Their Hearts Are in the Highlands

Highland Lass with Lore Master

Highland Lass with Lore Master

One of the premier attractions at last week’s Old Fort MacArthur Days was my visit to the encampment of Clan Mac Colin. One of the reasons is that, although many of the performers cooked their own food, the Clan’s food looked the most scrumptious. When I asked some questions to the young lady in the photo above, she referred me to the clan’s Lore Master, who set me straight.

Clan Mac Colin attempts to reproduce a Scottish Highland (and Irish) way of life dating back to the Sixteenth Century, mostly centered around Glenderry, around East Loch Ewe, the Isle of Ewe, and the Gruinard Peninsula in what is now County Ross and Cromarty. I suspect some of the geography might be made up, but the way of life represented attempts to be as authentic as possible. If you are interested in delving into some of the details, you could hardly do better than scanning through the Basic Guide (which loads as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file). Also check out their Tribal Lore website, which is more succinct.

Although I have not an iota of Celtic blood in my veins, if I wanted to escape the cares of a stupid workaday life, I should think that Clan Mac Colin would exercise a powerful lure.

While going to Old Fort MacArthur Days is like walking through history, joining Clan Mac Colin is like living history. I would worship Saint Maolrubha with my fellow clan members. As the Tribal Lore site says, the good saint “continued the work of Saint Columba in Wester Ross and, retiring from that abby, established a cell on the isle of Maree in Loch Maree, the sight of his holy well. He is also the patron saint of the insane, being drug behind a boat around his island three times widdershins and drinking from this well is reputed to be a cure.”

Well, why not?


When the U.S. Downed a Commercial Jet

Not One of Our Great Moments in Military History

Not One of Our Great Moments in Military History

The date was July 3, 1988. The United States Navy was engaged in the Persian Gulf protecting oil shipping lanes. Around that time, there had been several hostile engagements with both the Iraqi and Iranian forces. Shipping through the Straits of Hormuz had to cross into territory claimed as Iranian waters in order to avoid running aground.

The USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser patrolling the Straits, picked up a signal from an aircraft that it misidentified as coming from an F-14 Tomcat, of which there were several in Iran’s air force. It let fly an SM-2MR surface-to-air missile. Instead of an F-14 Tomcat, the missile brought down an Airbus 300B2-200 flying a commercial flight as Iran Air 655 between Bandar Abbas, Iran and Dubai. On board were 290 persons, including 66 children and 16 crew. All persons on board died.

Did the United States apologize to Iran? According to Wikipedia:

In 1996, the United States and Iran reached “an agreement in full and final settlement of all disputes, differences, claims, counterclaims” relating to the incident at the International Court of Justice. As part of the settlement, the United States did not admit legal liability but agreed to pay US $61.8 million ($92.9 million today), amounting to $213,103.45 ($320,446 today) per passenger, in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims.

Iran Stamp Commemorating the Incident

Iran Stamp Commemorating the Incident

Although flight numbers are usually retired after a prominent airline disaster, Iran Air still has a flight 655. I guess they want to keep the villainy of the Great Satan fresh in their minds.

As to the Malaysian Airliner Flight MH17 shot down over Eastern Ukraine, I highly recommend that you read Patrick Smith’s posting on the subject in his Ask the Pilot blog in preference to listening to the mainstream media pundits bloviating about unsupportable conspiracy theories.


Red Sunset Mother

It All Goes Back to Aesop

It All Goes Back to Aesop

The three words of the title of this post were separately suppressed by Myanmar’s ruling junta: “red” because of its association with Communism; “sunset” because General Ne Win’s name meant “sunrise”; and “mother” because that was the nickname of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

That brings back to mind another draconian instance of censorship. In Costa-Gavras’s film (1969), the rightist Greek colonels in charge forbid the use of the letter Z (Zeta) in the Greek alphabet because of the protestors’ use of the Greek phrase “Ζει,” meaning “He lives.” The pronoun refers to the democratic politician Grigoris Lambrakis, who was assassinated in 1963.

What does one do when the powers that be forbid the use of certain words? Russian and Eastern European writers under Communist rule came up with the solution: use other words in their place. This is referred to as the use of Aesopian, or Aesopic, language. Just as the ancient Greek teller of fables used stories to mask political realities, writers would use metaphorical language to stand in for the proscribed language. In an article entitled “The Rhetoric of Subversion: Strategies of ‘Aesopian Language’ in Romanian Literary Criticism Under Late Communism,” Andrei Terian describes the procedure used:

Since organized dissent was absent, the ‘resistance through culture’ represented in Romania the main form of assertion of the writers’ independence from the Communist regime. Civically, it materialized through the refusal to enroll in the party’s propaganda machine, while artistically, it took place through the defense of the priority of the ‘aesthetic’ criterion in the production and reception of literary works, which generated a literature relatively autonomous from the political sphere. Nevertheless, from the perspective of maximalist ethics, the ‘resistance through culture’ is a deeply duplicitous phenomenon, which fits perfectly in the Ketman paradigm described by Czeslaw Milosz. In the Polish writer’s opinion, ‘Ketman means self-realization against something’ (The Captive Mind ….), which, in the case of totalitarian societies, is translated in a profound divergence between an individual’s private thoughts and their public expression.

