Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Which of these things is not like the other? America’s Future, The Thirty Years War, and today’s Islamic World

“History is a cruel step-mother, and when it retaliates, it stops at nothing.” Lenin

History is huge, given that by definition it encompasses the story of the human race going back to before the existence of written records.  We grapple with the challenge of history by parsing it into digestible lumps on the basis of time periods, geographic location, linguistic communities, etc.  In order to understand it as something more involved than the simple accretion of facts in sedimentary layers, we use metaphors, such as the turning of a wheel or the flowing of water in a river, my own preferred image.  The message in the metaphor is that change is the singular constant across history even as it may slow down or speed up.

“History is written for schoolmasters and armchair strategists.  Statesmen and warriors pick their war through the dark.” Lord Esher Journal, 15 March 1915

Given the time spanned by human history, it is not surprising that people have long debated, and still do, whether or not history repeats itself.  The English historian G M Trevelyan summed up the debate this way:  ‘History repeats itself!’ and ‘History never repeats itself’ are about equally true… We never know enough about the infinitely complex circumstances of any past event to prophesy the future by analogy.”  However, George Bernard Shaw offered an interesting observation when he pointed out that “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience!”  For me personally, the debate is moot because whether or not history repeats itself, it is more than evident from history that people clearly do.  Nations are often seen to behave like people, which might be at least in part attributed to the reality that they are made up of people and are governed or led by people.  Thus nations, like individuals, can be perceived to be engaging in bad behavior which others then try to adjust through punishments and/or rewards.

 “What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”  GWF Hegel

The violence engulfing the Islamic world over the past decade or more, with growing conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis, long ago brought to mind the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) when the emerging  Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church confronted each other across the courts, cathedrals, and battlefields of Europe.  General Sir John Hackett, in “The Profession of Arms”, described the Thirty Years War as “A period in which fervent Christians were prepared to hang, burn, torture, shoot or poison other fervent Christians with whom they happened to disagree upon the correct approach to eternal life.”  To me the parallel of a religiously fueled, politically complex expanding conflict is self-evident.

As Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus observed of Europe’s version, “all the wars that are on foot in Europe have been fused together and have become a single war.”  A parallel conflict in the Islamic world today might reach from the Atlantic Coast of West Africa to the islands of Indonesia or the Philippines, and from Central Asia to the deep Indian Ocean.

Much has been made of the failure of the United States to show evidence of national strategy in recent decades, and I have been among those critics.  A speaker at the Army War College earlier this year rightly corrected us by pointing out that the US today is a status quo power – and preserving that status quo has been our strategy.  Unfortunately, such an approach places the US in the position of King Canute telling the tide to go out when it’s coming in – both are doomed to failure.

I bought a copy of Peter H. Wilson’s “The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy” to refresh my knowledge of that conflict.  Wilson offers a thorough examination of the Thirty Years War, with excellent elaboration of its background and preliminaries.  He promises to tell the whole story of the war right down to its ending (often only summarized).  With some 850 pages of text plus some 75 pages of notes, I believe he will fulfill that promise.

Whatever happens today need not be an Islamic reenactment of the Thirty Years War, but the complexities of that past conflict resonate in the one potentially confronting us.  They both reflect a complex interaction of religious and geo-political motivations for conflict.  They are contests between both state and non-state actors. Individuals from around the world choose to join the conflict in service of one side or the other, often in contradiction of their own nation’s stance on the war.  Co-religionists end up in conflict with each other for political and geo-political reasons even as they also fight others because they were not of the same faith.

The principal players in Europe’s war were Spain, Holland, France, the German principalities, the Holy Roman Empire and its Electors (both Protestants and Catholics), and Sweden – with Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics all pitted against each other in various and changing combinations.  Many soldiers became mercenaries and fought for pay over religion or country.   How might we look for lessons from their experience to determine which nations might possibly play which original roles?  Is the USA in the role of France or Spain?  Is Russia or China the Ottoman Empire?  There is no papal style structure in the Islamic world, but perhaps Saudi control of the holy places of Mecca and Medina brings them close to such a role.

