum.

David Lloyd George Commemoration Event

This image was taken at the Llanystumdwy memorial parade held in January 2018

A note about the Author: Martin Wade graduated with a degree in International Politics at Aberystwyth in 1992. Since then he has worked as a journalist and currently also serves as an RAF Reservist.

Interstate Interprets the News: Trump Special

Welcome to a new series of articles. We will be providing interpretations on recent current affairs, kicking things off with three articles closely related to Trumps administration.

If you would like to write a feature for the series, please email: for more information.

US withdrawal from UNESCO

Ben Brotherwood

The relationship between the USA and UNESCO has been strained at best throughout UNESCO’s existence. Cold War tensions saw the first USA exit under Reagan’s administration and now, Trumps administration announced on the 12/10/2017 that it will depart again.

          The Department of State has stated, the decision was made in light of a perceived bias against Israel and concerns over the financial arrears of the organisation. These reasons lend support to James Carafano’s claim that Trump, is placing the importance of maintaining sovereign state power over international institutions as the key to understanding his administration’s Foreign Policy. UNESCO’s stance towards Palestine and the purposeful ommittance of Judaism’s links to several historical sites is seen by the administration as an attempt to undermine Israel’s sovereignty.

          It is likely, as the administration continues other international institutions might find themselves under the lens to see what they can offer the US, instead of what the US can off the institutions. The decision may also be a warning signal. The administration has shown it is not afraid of using action rather than words to serve as a warning. Trump has long been critical off European defense efforts and reliance on US membership in NATO. It is not an impossibility that the departure from UNESCO will serve as a threat of what happens when institutions, or their member states fail to toe the administrations line. If European NATO members fail to step up defense budgets in the manner Trump expects them too, a new example could be made with another US exit.


The Iran Deal

Cosmin Timofte and Iasson Chryssikos

Two years since the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred as the ‘Iran Deal,’ the Trump administration has concluded that the Republic of Iran does not follow the terms of the deal. Despite allies like UK, France and Germany, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency, believing it does.

            President Trump has stated that: Iran does not follow the 130 metric tonne limit of heavy water that was imposed in the deal; that it does not allow inspectors to enter military areas and has made accusations that Iran is intimidating the international inspectors to prevent them using all their authority during their investigations. He also states that Iran is not complying with the requirements set regarding the use of advanced centrifuges.

            President Donald Trump believes that the Iran Deal does not address the issue of Iran’s continuous testing in the use  of ballistic missiles, nor does the deal help mitigate the matter of them funding of organisations such as Hezbollah. If anything, the relief of sanctions allows for further funding on this matter thanks to a higher availability of money. President Trump believes that the deal does not constrain Iran’s, “destabilizing influence” or aggression in the Middle East. As such, the US has declared it has begun taking steps in implementing new sanctions and started cooperating with allies on this matter in order to prevent Iran from continuing these acts, as well as preventing the state from having any path to creating a nuclear weapon. This will naturally anger Iran, because the US is not only seen as going against its word, but also it will leave Iran in a situation where it will not be able to trust future deals with the US. This will result in relations becoming increasingly hostile and bitter; with the risk of a vicious cycle in the relation of the two states forming. Most of the US’s allies have stood against the US’s stance towards the deal.

            Moreover, the decision made by the administration has disappointed its allies. One can argue that, by abandoning this deal, the US is demonstrating its standing deals with other states, both friendly and hostile are not safe. If deals are not adhered to, it jeopardizes the sincerity of US actions and signals within the international system. There is a potential states will no longer see the US as a political entity that can be trusted, which will adversely affect the continuation and development of peaceful relationships.

Cyber Security Concerns in South Korea

Cosmin Timofte and Iasson Chryssikos

A new revelation since North Korea’s (NK) latest ICBM lunch test in September 15 comes to highlight the factor of cyberwarfare in the Korean conflict.

        Ruling Democratic Party Assemblyman, Lee Cheol-hee claimed in an interview that NK had stolen 235 GB of military documents, including extremely sensitive information. The data had been hacked under Park Geun-hye’s administration in September 2016. Little information was disclosed on the depth of the hacking. Republic of Korea (ROK) Defense Minister Song Young-moo, in light of Lee Cheol-hee’s revelations, has ordered heightened vigilance and new measures to be taken by the military.

