Reports from the Front #1: the West – August 1914 to May 1915

(OK, it took me a long time to get around to this.  In any case, this is the first of a series of pieces following the course of the Great War as it happened a century ago – assuming I live another four years.  I should have begun this last July, but the idea only now occurred to me, and consequently this first two articles carry the war up through May 1915.  Note: “Casualties” includes dead, wounded, missing and captured, and “dead” typically includes accidental and disease related deaths.  Military deaths through disease may have been a third of the total, but that is partly due to the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, and in earlier European warfare disease inevitably accounted for the vast majority of deaths.  The ratio of dead to wounded would have varied dramatically from one theater to another but it appears 1-2 to 1-3 was the average for the war.  The official figures are not always accurate, and accounting varied; e.g., British figures did not include colonial troops.)

 

One hundred years and 296 days ago the Great War began when on 1 August Germany declared war on Russia because the Czar, who had pledged to defend Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, refused to cease mobilizing his army.  On 2 August the Germans invaded Luxemburg and the next day declared war on France, which had refused to declare neutrality and was also mobilizing.  On 4 August the Germans also declared war on Belgium, which had denied them passage through its territory, and in response Great Britain joined the Entente and entered the war against the Central Powers.  Train schedules, lust for glory and willful stupidity had brought the European great powers to the brink of the abyss, into which they all leaped with no little enthusiasm.

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Emperor Franz Jospeh

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph

Kaiser Wilhelm II

German Kaiser Wilhelm II

The greatest cataclysm in European history since the barbarian invasions of the fifth century had begun, all because a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, took it upon himself to shoot the heir to the Austrian throne and provide the Austrians with an excuse to make impossible demands of Serbia.  Certainly the fate of Serbia was of some importance to the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, but the partition of the Balkans was a peripheral concern for Britain, France and Germany.  Yet all these powers, little understanding how industry and technology had changed the nature of warfare, jumped eagerly into a conflict that would slaughter millions upon millions of young men, destroy three dynasties and exhaust the economies of even the victors.  To what end?  A peace that would lead in two decades to an even greater catastrophe.

French PM Rene Viviani

French PM Rene Viviani

British PM Herbert Asquith

British PM Herbert Asquith

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

“Paris/Berlin by Christmas” was the cry, as both sides expected a short war.  The German plan was to seek a decisive victory in the west while much smaller forces in the east were on the defensive before the notoriously cumbersome Russian army and the Austrians were crushing tiny Serbia.  Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, intended to employ a variation of the so-called Schlieffen Plan, which in fact was a thought exercise for a single-front war with France.  Weak German forces in the south would remain on the defensive and even retreat, while the immensely powerful right wing in the north would sweep through Belgium and the Netherlands and then turn southwards west of Paris, trapping the French armies.  Whether the Schlieffen Plan could have worked is certainly debatable (the problem was not so much German transport capabilities as the state of Europe’s roads), but inasmuch as this was a two-front war and sufficient forces had to be sent east, the western army was simply not strong enough to carry out the aggressive strategy.

Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke

The Germans swept through Belgium and northeastern France, generally overwhelming the opposing forces, but in September the exhausted troops were stopped some 40 miles from Paris at the First Battle of the Marne.  Repulsed by the French under Joseph “Papa” Joffre and the British (BEF) under Sir John French, the Germans withdrew north of the Aisne River, and both sides then stretched their lines northwards, establishing a fortified line that ran 460 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.  The essentially static Western Front was now in place.

Sir John French

Sir John French

Joseph Joffre

Joseph Joffre

Western Front 1915

Western Front 1915

Meanwhile, the offensive-minded French, whose basic war aim was to avenge their defeat in 1871 and recover Alsace-Lorraine, promptly invaded those provinces, but the advance was soon thrown back with immense casualties, as generals learned – not very well, it seems – what happened when masses of infantry assaulted fortified positions.  In just two months the French had suffered 360,000 casualties, the Germans 241,000; by way of comparison the Roman Empire at its greatest extent (early second century) was secured by perhaps 250,000 troops.

1914 ended with complete stalemate in the west.  Unwilling to change their tactics, both the Allies and the Germans would continue to throw men into the meat grinder of fruitless assaults, looking for the elusive breakthrough that would end the war.  But at Christmas a startling event had taken place.  During the unofficial truce soldiers on both sides began entering no-man’s land and fraternizing with one another, singing carols, swapping souvenirs and drink and playing football.  There could be no greater evidence that the men actually fighting the war bore one another no particular grudge, at least at this early stage of the war.  This was of course anathema to the generals and politicians of both sides, who quickly put an end to such unpatriotic behavior.

Christmas Truce

Christmas Truce

Joffre’s strategic plan for 1915 was to pinch off the Noyon (near Compiègne) salient, a huge westward bulge marking the limit of the German advance, by attacking its flanks.  As part of this on 10 March the British, who occupied the far northern section of the trench line, launched an attack on Neuve Chapelle.  They achieved a tactical breakthrough, but the Germans counterattacked the next day, and though fighting continued, the offensive was abandoned on 15 March with no significant changes in the line. General French blamed the failure on insufficient supplies of shells, which led to the Shell Crisis of May and the creation of a Ministry of Munitions that could feed the growing mania of all the belligerents for artillery barrages.  Although this was a very minor operation, the British (including Indians) and Germans lost over 20,000 killed, wounded, missing and captured.

On 22 April the Germans took their shot, initiating a series of battles that would be known as the Second Battle of Ypres (or “Wipers,” as the British troops called it).  The First Battle of Ypres had taken place from 19 October to 22 November of the previous year and while indecisive had resulted in more than 300,000 combined casualties, leading Erich von Falkenhayn, who had succeeded Moltke as Chief of Staff, to conclude the war could not be won.  Unfortunately, when on 18 November he proposed seeking a negotiated settlement, he was opposed by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, condemning millions to die in the next five years.

Erich Ludendorff

Erich Ludendorff

Erich von Falkenhayn

Erich von Falkenhayn

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

This time around the Germans began their offensive – after the inevitable artillery barrage – with poison gas (chlorine), the first use of this new technology on the Western Front.  The surprise and shock opened a gap in the British line, which the Germans, themselves surprised, were unable to exploit, and soon the development of gas masks rendered the new weapon far less effective.  The main struggle for the Ypres salient would go on until 25 May, by which time the Germans had pushed less than three miles westward.  It cost them 35,000 casualties, but the Allies suffered twice as much.  And Ypres was destroyed.

Ypres

Ypres

Second Battle of Ypres

Second Battle of Ypres

Meanwhile, on 9 May some 30 miles to the south in the Arras sector the French 10th Army launched an offensive against the Vimy salient, attacking Vimy ridge, while the BEF attacked a dozen miles to the north at Aubers.  This was the Second Battle of Artois and would last until 18 June.  Joffre’s strategic goal was to cut a number of vital German rail lines, which would require an advance of ten or more miles beyond Vimy Ridge, something that might have struck a competent general as highly unlikely, given the experience of the last nine months.  And sure enough, the initial attack took Vimy Ridge, but lost it to a German counterattack, and a month later when the battle ended, the French line had moved less than two miles eastward.  The initial British assault was a disaster, allowing the Germans to send troops south, and in the end the Tommies had gained almost two miles.  The cost?  Officially, 32,000 British casualties, 73,000 German and 102,500 French.  During the offensive the French alone had fired 2,155,862 artillery shells.

See a trend in these battles?  If the generals did, their response was simply more of the same, producing even more casualties as defensive measures became more elaborate.  A continuous line from the sea to Switzerland, the western front offered no possibility of outflanking the enemy, and the weaponry of the time – machine guns, rapid fire artillery, mortars – made frontal infantry assaults very costly, if not suicidal.  Inasmuch as the breakthrough weaponry – tanks, motorized infantry and artillery and ground support aircraft – did not yet exist, remaining on the defense and negotiating or at least awaiting developments on other fronts seemed the reasonable course of action.  But with Germany holding almost all of Belgium and a huge and economically important chunk of France the Allies were not about to bargain from a position of weakness, and the reasonable expectation that the Central Powers would sooner or later crush the Russians and ship more troops west goaded the Entente, especially the French, into offensives.

