On 5 September, a month ago or so, Christopher Coker died. He was a friend for many more years than he was my professor. So much of what I have learned about war, warfare, strategy and intelligence was inspired by Chris.
For 30 years, in auditoriums, in cafés in the West End of London, in Paris, in Berlin, and since 2008 by email, I have tapped into the mind of Christopher Coker. We sat on different ends of a conventional political spectrum. For one, I was a pacifist and he was once, inappropriately described (in public) by the late Fred Halliday as a “Nietzschean right winger”. Chris was so much more than what everyone thought about him.
Chris and I listened and learned from each other; to be fair, l learned infinitely more from Chris than he did from me. Chris believed that humanity’s relationship with war was long and deep, and that we could tell the story of humanity through the lens of conflict. I argued that trade was probably more important.
He was always surprised and bemused that I turned to political economy, and thought that my indulgence of macroeconomics, econometrics, mathematics and statistical analysis contradicted my opposition to positivism, formalism and the quantification of everything.
He was not entirely wrong. I felt that I needed to know all the methods used by orthodox economists. It has helped me understand the world according to economists. He believed (generously) that I had a mind for war strategy and intelligence. Unfortunately, he was right. Chris, quite generously, took me seriously. (I don’t take myself too seriously).
There were only two occasions between 1993 and 2023 when I said something that he found insightful, interesting and that inspired him in any way. One of those instances was when he turned something I said into an exam question on a graduate paper. He bought me a cigar at a wine bar or something on the Aldwych.
The other was when I suggested, sometime in 1997, fresh from my career as a reporter, correspondent and news photographer, that we could learn a lot from fiction and visual images about the way warfare had changed over 200 years. The warrior on foot, then on horseback, later in a military vehicle or a plane… More recently we spoke about the use of drones and what he would refer to as post-human war.
In my last email message to Chris, which I now understand why he failed to reply, I shared the following (sardonic) passages from the New York Review of Books:
“Hoping you’re enjoying the last of the summer wine…
“In 1963 Joan Littlewood staged in London’s East End her antimilitarist musical Oh What a Lovely War! In the approved style of Robert Graves and the First World War poets, the generals guzzled and swilled as they sent the troops in the trenches to their deaths. But to make the invective work against the upper classes, politicians, profiteers, and arms manufacturers she set the scene in the first, and not the second, world war. Most people on the left considered the Second World War a just war — at any rate after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union — a war against German and Japanese fascism and militarism.
“Apparently she was wrong. Paul Fussell says it is high time the Second World War was demythologised. It is so generally accepted that the war was good that innocent people might think it was not such a bad thing after all.
“It’s thus necessary to observe that it was a war and nothing else, and thus stupid and sadistic, a war, as Cyril Connolly said, ‘of which we are all ashamed…which lowers the standards of thinking and feeling’.”
Chris did not reply. I wondered why. I learned, today, that he had died a month earlier. There have been very many accolades and necessary praise and celebration of Chris’s mind and his work . I agree with almost everything that has been written over the past month.
Our friendship was something I valued more than anything. We could discuss, without the help of an internet search engine (which has turned us all into instant e-geniuses) sometimes quite out of place and time (very briefly, once on the corner of Kingsway and the Aldwych) how kakos was not really a great leveller, as Homer suggested — some soldiers died public deaths while those who died at home in bed died in private.
We pity and celebrate the death of a soldier, but less so the person who died quietly and comfortably in their home in the countryside. (I once wrote a piece of doggerel about how Samora Machel died in a horrific crash while PW Botha died peacefully in his bed surrounded by his loved ones).
Chris said something about the differences between war as a private or personal quest (the privilege of nobility) or the presumed necessity of a state — and of people who assumed a sacred duty to wage war against others. I may have been drawing on mediaeval “laws” of war, but I had seen the film Guerre Privée, (Private War) a few months or a year before, and it inspired questions about war. I remember that conversation well (as I do most of our conversations) and still don’t know whether I was wrong or right (as I do most of the time). Chris listened. He made me think.
He needed no reminding, at least not by an upstart journalist, of the passage by Theodore Roosevelt in “Winning the West” that the white man’s war against indigenous Americans was “war with savages apt to be the most terrible and inhuman” which echoed Kipling’s “savage wars of peace”. It is easy, I said (and we agreed) to kill people you first demonised as not human, but savage, animal or children of a lesser god.
Over the months before he died, we shared (he shared more with me) ideas about war and “the civilisational state”, future wars and the changing ethical and moral landscapes of war and warfare. I shared some of what I wrote about Russia’s war on the Ukrainian people.
His response to my essay, “What Putin really wants is the return of an empire: Russia’s war in Ukraine is more about identity politics than Nato expansion”, was complimentary though I recognised the sincerity in his note about sharing. He wrote; “keep it coming”.
Several years ago, when someone close to me went to graduate school at the London School of Economics, I introduced her to Chris. She would refer to him afterwards as “your BFF”. Unpretentiously stated, our friendship was of the mind. I would come to understand after three decades the way he inspired me, and in reading obituaries over the past couple of days, and the passage: “There are dark shadows on the Earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. (But) some men are like bats or owls and have better eyes for the darkness than for the light.”
I should turn to one of his favourite passages by Nietzsche (which we raised after Nato so mercilessly dropped bombs on the former Yugoslavia, and with personal meaning on Novi Sad):
“The present day European requires not merely war but the greatest and most terrible wars — thus a temporary relapse into barbarism — if the means to culture are not to deprive him of his culture and his existence itself.”
I have no beliefs about an “afterlife” so I can’t wish him well beyond death. What I will say, out of appreciation and respect, is that Christopher Coker made me remember — probably for as long as I can remember — that it was in the “Age of Enlightenment” that the Europeans, and what Angus Maddison described as European outgrowths in North America, gave us concentration camps and the nuclear holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
About those Europeans. The British Public Records office holds a transcript of a statement by the late physicist and once the head of the Alsos Mission (as part of the Manhattan Project), Sam Goudsmit:
“History will record that the Americans and the English made a bomb and that at the same time the Germans under Hitler produced a workable engine. In other words, the peaceful development of the uranium engine was made in Germany, whereas the Americans and English developed this ghastly weapon of war [the nuclear bomb].”
Chris was never afraid to point out contradictions, irreconcilable antinomies and double standards in the world. DM