      Two of the classified files to be stolen were codenamed OPLAN 5015 and 3100. OPLAN 5015 is the wartime operation plan of a joint ROKA-USA pre-emptive strike against North Korea, as well as the plan to ‘decapitate’ the North Korean leadership. OPLAN 3100 is the wider plan of the Republic of Korea Army(ROKA) reaction in the case of a North Korean invasion and penetration of the South. Other crucial information stolen was; data on the joint ROKA-USA Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, held from August 21 to August 31 2017, information of military facilities and power plants that are of strategic importance for an effective retaliation of the ROKA in the instance of an attack.

      According to Pentagon officials, the information is secure. “I can assure you that we are confident in the security of our operations plans and our ability to deal with any threat from North Korea,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning told reporters.

      The timing is important, since this revelation comes amid heightened tensions, with President Trump not excluding the possibility of mounting a military operation against North Korea. Previous statements such as, ‘only one thing will work’, or threats about ‘totally destroying’ the North Korean nation establish the state of mind of President Trump. However, Secretary of State Tillerson has reaffirmed that the US, and especially the President, are fully committed to dialogue and have great relations with Chinese counterparts regardless of the ‘President’s unconventional way of communicating’.

     The hacking of such hypersensitive information, raises the question of cyber security capabilities. The Korean Institute for National Unification reports that, as of April 2017, NK has been employing 7,700 professional hackers. The ROK Unification Ministry reported that 4,000 hacking attempts took place over the five last years, most of which are suspected to have been conducted by North Korean hackers.

     There has been a generalized focus on cyber attacks by the North Korean regime over the last years. One of the main reasons is the tightening sanctions, thus forcing NK to look for alternative sources of funding; notably engaging in crypto currencies, but also raising foreign currency by hacking into financial institutions and making fraudulent money transfers.

     The coming weeks will be crucial in seeing how the Ministry of Defense will mount up its defenses against cyber security attacks. It has already been announced that a new unit working on a new plan to ‘decapitate’ North Korean leadership will be launched in December, but it remains to be seen how countermeasures to NK’s expanding cyber warfare capabilities will be materialized jointly by the US Army and the ROKA.




The Lord of the Rings is Racist – A Counter Argument

By Ciaran Kovach

In honour of the 124th birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien, the creative mind behind The Lord of the Rings, I will be deviating from my preferred medium of film and writing on a series of literature near and dear to my heart. While I cannot claim to be more than a casual Tolkienite, I have been a fan of Tolkien’s universe for many years now and have done a respectable amount of reading around his main stories.

What I will be addressing today is a charge laid against Tolkien’s work that it is racist. In short, the main antagonists on the Tolkienverse, Melkor and later Sauron, have utilized not only evil creatures such as Orcs, trolls, dragons and the like to fight their wars, but also human allies. The most prominent are as follows; Easterlings of Rhun, tribes of men based off of Middle Eastern cultures. The Haradrim, tribes of men based off of African cultures. Finally, the Variags, tribes of men based off of the Mongols or Huns. Many people who have read Tolkien’s books or seen Peter Jackson’s films and having witnessed a story where dark-skinned men march among the ranks of a force of pure darkness against the primarily Caucasian forces of good, came to the not unpredictable but uninformed conclusion that Tolkien was a racist.

In this article I will make the argument that a wider knowledge and appreciation of Tolkien’s work makes it clear that Tolkien was not racist in going about creating his universe.

To start, I will introduce you to very important narrative within Tolkien’s work that will inform you going forward. Tolkien does not portray any race or spiritual being as being pure good and incorruptible. Even the Elves, who at first glance may seem as such, are revealed upon closer inspection of having a tendency towards arrogance and even cruelty on occasion. Of all the races not represented as fundamentally evil in nature, Tolkien portrays humans as being the most flawed. Tolkien describes men as very much corruptible and prone to pettiness, arrogance, mistrustfulness, greed and cruelty. A description which I feel can be applied to humans of the real world as well. Tolkien does not totally condemn humans however, saying that humans, for all their flaws, are capable of great acts of kindness and valour. The dark forces in Tolkien’s world as shown as being high adept at manipulating and bringing out the worst in humanity given the opportunity.

The best example of this are Sauron’s rings of power. Of the 19 original rings of power created by Sauron, a malignant, corruptive force being bound within each one, 9 went to the great kings of men. While the dwarves and Elves were able to resist the influence of their rings, the kings of men were utterly corrupted body and soul by the power granted to them by the rings, eventually becoming the Nazgul, beings of pure evil like their new master Sauron. Sauron’s 20th ring of power, the ring that allowed Sauron to exert his influence over the others and which contained part of Sauron’s spirit, came to be in the hands of Isildur, the King of Gondor, following Sauron’s defeat as the end of the Second Age. Despite the advice of the Elves, the malignant intelligence within the ring corrupted Isildur’s mind, consuming it in greed and promises of power and causing him to refuse to destroy it and Sauron entirely.

