" /> I write: March 2010
Curmudgeonalia
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March 30, 2010

Holidays in Hell

P. J. O'Rourke

If you've never read anything by this man you have missed a lot of humor, candor, and laugh-out-loud anecdotes accompanied by interpretations of them. For years he was a foreign correspondent, covering wars and disasters. In this tome he describes, chapter by chapter, some of the worst places on earth: Lebanon, Seoul, Panama, Warsaw, Russia (and Chernobyl), the Philippines, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, the Holy Land ("God's Monkey House"), and offers commentary on "Darkest American" sites: Epcot Center, Heritage America, a stint at the America's Cup yacht race, and Harvard's 350th Anniversary. It's a real hoot! Mayhem, riots and violence are graphically, yet wryly reported. The discussion of El Salvador (Christmas, 1985) is alone worth the price of the book. And Harvard's 350th is a howler. It's zany, but full of facts . . . many of them gut-wrenching.

He begins by emphasizing that "Civilization is an enormous improvement on the lack thereof;" then describes wildly corrupt and dangerous places to prove his point. "Western Civilization provides a bit of life, a pinch of liberty, and the occasional pursuance of happiness; it's also the only [society] that's ever tried to. . . . We are fools when we fail to defend [it]. . . . War will exist as long as there's a food chain. No amount of mushy essaying . . . and no number of noisy, ill-kempt women sitting in at Greenham Common will change this. . . . Better we study to conduct war as decently as possible and as little as necessary. . . . We think war is a John Wane movie. We think life is a John Wayne movie--with good guys and bad guys; as simple as that." After months of dealing with "Euro-Weenies:" Well, it is not, "Mister Limey Poofter," you say WE BE BAD. We don't all agree on that !! (Though far to many of us do!)

As for Central and South America . . . no one, least of all us, is wrecking them. They "came pre-wrecked." Why is Mexico so poor? C'mon, wake up! It isn't just squalid homes, but squalid industry, squalid infrastructure and squalid corporate poverty, intellectual and otherwise. "The whole country looks like it's run by slum lords. Especially the bathrooms."

At dawn in Jerusalem, "you could be in any century," but by mid-day you know exactly. You're in the twelfth, where "everybody is bashing everybody over the head about God." The universal hatred seems incredibly out of keeping in the Holy Land. It had never occurred to him that God, or hatred, could permeate (mostly Palestinian) people this way.

And after a night on the town (in Poland), including some nudity: "To grasp the true meaning of socialism, imagine a world where everything is designed by the post office, even the sleaze." The root of socialist problems is boredom, according to P.J. Our sixties generation (of which he's a member) rebelled against boring commercialism and boring materialism. The socialists rebel from the lack thereof. While the Evil Empire starves and executes people by the thousands, "mostly it bores them to death." (On the serious side, consider the incidence of alcoholism, etc.)

Suffice it to say that, while quite informative, and more than occasionally quite serious--sometimes gravely so--it is also a rollicking run thru chaotic parts of the world; good history, and immensely entertaining.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 2:39 PM

March 27, 2010

The Lost City of Z

A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
David Grann - ISBN 978-1400078455

While not exactly a riveting read, "Z" is a very informative and interesting book about the life and quests of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. He was the most dedicated and famous archaeologist of crossover period of the 19th/20th century, and his final search was for the fabled city: the mythical El Dorado, which he referred to as "Z." It was first described by Carvajal, and the Spanish Conquistadores strove relentlessly in the 16th century to find it.

Fawcett was no less a fanatic than DeSoto and DeVaca, though his quest was for the satisfaction and the glory of (re?)discovery, not conquest or gold. He began as an officer in Britain's military, but quit to seek adventure as an archaeologist and surveyor. For the Royal Geographic Society of London he first went to South America to define the disputed and previously totally unexplored border regions between Brazil and Bolivia. Here he became enamored of the jungle, its terror, its predatory environment and its challenges. He always managed to emerge from his treks intact, surviving adventures which destroyed others who attempted such. He was unflappable and indestructible. Grann makes clear the heroic deeds of Fawcett: his almost inhuman endurance, his dedication, grit and determination . . . and his seeming resistance to virtually all of the health risks posed by this hostile environment.

He chronicles his numerous other adventures, as he pursues the man's biography and psyche in depth. In my opinion he pursued the latter--and some of the adventures as well--to a degree so extreme that it makes the text drag, and at times it's boring. Half-way through I found myself scanning whole pages, sometimes more, to get back into the flow of the interesting part of the narrative. Still, his descriptions of the jungle and its unknowns are fascinating. This is the most predatory environment in the world, with more poisonous plants, animals and bugs than can be imagined. The natives can be as dangerous as well It is a rainforest in which one cannot find potable water; neither can the amateur find food. The Amazon is the size of Continental United States, and includes an island the size of Switzerland. The outflow of the Amazon River is 60 times that of the Nile: 57 million gallons per second. It is 4,000 miles long with a delta 200 miles wide, with tidal variations up to 65 feet and waves which move at 15 mph. 200 miles in the Atlantic you still find fresh water.