I thought Milosz expressed it better in The Captive Mind—a book I urge everyone to read—but I can’t quote it because, alas, I can’t lay my hand on it at the moment.

Terian is a bit abstruse, so let me think of an example. Let us say that the Tea Party rules America as a rightist junta and bans the use of the word “abortion.” A hated Liberal writer can use another term, such as “ablution” in such a way that a censor would let it pass, despite the fact that its meaning would be clear from its context, as in “they were able to limit the size of their family with the discreet use of ablution.” Writers can and did develop an entire language of such circumlocutions under the noses of the Communist censors.

Even words as basic as “red,” “sunset,” and “mother” can find Aesopian equivalents, such as, perhaps, “rubicund,” “gloaming,” or “progenitrix” respectively—though a poet can play with the concept much as Viking poets used kennings such as “wave’s steed” for “ship” or “Freyja’s tears” for “gold.” And the Viking’s did this not because of censorship, but to help the meter of their compositions.

Iraq in Tres Partes Divisa Est

ISIS Executing Prisoners

ISIS Executing Prisoners

The following post was written on Yahoo360 back in March 2006. Even with the U.S. forces having been withdrawn, the basic situation has not changed much:

Looking beyond the daily news, the explosions, the body bags, and the turmoil in both Baghdad and Washington, what is likely to happen to Iraq in the years to come? I think that Iraq’s future is closely tied to Iraq’s recent past, starting when it was part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. As Constantinople had made the wrong choice of allies in the war—namely Germany and Austria—the British and French parlayed after the war to decide how the land would be divvied up.

Many of the Foreign Office clerks in London had only an Old Testament background in the history of the area. So they proceeded to create new countries based on maps printed in old Bibles and distant recollections of empires long faded into dust. There was also a debt that had to be paid: Hussein ibn Ali, Sharif of Mecca, had provided critical aid to the British in their war against the Turks (you may know him as Omar Sharif from the film version of Lawrence of Arabia), and the British promised to make his three sons kings. To accomplish this, they created three countries—Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq—for Hussein’s sons to rule. Syria was placed under French administration; and Transjordan and Iraq, under British.

The tale of how this happened is contained in a book that should be required reading for everyone interested in the subject: David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, which is available from Amazon.Com. You may be interested to know that one of the prime movers behind this remapping of the Middle East was none other than the young Winston Churchill.

Iraq’s monarchy didn’t last very long, but its borders are more or less the same as stipulated by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and several subsequent treaties. Ignored by the Foreign Office clerks was the fact that the Iraq they created was split along major cultural fault lines: (1) the north was Kurdish; (2) the area around Baghdad extending west to Jordan was largely classical Sunni Arab with an intermingling of Shi’ites; and (3) the South, centered around Basra, was almost exclusively Shi’ite.

Why don’t we just break Iraq into three countries? (1) The Turks would go ballistic if the Kurds had their own state and destabilized the Kurdish regions of Turkey; (2) There would be wholesale genocide between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the center; and (3) A Shi’ite state in the south would eventually fall under the sway of Iran, even though the Iranians speak a different language.

What can we do? I think we should declare our adventure in Iraq to be a stunning victory and bring our troops home. They have no role to play in a civil war except as targets in a shooting match between all parties concerned.

I wouldn’t change a word of what I wrote back then. I still think that Iraq will be subdivided into two or three states, one of which will be an independent Kurdistan. As for the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, only Allah knows what will happen.

Serendipity: Master of Five Willows

Master of Five Willows

Master of Five Willows

From Tau Ch’ien (365-427) comes this memorable portrait:

No one knows where he came from. His given and literary names are also a mystery. But we know there were five willows growing beside his house, which is why he used this name. At peace in idleness, rarely speaking, he had no longing for fame or fortune. He loved to read books, and yet never puzzled over their profound insights. But whenever he came upon some realization, he was so pleased that he forgot to eat.

He was a wine-lover by nature, but he couldn’t afford it very often. Everyone knew this, so when they had wine, they’d call him over. And when he drank, it was always bottoms-up. He’d be drunk in no time; then he’d go back home, alone and with no regrets over where things are going.