The potential for men to overcome and go beyond corruption is best displayed by the character of Boromir, the heroic Captain of Gondor that joins the Fellowship of the Ring in their quest to destroy the One Ring. Boromir, having proven his character with his heroic battle to retake Osgiliath and recognition of his father’s unfair treatment of his brother Faramir, falls under the influence of the ring. It is implied that Boromir considered guiding the Fellowship to Gondor with the purpose of using its power to aid the beleaguered armies of Gondor. The ring exploits his frustration at Gondor’s plight and his desire to please his father, eventually causing him to attack Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer in a fit of rage and greed. Frodo escapes Boromir and with the presence of the ring removed, Boromir is consumed with regret at his actions. Just after this event, Uruk-Hai attack the Fellowship. Boromir dies protecting Merry and Pippin against impossible odds, riddled with arrows and with a great many dead Uruks around him.

With the susceptibility of humans to corruption as well as righteousness within Tolkien’s world now established for you, I will talk specifically on the human factions and cultures that align with the forces of darkness. Rhun, Khand and Harad are notable in their geographical position as they are within the area that Melkor and his heir Sauron were most influential. Given what has been previously established, it can’t come as a surprise that the men of these lands would align with the darkness. The simple presence of pure evil corrupting their minds and souls over countless generations, combined with the threat of attack by Mordor’s Orc hordes and the manipulative cunning of Sauron (someone who could fool even the wisest Elves) made it so that only the very bravest and most righteous would consider defiance. To the men of the east, very much disconnected with the greater, more benevolent spirit familiar to the peoples of the west, Melkor and Sauron would have been gods upon the earth in their eyes, resulting in fearful worship of these wrathful gods. Even if the fantasy elements such as the mind warping influence of evil were removed, it is easy to imagine the Easterlings, Haradrim and Variags aligning with Sauron out of political common sense. Defiance against the local hegemon is rarely a good idea.

The tribes of men aligned with Mordor do have their own stories of overcoming their flawed nature and being righteous in action. In the First Age of the Sun, 2 Easterling families stand out, those of Ulfang the Black and that of Bor. Ulfang and his sons betrayed the Elves to Melkor at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, slaughtering them from behind. During this same war, even in the face their own people switching sides, a Easterling by the name of Bor and his 3 sons remained true to the Elves and all went on to heroically die in battle. It should also be remembered that Tolkien wrote that following the final destruction of Sauron at the end of the Third Age, his hold over his human allies was broken and saw the creation of everlasting peaceful coexistence between them and the new Re-United Kingdom. This is in contrast to Sauron’s other servants, who fled to the darkest corners of Middle Earth, retaining their malice, cruelty and hatred of righteousness, if not their great former power.

My fundamental argument from my reading of Tolkien that the dark-skinned men of Middle Earth’s allegiance to Melkor and Sauron was as a result of the fundamental nature of men, combined with the overwhelming, corrupting influence of darkness they were exposed to by happenstance. I do not feel that Tolkien consciously attempted to represent them as fundamentally deviant or weak compared to lighter-skinned men in any way.

To continue my argument on why Lord of the Rings is not racist, I will specifically address the claim that ‘all the evil humans are dark-skinned’. This statement is totally uninformed. In the Second Age of the Sun there existed the great Kingdom of Numenor and the Numenorean people were Caucasian. Numenor was lost after being corrupted from within by Sauron, their armies destroyed by the Elves and the very land itself being destroyed by the sea. Some Numenoreans survived with nine ships of good-hearted Numenoreans sailing to Middle Earth and founding the Kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. However, Numenoreans loyal to Sauron also fled it’s destruction and settled in Umbar in the lands of Harad. These ‘Black Numenoreans’ would go on to be Sauron’s most loyal human servants with many of them going to live permanently within the lands of Mordor. It is believed that every single one of them died during the final downfall of Sauron, loyal to the end.

During the Third Age Sauron found another Caucasian human ally in the form of the Dunlendings. The Dunlendings were a tribal people who’s land bordered on that of Rohan. During the War of the Ring, Sauron’s servant Saruman the White, a powerful being possessing great abilities of persuasion brought them under his banner through promises of revenge against the people of Rohan, who had wronged them in the past. They even went as far as allowing Saruman to breed some of them with Uruk-Hai through sorcery to create Half-Orc abominations. The disastrous loss of life they suffered at the Battle of the Hornburg led to them ultimately making peace with Rohan, promising to never rise against them again.

