Thursday, March 21, 2013

A gun story with something for everybody

First, if you haven't already, you have to read the complete story. A lede graf doesn't quite convey all the sides of this gun story:

About 12:20 p.m. Wednesday, a woman was in her Ellis County, Texas, home when she heard someone try to open the back door. She contacted her husband, who was in the area. The husband drew a gun on the robbers, who ran from the home, firing as they went, said Jo Ann Livingston, spokeswoman for the Ellis County sheriff's office in Texas.
Although the husband hit one of the robbers, he apparently died from a self-inflicted wound in an adjacent field. The other robber was found in the pickup stolen in Oklahoma, also dead by his own hand.
So, 2 more firearms deaths in the heartland of gun country. But how are the statisticians to allocate these?

Do we score 2 for armed citizen defending his home?

Or do we score 2 for if you keep firearms at home, the person most likely to get shot is a member of your household?

Or do we assign these 2 deaths to the majority of firearms deaths that are suicides?

Do we score 2 for children shot to death?

Other thoughts obtrude.

The Oklahoma family had (at least) 17 firearms. In a nation with only one gun per person, they were hogging the supply. With about 500% of their share, they were depriving at least a dozen other Americans of the chance to have an event like this at their own homes.

I bet there were at least 17 Bibles in that house. (Personal note: there are about 17 printed bibles in my house, if you count indexes and concordances; and hundreds in translation on a Bible app on my iPhone. But no guns.)

The perp was home schooled. Dunno if that included firearms safety and responsibility.

In the comments on an early story about this incident, a reader opined that she imagined the father would now rather have his son back than all those guns. But she was not from Oklahoma. The father was remarkably (to any non-Oklahoman) casual about it:

 “My biggest thing is the family down there and what they're going through. ... I would have done the exact same thing as the homeowner. My heart goes out to them,” Roland Chaffin said.

That's how they roll in Oklahoma.

A flood of readers to RtO

Yesterday, this version of RtO had its biggest day for visits yet. People were reading a post about beach erosion I wrote last year. Dunno why that's suddenly popular.

Happy to see y'all.

The original RtO, still running at, gets about 20 times as many hits as this site.

Content is about 99.5%n the same between them.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


I am not generally a big fan of Bloomberg News' editorials, but today there's a good one about keeping lists of gun owners.

Pinaciphobia is the fear of lists.

The NRA’s fear is ahistorical as well as irrational. American history is filled with gun regulations, including government surveys of gun ownership. During the Revolutionary era, writes UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler, the founders not only required able men to arm themselves for military service, but also inspected their guns and listed the firearms on public rolls. New Hampshire and Rhode Island conducted door-to-door surveys of gun ownership.
Later, as the nation expanded westward, frontier towns required newcomers to turn in their guns to the sheriff in exchange for a token, the way a “restaurant today handles overcoats in winter,” Winkler writes. In other words, the authorities not only knew who had a gun -- they safeguarded it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Wondrous events

And, as long as RtO is reminiscing about half a century ago, can anybody explain how Roncalli got elected pope?

I was a Catholic student at the time, and while we recognized then that Pope John XXIII was going to be very different from the only pope we'd known, Pius XII, what we couldn't know then was that Roncalli would be followed by a bunch more Piuses, including this Francis, who looks to be another in that same line.

The more I think about it, the more I believe the election of Roncalli was the blackest of black swan events. In fact, while checking a date, I ran across this:

"The following article (below) was originally printed in the Portugal Daily News on November 11, 2002. It provides documented evidence that 'Cardinal' Angelo Roncalli was a practicing Freemason, which incurs automatic excommunication from the Catholic Church. Also, Roncalli's illegal usurpation of the papal throne by force, at the 1958 Papal Conclave, from the lawfully elected and true Pontiff, Gregory XVII formally Cardinal Giuseppe Siri of Genoa, Italy (Click here for information, including recently declassified FBI documents pertaining to this sinister crime) makes the use of the term 'Pope' in this article, in reference to this gluttonous agent of Satan [Roncalli] an impossibility."
Gluttonous agent of Satan, eh? This quotation is attributed to Opus Dei. If accurate, much is explained, but not how Roncalli got elected.

Can we talk?

OK, once again RtO cannot restate the obvious, because nobody else seems to have said it; but on the occasion of the president's trip to Israel and much palaver about discussions, negotiations, settlements, isn't it obvious that there's no point doing anything until the Palestinians simply, firmly and without reservation renounce the Arab war aims of 1967?

Once they do, then the government of Israel could firmly exclude the extremists of the Eretz Israel crowd from politics.

Then maybe they all could get somewhere.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Now we're both shocked

Michelle Shocked is one of the very, very few active singer-songwriters whose CDs I collect. I am not always certain what her lyrics are about, but until now they weren't about dissing homosexuals.

Apparently, she's taken a new view on life.

Michelle Shocked, known for living up to her surname, cleared out San Francisco club Yoshi’s last night, and shut down the venue, after she went on an anti-gay tirade, which she summed up by saying, ”You can go on Twitter and say ‘Michelle Shocked says God hates fags.’ ”
Hmmm. If I understand her biography aright, she's had mental illness in the past. Possibly it has come back in strange garb. For sure, an anti-homosexual attitude doesn't match the rest of her stuff, as heard in her songs.

I'm a little shocked.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review 274: Berlin: The Downfall 1945

BERLIN: The Downfall 1945, by Antony Beevor. 490 pages, illustrated. Penguin paperback

With the exception of one odd blind spot, Antony Beevor's “Berlin” is an outstanding example of second-generation World War II history.

It benefits both from late discoveries (such as the disposition of Hitler's cranium) and time to reflect on the interpretation of events.

Of the events themselves, Beevor has little new to add, although as with the rest of the Eastern war, Americans have been offered very little popular history, compared to the vast stacks of histories and memoirs of the Western Allies' efforts, and the nearly as vast volumes given the Germans' versions.

This is understandable but unfortunate, since 90% of the European war was fought in the East and even more than 90% of the dying happened there.

This is definitely popular history. Beevor, an ex-officer in the Household Cavalry, knows his stuff but intrudes little of it here. There is not even an order of battle below the level of army group (front in Russian), and statistics are little used. He never even gives round numbers of the men and machines involved.

I regard this as a choice, not a flaw, and perhaps a good one. Unlike so many popular military historians, he does not let fascination with technical matters get in the way of telling the story. Those who want numbers can consult the many well-done books by Richard Overy.

The other reason Americans are not offered much about the Battle for Berlin, one of the mightiest of a big war, is that our army did not take part. (Beevor notes that the Red Army assault on Berlin was the biggest military drive in history, involving about twice as many men [and women, too, in the Red Army] as the Germans used to invade Russia.)

And here is where the only substantive criticism I have of Beevor arises. Many people at the time and since, not least Heimrich Himmler, would have preferred to see the Allied armies drive on Berlin. (Himmler deluding himself that the Western Allies and the Germans could then unite against the Bolsheviks.)

American officers, with exception of the in-way-over-his-head Patton, generally were happy to let the Russians do the dying, and they estimated that taking Berlin would cost somebody 100,000 lives.

Beevor doubts this estimate, figuring that there was a moment when the western approaches were lightly defended.

He gives the eventual butcher's bill for the Red Army as 78,291 dead and 274,184 wounded, numbers not all that much lower than America's total for the European and Pacific wars combined.

General Marshall, with Eisenhower agreeing, was disinclined to spend any American lives for a purely political objective. Berlin was not necessary to defeat the German army.

Beevor says repeatedly that the naïve Americans simply failed to understand the value of the political victory, though conceding that Stalin was never going to allow any but the Red Army to take the prize.
It's an argument that can be made, but Beevor fails to reference the obvious case of Moscow, which neither Hitler nor Stalin thought so highly of in 1941. While Hitler in 1945 refused to evacuate Berlin, Stalin did start evacuating Moscow in '41 and was prepared to fight on if the capital were lost.

And Hitler also did not think Moscow was a supreme objective, since he turned aside suggestions from his generals to concentrate on it.

(Most historians think the Germans could have taken Moscow by concentrating armor in that assault in October-November. It's possible, but considering the logistical incompetence of both the German army and the Nazi party-state, there's room for plenty of doubt.)

Beevor never does say what political benefits the democracies would have gained by taking Berlin, and it is hard to think of any. The USSR's desire for a defensive cordon of subject states from the Gulf of Riga to the Black Sea was entirely understandable. And the Red Army was there.

The Stalinist-style regimes installed were far weaker, as barriers, than strong states would have been, but that was a miscalculation of the Stalin state. Any conceivable Russian state would have sought similar guarantees, just as the United States would not allow either an occupied nor an independent Hawaii. (And American arguments were based on far, far smaller actual threats.)

Under these circumstances, the clearance of Germans from the regions east of the Oder-Neisse line was a necessary event. Beevor gives full weight to the cruelty that this involved, calling it the largest mass transfer of population in history. Certainly it was the largest in such a short period, perhaps 11 million Germans killed or driven out.

The result was an eastern Europe with the possibility of development as a series of nation-states. This could never have happened with Germans interspersed among the populations in the numbers they were in 1939.

Something not to be found in “Berlin: the Downfall” tends to confirm this interpretation.

There is no evidence in this book, or in any other I know of, that the Red Army soldiers, of any rank, understood the racial motivation of the German invasion. For them, war was an opportunity for plunder (of women as well as tangible goods), and Soviet propaganda did not attempt to make them fight for marxism.

Both Overy and Beevor, for example, note the stunned reaction of the Russians when they finally reached East Prussia, to find that, as one put it, the pigs there lived in better houses than Russians did.

They could not believe that Germans, so rich, would bother to rob poor Russians. And, if it had been put to the Germans that way, possibly the Nazis could not have carried the nation to war. But that was not why Germans fought.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Dethroning the Wright brothers?

From Flying magazine, a very surprising claim that someone named Gustav Whitehead flew an aircraft two years before the Wright brothers, succeeded in tri-axis flight control one year before and designed an engine that was capable of powering flight that was adapted and adopted by other manufacturers.

Not much detail and no explanation about why Whitehead was not heard of at the time. So I am skeptical. I have read extensively about the Wrights, what they did that worked and why, and what other flight experimenters did that did not work, and I have never even heard of Whitehead. My bad, perhaps, but I am curious to hear more.

Goyer, the editor of Flying, is usually a pretty level-headed guy, or I wouldn't have burned bytes relating this.

"Jane's Editor Paul Jackson describes what happened in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on August 14, 1901.

 'It was in the summer of 1901 that Whitehead flew his airplane, which he called the Condor. In the early hours of 14 August 1901, the Condor propelled itself along the darkened streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut, with Whitehead, his staff and an invited guest in attendance. In the still air of dawn, the Condor's wings were unfolded and it took off from open land at Fairfield, 15 miles from the city, and performed two demonstration sorties. The second was estimated as having covered 1½ miles at a height of 50 feet, during which slight turns in both directions were demonstrated.' The length of flight and altitude reached make the Wright's first powered foray pale in comparison.


OK. I have now visited the site which purports to provide the evidence, and it has a picture of the supposed first working airplane. I do not believe that machine could fly.


Over at Slashdot, commenter samkass has this to say about it:

That is rowboat with some kind of wings attached. Not flying wings but insect wings. Is this some kind of joke? [This a quotation from a previous comment.]
No, it's conspiracy theorists at its best. Here's the actual analysis that went into the re-creation of the photo linked above: []
As you can see, it's pretty much the "computer... magnify, rotate, enhance" sort of photo manipulation that "proves" flight. Whitehead was definitely a pioneer in aviation. But there is absolutely no evidence he created a steerable machine or even understood differential lift to cause banking in a plane to accomplish a curved, controlled, coordinated turn in flight like the Wright machine was able to accomplish.
Other people had been in the air before flight in gliders and on ground effect. A Frenchman named Ader lifted off the ground (barely) first, to disastrous consequences earlier (he, too, based his plane on a bird/bat design instead of scientific analysis and was unable to control it in flight). It was actually the earlier failures of Ader, Langley, and others that caused so many problems when the Wrights tried to sell their planes to the US and French military, who had seen the earlier failures and couldn't believe a couple of bicycle mechanics had cracked the problems of efficient propellers, steering, proper wing camber, and usable controls.
It was only after there was competition from aircraft manufacturers trying to invalidate the Wright patent that all this prior art suddenly magically materialized. The Wrights never lost a case.

That's a good summary of how I understand it. Jane's is looking mighty gullible. Interesting that major newspapers are ignoring this story.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Livin' large on Maui

So, I'm thinking about buying an MP3 player, because my iPhone has only 16 gigs and my wife has filled it up with pictures and apps for our grandchildren, leaving no room for me to store music.

An MP3, cost say $25-75, would  be cheaper than swapping for an iPhone with more memory, seems to me; plus it wouldn't use the iPhone battery. And at four-tenths of an ounce (for a Sansa), it wouldn't weigh me down that much.

One thing about living on Maui. When it comes to consumerism, we're waaaay behind.

I stopped at Wal-Mart, because in the past when I was looking for things like fast memory cards, Wal-Mart had it when nobody else on the island did.

Didn't see any MP3s, so I asked the clerk, who led me to an inconspicuous spot, apologizing that, "This is all we have right now."

She was right to apologize. Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer had 3 -- count 'em, three -- choices, all Phillips, all with small internal memory and no provision for an SD card.

