Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book Review 329: How Rome Fell

HOW ROME FELL: Death of a Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy. 531 pages, illustrated.Yale paperback

Adrian Goldsworthy felt obliged to spend the first and last pages of “How Rome Fell” explaining that the answer, whatever it is, cannot be copied over as a cautionary admonition to the United States today.

Not that he does not draw conclusions. Some historians claim history does not teach lessons -- a silly idea equivalent to saying that you cannot learn from experience -- but Goldsworthy does not do so. He claims that superpowers, when they fall, fall from within.

When I was a boy in the South, the fall of Rome was a favorite theme of holy roller preachers, although these men were so ignorant they could not have found Rome on an Esso map of Italy. They were persuaded that it was the moral depravity of the Romans. They were too stupid to note that the decline leading to the fall coincided with the Christianization of the empire.

Edward Gibbon thought the fall was the result of religion and barbarism. A German historian counted at least 200 proposed causes.

Goldsworthy is cautious. For one thing, the decline can be fairly precisely started in the third century, and he notes that we know so little about that time that if we were equally ignorant about the 20th century, we would know there had been a Great Depression and two world wars but would not understand how serious they were.

Still, he dates the beginning of the end to the murder of Emperor Commodus and the civil wars that followed. Surprisingly, he offers no discussion about why the murder -- not the first of an emperor -- was so dire.

The reason was that Augustus, 200 years earlier, had not devised a rule for succession in the constitution of the empire. There was a vague feeling that sons should follow fathers, but Roman emperors did not have many sons, or if they had one, tended to die (or be murdered) when he was an infant. There was no plan for the death of an emperor without an heir.

The empire was basically the army, so the strongest, best-placed general grabbed for the diadem. And others, too, often enough.

Goldsworthy identifies a structural change that this system of musical chairs began: the later emperors stopped using senators as legates to command armies or undertake other crucial tasks. They were afraid of creating a viable rival.

But if senators could not be trusted, the emperor had to do everything himself, which meant leading the army. If campaigns were necessary at opposite ends of the empire, one would be left unattempted.

Although he says relying on a small aristocracy -- around 600 men -- “may seem odd in this day and age,”  especially since they were “amateurs in the modern sense,” the method worked well in the Roman context.

By keeping the ruling class wieldy, it allowed emperors to judge whom to trust and whom to keep away from temptation. And until the breakdown in the third century, senators did not think of themselves as potential emperors, which helped keep them contented as subordinate servitors of the state.

Expanding the upper leadership to the class of equestrians -- perhaps as many as 10,000 men -- meant an emperor lost intimate knowledge of whom to rely on and whom to fear.

This is a more subtle argument than barbarism and religion, and Goldsworthy is at pains to show that the barbarians were never numerous enough, skilled enough or united enough to do critical damage to such a strong empire. He has much less to say about religion.

No empire ever lasted so long. The western empire lasted around 1,300 years (though much of that period as a republic), the eastern portion much longer.

The Hamas tunnels

Israel’s open warfare with Hamas is, so the government says, partly about the tunnels by which terrorists are introduced into southern Israel. This opinion piece in The Washington Post attempts, not entirely successfully, to account for the alarm the Israelis feel about tunnels.

Be that as it may, I wonder why there is not a tech defense against tunnels. Israel has one of the best archaeological infrastructures in the world.

Israel knows how to use airborne magnetic anomaly detectors and sidescan radar to identify long buried ancient sites. It ought also be possible to use seismic sensors to indicate where tunnels are being dug. In this Haaretz story, other methods are suggested, from something as simple as microphones (used during World War I) to microgravity sensors to satellite observation.

The purpose of this post is only to ask whether there is not a tech answer to the ancient military use of tunnels, not to suggest that a ground invasion of Gaza is not necessary on other grounds

Haaretz hints both that the Israel Defense Forces have been remiss and that they have tried at least some tech defenses with indifferent results:

Langotsky says it was a mistake not to give Military Intelligence and the IDF’s technological units responsibility for finding a solution to the tunnel problem. Instead, too much money has been wasted, he says.
For secrecy’s sake, the IDF, the Defense Ministry and the defense contractors developing the technology — such as Elbit Systems and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems — declined to answer TheMarker’s queries on the matter. Scientists from the Technion, where two teams are working on the tunnel problem, also declined to comment.
The Defense Ministry said: “All the technologies mentioned in the story are very well known to the defense establishment and have been examined in depth in light of the threat and soil conditions in the sector. For reasons of classified information, we are prevented from providing details on the use of each of these technologies.”

 RtO suggests that finding tunnels offers superb opportunities for psychological warfare, a chance to reverse the thrust of asymmetric warfare that usually works against the stronger side.

For example, a tunnel could be mined with an “Ambien bomb,” something to put terrorists to sleep as they emerge or wait near the Israel exit of a tunnel. (Strictly, such a  “bomb” would violate international law, but I do not think these laws are worth acknowledging.) Then the would-be terrorists could be hog-tied and perp-walked through Tel Aviv.

More fiendish would be turning the psychological reaction that Gerard DeGroot says is the tunnel’s reason for being against the tunnelers.

If it is possible, as Haaretz asserts, to detect people in a tunnel, then preset mines or air attacks at each end, sealing them in, ought to make even dedicated Palestinian would-b e martyrs reluctant to become tunnel militants.

A Fox News story, using IDF sources, says the Gaza entrances to the tunnels are hidden in mosques, schools, homes and sometimes UN relief buildings, which make locating both ends of a tunnel from outside problematic, although daring Israeli “tunnel rats” could overcome this problem.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Open carry + Minnesota nice = ?


I will admit that he didn't pull his gat and shoot the CHILD in a hot rage. It was a cold rage.

Monday, July 21, 2014

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Stupid, Simple)

So, Gene Simmons becomes (I believe) the first Mauian to be the subject of the Washington Post's truth squadding, for his claim that the 1% pay 80% of the taxes and half the population pays no taxes.

Simmons scores "4 Pinocchios," which is the Post's way of saying: Big fat liar.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The right side of history

NOTE: I began writing this post on July 3, then set it aside while on a trip to Nevada. Just as well. I have been advocating a free and independent Great Kurdistan for a long time -- long before RtO began in 2008 -- and no one agrees with me. So rushing isn't the issue.

But delay allows me to reference the opinion piece by Zalmay Khalilzad, which confirms -- if it needed confirmation -- the intellectual sterility and practical foolishness of the Bush foreign policy team. Not that the rest have been better, as this post will show:

It isn't always possible to have your political principles and be a practical politician, too. I suppose the most dramatic example in our history (setting aside the initial question of slavery and nationhood vs. antislavery and several nations at the Constitutional Convention) was the choice between the violently anticommunist Germany and the would-be subversive and antidemocratic USSR in the late '30s.

President Roosevelt chose to oppose the Germans, because Germany was an aggressor state, and the USSR was not.

Neutrality, or even standoffishness, was not a possible alternative, although millions of Americans wanted it to be.

Many rightwingers disagreed. They thought communism was the worst -ism there could be and wanted to fight alongside Germany to overthrow Bolshevism. Among well-known Americans who felt this way was George Patton. However, he followed orders and fought the Germans. But he was never reconciled to the idea.

In the foreign policy apparatus of the time, there were several influential voices who considered war with Germany both inevitable and the proper course of action; but their voices were unheard by the public. Among people who did speak out to influence public opinion, there was no agreement.

Newspapermen who had reported from Germany were almost united in understanding who the lead enemy was, but politicians were not nearly so united. Political opinion ranged from pure pacifism to admiration for Hitlerism to admiration for the Soviet Union. The latter required switches in direction depending upon whether Russia and Germany were allied or not. Very very few advocated war before war began.

Most controversies regarding foreign relations are less clearcut than Hitlerism, so it is not surprising that, for example, Americans were always uncertain about the best approach to take regarding Irish independence or the status of the Panama Canal.

In retrospect, and using Panama as a good example, it appears that the United States would have been better off supporting autonomy and local self-determination most of the time. Most of the time, though, it did not. At worst, by refusing to support nationalism in Vietnam, we ended up losing a good-sized war, killing millions of innocents and damaging the reputation of America in most of the world.

Nationalism won anyway.

It is usually claimed that the Kurds are the most numerous national group without a state of their own (this may not be true, as there are some obscure but numerous non-Han groups inside China). For some reason, the status of the Kurds does not resonate with Americans. I have never seen a Free Kurdistan bumper sticker like the Free Tibet stickers you sometimes see (at least in the hippie zones).

Yet the Kurds have never done anything to irritate us. They have never picked the "wrong" side in an international dispute, and they have been cruelly persecuted.

Why don't we care about Kurds?

At one time, advocating a free and independent Great Kurdistan would have caused resentment in Turkey, a state the United States was concerned to conciliate and strengthen because it was on the border of the USSR. This continued despite Turkey's genocidal policy towards the Kurds within its borders.

But for more than 20 years there has been no good reason to conciliate Turkey. The other three states that need breaking up to create Kurdistan are no friends of the United States and have never been.

Breaking up Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey is going to happen if southwest Asia is ever to be organized on national, rather than colonialist principles; and reorganizing southwest Asia is a requirement for establishing stability there, if that can ever be done.

As far as I know, no one in the American government, under any administration, has advocated a free Kurdistan. Nor have any academics nor any of the policy providers in the think tanks.

It would have been cheap and easy to have backed the Kurds. If we had asked and given them some modest help, they would have bumped off Saddam for us and them.

Now even Khalilzad is wagging his finger through the opinion pages of the New York Times and admonishing the government to prepare for a breakaway Kurdistan in Iraq. Why couldn't he have suggested that to Incurious George when he was ambassador in Baghdad?

He still doesn't get it. He prefers the colonialist structure of Iraq, although our invasion made that impossible to sustain.

It may be bloody -- it probably will be -- but circumstances are moving in favor of a Kurdish state. There is nothing America can do to stop it, and, sadly, nothing now it could do to support it.

History was on the side of the Kurds, and America could have been on the side of history.

