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.