Any self-respecting small businessman selling electronics, if we still had such a person on Maui, would have 2, 3 or 4 times as many models in stock, from at least 2 manufacturers.

So much for the greater efficiency of rationalized retailing.

It isn't just MP3s. If you were to go to Costco to buy, say, a refrigerator, you would have a choice of low prices on 2 or 3 models, out of hundreds in production.

Karl Marx once lamented about capitalism that Manchester manufacturers offered more than 800 kinds of hammers. So socialism has won. We no longer have 800+ kinds of hammers on the shelf.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

. . . and the damage done

In the past four months, three of the country's leading gun nuts have been shot to death. Not one defended himself, although at least two -- and probably all three -- were armed.

To anyone familiar with the data assembled in the accompanying infographic (from, this will not be a surprise.

Guns in the USA

At the same time, the Pew Center released a survey which found that about a third of households have guns. Those who do not, Pew said, feel that having guns around is unsafe. We refer to these as the reality-based community.

Many who do keep guns say they feel safer. This is the delusional, or rightwing, community. They may feel safer, but the facts are that they are more at risk, by about an order of magnitude.

Being safe and being at risk are different states of being. The argument from the gun nuts is that their guns keep them from being attacked, not just that they keep them from being attacked successfully.

This is impossible. Given the huge overhang of the unarmed, if being unarmed really increased risk, there would be a huge and obvious excess of victims among the unarmed. There are not.

The subtext of all this is that the gun nuts are timid, frightened people, afraid to walk unarmed down streets that unarmed old women and children traverse without a care every day.

This fear goes a long way toward explaining the strong bias among gun nuts to be rightwingers. It is fair to say that liberals are generally optimists, while conservatives are pessimists. Whether ideology leads to personality, or personality leads to ideology, or both walk forward hand in hand, you are more likely to survive unarmed.

At least one person agrees with RtO

In January, I wrote "A capsule history of public debt" (January 28) to explain why balancing the budget is not always, or even ever, a good idea.

This was based on my own reading of economic history over the decades.

Comes now Evan Soltas, an opinion guest at Bloomberg News, to say the same, with more figures than I used.

Soltas does not cite any authority for his opinion, any more than RtO did. The reason I didn't is that my conception of debt is an amalgam of ideas from all over. I don't know who Soltas is or why he doesn't cite authorities

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review 273: Working Stiffs

WORKING STIFFS: Occupational Portraits in the Age of Tintypes, by Michael L. Carlebach. 130 pages, illustrated. Smithsonian, $25.95

According to photography historian Michael Carlebach, tintypes (used from 1856 to around 1900) were despised by arty, expensive photographers of the time and still by critics of the present.

While understandable for the Victorian photographers, who were being undersold, the attitude in the late 20th century seems precious, if not childish.

Anyhow, because tintypes were cheap, working people, who could not ever afford daguerreotypes or ambrotypes, bought them. And because they are durable, we have them.

No information about the hundred or so portraits is available, so Carlebach consulted Smithsonian Institution curators to identify the occupations of some of the workers. Most surprising is an epicene youth in tights and satin drawers who is thought to be a professional roller skater.

The significance that Carlebach sees behind this assemblage is that workers thought of their work as respectable and were proud to be seamstresses, harnessmakers, housepainters and so on. The high class photographers were also prideful of their skill and status, but not the kind of people to accord the same respect to working stiffs.

Their complaints, which Carlebach quotes liberally, are venomous.

Topday, he notes, few people have portraits made of themselves with the tools of their work. Rather, they are shot with their toys – their cars, or in Hawaii, surfboards.

The tintype era was a period of transition (exhaustively investigated by Sean Wilentz in “Chants Democratic,” although Wilentz ends his study just before the tintype arrived) in American work, from artisans, often self-employed, to less skilled operators and hired hands.

The pride they took in their skill led them to lug their hammers, cans of paint, spindles etc. down to the photographer's studio or traveling wagon – tintypes required exposures up to 30 seconds so were not suitable for location shots.

Otherwise, the photographs are not very remarkable. Unlike with cabinet photographs, the purchasers were not trying to make a statement, just to show how they looked.

Book Review 272: The Cotton Plantation South

THE COTTON PLANTATION SOUTH SINCE THE CIVIL WAR, by Charles S. Aiken. 451 pages, illustrated. Johns Hopkins paperback

Professor Charles Aiken's “The Cotton Plantation South” is the most perceptive book about the place I have read. It is written from the perspective of theoretical geography, a discipline I have not studied, although some of its core concepts are readily understood from the text.

