Defending Ourselves

(I have not written poetry since I was in school – and some may judge that to be a good thing.  In ay case, I hope this rises to mediocre poetry rather than doggerel.  This was inspired by the constant mantra that Israel has “the right to defend itself,” a sentiment that echoes through the ages of warfare.”


To the Melian isle the fleet crossed the sea,

An army from Athens with words borne on spears:

“Our empire you’ll join or slaughtered you’ll be;

Though harmless you seem, we still have our fears.”


But neutral we’ve been and carry no blame;

No weapons we’ve lifted against any Greek;

Both Spartans and you we’ve treated the same,

And what threat can come from this city so weak?


“Oh, we are the strong and act as we will,

And you are the weak and suffer you must;

‘Tis the law of the gods we only fulfill,

And who dares to say the gods are not just?”


Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   



Across the bridged Rhine the Fourth Legion fares,

Searching for Germans, whoever’s at hand,

Marsi or Chatti, Cherusci, who cares?

The foe must be punished for raiding the land.


The men must be butchered, the steadings all burned,

The women and babes enslaved and led forth;

Have mercy, great Romans, no fault have we earned;

It wasn’t our tribe, but those to the north.


“No difference it makes from where came the crime;

Examples are needed to deter the rest;

Barbarians you are and thus for all time

In guarding the empire this policy’s best.”


Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   



Through Languedoc’s fields came the knights of the Lord,

Seeking the wretched who betrayed the Christ,

The Cathars, the heretics to be put to the sword:

“They scorned the true Church, with the devil they’ve diced.”


Béziers at once taken, the crusaders stream in,

Double ten thousand the souls in the town,

And many are Catholics with no trace of sin;

Then who are the true and who damned and struck down?


“Slaughter them all, let no one be spared;

No difference it makes for God knows His own;

He’ll sort them all out,” the abbot declared;

“He’ll rescue the true, and they’ll sit at His Throne.”


Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   



The Vistula bridged, the Meuse left behind,

The Dnieper surmounted, the Seine crossed with ease,

By mechanized storm the war now defined,

And legions of grey may march where they please.


Rotterdam, Warsaw, broad London in flames,

The cities of Europe become victims of war,

The rubble and corpses that mark the Reich’s gains

From the isle of Britain to the Volga’s far shore.


Uncountable graves for an idea to defend,

Yet the pendulum swings and the hordes from the east

Fall on the lost Volk to tear and to rend;

“It’s proper we take our revenge on the beast!”


Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   



The point man goes down, a round through the brain;

Men clutch at the ground but where the gook lair?

It must be that hamlet seen vague through the rain;

Salvation will come with a strike from the air.


A village has vanished – and what was its name?

The wounded come crawling from home become bier

And at the tall soldiers they scream out their blame:

Why have you killed us, and why are you here?


“We bring you your freedom by crushing the Cong

And eggs are oft broken in this sort of war;

The communists seek to do us both wrong

And they will not stop ‘til they threaten our shore.”


Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   



All silent the death that falls through the night,

The weapons of men become Hand of God

To carve out revenge in blossoms of light,

And women and children are not spared the rod


“But we are the righteous against such a foe,

Who dares strike the land where the Chosen abide;

Their missiles rain down on our people below,

Our windows are shattered and good men have died.”


“Yes, they’re complicit, they refuse to fly,

Though warnings we spread where the bombing will be,

Hospitals and schools with rockets nearby;

It seems that they value their lives less than we.”


Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

Why There is Stuff from Way Back

I have been posting snippets of history on this site, which is hardly surprising given that I am in fact an historian (though a poor academic).  It occurs to me that I should say a few things about history, to wit, what exactly is it and more important, why bother with it?  After all, according to Henry Ford, a clever if nasty man, “History is bunk.”  And several generations of freshmen students in my Western Civilization classes clearly had no idea why they should be wasting their time on something that was hardly likely to get them a job or a date.

History is bunk.

History is bunk.

Obviously, if you read this blog, you have presumably already found good reasons to bother with this history, but read on if you have ever wondered about the need to study history and want the historian’s pitch.  Curiosity and interest likely prompted you to tune in to my pieces, and these are perfectly valid motivations.  It was curiosity and interest that drew me to the study of ancient history, and I actually made a living off this stuff (which means of course that I have a vested interest in selling you the goods).  But there must be more to it than that, you think, or else this guy and people like him would not have jobs.  True enough.  There is something more, and that something more involves the search for truth.



History, like fiction, is interesting and amusing because it is vicarious experience, filled with sex and violence, and it is as vicarious experience that history is ultimately valuable to us.  Experience is how we learn.  Through experience we add to the stock of knowledge upon which we base our judgments and decisions.  The child sticks his hand in the fire and has an exciting experience, from which he may conclude certain things about the nature of fire and its relationship to human flesh.  Learning is the natural issue of experience, of finding out what’s behind Door No. 1, Door No. 2 and Door No. 3.