To conclude, I do understand that from the perspective of someone with a casual interest in Tolkien’s most famous works or Peter Jackson’s films, the representation of darker-skinned people can be viewed as racist. However, as a person who has a wider knowledge of Tolkien’s work, I do not believe Tolkien maliciously or subconsciously injected any form of racism into his work. In my mind, Tolkien paints an superb picture of human nature in his work. A picture in which mankind is presented as a people capable of both great righteousness and great malice and where the colour of your skin means nothing when facing the world in which you live.

Political information and implications regarding the ‘First Order’ in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

By Ciaran Kovach


As an avid Star Wars fan, I was extremely excited for and intrigued by ‘Star Wars: The Force Awaken’ leading up to its release. One particularly intriguing area was the nature of the First Order, the evil military junta that acts as the main villain of the film and will be so for the rest of the new trilogy.

I initially assumed that the new trilogy would see the Rebellion or New Republic up against something resembling the ‘Imperial Remnant’ (a loose conglomerate of warlords who took over much of the Empire following the deaths of the Emperor and Darth Vader) from the now null ‘Star Wars Expanded Universe’. However it was established early on that while similar, the First Order was not the Empire of old.

Leading up to the film, the director J.J. Abrams described the First Order as a collection of individuals that idolized the bygone Empire as a model of order, stability, jingoism and human dominance. Abrams also described the First Order as something similar to if the Nazis who fled to South America had organized and tried to recreate Nazi Germany.

Having now seen the ‘Force Awakens’, I have gleaned a deeper insight into the political and social nature of the First Order, which I will now describe.

With regards to its leadership, the Sith Lord Supreme Leader Snoke is (as his name suggests) the unquestionable leader of the First Order. His exact role is unclear however as little is revealed about him. One would assume that he has the final say in all major decisions regarding domestic and foreign policy, but his activities as a Sith Lord (notably the training of Kylo Ren) may leave him with limited time for actual governance.

J.J. Abrams’ analogy regarding Nazis fleeing to South America implies that there may have been many former Imperial officers, agents and bureaucrats amongst the First Order’s leadership. This would certainly explain how such a formidable military force could appear over the course of 30 years.

With regards to the hierarchy on display in the Force Awakens, apart from Snoke, Kylo Ren appears to occupy a similar position to Darth Vader as military Commander in Chief. General Hux seems to act as at the very least, the military commander of that sector of First Order galactic space. While he does take orders from Kylo Ren, the actual running of the First Order’s forces (most notably Starkiller Base) largely falls to him, with Kylo choosing to give only general strategic commands. At lower levels, Captain Plasma and a number of other unnamed officers and NCOs act as the only representatives of a military command structure below the General level. I feel it would be safe to assume that it resembles a very authoritarian version of a conventional real-world commander structure.

Some clues are also given regarding the nature of the military leadership of the First Order on wider society. The stormtrooper deserter (that becomes known as Finn) states that the name he had been given was FN-2187 and that he was kidnapped at birth to be trained as a stormtrooper. This suggests that rank and file First Order personnel are conscripts that receive Spartan/Mandalorian-style military training and undergo political indoctrination. This shows in the movie with First Order stormtroopers and pilots appearing far more competent than their bygone Imperial counterparts. It is unclear whether high-ranking officers in specialist roles are conscripted/appointed as well, or whether they are volunteers.

Military discipline in the First Order comes across as very strict and hierarchical. Stormtroopers are not even allowed to remove their helmets without permission and at least in the case of Kylo Ren, higher-ranking officers are at liberty to summarily punish those of a lower rank. It is implied that this strict regime is not entirely necessary. First Order personnel come across as highly disciplined and motivated with few exceptions.

First Order strategy and tactics are hinted upon in the movie. There appears to be a heavy reliance on heavy-handed use of shock, awe and annihilation. The one successful firing of the Starkiller Base super weapon kills billions just to make a point. The second attempted firing of the weapon aimed to obliterate the home planet of the Resistance. The attacks on the Jakku settlements and the Takodana bar represented the First Order’s disregard for collateral damage and willingness to kill civilians out of convenience. With the exception of the attack on the village in the opening scene, the First Order ground troops and air support are shown to coordinate well.

First Order technology also seemed to be perfected and advanced versions of Imperial technology. Notable examples being the lightsaber-proof electric melee weapon employed by a stormtrooper on Takodana and the First Order placing their super weapon inside an existing planet rather than having to build a station around it.