De land ob cotton” was far larger than the plantation region, which is limited to a (formerly, now degraded) fertile crescent starting in eastern Virginia and passing through the Carolinas, comprehending most of Georgia, the narrow black belt of Alabama, about half of Mississippi, and into Arkansas, Louisiana and east Texas.

Here for nearly 400 years, most of America's black people lived and worked, and the story of the plantations is a story of labor and mismanagement. A plantation, to a geographer, has a restricted definition, but it is enough to consider that it is a large agricultural unit with central direction of large labor forces.

After the laborers became freedmen, the economic organization of the plantation region was revolutionized four times, but the political organization only twice, and the social organization only partly.

Aiken's chapters on the civil rights movement are the best I know, and ring perfectly true to what I experienced at the time (in North Carolina, not the cotton belt).

After the Civil War, freedmen had a limited opportunity to trade their labor for concessions, although – as Allen Nevins remarked in his history of Reconstruction, the failure to dispossess the landowners meant that no true reform would occur – and they opted to get away from massa.

The old, nucleated, closely watched (but not profoundly understood) “quarters” were abandoned for dispersed cabins across the plantation, where each family could labor on its sector without much supervision.

This was bad for the land. The blacks had neither the education nor the capital to preserve the land, and it was quickly ruined. The status of tenant, also, turned out to be an economic trap.

Management failure was the underlying basis of the decay,' writes Aiken, contradicting the fondest beliefs of southern whites.

It is somewhat satisfying to realize that the planter class's efforts to keep blacks impoverished left the planters impoverished, too. Aiken does not make too much of this, only referencing Hortense Powdermaker's observation that the Delta elite was, compared to national norms, barely middle class.

He could have said more. On a single day in 1933, one quarter of the land in Mississippi was sold at sheriff's sales. It is not true that old families maintained their position after the war.

Old classes did, but as Aiken mentions (but only in a note), land changed hands frequently, at least until corporations snapped it up around World War II. Most of the cotton plantation South changed hands at $5 or $6 an acre and is now in pines or weeds. The tens of thousands of pillared mansions in Atlanta refer back to the movie of “Gone with the Wind,” not to anything in the South's real history.

Aiken finds that large parts of the plantation South failed early, in large part because of the incompetence and indifference of the landlords. Even the parts where plantation agriculture remained viable (especially the Yazoo Delta) made decisions which pushed the South into an economic trap from which it may never emerge.

The South is the part of the United States which is most similar to the rest of the world,” writes Aiken, trying to place the South's situation at the end of the 20th century in a wider context.

However, he cautions that the common interpretation of the South as a colony is at most incomplete.

The book is well illustrated with photographs of old and new buildings, many taken by Aiken, that, using the concepts of spatiality, tell their wordless stories about what was going on among the people.

Nowadays, blacks are back in nucleated settlements, but not in agriculture. It is a fascinating tale, full of heroes and villains.

Aiken is more likely to praise the heroes than to sneer at the villains; the book is remarkable for its calmness. Only twice does Aiken resort to emotionally-tinged characterizations: once to praise Harry Caudill's “Night Comes to the Cumberlands”; and once to condemn the Agrarians, whom he calls charlatans. Since Aiken taught at Knoxville, calling the Agrarians charlatans probably cost him some invitations.

I could go on and on about the insights in this book but will mention only one more. When federal registrars were sent into the South to register voters after the Voting Rights Act (whose attack by rightwing Supreme Court justices is wrongheaded, as this book makes clear), more whites than blacks were registered.

It has been said many times that freeing the black Southerners equally freed the whites. That is true. White Southerners of good will did not vote, because there was no one to vote for. It took some argument from me to persuade my father to register when I did, in 1968, but from then on for the rest of his life, he became an enthusiastic and conscientious voter.

The Cotton Plantation South” explains why as a man of conscience, he did not vote earlier.

Another alternative energy pipe dream

Fuel from algae goes the way of fuel from cellulosic ethanol. Hang on to your oil stocks.

Nut graf from Bloomberg:

“What we’ve come to understand is the hurdle is pretty high and the hurdle seems to exist at the basic science level, which means it’s even more difficult to solve,” Tillerson said yesterday. “These are very challenging problems.”

The story does not even mention the problem of keeping your algae, whatever strain you use, uncontaminated. No one can do this on even small scales, as the Japanese proved on Maui. The idea that it can be done on industrial scales is moonshine.