The indigenous Indians are savvy beyond belief. They call into the "barren" jungle, and a deer, boar or a monkey answers the call . . . to become food. The average explorer has for centuries limited himself largely to water transport, so the inlands and uplands were, and to great extent still are unexplored. Fawcett went on foot, overland, and discovered things not seen by others, including isolated tribes with which he had a knack of establishing friendly relations. He worked diligently to become reasonably conversant in the native languages. On his last expedition he found and commented upon elevated flatlands where there were hundreds of artifacts--mostly potsherds--in the remotest of places. He had actually found what he was looking for, but didn't recognize it.

He disappeared, along with his son and another young friend; they were never seen again. Numerous search parties were launched over nearly a century. None were successful. The death toll of those adventurers is estimated at over 100. The author was successful! He discloses his own quest in some detail. Having arrived in the area his intensive research had determined to be the probably location of "Z," he encountered an American archaeologist who had lived and studied in the area for 13 years. He undertook to explain, in finality, that El Dorado wasn't and isn't about gold, but about the discovery of an enormous (perhaps a million people) settlement dating from pre-Columbian, and perhaps pre-Christian times, lost in the heart of the Amazon. This was discussed in the book 1491 (reviewed here a year or more ago) in some detail. Atop enormous filled land were circular mounds 3 miles in circumference and connected by roads to at least 20 others in the area. The fill has human fingerprints all over it. These were wholly manufactured fields in this most desolate, infertile "desert jungle." It is estimated to have supported a huge population, the likes of this were never before suspected. They do, however, confirm what the conquistadors reported--massive settlements which, when return expeditions were made a century later, could not be found. They'd been decimated by European diseases before being revisited . . . and in most cases before the Europeans ever arrived. The diseases preceded them.

So Fawcett's quest was in vain because he wasn't looking for what he was looking at! He hadn't correctly interpreted what he found. Not altogether unlike the accidental discovery of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia. It was covered by jungle. Overlooked for centuries . . . and Angkor was constructed of stone. "Z" was constructed of perishables, on labor intensive mounds which escaped proper interpretation until the last decade or so.

The book is fascinating and I recommend it highly for those who are interested in Archaeology. Just "fast forward through the boring parts." And if you haven't, you should also read 1491.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 3:30 PM

March 23, 2010

Resistance

Owen Sheers - ISBN9780307385833

This subtle and emotionally charged book explores the give and take of humans in the venue of the hypothetical occupation of Great Britain after the failure of Operation Overlord--the D-Day invasion of Europe. Sheers describes a beautiful, serene, and sparsely inhabited Welsh valley not yet entered by the enemy. There are gorgeous descriptions of a fairy-tale-like remote countryside. Into this milieu comes a Nazi patrol on a mission. All of the men of the valley have disappeared to join the resistance movement, leaving behind the women and children now faced with the awesome task of enduring these difficult times without male participation, never mind security and companionship. In this hard-scrabble farming community all is left to the women, who must undertake tasks they are all but physically unable to do, added to their already consuming chores.

The patrol occupies a vacated farm, the former home of an old man and several sons gone to places unknown. The Germans are tasked to search for a map--an important English artifact the Nazis wish to discover. They are also to report on the regional resistance activities. Wearied by five years of uninterrupted combat they settle in, and with the ensuing, worst winter in living memory they are isolated from command. They blend into the situation, relieved to be left out of the war, however temporarily.

There is a gritty account of the women keeping up the home front, interacting with the patrol as required. Originally there is the anticipated hubris of the Germans, but over time the soldiers begin to assist the women in their endeavors. A wary cooperation is achieved. In so doing they rediscover an all but forgotten life where an absence fear marries a plentitude of meaningful activity assisting the women.

There are vivid descriptions of place, dialect, attitudes, and the interaction of the two cultures within easy walking distance of each other. There is a felt requirement to resist, but the women cannot fully do so since they desperately need the help. The necessity of survival and preservation of home and livelihood tempers their inclination to reject the men. The narrative explores the way of life in remote areas with few, but good and responsible friends and neighbors, which is no longer possible since existence is unimaginable without the help of the soldiers.

This interdependence results in some near-family types of interaction and several involving a reluctant physical attraction. The wounds, insecurities and tragedies of war are exposed. The well educated officer in charge of the patrol enjoys, with one of the women, discussions of the local myth: that of an ancient Welsh army "sleeping" about, to be wakened in the case of need, and another tale of an old "poet" who, in living memory, sought out the peace of the valley to established a redoubt for scholarly pursuits. The officer and the presumably widowed woman become emotionally involved, which leads to some difficulty with the others, and especially with the residents of the nearby village.

