Are all great civilisations doomed?

To quote Private Frazer in Dad’s Army, ‘We’re doomed, doomed!’ That seems to be the message of Paul Cooper’s eminently readable series of essays about how and why 14 civilisations rose to greatness and then collapsed. He begins with the Sumerians in the fourth millennium BC, at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf, and he finishes with Easter Island in the 18th century. He then concludes with dark prophecies about how a few centuries from now an overheated planet will look in a simpler post-industrial age. The style is informal, based on a series of popular podcasts, and one can almost hear the spoken word as one reads. Yet

A war reporter bravely faces death – but not from sniper fire

When you are a foreign correspondent and have covered wars in dozens of countries, the last place you’d expect a threat to your life to come from is your own cells. Yet this was the predicament in which the New York Times reporter Rod Nordland found himself in July 2019. Despite close shaves in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America and Darfur, he only really became aware of his mortality after collapsing with a seizure in India and discovering the existence of a ‘space occupying lesion’ (SOL) in his brain – a euphemism for a growth, benign or malignant. On transfer to a hospital in Manhattan, Nordland learned that his was

Downhill all the way: the decline of the British Empire after 1923

The British Empire, the East African Chronicle wrote in 1921, was a ‘wonderful conglomeration of races and creeds and nations’. It offered ‘the only solution to the great problem of mankind – the problem of brotherhood. If the British Empire fails, then all else fails.’ Stirring words – and not those of some sentimental Colonel Blimp back in London. They were written by the newspaper’s editor, Manilal A. Desai, a young Nairobi-based lawyer and a prominent figure in the large Indian community in Kenya. But, as Matthew Parker observes in One Fine Day, an ambitious account of the empire at the moment of its territorial zenith on 29 September 1923,

Ann Clwyd was a humanitarian unlike any today

Ann Clwyd, who has died aged 86, never held ministerial office or high office of any kind. Unless, of course, you count a stint as chair of the parliamentary Labour party, though that is more of a penance than a power trip. She did a few tours on the opposition front bench under Neil Kinnock, John Smith and, briefly, Tony Blair, but she was too independent-minded and probably not metro enough for a New Labour red box. That she was rebelling against the government a few months into its first term only confirmed that. Voting against an early Harriet Harman benefit cut, designed to force single parents into the labour

Bush is leading us to tragedy (2002)

It’s 20 years since the clamour for the invasion of Iraq was at its loudest. Boris Johnson, The Spectator’s then editor, spoke to the Saudi ambassador to the UK, Ghazi Algosaibi. You can read more on our fully digitised archive. ‘No, no,’ says the Saudi ambassador. ‘This is how you do it. You cannot lift your arm above the shoulder, and you must do it sideways.’ He moves alongside, a big man with a faint resemblance to Leon Brittan, and makes a thwacking motion. Meet Ghazi Algosaibi, 62, a poet and author, the Arab world’s leading envoy to London, who has recently earned not just a personal rebuke from Jack Straw, but

Do ‘ordinary Russians’ support the war?

There was a whiteboard in the BBC Baghdad bureau for noting down phrases we hoped to ban from the airwaves. It had nothing to do with political correctness or self-censorship. This was all about self-improvement. The list of words was titled ‘Not Martha Gellhorn’, in honour of the veteran war reporter who wrote so well – especially when compared with us. We were perfectly aware of our shortcomings, though, and strove to do better, with the whiteboard serving as an aide memoire. It helped keep the prose fresh when deadlines were hectic, and when the temptation was to reach for the cliché closest to hand. We were keen not to put

Nadhim Zahawi: how I escaped Saddam’s Iraq

One night in December 1977, when Saddam Hussein was deputy leader of Iraq and already the strongman of the government, Nadhim Zahawi’s father was tipped off that Saddam’s secret police were after him. Zahawi, a Kurd working in Baghdad, decided to leave right away. He phoned the office to say that he was travelling to the north of the country for work and quickly set about his escape. The Baathist secret police did come for him that night, but by the time they arrived at his house, he was at Baghdad International Airport with a ticket to London. An 11-year-old Nadhim nervously saw him off at the airport with his

Is Christianity about to end in the place it began?