I hear, by the way, that someone is trying to revive the defunct algae project in Kihei.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Book Review 271: Changing Mines in America

CHANGING MINES IN AMERICA, by Peter Goin and C. Elizabeth Raymond. 208 pages, illustrated. Center for American Places

Working mines are ephemeral. Few stay open more than a few decades, often less. The changes they make to the landscape can last more or less forever.

It was the thought of photographer Peter Goin, after nearly being trapped in an abandoned mine, to examine the meaning of old mines to the human and physical landscape. Elizabeth Alexander provided the historical background.

They examine four pairs of mines, some active, and discover that while most people do not welcome mines as neighbors, once they have them they sometimes object to environmental restoration.

This is said to be true of the hard coal area of Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley, where removal of spoil heaps was resisted. Removal of mining buildings also raises objections.

In one sense, this is understandable. In many remote places, the mining landscape is the only human landscape around. Goin and Alexander find this to be particularly true of Eagle Mountain, Calif., where an iron mine created an ideal '50s small town in the desert, which its residents bitterly missed when the mine closed.

Alexander does a good job of assembling the disparate viewpoints, although she perhaps understates the desperate situation of what the oceanographer Orrin Pilkey labeled “chalices of poison,” the deadly lakes that result when pumping ceases in open pit mines in the West.

I had never heard of radon tourism at several Montana uranium mines, where deluded people spend weeks underground each year seeking relief from arthritis. But it is reminiscent of the tuberculosis hospital established in Mammoth Cave before the Civil War in the belief that absence of sunlight would be helpful.

Goin's photographs are purely reportorial; there is no effort to exploit the mines for arty or picturesque reasons.

Since few people visit mines, and even fewer have occasion to visit a working mine, this book, a series in a study of American landscapes, would be a fine introduction for the excluded masses; but it was published in such a small edition that it can have hardly any impact.

Good idea, though.

Losing Iraq

In The Washington Post, Andrew Bacevich, already well known for his skepticism about recent American foreign policy, declares we lost the Iraq War. Of course, RtO has been saying the same for years.

Bacevich puts the loss in the context of an unstoppable assertion of Muslims to determine their own destinies without interference from "colonialists."

 In what has become one of the most momentous stories of the 21st century, the inhabitants of the Islamic world are asserting the prerogative of determining their own destinies. Intent on doing things their way, they are increasingly intolerant of foreign interference. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington sought to revalidate an altogether different prerogative, one pioneered by Britain: an entitlement to meddle.

While I like almost all of what Bacevich has to say, I don't see it that way. What I see is an Islam that has never controlled its own destiny embracing a new form of the despotism that has marked all its history. At least, if in modern terms we mean by "controlling destiny" that the masses do it, then that isn't happening.

Islam is not modernizing. 

The United States lost the war because it had no objectives. And because, even if had had, its leadership was incompetent. Perhaps also because no conceivable worthwhile objective could have been obtained, unless we had supported a free and independent Great Kurdistan.

Backing a Great Kurdistan would not have brought peace to the region, any more than backing Israel has. But it would have been compatible with democratic principles.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Book Review 270: Mission Raise Hell

MISSION RAISE HELL: The U.S. Marines on Choiseul, October-November 1943, by James F. Christ. 257 pages, illustrated. Naval Institute.

James Christ's “Mission Raise Hell” is one of the more interesting small unit battle histories I have read.

As a diversion before the invasion of Bougainville, the Marines sent in the Second Parachute Battalion to a beach within about 10 miles of the principal Japanese base on Choiseul. One thing Christ does not make clear is why the Japanese fell for the diversion.

After fighting tenaciously for over a year for Guadalcanal, you'd have thought the Japanese would have figured out that the real military value of a Solomon island was space for an airfield, or secondarily, a naval base. Choiseul had neither.

Nor did Bougainville, really, but Choiseul was even less attractive militarily.

The Second was told not to expect any help, as the South Pacific Command was still shorthanded. They got a few sorties by aircraft and the backing of a couple of PT boats (one skippered by Jack Kennedy), but the 650 Marines were left to themselves on an island with about 5,000 Japanese marines – elite troops whose large stature surprised the Americans.

It was not as suicidal as it sounds. Moving forces around on Choiseul was not easy, and in their week ashore, the Marines fought only two actions, apart from patrolling clashes, both small.

The excellence of “Mission Raise Hell” arises from Chist's years of interviews with all the surviving Marines in the late '90s, just over 10% of the assault force. Of the survivors, almost every one had been wounded in the battalion's other major action, Iwo Jima, so it was somewhat remarkable that so many men were still available by 1998, including the commander, Lt. Col. Victor “Brute” Krulak, a legend among Pacific Marines.

