War All the Time

Ball Court at Maya Ruins in Copán, Honduras

I have just finished reading Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. It was not an easy book to read, and it was a bit on the speculative side, but it brought forth a highly original interpretation of the fall of Classical Maya Civilization (approximately AD 250-800):

In their own way, the Maya thus acknowledged the terrible truth of war as statecraft: the authority of a small number of people over the many who must suffer and die in combat. But unlike our leaders, Maya rulers themselves went to war with the men they sent; and Maya kings and their noble vassals put not only their bodies but also their souls in jeopardy every time they clashed. It is no exaggeration to say that they lived for those moments of truth, those trials of the strength of their spirits. Every major political activity in their lives—the dedication of every public text, image, and building of royal and community importance—required the capture and sacrifice of rival peers. Only in this way could the proper rituals of sanctification be fulfilled, the gods nourished, and the portals of communication opened between the human and the divine.

When the Maya stopped inhabiting their ceremonial centers around AD 800, it wasn’t because they had disappeared: They found that there was too high a price to pay to maintain the god/kings in their position of rule. My personal belief was that certainly was one of the reasons why the Classical Civilization fell, but not the only reason

Macaw Markers from the Copán Ball Court

Intimately connected with the endless wars were a serious of gladiatorial combats in the form of … a ball game. Ball courts were scattered throughout Mesoamerica. At times, the games were friendly and/or ceremonial, but often they were played with the god/kings and nobles of other cities. The losing side was sacrificed to the gods. During the game, the ball could not be hit by the hands or feet: Only the thigh or hip could be used. The ball, made of rubber, was bounced against the sides of the ball court—but at no time was it allowed to touch the ground. If it did, game over—and lost.

Many a Maya god/king was sacrificed in this way, including the great 18 Rabbit of Copán, who was sacrificed at Quiriguá, which was a much smaller Maya polity.

 

Bosko the Doughboy

Bosko the Doughboy (1931): Violence and Absurdity

Before the Hays Code was widely adopted around 1934, Hollywood produced a number of wild films that would be frowned upon even in today’s Quentin Tarantino environment. One of the wildest is a Bosko cartoon released by Warner Brothers in 1931 which shows the horrors of World War I in a graphic and yet insanely cheerful manner. Oddly, it was directed by Hugh Harman, whose Harman-Ising cartoon productions usually showed cute animals innocently singing and cavorting on farms and in the wilds.

In “Bosko the Doughboy,” one of the first shots is a brutal machine-gunner who turns his weapon to the camera and shoots the audience.

Machine-Gunning the Audience

I have seen numerous World War I films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) and the recent They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). Yet neither of these films can hold a candle to “Bosko the Doughboy,” whose experiences would shame the Good Soldier Schweik or Bertolt Brecht or Eugene Ionesco. This is a cartoon which remains on a manic and chirrupy plane even when many of its cute animal characters are shot to pieces by machine guns, cannon, or aerial bombardment. Nobody is sad, even when in articulo mortis.

You have to see this film to believe it. It’s only seven minutes long.

In the very last scene, a bomb explodes right by Bosko, turning him black. His response? He spreads his arms wide and shouts “Mammy!” a la Al Jolson.

Star Wars and Axe Wars

Fresco at Maya Site at Bonampak in Chiapas

I have just finished reading Peter D. Harrison’s The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City. During the reign of the kalomtes, or divine kings of the Classic period of Maya history, wars were almost constant. They were of two kinds:

  • “Star Wars” are wars whose timing is mandated by the positions of the planets, especially Venus. These do not usually involve massive destruction or conquest.
  • “Axe Wars” are wars of conquest or revenge.

In all my postings on the Maya, I have neglected to note one important fact: the Maya were never an empire of diverse peoples, such as the Aztecs in Northern Mexico and the Inca in the Andes. Instead, there were powerful city/states that rose into prominence and just as often fell to other Maya city/states. Tikal in Guatemala was probably the largest; but at different times such cities as Palenque, Calakmul, Chichen Itza, and Cobá in Mexico; Copán in Honduras; Caracol in Belize; and El Mirador, Dos Pilas, and Quirigua in Guatemala were first among equals.

With so many hundreds of Maya cities spread across Southern Mexico and Central America, the number of possible wars numbers in the hundreds or even thousands. When I think on this, I realize that the Maya were probably pretty happy to get rid of their kings and concentrate on survival rather than fighting in astrologically dictated conflicts or axe wars against powerful entities like Calakmul.

Then, too, it was hard work building all those temples and pyramids when none of the people of the Americas had the use of the wheel. Stones had to be shaped and carried long distances by men. There was probably a massive sigh of relief throughout the Maya world when all this war and labor was mostly behind them.

 

 

The Parthian Shot

The Parthian Shot Illustrated on a Hephthalite Bowl

Listening to the Current Occupant bluster in an all-caps tweet against Iran, I thought back o how, in the past, the Persians managed to flummox their enemies. And the Orange Baboon was not even in the top ten. As great as the extent of the Roman Empire was, it could never count Parthia (Persia) as one of its victims. According to Wikipedia,

Lasting over 680 years, the Roman–Persian Wars, if taken together, form the longest conflict in human history. Despite this, the frontier remained largely stable. A game of tug of war ensued: towns, fortifications, and provinces were continually sacked, captured, destroyed, and traded. Neither side had the logistical strength or manpower to maintain such lengthy campaigns far from their borders, and thus neither could advance too far without risking stretching its frontiers too thin. Both sides did make conquests beyond the border, but in time the balance was almost always restored. The line of stalemate shifted in the 2nd century AD: it had run along the northern Euphrates; the new line ran east, or later northeast, across Mesopotamia to the northern Tigris. There were several substantial shifts further north, in Armenia and the Caucasus. Although initially different in military tactics, the armies of both sides gradually adopted from each other and by the second half of the 6th century they were similar and evenly matched.