The strictly civilian leadership and infrastructure of the First Order is not shown at all. Even if the First Order is a military junta as traditionally understood, the fact that it was able to construct Starkiller Base suggests a huge amount of available state resources from a wider empire. As such there must be a civilian bureaucracy and infrastructure to run the non-military affairs of the First Order. The failure to mention this infrastructure is unsurprising however, as touching on it would have bored the average audience. It is also implied that the events of the film take place on the outer edge of First Order’s area of control, where little civilian infrastructure would be present.

Finally, with regards to political ideology, while Snoke and Kylo Ren seem motivated towards destroying the Jedi and domination of the force and the galaxy in the Sith tradition, there is also a more public First Order ‘secular ideology’. The First Order regards the bygone Empire as the original legitimate authority over the galaxy and themselves as its heir. The Republic, with its apparent greater liberties, is represented as irresponsibly cultivating chaos. The Resistance, the successor organization to the Rebel Alliance, are regarded as traitors by the First Order and by their assistance of The Resistance, The Republic are traitors by extension. The fact that with the possible exception of Snoke, all the shown members of the First Order are human, it is suggested that the First Order shares the late Empire’s belief in human superiority.

To conclude, there is much to still be learned about the First Order as the other films in the trilogy come out and lore materials are released, but the Force Awakens has set the foundation for a very interesting new faction for the Star Wars mythos.


By Ciaran Kovach

If the point of a great thriller is to present an audience with an engrossing story, interesting characters and scenes of nail biting tension, ‘Sicario‘ is most definitively a great thriller.

Starring Emily Blunt as the promising and idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer, ‘Sicario’ tells the story of Macer’s journey to the darkest side of the US ‘War on Drugs’. Caught up in a web of black ops intrigue and constantly under threat from a ruthless cartel, Macer and her partner Reggie (played by Daniel Kaluuya) very much descend into the heart of darkness that is the frontline of ‘The War on Drugs’.

If I were only allowed to say one thing about this film, it would be that the scenes designed as heights of tension are some of the best I have ever seen. An excellent, engaging feeling of tension runs through the film from the very beginning to the very end, but during the scenes of true tension (of which there are many!) the intense acting and excellent use of both picture and sound makes for some truly heart stopping scenes.

With regards to acting, there is excellent acting across the board. Kate Macer’s constantly increasing sense of entrapment and unease as the film progresses comes across as very genuine. Benicio Del Toro (Alejandro) and Josh Brolin’s (Matt Graver) characters play their roles as mysterious plot drivers perfectly, revealing themselves to the audience slowly and smartly, keeping the audience engaged with both their characters and the plot throughout.

The plot of the film itself is very good. The writer (Taylor Sheridan) makes the excellent and rather unexpected decision to add a sub-plot involving a Mexican policeman and his family that runs parallel to the main plot. This sub-plot functions as a way of keeping the audience from becoming so engaged with the intrigue of Kate Macer’s story that they forget the human element of the film’s subject, that of ‘The War on Drugs’. When the plots finally overlap, it has an excellent impact on the audience. The intrigue that dominates the film is excellently written, with numerous great twists and turns. The plot does suffer one or two weak points with regards to Kate Macer herself for much of the film however. For much of the film it feels like she is simply being dragged along by the group of guys who seem to consider her something of a liability despite the fact that it is made plain that her presence is significant.

The film’s respectable number of action scenes are commendable, being punchy and making excellent use of the tension that runs throughout the film. There are no action scenes that can be regarded as highly exciting or spectacular, but this is largely to the film’s benefit as such action scenes would endanger the grounded feeling that the film works hard to cultivate.

Finally, with regards to the setting, ‘Sicario’ succeeds in creating a setting that is both grounded and engaging. The film very quickly establishes the sophistication and brutality of the Mexican drug cartel and imbues the audience with a dread of them that holds throughout the film. The highly militarized and morally questionable fashion through which Kate’s anti-cartel team goes about their work (similar to actual US practises, if exaggerated in some instances for dramatic effect) succeeds in preventing a uninspired good-bad dichotomy. For those aware of the nasty, cynical and unending nature of the US ‘War on Drugs’, the film certainly succeeds in showing it in a stark and disturbing relief.

To conclude, I would say that ‘Sicario’ is a breathtaking crime-thriller. I mean this in a rather literal sense, myself having felt rather breathless leaving the cinema as a result of me holding my breath for much of the film.

Rating: 9/10