By sticking only to what each informant told him about his week, Christ gives an excellent feel for what it felt like. And since it was a small action, he had informants covering all the important sectors of the operation.

He supplemented memories with the war diary and other written sources, but notes that the eyewitness testimony at the center of his history is ambiguous. Some men recalled their week as dry, others as incessantly wet.

Christ leaves such ambiguities alone, but it seems obvious that the days and the coasts were dry and the nights and slopes were wet (just as we experience on the high subtropical island of Maui where I live). A Marine's memory, after 50 years, seems to reflect whether his assignments took him to the coast in daylight or kept him at the hideout in the mountains at night.

A lot of what the Marines recalled was not combat but jokes and idiosyncrasies of their fellows. And their fondness for the Johnson semiautomatic rifle and Johnson light machine gun.
As elite troops, the paramarines were equipped with the inventions of Melvin Johnson, and they much preferred them to standard models. The Johnsons were light and did not jam.

But few were made.

Christ also notes that the paramarines commanded the most firepower, per squad, of any army in the world at the time, another reason they were bold enough to go against 10 to 1 odds.

This is not strictly accurate. Some Red Army units were equipped entirely with submachine guns, but the Marines did have an advantage.

Their real advantage, though, was that they were on the tactical defensive, even if on a strategic offensive. Krulak was ordered to make a commotion but avoid pitched battles.

Thus the Marines went looking for trouble but as soon as they found it, they took defensive positions. Since the defense, with automatic weapons, is usually reckoned as three times as effective as the offense, that went a long way toward ensuring that the Marines escaped with few losses – 14 dead, the same number they had suffered a little before in a few seconds during a Japanese air raid on Vella La Vella.

At Iwo Jima, when the Japanese were on the defensive, the Marines suffered about 120% casualties.

Battle cry

Mark Adams, who worked at The Maui News and was, I thought, rather the ideal of the unpolitical reporter -- he enjoyed reporting stupid political moves no matter what the party -- has gotten more and more political since moving back to the Mainland.

Today, he posted a long and personal political piece that I think nicely sums up the outlook of my leftish friends, although I do not share Mark's optimism about how well the Democrats are going to do in the 2014 elections.

I share most of Mark's thoughts about the 21st century Republican Party. I can sum it up more briefly: Today's GOP is just the John Birch Society without a credible commie menace to cringe before; but Mark's version is more eloquent, so read the whole thing.

Sample graf:

But today's right isn't reasonable in so many areas, and this is not compassionate conservatism. It is a scorched-earth knee jerk reaction to a spiraling debt level that when studied in hindsight has GOP fingerprints all over it -- and their party leaders claim they have no fingers. None they're willing to lift, anyway. Their stand ironically will hurt Republicans and Tea Partiers and members of the religious right and neocons and skinheads and militia members and fascists and RWNJs and all their families as much as it will progressives and Democrats and liberals. Democrats are often wrong, but I believe they're more often right because they genuinely care about other people -- kids, grandparents, students, women, immigrants, gay kids, straight kids, church kids. My stepfather's stepkids like me. Like so many of us.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

'Headlines, hardship and hatred'

On the 65th anniversary of the first Supreme Court decision in favor of religious freedom, an interesting documentary on Vashti McCollum.

I had not heard the dtails before -- the suit began before I was born. The hatred, though, I remember very well.

Commentator Ron Rotunda is very wrong when he says most Americans now take separation of church and state as a matter of course. Where I grew up, hardly anyone did; and the persecution of Mrs. McCollum's son is something I've seen on Maui.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Tom and Jerry and me

I have purchased a number of Tom and Jerry DVDs, but M-G-M has been kind of chintzy about releasing all of them in the United States. So, when I noticed an eBay seller offering a complete Tom and Jerry collection, I was interested.

True, the seller was from Asia, home of the DVD pirates. But he claimed to have the original receipt, on request, and he had upwards of 7,400 positives on his seller rating. There could be one honest seller in Asia, nu?

And, as an eBay seller myself, I was aware of its policy against selling "Property taken without authorization from companies or governments."

So, I ordered the set. When it arrived, I was immediately suspicious that it might, in fact, be a bootleg. The tipoff was the big lettering on the box: Merto-Goldwin-Mayer.

It turned out that, if I had inspected the thumbnail with a magnifier, I could have seen that before I ordered, but I hadn't thought to do that.

So, I reported the seller for violation of policy, for which the punishment can be banishment.

Ebay sent back a robo-email saying it would investigate and, if necessary, take action, although because of privacy concerns, it would not tell me what action, if any, it did take.

