Punks against the Troubles

Image: Ricky Adams/mediadrumworld.com
Image: Ricky Adam/mediadrumworld.com


On one of my first research trips to Belfast, back in 2010, I was in a conversation with a fellow about my own age (at the time mid-40s) and the topic turned, as it often does in these circumstances, to what it was like growing up in a place being torn apart by brutal civil violence.

As a working class teenager in the early 1980s living in North Belfast, he was of an age and from a place in which it would have been all too easy to get drawn into the turmoil of the times, winding up with a gun in his hand, probably landing in jail, maybe ending up dead. So I asked him how he managed to stay out of things.

“Simple,” he said, “I was a punk.”

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2The punks stood apart.

I was reminded of this conversation today when I came across a set of photos taken in one of Belfast’s storied punk venues, a community center called, fittingly, the “Warzone Centre.”  The photos are from a recently published book by photographer Ricky Adams, Belfast Punk, which captures the era as it was drawing to a close.

The Guardian last month posted images from the book, with the photographer giving some commentary and context on each of the shots. In his review of Belfast Punk, writer Mark McConville emphasizes punk culture as a unifying force in a divided city and society:

PUNK is most often associated with anarchy but rare pictures have revealed unifying power of punk culture to bring together those from both sides of the conflict during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Rather than attempted to destroy society as the 1980s anarchists are usually portrayed, stunning images show Catholic and Protestant punks overcoming the problems of their community by mixing amicably and enjoying themselves at a Belfast youth and community centre, appropriately called “the Warzone Centre”.

In a long essay published by the Irish Times last December, Timothy Heron described Northern Ireland’s punk music culture as a nonsectarian common ground that allowed Protestant and Catholic youth to reject the violence and repression that surrounded them:

It is that ‘‘other nation” of ordinary individuals struggling to cope with the pressures of life which is the focus of this paper, or, more accurately, the ordinary youths, many of them school-age teenagers, who took part in an extraordinary musical subculture which helped them construct their everyday lives in the midst of the Troubles in ways which would conflict with and sometimes subvert the codes of the society they lived in: punk.

It is worth remembering that even under the worst conditions, people can often find ways to push back against the circumstances that might otherwise crush their spirits if not their lives.

The video below, for the Stiff Little Fingers (a legendary Belfast punk band formed in 1977 at the height of the Troubles) song “Alternative Ulster,” gives you an idea of what they and the other punks were rebelling against.

Yes, “Zulu” is the best movie, maybe ever

men of harlech
The Welsh deliver in the film’s climactic sing-off.


While I was checking out Tom Ricks’ blog over at Foreign Policy this morning I ran across his take on a list of the 25 best British war movies ever, produced last year by the writers at ThinkDefence, a website dedicated to discussion of UK defense and security issues.

Their list is a more than a little idiosyncratic. Here’s how they describe the judging criteria:

We could argue all day about the definition of a British War Film and what the best means but for this entirely unscientific list, the definition of a British War Film is one that is largely British in character. They may have been directed by non-British directors, have non-British actors and may even have been made in Hollywood or elsewhere, but they retain that element of Britishness that we all understand. So no Das Boot, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now or other such great films.

The judging criteria do not include historical accuracy, whether the correct buttons and rank insignia were worn, or whether the film is a ‘visceral and worthy portrayal of the realities of war’ or some other such artsy bollocks, instead, it is simply enjoyability for a wet Sunday afternoon in. So, it is not a list for the film buff, historian or the yoghurt-weaving wheatgrass smoothy types for them to bemoan the inhumanity and pointlessness of war.

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2I’ve seen, and really enjoyed, more than half of the films listed. But that’s beside the point. Also beside the point, at least in this post, is that way too many of the films listed have more than a little whiff of racism accompanying their celebration of Britain’s heroic imperialist past.