And of what we often claim -- without much evidence to show we are sincere; think of East Timor -- to be our founding principles.


The only issue in the mayor's race

It is raining this morning, refilling the reservoirs and forestalling worries about an Upcountry water shortage till next year. Yet water is still the only issue in local politics. If we don't fix water, it won't matter what else we do.

The county is, at last and much too late, replacing Shaft 33, which is the immediate problem.

The long-term issues are moving to groundwater and, somewhat paradoxically, acquiring the Brewer watershed.

The Supreme Court's decisions on Waiahole Ditch and other water cases make it clear that over time, more and more surface water is going to be withdrawn from public uses. This is not a practical problem, as there is plenty of groundwater.

But it is a financial problem, since groundwater is more expensive. Not more expensive than we can bear, but more expensive.

On the plus side, it is more reliable, once we have it.

But it will probably be decades before drastic reductions in access to surface water are ordered. The county must acquire the Brewer watershed in West Maui.

If water is a public trust, and the court says it is, then watersheds are a public responsibility. There is no urgency in removing well-managed watersheds run by stable companies to public ownership, and besides, most of the East Maui and Molokai watersheds are already public lands.

But the West Maui watershed is owned by a non-operating company with almost no income, no financial strength and no staff to look after the forest.

Birds spread miconia, and so far all that attention has been focused on East Maui. What happens when miconia (or some other plague) arrives in the Brewer watershed?

Nobody is minding the store.

Alan Arakawa is probably going to be re-elected, although the memory of Bernard Akana beating Dante Carpenter proves there are no sure things in local politics. He does not understand the Brewer watershed.

I do not believe he understands water issues, period. Sixteen years ago, when he was running for mayor the first time, we happened to meet at a high school graduation party and had a long talk about water. I learned his ideas about it were far different from mine.

So far as I can tell, he hasn't learned anything about it since.

Recall he wanted to control the Brewer water intakes but did not want to spend money on the land that fed the intakes.  There really was -- and is -- no advantage to controlling the intakes; the water, so long as it exists, will come out of them and go into the ditches. Where else could it go?

In the end, he got neither and between his blunders and the County Council's thrashing around trying (and failing) to get a piece of the play, the taxpayers were mulcted of over half a million dollars. For nothing.

The last asking price I heard for the watershed (including the intakes that Arakawa was once willing to pay $7 million for) was around $20 million -- 4 elementary school cafeterias or a quarter of an airport access road. Cheap at the price.

The history of county water has been penny wise and pound foolish all along.

As far as I can tell, water is not an issue for any of the 6 or 7 candidates, most of whom are off on luddite drives against agriculture.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Being schooled

I have started reading Adrian Goldsworthy's "How Rome Fell," and while I haven't gotten to Chapter 1 yet, his discursive and chatty introduction contains some statements so provocative, it seems worthwhile to stop and think about them.

Goldsworthy is an English classicist, but that makes him, to a degree, an internationalist, what was called "an Atlantic man" (spending a lot of time on planes between Europe and North America) a few decades ago.

Fifteen years ago, he was one of six historians on a panel sponsored by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment and paid for by the American taxpayer (through the Office of Net Assessment, which I had never heard of). They were to discuss grand strategies, apparently with a view to heading off the American empire (which Goldsworthy does not believe exists) from going the way of the older empires.

A few months later, some real imperialists drove planes into the World Trade Center, and ended the "hugely encouraging" feeling Goldsworthy had had that "a government agency (was) genuinely trying to learn lessons from history."

Incurious George and his handlers were among the least likely people in the entire world to care about learning lessons from history. They were out to teach history a thing or two.

It seems unlikely that even without the Muslim attack, and even if some different set of politicians had been in office, the taxpayers would have ever realized any benefit from this sort of confab, but that is not the provocative statement of Goldsworthy's I want to draw attention to.

No, what Goldsworthy, an Oxford man, said that startled me was, "In shaping the new country, the Founding Fathers consciously hoped to copy the strengths of the Roman Republic and avoid its eventual downfall. [And, no, despite lefty fantasies, they were not inspired by nor trying to copy the political structure of the Six Nations confederacy.] These days, it is also fair to say that the different university systems tend to make educated Americans broader in the range of their knowledge than the British. Plenty of engineers or medical doctors in America will at some point have taken a course or two in history or even the classics, something which is unimaginable on this side of the Atlantic."

This does not entirely surprise me, as in England engineering is still pursued in the old manner of industrial training; some of England's best-known engineers never went to college. And in the better American engineering schools, undergrads get a strong serving of humanities. Not so much in the average schools.

And, of course, in the liberal arts schools Americans learn nothing of science or engineering, which helps explain how SHAKA could gather 18,000 signatures for its crackpot petition.

Still, I was startled to be told that Americans have a "broad" view. This has never been my experience. Politically -- and that is the context of a study of how Rome fell -- the only segment of the active population that show any interest in history are the Tea Partiers, and they study the crazy imaginary history of the Bircher Cleon Skousen (reportedly, Mitt Romney's favorite college teacher).