Monday, November 11, 2013


To all of our veterans, who had to endure unspeakable horrors to protect and defend our freedom, our civilization, and our way of life.

The Pride of the American Side

Yesterday was the anniversary of the sinking of the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald in a storm on Lake Superior just short of Whitefish Point, Michigan, on the evening of February 10, 1975. The exact cause of the sinking is still unclear, but was most likely caused by the accidental grounding of the Fitzgerald (caused by the storm-related loss of her radars) on a poorly-charted reef, which caused her to ride lower in the water and leave her vulnerable to foundering under a series of rogue waves known as "The Three Sisters."

The Edmund Fitzgerald's skipper, Ernest McSorely, a 44-year veteran of the Great Lakes, was from Toledo, OH, which was also a frequent stop for the ship. Thus, her sinking was a big story there. My father covered it extensively when he worked for WTOL. They used the same stock picture of the Fitzgerald:

For little 4-year-old me at the time, this picture was both fascinating and frightening. That ominous-looking black crane in the background, apparently used to dispense coal and taconite, looked to this toddler like some sort of monster.

I guess it was best that I never saw this picture:

May Captain McSorely and his crew always be remembered.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A too-novel legal theory of self defense

Criminal defense lawyer Andrew Branca highlights this weird story from Colorado:
A Colorado judge denied immunity under the state’s “Make My Day” law to a woman charged with 1st degree murder. The defendant, Marla Abling, has been charged with first degree murder for the strangulation killing of her estranged boyfriend, Rory Alba.
The couple had a history of alleged domestic violence, and Abling had obtained a temporary restraining order that forbid Alba from going to Abling’s apartment. Despite this, Alba was in Abling’s apartment when she killed him.
Abling made a pre-trial motion for immunity from criminal prosecution under Colorado’s “Make-My-Day” law. In relevant part, §18-1-704.5 “Use of deadly physical force against an intruder” authorizes the use of deadly force, and provides both criminal and civil immunity for such use of force, even against a person who does not present an imminent threat of death or grave bodily harm if all of the following conditions are met:
(1) The person using the deadly defensive force is the occupant of a dwelling at the time, AND
(2) The person against whom the deadly defensive force is used has made an unlawful entry into the dwelling, AND
(3) The occupant has a reasonable belief that the other person has committed a crime in the dwelling (in addition to the uninvited entry) OR the other person is committing or intends to commit a crime (in addition to the uninvited entry) AND
(4) The occupant reasonably believes that such other person might use any physical force, no matter how slight, against any occupant.
Abling argued that she meets the conditions of the “Make-My-Day” law because (1) she was the occupant of the dwelling; (2) Alba’s entry into the dwelling was unlawful because of the presence of the temporary restraining order; (3) based on his prior conduct she had a reasonable belief that he intended to commit a crime in addition to the unlawful entry; and (4) for similar reasons she had a reasonable belief that he might use physical force against her.
Unfortunately for Abling, however, over the course of six days of testimony on the immunity motion, the prosecution presented evidence that convinced the judge that Abling’s conduct did not fall within the scope of the “Make-My-Day” statute.
There was evidence that Alba may have been invited to the apartment by Abling, rather than being an intruder. Phone records indicated ongoing and mutual communication between Alba and Abling, and the two had also been seeing together around town, despite the prohibitions against this by the restraining order.
Further, Alba’s keys were found hanging neatly on the key hook by the front door. It also appeared that Alba spent hours at the apartment with Abling before he was killed, and that the two may have engaged in consensual sex during that time. All of this seems behavior more consistent with that of an invited (and welcome) guest than of an unwanted intruder.
Most damning, however, was the prosecution witness that testified to overhearing Abling at a hair salon days before Alba’s death talking about ways to kill him. Oops.
You don't need a law degree to get to the logical heart of this self-defense claim, but Branca, a specialist in the law of self defense, gives it anyway, in the somewhat understated form for which we lawyers are generally known:
[W]hile I have seen a great many items used as defensive weapons in my years as a defensive trainer and in my legal work in the law of self-defense, the claimed necessity to kill an attacker by means of strangulation via electrical cord is certainly novel to my experience.
I wonder if Abling will next try the Chewbacca Defense.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book review -- John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General.

Sorry for the extremely light posting. Between work and final preparations for the book, I’ve had very little time for blogging, though if you follow my Twitter feed I’ve been fairly active over there.

But it has not stopped me from reading my usual dozen or so books at one time, so let’s do a book review.

My latest interesting read is John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, by Stephen M. “Sam” Hood, who is a distant relative of John Bell Hood.

John Bell Hood is a controversial figure in Civil War histories, generally seen as brave (he lost the use of one arm and one leg to battle wounds), but overly aggressive and rather stupid. He is most (in)famous for the ill-fated 1864 Nashville Campaign, in which he led the Confederate Army of Tennessee in an invasion of its namesake, with the operational objectives of liberation of the state and potentially driving up to the Ohio River, and the strategic objectives of forcing Union General William T. Sherman to abandon his march to the sea and move west to stop Hood.

It was a desperate move, but by this point in the war with the Mississippi, Chattanooga, and Atlanta now in Union hands, the Confederacy was well-past desperation.

Sherman did not move west. To stop Hood’s move, Union General George (“Rock of Chickamauga”) Thomas was collecting federal troops in a blocking position at Nashville, which had been held by the Union for 3 years and was heavily fortified. The trick was that those troops had to beat Hood’s army to Nashville.

For Union General John Schofield, this was kind of a problem, since his troops were directly in Hood’s line of march. That problem became a grave crisis on November 29, 1864, when Hood managed to outflank Schofield and get between the Union army and Nashville near Spring Hill. But through command and control problems and a poor deployment of the army, Hood’s troops did not block the road which Schofield was using to march to Nashville, and Schofield’s troops marched within a football field of Hood’s sleeping troops during the night and escaped. When Hood woke up the next morning, he went had breakfast with his senior generals at a mansion with the bizarre name of Rippavilla and supposedly threw a tantrum for the ages.

Schofield continued his flight northward towards Nashville, but was blocked by the flooded Harpeth River at the town of Franklin. As his forces repaired two damaged bridges and started his supply train across, his infantry and artillery were forced to deploy in defensive positions facing south. Sure enough, late that afternoon, Hood’s troops caught up with him.

The result was the Battle of Franklin, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War and Hood’s most controversial action. With the fading light, Hood ordered a frontal assault, and the Confederate infantry charged over two miles of open ground with no artillery support against prepared Union positions with enfilading artillery coverage from an artillery position on the north side of the Harpeth called Fort Granger. It was a slaughter. The Confederates suffered 6,252 casualties, including 1,750 killed and 3,800 wounded. Fourteen Confederate generals (six killed or mortally wounded, seven wounded, and one captured) and 55 regimental commanders were casualties. Among the dead were “The Stonewall of the West” Patrick Cleburne and the talented States Rights Gist (yes, that was his real name).

As one might expect given that Sam Hood is a relative of John Bell Hood, John Bell Hood is a defense of the Confederate general. In fact, it is more of a defense than it is a history, and it, while it does present excerpts of many of the accusations against Hood,   assumes considerable knowledge on the part of the reader of both the Civil War and the conventional opinion of Hood’s actions.

One might say that at times Sam Hood tries too hard to defend the general. One of the generally accepted beliefs is that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had a low opinion of General Hood and was not happy at the prospect of his selection for commander of the Army of Tennessee to replace General Joseph Johnston (himself another controversial figure) during the Atlanta campaign. Sam Hood, who is honest in presenting contradictory evidence, gives Lee’s statements about John Bell Hood to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. First is this:
Telegram of today received. I regret the fact stated. It is a bad time to release the commander of an army situated as that of Tennessee,. We may lose Atlanta and the army too. Hood is a bold fighter. I am doubtful as to other qualities necessary. (Page 12.)
Lee would later elaborate:
I am distressed at the intelligence conveyed in your telegram of today. It is a grievous thing to change the commander of an army situated as that of the Tennessee. Still if necessary it ought to be done. I know nothing of the necessity. I had hoped Johnston was strong enough to deliver battle. We must risk much to save Alabama, Mobile and communications with the Trans Mississippi. It would be better to concentrate all of the cavalry in Mississippi and Tennessee on Sherman’s communications. If Johnston abandons Atlanta I suppose he will fall back on Augusta. This loses us Mississippi and communications with Trans Mississippi. We had better therefore hazard that communication to retain the country. Hood is a good fighter, very industrious on the battle field, careless off, and I have had no opportunity of judging his actions, when the whole responsibility rested upon him. I have a high opinion of his gallantry, earnestness and zeal. General (William) Hardee has more experience in man aging an army. (Pages 12-13.)
 Sam Hood’s conclusion:

In the morning, Lee had rejected not Hood, but rather the act of changing the Army of Tennessee’s command. However, later that same day, after considering the broad geopolitical and military consequences of losing Atlanta, Lee agreed that a change in commanders was necessary. Lee, upon further thought, seemed to endorse Hood, making five positive comments and one negative about his former subordinate. Lee […] noted only Hardee’s previous army management experience but had nothing else to say about him. […]

Lee’s cautious advice to Davis about one of his favorite former subordinates an hardly be taken as a rejection of the proposal to install Hood, although many authors and historians have stated that Lee advised against elevating Hood. The full text of Lee’s longer reply to Davis, rarely provided by authors, speaks for itself. (Page 13.)