Already in the spring of 1915 defensive systems and tactics were rapidly improving.  A more elastic defense was being adopted: rather than a single heavily fortified line, there would be a series of trench lines (three was a standard number), separated by strong points and barbwire entanglements.  This meant the attacker had to cross multiple killing grounds just to get to grips with the enemy, often out of the range of their own guns.  The clever response to this by the “chateau generals” was longer periods of artillery bombardment and sending larger numbers of men over the top, approaches that were both ineffective and extremely costly.  The storm of shells, besides alerting the enemy to an attack, hardly damaged the wire, and defenders simply took cover in their dugouts, ready to pop out and kill when the shelling stopped.  A rolling barrage with the troops following was more effective but very difficult to manage without blowing up your own men.  And gas was extremely hard to control and use effectively, which is why it has been so rarely used, even by the seriously nasty creeps who have appeared in the last hundred years.

French trench

French trench

French trench

French trench

British trench 1916

British trench

German trench

German trench

British-German Trench Lines

British-German Trench Lines

 

Gas attack

Gas attack

Gassed British trench

Gassed British trench

Australians in gas masks

Australians in gas masks

 

One final noteworthy event in the west during this period.  On 1 April French aviator Roland Garros shot down a German plane.  Both sides had been using aircraft for reconnaissance, and in September 1914 a Russian pilot had taken out an Austrian plane by ramming it.  Soon pilots and observers were using pistols and rifles, but it was clear that only a machine gun could be at all effective in bringing down another plane.  The problem was the propeller.  “Pusher” aircraft (the propeller mounted in the rear) were too slow, and placing the gun on the upper wing of a biplane made it very difficult to deal with the frequent jams, as well as producing too much vibration for accurate fire.  Garros’ approach was to attach metal plates to the prop in order to deflect rounds that actually hit it, and he shot down three aircraft before the strain placed on the engine by the prop being pummeled by bullets brought his own plane down behind German lines.  This crude solution would not work with steel-jacketed German ammunition, and the engineers at Anthony Fokker’s aircraft plant produced a synchronization device that allowed a Maxim machine gun to be mounted directly in front of the pilot and shoot through the prop.  On 1 July Kurt Wintgens, flying a Fokker E.I., became the first pilot to score a kill with a synchronized gun.  Suddenly the Germans had the first air superiority in history.

Wintgens' Fokker E.I.

Wintgens’ Fokker E.I.

Roland Garros

Roland Garros

Anthony Fokker

Anthony Fokker

The President Drones On

The long arm of Uncle Sam, his fingers tipped with death, has reached around the world to Pakistan again, this time killing two innocent hostages, the American Warren Weinstein and the Italian Giovanni Lo Porto.  President Obama took the novel step of declassifying and revealing the fatal mistake, and of course he took full responsibility for the deaths, which has always struck me as a relatively meaningless gesture.  In the announcement he continually referred to the victims as “Warren” and “Giovanni,” suggesting, I suppose, that he was close to these men or that the deaths were a personal loss.  Who knows?

President Obomber

President Obomber

The subsequent press conference with the aptly named Presidential Press Secretary, John Earnest, was the usual exercise in evasiveness, repetition and empty statements.  The secrecy is once again mind boggling.  He stated that he could not reveal any details about where and how the raid was carried out, which has me puzzled.  The terrorists can hardly fail to know where the strike took place, and one would think the how is pretty clear: they observed the target for days, determined there was a terrorist “signature” and hit the building with a missile.  Why the actual day cannot be revealed also strikes me as mysterious.  But then, I am not a “national security professional,” as Earnest continually called the spooks, who were dedicated patriots just doing their job, which for me conjures images of black uniforms and caps with skull and crossbones on them.  Somehow “targeted strike” does not sound as sinister as “assassination” or “murder.”

"I don't deal with hypotheticals...or truth."

“I don’t deal with hypotheticals…or truth.”

No one asked why if this strike and the resulting casualties can be revealed – at least revealed three months after the fact – why such details of other strikes cannot be made public.  A reporter did ask why, if it is our policy not to negotiate for hostages, did the government trade captives for captured soldier Robert Bergdahl, who was in fact a deserter.  The question was dodged, and the ever helpful Press Secretary explained once again why we do not deal with terrorists.  I am not impressed by the major reason – this would only encourage them to take more hostages – inasmuch as they are going to seize any westerner they can get their hands on anyway.  Israel negotiates with terrorists; who would gainsay them in this business?

Earnest also reminded us that the he (along with most politicians) does not deal in “hypotheticals,” which has become the standard reply to questions regarding policy.  But a comprehensive policy is based on the consideration of “what if’s,” and we are essentially being told that we are not to know the full implications of a government policy, especially when it concerns national security and blowing up people half way around the world.  It might be argued that we do not want our enemies to know what our reaction will be if x happens, but this leaves the citizenry in the dark regarding exactly what our policies are in very critical areas of war and peace.

Also killed in January were two al-Qaeda operatives, Ahmed Farouq in this strike and Adam Gadahny in another, both of them US citizens, raising again the uncomfortable issue of what business the government has assassinating Americans.  Well, Obama has informed us that Attorney General Eric Holder, his man of course, has assured him that it is Constitutionally permissible to zap these jerks, the contrary position of many legal scholars notwithstanding.  Yes, they are entitled to a trial, but if they cannot be captured wadda ya gonna do?  And trying them in absentia will not work because time is always of the essence.  Do you want efficiency or justice with these “imminent threats” to Americans?  National security, always defined by the government, often requires sacrifice, frequently, as in this case, of Constitutional rights.  Besides, the President has assured us Congress has oversight of these operations, which recent history regarding the NSA suggests is a not even close to true, and in any case, does the involvement of Congress make anyone feel comfortable?

"Of course it is all perfectly legal."

“Of course it is all perfectly legal.”

Imminent threat?  Most people would agree that imminent meant someone was pointing a gun at you or walking towards a shopping mall with an assault rifle and suicide vest or massing troops on your borders.  But as with the Red Queen, for the government words mean exactly what it wants them to mean.  Thus, a guy in Waziristan who might be plotting an attack against the US is an imminent threat, regardless of how difficult it will be for him and his comrades to pull it off.  An American citizen in Somalia recruiting new fighters for al-Qaeda is an imminent threat requiring action, just as the possibility that Iran might acquire a nuclear weapon, regardless of whether they would ever be stupid enough to try to use it, is an imminent threat, justifying a first strike.  Traditional understandings of international law among civilized nations is disappearing, at least for the US and Israel.

The deaths of the hostages was the result of a “signature” strike, that is, there was no intelligence that a valuable target was at that locale but rather the patterns of movement in and out of and around the locale suggested a group of terrorists.  Now, this is a good one.  So, if a group of men in one of these wild areas regularly gathered to play cards and some brought coolers with whatever it is Muslims drink, they would sooner or later be blown up.  What it boils down to is that any male of military age is considered a terrorist.

Incidentally, so far as named targets are concerned, what precious little evidence that can be gleaned about the drone program indicates that it takes many strikes to get the designated terrorist.  That means far more chance and perhaps the certainty that innocents will also be killed, and while it is extremely difficult to come up with any sort of precise estimates given the veil of secrecy, it is very clear Bomber Obama is vastly underestimating the number of civilian casualties.  Ayman Zawahiri is still alive after two attempts; 76 children and 29 adults are not.  Killing Qari Hussain, whom I suspect very few people have ever heard of, cost the lives of 128 people.  The human rights group Reprieve estimates that as of last November attempts to assassinate 41 men resulted in the deaths of 1147 individuals, while strikes on some two dozen named terrorists in Pakistan ended up killing 874 people.  The Council on Foreign Relations has concluded that 500 strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3674 unfortunates.

Touched by the hand of Sam

Touched by the hand of Sam

On a related note of governmental duplicity, America agreed that no operations involving armed drones would take place on Germany territory, inasmuch as that would violate German law and the Status of Forces agreement.  Now, German counterintelligence (together with the American patriot Edward Snowdon) has produced classified American documents demonstrating that the giant American air base at Ramstein (the largest foreign American military base) is in fact the hub for all attack drone activity in the world.  Once more the US government has blatantly lied to and abused the hospitality of a close ally.  The Merkel government has suspected this but despite the complete lack of American response to the NSA spying revelations has refused to take any action for fear of further injuring relations with the bully across the Atlantic.  One hopes that domestic political pressure will now force her hand and lead to charges of war crimes against American military and intelligence personnel.