Eventually winter ends and the German occupation reasserts itself. The horrors of Nazi cruelty are brought to the fore, along with hostile native resistance, which complicates the situation for the couple, and leads to a wrenching dilemma for both. The plot ends with a not unexpected yet still unfulfilling climax which is altogether consistent with the primary plot thrust . . . the tragedies of war.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 1:15 PM

March 21, 2010

Koster

Americans in Search of Their Prehistoric Past
Stuart Streuver, PhD

This book is long out of print, but if you're interested in North American Archaeology it is one of the most interesting books.

Koster is an ancient site in the lower Illinois River valley which was thoroughly excavated in the 1970s. It is the oldest and most complex excavation site in the entire U.S.; a site uniquely attractive to Amerinds over millennia. The dig ultimately involved sixteen identifiable levels. The lowest was 32 feet below present ground level (because of downwash over time), and has been dated at >7,500 B.C.; the most important site for research and development of what is now called "new archaeology."

Instead of treasure hunting, for which historic archaeology is noted, a variety of new modalities of study were invented, which permitted the acquisition of information which uncovered the life style of the various generations of ancients who had lived there thru the ages.

That is why the book is fascinating. With the techniques discovered, they found that when fish grow they add rings (like trees) to their scales, rather than adding more scales. The rings are laid down in a sufficiently unique fashion that it was possible to determine the age of the fish, and whether they were caught in the spring or fall. The natives ate only "keepers." Mussel shells gave them more useful information. The excavation collected huge quantities of pollen and charred nut shells--amazingly durable--from which they could not only determine what grew in the area over the millennia, but what the natives chose to gather as food.

"To our surprise, the Early Archaic people had learned how to exploit the wild-food resources in their environment so skillfully that they could go out and replenish their staples on a seasonal basis year in and year out with almost as much confidence as we drive to the super market for ours." Pollen from a large variety of medicinal plants was also found on site. The plethora of food was such that these folks rarely moved beyond a three-mile radius of their villages to find all they could want. Populations remained stable--and healthy--suggesting that there was sufficient space between settlements that the growing population voluntarily moved away to found other, similar sites removed enough to allow for their prosperity. There was no great flowering of culture. Abundance was such that it delayed the development of agriculture for thousands of years. The Amerinds lived in the area for over 12,000 years, but only in the last 1,000 years did they develop serious agriculture. Such was the bounty in their environment.

Bones could be studied, indicating which animals were hunted; other artifacts gave clues to how and with what they were hunted and butchered. The bones also indicated that they brought only the meaty portions of the game back from the hunt. Fragments of charred, woven clothing materials were found, which confirmed textile manufacture long before it had previously been recognized.

Astonishingly, it was discovered that they lived in substantial, permanent housing constructed of wattle and daub--with perimeter drainage ditches!--in 5,000 B.C., six thousand years before previously thought. They had substantial fire pits and large grinding stones hollowed out like modern pestles, further confirming their settled lifestyle.

Artifacts were found which confirmed trade with northern Michigan, over 500 miles away--before 6,000 B.C. Burials indicated that the early "primitives" weren't primitive at all. They didn't struggle to survive. Many lived into their 70's, most had perfect teeth and some were obviously severely crippled. These people lived a life of leisure and plenty, and were able to care for their compromised elders. Interestingly, it was determined that the dog was domesticated several thousand years before the widely accepted date.

The gospel of anthropology had been that settled communities permitted the development and arts, but it was clear that that was not true. These people spent their time in "the pursuit of happiness," rather than indulging in such activities. Competition seems to have favored the arts.

There was no habitation on site after about 1,000 A.D. since the site would have been indefensible against attacks from the warring cultures of that era, but the study of genetic traits established biological continuity in the region from ancient times. They evolved into the mound people of Cahokia (600-1400 A.D.), the most famous mound builders, and the most populous and successful North American culture. Monks Mound, alone, covers 14 acres, rises 100 feet, and was topped by a massive 5,000 square-foot building another 50 feet high. The population, at its peak, is estimated at 40,000, surrounded by more people living in outlying farming villages. In 1250, its population was larger than London.

Humorously he includes a report of a cadre of Japanese tourists who asked how much the young people (called "arkies") were paid for their intense excavating labor. When told that they paid for the opportunity they were flabbergasted. The man who owned the farm upon which the dig was proceeding ("Teed" Koster) observed: "No poor man's kid ever dug in that hole."