Indeed it does, but it does not say what Sam Hood says it says. He calls Lee’s response “cautious” and says Lee “seemed to endorse Hood.” Really? Given that John Bell Hood was indeed one of Lee’s favorite subordinates, don’t you think he would have given a more glowing endorsement than this? If Lee was endorsing Hood, so you think he would have ever said “I am doubtful as to other qualities necessary?” Lee compliment’s Hood’s bravery and fighting ability, but little else. Lee’s statements read like specifically not endorsing Hood while not coming out and saying as much, so as not to be seen as betraying a friend.

For a second example, Sam Hood tries very, very hard to refute the charge that John Bell Hood accused his troops of cowardice, especially after the “affair” at Spring Hill. He does present the quote that is used to support the charge, which comes from John Bell Hood’s own memoirs Advance & Retreat. The quote is a full paragraph:
The best move of my career as a soldier, I was thus destined to behold come to naught.  The discovery that the Army, after a forward march of one hundred and eighty miles, was still, seemingly, unwilling to accept battle unless under the protection of breastworks, caused me to experience grave concern. In my inmost heart I questioned whether or not I would ever succeed in eradicating this evil. It seemed to me I had exhausted every means in the power of one man to remove this stumbling block to the Army of Tennessee. And I will here inquire, in vindication of its fair name, if any intelligent man of that Army supposes one moment that these same troops one year previous, would, even without orders to attack, have allowed the enemy to pass them as Rocky-faced Ridge, as he did at Spring Hill. (Page 214.)
 Sam Hood comments:
Nowhere do the words “fear,” “bravery,” “cowardice,” or “courage” appear in this or any other paragraph relating to this event. All Hood explained was his frustration at the army’s apparent unwillingness to accept battle unless from behind breastworks, which he believed was a “stumbling block” instilled by the tactics of the previous commander. (Page 214.)
A fair interpretation, but by no means the only one or, in my opinion and that of many other historians, the most likely one. For one thing, you do not need to use the words “fear,” “bravery,” “cowardice,” or “courage” to accuse someone of cowardice. Just call them “chicken.” Accusing someone of an “unwillingness to fight” someone unless behind breastworks can reasonably (and easily) be interpreted as cowardice. 

Such stretches are found throughout the book. But that is merely a minor note. Most of Sam Hood’s defenses of John Bell Hood are well reasoned, worthy of consideration, and in many cases persuasive. For instance, as ugly and perhaps Quixotic as the Nashville campaign was, it was done with the complete knowledge and support of Jefferson Davis. Far from keeping Richmond in the dark as to the desperate plight of his army, Hood kept them well informed. Hood also did try his best to take care of his troops, requesting reinforcements and supplies at every opportunity, only to be repeatedly turned down. Sam Hood presents John Bell’s Hood’s tactics as desperate but defensible, which is a reasonable position.

Sam Hood’s John Bell Hood is more case than history, and not always a convincing case, but it presents enough of a case to merit a re-examination of John Bell Hood. And it is a very enjoyable read. The publisher Savas Beatie has made a habit of making high-quality history books focusing on the United States. This is yet another. While not agreeing with all of Sam Hood’s conclusions, it is well worth it to buy John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General and decide for yourself.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Ancient mysterious ruined cities

Nice Australian piece giving snapshots of what they call "Ancient ruined cities that remain a mystery." Not sure I agree that Pompeii "remains a mystery" but they have some fun choices here. My favorites:
Derinkuyu, Turkey
The largest and deepest of 200 underground cities in the Cappadocia region, this eerie location was home to approximately 20,000 people (plus livestock, a church, school and kitchen). The inhabitants dug tunnels and rooms beneath their homes in the soft volcanic rock.
The city reportedly grew to 85 metres and 11 levels deep. It is believed to date back to the early Byzantine Empire, as early as the 7th-8th centuries.
People fled to the area to find safety from anti-Christian Romans, bandits, and later on, anti-Christian Muslims. Huge rocks were rolled across the entrances, with air shafts letting fresh air in. It was sealed up at some point after the 10th century but reopened in 1969.
This one I had not heard of. Sounds like a fascinating way of life. I'm wondering if this was referenced in Assassin's Creed: Revelations.part of which took place in an underground Christian city in Cappadocia.
Machu Picchu, Peru
It's the destination at the top of many travellers' bucket lists. The spectacular 'lost city' of Machu Picchu in Cusco was discovered in 1911 and is one of the most famous sites created by the Inca Empire.
In a remarkable feat of 15th-century construction, the Incas flattened the top of the 2430 metre high mountain to accommodate 140 structures including temples and houses. The city was divided into areas for royalty and the lower classes.
And it's not the jawdropping architecture that's the most puzzling part of Machu Picchu. How they ran a vast empire in an isolated area of Peru without building any marketplaces is quite puzzling, and dramatically different to most other old cities, where market squares were key. Why did they have no recognisable economy, and how did they prosper without it?
Machu Picchu has been called "The Lost City of the Incas," but actually it is not. The term "Lost City of the Incas" is actually a reference to Vilcabamba, which was actually the last capital and refuge of the Incas and was destroyed by the Spanish. The location of Vilcabamba had been lost for almost 400 years. For a while Machu Picchu was thought to be Vilcabamba, but Machu Picchu was intact, had not been touched by the Spanish, and may not have even been a town at all, but some sort of religious center. Works starting in the 1970s going up to 2000 have definitively identified the site of Vilcabamba as a site deep in the Ecuadoran forest known as EspĂ­ritu Pampa, which from a development standpoint was a steep drop from the Inca heyday in Cuzco.
Great Zimbabwe
The giant, walled and wealthy city of Great Zimbabwe was home to around 30,000 people at its peak in 1200-1450. An important trade centre, it was rich in gold from local mines. The technologically advanced city features a huge enclosing wall some 20 metres high and was believed to have served as a royal palace for the Zimbabwean monarch. Famines may have contributed to its mysterious demise.
Great Zimbabwe is a rather curious case. It's peak may have been 1200-1450, but technologically the town looks more like Bronze Age Mycenae or Troy. No one knows why Great Zimbabwe fell, though as suggested above speculation has focused on famine. Even more curious, no one knows what the purpose was of the Great Conical Tower of Great Zimbabwe. It's completely solid, with no entrance.

A tower with no entrance: the Great Conical Tower of Great Zimbabwe.
As I said above, I probably would not have put Pompeii on this list, since we know so much about its demise. Hisarlik, the site generally but not universally believed to be the mythical city of Troy/Ilion, fits much better, because we still don't know why, how or at whose hands Troy ended. For that matter, we don't know that about Mycenae or pretty much any other place in Bronze Age Greece.