Drone Central at Ramstein

Drone Central at Ramstein

But the President has assured us that the drone program is critical to the security of the country and safety of the American people, and Presidents never lie, right?  Meanwhile, we are further tarnishing our image around the globe, and every civilian casualty mean more recruits for the terrorist organizations.  And Obama ticks names off kill lists supplied by the CIA, reminiscent of Stalin going through lists of those to be shot by the NKVD.

OK, that’s stretching it beyond the breaking point, but the fact is we seem less and less to be the good guys.

The old symbol of  America

The old symbol of
America

The new symbol of America

The new symbol of America

 

Club Nuke: Iranians Need Not Apply

The United States and the other major world powers now have, at least in principle, a nuclear deal with Iran, but like President Woodrow Wilson’s dream, the League of Nations, America may end not being a party to the agreement because of a Congress full of self-interested, partisan, ignorant and bought members.  And the intense lobbying of that warmongering turd in Tel Aviv.

Details of the agreement are in short supply because of the veil of secrecy that seems to have settled over everything Washington does (get ready for the corporate give-away of the Pacific and Atlantic free trade agreements), but Iran will apparently back off from producing enriched uranium sufficient for a bomb and allow inspection of the entire nuclear supply chain.  In return the sanctions will be lifted, but only gradually rather than immediately as Teheran had desired (still being discussed).  One of the chief negotiators, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, was satisfied that the deal would allow the world adequate time to catch the Iranians cheating, and I am far more inclined to believe an MIT physicist than any politician.

their physicist

their physicist

our physicist

our physicist

Can Iran be trusted?  Of course not, no more than any other government, including that of the US.  But what else is there?  Do nothing, increase the sanctions or go to war with Iran, which may happen if we do nothing, inasmuch as Israel may attack the Iranians anyway, expecting the US to help.

Enhancing the sanctions seems pointless.  The current regime of sanctions is seriously hurting the Iranian economy and thus the Iranian people, but not the nuclear program.  During the period the sanctions have been in effect the nuclear development has not just continued but expanded.  Iran is able to earn enough money selling oil to cover the relatively minor cost of the program, and it would be very difficult to shut off the income completely.  Further, many countries, including Russia and China, are anxious to do business with Iran, and holding the sanctions coalition together will become very difficult.  And without these powers the effectiveness of the sanctions will evaporate.

Military action would be a costly disaster.  Israel made it look easy by bombing reactors in Iraq and Syria, but Iran would be vastly different.  Senator Tom Cotton, seemingly a complete idiot, claims it would be like President Clinton’s bombing of Iraqi weapons facilities in 1998 and only take several days.  He is another tedious example of the morons we are electing.  The Iranian installations are scattered over a country that is four times the size of Iraq, and many are deep underground.  Iran has a sophisticated air defense system that would first have to be neutralized, and many of the facilities would have to be bombed multiple times.  Meanwhile, the Iranians would be able to cause havoc with shipping in the Gulf, expanding the scope of the war and causing a crisis in the world energy markets.  And the history of the twentieth century has demonstrated that one of the best ways to increase popular support for a regime is to bomb the country, something the Republican Party is apparently unaware of.

There is of course absolutely no discussion of what would be a legal casus belli for assaulting Iran, a sad sign of the time.  Apart from seizing our embassy in 1979, Iran has not attacked the US or supported anyone who has attacked the US.  On the contrary, we helped overthrow their legitimately elected government in 1953, gave serious economic and military support to Saddam Hussein’s unprovoked (and losing) 1980-1988 war against them and actually shot down one of their civilian airliners in 1988 (for which Washington refused to apologize).  Who the hell is the threat here?

former Middle Eastern friend

former Middle Eastern friend

Middle Eastern friend

Middle Eastern friend

Middle Eastern friend

Middle Eastern friend

The US position is that Iran threatens the stability of the Middle East and our interests therein.  Forgotten of course is that the US engaged in a massive and completely unjustified invasion of Iraq that has resulted in the most serious instability in the region since the First World War.  Or that our Gulf allies, especially the medieval and oppressive kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have supported the international Arab terrorism that led to 9/11 and other attacks on America.  Granted, the US has economic (and Israeli) interests in the Middle East, but the notion that because Iran might be a threat to those interests, we are justified in attacking her is a negation of the whole idea of the bellum iustum.  In 1941 Japan felt that America was a threat to her interests in the eastern Pacific and consequently bombed Pearl Harbor.  I suppose the difference is that the Japanese were bad guys for wanting to seize oil assets, while we are good guys because we want to bring peace and democracy to the world while securing our oil supplies.  Well, in the thirties and forties the Japanese were bad guys, but I wonder now if we are indeed still the good guys we have traditionally been seen as.  I suspect the people living under the kings and dictators we have supported do not see it that way.

The hypocrisy in all of this is staggering.  As the people who actually invented nuclear weapons and who continue to upgrade thousands of warheads, who are we to tell someone else they cannot have them?  That we are immensely powerful is the only reason I can come up with; “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” says Thucydides.  And besides Pakistan, which is the only state in the region that possesses nuclear weapons?  Why, Israel, which has not been compelled to even admit their existence.  Nor have they been asked to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, while their neighbors have been constantly cajoled and even threatened by Washington.  In all the discussion over Iran’s nuclear program I have yet to hear a single mainstream journalist bring up the fact of Israel’s arsenal.

Israel's already got 'em

Israel’s already got ’em

Iran tries to make nukes

Iran tries to make nukes

Because they are the good guys, like us.  These are the good guys who have been violating basic international law for decades, who are colonizing territory conquered from others, who imprison children for throwing stones and who periodically engage in military action that is little more than a slaughter of innocents.  This is the shinning democracy that treats its Arab citizens in a way that would make Jim Crow proud and some of whose ministers periodically publically call for expelling them.  These are the good allies who lie to us, spy on us, insult us and blatantly interfere in our politics.  These are the good friends who assassinate anyone they deem threatening, who detain and even torture Palestinian-Americans and who in 1967 (while we were materially supporting them in the Six Day War) deliberately attacked the USS Liberty in international waters, killing 34 American sailors and wounding another 171.  Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary their official policy (and ours) is still that it was an “accident.”

Now, the present government of Iran is hardly attractive, but when has Washington had any problem dealing with unattractive governments, like that of Iran’s next door neighbor to the west?  As mentioned, they have plenty of reason to be annoyed with America, and when exactly have they injured us, beyond the embarrassment of having our embassy staff being held hostage?  They support terrorism, but those groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, have never threatened the US and are only interested in local affairs, to wit, Israel and Lebanon.  In fact, Hezbollah was born in response to Israel’s rather indiscriminate invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and Hamas was actually created by Israeli security services in order to undermine Fatah and is thoroughly radicalized by Israel’s inhumane treatment of Gaza.  Yes, Israel was created in an environment where all her neighbors despised her (with some good reason), but she has only herself to blame that almost 70 years later they still do.

Not that they can do much about it beyond shooting ineffective rockets into the Light Unto the Nations.  With American support Israel has by far the strongest and most dangerous military in the Middle East and possesses hundreds of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.  The constant wailing by Netanyahu (and his Congressional ass-kissing friends) about the threat to Israel’s existence rings a bit hollow.  (Incidentally, ill-educated politicians and journalists, this is not what the adjective “existential” means.)  Yes, Teheran is constantly talking about driving Israel into the sea, but this has become a meaningless mantra repeated by Israel’s enemies and certainly has a lot to do with the character of the Iranian regime.  And suppose Iran had a deliverable nuclear weapon?  While the mullahs and the supreme leader are religious whackos, they are manifestly not stupid and must understand that even attempting to toss a nuke in Israel’s direction would result in national suicide.  Of course, the Saudis and their Sunni friends would be overjoyed to see Iran turned into a vast plain of glass.