Reading Wilson’s chapter Pax Hispanica, it quickly becomes evident that Spain was then, as the United States is today, the principal status quo power – and almost the sole superpower by wealth and military capabilities, attempting to keep things the way they are.  The challenges facing Spain then echo those facing us today.  Both countries are the economic top dogs because of global reach and, for Spain, the influx of silver from the mines in its American colonies.  But this wealth led Spain to neglect development of a balanced economy that promoted both manufacturing and agriculture, and it contributed to inflation.

The US is struggling to deal with economic challenges intertwined with philosophical battles over its social, economic, and even political future.  These ongoing contests are preventing it from effectively applying almost any remedies at the present time.  Both Spain and the US were also spending massive amounts on defense, fighting extended foreign wars, and debates over perceived threats and responses dominated each nation’s strategic thinking.  And both countries were suspected by other nations of ambitious and expansionist intentions as they sought to shape the world into the desired form.  However, the mere hypothesis that the US now is playing a role similar to Spain during the Thirty Years War must be tested against events in the real world and measured against the events of some 600 years ago played out for Spain.  Spain began its decline as it failed to maintain the world order which it had come to dominate and failed to adapt to the new emerging world order.

The hard reality is that the American people have one choice to make (among many decisions facing them):
Will the United States remain the sole superpower and by definition the world’s policeman in pursuit of this imperial role as it seeks to shape the world in its own image?

Or, will the US concede sufficient authority and capability and autonomy to a supranational body that could act around the world without the US or US forces and with the inevitable result of shaping a world to some greater or lesser degree different from what the US might prefer?

“The future is hidden even from the men who made it.”  Anatole France

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Toast to the Bards

Pete Seeger has been there as long as I can remember, like that cousin or uncle who lived somewhere else but would show up from time to time – often rather unexpectedly but always welcome in the end even if sometimes you had to first recover from the surprise.  He seems to have even then been well-established as the paterfamilias of the folk scene that was still around as I became musically aware back in the 1960s and the bonds are still there to be seen if you look just a little bit.  I went to see Inside Llewyn Davis recently and it was a trip back in time.  I also realized that I need to clean up my MP3 player and set up a good folk music playlist.

But the bond I didn’t recognize until it hit me between the eyes as I read through the various print and online articles about our lost troubadour is that he came by it honestly and his reach goes back even beyond his own lifetime.  Almost ironically as we ponder this in 2014 – 100 years from the date of the beginning of the First World War in Europe – I learn that Pete Seeger had an uncle among the soldier poets of that war.

His name was Alan Seeger.  Born in New York City in 1880, he went to Harvard University, graduating in 1910.  Already a poet at Harvard, he moved back to New York City adopting a bohemian lifestyle there before relocating to Paris.  When war was declared in 1914, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion – 2e R├ęgiment ├ętranger (the United States not entering the war until 1917).

As a soldier of France, he was killed by German machine gun fire on July 4, 1916 at Belloy-en-Santerre  during the early days of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  I’ve known perhaps his most famous poem for years and it was apparently also a favorite of President John F. Kennedy, “I Have  a Rendezvous with Death” but never made the connection to the author of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” before now.

I Have a Rendezvous with Death

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear:
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

The Aisne (1914-1915)

We first saw fire on the tragic slopes
Where the flood-tide of France’s early gain,
Big with wrecked promise and abandoned hopes,
Broke in a surf of blood along the Aisne.

The charge the heroes left us, we assumed,
What, dying, they reconquered, we preserved,
In the chill trenches, harried, shelled, entombed,
Winter came down on us, but no man swerved.

Winter came down on us. The low clouds, torn
In the stark branches of the riven pines,
Blurred the white rockets that from dusk till morn
Traced the wide curve of the close-grappling lines.