But our direct experience of the world is sorely limited by the brief span of our lives and the narrowness of our physical and cultural environments.  Three score and ten is not a hell of a lot of time to do that many things, especially when you must spend a large part of it making a living, and until recently most of the human race never got beyond a few miles of their birthplace.  Even today most people never directly experience a seriously different culture, and as far as I know no one has ever personally experienced a different time.



Here is where the study of history comes in.  It allows us to break out of these limits.  In the words of Lord Acton “It liberates us from the tyranny of our environment.”  Through history we can step outside of our time and place and learn indirectly, through the experiences of other peoples in other times and other places.  This is hardly something strange; most of our learning is founded on vicarious experience.  The child generally avoids the painful encounter with fire because his mother presents him with the experience indirectly by describing what happens.

Lord Acton

Lord Acton

Fine, but how valid are these experiences to twenty-first century man, you may be wondering.  After all, the Greeks did not have to worry about nuclear weapons or the price of gas or global warming.  Or to put it in the words so feared by academics in the sixties: “Is this stuff relevant?”



It sure is.  Because while the shape of society and its technology and values may change, men and women remain men and women.  The basic motivations and emotions of human beings are constants, and ancient Greeks and medieval Japanese and modern Americans are all driven by essentially the same needs, desires and fears.  The Athenian man in the street basically wanted the same things as his American counterpart – a good job, security for himself and his family, the respect of his fellows and so on.  The details may change, but the basics do not.  We are all, whatever time and place we may be born into, faced with a similar set of problems, questions that are an immutable part of the human condition.  How do I stay alive and provide for my offspring?  How do I order my society and relate to my fellow humans?  How do I relate to the universe as a whole?  Every society in the history of the planet has had to find answers to these questions.



There are also the unchanging impersonal forces of history, the general social and economic laws that have held true throughout time.  For example, you can’t fool Mother Marketplace: debase your currency and inflation will result.  This will happen whether the context is Late Imperial Rome or contemporary America, whether the mechanism is the reduction of precious metal in the coins or spending financed by big deficits.  But such forces are in a sense “human,” since they do not exist apart from human beings and thus by their constancy demonstrate the constancy of humans.  Inflation results because the man selling his goods wants his due or more, a human trait that has never changed and that has in our century contributed to the collapse of the Marxist societies.



All societies, no matter how seemingly bizarre, have a basic relevance to us, but some are more meaningful than others, and Greece may be counted among these.  Why the Greeks in particular are an important source of vicarious experience and a valid field of study should be fairly obvious.  The roots of our western civilization lie deep in the society of ancient Greece, which has contributed countless important ideas and institutions to the development of our society.  Indeed, the most important and distinctive elements of western civilization were born in Greece:  constitutionalism, rationalism, humanism, the idea of the individual.



The result of all this vicarious experience picked up through history?  Very simply, a better understanding of man and society and thus of ourselves and our society.  The past can illustrate the present (and the reverse).  Of course history cannot supply any pat solutions or blueprints for the future, but the more you know about other societies, the better you can understand your own, and the better you understand your own, the greater the chance of solving its problems and wisely determining its policies.  Unfortunately, human beings have not shown themselves to be very good at this sort of thing.  We seem to be doomed to make the same mistakes and do the same silly things over and over.



Part of the problem, as Plato discerned, is that the best and most educated elements in society are rarely in positions of power, whatever the nature of the state in question.  This includes democracy, as the government of the United States vividly illustrates: an uneducated and ignorant electorate will tend to elect ignorant people.  This America is now doing in a way unparalleled in our history.  On the other hand, after three decades in the Alice-in-Wonderland environment of the American university I am not sure I want to see academics run my society.  In fact I often find it hard to see why successful revolutionaries bother to shoot the intellectuals.



So, history is important.  But what exactly is it?  Most broadly and simply it is everything that has happened, all the facts.  This is obviously an unworkable definition, however, since it includes an overwhelming amount of totally trivial and unimportant information.  The fact that the President brushed his teeth this morning is technically history, but who cares?  Now, if in the course of that dental routine the tooth paste tube exploded, removing him from office, we could all agree that we had an historical event on our hands.  Clearly, it is necessary to consider the impact of the event upon its environment in order to determine its historical importance.  What kind of ripple does it produce in the space-time continuum?



Enter the historian.  It is his task to weigh the facts and consider their importance in the scheme of things.  It is not only his task, but also something he can hardly avoid.  In the nineteenth century there emerged in reaction to the romantic excesses of the previous age a school of “scientific” history, which maintained that the historian, like the scientist, must detach himself from his work and be totally objective.  No more coloring the facts to fit or create your own vision of the past, just the straight poop.  The goal of the historian was to record history, in the words of Leopold Ranke, “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” – “as it actually was.”