But perhaps the most mysterious city that deserves to be on this list is Mohenjo-daro, in the Indus River Valley of Pakistan. Of all the ancient civilizations whose ruins have been identified, Mohenjo-daro may be the one about whom the least is known. I'll let Exploring Dystopia take it from here as to some of the creepy details:
In ancient history, advanced civilisations evolved around rivers: Egypt around the Nile river and Mesopotamia around the Eufrat and Tigris rivers. Less well known is the mysterious civilisation which evolved around the Indus river in India, 2500-1500 B.C.
In the old religious texts called Rig-Veda, it is told how the war god Indra — also known as Puramdara, the "castle destroyer" — destroyed ninety fortifications. These castles probably belonged to Dasyas, a people briefly mentioned in the Rig-Veda and described as strangely dark. No ruins were ever found, though, and for many years the Indus civilisation was considered to be a mere myth.
It was not until 1921-22 any remains of this lost civilisation were to be found: the ruins of two cities called Harappa and Mohenjo-daro (the latter means "The Heights of Death"). Unfortunately, building material from the cities had been used by British colonists to build railway embankments, especially in the case of Harappa.
The cities are located in hostile environments, salt desserts with the worst climate in India. The climate was probably more suitable when the cities were built, but it seems conceivable the environment has been at least partly destroyed by merciless exploitation.
Harappa and Mohenjo-daro are twin cities, literally; they have almost identical structures. They are both examples of remarkable city planning. Large boulevards stretches through the cities along a north-south axis and all street and alley crossings have right angels, just like in fairly modern cities.
Judging from the ruins, all appartment buildings were standardised with two floors, small rooms and a courtyard in the center. The building material is baked mudbrick of the same size and weight, which indicates governmental control of weights and measures. Doors and windows always face the courtyards and alleys, never the streets. Thus, the streets of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were surrounded by plain brick walls. There are almost no decorations, which is remarkable as later Indian architecture is famous for its rich detail.
There are many indications of a strong central government. This is most obvious in Mohenjo-daro, which is better preserved than Harappa. The city plan is dominated by a building complex called the Citadel, which is located on an artificial, 15 meter high hill. The Citadel was most probably the financial and governmental center of Mohenjo-daro and possibly the cult center as well. The largest building is undoubtedly a granary, but it is not known for sure what the functions of the other buildings were. There are indications that the city had a kind of police force, but no military buildings such as castles have been found. Mohenjo-daro also has an advanced sewer system, more advanced than many sewer systems in the Third world today. Hygiene seems to have been important, as there are large baths in both cities and basins in every building.
The Indus writing is yet to be deciphered. Many examples of their writing have been found — on seal stones, pot shards and walls — but they are seldom longer than half a dozen letters. There are few examples of art as well. One of the best preserved stone sculptures depicts a man with well-groomed beard, narrow eyes and a subtle smile, described as a tyrannical sneer. Two anatomically perfect torsos have also been found, so well crafted that many archaeologists doubt their Indus origin. Compared to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, there are extremely few cultural findings.
Why the Indus culture ended is uncertain. There are three possible explanations:
  • Natural catastrophes such as flooding.
  • Thoughtless exploitation such as over-use of the soil.
  • Conflicts such as invasions or civil wars.
Very few corpses have actually been found in the ruins and in all cases the cause of death seem to be summary executions. Judging from this, the Indus culture might have ended because of an invasion.
Everyone who have been exploring the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro have found them monotonous and depressing. The cities are strictly utilitarian in their design and there are few, if any, expressions of beauty. Walking through Harappa and Mohenjo-daro has been described as walking through the ruins of some modern mining city like Lancashire. The buildings have been compared to Soviet barracks and the Indus culture has sometimes been called "1984 B.C."! There is undoubtedly something cold and anonymous over the Indus culture.
That statue of the "man with well-groomed beard, narrow eyes and a subtle smile, described as a tyrannical sneer" is this:

Count Dooku? Saruman? The "Priest King" of Mohenjo-daro bears an uncanny resemblance to Christopher Lee.
The statue is generally known as the "Priest King," presumably because he bears an eerie resemblance to Christopher Lee. In reality, no one knows what the statue represents or what it was for.

Which is pretty much par for the course for the Indus River Valley civilization of which Mohenjo-daro was a part. Aside from the ruins, we know almost nothing about it. And unless we can find a sort of Rosetta Stone that allows us to decipher its language, we may never know much more about Mohenjo-daro.

Where's the outrage now?

Let's turn the way back machine to a few years ago. The Ohio State Buckeyes -- America's Team, Defenders of Western Civilization and All That Is Good About America, was on its way to the Sugar Bowl when it was revealed that several of their players had traded their own property (jerseys, autographs, championship rings; that last bit justifiably enraged Buckeye Nation) for tattoos. For some absurd reason, this was a violation of NCAA rules, but they were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl. It became a scandal that engulfed head coach Jim Tressel and cost him his job on the grounds that he had not told his superiors and had lied to the NCAA about not knowing of the rules violation. There is considerable belief in Buckeye Nation that Tressel, in fact, did tell his superior, Athletic Director Gene Smith, about the issue and that Smith himself did not tell anyone, lied about it, and scapegoated Tressel to save his own butt.

Through 2011, ESPN consistently had Ohio State on trial. The NCAA sandbagged Ohio State, by, for instance, waiting until receiver DeVier Posey was about to complete his NCAA-mandated suspension before suspending him again, this time for being paid too much at a construction job, even though he was being paid consistent with union-required prevailing wage rules.

Gene Smith, in one of his dumbest and most inexcusable decisions, had the Buckeyes play in the Gator Bowl. The NCAA came down later with a ridiculous punishment: vacating the entire 2010 (which had been stupidly offered by Smith) and 2011 seasons, a one year bowl ban, and some scholarship reductions. The alumni wanted Smith's head, and still do -- he is regularly booed at public appearances. His job may have been saved only by his landing Urban Meyer as new head coach.

The most memorable feature of this "scandal" was the constant coverage and abuse Ohio State took at the hands of the sports media, ESPN in particular. Ohio State and Jim Tressel were vilified.

This was on the heels of the scandal in which Cecil Newton, the father of Cam Newton, was found to have solicited payments from schools who were recruiting his son. The NCAA did nothing about this. So, soliciting payments is OK, but selling your own property is not.

Or is it?

Since then, we've had multiple NCAA scandals, including academic fraud at North Carolina; Oregon paying a recruiting service; prostitutes, drugs, and payments at Miami;  DJ Fluker allegedly taking payments at Alabama; Oklahoma State doing ... something ... maybe ...; and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel selling his autographs. Manziel's case is particularly revealing, but we'll get to that.

The first thing to note here is that all of these scandals combined did not get the coverage the Ohio State matter did. Not even close. Like Caesar in the Senate on the Ides of March, everyone in the media outside Ohio wanted to stick a knife in the Buckeyes, starting with ESPN's Kirk "Culture of Corruption" Herbstriet, a mediocre quarterback for the Buckeyes under the even more mediocre John Cooper.

(You see, you must understand. For those of us who attended Ohio State in the John Cooper era, there is just no getting over it. Every week was like being the Romans facing Hannibal. I call it "Post-Idiotic Stress Disorder.")

Anyway, somehow those knives don't seem to be out for Alabama, or Texas A&M. Oregon got almost nothing of a punishment. As bad as the violations at Miami are alleged to be, the NCAA has been turned into the villain -- and justifiably so -- by its corrupt practices during the investigation. Yet the NCAA was just as corrupt with Ohio State.

Perhaps most infuriating is the Johnny Manziel saga. Manziel sold his own property -- exactly the "crimes" for which Terrelle Pryor, DeVier Posey, and the other Buckeyes were convicted. Yet, while the Buckeyes in some cases were suspended for half the 2011 season (Posey lost the other half of the season for the construction job), Manziel lost ... half a game. Seriously.

For exactly the same crime.

By itself, this should show that the NCAA is nothing but a bunch of lying, corrupt bastards whose "justice" is arbitrary and capricious, and NCAA head Mark Emmert is an arrogant, dishonest, sanctimonious jerk who plays favorites, but if you read Taylor Branch's excellent article "The Shame of College Sports" in the October 2011 issue of The Atlantic, you already knew that.

What's more interesting right now is the, say, "evolution" of the sports media. Those same people who couldn't wait to stick the knives in Terrelle Pryor and Ohio State are lining up to defend Johnny Manziel.

Two-faced? Or double-standard? Yes.

Ramzy Nasrallah details the hypocrisy and deceit by the sports media that piled on Ohio State. So you don't have to. If you are a member of Buckeye Nation like I am, read it and be enraged. And know that ESPN is not your friend.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The simple fact

of alliances shifting all the time, from war to war, from year to year, based on strategic or tactical needs, is the subject of my latest column for Independent Voter Network. Short story long: the prospect of our siding with al Qaida to defeat Bashar Assad is no more strange or devious or unusual than Persia siding with Sparta to defeat Athens.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11

The biggest image I had from my first trip to New York City in 1988 was the view of Lower Manhattan and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center from Liberty Island. I will never forget how gorgeous it was. This is the closest approximation I could find on the Internet.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?

This question comes to mind as I read my latest book acquisition, The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced, by Stephanie Dalley. Because she claims the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were not actually in Babylon. Nor anywhere near Babylon. Because the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were actually in ... Nineveh. Which makes sense, I suppose, since whenever anyone mentions the Assyrians, the first thing you think of is "gardening."

I'm still early in the book, so I'm not in any position to make a determination as to her evidence, but Dalley is a respected archaeologist and appears to have amassed considerable evidence. Aside from dropping a chicken wing on the book, so far I am enjoying it.

The Reichstag Fire and the Muslim Brotherhood

are the topics for my latest IVN column.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Bean weevils help narrow the date of Santorini "Atlantis" eruption

Ooh bean weevil
I believe you had Santorini in sight
Ooh bean weevil
I believe the season you give is right ...