In closing the book Streuver commented: "There are no monumental ruins at Koster, no elaborate artifacts. . . . only the silent record, trampled into earth by feet, covered by soft dust, wind-blown or washed down the slope of the bluffs by rains over the centuries. In the ground are fragments of charred seeds, nutshells, pieces of animal and fish bones, mussel shells, and the tools of housewives, toolmakers, and hunters. In the small cemeteries people quietly sleep away the centuries. From these multitudinous fragments of evidence we are gaining an intimate glimpse of life as it was lived . . . over a period of more than eight thousand years . . . [giving] a new perspective on the America's first people."

Posted by Curmudgeon at 11:36 AM

March 15, 2010

The Unheavenly City Revisited

Edward C. Banfield

Banfield was a professor at the University of Chicago and later Harvard, a colleague of Leo Strauss and Milton Friedman, an advisor to Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and one of the foremost conservative lights of his day. He began as a supporter of FDR and the New Deal, but discovered the hollowness of the progressive agenda--and especially the subsequent Great Society--which convinced him that government aid to the poor, while making the givers of aid feel virtuous, failed to improve the lives of the receivers of that aid.

First published in 1968, it was later republished in its current form, and re-released in 1990 (though it is now out of print.) Notwithstanding, it is a brilliant and still relevant textbook on cities, their functions, their weaknesses and strengths. He demonstrates a pleasant, expository style, albeit offensive to those who refuse to consider his premises. Alongside that narrative is an explicit and rewarding, discursive description of labor markets, price, value, and much more. It unlikely as a current text since it is damning of progressivism, though that was not his express intent. The book is truly scholarly, though very readable, and based on solid econometrics backed by factual materials explaining failures of policy. It has become painfully and pointedly pertinent with the advent of Obama's inexorable return to these documentably failed pathways. The movement was set back a little by Reagan, but has reached its zenith and its breaking point in the last year . . . that of "hope and change."

In reading one has to keep in mind that progressive utopian confabulations, when subjected to empirical validation, are usually found wanting--their "visions" contradicted by the facts. Such disagreeable facts, however, are promptly buried and forgotten. "City" is the requisite reminder . . . that still, small voice which says "I told you so. Been there, done that," or "it ain't gonna work this time either," without quite saying it.

His "main points" are wrenchingly subversive of beliefs to which intelligent and well-informed people are wedded, and "without which their world would be unendurable." Owing to the nature of man and society--especially American culture--we "cannot solve our serious problems by rational management." Indeed, by trying we make matters worse. His observations, born out by the facts, are 180 degrees opposite the prevailing "received wisdom" of the policy wonks in the political class. It is frustrating to review those facts a generation or two later, during which time policies have not changed. Failure never causes the left to reflect. Obama himself has opined that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. Imagine what changes might be wrought if he actually studied this manuscript and gave it some thought, instead of reading words on a teleprompter.

Banfield explores the dilemmas which the anointed muddle through, as they remain convinced that these troubles are manifestly devastating and require their solutions. . . . and that they have them. He offers the example transportation, which is "certainly a problem as important as a head cold," but hardly worth getting greatly exercised over. He discusses myriad such, noting that solutions are not always necessary, or even possible, and observes that some are quite simply stupid. To a large extent our urban problems are like the mechanical rabbit at the racetrack, "set to keep just ahead of the dogs." We set our standards to stay ahead of performance, while problems are never nearer a solution. The quest for the perfect is the enemy of the good. In most situations "good enough" is good enough. Left alone, most inherently unmanageable situations resolve themselves.

Maddeningly, we continuously redefine poverty in such ways that the real and dramatic improvements are washed away. Without fixed standards nothing can be accurately or honestly measured. The poor today are infinitely wealthier than decades ago. Indeed our poor are well ahead of the affluent in many countries. Yet the fact that society cannot solve this conundrum . . . that the poor still exist . . . that other problems are "still without solution" only proves to progressives that "society" is guilty, and worse, is obliged to "fix it."

The cognoscenti worry that city centers are being depopulated, and the poor are ghettoed as the wealth moves to the suburbs. Yet, soon the peripheral properties become more valuable than the center, and "wealth" moves back--as indeed it does. Thus the elite are now worried sick about "gentrification," which destroys housing for the poor; driving them from the very homes the anointed deplored only yesterday. While it was unheard of in his time, we now have eminent domain taking the homes of prosperous people for use by businesses, reputedly to increase the tax base. Most of these properties are now razed weed fields, abandoned by developers after their acquisition, producing no revenue at all. Still, the wizened insist that it was "the rational thing to do." Really?!