Leopold von Ranke

Leopold von Ranke

Well, objectivity is an admirable goal, but total objectivity is impossible.  The simple selection of a topic and relevant facts is an injection of oneself into the material, a statement that you consider that bit of history important enough to examine.  If one wanted to write a totally “objective” history of Greece, it would need to run to hundreds of volumes in order to accommodate all the information we have on the Greeks.  One has to pick and choose to produce an history of any meaning or utility, and that involves a measure of subjectivity: you are deciding what information is important enough to include.  Further, the mere listing of events, the bare recording of data, is really the work of a chronicler, not an historian.  (And it is boring, which I suspect is why the average high school student sees no point in studying history.)  The historian’s job requires a dose of subjectivity.



Now, I am not espousing the outright distortion of facts and the Joe Stalin school of history.  The data must be presented as accurately and objectively as possible, but there must be something more.  The historian must make some attempt at interpretation of his material, at understanding what he records.  There must be an evaluation of events, an examination of causes, a delineation of trends and so forth; this is what makes Thucydides the only truly modern historian in antiquity.  History must be something more than recording what happened; it must be, as E.H. Carr puts it, “an interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”  And that is, I hope, what you have been receiving in my posts.

E.H. Carr

E.H. Carr







Ich hab’ noch eine Botschaft in Berlin…

(There is nothing interesting or perhaps even sensible I can say about Gaza.  Meanwhile, I must mention that another boon companion, George the cat, has now followed his friends Alfred and Lucy on that final journey.  This is getting harder and harder)

George 2000-2014



While in Berlin in May, I had the opportunity to visit the American embassy, a metaphorical and literal bastion of American power.  I do not normally go out of my way to visit American governmental establishments and submit myself to the scrutiny of humorless and self-important functionaries, but I wanted to visit that part of Berlin and was naturally curious about our diplomatic fortresses in the age of terror.  The trip was one of the excursions scheduled by our (and Stanford’s) man in Berlin, who had frequent dealings with the embassy.  I was consequently restrained in my comments in the embassy.


The embassy is about as centrally located as one can be in Berlin.  It sits immediately to the south of the Brandenburg Gate on the corner of Behrenstraße and Ebertstraße, about 300 meters from where Hitler died in the bunker and more importantly, about 400 meters from the Bundestag (former Reichstag), the German federal parliament.  Since the Berlin government defiantly refused to allow the Americans to block off streets in the center of their city the embassy is hardly aesthetically pleasing, inasmuch as it had to be built as a fortress to satisfy America’s growing paranoia.  Surrounding the compound is a ring of low concrete pillars, designed presumably to stop any car bombs.

Rear of the Festung

Rear of the Festung

Festung Amerika

Festung Amerika


Entering by the south door, we – a collection of former Stanford students in their late 60s – of course had to go through American airport type security in order to reach a conference room that was undoubtedly the only place accessible to guests in that part of the building.  Naturally, this was all a very serious process, as the possible terrorists were grudgingly admitted to their own embassy.  The paranoia, incidentally, extends to the office of the ambassador himself: his own personal staff members are required to leave everything outside when they enter.  By way of contrast, I have heard that security at the Russian embassy is incredibly slack.  Now, that is a fine irony.

Vlad's place

Vlad’s place


To my immense surprise John Emerson, the ambassador for the last year, popped in to chat for a while.  I never thought I would actually meet an American diplomat, not that they would have anything interesting to say unless they were career State Department people.  Perhaps he had the time for us because we were Stanford graduates and thus opinion makers in our communities.  More likely it was because no one besides the British diplomatic staff would talk to him because of the NSA snooping.  My first thought was to ask him how much money he raised for Obamas in order to get the job, but I did not what to injure our friend’s relationship with the embassy.  I later learned that he did indeed raise several million for the President’s campaign, hardly surprising since that is how most ambassadorships are handed out.  All the Russian ambassadors in Europe are career diplomats and speak the local language.  But he did seem to know a little about Germany.

With our President

With our President


He left after a short while, probably to go get slapped around by an obviously annoyed German Chancellor, and his place was taken by an expert on Eastern Europe, doubtless chosen because of her ability to deftly sidestep embarrassing questions.  Right off I asked her if staff who talked to visitors received political instruction, and she of course answered that they did not and all had their own opinions but of course had to be on the same channel (or some such metaphor).  In her answers to our questions she then proceeded to spew the exact party line of the administration and artfully dodge questions that could not be honestly answered without departing from that line.  Since the NSA was in the air (literally) she dished out the standard fare on the subject:  Snowden of course needs to be brought to justice for his crimes and god knows what he is telling the Russians (Why else would he be there?), but it is good to have an open dialogue on the subject.  As usual no mention was made of the fact that without Snowden there would be absolute no dialogue and no knowledge of what the spooks were doing, and perhaps he was in Russia because it is one of the few places he could not be kidnapped by the CIA.


