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.

 

“Epitaph on a Tyrant”

Robert A. Buhler’s W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

Robert A. Buhler’s W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

The above painting hangs at Oxford’s Christ Church College, where Poet W. H. Auden attended college. The following poem is a short one, but eloquent. It is called “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

“The Burning of the World”

Béla Zombory-Moldován in His Early Twenties

Béla Zombory-Moldován in His Early Twenties

Two days ago, I posted a blog entitled A Hungarian Artist Goes to War about the experiences of a young Magyar officer who was called up for the First World War on the Galician Front. In that post, I concentrated on Béla Zombory-Moldován’s paintings. Today, I would like to reprint a review of his memoirs about fighting the Russians in 1915. Entitled The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914, his book was translated by his grandson Peter and released by the New York Review of Books. Here is an edited text of my review from Goodreads.Com:

When the wounded Béla Zombory-Moldován went by train through Eperjes (now Presov) early in 1915, my father was nearby, a toddler at the age of three. I cannot help but wonder if he heard the train go by, carrying the wounded officers and men of the Royal Hungarian Army after its defeat to the Russians at Rava-Ruska.

BZM, as I shall call him, managed to survive and, in fact, managed to live for another half century, becoming one of Hungary’s most beloved artists. But in The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914, we see only a tiny slice of that life. Would that it were more! Supposedly the remainder of his autobiography was hidden or destroyed by a relative for personal reasons.

Hungarian Soldiers at the Front

Hungarian Soldiers at the Front

We tend not to know much about the Galician Front in 1914-1915, except that the casualty rates for the monarchy’s forces were horrifying. In the first two weeks of fighting alone, the Austro-Hungarian forces lost some 400,000 killed, wounded or captured. The “butcher’s bill” rose to 850,000 by the end of 1914 and to 1,600,000 by March.

We meet young Béla at a seaside resort in Croatia (then part of Hungary) the day that war is declared. Then we follow him to Veszprém, where he is called up to report, and from there to Galicia, where he engages in the battles at Rava-Ruska and Magierov. Wounded, he returns to Budapest where he has a month to recuperate before returning to duty. During that month, he visits a village priest relative in the north of Hungary, and then returns for a while to the Croatian Adriatic.

During this time, BZM came to a realization:

Nature slumbered, seemingly indifferent. Everything moved forward in accordance with unchanging laws; sleeping or waking, every struggle, in accordance with its slow, gradual, hidden evolutionary laws. Nature flowed on its course, impervious to the absurd behavior of men, their mutual slaughter and assorted acts of wickedness. The whole world was manifestly indifferent in the face of the life-and-death struggles of men: it neither took their side nor opposed them, but simply paid no attention. Let them get on with it. Let them reap what they sow.

A Forgotten War

Chinese Troops in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979

Chinese Troops in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979

Once the U.S. abandoned Saigon to the Viet Cong in 1975, we seem to have lost all interest in Southeast Asia. There was, however, a lot happening. The Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, which was supported by the Chinese, was engaged in genocide on a massive scale. Also, we must not forget at that time that the Sino-Soviet conflict was at its height: The Russian-Chinese border fairly bristled with guns and military units. At the time, the Hanoi government had a military alliance with the Soviet Union. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deposed the Khmer Rouge, China decided to punish its neighbor to the south.

On February 17, 1979, somewhere between 200,000 and 600,000 troops of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) invaded North Vietnam and occupied the all territory for approximately twenty miles south of the border. It appears that China either wanted to test the alliance with Russia or divert the crack Viet military units engaged in Cambodia—or both, or neither. A number of reasons have been adduced for this incursion, and China wasn’t owning up to its motivation for so doing. Vietnam met the attack by the 1st and 2nd military regions—essentially militia—under the command of Dam Quang Trung and Vu Lap. The number engaged of the Vietnamese forces was a fraction of the Chinese force, but it inflicted heavy casualties on the PLA, and suffered heavy casualties in return. (The numbers vary depending on whether one is following Chinese or Vietnamese statistics.)

Newsweek Cover in Feb 1979

Newsweek Cover on March 5, 1979

When I heard that, after thirty-five years of relative peace, the Chinese are once again testing the resolve of the Vietnamese by drilling an oil well off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which are claimed by both nations, my antennae started to tingle. Tiny uninhabited islands are big news these days, mainly because they extend the territories claimed by adjoining land powers. Claiming a tiny rock can extend one’s territorial waters by literally thousands of square miles. And both China and Vietnam need all the oil they can get.

The Vietnamese responded by rioting and attacking Chinese within their borders, along with the businesses they ran. China has been chartering flights to evacuate its nationals from Vietnam.

Although the PLA is huge, it is largely untested in battle. The Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 was probably the largest military conflict it faced in the last half century—and it did not fare too well faced with a smaller number of Vietnamese militia. At that time, one must remember that the Vietnamese had been at war ever since the end of World War Two and, as a people, were probably as battle-hardened as one could be.

It would be interesting to see whether China is willing, once again, to test Vietnam’s resolve.