I'm trying to get the song "Dream Weaver" out of my head that these damn bean weevils have put there. But it was worth it:
A new study of insect pests found in an ancient storage jar on the Greek island of Santorini suggests the major volcanic eruption that took place there around 1600 B.C.—and which may have inspired the legend of Atlantis—happened in early summer.
The "Atlantis" eruption was one of the most significant volcanic eruptions in human history. The blast is credited for not only ending the Minoan civilization, but also for affecting ancient Egypt and other communities around the eastern Mediterranean, explained Eva Panagiotakopulu, a palaeoecologist and fossil-insect expert at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Based on previous evidence, scientists had concluded that the eruption happened sometime between 1627 to 1600 B.C. But there has been one important and unresolved question about the event: What season did it take place in?
In a new study, published in a recent issue of the journal Naturwissenschaften, Panagiotakopulu and her team now say that based on insect remains found in a jar containing seeds of sweet peas discovered at the Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri, they think the eruption occurred sometime between June to early July.
It was only during these months, the scientists say, that the insect, a species of bean weevil, would have had an opportunity to infest the crops and end up in the storage area.
"There is a short window from early to mid summer just after threshing which could justify the assemblage [of insects] recovered," Panagiotakopulu explained in an email.
Using a new pretreatment method to radiocarbon date a protein called chitin that makes up the insects' shells, the researchers obtained a date range (1744 to 1538 B.C.) for the fossils that agreed with the findings from other studies.
More importantly, though, the scientists realized the insects were their best clue yet about what season the eruption took place in.
Why Is It Important?
Determining the year that a prehistoric volcanic eruption took place is notoriously difficult, Panagiotakopulu explained, and trying to assign a season to one is even harder.
Other researchers have tried to figure out the season of the Santorini eruption by analyzing the distribution of its ash and debris.
"But in our case, we are speaking from the site data," Panagiotakopulu said. "How often can one go back to a prehistoric event and say that it happened during summer?"
What Does This Mean?
The bean weevils found in the jar of sweet peas at Akrotiri were at different stages of their life cycles. The fossil assemblage included larvae, pupae, and adults or "imagines."
This is important, the scientists say, because it suggests the insects were killed as a result of a single event, probably shortly after the seeds were stored away.
Knowing the season may help to determine just what kind of damage was caused by the Santorini Eruption, perhaps the most devastating volcanic eruption in human history. A 2006 article in National Geographic gives some highlights:
A volcanic eruption that may have inspired the myth of Atlantis was up to twice as large as previously believed, according to an international team of scientists.
The eruption occurred 3,600 years ago on the Santorini archipelago, whose largest island is Thera. Santorini is located in the Aegean Sea about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of modern-day Greece (map of Greece).
The massive explosion may have destroyed the Minoan civilization based on nearby Crete.
Writing in this week's issue of the journal Eos, a team of Greek and U.S. researchers estimate that the volcano released 14 cubic miles (60 cubic kilometers) of magma—six times more than the infamous 1883 eruption of Krakatau (Krakatoa). Only one eruption in human history is believed to have been larger: an 1815 explosion of Tambora, in Indonesia, which released 24 cubic miles (100 cubic kilometers) of magma.
Whether it occurred in one large blast or in a series of smaller events, the eruption produced massive devastation.
In his book Volcanoes in Human History, de Boer [Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, an emeritus professor of geology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut -- JC] links the eruption to the demise of the Minoan civilization. The seafaring Minoan culture was based on Crete, which is only a few dozen miles from Thera. At the time of the eruption, they dominated that part of the ancient Mediterranean. When Thera erupted, the Minoans would have been clobbered by tsunamis, overwater pyroclastic flows, and fires from oil lamps knocked over by the eruption's shockwave. Famine, plague, and a destruction of the Minoans' shipping economy would also have followed, de Boer says. The eruption may also have had an enormous impact on Mediterranean mythology. "I have no doubt that every myth is based on some event, and so is the myth of Atlantis," the University of Rhode Island's Sigurdsson said. "An event of this magnitude must have left its imprint." Sigurdsson also sees traces of Santorini in a Greek poem called the Theogony, composed by Hesiod about 800 years after the eruption. The poem describes an epic battle between giants and the Greek gods and includes imagery of a great battle far out at sea. Hesiod must have picked up the story as folklore handed down from survivors close enough to see the event but not close enough to know what happened, Siggurdsson says. "He uses all the terminology one would use in describing an eruption," he said. "The people who lived close enough to see that it was a volcano were all killed. [The rest] could only describe it in supernatural terms."

It's easy to see how a massive eruption at Santorini could have destroyed Minoan Crete. Take a look at the map:

Just imagine the tsunamis that would have hit the north coast of Crete from the Santorini volcanic eruption.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The bad guys in Egypt are the Muslim Brotherhood.

I find the Western angst directed at the Egyptian military over their crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood both puzzling and borderline offensive. Even Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who as execrable as they may be at times on domestic policy, are usually good on defense and foreign policy, have joined the stupidity by calling for a cutoff of US aid to the Egyptian military government. Jackson Diehl also condemns the Egyptian democrats for supporting the military over the Muslim Brotherhood, but at least he admits there are, uh, extenuating circumstances:
In defense of Egypt’s erstwhile democrats, it could be argued that they, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, had to fight on two fronts: not just against a military-backed autocracy but also against an ideological movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, that under Morsi appeared bent on monopolizing power. It’s like simultaneously taking on both Pinochet and Lenin’s Communist Party.
Though they ignited the 2011 revolution, the liberals were always weaker than either the army or the Brotherhood — less rich, less organized, less disciplined. And as five free elections in two years demonstrated, they had scant following among the mass of poor and rural Egyptians outside Cairo.
Once proud of their networked, leaderless structure, the liberals eventually embraced former U.N. nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei as their figurehead. It was a disastrous choice: Arrogant, vain and more comfortable in a Viennese salon than a Cairo slum, ElBaradei was polling in the single digits when he withdrew from last year’s presidential race.
Without their own candidate, the liberals were faced with a choice in the runoff between a military-backed candidate and the Islamist Morsi. Most chose Morsi. A delegation of youth leaders met with the Brotherhood nominee and extracted promises: Secular ministers would be included in the cabinet, and the new constitution would be forged by a consensus among secular and Islamist parties.
Morsi fulfilled some of his pledges, but his government grew steadily more insular and intolerant as it battled the lingering, Mubarak-era establishment in the bureaucracy, police and judiciary. Liberal journalists were prosecuted for “insulting the president,” and several of the revolutionary youth leaders were arrested for leading street protests.
The liberals could have waited and organized for parliamentary elections, due in a few months; polls showed the Muslim Brotherhood sinking fast. Instead, they took the easy way out and switched sides. As the Wall Street Journal reported, in the months before the coup, secular opposition leaders met regularly with Egypt’s top generals, who promised that they would respond to large street demonstrations by ousting Morsi.
As if those elections were actually going to take place, at least in a Western sense. It's more than a little disconcerting that so many in the foreign policy establishment and the media like Diehl are having such difficulty with this concept: The Muslim Brotherhood are the bad guys. Period. Full stop. This is not rocket surgery. 

As Ralph Peters asks, "Do we really need to have sympathy for the devil?"
What do we want the future Egypt to look like? A flawed, hybrid democracy, or a Sunni Muslim version of Iran? Based on his bluster yesterday about events on the Nile, Secretary of State John Kerry prefers the latter.
And Kerry’s remarks must have had White House approval.
In full outrage mode, America’s most famous windsurfer castigated the Egyptian authorities, insisting that the Muslim Brotherhood had a right to “peaceful protests.” Apparently, “peaceful” means armed with Kalashnikovs, killing policemen, kidnapping and torturing opponents, turning mosques into prisons, attacking Christians and burning Coptic churches.
The Brotherhood protesters rejected all offers of compromise and all demands to disperse. The interim government’s response was heavy-handed, but the Muslim Brothers chose violent resistance — using women and children as shields (a tactic typical of Islamist terrorists).
So the Egyptian army ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government through a coup. So what? Peters explains the Muslim Brotherhood's version of "elections":
There was, indeed, a coup. But not all coups involve tanks. The real coup came after Egypt’s premature, badly flawed election, when Morsi and the Brotherhood excluded all non-Brothers from the political process; curtailed media freedoms and jailed journalists; attacked Christians; and rushed toward an Islamist state that the majority of Egyptians did not want.
Tens of millions of Muslims took to the streets to protest the Brotherhood’s plunge toward tyranny. Only after attempts to persuade an unrepentant Morsi to compromise failed, did the military move against the regime. The people cheered.
Yet our breathtakingly inept ambassador backed the Morsi regime right to the end. That isn’t diplomacy. It’s idiocy.
While it’s hard to be sympathetic to Egypt’s military government after yesterday’s violence, is it really the worst option for Egypt? Is it really the worst option for America’s strategic interests? Did the Muslim Brotherhood make violence inevitable? Would cutting aid simply send a signal to the current government or would it strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood? It’s important to recall that despite Morsi being the first democratically elected president of Egypt, he effectively engineered a coup of his own last year.
Duh. Barry Rubin puts it in very simple terms:
Let’s be frank: the Egyptian army did a great service not just to Egypt’s people but also to the U.S. government, because it saved its strategic balance in the Middle East. 
The Muslim Brotherhood is the parent of Islamism everywhere. They are simply evil. They should be destroyed. The US should do all it can to support the Egyptian military in making sure that happens.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Of crosses and sphinxes

With the world apparently on the verge of a complete collapse not seen since the end of the Western Roman Empire or perhaps since the 12th century BC collapse of inter alia the Mycenaean Greek civilization, the Hittite Empire, and Ugarit, might as well do some archaeology blogging.