And all the while, equipment on the embassy roof was monitoring the conversations and electronic traffic of the nearby German government.  It was all I could do to refrain from loudly voicing my indignation and opinion of her and the government she represented.  An obscene gesture directed at the embassy from the sidewalk was the only protest I could make.

The author salutes his country

The author salutes his country


When I was in Berlin 50 years ago, I was actually proud to be an American.

Thugs, Missiles and the Beefcake Czar

(There are currently two important events unfolding, the downing of the airliner by Russian supported thugs and the Israeli invasion of Gaza.  The first is far more important to the US, and I simply cannot think and write rationally about Gaza at this moment.  I keep thinking about the German liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, which is an outrageous analogy, though there are some disgusting and disturbing similarities.)



While the details are still lacking because of the inability of the inspectors to enter the crash area fully, it has become clear that the plane was shot down by Russian supported Ukrainian separatists using Russian supplied equipment.  It is also clear that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin bears great responsibility for the deaths of almost three hundred innocents and is seemingly unwilling to take any action whatsoever to reign in his terrorists, who are now reported to have bragged about their crime.  (I want to say that any person anywhere found wearing a mask and carrying an assault rifle should be immediately shot, but then I would be descending to their level.)

The Beefcake Czar

The Beefcake Czar


What is the problem with the Russians, who are presenting an increasingly good impersonation of an uncivilized and barbarous country that happens to possess nuclear weapons?  Why is this society so addicted to autocratic government and content to live in the nineteenth century?  With the possible exception of the Stalin era I have only a superficial knowledge of Russian history, but it is still possible to suggest some answers, some of which are probably wrong (and any Russian historian reading this will likely groan).


Unlike Europe, Russia inherited virtually nothing from classical antiquity but the eastern version of Christianity, and their model civilization was the Byzantine Empire, a thoroughly autocratic society in which church and state were completely fused.  The post-classical West on the other hand began its evolution with a church that for all its later efforts to dominate secular rulers was distinctly separate, having developed its own governing structure parallel to that of the Roman Empire.  That structure also provided barbarian Europe with some measure of administrative competency, which was completely absent from the infant Russian state. Europe also inherited a sizable body of literature and art produced by a high civilization, and the remains of the Empire included a long-lasting network of roads and other useful infrastructure.


Further, the Roman Empire had laid the foundation of a common European culture, which was not significantly disturbed by outside forces, and Europe’s wars were mostly among European societies.  The Norsemen could be absorbed, and the Arabs could be repulsed.  Earlier Russian history is characterized by constant assault and domination by steppe barbarians, inimical to settled and urban society and not easily repulsed.  Warfare in feudal Europe revolved around horsemen, but they were only the elite component of armies, and the evolving weaponry of infantry helped drive innovation and societies sophisticated enough to produce the necessary new military technologies.  There were foot soldiers in the east, but the armies were overwhelmingly mounted, and the technology of mounted warfare had been pretty much perfected.  And who can live centuries in the shadow of the Mongols and not be brutalized to some degree?

Russian role model

Russian role model

In the West feudalism helped limit the power of the monarch and produce some tradition of resistance, and although absolutist kings appear in the early modern period, that tradition spurred the emergence of deliberative bodies that could and in some places did prevent and undermine the absolute authority of the king.  In Kievan Rus’, Muscovy and other states that ultimately became Russia the boyar was a sort of parallel to the medieval knight and they might form a deliberative body, a Duma, but their power gradually eroded in the face of the growing authority of the Czar.  Why this happens is not clear to me, but the result is that by the modern period the Czar is the absolute, unchallengeable ruler, his authority, like that of the Byzantine emperor, derived from god.  In the West the growth of trade and industry produced a third powerful player and a challenge to the existing power centers of church and state, while in Russia commerce remained subservient to the authority of the church-supported state, perhaps because the absolutism of the Czar was already so advanced.


Russian culture seems also to support a xenophobia more deeply rooted than in the west, perhaps because of the absence of the classical influences embodied in the literature of Europe and perhaps because of the constant assaults from the steppe.  Whatever the cause, this made modern Russia suspicious and hostile to the ideas and innovations coming from western Europe, and despite a Peter or a Catherine Russia lagged in its development, retaining a rural population that essentially remained in the conditions of the early middle ages.


And when Russia finally began to see some change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the cataclysm of World War I and the incredibly bizarre, virtually chance triumph of the Bolsheviks doomed the country to another three-quarters of a century of an absolutism that put the Czars to shame.  By the time the Soviet state collapsed the complete absence of any developed institutions or tradition of democratic rule led the state to its present more or less absolute ruler, Vladimir Putin, the Beefcake Czar, who unsurprisingly emerged from the security apparatus of the previous regime.  Well, he is certainly the most buff man to ever rule Russia.