Nobody wishes to see a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, but it has already begun: Israel has nuclear weapons.  I expect a major motivation for an Iranian bomb is national pride, but it might just also be that they are also nervous.  They were pushed around before and during World War Two by oil companies and the Allies and then had their government overthrown in 1953 by the US and Britain, allowing the Shah to emerge as a brutal dictator supported by the West.  The US then diplomatically and materially supported Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War, and in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan America now has Iran almost literally surrounded by bases.  And there is the increasingly bellicose Israel, which has always had unqualified American support.  The Iranian desire for nuclear weapons might actually have something to do with fear and a history of being of being bullied.

 We've got those suckers covered

We’ve got those suckers covered

I find the Shia, which is centered in Iran, to be the more attractive part of Islam, the part that actually enjoys a rich cultural heritage from its long association with Persia.  The Sunnis appear to represent little more than ancient Arab culture, which dovetails with the values of the modern world as well as the medieval Sunni kingdoms in the Gulf, which is to say, very little.  Despite their retro-theocracy the Iranians, at least in the urban areas, are very secular and interested in the west, and while their hostility towards the Taliban and ISIS certainly has a large sectarian component, the fact is these are interests shared by the US.  Keep in mind that the stink of Wahhabism and Al-Qaeda and terror directed towards America emerged from Saudi Arabia.  If we could cooperate with the USSR under Stalin, I see no reason why we cannot cooperate with Iran.

Well, there is a reason: Israel.  Clearly, Netanyahu and his paladins are not interested in defusing the Iranian situation through diplomacy, since it is a fine distraction from the mounting domestic problems in Israel, and Iranian support for Hamas is an excellent cover for the outrageous treatment of Gaza.  Israel is well on its way to becoming an apartheid state, a development that hardly required Netanyahu’s blatant declaration against a two state solution to be recognized.  Yet none of this will deter Congress, especially the Republicans, from supporting him, apparently because of a widespread belief in some powerful Jewish financial cabal that will doom their reelection chances should they cross the Israeli Reich.  Or they are simply stupid, about which we will be reminded when the Republican Presidential Primary Circus comes to town.  Incidentally, so strong is the pro-Israel grip that Webster’s now offers as a second definition of “anti-Semitism” any criticism of the state of Israel.  If that is the case, then I have met two anti-Semites with numbers tattooed on their forearms.

Here is a simple proposal: Iran gives up her nuclear weapons program and Israel gives up hers.  Sure.

 

 

 

 

Stuff from Way Back #35: A Tale of Two Empires

(This essay follows Stuff from Way Back #34b: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It.  I have got carried away, and this will be the last of the tedious history pieces – well, for a while.)

 

With the death of Theodosius in 395 the Roman Empire fell into permanent division into two separate states, marking the beginning of the emergence of the Byzantine Empire in the east.  A fiction of Imperial unity was maintained for a time, with one consul (the two annual chief magistrates dating back to the earliest days of the Republic) chosen in Rome and the other in Constantinople, but in fact there were two separate administrations and the death of one Emperor did not result in the other controlling the entire Empire.

The situation in 395 did not bode well for either half.  In the east Arcadius was a youth of eighteen under the influence of the Prefect Flavius Rufinus, while the western Emperor, Honorius, was only eleven and completely controlled by Flavius Stilicho (Flavius yet again!), a half-Vandal of low birth.  Stilicho considered himself a Roman, but in fact most of the western Emperors would never be anything more than puppets of Germanic barbarians standing behind the throne.

Stilicho and family

Stilicho and family

And serious troubles were coming.  Seizing the opportunity presented by the death of Theodosius, Alaric, leader of the Visigoths settled north of the Balkans, began plundering Greece.  In 401, while Stilicho was busy with an invasion of Vandals and Alans, Alaric attempted to invade Italy and was repulsed, then tried again two years later, only to be thwarted again.  But in 408 Stilicho was assassinated, and Alaric blockaded Rome, demanding a serious of huge ransoms, all of which Honorius, who was holed up in the virtually impregnable city of Ravenna, haughtily refused.  In 410 a frustrated Alaric sacked Rome for three days and having unwittingly secured his name in history, then died the same year.  For the first time since the Gauls captured the city eight hundred years earlier Rome had been occupied by a foreign army.

Alaric in Athens

Alaric in Athens

Honorius

Honorius

Visigoths on the road

Visigoths on the road

 

The Visigoths moved to Gaul in 412, popped into Spain to fight the Vandals and Alans, who had been settled there, and in 418 were settled in southern Gaul.  In 429 the surviving Vandals and Alans crossed to Africa to establish a kingdom there, and the Visigoths began extending their rule into Spain, dominating most of the peninsula by 500.  The Burgundians, who may have crossed the Rhine in 411, were defeated by Aetius in 433 and settled in southeast Gaul (not Burgundy) and aided general Flavius Aetius, the “last of the Romans,” in the defeat of Attila in 451.  The Salian Franks, settled earlier on the lower Rhine, also fought as Roman allies against Attila, and steadily expanded their power southwards, reaching the frontier of the Gothic kingdom in 486 under their king Clovis.  Finally, Saxons, Angles and Jutes began settling Britain, especially after the last Roman troops were evacuated around 442.

Barbarian shit hits the Roman fan

Barbarian shit hits the Roman fan

Meanwhile, in the east Arcadius had died in 408, and was succeeded by Flavius Theodosius (Minor).  Theodosius II was a weak Emperor, dominated in turn by the Praetorian Prefect Flavius Anthemius, his sister Pulcheria, who became Augusta, his wife Eudocia and finally his chamberlain (and eunuch) Chrysaphius.  He occupied the throne for forty-two years, however, a measure of the greater stability of the eastern Empire, and was not troubled by any serious domestic problems.  There were two successful wars against the Persians, in 421-422 and 441-442, but the real problem was the Huns.  Constantinople began paying a huge annual bribe to the Huns in 424, and when Attila became king in 433, he demanded even more, which was paid.  Never trust a Hun: in 441-443 Attila ravaged the Balkans anyway, defeated the imperial forces and received an even greater tribute, which was paid.

Hun central

Hun central

Three notable achievements emerged from the reign of Theodosius II.  In 413 a new circumvallation of Constantinople, the “Theodosian walls,” was completed, and in 448, after a number of serious earthquakes, the damage was repaired and a second outer wall was added.   In 425 Theodosius founded the Pandidakterion, a sort of proto-university with thirty-one chairs, half in Greek and half in Latin, further establishing Constantinople as the center of European civilization and learning, while Rome and the west sunk into barbarism.  Finally, the Emperor ordered a compilation of Roman law since Constantine, and in 438 the Theodosian Code was published, the first of the great late imperial law codes that would so influence medieval Europe.  It went into force the following year, though its impact in the west, which was already mostly barbarian kingdoms, was minimal.

Theodosian walls around Constantinople

Theodosian walls around Constantinople

Theodosius II

Theodosius II

When her brother died in 450, the Augusta Pulcheria married Flavius Marcianus, who became the next Emperor.  He refused to continue payments to the Huns, who were bankrupting the Empire, and Attila decided to invade the west, removing for good, as it happened, the Hunnish threat to the eastern Empire.  Upon Marcian’s death in 457 Flavius Valerius Leo, surnamed Thracius (the Thracian), became ruler and was faced with the growing power of his Gothic general Flavius Ardabur Aspar, who had risen to prominence under Marcian.  Aspar’s power base was Gothic mercenaries and allies, and Leo began recruiting Isaurians, a warlike people living in Anatolia, in order to undermine his position.  Aspar was assassinated in 471, and Leo and his successor, his grandson Flavius Leo (Minor), both died in 474.  Leo II’s father, Flavius Zeno, became Emperor.

Leo I the Thracian

Leo I the Thracian

Out in the wild west the collapse was accelerating.  When Stilicho died in 408, his place was taken by Flavius Constantius, who crushed usurpers in 411 and 413 and convinced Honorius to make him co-Emperor 421, promptly dying a few months later.  Two years later Honorius died, and he was succeed by the son of his sister Aelia Galla Placidia and Constantius, Flavius Placidius Valentinianus, a five year old, who was escorted with his mother to Italy by eastern troops.  Placidia was made Augusta and regent, but the real power would be in the hands in of Flavius Aetius, who became supreme commander of the army in 429.