First, there is talk that archaeologists have found a piece of the True Cross -- the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified -- at the remains of a 7th century church in Turkey:
Archaeologists working at an ancient church in Turkey believe they have unearthed a piece of the cross used to crucify Jesus.
But it could take years of analysis before the world will know for sure.
“We have found a holy thing in a chest; it’s a piece of a cross,” said one of the archaeologists.
Workers believe that cross is the one Jesus died on Friday, April 3, 33 A.D.
The piece of wood was discovered in a stone chest on the site of a church in Turkey, built in 660 A.D.
The church also has frescoes on its walls depicting Jesus, Mary and the Apostles.
Researchers aren’t sure who owned the chest, but it was probably a religious person of some importance, and that person apparently believed the cross relic was the real deal.
I think that's probably the only thing we can take as definitely true in this story: that whoever owned the chest believed it is a piece of the True Cross, not necessarily that it actually is a piece of the True Cross. In that sense, I think Ed Morrissey has it right:
Believe is the operative word here. It may well be that the original church in Turkey believed the relic to be part of the True Cross, even without the use of carbon dating. There may have been an oral and/or written tradition that supported the belief at the time, although that tradition may or may not be recoverable now. Clearly it was an object of veneration, which would make that belief at the time very clear; after all, what other chunk of wood would call for that kind of treatment by a Christian church of that period?
Carbon dating, though, can’t provide a definitively positive answer to that question, as a moment’s thought makes clear. It could set the date of the lumber’s production at or near the year of the Crucifixion, but it can’t tell the date of its use nor the victim executed on it — or even if it was used in an execution at all. At best, archeology can only provide correlative data that might tend to support or discredit the claim, but can’t offer much proof in either direction. Science is of limited application in cases like these, especially with a lack of information about the object and its provenance. 
Believe is indeed the operative word here. Precisely why he believed it remains to be determined, if it is even possible. Given all the uncertainty surrounding the whereabouts and even origins of the True Cross -- perhaps most famously, a piece believed to have come from the True Cross was lost to the Muslim Salah al-Din (Saladin) at the disastrous Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187 during the Crusades -- I have my doubts as to whether or not it can ever be scientifically determined that this was the actual cross. Thus, there will probably always be an element of faith necessary here. But it's certainly fun for us Christians to think about.

As to the second piece of news, let's ask a question: Why on earth would there be an ancient Egyptian sphinx in Israel?
Tel Hazor in northern Israel has long been a treasure trove for archeologists, but a recent discovery of part of a 4,000-year-old Egyptian sphinx has been a most unexpected find.
Inexplicably buried far from Egypt, the paws of a sphinx statue, resting on its base, have been unearthed with an inscription in hieroglyphs naming King Mycerinus. The pharaoh ruled in 2500 BC and oversaw the construction of one of the three Giza pyramids, where he was enshrined.
"Once in a lifetime you find something like this," says Amnon Ben-Tor, the director of the excavation and a professor at Hebrew University, which sponsors the archeological digging.
"This is of extreme importance from many points of view, since it is the only sphinx of this king known in the world -- even in Egypt. It is also the only monumental piece of Egyptian sculpture found anywhere in the Levant," he said, referring to the region spanning the east of the Mediterranean Sea.
Ben-Tor says the sphinx was deliberately broken, as were about 10 other Egyptian statues that had been previously found there. When cities fell, he said, most statues had their heads and hands cut off.
"This is what happened to this one here. He lost his hands," Ben-Tor said. The full sphinx is estimated to have been a meter tall, weighing half a ton.
The team will continue to search for the rest of its body on the archeological site covering 200 acres -- even if it takes 600 years, the length of time Ben-Tor expects for the site to be fully excavated.
As for the biggest question of all -- how the sphinx got to Tel Hazor -- it will likely remain a mystery.
"Maybe this was a gift which the Egyptian king sent to the local king of Hazor. Maybe. To prove it? Impossible," Ben-Tor said.
Tel Hazor was the capital of the city of Canaan 4,000 years ago, its population reaching 20,000. Located on the route connecting Egypt and Babylon, the city prospered.
Mycerinus is the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Menkaure. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book review -- Expedition to Disaster

So a few weeks ago I stop in at the Barnes & Noble at Greenwood Park Mall. It was a rather surprising experience inasmuch as their history section is much bigger and better than the Barnes & Noble at Keystone at the Crossing. Much larger selection of US, world, and military history books. I walked out with a book (after paying for it, of course) I had not seen outside of Amazon -- Expedition to Disaster by Philip Matyszak.

Expedition to Disaster is about the Athenian invasion of Sicily during the Peloponnesian War 415-413 BC. Athens and Sparta had reached the Peace of Nicias in 421, but a type of cold war had continued, with Athenian and Spartan troops and proxies continuing the fight. Many politicians in Athens, especially a Bill Clintonesque guy named Alkibiades, saw the city as flush with cash and ships, and went looking for something to do with them. When an ally in Sicily appealed for aid, Alkibiades saw a chance to add Sicily to the Athenian Empire. Now there was something to do with that cash and those ships.

The background was a little more complicated than that, but that is the gist of it. Not much of a motivation for war, but as Matyszak explains, Athens didn't need much motivation. Matyszak makes clear that though Athens has a lot of great things to he said for it and that we understandably and justifiably identify with Athens and its democracy, it was in fact Athens that was the villain in this drama. Neither Syracuse, the preeminent power in Sicily and one that had Spartan sympathies, nor any of the other Greek city states in Sicily had done anything to warrant the Athenian invasion.

But Athens invaded anyway. They could not knock Syracuse out quickly, and the Syracusans got help from Sparta in the form of a general named Gylippos, who whipped the inexperienced Syracusan military into shape. Then they launched a counteroffensive that resulted in the capture of all the Athenian supplies. This particular loss pretty much doomed the entire campaign. An Athenian reinforcement and a desperate attack only got the Athenian troops and their ships trapped. They tried to flee inland, but all were either killed or captured and enslaved. The entire expedition was lost in toto, as John Drogo Montagu would say.

Matyszak goes into considerable detail as to how this expedition came about and how it was tripped up early on by a phenomenon that ultimately destroyed Athens' democracy, Rome's republic, Weimar Germany, and a few others -- and that has been increasingly affecting even the US today: politically-backed mobs. In Athens, those mobs had been eating Athens own generals, successful or otherwise. But on the eve of the expedition, there was an incident that remains unexplained: overnight, almost all of Athens' hermai or "herms" -- stone markers of Hermes that were supposed to bring good luck -- were badly damaged or even destroyed. Precisely who was responsible has never been determined, but it was pinned on Alkibiades by his enemies who used their own mob into putting Alkibiades on trial for the crime. He was recalled from Sicily for trial, but he knew the fix was in and escaped to Sparta, where he gave the Athenians' plans for Sicily -- plans that he had developed -- to the Spartans, who gave them to the Syracusans.

Expedition to Disaster is very well written. Not the dryness you expect of history books today (or at least scholarly history books), but written in an easy-going, engaging style with a dry humor that I definitely appreciate, yet containing enough information to be considered scholarly. Very similar to a style that I try for in my own writing. Perhaps it is easier to have such a combination when you are tightly focused on such a short but important campaign as the Sicilian Expedition.

Matyszak could have perhaps used some better editing. For instance, his narrative refers to the Greek Sicilian city of "Egesta," but his map calls it "Segesta." He also specifically directs you to look for the Greek landing point north of Syracuse on the map, but the map does not show it and, in fact, cannot show it because, if his explanation of the location is accurate, the landing point would be west of the area shown on the map. Finally, there are a few times where he either gets names mixed up or, perhaps, fails to introduce new characters who have names similar to characters introduced earlier (see, e.g., Diomedes and Diocledes).

But those are very, very minor quibbles. Details that really do not materially detract from an otherwise excellent narrative. The book was a quick and slick read; I got it done in a weekend and very much enjoyed and reading it. I highly recommend Expedition to Disaster.