Putin role model

Putin role model

Putin role model

Putin role model

Who knows what the fate of Russia will be?  Putin plays to the broad masses, who seem to yearn for another Stalin, and caters to their crude nationalism and traditional phobias, and this has a price.  The educated and highly skilled are fleeing to the West, and the corruption, malfeasance and capriciousness inherent in his rule discourages increasingly necessary foreign investment.  The country survives on the selling off of its immense natural resources, a sign of the economic primitivism associated with developing countries. Meanwhile he squanders badly needed resources on patriotic cosmetic projects like the Winter Olympics and the upcoming World Cup.  And if Europe is dependent on Russian gas, Russia is increasingly dependent on Chinese markets.


Russia is also becoming a pariah because of its illiberal policies and creeping expansionism, and Putin has now grandly exacerbated this development with the barbaric act of his Ukrainian/Russian thugs and his refusal thus far to do anything about it.  He is playing the same laughable propaganda game the Soviet rulers did, and the entire world is perfectly well aware of his complicity in the destruction of the Malaysian airliner. The guy is a thug, a clever one, but a thug nevertheless.

Men with small johnsons

Men with small johnsons


What to do now?  Obama has begun attacking Russian assets in foreign countries and moving towards excluding Russia from the financial mechanisms of the global economy, which would be a disastrous blow.  I would suggest even more immediate pressures, recalling the American ambassador and giving Putin, say, forty-eight hours to deal with the terrorists and open up the crash site or face a ban on Russian air traffic to the US and whatever European countries that can be persuaded to follow.  I might even threaten to prohibit American carriers from flying into Russia, but this is extremely unlikely, since one then runs up against corporate interests, which would certainly be loath to surrender profits simply because an airliner was shot out of the sky.  Already the Europeans and the all-important Germans are dragging their feet because of the natural gas issue and business interests with the Russians.


Well, it is all disgusting and harkens back to the less attractive aspects of the last century, but it sure makes for interesting news.

Death in Gaza

(So much for my promise to get one of these out at least every week and a half. Too much World Cup and beer.)


Three Israeli teenagers are murdered, presumably by Palestinian extremists, and in retaliation a Palestinian is burned alive by Israeli extremists, though Israel has said little about exactly whom they have arrested. This leads to Palestinian demonstrations, during which teenagers are arrested for throwing rocks, everyday life in the occupied territories. During all this it happened that a camera caught two Israeli policemen seriously beating a prone and handcuffed boy, hardly a rare occurrence for Palestinians. But this boy was not just another Palestinian victim; he was also an American citizen, which meant the media would take notice.

Terrorist escorted to court

Terrorist escorted to court

Israeli authorities guaranteed a thorough investigation of this “isolated” incident, which is of course isolated only insofar as the target was an American citizen. It seemed to take the US government a fairly long time to respond to this attack on one of its citizens, and even then the response was meaningless expressions of concern. While the brutal beating of a 15 year old American is unusual, harassment and intimidation of Palestinian-Americans visiting Israel is not. They have been barred from seeing their families, have been detained without charges and have been abused while in captivity, something that is supposed to trigger a cessation of American aid. Well, now that our government has dabbled in torture I suppose it would be hypocritical to chide the Israelis.

The sequence of events could hardly fail to generate reprisals from both sides, as most Palestinians have justifiably given up hope of any escape from Israeli domination and extremist Israelis increasingly feel they can treat Palestine and its inhabitants anyway they please. Hamas, certainly a loathsome organization, begins firing rockets into Israel, anxious to shore up its credibility in Gaza and provide Israel the opportunity to once more damage its image in the world. Despite years of evidence that force will not change anything in Gaza and only exacerbate the situation Israel dutifully obliges and begins bombing urban areas. Like Hamas, Netanyahu is under pressure from his own constituents to exact revenge, and the sad story repeats itself once more.

Destruction in Israel

Destruction in Israel

Hamas weapons

Hamas weapons

The all too familiar tit for tat begins again. The problem of course is that the tit delivered to Palestinians is inevitably a hundred times more destructive than the feeble tat mustered against the Israelis. As of July 11 over a hundred Palestinians, including women and at least 20 children, have been killed and some 600, I believe, have been wounded; one Israeli has been seriously injured. (But then, a white colonist has always been worth far more than a bunch of wogs.) On the other hand, according to the mayor of Jerusalem, the Israelis are suffering because they constantly have to drop everything they are doing and take shelter because of the rockets. Inconvenience can be a horrible thing. When asked about the complete imbalance of threats, a former Israeli ambassador to the US emphasized how Israeli children were being traumatized by the odd explosion and the need to retire to a shelter. One would think that having your home and family members blown apart might also be somewhat traumatic.