Janine di Giovanni’s book begins in a Paris apartment during the first lockdown. She’s at a friend’s home, which she leaves for the odd shopping trip wearing a homemade mask and rubber kitchen gloves. Covid has made her anxious and she worries that we may lose things about our way of life forever. They need to be written down so we don’t forget. As she thinks about how her faith has comforted her during the pandemic she decides to tell the story of Christians in the Middle East who have experienced troubles of a different kind. She feels that Christianity is vanishing there, and if we don’t make a record

Colin Powell: A great man – and a failure

My memory of Colin Powell feels personal, even though we were 6,000 miles apart at the time. I was in Baghdad, covering the invasion of Iraq for the BBC. Powell was giving the speech of his life at the UN Security Council, accompanied by Powerpoint, trying to convince the world that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I had just come from a press conference with senior Iraqi officials, who denied there were any WMDs in the country. They were shifty, oleaginous, terrified of Saddam. It wasn’t hard to believe they were lying and that dignified, decent Colin Powell, was right. ‘If Powell says so,’ I thought, ‘it’s probably true.’

Isis’s weakness is now its strength

As coronavirus swept the globe a year ago, Isis began issuing pronouncements. ‘God, by his will, sent a punishment to the tyrants of this time and their followers,’ said one such; ‘we are pleased about this punishment from God for you.’ With the world on lockdown, Isis followers were urged not to sit around at home but to ‘raid the places’ of the enemies of God. ‘Don’t let a single day pass without making their lives awful.’ The virus might have begun as God’s punishment to China for persecuting the Uighurs but, as one Isis video put it, the pandemic was a chance to attack Americans, Europeans, Australians and Canadians.

Why are Covid conspiracies so appealing?

The recent decision by several European countries to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine will have thrown petrol on the bonfire of conspiracies surrounding the pandemic. These range from believing that vaccines contain microchips so that Bill Gates can track you, to believing that the virus is a global conspiracy to allow governments to introduce new draconian measures to control their populations. Why are so many conspiracy theories thriving today and what do they tell us about ourselves? During my time serving in Iraq I heard lots of conspiracy theories. Many concerned exaggerated capabilities of the equipment we had, such as the belief that night-vision goggles and even Army-issued

The British army in the 21st century under scrutiny

In his history of the Pacific War, Eagle Against the Sun, Ronald Spector described the state of the US army on the eve of the second world war: ‘The main enemies were boredom and debt. The answer to such problems was often liquor.’ When the officer corps was not boozing, it was sufficiently obsessed with athletics to derail training, for ‘success at football and boxing could be as important to a man’s career as success in manoeuvres’. Its weapons were decrepit and its ranks ragged. George Marshall, the future chief of staff, commanded a notional battalion that numbered fewer than 200 men. That portrait of antebellum decay came to mind

We shouldn’t forget the horrific crimes of Isis returnees

Summer 2015. A five-year-old girl is chained up and left outside in the desert sun in Fallujah, Iraq – a punishment for wetting the bed while feeling unwell. The little girl slowly died of thirst in temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius. Condemned to the same inhumane punishment was the girl’s mother, made to endure the additional and unimaginable horror of helplessly watching the life drain from her daughter’s tiny body. The mother and child were members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority. Their captors, members of Islamic State (IS), are said to be German and Iraqi. At the time, Islamic State recruits felt invincible. They taunted the West and ruled over

The twisted logic of Shamima Begum’s defenders

Shamima Begum is back in the news. Firstly because she’s had a makeover. She can be seen on the front page of today’s Telegraph sporting long, flowing locks, trendy shades and Western clothing. Is Shamima the Islamist now aspiring to be Shamima the celeb? Perhaps she’s angling for her own reality TV show: The Real Housewives of Raqqa. But the second reason she’s in the news is because the British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor has expressed sympathy for her. He says she’s a victim of British racism. I really wish Sir Anish would stick to what he’s (very) good at — public art installations — and leave the Shamima business alone.