When the free market fails

is the subject of my latest column for Independent Voter Network. Short story long: few people outside of Microsoft really wanted Windows 8.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The real reason American has a bad name abroad

Douche or just dumb? You be the judge:
In an accident of historic measure, an American tourist to Florence's Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, is fortunate today that the motto "You break it, You buy it" didn't apply. A finger from a 14th century statue on display was broken off when the unnamed visitor got too close to the priceless statue.
The incident happened when the American began touching the statue. A security guard who spotted him didn't arrive in time to prevent the damage as the finger from the masterpiece by medieval sculptor Giovanni d'Ambrogio separated from the hand. The signs reminding visitors not to touch the artwork were clearly ignored.
Ambra Nepi, the head of communications for Florence's famous marble Duomo, says that it was an unfortunate accident. The finger, in fact, was not part of the original artwork, which had been damaged and repaired years earlier.
"This was already a very fragile piece of art," she said. "But every year throughout the Duomo we have many items that are damaged and broken."
The full-time team of art restorers had already looked at the damage.
"We are confident that it can be eventually restored," Nepi said.
Media reports quoted the American director of the museum, Tim Verdun, as being outraged by tourists' lack of museum etiquette. "In a globalized world like ours, the fundamental rules for visiting a museum have been forgotten, that is: Do not touch the works."
When I went to Rome a few years ago and visited the (very dark and very crowded) Sistine Chapel, the security guards were constantly shouting in monotone, "No photos!" People still took flash pictures of the fragile frescoes. The lack of respect for history is appalling. I can understand, say, going to a Muslim country and telling barbaric shar'ia law to shove it. Perhaps not safe, but I can understand it on principle. Nevertheless, when I'm abroad generally I try to respect the host country and its history and culture, particularly when, as in the case of Italy, that history and culture has contributed so much to our own. If what I was told in Italy is any indication, many American travelers do not.

Stuff like this is just plain offensive.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Cry me a Nile River

You hate to see bad things happen to good people:
Islamist president Mohamed Morsi is out. His opponents, a military-backed interim government of secularists, are in. And if you’ve got a beard — that most conspicuous symbol of Islamism in post-Arab Spring Egypt — you’re likely to get taunted on the metro, harassed in the souk and possibly even assaulted, according to conservative Muslims. 
A month after a military coup ousted Morsi and landed his top cohorts in the Muslim Brotherhood behind bars, a popular backlash against the Islamists who governed for just over a year is palpable far beyond the halls of power. It is evident in the sidewalk conversations, the grocery lines and the television talk shows. 
Criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood had been building for months, as citizens griped about a declining economy and what some called the group’s determination to dominate this nation’s power structure. But since Morsi was toppled, the complaints have exploded into a full-throttled fury at his supporters, demonstrating the dangerous polarization in this nation that is a key U.S. ally. 
In the weeks since the July 3 coup, Egypt’s military and the interim government — which is made up largely of liberals and stalwarts of the Hosni Mubarak era — have cast Morsi’s Islamist supporters as evil-willed “terrorists,” child abusers and spies. The Egyptian media have whipped up the anti-Islamist fervor with dramatic reports that the Muslim Brotherhood dismisses as lies. 
On the streets, where hundreds of thousands of ordinary Egyptians joined protests in June to oust Morsi, there is a willing audience for the new government’s charges. “The treatment has changed for the worse,” said Osama Ibrahim, an imam at a Cairo mosque that caters to hard-line Islamists. 
The nation’s turmoil has seeped into his daily life in the Cairo neighborhood of Ain Shams, he said. “On the metro, they call us names. People come up to us and say, ‘How are you, Sheik Morsi?’” he said. 
He said his wife, who wears a face veil, saw men in their neighborhood yank the veil off another woman draped in black. At another point, local men stopped the couple’s car and barred them from entering a marketplace, Ibrahim said, because of the way they were dressed. 
“You have to understand: The minibuses don’t even stop for me anymore,” he said.
Cry me a Nile River, pal. You brought this on yourself. When you seek to impose a totalitarian ideology on people, don't expect them to cut you any slack when the shoe is on the other foot. I think the encouraging thing here is that the Egyptian people, though (in)famously conservative in the Muslim world, are making resistance to Islamism personal and are consciously expressing it in their everyday lives.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

It's always America's fault

When I’m not busy being a lawyer, I like to read. A lot. Mostly histories. For decades my main focus has been on World War II, ancient Rome, and ancient Greece. It has turned into the occasional article or even the occasional book, but I do examine as many periods of history as I an get my hands on. You never know what you might learn. And, I’ve found over the years, the more you learn, the more you realize just how much more you have to learn. The more you know the more you don’t know.

A bit worn out on World War II for a bit after finishing the manuscript for my book, I’ve been immersing myself in the details of the Khmer Rouge. For the uninitiated, I’ll give a bit of background.

For a long time the Cambodia (of Kampuchea, which is the name of the country in the local Khmer language) had been run by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was sort of the Southeast Asian version of Alcibiades, the occasionally Athenian general of the Peloponnesian War, immensely popular but corrupt and apt to change sides more often than Arlen Specter. During the 1960s Sihanouk, who was rather anti-American, vowed neutrality in the Vietnam War going on next door – but then allowed the North Vietnam People’s Army and the Viet Cong to operate from bases in Cambodia, which would seem to violate said neutrality. This agreement allowed North Vietnam to supply the Viet Cong by use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through eastern Cambodia, and the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. It also allowed the Central Office of South Vietnam, the South Vietnamese Communist headquarters, to operate in Cambodia. Eventually, the Viet Cong basically took over the border regions of eastern Cambodia.

The US responded to the construction of these Cambodian safe havens with, as one might expect, hostility – the (in)famous bombing of Cambodia. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, with backing from China, responded to Sihanouk’s hospitality by forming in 1968 the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which quickly became armed resistance to Prince Sihanouk. These Communists became known in the local Khmer language as Khmer Krahom – “Red Khmer,” which in French language of post-colonial Cambodia was Les Khmers Rouges – the Khmer Rouge.

(And for anyone who actually doubts the Domino Theory was real, note that after the appearance of communist North Vietnam we got the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the Pathet Lao in Laos. Them’s a lot of dominoes.)

Like most rebel movements at first, the Khmer Rouge were very weak, and depended on the North Vietnam “People’s” Army and the Viet Cong not only for money, training, and equipment, but for soldiers. For years it was the Viet Cong who did most of the fighting against the Cambodian military, which was notoriously ineffective. 

In 1970, while Sihanouk was abroad, his defense minister General Lon Nol seized power. There has been talk that it was a move instigated by the CIA, but there is actually little evidence to support that notion. The coup actually seems to have been initiated by senior government officials and locals in the capital Phnom Penh so they could get US aid – which they would then pilfer to further enrich themselves; the Khmer culture is ambivalent to corruption and crime. To be sure, the US took advantage of the situation to provide material support to Nol, who promised to get rid of the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge. For his part, Sihanouk went to Beijing and threw his support behind the Khmer Rouge rebels who had been trying to overthrow his regime.

Unfortunately, Lon Nol turned out to be an idiot and, after a stroke in 1971, a sick one at that. The US aid intended to go to the Cambodian army usually ended up on the black market with ministers and officers pocketing the profits. At the request of the Khmer Rouge, the North Vietnamese "People’s" Army launched an offensive in 1970 that took half the country. The Khmer Rouge gained recruits from the peasants of Cambodia and no small measure of conscription in the areas that they controlled. So ineffective were Nol’s forces that soon he held only Phnom Penh and the highways – and he was able to hold Phnom Penh against a determined Khmer Rouge attack in 1973 only with the help of US bombing. 

In 1975, after the US left South Vietnam, the situation came to a climax. Phnom Penh’s population had swollen to two million because of the influx of refugees fleeing the fighting and, indeed, the Khmer Rouge itself, about which horror stories abounded. A US consular official in South Vietnam had visited a hill overlooking the border into Cambodia, where he could see plumes from giant fires – lots of fires. He thought these were towns burning because of US bombing, but soon realized it was no such thing. This was the Khmer Rouge at work. They had forcibly evacuated these towns and set fire to them so that their inhabitants would have nothing to which to return. This, a Khmer Rouge policy since 1972, was an ominous sign of things to come.

On April 17, 1975, Nol’s forces suffered their final collapse, Nol fled the country (one of his few instances of good judgment) and the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Entering the city came tens of thousands of teenage and even pre-teen troops, all wearing the Khmer Rouge uniform of black pajamas, traditional Cambodian krama used as a scarf to signify rank, and “Ho Chi Minh Sandals” – sandals cut from old tires that were the perfect communist rebel attire inasmuch as they were simple, cheap, durable, and ugly. In contrast to how victorious troops normally behave, they also wore a cornucopia of disconcerting expressions – icy glares, black scowls, fiery anger, unfathomable hatred.