More Israeli weapons

Israeli weapons

Destruction in Gaza

Destruction in Gaza


Israeli weapons

More Israeli weapons

Israel claims that Hamas purposely establishes its facilities in densely populated areas, thus using human shields (they don’t regard life in the same way as we). I do not doubt this, but the fact is innocents nevertheless die in droves and the virtually ineffectual rockets keep coming. Israel wants to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure, but unfortunately that is the same infrastructure that supports the other 1.8 million Gazans. I suppose any government would have trouble taking the high road in such a situation, but all Israel achieves (besides exercising its military) is further damaging its reputation and increasing Palestinian hatred. And the government is contemplating an actual ground operation, during which Palestinian casualties would skyrocket and Israeli soldiers would be killed – for what? Revenge. Since September 2002, 1526 Palestinian and 131 Israeli children under the age of 18 have been killed. For what?

Hamas is clearly willing to sacrifice the lives of Palestinians in order to indulge itself in inconveniencing the Israelis, and they bear direct responsibility for escalating the violence begun with the murder of the teenagers. As Israel claims, they started the exchange of bombs. True enough. But consider the bigger picture. Israel has a half million colonists in the West Bank and shows every sign of establishing an apartheid regime. Gaza is generally recognized (except by the American Congress) as a huge open air prison, access to which is completely controlled by the Israeli military. 13 percent of the children in Gaza suffer from acute malnutrition and 19 percent from anemia; only 10 percent of Gaza’s water is potable. The UN estimates that if nothing changes, Gaza will be uninhabitable in eight years.

In my younger days I fell for the scam that was Israel, the besieged democracy that was making the desert bloom, and god knows the Palestinians seem to have perfected the art of shooting themselves in the foot. But I became an historian, and Israel became more and more blatant in its policies, especially the building of Greater Israel. It was a major mistake to establish the state of Israel, and every one of President Truman’s advisors urged him to oppose it. It seems that European-American guilt and Truman’s desire to insure the Jewish vote conspired to create a permanent problem in the Middle East, though I expect the Arabs would have had a good shot at screwing up their affairs without Israel.
I have met many Israelis who are as disgusted by the behavior of their country as I am, but they seem powerless to alter its course in the face of the increasing power of the extreme right and the ultra-orthodox. And the vast majority of Americans have no real idea what our “client” is doing with our complicity – and our tax money. Our politicians probably have a better idea, but they will do nothing if there is even the barest suggestion that it might harm their reelection chances.

Netanyahu has just said that he is no hurry to end the conflict. Why should he be? While Palestinians are dying, Israelis are being inconvenienced. And Obama is at fund raisers. They all disgust me.

Iraq Redux

(My apologies for the long delay between posts, but I had a lot of distractions.  I hope to return to a post every week to week and a half.)


The Romans often fought series of wars, returning to the same battlefield because of unfinished business or a failed settlement.  Examples abound in the later Republic: three Punic wars over a century, four Macedonian wars in sixty-six years, three Mithridatic wars in a quarter century.  (During WW I there were twelve battles of the Isonzo River in Italy in two and a half years, surely some sort of record.)  America has fought two Iraqi wars: driving Saddam out of Kuwait in 1990-1991 and destroying the Saddam government in 2003-2011.  And now we are creeping towards a Third Iraqi War, as the US desperately searches for a way to repair the damage resulting from a completely botched post-war settlement.


Invading Iraq in 2003 was utterly pointless in terms of American interests.  Saddam had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11; he was in fact second only to the Saudi Royal family on Al-Qaeda’s to-do list.  His was a thoroughly secular administration, one of the places Gulf royalty went to in order get a drink and get laid.  His government was oppressive, but it was stable and anti-Islamist, and when was Washington ever troubled by oppressive governments?  He was an implacable enemy of Iran, for which we have a hatred bordering on the completely irrational, and he was zero threat to anyone except his own people.

former ally

former ally

Why the Neocons were so determined to go to war with this character is not at all clear.  Frustration from the government’s inability to strike back at the actual terrorists?  Embarrassment from seeing our accusations against Saddam prove baseless?  Israeli interests?  Whatever the case, we were forced to invent hidden weapons of mass destruction in order to create some threat to the United States and ultimately justified our invasion with the claim that Saddam had violated provisions of the armistice or 1991.  In effect, we declared war on a country that had done us no harm and was not threatening us.  This is the sort of thing that makes our demands that persons like Vladimir Putin observe international law ring a bit hollow.