Well, it wasn't hard to wait a couple of weeks and see whether the seller, gadgetsjapan (which despite its name claims to be in Singapore), was still selling on eBay. It is. In fact, it is still selling the pirated Tom and Jerry cartoons, and you can see the Merto-Goldwin-Mayer lettering on the thumbnail.

It isn't hard to figure why. Despite eBay's first "community value" ("We believe people are basically good"), it's a capitalist business with stock on the exchange. A seller with 7,500 positive ratings must have generated tens of thousands in income for eBay. The company isn't going to say no to that, is it?

Pierre Omidyar talks a lot of talk in Hawaii about civic spirit, but his company doesn't walk the walk.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Moscow under terror

Allied to the previous post about murder in Germany, there is a stimulating review in the Atlantic of a bookbook about the murders in Moscow in 1937-8 -- murders that did not elicit much distress in the West.

As with RtO's previous post about the number of murder institutions in Germany about that time, the surprise is that it took so long for someone, in this case an Austrian, Kurt Schlogel, to make a comprehensive report.

Much of the material he used was public, like the 1936 Moscow city directory, so that it was not merely the secrecy of the USSR archives that prevented the investigation.

I have not read the book but intend to. Nut graf in Benjamin Schwartz's review:

The result: Moscow 1937 is a layered, hallucinatory panorama of great precision and artifice that gives readers access to a most foreign place and time. Schlögel’s analysis of the 1936 Moscow Directory, for example, generates a portrait of the magnificently varied cultural and intellectual life of a great metropolis. The 680-page Directory devoted six of its triple-columned pages to the organizations of the Academy of Sciences alone; it listed 280 “Clubs and Houses of Culture,” 540 magazines, and at least three jazz bands; and it untangled the thick web of libraries that covered the city. “This diversity of social and semi-governmental institutions and organizations gives us not merely an insight into the immense complexity of an urban society,” Schlögel notes with typical discernment, “but also an inkling of the huge efforts and even violence required if they are to be disciplined, levelled down and made uniform.”
UPDATE: Book reviewers make a point of, at least, spelling the author's name right, but when I went to buy a copy of "Moscow 1937," the dust jacket indicated that the publisher believes the author's name is Schlogel. The Atlantic had it wrong. Accordingly, I have changed the spelling in my post to what, I hope, is the way the writer spells his name.

Police state

Not infrequently, we hear rightwingers complaining that America has become a police state, and somewhat less frequently, the same from leftwingers. Time for a reality check.

The Holocaust Memorial Museum has issued a new report -- surprising in two ways -- that simply counted the number of slave labor camps, Jewish ghettos, concentration camps, prisoner-of-war camps, brothels of sex slaves, camps to kill the old and sick, do forced abortions, "Germanize" aryan-looking subject people or transport victims to the death camps. (The report left out the "clinics" for murdering the mentally defective.)

The numbers astound: 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers.

The total is 42,500. The researchers had expected the total to be around 7,000. It is surprising that nobody counted them all till now.

It is also surprising that it took so long for the New York Times to find this story. The information was reported to scholars at a conference in January.

The Times story is regrettably brief. It notes that for most people "Nazi camp" means either one of the six big death centers, or a ghetto, especially, the big Warsaw ghetto. In the Times report, "1,000 prisoner-of-war camps" sounds bland enough. Didn't every combatant nation have POW camps?

Few Americans know that more men were murdered in German POW camps than in Auschwitz and the other death camps -- of the 6 million Jews who were murdered, perhaps a quarter were shot in 1941-2 before the death camps were up and running. But 5 million prisoners, mostly Russians, died in German POW camps.

They were starved to death. No elaborate machinery of selection, execution and corpse disposal was used.

There are still people today who wonder why the United States (eventually) and Britain (early) fought Nazism rather than communism. A friend of mine used that theme -- only in the context of North Korea and Iraq -- the other day to query why nations sometimes attack police states and sometimes leave them alone.

My answer to him was, in short, national leaders are touchy about borders and apt to overlook crimes committed wholly within some other country's  borders. That, I take it, was what Churchill meant when he said that if Hitler had invaded Hell, he (Churchill) would feel obliged to at least say a few favorable words about the devil in the House of Commons.

Which is neither here nor there to the theme of this post. The nut graf from the Times:

Dr. Dean, a co-researcher, said the findings left no doubt in his mind that many German citizens, despite the frequent claims of ignorance after the war, must have known about the widespread existence of the Nazi camps at the time.
“You literally could not go anywhere in Germany without running into forced labor camps, P.O.W. camps, concentration camps,” he said. “They were everywhere.”