In the loneliness of his meager wall, there was little shelter from wind and sun. His short coat was patched and sewn. And made from gourd and split bamboo, his cup and bowl were empty as often as Yen Hui’s. But he kept writing poems to amuse himself, and they show something of who he was. He went on like this, forgetting all gain and loss, until he came naturally to his end.

In appraisal we say: Ch’ien Lou said Don’t make yourself miserable agonizing over impoverished obscurity, and don’t wear yourself out scrambling for money and honor. Doesn’t that describe this kind of man perfectly? He’d just get merrily drunk and write poems to cheer himself up. He must have lived in the most enlightened and ancient of times. If it wasn’t Emperor Wu-huai’s reign, surely it was Ko-t’ien’s.

The Missing Link, Going Forward

Man May Prevail, But With What “Modifications”?

Man May Prevail, But With What “Modifications”?

I am always amused about talk of a “missing link” between what was recognizably ape and what is recognizably human. But once we have Homo sapiens down, what about changes to our species that may be as significant—if not more significant—to those which we have traditionally associated with the concept of a missing link?

Today, I had lunch at a local Thai restaurant. In the next booth sat a woman who was part of a larger party that had not yet all met up. No sooner did she get seated than she had a long painful conversation with another member of the party which was supposedly looking for the restaurant but had trouble finding it. At no point did she get the name of the restaurant correct (she kept calling it simply “Thai Café”) and never thought to supply the exact street address. All her instructions were with regard to the identities of nearby retail establishments. If her friend was several blocks away, he would have no more luck finding the “Thai Café” than the stores in its immediate vicinity.

The thought suddenly hit me that the smart phone has introduced new ways of thinking. No longer is any sort of advance preparation required for anything. One can simply make a phone call and use relational markers to home a friend in to the desired location employing fuzzy logic of a sort.

Man has developed increasingly sophisticated tools for tens of thousands of years, but for the first time we are approaching the point where we are using tools to change ourselves and our very thought processes. It is possible, for example, that the smart phone may be as significant for the human race as Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type. If we ever improve robots to the point that we can communicate with them, that may be even more significant. In both cases, man is delegating his own brain powers to a device that parses, stores, and possibly communicates commands.

What do you suppose the effect of that will be on the human brain? Perhaps it will begin to atrophy. Once one has a truly smart phone, one does not have to think for oneself any more.

I’m not sure I would like that development, or should I say retrogression?

The Ghost in the Machine

Lou Lopez, Coordinator of Old Fort MacArthur Days

Lou Lopez, Coordinator of Old Fort MacArthur Days

Everyone liked making fun of him, but he ran a tight ship at Old Fort MacArthur Days. Lou Lopez had been in charge of the event since 2000, and Martine and I were expecting to see him again yesterday behind the microphone trying to keep the straggling event together.

Only, we did not see him this time. Apparently, last month, he—such a lover of history—had himself passed into history on the morning of June 18.

I did not know him personally, and he certainly did not know Martine or me. He was one of those little guys that people joked about, but always with a feeling of affection and grudging respect.

It became evident yesterday at the parade of military units, always a feature at these events. It always began with the ancient Roman legions and ended with units from the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts. The public address system was haunted. It was used to conveying Lou Lopez’s voice over the air, but didn’t quite acknowledge his replacement.

In the meantime, Lou, in his traditional garb of the U.S. forces in Cuba, was off somewhere charging up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt.


Walking Through History

The Nice Lady from the Legio X Fretensis

The Nice Lady from the Legio X Fretensis

Martine and I love attending the large military re-enactment encampment at Old Fort MacArthur in San Pedro. Last year we missed it because I was still in Iceland, but today we spent the whole day at the Old Fort MacArthur Days event. It’s not that we were interested in the shooting events with all their noise and smoke: It’s just that it feels like walking through history.

The Legio X Fretensis (“of the sea strait”) actually existed. It was established by Augustus (then called Octavius) Caesar around 40 or 41 B.C. to fight during the Roman civil war. It lasted almost 500 years, fighting in the civil war that saw the end of the Roman Republic, plus two of the Roman-Jewish wars in Palestine. Some elements of it fought with Marcus Aurelius.

In San Pedro, the members we saw belong to a group that calls itself an “educational service organization” whose purpose is to instruct people about the Roman army, particularly in the First Century A.D. I enjoyed stopping by their tent for a few minutes to talk to the well-informed lady pictured above. As you may or may note know, I am a Roman history nut who has read all the works of Tacitus and many of his contemporaries. I am always delighted to find people who not only are well read in the subject, but can add to my knowledge.