Aetius

Aetius

Galla Placidia

Galla Placidia

Valentinian III

Valentinian III

He was ousted in 432, but with the backing of the Huns he returned the following year and subsequently drew upon Hunnish forces to preserve Roman control of central and southeastern Gaul.  In 451, Attila, refused more authority in the west by Valentinian III, crossed the Rhine and was defeated at the Battle of Troyes (or Châlons) by Aetius and an army composed mostly of Germans.  The following year he invaded northern Italy, but after a chat with Pope Leo I he returned to the east, an army ravaged by hunger and disease rather than the words of the Pope being the compelling reason.  He died in 453, and the Hun empire immediately fell apart.

Pope Leo I chats with Attila

Pope Leo I chats with Attila

Huns

Huns

A measure of his stupidity, Valentinian had Aetius killed in 454 and was then himself assassinated the following year.  He was followed by a string of losers.  Flavius Anicius Petronius Maximus lasted one year, chased out by the Vandal lord of north Africa, Gaiseric (or Genseric), who sacked Rome, while his successor, Marcus Maecilius Flavius Eparchius Avitus, a Gallic general, was removed after a year by his supreme commander, the German Flavius Ricimer.  Ricimer was content to remain behind the throne and elevated puppets instead: Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus, who was deposed by Ricimer in 461, and Flavius Libius Severus Serpentius, who died in 465.  For the next two years there was no Emperor in the west, and Procopius Anthemius was sent out in 467 by Emperor Leo.  Ricimer put up with him until 472, when he was executed and replaced by Anicius Olybrius, who died the same year, along with Ricimer.

Gaiseric parties in Rome

Gaiseric parties in Rome

Rare portrait of Flavius Ricimer

Rare portrait of Flavius Ricimer

Gaiseric the Vandal

Gaiseric the Vandal

A nephew of Ricimer attempted to take over his uncle’s position, appointing Flavius Glycerius Emperor in 473, but the following year Flavius Julius Nepos arrived from the east with an army and installed himself.  He was in turn driven out of Ravenna (now the western capital) in 475 by his own supreme commander, Flavius Orestes, who made his twelve year old son Romulus (surnamed Augustulus) Emperor.  The pair lasted a year.  In 476 German mercenaries in Italy under the leadership the Scirian, Flavius (!) Odoacar (or Odovacar), demanded land, and when they were refused, they murdered Orestes and deposed Romulus.  Odoacar declared himself king, and his authority over Italy was recognized by Emperor Zeno.  In theory Odoacar ruled on behalf of the Emperor, but in fact the western half of the Roman Empire was now nothing more than a collection of barbarian kingdoms.  Ironically, the last Emperor in the west bore the names of the two “founders” of Rome; Romulus and Augustus.

Flavius Odoacar

Flavius Odoacar

Romulus Augustulus

Romulus Augustulus

Lights out for Romulus Augustulus

Lights out for Romulus Augustulus

The eastern half survived, on its way to becoming the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, which would last another thousand years before the Theodosian walls of Constantinople were breached by the Turks in 1453.  In some ways the west was doomed once the Empire split permanently in 395.  The east was in a better strategic situation, with a shorter northern frontier and Constantinople guarding the crossing between Europe and Asia.  The lower Danube was the only seriously threatened border, primarily because of the sheer number of barbarians, whereas deserts helped protect Syria and Egypt, and the Persian Empire, exhausted from its long struggle with Rome and with its own barbarian threat on its northern frontiers, could generally be dealt with.  Further, Constantinople had the option through threat and reward of convincing barbarians, primarily Goths, who crossed the Danube to move on to better pickings in the west.  The west also had to deal with more Germans coming across the Rhine and upper Danube, especially when the Huns moved into eastern Europe, driving the other tribes westward.

Clearly, the policy of recruiting barbarians into the Roman army and settling entire tribes in the provinces as allied kingdoms led ultimately to their growing power over the actual Roman rulers and the making and breaking of Emperors.  This had a far greater impact on the western government, since outside the area between the Danube and Greece there was in the east very little settlement of barbarians, leaving the core provinces of the eastern Empire generally under imperial control.  Additionally, as early as Arcadius Constantinople was endeavoring to raise troops from within the Empire in order to forestall the emergence of powerful Gothic leaders; Leo I did precisely this when he began hiring Isaurians to thwart his Gothic general Aspar.  The eastern Empire was fortunate in having a supply of excellent non-Germanic recruits in Anatolia, and this became more or less a steady policy.  Troubles with barbarians were not eliminated, but the emergence of Germanic puppet masters was prevented, and by the time of Emperor Justinian (527-565) the armies of Constantinople were virtually completely indigenous.

Very important was the far superior economic situation in the east.  Because of the long presence of the Greeks, the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire were far more urbanized and productive than those in the west, and as the Empire fell into political and economic trouble, especially in the wake of the Anarchy, capital began fleeing to the more stable east, further aggravating the situation in the west.  To be sure, during the Dominate Constantinople had serious financial problems, but with the complete collapse of Roman authority west of the Adriatic and the suppression of the Goths in the east, the economy began improving.  In the sixth century Justinian had enough resources to attempt to reconquer the west, a foolish endeavor, as it happened.

Justinian the Great

Justinian the Great

The reign of Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus (527-565) in fact marks a symbolic end of the Roman Empire.  He was the last Emperor to attempt to reunite the Empire – he failed – and his administration was the last during which Latin was the official language of the government – it gave way to Greek, the true lingua franca of the east.  And under him for the last time consuls were appointed, ending a thousand year political institution.   A new history begins here.

Could it be that in addition to all its other problems the Roman Empire collapsed because during the Dominate virtually every official had the first name Flavius, confusing the hell out of everyone?

 

395-476 The Divided Empire

            383-408 Flavius Arcadius (East)

            393-423 Flavius Honorius (West)

395 Death of Rufinus; Huns invade Asia Minor and Syria

408-450 Flavius Theodosius (Minor) (East)

                        408 Death of Stilicho

409 Vandals and Alans settled in Spain

                        410 Visigoths sack Rome; Alaric dies

413 Theodosian wall

418 Visigoths settled in southern Gaul

421-422 Persian War

421        Flavius Constantius (West)

            423-455 Flavius Placidius Valentinianus (West)

                        429 Vandals occupy Africa

433 Burgundians defeated by Aetius, settled in Gaul

438 Theodosian Code

441-442 Persian War

442 Last Roman troops leave Britain

            450-457 Flavius Marcianus (East)

                        451 Attila defeated at the Battle of Troyes (Châlons)

453 Death of Attila

454 Death of Aetius

            455        Flavius Anicius Petronius Maximus (West)

            455-457 Marcus Maecilius Flavius Eparchius Avitus (West)

            457-474 Flavius Valerius Leo Thracius (East)

            457-461 Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus (West)]

            461-465 Flavius Libius Severus Serpentius (West)

            465-467 No western emperor

            467-472 Procopius Anthemius (West)

            472        Anicius Olybrius (West)

                        472 Death of Ricimer

            473-474 Flavius Glycerius (West)

            473-474 Flavius Leo (Minor) (East)

474-475 Flavius Julius Nepos (West)

474-491 Flavius Zeno (East)

475-476 Romulus (Augustulus) (West)

                        476 Odovacar king of Italy

486 Salian Franks under Clovis occupy central and northern Gaul

493 Theoderic king of Italy

            491-518 Flavius Anastasius Dicorus (East)

            518-527 Flavius Justinus (East)

            527-565 Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus (East)

Where Are the Assyrians When You Need Them?

In its efforts to redefine barbarism ISIS has bulldozed the remains of the millennia old Assyrian city of Nimrud and has now begun demolishing the Greek/Parthian city of Hatra, crimes against humanity that for an ancient historian surpass their slaughter of innocents.  The destruction of Hatra is a particularly great loss, inasmuch as it is – or was – the finest surviving example of a Parthian city, with standing walls surrounding well preserved temples and statuary.  For these acts every member of this disgusting organization should be exterminated and refused burial; those who are captured should be handed over to the families of their victims.  Seriously.