From early times U.S. cities have had upper, middle, working and lower classes. Relative size has varied, but the basics didn't change. "Normal," as a class reference, was not that of the lower class, which was deemed pathological (and it still is, progressive do-gooders notwithstanding.) The dominant--normal--culture placed stock in forward looking virtues: self-determination, industry, thrift, and respect for law and order. The lower classes have always been present-oriented, living moment to moment, governed largely by impulse. Anything not immediately useful is without value. Good jobs may be offered as many remain chronically unemployed. Slums may be demolished, but the housing that replaces it, if occupied by the lower class, will be turned promptly into new slums. For so long as a city contains a sizable lower class little can be done about most of its serious problems. And the lower class cannot be fixed! It might, conceivably, be preventable amongst their offspring, but it cannot be repaired. Progressives, however, consider such "fixes" as might be possible to be unacceptable. People have their rights to do as they desire, irrespective of the predictable outcomes (which would certainly be improved if only the underclass would aspire to do as the cognoscenti insist.)

Poverty problems for the aged, the handicapped, and mothers with dependent children are different; they need order and some money to live decently. The "lower orders," by choice, live in squalor and misery even with adequate income. The same is true with housing, schools, vice, crime and rioting. Each is a different "poverty" problem, and the latter is insoluble, though liberal government has the perverse tendency to a.) believe in their ability to solve everything, and b.) to uniformly adopt the "very opposite" of those programs that one would recommend. Available measures of address commonly lie outside the bounds of feasibility. The proponents of particular measures are usually blessed with both myopia and tunnel vision: they can see only the immediate and direct effects that follow from the attainment of their objective. Long-run or indirect effects, especially ones pertinent to "background values," are invisible to them. Most often the elite are looking after their own interests, regardless of the apparent altruism. Public attitudes are heavily influenced by the "feelings" of the well-educated, but this opinion, reflecting the "ideals" of the upper class, and it is precisely this quasi-altruistic bias that accounts for its perversity. American governance is oriented toward the future and toward moral and material progress for the individual and society as a whole . . . values which the miscreant lower orders do not share (recall the silk purse and the sow's ear analogy.)

Risibly . . . or not . . . he observes that the early English Puritans attitude toward bear-baiting was not that it was evil because it was cruel to the animal, but that it was evil because it was enjoyed by the spectators. Likewise, the modern reformer wants to improve the situation of the poor, not so much to make them better off, but to make himself and the whole society better off morally. One needs to avoid the impulse for "doing good" from gushing incontinently into mass extravaganzas costing billions, without effect. Usually more harm than good is done, however well intended, and the expense is profligate beyond any ephemeral goal.

He discusses minimum wage (and its destructiveness), the value of mechanization (and its problems), "job creation" endeavors (and their risks), rent control, welfare, the relativity of poverty, gangs, violence, educational concepts, "mainstreaming" as opposed to getting "non-learners" out of the classroom (or at least the standard classroom), the problems of educational dictates, the modern worship of degrees for no reason beyond the supposed demonstration of determination, etc. "To force the lower classes to adapt to the practice of the upper classes is both pointless and harmful."

Myriad concepts and realities are discussed thoroughly and understandably. This is a text book, but it is masterfully written, and for the inclined it is well worth the time to read. It is a no nonsense, in depth analysis of virtually all societal problems within the city, and as relevant today as when it was written. Human problems, human nature and human endeavors do not change. One deplores Obama and his myrmidons who refuse read and reflect. It borders on insanity to approach the problems as we have historically . . . with serial and predictable failure. Some problems simply cannot be fixed. The requirement is that those without solution be identified and filed in the circular file next to the desk . . . along with those which ought not to be considered because the fix is more trouble, and usually more expensive than the problem.

Ah, yes, it'd be wonderful; alas it ain't gonna happen!!

Posted by Curmudgeon at 2:18 PM

March 12, 2010

The Secret River

Kate Grenville - ISBN - 9781841959146

A more interesting book would be hard to find. Well written with a tight plot and interesting characters; rooted in truth, while not literal historic fiction. The setting is primarily Australia in the early 19th century. The principal character, a "river man" and a minor thief (as all of them were) is sentenced to die, but offered an alternative: be transported to the penal colony recently founded in Sydney, New South Wales . . . later to become Australia.

With considerable and interesting character developing prologue, the plot begins in earnest as he is stripped of everything, spends nine months in transit (in fetters), with his wife and young son little better quartered in a different section of the ship. Within hours of his arrival they face a hostile foreign land in which Will Thornhill considers himself sentenced to die, and almost immediately face their first black aboriginal. Not at all certain he's equipped, his wife makes it alright with her determination and cheery countenance. Together they'll make it, though she holds out for a return to London in the future; a hope she maintains thru much of the book, and one not supported by Will.

There is majesty in Grenville's descriptive language, and an earnest awe as she describes the family's trials which over years make them first free, then struggling colonists in which situation Will again becomes a river man, if of a different kind, and finally a prototypical Aussie of some means and success.