Khmer Rouge troops enter Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975. (CNN/Getty Images.)

That very day, at around 1:00 pm, the Khmer Rouge ordered the 2 million people in Phnom Penh to leave immediately. No time to pack or even get together with loved ones because it would only be for a short time – three hours (as if a city of two million could evacuate and return in three hours) or three days (impossible even in that time); they could never quite get their story straight. They said it was on account of an expected US bombing raid. There was no such thing and they knew it. The goal of Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was to go back to the “Year Zero” with no history and create the perfect communist society, free from any foreign influence whatsoever (except the Chinese, of course, who kept supporting the Khmer Rouge). Because in his view the cities were corrupt hives of scum and villainy, so to speak, the cities – all of them – were to be completely evacuated, the people moved to the countryside to build their own houses and grow their own food. Private property was abolished, everything was to be owned by the “Angkar” (“Organization”), as the Khmer Rouge called their government. In reality much of that was left in Phnom Penh was carted off by the Khmer Rouge and sold to Vietnam.

And so the people were forced out. At gunpoint. Everyone, including patients in hospitals. Survivor Haing Ngor tells of being forced to leave a surgical patient behind open on the operating table. Herded like cattle the people were, driven forward into the unknown wilderness, overcome by fear and despair, with little food or water to sustain them. Those too slow or sick to keep up were shot by the Khmer Rouge. Others were so despondent at being stripped of all they owned in the world they committed suicide. Some 20,000 died in this evacuation.

Residents are forced to evacuate Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975. (Documentation Center of Cambodia)

The Khmer Rouge were largely illiterate peasants from the countryside – “Old People,” in the Khmer Rouge vernacular. Stories abound about their unfamiliarity with, and ultimately hostility to, such things as toilets, televisions, and cars. Those who were educated were threats in this atmosphere, and so doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and the like were targeted for execution. So were officers and soldiers from Lon Nol’s army. “New People” – those from the cities – were targeted for special mistreatment. Books were burned; churches, temples, and schools closed and/or destroyed.

Ah, the light in a child's eyes. Khmer Rouge troops celebrate the fall of Phnom Penh. (Roland Neveu/Getty Images)

Bruce Sharp gives the lowdown:
Draconian measures were instituted immediately. Within hours of their victory, they ordered the complete evacuation of Phnom Penh, and all other cities as well. The Khmer Rouge flouted traditions of diplomatic immunity, political asylum, and extraterritoriality. High-ranking officials of the former regime were executed. Cambodians who had taken refuge in the French Embassy were forced out. Members of the press, for all practical purposes captives within the Embassy, witnessed macabre scenes of horror as the entire city of Phnom Penh, swollen with refugees, was evacuated. Even hospitals were emptied; witnesses saw patients pushed through the streets on hospital beds. An unprecedented atrocity had begun.
It is important to understand the nature of Khmer Rouge Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge regime was, without question, one of the most disastrous social experiments of the last century. One could make a persuasive case that it was in fact the single worst government in the modern era, combining mind-numbing brutality with astonishing incompetence. History was to begin anew: the Khmer Rouge declared that henceforth Cambodia was to be known as Democratic Kampuchea, and the beginning of their reign was "Year Zero." Determined to convert Cambodia into an agrarian communist state, the Khmer Rouge upended every institution in Khmer society, exterminating millions in a frenzy of executions and criminal neglect for the welfare of its citizens. Enemies, both real and imagined, were executed. Families were split apart as husbands and wives, brothers and sisters were sent to communal work groups in the countryside. Currency was abolished. Buddhism, the religion of roughly 95% of the population, was for all practical purposes banned. Angkar, "The Organization," assumed control over virtually all aspects of its subjects' lives.
And so began the “Killing Fields” in more ways that one. Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China had nothing on Pol Pot’s Cambodia. This was the first slave state in modern history, possibly in any history. The entire population was slaved to the Angkar. Forced to work in hideous conditions – long working days, no weekends, little food, no medicine or modern medical equipment, little machinery, high production quotas, few if any amenities. Those who could not hold up were executed. People were reduced to little more than animals – scrounging, foraging, stealing to survive. Right out of Orwell’s 1984, children were told to spy on their parents, and anyone suspected of disloyalty was sent to prisons like S-21, a former high school in Phnom Penh also known by its common name Tuol Sleng where the objective was to extract “confessions” from its inmates. Some 20,000 mass graves, with the bodies of over one million people – soldiers and officers under Nol, intellectuals, monks, priests, dissidents – have been found. These were the “killing fields.” Many, many more died because of the aforementioned hideous conditions under which they were forced to work the fields. These, too, were “killing fields.” The true death toll will probably never be known, but the latest scholarship now suggests some three million people died under Pol’s Khmer Rouge.

Ironically, it was their former allies, the Communist Vietnamese ultimately drove them from power. The ancient rivalry between the two countries led to a complete breakdown of relations. Khmer Rouge troops took to invading now Communist Vietnam and massacring civilians. Like a tiger poked with a stick, the Vietnamese replied in angry fashion by in 1979 invading Cambodia. The Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from power and installed their own government in Phnom Penh – one of the few instances where a new communist regime was actually good for the country and the people, relatively speaking, anyway, since the Vietnamese proceeded to rape the country. No slouches in the Department of Torture and Oppression themselves, these communist Vietnamese, even they were horrified by what they saw of the Khmer Rouge’s work.  China, who continued to support the Khmer Rouge, invaded Vietnam in response. Now back in the countryside as rebels again, and astonished at just how much the Cambodian people hated them, Pol Pot promised a kinder, gentler Khmer Rouge, in which they, among other things, ditched the black pajamas for jungle fatigues, but few actually bought it. Pol Pot himself died in 1998 without having been brought to justice, completely unrepentant for his actions or those of the Khmer Rouge. In fact, almost none of the Khmer Rouge leadership will be brought to justice:
Today, just two defendants remain in custody: Nuon Chea, the chief Khmer Rouge propagandist and second in command, and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state. Both ailing octogenarians, the two men made measured apologies this June when they said they regretted the suffering imposed by the Khmer Rouge while distancing themselves from any decision-making authority.Worries that these and other high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders will die before the court can bring them to justice are well founded. So far, the court has tried and sentenced only one of the accused (Case 001): Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, the notorious warden of Tuol Sleng S-21 prison. It was at Tuol Sleng—an emptied Phnom Penh high school and one of 200 “security centers” across the country—that Duch tortured and slaughtered some 14,000 Cambodian inmates, sending the overflow to a nearby killing field, Choeung Ek. In 2012, Duch was sentenced to life in prison.

Khieu Samphan, the intellectual leader of the Khmer Rouge, laughs while his people die at the hands of his boss Pol Pot (Cambodian Information Center).
Why do I bring this up? Well, to me it seems to make an interesting case study.

First, quite a few of the books and articles written about the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia during this period blame the United States for the Khmer Rouge takeover. See, e.g., Cambodia: Year Zero by Francois Ponchaud, a French missionary who saw some of the carnage firsthand and wrote his account while the Khmer Rouge was still in power from the accounts of refugees that had made it out of the country; “Distortions at Fourth Hand”
(Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman, The Nation, June 6, 1977) and Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who played Dith Pran in the movie version of The Killing Fields. For that matter, The Killing Fields blamed the US for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Because … well, they’re never quite clear about that. Neither am I.

Did the US form the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US supply the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US train the Khmer Rouge? No, again, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US provide political, intelligence or logistical support to the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US fight alongside the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam.

So … how exactly is the Khmer Rouge regime the fault of the US?

I’ve heard that the US bombing of Cambodia was responsible because … well, bombing is bad. The bombing drove the Cambodians to support the Khmer Rouge, I guess.

Except, there’s not really any support for that belief. Vietnam suffered far more under US bombing than Cambodia ever did, yet never dove to these depths of depravity. Neither did Laos, another target of US bombing (though the Pathet Lao had their own issues). It was not as if the US did not have every right to bomb “neutral” Cambodia because “neutral” Cambodia was providing safe harbor to the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese “People’s” Army, and the Central Office of South Vietnam, all of whom were fighting the US. As he often did, Sihanouk spoke with a forked tongue.

Is it because of Lon Nol? The US did indeed support Nol – as would anyone else in the Americans’ place. Then again, Nol was actually fighting the Khmer Rouge and their Vietnamese allies, not effectively allying with them as was Sihanouk. It should be noted that a few years before, Nol was actually elected prime minister, along with a right-leaning parliament that wanted to take a hard line against the Vietnamese intruders.