Nimrud

Nimrud

Hatra

Hatra

Hatra

Hatra

There is, however, a certain irony in the assault on Nimrud, one doubtless unappreciated by the thugs and sociopaths of the “Caliphate.”  The Assyrians, who figure largely in the Old Testament because of their destruction of Israel and subjugation of Judah, are chiefly remembered for their extraordinary cruelty, and the Assyrian Empire may well be the first state in history to recognize that terror could be an instrument of foreign policy rather than just a fun time (though the Assyrians never practiced genocide, as the Israelites did against the Amalekites).  In this regard Assyria might be seen as the spiritual precursor of ISIS, setting a standard of cruelty that even the Caliphate has not matched; it has apparently not yet occurred to them to decorate trees with severed heads or flay captives alive, standard Assyrian practice.  On the other hand, the centuries of Assyrian civilization produced a body of art, architecture and literature, while it appears the Caliphate will leave nothing more than promotional videos.

King Jehu of Judah submitting to Shalmaneser III

King Jehu of Judah submitting to Shalmaneser III

Assyrians flaying rebels

Assyrians flaying rebels

Assyria had a long history.  The Assyrian heartland was what is now northern Iraq, and the city of Assur on the northern Tigris River dates back to the 26th century BC, though it was only a Sumerian (southern Iraq) administrative outpost and not actually Assyrian.  The Assyrians, speaking an east-Semitic language, appeared in perhaps the 24th century, but until the mid-21th century Assyria, then known as Subartu, was dominated first by the Akkadian Empire, centered south of Baghdad, and then by the Neo-Sumerian Empire of 3rd Dynasty Ur, located far to the south.  With the collapse of the Empire of Ur in c. 2000 BC Assyria seems for the first time to have become an actual urban kingdom rather than a collection of tribes.

The new kingdom enjoyed independence until the 1750s, when it fell to the Babylonian Empire of Hammurabi.  After his death in 1750 it was independent again until the 15th century, when it was conquered by the Mitanni immediately to the west.  The Mittanni were destroyed in c. 1350 by a coalition including Assyria under King Ashur-uballit I, who established the Middle Assyrian Empire, expanding west into former Mitanni territory and briefly controlling Babylon.  It was during this period, in the reign of Shalmaneser I (1274-1245), that Nimrud was built.  This all came to an end in the 11th century because of internal problems and the great Catastrophe, a movement of Indo-European peoples south and east through the Balkans and Anatolia that fractured the entire power structure of the Near East.  From 1077 to 911 the Assyrian state was weak and occupied with domestic disturbances, but remained intact amidst the general collapse.

From 911 to 824 Assyria was an imperial state again, the King’s armies campaigning almost every year.  During this period Assyria was the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean, controlling territory from the Persian Gulf through Syria almost to the frontier of Egypt.  Ashurnasirpal II (883–859) moved the capital from Assur to Nimrud but also began extensive building in Nineveh, which then became the capital and heart of Assyria, as subsequent kings, especially Sennacherib (704-681), lavished their attention on it.  By the seventh century BC Nineveh was possibly the largest city in the world, encompassing some 1900 acres behind its seven and half miles of walls and supporting a population of more than 100,000.

Nineveh - restored gate

Nineveh – restored gate

Neo-Assyria Empires

Neo-Assyria Empires

From 824-744 Assyria stagnated, but then Tiglathpileser III (744-727), establishing a new ruling dynasty, initiated phase two of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, during which it became easily the largest empire the Near East had yet seen, stretching from the Gulf to Armenia and from the Zagros Mountains of Iran west through Syria and Palestine and south to Nubia.  It was also the most modern.  Tiglathpileser reformed the administration of the state, achieving the internal stability that had eluded the Assyrians for centuries, and created what appears to be the first professional standing army in history.  He also replaced, where possible, the subject states with a system of provinces governed by Assyrian officials, and woe to those who revolted.

Tiglathpileser III

Tiglathpileser III

The Assyrians terrorized (and stabilized) the Near Eastern world for more than a century, but maintaining the Empire consumed vast amounts of wealth and manpower, and by the last quarter of the seventh century the state was exhausted.  And surrounded by enemies.  In 625 Babylonia broke free under the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonians), and the Assyrians were unable to recover this valuable territory.  In 615 Assyria was invaded by a new group, the Medes, an Indo-European people who had established themselves in northwestern Iran, and they were soon joined by the Chaldeans, Scythians and Cimmerians.  Nineveh finally fell in 612, and Assyria simply ceased to exist as a state, although the last Assyrian king, the usurper Ashur-uballit II, did not disappear until 610.

The world rejoiced.  “Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?  Whence shall I seek comforters for thee?” said the Hebrew prophet Nahum.  Nineveh was never again occupied, and today its ruins stand on the Tigris River in Mosul, now occupied by ISIS, which has already destroyed stretches of the original city wall.  Two and a half millennia later Nineveh is being laid waste again.

The Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) Empire absorbed Assyria and much of its empire, but its days were also numbered.  In 539 Babylon was captured by the Persian king Cyrus II the Great (559-550), who had defeated the Medes in c. 550 and united the Iranian people under his rule.  Cyrus then proceeded to conquer just about everything from the Aegean to the Indus River; his son Cambyses II (530-522) added Egypt.  The Achaemenid Persian Empire made that of Assyria seem small (though much of the eastern provinces were junk territory), and it was a far different operation.  Fear of the Persian military of course helped secure the Empire, but Persian policy emphasized respect for local populations and cultures, presaging the greatest political structure of antiquity, the Roman Empire.

The Persian Empire ended in 330 with the assassination of its last king, Darius III, whose throne passed to Alexander the Great.  After the Macedonian’s death in 323 the Asiatic part of the Empire, including Assyria, fell to his general Seleucus, whose descendants would rule the area for the next century and a half.  During the period of Seleucid rule the Empire continually shrank, as a new force, the Parthians, a former subject people in northeastern Iran, expanded westwards and ran up against the frontiers of Roman power in Anatolia and Syria-Palestine by the end of the millennium.  Parthia and Rome would duke it out for the next couple of centuries, when in AD 227 the Arsacid Parthian dynasty gave way to the Sassanid Persians, who would rule the area until the Arab conquest in the seventh century AD.  Throughout this period the wealthy fortress city of Hatra, southwest of Mosul, played a key role in the constant wars.  And now it is being razed by a group that makes the Mongols look polite.

Parthian Empire

Parthian Empire

To identify the ISIS barbarians with the Assyrians would be an insult to the Assyrians, for all that they were known for their cruelty.  Assyria was a state that existed for the better part of two millennia, playing a crucial role in the history of the ancient Near East and producing a wealth of art and architecture.  ISIS is nothing.  That the Iranians are now playing a serious role in the fight against the Caliphate scum may be a good omen: after all, it was Iranians – the Medes – who initiated the destruction of the Assyrian terrorists.

Of course the presence of the Iranians concerns the US, especially the with-us-or-against-us conservatives, who have trouble understanding the complexities of foreign affairs.  (One is reminded of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.)  America has conveniently forgotten that the Iranians certainly have reason to be pissed off at us, inasmuch in 1953 the CIA engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minster Mohammad Mosaddegh and subsequently supported the increasingly oppressive Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979.  Pity, the Iranians strike me as natural allies, despite their whacko government.  Not only is the Shia the more cultured segment of Islam, but the Iranians, at least the urban populations, are secular, certainly when contrasted with our 7th century friends in the Gulf.

Shah Mohammad Pahlavi

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

Mohammad Mosaddegh

Mohammad Mosaddegh

 

 

Stuff from Way Back #34b: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It

 

(This piece follows Stuff from Way Back #34a: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It.  Incidentally, the chronologies at the ends of these pieces are carefully indented and spaced, but that all goes out the window the moment I publish them.  I have no idea why, and WordPress has a lame system whereby one must hope some contributor with nothing better to do with his time will supply an answer.) 

[ISIS idiots are destroying ancient statuary in Mosul and their friends in Libya are desecrating Roman ruins.  Slaughtering innocents is one thing, but this scourge is now assaulting the very history of humanity and irreplaceable treasures that belong to all of mankind.  Kill them all and leave their bodies to be devoured by dogs.]

 

 

When Constantine died in 337, he was succeeded by his three sons, Flavius Claudius Constantinus, the senior Augustus, and Flavius Julius Constantius and Flavius Julius Constans.  Blood not being thicker than ambition, Constans challenged his older brother, and when Constantine II invaded Italy in 340, he was defeated and killed.  Engaged in continuous warfare against the Persians, Constantius accepted the new arrangement, and ten years later Constans was executed by his troops, who elevated a barbarian, Flavius Magnus Magnentius, as Augustus.  At the same time, Flavius Vetranio accepted the purple in Illyria and then immediately abdicated when Constantius came west and in 351 defeated Magnentius, who committed suicide two years later, leaving Constantius sole Emperor.