The narrative is full of observations and insights as she describes their settlement and progress in primitive Australia. Will reflects that "a man's life seemed a cruel race: to get himself and his family above the high water mark, safe from the tides and contrary winds, before his body gave out." Being a river man is a hard life, and along the way they come to grips with the painful fact that the only way to acquire land is to take it from the aboriginals. They also gain insight into the complex life of these seemingly quite primitive natives, as they (the English) struggle to farm a harsh land, while observing the "easy life" of the ancients, so well adapted to the environment.

They learn that there is no forgiveness. The "honest" settlers, while few in number, scorn those who have arrived for reasons other than a change of venue. As well, that should they to return to London they'd still be rejected; once a felon, always a felon. Their fate is sealed.

Eventually there is a local war over land, which begins as the aboriginals try to frighten the settlers away. It ends in a holocaust . . . the natives are simply eliminated. The Thornhills and their neighbors are emancipated, sort of, and though their life continues to depend to some extent on fraud, it is no longer theft. They acquire wealth beyond anything they could have dreamed in London, and accept their life in their new homeland. Content . . . but . . . Grenville is subtle but still manages to portray the continuing unrest of a gratifying if troubling "settlement."

A pleasant read, explaining as it does the realities of early Australia when the vast majority of settlers were sentenced there to make a new life and a new home. Seems for most that it was a fortunate event.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 4:21 PM

March 9, 2010

One Minute to Midnight

Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
Michael Dobbs - ISBN - 9781400078912

Dobbs does his usual masterful job with the subject at hand. It's wonderfully informative and well worth the read.

It is a compelling assessment of both Kennedy and Khrushchev, and makes clear just how close we came to a nuclear conflict. As a result of the Bay of Pigs disaster Khrushchev determined that Kennedy was a man of mush and decided that the USSR could field missiles in Cuba. Fortunately it became a grown-up moment for JFK. His original miscalculation could not be compounded by yet another which was orders of magnitude more hazardous than trying to overthrow Castro.

He chronicles the minutes, hours and days of the confrontation. Too minutely, I think, since he eliminated only the potty breaks (though, on consideration, there must have been quite a few!). Virtually everything which happened over the frightful days is discussed, from the discovery of missile installation, thru the naval blockade, to the removal of the offending warheads from Cuba--at very little cost. The missiles in Turkey, dismantled in exchange for those in Cuba, were about to be removed in any event (though unbeknownst to the Turks.) Thru back channels he had promised Khrushchev they'd be removed 6 months later, and they were. As for the promise not to invade Cuba, another attempt is doubtful after the first fiasco.

When the counterrevolutionaries took over Hungary the USSR stood down for several days, waiting for Eisenhower to act. He did not--Eisenhower's mistake in my estimation--so Russia crushed the revolution. Khrushchev felt that the missiles would make Cuba invulnerable to American attack and equalize the balance of power. He understood that the missile placement represented something the U.S. could not permit, but he tried, hoping that Kennedy would back down as had Eisenhower. He couldn't, and didn't!

JFK calculated that whether blown up by a missile from Russia or from Cuba was ultimately not the issue. The decision was political. To do nothing was to submit to blackmail. He drew the proverbial "line in the sand" and stood by it, whatever the cost. And there very nearly was! So many variables, so many players and so much at risk. Castro wanted to "go for broke," prepared to risk being annihilated to make the point. Fortunately he was not in charge. Even Khrushchev was appalled by Castro's attitude. Khrushchev had seen much destruction in his time, and was reluctant to risk more. In the end his humanity is exposed. I, for one, have a more kindly view of the man after this book. He was a bully, but a brilliant politician-shoe banging and all. Here he is a sensate human.

"Despite their personal and ideological differences the two men had reached similar conclusions about the nature of nuclear war. They both understood that such a war would be far more terrible than anything mankind had known. Having witnessed war themselves, they also understood that a commander in chief was not always in control. They were awed, frightened, and sobered by their power to raze the world. The risks of modern war were unacceptably high, and it was necessary to intercede in whatever way possible.

"The history of the Cuban missile crisis is replete with accidental figures whose role in history is often overlooked: pilots and submariners, spies and missileers, bureaucrats and propagandists, radio operators and saboteurs," Dobbs observes. No longer. Every detail is included in this presentation.

It is the definitive volume on the crises, one never before carefully explored (and likely never again.)

Not incidentally he also discusses Kennedy's myriad and very serious illnesses, long kept secret from the public. He also lays the groundwork for Viet Nam, exposing the foibles and weaknesses of Kennedy's brain trust--especially McNamara. It is clear that if ever there was "the best and the brightest," or "the dream team," it was the brain trust created by Ronald Reagan. He assembled the best cabinet in 20th century history, one comparable to Lincoln's during the Civil War.

Even now, few will acknowledge that fact, but some of the best Washington minds of the era have certified it, including more than a handful important Democrats. Robert Strauss--long a power in Democrat party circles, and chairman of the DNC--described the cabinet as "simply spectacular. It's the best White House staff I've ever seen."