During the next few days, you will see a few more postings about some of the things we saw during the re-enactment. By the way, Old Fort MacArthur is not named after General Douglas MacArthur, but after his father, General Arthur MacArthur, Jr., who was Governor-General of the Philippines after the Spanish American War. It seems to me his son also had some dealings with that particular archipelago….


Serendipity: A Re-Discovery

Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)

Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)

Have you ever laid something precious aside and, years later, suddenly be reminded of it? Then, going back to it, you find it was not only as good as you ever thought it was, but even better.The last book I read by Loren Eiseley was The Man Who Saw Through Time, about Sir Francis Bacon, back in 1990. Then I saw a blog by Fred Runk, whose perceptive comments you may have encountered in this space, quoting and commenting on a poem by Eiseley. It seemed as if a vortex formed around my head, in which I saw the waste of nearly a quarter century without once having encountered one of my favorite writers. I am making up for lost time by reading The Star Thrower, his last book, with essays on nature and science and a few of his early poems.

There is something small and humble about Eiseley as he examines nature and our place in it. Survival of the fittest?

A major portion of the world’s story appears to be that of fumbling little creatures of seemingly no great potential, falling, like the helpless little girl Alice, down a rabbit hole or an unexpected crevice into some new topsy-turvy realm…. The first land-walking fish was, by modern standards, an ungainly and inefficient invertebrate. Figuratively, he was a water failure who had managed to climb ashore on a continent where no vertebrates existed. In a time of crisis he had escaped his enemies…. The wet fish gasping in the harsh air on the shore, the warm-blooded mammal roving unchecked through the torpor of the reptilian night, the lizard-bird launching into a moment of ill-aimed flight, shatter all purely competitive assumptions. hese singular events reveal escapes through the living screen, penetrated, one would have to say in retrospect, by the ‘overspecialized’ and the seemingly ‘inefficient,’ the creatures driven to the wall.

In another essay, he talks about how life on our planet would have failed if it weren’t for the birth of flowers and everything that came in their train. At another time, we see him playing with an unafraid young fox with a pile of bones and selecting one and handing it to him. In yet another essay, we see him watching while an unusual squirrel manages to climb a post that had a wrap-around funnel protecting the food left for birds.

This is not BIG nature. It is all little nature with a lot of very BIG implications. Eiseley is a wonderful essayist and poet, deserving not only of scientific fame, but literary fame as well. It is no accident that the Introduction to The Star Thrower was written by an admirer named W. H. Auden.

In future, I will write more about Eiseley. Having rediscovered him, I cannot let him down.

Hold That Line!

There Has Been Relatively Little Change Since WWI

There Has Been Relatively Little Change Since After WWI

Take a quick look at this map. Given that the Middle East is such a volatile and combative part of the world, it is amazing that so little has changed since the pacts after the First World War. At that time, there were quite a few changes: Several countries that formerly belonged to the Ottoman Empire were carved out of desert because the British and French wanted it so. The British and French are long gone, but the lines they drew still hold (as of 1:30 p.m. today anyway).

The biggest change on the map was the creation of all the independent “-stans” after the Soviet Union fell apart around 1992. Other changes include the creation of Pakistan in 1946 (though its eastern part is now Bangladesh) and the union of the former British colony of Aden with Yemen. Also Cyprus is now independent (but divided into Greek and Turkish halves).

Probably the only country whose boundary was not drawn by the European powers is Pakistan. Far from stable, however, the Islamabad government is currently facing three insurgencies: the Taliban, the Belochis, and in Karachi (from several ethnic groups). They also risk war with Iran because of the Belochi insurgency and with China over helping to radicalize in Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

Islamic populations in general seem to be divided into two groups:

  1. Apprehensive, politically ineffectual people who just want to get on with their lives, and
  2. Jihadists who want to conquer the world and introduce Sharia law everywhere.

In the near future, it seems that the Jihadists will be in the ascendant. That tendency will be reversed eventually because radicals who want to blow themselves up are generally not effective in creating a strong country. I suspect that soon the map boundaries will change until they are unrecognizable from the above illustration. Also, I suspect that there will be a lot more countries: several in Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria. Even tiny Lebanon is split between Sunni, Shi’ite, Druze, and Maronite Christian enclaves. Talk about Balkanization!

I think the best thing for the United States to do is to disengage from any military activity in the region: We always end up arming the wrong people. (It would have helped if someone in the Pentagon knew Arabic.) Although extraction of oil through fracking is dangerous, it would be nice if we were independent of the Middle East for our oil needs. Then we could just let them kill one another and go tsk-tsk while shaking our heads.

One exception: Look at what’s sitting right in the center of that map. The most stable country of the group is Iran. I think we should be friends with them and let bygones be bygones. But no military intervention, please!