Constantine II

Constantine II

Constans

Constans

Constantius

Constantius

In 355 Constantius appointed his last surviving cousin, Flavius Claudius Julianus, his Caesar and tasked him with dealing with an invasion of Alamanni, whom he crushed in 357.  In 360 Julian, who was very popular with the troops, was proclaimed Augustus, and when his cousin died suddenly in 361, he named Julian his legitimate successor.  Once he was sole Emperor Julian, who had been disgusted by the bloody history of his family, revealed his conversion to traditional Roman religion and became known to history as Julian the Apostate.  Determined to settle the Persian question and pursuing the Alexander dream, in 363 he invaded the Sassanid Empire, only to be killed in battle, possibly by one of his own men who resented his abandonment of Christianity.  His death marked the end of the House of Constantine.

Julian

Julian

Julian’s army chose Flavius Jovianus as Emperor, and he concluded a humiliating peace with Persia in order to move back west to defend his new authority.  This turned out to be unnecessary, since he died the following year, probably assassinated.  The army met with high civilian officials and decided upon another Illyrian, Flavius Valentinianus, who chose Milan rather than Constantinople as his capital and appointed his brother Flavius Julius Valens as Augustus in the east.  (Flavius seems to have become an immensely popular name.)  In 367 Valentinian, in order to prevent problems with the succession, made his nine year old son, Flavius Gratianus, Augustus, a practice that would become more common.

Valentinian

Valentinian

Valens (or Honorius?)

Valens (or Honorius?)

Gratian

Gratian

Valentinian’s great achievement was reestablishing the Rhine and upper Danube frontiers, where he spent all of his reign smashing Alamanni, Franks and Saxons, guaranteeing the security of Gaul for years to come.  His general Flavius Theodosius meanwhile crushed a rebellion in Africa and swept Britain free of invading Picts and Scots.  Unfortunately, in 375 while negotiating with the Quadi, who had launched an invasion across the Danube, he became so angry that he had a fatal stroke, and the teenage Gratian inherited the purple.  Under pressure from his advisors Gratian chose his younger brother, Flavius Valentinianus (Minor), as Augustus, but only of Illyria, inasmuch as the new Emperor was only four years old.

Valentinian II

Valentinian II

Meanwhile, the situation in the east was more serious.  The problem there was not so much the Persians, who had their own troubles with barbarians on their northern frontier, but Goths.  In the early 370s the first of the steppe horsemen to plague Europe, the Huns, destroyed the Ostrogothic (East Goths) kingdom in the Ukraine and then assaulted the Visigoths (West Goths) on the Dniester River, driving sundry Gothic refugees to the Danube.  Valens, a far weaker ruler than his brother, granted the Goths permission to settle south of the river, but they were abused by corrupt Roman officials, who also left them their arms.  The result was the outbreak of war in 377, and in 378 Valens, ignoring advice to await his brother Gratian, attacked some 20,000 Goths at Adrianople in Thrace, and he and his army were slaughtered in the worst disaster for the Roman army against barbarians since three legions were lost to German ambush back in the days of Augustus.  In the wake of their tremendous victory the Goths plundered the Balkan Peninsula.

Battle of Adrianople

Battle of Adrianople

Gratian then appointed Flavius Theodosius, son of Valentinian’s general of the same name, Augustus in the east.  While fomenting trouble among the various factions of Goths, Theodosius enlarged his own army by enlisting many of them, and in 382 a deal was made by which the Goths were provided an independent kingdom in the depopulated lands south of the Danube in return for a military alliance with the Empire.  This was an ominous development (the Salian Franks had been allowed to settle in far northern Gaul around 358), a practice that would hasten the disintegration of the western half of the Empire.  A state that trades its territory for security from invaders is one in serious trouble indeed.

Back in the west, Gratian’s incompetent administration had alienated the soldiers and civilian populace, and in 383 the British troops proclaimed Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus Augustus.  He crossed to the continent, where Gratian was deserted by his army and killed, and unable to do much about it, Theodosius temporarily recognized Maximus’ position as ruler of the western provinces, excepting Illyria and Italy, where Valentinian II was in control.  This arrangement lasted until 388, when Maximus chased Valentinian out of Italy and was then attacked and killed by Theodosius.  Maximus did have an impact: moving his troops to Gaul led to the abandonment of Britain’s northern defenses, including Hadrian’s Wall.  They were never reoccupied.

Theodosius

Theodosius

In 383 Theodosius named his son Flavius Arcadius Augustus, stationing him in Constantinople while he returned to Milan.  Eight years later he was back in the east to deal with Gothic troubles and problems among Arcadius’ officials, the most important of which was Flavius Rufinus (Was everyone named Flavius?), who served as a regent for the thirteen year old Emperor.  Meanwhile, in the west Valentinian was at odds with his protector, Flavius Arbogastes, who had him murdered in 392.  As a Frank, Arbogast could not assume the purple and proclaimed instead Flavius Eugenius, a rhetorician.  In response Theodosius named his son Flavius Honorius Augustus in 393 and invaded Italy the following year, defeating Arbogast and the hapless Eugenius.  Having restored unity in the Empire, he died in Milan in 395, never to know that the Roman Empire would be permanently divided after his death.

Honorius

Honorius

Arcadius

Arcadius

This period from the death of Constantine to the death of Theodosius saw the continuation of developments during the previous half century.  All state officials were now in theory personal servants of the Emperor, and despite the efforts of some Emperors there were more and more of them.  In 68 there were thirty-six provinces; by the end of the fourth century there one hundred and twenty, arranged into fourteen dioceses, which were grouped into four prefectures.  The praetorian prefects, who were the heads of the prefectures (yes, that is what happened to them), were the highest officials in the Empire.  Italy, incidentally, was now simply another set of provinces, a culmination of the “democratization” of the Empire, and Milan was now the western capital.

The economic decline, though not even, continued, and it appears the “Roman” population was steadily shrinking, making it more attractive to settle barbarian tribes within the confines of the Empire.  The western half of the Empire, far less urbanized and increasingly suffering more barbarian depredation than the eastern, was sinking faster, and huge estates, worked by virtual serfs, were turning to household economies, producing all they needed as economic communications broke down.  The medieval manorial system was emerging.  Members of the Senatorial class played a large role in these estates, for while the Senate itself was powerless, the Senatorial order comprised a great number of extremely wealthy and influential men, though they for the most part represented new families.

The army was of course the greatest consumer of shrinking Imperial revenues, and the Empire simply could not afford the numbers it required.  Further, the main source of recruits was barbarians, given the declining population and increasing reluctance to serve in the military.  Training had plummeted, and the only advantages “Roman” armies, now devoid of heavy infantry, possessed were in mobilization, logistics and fortifications.  The Persian front was more or less stable, as control of northern Mesopotamian and Armenia see-sawed back and forth, and in 384 a treaty of friendship provided peace for almost four decades.  But the pressure from Germanic tribes was becoming overwhelming, requiring the planting of relatively autonomous kingdoms in the provinces and the payment of tribute.  The barbarians were in effect now running a huge protection racket.

With all the power of the state behind it Christianity was spreading and the church growing in power.  Constantine and a few other Emperors had supported a policy of religious tolerance, but the persecution of non-Christians grew steadily.  In 341 polytheist sacrifices were outlawed, and in 392 the cults were banned altogether.  Symbolically important, in 357 Constantius removed from the Senate the Altar of Victory, installed by Augustus in 29 BC, and though it was restored by Julian, it was removed again in 382 by Gratian.  (And the Empire split into two thirteen years later.)  The old gods persisted in the rural areas and among many of the intellectual elite, whose learning was rooted in the non-Christian literature of the Greeks.

Altar of Victory

Altar of Victory

The Church also began to flex its muscles regarding the state.  In 390 Theodosius ordered the massacre of a mob in Thessalonika for murdering general, and Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, told the Emperor that he would be barred from Church services if he did not publically repent for the crime.  Theodosius at first resisted but ultimately gave in and publically admitted his guilt.  The Empire was ending, and the long battle between Church and State was beginning.