The war, which was not to be paid for by Iraqi oil as promised, was easily won, but as is generally the case, the peace was not.  Not only did the Bush administration have no plan for securing a stable post-Saddam Iraq, apparently presuming it would just spring into being, but it sometimes seemed that they were trying to plunge the country into chaos.  Disbanding the Iraqi army rather than co-opting it left Iraq with no indigenous force to police the country, presenting the American military with a task for which it was not really prepared.  The Americans would consequently look more like occupiers than liberators, especially when the Pentagon began hiring foreign mercenaries for many policing duties.  Dismissing every public servant who was a member of the Ba’athist party was utterly foolish, immediately robbing the country of much of its human infrastructure.  Most of these people were Ba’athists simply because it was a requirement for keeping their jobs; even the Nazis were not treated to such a drastic measure.


Seemingly the only plan for post-war Iraq was to make it a democracy, which all Iraqis would eagerly embrace, as did the Germans and Japanese after WW II.  At least that is what Cheney and friends kept reminding us, conveniently ignoring the vast differences between those countries and Iraq.  Germany and Japan were actual nations with relatively homogeneous populations, and they had centuries of history as established communities.  Iraq has never been a nation.  For millennia it has simply been the center or part of a variety of empires, most recently the Ottoman, and it only became a “state” in 1920, when according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement it became a British mandate under a client king, Faisal.  It became an independent kingdom in 1932 and a republic in 1958 after a coup.  The borders of this state, determined by the French and British according to their interests, enclose three distinct and generally hostile populations: the Kurds in the north, the Sunni Arabs in the center and the Shiite Arabs in the south.


This is not a country.  It is an arena, and with the removal of the authoritarian regime of Saddam the games began, even while the American military was still present.  A devastating civil war was prevented only by sending in more American troops and massively bribing Sunni leaders.  It could easily be predicted (as I and others did) that with the withdrawal of American forces the society would begin to unravel.  Washington’s man, Nouri al-Maliki, immediately began establishing a Shia dictatorship and taking action against the Sunni minority (35%).  He established relations with Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by the US, and Shiite Iran, considered an enemy by the US since 1979.  Democracy is crumbling, sectarian violence is on the rise and threatening to break up the country and Baghdad now courts Teheran and aids their interests.

Shiite thug and "ally"

Shiite thug and “ally”

Now, Dick Cheney, in a flight of fancy that even by his lofty standards is mind-boggling, is blaming the whole crisis in Iraq on Obama because he pulled out our troops.  Cheney of course ignores, as do other Republican critics, that Obama had absolutely no choice inasmuch as Malaki refused to agree to the Status of Forces conditions required by the US, namely, that American troops be granted legal immunity.  So what do Cheney and other right-wing idiots think Obama should have done?  He could have agreed that American forces were subject to Iraqi law, which would have had the conservatives howling, or he could simply kept the troops there on American terms, which would have made the American army an occupying force, which the hawks probably would not have any trouble with.  (Why does the media waste time interviewing Cheney the Undead and providing a soapbox for his nonsense and outright lies?)

the Undead

the Undead


And through our utter mismanagement of Iraq we have helped create ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), a Muslim fundamentalist group so despicable and cruel that even al-Qaeda will have little to do with them.  One of the circumstances that led to the emergence of these barbarians is the Syrian civil war, but their spectacular success in Iraq is clearly due to Malaki’s Shiite dictatorship.  The average Iraqi Sunni wants nothing to do with the ISIS murderers, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend and Sunni communities are supporting them, a deal with the devil.

the golden age of the 7th century

the golden age of the 7th century


This places Washington in a very tough spot, one reminiscent of Vietnam’s invasion of communist Cambodia in 1978, which presented the US with a choice between two unpleasant regimes.  Obviously, ISIS is the far more disgusting group (as was the Khmer Rouge) and threatens America with terrorism, but supporting Maliki presents some serious problems.  Propping up a dictator has never been a problem for Washington, and this is a dictator we pretty much created, but the Maliki government is aligned with Iran, which is supposedly the big threat in the region and a country we have despised since they had the temerity to overthrown the oppressive regime of the American-installed Shah.  We would consequently be indirectly working with a country that Israel thinks should be bombed immediately.  Malaki has also joined Iran in supporting Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization, and is sympathetic to Bashir Assad, currently the biggest mass murderer in the region.  More important, helping Maliki means taking sides in the growing sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites and can only lead to more trouble, since anti-America terrorists are all Sunnis, as are our “friends” in the gulf.


Well, it seems we will be helping Maliki, though constantly trumpeting that the price he must pay is to create a more inclusive government, which absolutely no one believes he will do.  The advisors are already arriving, though what they can do for an army that is riddled with corruption and lacking any motivation, at least in the case of the Sunni soldiers, is not at all clear.  Of course American involvement in Vietnam also began with advisors, but popular disgust with our recent wars should keep actual fighting forces out of Iraq, though you never know how stupid politicians will be.  Air strikes then, and according to the President, airstrikes without collateral damage, which I suppose means declaring that anyone killed by a strike is by definition the enemy.