Posted by Curmudgeon at 1:14 PM

March 6, 2010

Longitude

Dava Sobel - ISBN - 978080271529X

The search for a means of determining longitude is a millennial quest which reached its culmination in 1759. This is a tour-de-force account of that quest and its solution. She suggests it is arguable that the British Empire owes its existence to the find. Without longitude, "dead reckoning" was the only possibility, and disastrous results awaited most miscalculations. Travel was done within pre-determined latitudes. "Aim here, stay on course and you'll run into something from whence you can determine which way you want to turn to arrive where you intended. This facilitated piracy and bounty hunting. One example offered was a captured Portuguese ship returning from the Americas with a cargo worth half of the net value of the entire English Exchequer at the time (that was millions upon millions of today's dollars.)

Sobel reviews the dilemma in general, and then explores the specifics. Latitude had been reasonably well mastered from before the time of the Phoenicians, but not longitude. Only two reasonable tracks could be pursued: the painfully slow endeavor of comprehensive mapping of the heavens in both hemispheres, and likewise the tracks of the moon (over its 18 year cycle), with complicated coordination of this data into useful equations which could be published in a source book--rather like logarithms in geometry; the other was the creation of a clock which would be accurate within few seconds per day over many months--a feat considered impossible.

The former method was eventually rendered possible on land, with considerable accuracy, but not at sea. On land it had to be determined only once, on a clear night, and recorded as a datum, while at sea there were days, even weeks, when visibility was limited or non-existent, and times when the seas were too rough to accomplish such metrics. Clocks, on the other hand, were then dependent upon pendulums, which for a variety of reasons were non-starters at sea.

From the outset it appears (to me, at least) that the chronograph, as the clock was to be called, was the best solution, but the astronomers were in charge, and did their very best to stay on top. The British Crown had declared a reward of 20,000 pounds--12 million dollars today--to the genius who figured it out. Hundreds of people sought the answer, most of them crackpots.

John Harrison, an autodidact and carpenter by trade, undertook the challenge by first developing a clock with a pendulum which didn't change its length with changes of temperature (which influenced its accuracy.) No mean trick, but it still had a pendulum. He then built a clock which required neither a pendulum nor lubrication, which eliminated the problems, including the viscosity changes of the lubricant, but it was made of wood and all but impossible to protect from humidity. Finally he created a metal clock of various metals whose temperature related characteristics offset each other, thus eliminating error, but it was huge--4x4 feet and weighed over 80 lbs. These efforts took him decades, and involved 3 separate clocks: H-1, H-2 and H-3. Two and three were smaller if not lighter, and the last met the requirements of the crown for accuracy, but Harrison was not satisfied.

Having commissioned the creation of a pocket watch for himself, designed by him, it occurred to him that such a device could be the answer, and using all of the now known facts might be more affordable and easier to manage, and would certainly be smaller. Eureka! Several years later he had a wonderfully accurate chronograph which was nonetheless still expensive. But it worked, and he was on his way to the prize worth millions. Unfortunately his hated adversary was the Royal Astronomer, and sabotaged both the clock and the endeavor, holding out for an astronomical answer which he and his predecessors had been working on for decades. Harrison stood alone against the vested interests of both scientists and admirals, and finally prevailed in 1759: the H-4 was a 3 pound mechanism only 5 inches in diameter and sealed completely from humidity, and it performed as well as the H-3 which had demonstrated an accuracy of but 3 seconds lost on an 81 day cruise to the Caribbean!

While it is clear that Ms. Sobel could have described, at length, the processes of both competing endeavors, she briefly reviews--bless her heart--the information while keeping the book short and interesting. In addition she is a gifted writer, reminding me of the now long gone section in the Readers Digest which was titled "toward more picturesque speech." A delightful read if you are interested in the quest for latitude; brief, but complete.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 12:41 PM

March 2, 2010

Soul of Battle

From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny
Victor Davis Hanson - ISBN - 9780385720595


"Democracies, I think--if the cause, if the commanding general, if the conditions of time and space take on their proper meaning--for a season can produce the most murderous armies from the most unlikely of men, and do so in the pursuit of something spiritual rather than the mere material. This book, devoted to infantry, not airpower, tries to learn why all that is so." Thus begins the discussion and exploration of The Soul of Battle, by Victor Davis Hanson, delving into, analyzing and expounding upon three of the most exemplary such battles of all time:

1. The battle surrounding the defeat of the hubristic and hated Spartans. At the time, Laconia, home territory of the Spartans, had not been attacked for nearly 600 years. An army of 70,000 Hoplites, commanded by Epaminondas, marched 180 miles from Thebes in the winter of 370-369 B.C. These Greek Yeoman--simple dirt farmers, voting citizens and volunteers all--over-ran Laconia and destroyed it, freeing its slaves, then moved on to neighboring Messenia, freeing forever Spartan Helots (serfs). They established several free, fortified Greek city-states governed by these freedmen. There were few casualties suffered by the invaders, and though the Spartans were slaughtered like cattle on the first day, subsequent losses were few, since they avoided further meetings with the Thebans on the field of battle. Instead, they left their women to pathetically plead for mercy. Epaminondas ("Iron Gut") and his democratic army accomplished in 60 days what imperial Athens had been unable to do in 27 years of the Peloponnesian War. Less than six months later his army returned home in time for spring planting, never to be assembled again. The Spartans, while still a nuisance for a time, were never again the Sparta of myth, legend, or prior reality as their army had been demonstrated to be a hollow and heartless shell.

2. For nearly 150 years we have studied Sherman's March to the Sea (Nov. 16 to Dec. 21, 1864) in which William Tecumseh ("Uncle Billy") Sherman led an army of Midwestern troops 62,000 strong--also mostly simple dirt farmers, voting citizens and volunteers--into and through the heart of the Confederacy, a slave based society similar to Sparta. There the Army of the West razed the property and freed the slaves of the arrogant plantation owners who had driven the south into the Civil War. When Sherman's army turned north five weeks later the Confederacy, and its ability to make war, had been thoroughly destroyed. While there were 30,000 Confederate troops "in his way," they never entered the field of battle in their own defense. They hid, leaving their women to plead for leniency and safety. Their safety was never in doubt, but leniency was denied. The Rebels, like the Spartans, were shown to be a hollow force. Little known is the fact that Sherman's army killed virtually no one and experienced only a handful of casualties--virtually none of these in combat--and did no direct harm to the poor. After the surrender at Appomattox four months later, the army was disbanded and never heard from again--and the Confederate slave state was no more.

3. The lightening attacks of George Patton's Third Army contributed mightily to the defeat of Germany in WWII, sweeping rapidly across Europe and into the German homeland (Aug. 1 to May 8, 1944/45). Had he not been halted for two months to permit Montgomery to pursue his failed operations, Patton would have been in Germany months before, the war shortened by six months, and the outcome entirely different. Almost certainly there would have been no Russian occupation, no Berlin wall, and just maybe no cold war. Certainly there would have been 500,000 fewer deaths (though some estimates of deaths potentially prevented run well into the millions.) In seven months--plus the two when Patton was sidelined--the Third Army, composed of raw recruits who for the most part had never been in battle, so completely overwhelmed the Germans that they lived in constant dread of the army of "Old Blood and Guts." He experienced fewer casualties than any other general, while inflicting more. Alone amongst Allied generals, Patton was feared. He struck terror in the hearts and minds of the Nazis--the master race--who never knew what he would do, where he would go, when he would attack . . . or how. They knew, only that he was lethal. As with the prior armies, Patton's half a million men was disbanded within months, vanishing into the U.S. landscape never to be heard from again, except in history. And the Nazis entered history in the 9th year of their much touted 1,000 year Reich. A third evil slave state destroyed by a murderous democratic army of "spiritual warriors."

Such is the soul of battle. Hanson observes that, and why, "Iron Gut", "Uncle Billy" and "Blood and Guts" were all respected, admired and even worshipped by the men they commanded. Yet, each maintained a certain distance from, and a subtle contempt for, the very masses they led. All spent their time at the front, where they could command and be seen by their troops. All kept moving, always taking new ground, never settling into fixed positions, "paying for the same territory twice," as Patton remarked. All were feared by their adversaries, but each exhibited a certain softness and consideration for their enemies, once defeated. All were intellectuals, far better read and educated than their armies and their contemporary commanders, especially in the literature and philosophy of war. All honored the warrior culture they labored mightily to destroy, and all followed an arcane honor code poorly suited for times of peace. They were ruthless and gifted men of little subsequent use. Neither the three, nor their armies, started the wars which they did not wish to begin. All led armies which fought with a terrible vengeance, as Spartan helotage, African slavery, and Nazism perished in their fearsome onslaught. All were despised by their opponents--Sherman is still hated in the South--and worshipped by those they commanded and those whose salvation they wrought . . . millions upon millions of people.

This book demonstrates that these commanders instilled in their men a zealous ethic, making them understand and believe they were morally superior to their undemocratic, slave-holding adversaries. It is more nearly an essay on the ethical nature of democracies at war than a pure history of epic military marches for freedom. In it, Hanson demonstrates that "on rare occasions throughout the ages there is a soul, not merely a spirit, in the way men battle."

It is a truly magnificent read, detailed and graphic, informative and wise. Read it and understand that, and why, an American army, deployed properly for the right reasons, led by stirring, competent and committed commanders, will never lose a war.

Posted by Curmudgeon at 10:35 AM