Theodosius and Ambrose

Theodosius and Ambrose

 

 

 

337-395 Dominate II

337-340 Flavius Claudius Constantinus

337-350 Persian War

337-350 Flavius Julius Constans

337-361 Flavius Julius Constantius

350        Flavius Vetranio (abdicated)

350-353 Flavius Magnus Magnentius

358 Salian Franks settled in northern Gaul

358-363 Persian War

360-363 Flavius Claudius Julianus

363-364 Flavius Jovianus

364-375 Flavius Valentinianus

364-378 Flavius Julius Valens

367-383 Flavius Gratianus

373 Huns attack the East Goths

375-392 Flavius Valentinianus (Minor)

378 Battle of Adrianople

379-395 Flavius Theodosius

382 Goths settled south of the Danube; Altar of Victory removed from the Senate

383-388 Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus

383 Hadrian’s Wall abandoned

384 Treaty of Friendship between Rome and Persia

383-408 Flavius Arcadius

390 Theodosius does public penance at Ambrose’s order

392-394 Flavius Eugenius

392 Polytheist cults banned

393-423 Flavius Honorius

393 Olympic games ended

 

 

 

 

 

Arma Virumque Cano

 

In Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the early evening of February 10 a 46 year old man, Craig Stephen Hicks shot and killed three University of North Carolina students, Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abu-Salha, 19.  As their names readily suggest, the three were Muslims, American born, and they were all killed by a handgun. (Anchors on CNN kept describing them as “wonderful” young people, which I expect they were, but is this objective reporting? Would it be any less a horrible crime if they were unemployed and obnoxious?)

The shooter - another victim of the Second Amendment

The shooter – another victim of the Second Amendment

Victims of the Second Amendment

Victims of the Second Amendment

The details of the shooting are unclear – police are slipping into the secrecy mania that seemingly affects most public servants – but it appears to have resulted from an ongoing dispute over a parking place, the sort of trivial incident that is increasingly leading to the use of deadly force in America. The shooter and his victims were neighbors in a residential community near the UNC campus, and the students were shot in the apartment of the newly-wed couple, Deah and Yusor. The circumstances of the crime are mysterious. Each was killed by a single shot to the head, and while the police found eight shell casings, suggesting that Hicks missed with five of his shots, three clean shots to the heads of three different people is nevertheless still strange. Unless the victims were completely frozen with fear, Hicks must be a phenomenal shot. I have shot handguns, and even at close range hitting a moving target as small as a human head is not at all easy. But again, we do not know all the evidence.

Because the victims are Muslim, the possibility of a hate crime is being tossed about. In online posts Hicks has labeled himself a “gun-toting atheist” and has made fun of Christianity and Islam, but so far there is no word of any actual expression of hate for any group. Being contemptuous of Christianity and Islam is not hate; I do not have much regard for any of the Abramic religions. That he had a house full of guns and ammunition means only that he is like thousands of other Americans. The fact that his victims are Muslim may have tipped him into violence, but it may simply be this was the argument when he lost control.

I find the whole idea of a “hate crime” a bit disturbing. Our legal system rightly makes distinctions concerning intent – thus the difference between homicide and manslaughter –   but considering motive as a factor in determining the seriousness of the crime and the extent of the punishment strikes me as a dangerous practice. This comes perilously close to punishing a person for what he was thinking, and in a free society one may think whatever he wants. So long as one is not creating an immediate physical danger, such as inciting a riot or an attack, hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, and presumably so is hate thought. The distinction between killing a man because you hate him and killing him because you hate the group he belongs to seems an extremely fine one. Suppose a violent thief happens to hate Muslims and murders a Muslim whose money he wants to steal. Is this a hate crime? And what groupings qualify for hate crimes – just those defined by religion or ethnicity? Suppose you hate Republicans and kill one for that reason. Is that a hate crime? Slaughtering schoolchildren because you are an adolescent with problems and slaughtering schoolchildren because you are an anti-Semite seem equally heinous to me. Certainly, the innocents are equally dead.

More important than this exercise in social engineering is the fact that yet more people are dead because someone, whatever he felt about Muslims, got angry and had immediate access to a firearm. Petty disputes, such as over parking or being cut off on the highway, have become deadly because of the availability of guns and the consequent ability to express anger in a lethal manner. Silly arguments that might have resulted in a fist fight now result in a dead human being. That an “armed society is a polite society” is clearly a ludicrous proposition, especially in a country, such as America, that has long had a culture of violence. Respect engendered by fear hardly strikes me as a laudable social goal.

Women who hang out with guys with small dicks?

Women who hang out with guys with small dicks?

Guys with small dicks

Guys with small dicks

Concealed carry only exacerbates the fear: you never know who is packing and might turn on you.  The state of New Mexico is even considering allowing concealed carry in bars, an idea that should strike sensible people as madness.  Is alcohol and guns any less threatening than alcohol and automobiles (not that New Mexico is particularly concerned about the latter)?  But open carry is also dangerous – and downright embarrassing.  In what other civilized country can you see shoppers carrying assault rifles as they push their carts about?  An armed society is not a polite society; it is some ways a failed society.  And “stand your ground” legislation, as the state of Florida has amply demonstrated, does nothing more than promote violence, suggesting to some people that when confronted with some offense or imagined threat, they are quite justified is blowing someone’s head off.

The Second Amendment – the right to bear arms – made perfect sense in the late 18th century.  It does not in the early 21st century.  We no longer have a “well regulated militia” but rather a professional army, nor do we have a frontier requiring an armed citizenry.  In modern warfare untrained armed citizens are useless against any real military force, and civilians with guns are no defense against tyranny so long as the military remains obedient to the government.

Personal firearms for self-defense may make sense in some few situations, but packing a gun is more likely to find you trouble, especially with the increasingly trigger-happy police forces.  Carrying an assault rifle into Walmart has absolutely nothing to do with personal safety; it is a stupid macho demonstration that disturbs more sensible citizens.  Home defense is more reasonable, but the fact is if you have a firearm in your house you are twenty-two more times likely to experience a serious gun accident, suicide attempt or assault/homicide.  On the average, for every one time a home firearm is used in self-defense or a justified shooting, there were four accidents, seven assaults/homicides and eleven suicide attempts.  Even just living in states with large numbers of guns dramatically increases your chance of being shot.  According to the CDC in 2011 there were 32,351 gun deaths in the US (and we worry about terrorists?), of which 591 were considered accidental, victims under the age of 18 accounting for 102 of those deaths.

I expect one of the reasons American police are employing so much deadly force is because the country is awash in firearms, most of them perfectly legal.  The police have come to expect that any perpetrator will have a gun, and the result is a hair trigger mentality and an increase in shootings of unarmed individuals.  How often do you hear about this sort of thing happening in Europe, where access to firearms is strictly controlled?

What can we do about this?  Well, nothing.  Restricting gun ownership runs right up against the damn Second Amendment, and it would be easier to repeal the law of gravity.  There are of course measures short of this – background checks, prohibition of private sales, registration of all firearms, requiring a license to own a gun – but apart from background checks (less effective when you can turn around and legally sell a gun to someone on the street) it is extremely unlikely.  Politicians, especially Republicans, are sensitive to their gun-owning constituents, and there is of course the National Rifle Association.  There is always a cry for gun control legislation when some loonie massacres schoolchildren, but it rapidly fades, particularly in the face of NRA propaganda and money.  Until the 1970s the NRA was actually a reasonable organization, interested in gun safety and open to gun control, then a leadership change initiated its evolution into little more than a shill for the gun industry, resistant to even the slightest limits on firearm acquisition and use.

People seem oblivious to the irony that while we are wringing our hands and spending billions of dollars to protect Americans from Middle Eastern terrorists who would have a tough time getting at anyone in this country, virtually nothing is done to stop the homegrown slaughter that annually takes thousands of American lives.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I do own guns.  They are almost all antiques, which I collect, and I rarely go shooting, but I must admit that when handling something like an AK-47 I can feel a taste of the macho high that motivates the jerks running around the woods of Idaho in their camos.  Fortunately, I am not an idiot.

How true

How true