And why are we getting involved at all?  Because ISIS clearly represents a threat to American national security, which in reality of course means little, since it appears that virtually everything is a threat to national security.  If they prevail, they will establish an Islamic state that will be churning out terrorist to send to America.  I have written previously on why I feel the terrorism threat has been stretched completely out of proportion in the interest of enhanced government power.  9/11 was the Reichstag fire for the Bush administration, and Obama, as would be expected of any administration, is not about to surrender any of the powers gained by his predecessors.  Has not more than a decade of homeland security made us any safer?  No one, even those armed with firearms, will ever again be flying planes into buildings, and how does one get a bomb onto a planes these days?


It is quite easy to put together a car bomb in this country, and that can happen whether or not ISIS rules in Iraq.  Yes, an American citizen could get training from ISIS and then reenter the US, but it hardly takes a genius to build a bomb (see Timothy McVeigh or the Zarnaev brothers) and in any case one can get instruction in plenty of places, including our ally Pakistan.  And one cannot fail to notice that the people crying the loudest about terrorism and national security seem completely unconcerned about the now regular shootings in American schools.  (One might also notice that while our intelligence apparatus is snooping on virtually everyone on the planet, it failed completely regarding the Crimea and ISIS.)


Oh, there is the oil, but I thought we were on the edge of energy independence.


What to do then?  Jordan must receive serious aid and be protected (a useful job for Israel) but otherwise ignore the whole thing.  Why are we so damned concerned that Iraq not break up into three states?  Because it would further accentuate the total failure of our ill-considered invasion of Iraq?  Iraq is manifestly not a real state and the hostilities are simply too great, especially for a culture that seems to slip so easily into violence (which is perhaps hypocritical for an American to say).  The Kurdish north is essentially now an independent state, and if anything, this has created more stability in the area.  Given the history of Iraq in the past half century, it is simply impossible for us to guarantee peace without occupying the entire country for a very long time.


ISIS actually establishing a “caliphate” of any permanence is a bit hard to believe.  The Iraqi Sunnis have already made it clear that they do not like the ISIS fanatics, and one can expect a violent falling out should this Sunni alliance actually topple the Malaki “democracy.”  It is difficult to see how a group with essentially no real support among the Iraqi (or any other) population can erect a state with any hope of lasting.  Political entities based solely on terror are incredibly unstable; ask the Assyrians.  Meanwhile, the moment the caliphate begins training terrorists for a campaign against America, we blow away every government/military facility we can identify, while pumping resources into the hands of the opposition.  We can pretend they are clients of the Soviet Union – it will be like old times.


A final note: Syria has just bombed suspected ISIS positions inside Iraq, apparently killing for the most part innocent Iraqis.  Assad versus ISIS.  Now there is a great choice, reminiscent of choosing between Hitler and Stalin.  In any case, Assad has now attacked another country, which used to be an act of war, but this is something the US can hardly complain about anymore.  It would be wonderful to shoot down Syrian warplanes, but then we would be aiding both Malaki the Thug and ISIS.  The Middle East is certainly an interesting place.

Grief Again: Lucy

(This is perhaps self-indulgent, but it is born of love.)


Lucy the dog, our companion for eleven years, embarked on her last journey Sunday morning. She was a big rescued dog of indeterminate age and ancestry. She was found tied to a sidewalk pole, where she had been left unattended for three days. She had a hernia that was repaired, but she was frightened of humans, evidence of abuse by some useless human animal. With one blind eye and a wart on her face she was not an attractive dog – people always commented on how cute Alfred  was but said nothing about Lucy.  But she was beautiful to us.  She got used to us and became Alfred’s constant companion. In her later years she suffered from a torn ligament and arthritis, but with pain killers life was still good, if considerably slower. Last week she suffered from a bleeding nostril of unknown cause, but it seemed to be getting better, when she began having serious trouble getting to her feet and difficulty sleeping.  We needed to come to the terrible decision and perform our last act of love for her.

       Lucy 2000? - 2014

2000? – 2014

It seemed harder to see Lucy off than had been the case with Alfred, probably because she was the surviving dog and for all her leg problems still seemed to be enjoying life. Her ashes will also be placed by a tree planted for her, next to Alfred’s, and they can in some sense be together again.

Lucy, Alfred and George the cat.

Lucy, Alfred and George the cat.

I have already written about the meaning of pets and the nature of grief – see “Grief: Alfred” (2013/11/01) – and will not repeat it all here. Suffice it to say that like Alfred she was a member of our family, as important to us as any child, and the grief is very, very real.  Like Alfred, she will be remembered so long as Denise and I are alive.