In rain, and fog that on that withered hill
Froze before dawn, the lurking foe drew down;
Or light snows fell that made forlorner still
The ravaged country and the ruined town;

Or the long clouds would end.  Intensely fair,
The winter constellations blazing forth---
 Perseus, the Twin, Orion, the Great Bear—
Gleamed on our bayonets pointing to the north.

And the lone sentinel would start and soar
On wings of strong emotion as he knew
That kinship with the stars that only War
Is great enough to lift man’s spirits to.

And ever down the curving front, aglow
With the pale rockets’ intermittent light,
He heard, like distant thunder, grown and grow
The rumble of far battles in the night, --

Rumours, reverberant, indistinct, remote,
Borne from red fields whose martial names have won
The power to thrill like a far trumpet note,--
Vic, Vailly, Soupir, Hurtelise, Craonne…

Craonne, before thy cannon-swept plateau,
Where like sere leaves lay strewn September’s dead,
I found for all things I forfeited
A recompense I would not now forgo.

For that high fellowship was ours then
With those who, championing another’s good,
More than dull Peace or its poor votaries could,
Taught us the dignity of being men.

There we drained deeper the deep cup of life,
And on sublime summits came to learn,
After soft things, the terrible and stern,
After sweet Love, the majesty of Strife;

There we faced under those frowning heights
The blast that maims, the hurricane that kills;
There where the watch-lights on the winter hills
Flickered like balefire through inclement nights;

There where, firm links in the unyielding chain,
Where fell the long-planned blow and fell in vain—
Hearts worthy of the honour and the trail,
We helped to hold the lines along the Aisne.

Champagne, 1914-1915

In the glad revels, in the happy fetes,
  When cheeks are flushed, and glasses gilt and pearled
With the sweet wine of France that concentrates
  The sunshine and the beauty of the world,

Drink sometimes, you whose footsteps yet may tread
  The undisturbed, delightful paths of Earth,
To those whose blood, in pious duty shed,
  Hallows the soil where the same wine had birth.

Here, by devoted comrades laid away,
  Along our lines they slumber where they fell,
Besides the crater at the Ferme d’Alger
  And up the bloody slopes of La Pompelle,

And around the city whose cathedral towers
  The enemies of Beauty dared profane,
And in the mat of multicolored flowers
  That clothe the sunny chalk-fields of Champagne.

Under the little crosses where they rise
  The soldier rests.  Now round him undismayed
The cannon thunders, and at night he lies
  At peace beneath the eternal fusillade…

That other generations might possess—
  From shame and menace free in years to come—
A richer heritage of happiness,
  He marched to that heroic martyrdom.

Esteeming less the forfeit that he paid
  Than undishonored that his flag might float
Over the towers of liberty, he made
  His breast the bulwark and his blood the moat.

Obscurely sacrificed, his nameless tomb,
  Bare of the sculptor’s art, the poet’s lines,
Summer shall flush with poppy-fields in bloom,
  And Autumn yellow with maturing vines.

There the grape-pickers at their harvesting
  Shall lightly tread and load their wicker trays,
Blessing his memory as they toil and sing
  In the slant sunshine of October days…

I love to think that if my blood should be
  So privileged to sink where his has sunk,
I shall not pass from Earth entirely
  But when banquet rings, when healths are drunk,

And faces that the joys of living fill
  Glow radiant with laughter and good cheer,
In beaming cups some spark of me shall still
  Brim toward the lips that once I held so dear.

So shall one coveting no higher plane
  Than nature clothes in color and flesh and tone,
Even from the grave put forward to attain
  The dreams youth cherished and missed and might have known,

And that strong need that strove unsatisfied
  Toward earthly beauty in all forms it wore,
Not death itself shall utterly divide
  From the beloved shapes it thirsted for.

Alas, how many an adept for whose arms
  Life held delicious offerings perished here,
How many in the prime of all that charms,
  Crowned with all gifts that conquer and endear!