The US certainly made mistakes during the Vietnam War and in its handling of Cambodia, which bordered on negligence. Nevertheless, to blame the US for the Khmer Rouge is insane and borderline slanderous. The Khmer Rouge were formed in a camp run by those "heroes" of the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese sponsors, with major support from China. Somehow, the "heroic" narrative of the Communist Vietnamese manages to leave that part out. Moreover, the Khmer Rouge did not gain in popularity from US bombing, but from Prince Sihanouk's throwing his support behind them in 1970. It is these parties who birthed and cradled the Khmer Rouge. Yet, somehow, it's America's fault. It's always America's fault.

Philip Short's Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare and Joel Brinkley's Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land give more balanced views, pointing out US mistakes while placing the bulk of the blame where it belongs. But it will take more than a few books to erase the damage done by decades of misinformation on Southeast Asia, let alone the reflex of some to blame the United Stats for each and every evil in the world, past or present.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Another episode of Who Bombed Syria?

Making the rounds this week is discussion of a massive explosion that took place last Thursday in the Syrian port city of Latakia. Latakia is still controlled by Bashar Assad's government; in fact, it is populated with Alawites. Latakia is also next to the ancient port of Tartus, which is the base for the Russian Mediterranean Fleet. Latakia is his primary entry point for supplies. So what was destroyed? Russian missiles. And who destroyed them? Well, that is an interesting question:
Foreign forces destroyed advanced Russian anti-ship missiles in Syria last week, rebels said on Tuesday - a disclosure that appeared to point to an Israeli raid.
Qassem Saadeddine, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council, said a pre-dawn strike on Friday hit a Syrian navy barracks at Safira, near the port of Latakia. He said that the rebel forces' intelligence network had identified newly supplied Yakhont missiles being stored there.
"It was not the FSA that targeted this," Saadeddine told Reuters. "It is not an attack that was carried out by rebels.
"This attack was either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean," he said.
Rebels described huge blasts - the ferocity of which, they said, was beyond the firepower available to them but consistent with that of a modern military like Israel's.
Israel has not confirmed or denied involvement. The Syrian government has not commented on the incident, beyond a state television report noting a "series of explosions" at the site.
According to regional intelligence sources, the Israelis previously struck in Syria at least three times this year to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry from President Bashar al-Assad's army to Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
Such weaponry, Israeli officials have made clear, would include the long-range Yakhonts, which could help Hezbollah repel Israel's navy and endanger its offshore gas rigs. In May, Israel and its U.S. ally complained about Moscow sending the missiles to Syria. Israel said they would likely end up with Hezbollah. The Lebanese group has said it does not need them.
"Foreign forces," huh? Now who might those forces be? Israel? That seems obvious, but Syria says otherwise:
Al-Qaida was responsible for the massive arms depot explosion in Latakia over the weekend, a Syrian official said on Sunday. Syria denied Israel's role in the incident after Arab media outlets reported conflicting stories on the cause of the blast.
"The attack in Latakia was not carried out from the air or the sea, but by a terrorist group aligned with al-Qaida," a senior Syrian official told Syrian state media. "The group fired missiles of European design that caused large fires in the bases."
But the obvious does seem to be true:
In a recent report from investigative journalist Richard Silverstein at the Tikun Olam blog, confidential sources within the Israeli military establishment revealed to him that the alleged bombing of a weapons depot in the Syrian town of Latakia, – which sits beside the Russian controlled seaport at Tartous – was an Israeli operation, targeting advanced Russian-supplied defensive missile systems (S-300 or Yakhont), an operation that included the direct assistance of opposition militants inside Syria.
Silverstein’s Israeli source specifically states that members of the FSA coordinated with the IDF and engaged in a diversionary rocket attack at the time of the Israeli airstrike. The previous Israeli attack in Damascus; when rebels were on hand to film the event, bears similar hallmarks to the attack in Latakia, yet, contrary to the previous strike, there has been no footage to date of the explosion, and Syrian journalists I have contacted have confirmed that there are no Syrian media reports on recent large-scale explosions in Latakia. The anti-Assad activist the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” has reported briefly on the incident and claimed Syrian soldiers were killed, and the blast could be heard kilometres from the alleged strike-zone.
Even more obvious is the fact that it' s in Assad's interest to deny Israeli involvement lest he look weak to Arabs all over the Middle East. Plus, there is this:
Assad has vowed to retaliate for any new Israeli raids after Israel destroyed Syrian weapons destined for Hezbollah in early May, and if Assad asserted it was Israel this time he would box himself into action he may not want to take.
But Israel has issued warnings of its own. Russia has been sending advanced missiles to Assad. Israel politely asked them to stop:
Israel warned Russia just this May not to arm Syria with missiles.
"At this stage I can't say there is an escalation. The shipments have not been sent on their way yet. And I hope that they will not be sent," said Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon last May . But "if God forbid they do reach Syria, we will know what to do."
Though Yaalon's warning was about s300 anti-aircraft missiles, the anti-ship missiles at Syria's port could easily threaten Israeli or American ships operating in the Mediterranean.
Funny, I just heard something about those S-300 missiles:
The Free Syrian Army claimed Monday that the Israel Air Force had destroyed a warehouse holding Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles east of the city of Homs in western Syria. The rebels' claim has not been corroborated by any other independent source.
In a Facebook post titled "The new Israeli strike," the rebels alleged that "the brave Syrian regime has conceded that a new Israeli strike targeted a warehouse containing Russian S-300 missiles and launchers. The facility was located in the al-Qassia camp, near the town of al-Hafa, east of Homs."
The post further insinuated that the attack was meant to stop the Free Syrian Army from seizing the advanced weapons system.
That would seem to be rather odd motivation on Israel's part. Some interesting analysis, if you can get past the obvious anti-Israel bias, from Phil Greaves of Global Research:
The Israeli government has no concern for Syria or its people, it will happily pour fuel on the fire and enable warring factions to shed further needless blood to achieve its desired strategic objectives. As Jonathon Cook noted recently, the “optimal scenario” for the Israel military would be for the Syrian war to totally divide the state, resulting in a de-facto “balkanization”. It makes perfect sense that to achieve this, Israel are in the same position as the United States, they are looking to “level the playing field”.
Actually, Israel is very concerned about Syria. They are sick of having the threat of Syrian invasion just across the Golan Heights. But if they cannot get a Syrian government who will agree not to attack them then the second best solution is to keep the civil war ongoing. The job of the Israeli government is to care for the Israeli people, not the Syrians.
Following recent statements from Russian diplomats vowing to honour advanced weapons contracts, along with claims from Assad that the shipments had begun to arrive in response to the previous Israeli airstrike upon Syria, – which targeted elite Syrian military divisions stationed in the Qassioun Mountains in Damascus – it appears Israel may have acted upon the threat of attacking Russian weapons that “tip the balance” in the region. In reality, the result of Syria acquiring such advanced systems will diminish Israel’s ability to violate its neighbours sovereign airspace at will, and in turn, commit acts of war unhindered.
As if Israel's neighbors have no history of committing acts of war against Israel, eitjher directly or through proxies (cough! cough! Hezbo'allah cough! cough! Hamas). But this is the real juicy part:
The media silence surrounding this alleged attack is disconcerting on several levels. Firstly, if indeed Russian supplied advanced weapons (either the Yakhont Surface to Sea, or the S-300 Surface to Air systems) – that will undoubtedly be accompanied by Russian military personnel – have been attacked, why is Russia silent on the issue? Have Russia given the Israeli’s guarantees that retaliation will not be forthcoming? Aside from this theory, there is the distinct possibility that an emboldened Israeli military now feels it can strike targets within Syrian territory with impunity; particularly considering the half-hearted response from Russia (and the “International Community”) to Israel’s last act of war upon Syria.
Furthermore, if Israel has indeed carried out this strike and knowingly hit targets that Russian troops may be alongside, are Russia even willing or able to retaliate? Lets not forget, a war with Israel is almost a guaranteed war with the United States. Of course, to these powers this is a game of chess, and Israel like to play in the dark. Could Russia and Israel both be engaging in covert strikes against each other? Mysteriously, an Israeli F-16 “crashed during routine training” over the Mediterranean on Sunday, a mere two days after the alleged strike in Latakia; it is no secret Russia has been building a huge Naval presence in the Med.
In summary, if it is true that Israel has targeted Russian advanced systems, and all the implications that follow, Russia and Syria could be remaining silent for three reasons: firstly, out of embarrassment and an unwillingness to appear weak through lack of ability to retaliate; secondly, one of the parties is complicit; thirdly, they plan to retaliate in kind, ie: a covert operation. The only other explanation is that the strike in Latakia simply did not occur.
And so ends another episode of Who Bombed Syria?