Confessions of an accidental foreign correspondent

Perhaps you remember footage of the wave. It was mostly from traffic cameras, mute but darkly mesmerising. Millions of gallons of Pacific seawater upended by a 9.0 earthquake and hurled irresistibly inland. A few days later I saw what that meant, turning a corner in my hire-car to find the road blocked by a trawler that had been washed ashore. This week, Japan has commemorated the tenth anniversary of the tsunami which killed 15,000 of its people. A seismic tragedy which begat a man-made disaster. Inundated by water, part of the Fukushima nuclear reactor blew up, producing the worst radioactive leak since Chernobyl. It wasn’t long before scores of foreign journalists

What the Pope’s visit means for Iraq

You could be forgiven for taking a cynical view of Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq this weekend. How could the Pope’s rhetoric about ‘fraternity’ alter the brutal reality for the country’s Christians, whose population has dwindled from 1.3 million to 200,000 since the US-led invasion? Might the visit end up legitimising a political class that has failed to defend Christians against discrimination and jihadist persecution? Even the Archbishop of Erbil bluntly remarked that the first papal trip to Iraq was ‘not going to help Christians materially or directly, because we are really in a very corrupt political and economic system. No doubt about that. [Pope Francis] will hear nice words…

Iran’s missile diplomacy

It’s a time for delivering messages in the Middle East, where messages rarely come without their near constant attendant: violence. On Monday night a volley of rockets struck a base hosting US troops in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. International media reported that one rocket landed in the base and another on residential areas nearby; one civilian contractor was reportedly killed, and six others were wounded, including a US service member. At least five Iraqi civilians were also injured, with one in a critical condition. The militia group Saraya Awliyah al-Dam has claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack. The group remains, superficially at least, a mystery. It proclaims no overt

Why the US assassination of Iran’s top general didn’t spark a war

Iran’s new meddler-in-chief in Iraq is a bespectacled general called Esmail Ghaani. Brought in to replace Qassem Soleimani after his death in a US airstrike in January, he has the same green uniform as his predecessor, the same grey beard, and the same orders to make Iraq’s Shia militias do Tehran’s bidding. That, though, is where the similarities end. Soleimani was a legend among his followers in Iraq — he spent years building contacts with local commanders and joined them on the battlefield against Isis in Mosul. Ghaani, by contrast, is an owlish, uncharismatic figure who looks like he might be happier behind a desk. Unlike Soleimani, he doesn’t speak

Letters: We must sing again

Growing pains Sir: James Forsyth (‘Rewiring the state’, 4 July) shocked this loyal Spectator reader with the following: ‘Even before Covid, this country was in a productivity crisis and it’s nigh-on impossible to improve productivity without government involvement. Increasing productivity requires improvements to be made to physical and digital infrastructure and to the skill base, and those need public investment.’ James clearly has not studied the sources of productivity growth (or lack of it). In the 50 years to 2008, the UK experienced around 2 per cent p.a. growth in real Gross Value Added per hour worked — which is what politicians generally mean when they talk about productivity. Since

Letters: Why Hugh Dowding deserves a statue

Police relations Sir: As a former Met Police officer, with a similar background to Kevin Hurley, I was surprised how much I disagreed with his article (‘Cop out’, 27 June). Central to this was the lack of emphasis he placed on the attitude of police officers. The emphasis on violent gang crime undoubtedly leads to a distortion in how young black men are perceived by the police, and this in turn can quickly lead to confrontation on the street. The attitude of young police officers is key to avoiding an escalating reaction between them and members of the public. Senior officers need to develop more holistic ways of addressing crime,