Honor them not so much with tears and flowers,
  But you with whom the sweet fulfillment lies,
Where in the anguish of atrocious hours
  Turned their last thoughts and closed their dying eyes,

Rather when music or bright gathering lays
  Its tender spell, and joy is uppermost,
Be mindful of the men they were, and raise
  Your glasses to them in one silent toast.

Drink to them—amorous of dear Earth as well,
  They asked no tribute lovelier than this—
And in the wine that ripened where they fell,
  Oh, frame your lips as though it were a kiss.

Champagne, France, July, 1915

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Pete Seeger (as performed by Peter, Paul, and Mary)

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone, long time passing?
Where have all the young girls gone, long time ago?
Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone for husbands everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the husbands gone, long time passing?
Where have all the husbands gone, long time ago?
Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Thanks, Peter – thank you for everything, Alan .

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

THE STORY OF AN ELF by John Steinbeck (complete with eyewitnesses!)

I'm sure that almost everyone will recognize the name of the author and novelist John Steinbeck, although most of you will not recognize the name of John Steinbeck the war correspondent. Nevertheless, like many others in those years, John Steinbeck went to war but with pad, pencil, and typewriter in North Africa and Italy - and later he would do it again briefly in Vietnam.

Fortunately for those of us who did not have the chance to read his original reports during World War II, a collection of them has been published as "Once There Was A War" by in fact several publishers over the years. I had the great fun over the past year of reading this collection and especially enjoyed Steinbeck's articles when I realized that I had the opportunity to read his 1943 exactly 70 years from the date of their original publication. The collection makes for a great read and I enjoyed them so much that I want to share one of these with you since it seems very appropriate for New Years Eve as we pass from 2013 into 2014. I've in fact found this exact same story already on the internet via several websites including one for a newspaper that carried the original publication.

If he were here with us now, telling this story to us over our beverages of choice, he might begin with those immortal words, 'no shit, this really happened'. Steinbeck comes pretty close to that in this column and I have attempted to further validate for you his list of eyewitnesses (barring the British Consul in Algiers who I can't identify and one journalist whose name apparently has escaped the notice of today's internet). Without further ado, I turn you over to Mr. Steinbeck.

THE STORY OF AN ELF by John Steinbeck

Monday, November 1, 1943

--This story would not be written if there were not witnesses—not vague unknown men, but Quentin Reynolds and H.R. Knickerbocker and Clark Lee and Jack Belden, who was hurt at Salerno, and John Lardner and a number of others who will come clamoring forward if anyone doubts the facts here to be presented.

The thing began when a British consul met Quentin Reynolds in the hall of the Alletti Hotel in Algiers. The consul was a small, innocent, well-mannered man who liked to think of the British and Americans as allies and who was willing to make amicable gestures. In good faith he asked Reynolds where he was staying and in equal good faith Reynolds replied that he had not yet been billeted.

“There’s an extra bed in my room,” the consul said. “You’re welcome to it if you like.”

That was the beginning, and what happened was nobody’s fault. It was just one of those accidents. The consul had a nice room with a balcony that overlooked the harbor and from which you could watch air raids. It wasn’t Reynolds’ fault. He accepted hospitality for himself, not for the nine other war correspondents who moved in with him. Nine is only a working number. Sometimes there were as many as eighteen. They slept on the floor, on the balcony, in the bathroom, and some even slept in the hall outside the door of Room 140, Alletti Hotel, Algiers.

It was generally agreed that the consul should have his own bed, that is, if he kept it. But let him get up to go to the bathroom and he returned to find Knickerbocker or Lee or Belden, or all three, in it. Another thing bothered the consul a little bit. Correspondents don’t sleep much at night. They talked and argued and sang so that the poor consul didn’t get much rest. There was too much going on in his room. He had to work in the daytime, and he got very little sleep at night. Toward the end of the week he took to creeping back in the middle of the afternoon for a nap. He couldn’t get his bed then. Someone always had it. But a three in the afternoon it was usually quiet enough so that he could curl up on the floor and get a little rest.