The point is that “Zulu” takes the prize as the greatest British war film of all time, and I couldn’t agree more. This is a movie I saw for the first time as a kid while on our annual family summer vacation. Even on the 13-inch TV screen of a Holiday Inn hotel room, the movie was an impressive spectacle. And it fueled what has remained a lifelong fascination with history, military affairs, the rise and fall of empires, and other such things. Oh yeah, and my anglophilia.

Despite some nagging historical inaccuracies, this movie delivers. Here’s how ThinkDefence sums it up:

Zulu is a 1964 epic war film depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. It depicts 150 British soldiers, many of whom were sick and wounded patients in a field hospital, who successfully held off a force of 4,000 Zulu warriors.

Probably no surprise this is Number 1

Forget the outrageous slurs on the good character of Private Henry Hook (who was a model soldier and campaigning tee-totaller) and Commissaryy James Langley Dalton (who was the most experienced soldier at the mission station and widely credited with initiating the defence)


Forget British War Films, this is the best War Film full stop, in fact, forget War Films, Zulu is without a shadow of a doubt, THE best film ever made

The best bits are far too many to list.

 Couldn’t agree more. Men of Harlech, stand ye steady indeed.

North Korea’s the weird kid

dprk nuke

This afternoon I’m talking to my intro International Relations students about nuclear proliferation, arms races, deterrence, preemptive use of force, and other feel-good topics.

And with North Korea once again flexing its nascent nuclear muscles, while Iran does it’s own probing of the new Trump administration’s resolve, this is a particularly apt time to introduce these issues to my students.

Normally I’d just lecture on this. But instead, I’ll lead off with this very excellent documentary. Enjoy!

Three weeks in and I’m exhausted


This blog has been a tough read over the last few weeks. No, let me amend that. It’s been a tough read since calendar flipped over to 2017. Let’s review:

  • Jan. 5 — I tried to grapple with the challenge of teaching international relations in an era when the US is poised to upend the norms and institutions that have given us relative global peace and stability for the last 70 years.
  • Jan. 9 — Donald Trump as the foreign policy opposite of the Obama Doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit.”
  • Jan. 11 — I tried to explain why I’m not loyal to the president. Any president. (Amazingly, of all the stuff I’ve written since I started the blog, this post was one of most widely shared on social media.)
  • Jan. 13 — The only thing we have to fear is Donald Trump’s control over foreign policy.
  • Jan. 16 — A little lesson in presidential personality types, in which I reference one of the classic works in the field of political psychology and foreign policy analysis and I refer to the president-elect as Caligula.
  • Jan. 20 — The White House is destroyed. And Trump is inaugurated.
  • Jan. 25 — As Trump begins fulfilling his campaign promises on immigration I call up a reminder of America’s shameful abandonment of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.
  • Jan. 27 — Depressing musical interlude.
  • Jan. 29 — I try to convince myself that Trump will fail because at some point the fundamental decency of Americans will rescue us from this downward spiral before it’s too late. (Another surprisingly popular post. I guess we’re all looking for a straw to grasp.)
  • Jan. 30 — Another angry white man commits a brutal act of terrorism, gunning down six Muslim worshipers at a mosque in Quebec. The only really surprising thing is that this time it happened in Canada.
  • Feb.1 — The travel ban kicks in, chaos ensues, and Trump stokes the fires of fear of the other. Muslims are victimized again, this time by conscious policy decision.
  • Feb. 2 — Trump picks a fight with the prime minister of Australia and I get to post a “Road Warrior” clip.
  • Feb. 5 — I review the president’s foreign policy record to date against what he said he’d do during the campaign. So far he’s been a man of his word. That’s not really praise.
  • Feb. 6 — A reminder that angry white men have committed some really bad acts of terrorism in the United States. Like Oklahoma City.
  • Feb. 9 — A smug Wisconsin congressman tries to argue that the angry white men who commit terrorism are way less worrisome than the Muslims who haven’t committed terrorism that Trump wants barred from entering the United States anyway. Evidence would suggest otherwise.

I’m exhausted. Let’s do this instead: