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

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

Lucy
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.

 

 

 

 

The Land of Lost Content: a Fifty Year Reunion

Long, long ago Stanford University maintained branch campuses in several European countries, including West Germany. From June to December 1964 I was a member of Group XIII, along with about 80 other students. The campus was at Landgut Burg, an old estate on a hill above the village of Beutelsbach, just east of Stuttgart. We took regular Stanford classes and one hell of a lot of German and were adopted by local families, accustomed to the gaggle of young Americans that arrived at the Burg every six months.

Landgut Burg 2014

Landgut Burg 2014

We were all young, very young, ranging from 18 to 21, and we were not just Americans, the Masters of the Universe, but we were also Stanford students, the best and the brightest. To varying degrees we were naïve, relatively well-off and arrogant. We stood out simply because of the way we were dressed, and we knew the latest popular music and dances. We were proud to be Americans, and many of us, certainly myself were stupid, a facet of being 18 years old, I now know.
For most of us Stanford-in-Germany was an introduction to a wider world. Many of us were in a foreign country (at least other than Mexico) for the first time, and in 1964 Germany was still a foreign country, a taste of old Europe. Most Germans spoke German. Chasing German girls generally meant pursuing them in German, a strong motivation to learn the language. We were of course also in a place where we were adults and old enough to drink.

 
And drink we did. Reading my diary from that year, I was surprised by just how much beer and wine swilling there was, at least until the novelty of legal alcohol wore off. Then we continued to drink a lot anyway, because that is what college students do. I was amazed to discover just how many classes I, the normally oh so responsible student, cut in order to drink and court. It appears that I spent almost as many evenings at my favorite watering hole as at the campus, which naturally put a bit of a squeeze on my classwork.

 
There was a small informal gathering of Group XIII alumni at Stanford some several decades ago, but after graduating in 1967 I essentially did not see any of these people again. Until a few weeks ago. A fifty year reunion in Germany (no more West) was organized, and since Landgut Burg is now a hotel, we were able to actually stay on the old campus. The old buildings were we lived and attended class were renovated but still there, allowing us to seriously savor those experiences of fifty years ago. About half the people who made up Group XIII attended.

 
This was an exercise in nostalgia. Back to the land of one’s youth, the happy highways where one went and cannot come again. The downside, of course, which did not seem to bother the others, is that fifty years have passed. In 1964 we were all young, and the future stretched ahead, filled with hope. America was at its apogee, and a citizen could be proud. Now, we were old, retired, with grandchildren, and if one had not done it yet, it was not going to be done. Germany was no longer the poor relation; we were. Our country was now in decline, the recognized bully of the world. It was all a vivid reminder that things change in a half century.

 
Beutelsbach, the village at the foot of the hill, had not changed all that much. It and four other villages had coalesced into the city of Weinstadt, but it was still familiar to us. Stuttgart was extensively rebuilt, but it was still the city we remembered – or thought we remembered. It was we who changed. I could still see the young students under the wrinkles and grey hair, but most of us had grown up, probably I the least of all. We were no longer students but doctors, attorneys and professors, groups not traditionally known for drinking and raging. In 1964 most of us smoked; now only three of us did: I and another couple, my Rauchenkameraden.

Beutelsbach 2014

Beutelsbach 2014

Even in the still familiar confines of the Rems valley, where Weinstadt is located, it was clear that Germany was a different place. It was no longer old Europe. No more piles of manure outside houses in the villages, no more horse drawn vehicles and far fewer people speaking the incomprehensible Swabian dialect. Immensely wealthy, the country is no longer a bargain, and where we once got four marks for our dollar, now we got only three-quarters of a Euro. We now looked no different from Germans, and our pop culture edge had completely disappeared. And apparently everyone in Germany now speaks English. It does get a little annoying being around crowds of people who speak at least two languages.

 
That fifty years is a long time, however, was nowhere more obvious than in Berlin, where about half of us spent a second week. In November of 1964 we took a field trip to Berlin, then the front lines of the cold war. The Wall had gone up only three years earlier, and West Berlin was a neon island in the socialist sea of the German Democratic Republic. For us the center of town was the Kurfürstendamm in Charlottenburg, and Checkpoint Charlie and access to the western marches of the Soviet empire was way off to the east. The Ku’damm was alive, filled with shops and clubs and open 24 hours. By contrast East Berlin was a tomb, seemingly closed at night; there was still some rubble from the war two decades earlier. Berlin was almost literally a city in film, the West in vivid technicolor, the East in black and white.

 

 

Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz

The Ku'damm

The Ku’damm

A quarter century later the Wall, the DDR and the Soviet Union itself were gone, and Berlin then had another twenty-five years to rebuild itself before we visited again. It might have been a completely different city. With the fall of the Wall the city center moved east to where it was before the war, and our hotel was near the Alexanderplatz, now one of the major candidates for the “center of town.” The Ku’damm is now a relatively quiet neighborhood way off in the west, and all the action is in what was once the mean streets of East Berlin. Our major landmark and point of orientation, the Wall, is gone, along with the checkpoints and expanses of no-man’s land. The only obvious traces of the former capital of the DDR are the prefabricated apartment blocks and the streets named after German socialists.

 

 

Brandenburg Gate 2014

Brandenburg Gate 2014

Brandenburg Gate 1964

Brandenburg Gate 1964

This Berlin, the once and future capital of Germany, is fun and extremely engaging, especially for an historian, but it can hardly match the Berlin of five decades ago. The Berlin of 1964 was a large scale piece of cold war performance art, history encapsulated in single city. In old West Berlin, the showcase of the free market world, there was a vibrancy, an intensity, an edge that certainly no longer exists – that can no longer exist. And it was the Berlin of an eighteen year old student, which brought its own intensity and edge, and that too can never again be regained.

 
For me Berlin was emblematic, a vivid reminder of lost youth. And it was a full circle of sorts. I remember the young and undecided student standing in awe before the altar in the Pergamon Museum, and now the retired classical historian has done the same, with far more cynicism but with the same awe.