The foregoing is not the unbelievable part—quite the contrary. It is what follows that will require witnesses. It was during one of the all-night discussions of things in general that someone, perhaps Clark Lee, perhaps Dour Jack Belden, suggested that we were getting very tired of Algerian wine and wouldn’t it be nice if we had some Scotch. From that point on this is our story and we intend to stick to it.

Someone must have rubbed something, a ring or a lamp or perhaps the utterly exhausted British consul. At any rate, there was a puff of blue smoke and standing in the room was a small man with pointed ears and a very jolly stomach. He wore a suit of green leather and his cap and the toes of his shoes ended in sharp points and they were green too.

“Saints of Galway,” said Reynolds. “Do you see what I see?”

“Yes,” said Clark Lee.

“Well, do you believe it?”

“No,” said Lee, who is after all a realist and was at Corregidor.

Jack Belden has lived in China for many years and he knows about such things. “Who are you?” he asked sternly.

“I’m little Charley Lytle,” the elf said.

“Well, what do you want, popping in on us?” Belden cried.

The British consul groaned and turned over and pulled the covers over his head. Knickerbocker has since admitted that his first impulse was to kill the elf and stuff him to go beside the sailfish in his den. In fact, he was creeping up when Charley Lytle held up his hand.

“When war broke out I tried to enlist,” he said. “But I was rejected on political grounds. It isn’t that I have any politics,” he explained. “But the Army’s position is that if I did have, heaven knows what they would be. There hasn’t been a Republican leprechaun since Coolidge. So I was rejected pending the formulation of an Elves-in-Exile Battalion. I decided then that I would just make people happy, soldiers and war correspondents and things like that.”

Reynolds’ eyes narrowed dangerously. He is very loyal. “Are you insinuating that we aren’t happy?” he gritted. “That my friends aren’t happy?”

“I’m not happy,” said the British consul, but no one paid any attention to him.

Little Charley Lytle said, “I heard some mention made of Scotch whisky. Now it just happens that I have----“

“How much?” said Clark Lee, who is a realist.

“Why, all you want.”

“I mean how much money?” Lee demanded.

“You don’t understand,” said little Charley. “There is no money involved. It is my contribution to the war—I believe you call it effort.”

“I’m going to kill him,” cried Knickerbocker. “Nobody can sneer at my war and get away with it.”

Reynolds said, “Could we get a case?”

“Surely,” said little Charley.

“Three cases?”


Lee broke in, “Now don’t you strain him. You don’t know what his breaking point is.”
“When can you deliver?” Reynolds asked.

Instead of answering, little Charley Lytle made a dramatic and slightly ribald gesture. There was one puff of smoke and he had disappeared. There followed three small explosions, like a series of tine depth charges, and on the floor of Room 140 of the Alletti hotel in Algiers lay three cases of Haig and Haig Pinch Bottle, ringed with the hot and incredulous eyes of a platoon of thirsty correspondents.

Reynolds breathed heavily the way a man does when he has a stroke. “A miracle!” he whispered. “A miracle straight out of the middle ages or Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Dour Jack Belden has lived a long time in China. On top of a basic pessimism, he has seen everything and is difficult to impress. His eyes now wandered out the arched window to the sweltering streets and the steaming harbor below. “It’s a medium good trick,” he said. “But it’s a cold-weather trick. I’d like to give him a real test.” He ignored the growl of growing rage from his peers. “If this so-called Elf could produce a bottle of say La Batt’s Pale India Ale on a day like this, I’d say he was a comer—“He was interrupted by a slight fall of snow from the hot and fly-specked ceiling. Our eyes followed the lazy white flakes to the floor, where they fell on a box of slim-necked bottles. The snow swirled and spelled out Courtesy of Canada in the air.

I think Jack Belden went too far. He said lazily, “But is it cold?”

Reynolds flung himself forward and touched the neck of a bottle. “Colder than a (two words deleted by censor),” he said.

That night there was an air raid, and even the British consul enjoyed it. And anyone who doesn’t believe this story can ask any of the people involved, even dour Jack Belden.