The first Roman-Persian/Parthian conflict began in 66 BC, in the time of the Roman Republic. The Romans and Persians did not call it quits until the Islamic conquests put an end to the Sasanian Empire and deprived the Byzantine Empire of much of its southern territories.

You Can Bet the Iranian Generals Know Their Country’s History of Conflict with the West

Perhaps the one symbol these conflicts have left with the oft-defeated Roman legionaries is a tactic known as the Parthian Shot. While appearing to retreat, Parthian light horsemen turned around in their saddles while appearing to retreat and shooting down the advancing Romans and shooting them down with arrows. This requires considerable skill, as the Parthian light horse did not have stirrups and had to guide their mounts strictly by the pressure of their legs.

So rage as the Twitterati will, I suggest that they be wary of the “retreating” enemy. I keep thinking of the advice the Delphic Oracle gave to King Croesus: “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed,” And so it was—but it was his own empire. I believe the winning side were the Persians.

 

Poems that Shock and Awe

Harold Pinter in a Photo by Eamonn McCann

It was during the Presidency of George W. Bush, who at the time was putting together the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” to combat the evil Saddam Hussein. Playwright and poet Harold Pinter had given a speech at a “No War on Iraq” Liaison meeting in Parliament. He ended his speech indicating that we all add “a clear obligation, which is to resist.” The following two poems were written by Pinter with that spirit in mind:

God Bless America

Here they go again,
The Yanks in their armoured parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America’s God.

The gutters are clogged with the dead
The ones who couldn’t join in
The others refusing to sing
The ones who are losing their voice
The ones who’ve forgotten the tune.

The riders have whips which cut.
Your head rolls onto the sand
Your head is a pool in he dirt
Your head is a stain in the dust
Your eyes have gone out and your nose
Sniffs only the pong of the dead
And all the dead air is alive
With the smell of America’s God.

Democracy

There’s no escape.
The big pricks are out.
They’ll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back.

It’s always interesting to see oneself as the villain of the piece. But then, of course, we put ourselves all too willingly in that role. It didn’t take long before the “Coalition of the Willing” was down to us all by our lonesomes.

 

The Man Who Destroyed Yugoslavia

Slobodan Milošević

Slobodan Milošević

He was the 3rd President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1997-2000), 1st President of Serbia (1991-1997), and the 14th President of the Presidency of the Socialist Republic of Serbia (1989-1991). I am referring to Slobodan Milošević, the leader who took his country down a rat hole, was responsible for thousands of deaths by genocide (which he called “ethnic cleansing”), and died while awaiting trial at the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague.

Although he initially ruled a nation of Serbs, Croatians, Slovenians, Albanians, Macedonians, Muslim Bosnians, and Hungarians, in the end he was only interested in changing diverse Yugoslavia into a Greater Serbia. Most of his crimes involved his preferential treatment of his fellow Serbs, mostly in the Yugoslavian Republics of Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, where forces under him or allied to him committed devastating massacres of men, women, and children, including large scale rape and torture.

I am currently reading Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation by Laura Silber and Allan Little (New York: Penguin, 1997). Although twenty years have passed since the first edition came out in 1996, the book still reads like today’s headlines.

It shows what can happen when the elected leader of a democracy decides to take sides on behalf of a particular population and, at the same time, act prejudicially against others. (That’s one of the reasons I am so against a political party being responsive only to, say, angry white males.)

The United States is a diverse country very like the old Yugoslavia. It wouldn’t take much effort to break the country into warring fragments. That’s what happened in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot decided to persecute or kill city dwellers. Also Hitler’s Germany with its antisemitism and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s persecution of Christians and Baha’i. And, needless to say, ISIS/ISIL/Daesh’s attacks on Christians, Yezidis, and non-Sunni Muslims of the approved flavor.

 

Serendipity: Who’s Afraid Like Virginia Woolf?

British Author Virginia Woolf

British Author Virginia Woolf

The following is the beginning of a book review by Linda Colley of Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815. The review is entitled “Facing Napoleon’s Own EU” and can be found in the November 5, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books.

Throughout 1940, Virginia Woolf struggled with the terrors and mysteries of war. Neither of the Woolfs knew that their names were on the “black list” of Britons set to be arrested—and presumably killed—in the event of a successful Nazi invasion, but since [husband] Leonard was Jewish, the couple prepared for the worst. They hoarded gasoline in their garage so as to be able to kill themselves by inhaling carbon monoxide, and took the further precaution of of acquiring a deadly dose of morphine from a friend. But none of this protected them from hearing Hitler’s voice over the radio, or the noise of German bombers flying over their London house at night, rattling its windowpanes.

“Here they are again,” wrote Virginia in a famous essay published five months before her suicide. “It is a queer experience lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet which may at any moment sting you to death.” Earlier, she had written about how different all this was from British experience of the Napoleonic Wars. Both Jane Austen and Walter Scott lived through these conflicts, she noted, yet neither had mentioned it in their novels. This, she thought, demonstrated “that their model, their vision of human life, was not disturbed or agitated or changed by war. Nor were they themselves…. War were then remote:; wars were carried on by soldiers and sailors, not by private people.”

Unfortunately, Woolf was particularly prey to depression. Her house in London was destroyed by bombing, and her most recent book (a biography of her friend Roger Fry) was not well received. On March 28, 1941, she loaded her pockets with heavy stones and walked into the River Ouse, drowning herself. Her body was not found until weeks later. In her last note to her husband, she wrote:

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

So when you hear about ISIS and Donald Trump’s latest outrage, remember that it is still possible to survive, and even prevail. I look at Virginia Woolf’s face and cannot help falling in love with it.