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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Who I Am

Hi! How did you get to this weblog?

Just so you will know who's responsible for this outrage, I will tell you.

I arrived on the planet in 1931 in the Nation's Capital, in a hospital that had been built generations earlier for the use of the freed slaves. I was my parents' first-born, after they had been trying for 15 years, and soon afterward they also produced a sometimes annoying little girl, and that was it.

Though for slightly more than half my childhood I lived in Landover, Maryland, I received all my education in the public schools of Washington, D.C. and at Howard University in the same city. There I started my lifelong impractical pattern, by majoring in English Literature and minoring in Classics. After taking time out for a little spin with the U.S. Air Force, in 1958 I graduated magna cum laude from Howard, where at the very last moment they also handed me a Phi Beta Kappa key. It's been sitting deep in a drawer ever since. It's quite tiny, and I have never found a lock that it will fit. I will concede that I haven't exactly been searching either.

I guess people expected that I would be a teacher, but, always having felt that I am unworthy of that genuinely heroic calling, I have successfully avoided it. Instead, my life ever since college is sufficiently described as having been a collection of towering dreams, some of them ecstatically realized, and others tragically unrealized.

My sign is Leo, for what that's worth, and there's a likelihood that in less than a month I will have 73 years, as they say in Europe. I take high blood pressure pills -- most of the time -- glaucoma drops all the time, and that's all my meds. With enough light I can read quite well and see in the distance, though a little fuzzily. I stand at just about 6 feet and though for most of my adult life I weighed only 135, 10 years ago my body apparently thought it needed exactly 30 more pounds for the final haul, and it seems to have plateaued out there. I am nervous, feeble, error-prone, and clumsy. I'm a hopelessly bleeding hearts, habitual non-conformist weirdo who smiles a lot and doesn't owe anybody any money. I have never smoked, drank, dressed presentably, or done anything else that was in style.

I write, paint, hammer, saw, garden, and computer, and I can do other things as well, though these days that involves a lot more intent and a lot less commission.

For the last 25 years my wife and I have lived deep in the sticks of the Virginia Piedmont, close to the Blue Ridge, in a 1,400 sq-ft "green oak" house that I designed and built myself, every nail, board, wire, pane, and pipe -- excepting only the septic tank -- I couldn't fake being a front end loader. It is located deep in the sticks of the Virginia Piedmont, in sight of the Blue Ridge. That's a tiny picture of my house at the top of the sidebar. I am very proud of it.
I've been married to the same quaint woman for nearly four decades, and until two and a half years ago we had a child, a son. I've been very fortunate in having them, too.

That's who I think I am, nearly all the time.

Have you managed to pick up any good ideas yet about who you might be? It's not easy!

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

On Autopilot

In the attempt to correct the grievous situation into which the U.S. was plunged by the tragic elections at the turn of the millennia, it's useful to remind ourselves of how it was that George W. Bush came to be the man chosen by the Republicans to be their candidate for President that year, followed by his actual occupation of that office, and we all know what has so sadly happened since then, no matter how easily the disasters could've been anticipated, if not in their exact details then at least in their tenor.

Bush was handed the candidacy because he had high name recognition stemming from his father and because he was regarded by the Republicans as having just the right stunted frame of mind suitable to serve as a conduit for imposing on the country their regressive, piratical agenda. As long as a candidate can be depended on to push that agenda, these people aren't particular about the quality of the person they back. Unlike Democrats, Republicans have a noticeable shortage of people of good character, high principles, and intellectual capacity. That ties in with one other important factor -- the Republicans knew that Bush's mediocrity would allow him to be seen as less threatening and toxic than all the other scalawags that they could've put forward at that time.

Today, as Bush is slated to be renominated by acclamation, the Republicans are relieved at not having to face that problem for another four years.

Even then the election was such a close-run thing that it became a putsch instead, and it was just the Republicans' good luck and the extremely bad luck of Americans and more particularly of tens of thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis who otherwise would be alive and unharmed today that Bush's brother was the governor of the state that wound up with the decisive, contested votes, and the people that Republicans had already installed on the supposedly impartial Supreme Court were in place and able to tip the balance.

Too many people are comfortable with the possibility of heading into nearly an exact reprise of the events of 2000 and afterward, complete with comparable conflagrations.

Yet, considering what the last three and a half years have revealed, it's hard to see how even Bush's staunchest supporters would accept him as their leader in negotiating the mazes of a Wal-Mart, much less as President of the United States. The leadership that allegedly has been oozing from the White House hasn't been evident, and instead the country has had all the appearance of operating on autopilot, dropping off soldiers here and there by parachute to scour unlucky places -- and not picking them up again but just continuing to lumber along aimlessly through the smoke-filled atmosphere while slowly losing moral altitude.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Appropriate Facts

Here are a few facts appropriate to 28 June of this and just about any other year.

House cats -- at least the ones that live with us -- reserve raising their voices strictly for use against other cats, when the decibels can become numerous and sustained. A human being rates that response only when he steps on one and then just for a split-second and sometimes not even then. Is this peculiarity repeated in human behavior, especially in the greater ferocity of civil wars?

Japanese beetles -- at least the ones that live with us -- are awesome in their selectivity. They are like art thieves who have broken into a gallery and only go for the best paintings.

Italians -- though there are none living with us -- have the most beautiful and coolest names of any group, by far. I love my own name, but "Berraducci" wouldn't have been a bad handle either. American Indians are a close second, in the names of their tribes and in those that they take for themselves personally, from nature. "Crazy Horse" has never really been equalled. But their music, as an expression from yesteryear had it, is "from hunger." It is badly in need of a rhythm section.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

The Contestants in the Sandbox -- Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani

The strongest figure in Iraq today and the man that bears watching closest -- in the rare moments when he chooses to reveal himself -- is Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the foremost of the Shi'a clerics. His predecessor in that position of strength, Saddam Hussein, was as different as it's possible to imagine. Saddam was basically a military and political party man who had a strong secular bent and only paid lip service to Islam.

For almost all Americans Sistani has to be an enigmatic figure, and that is only proper and fitting for an authority in the Islamic religion, since that is a little outside the mainstream of our culture. The comparison to another Islamic religious leader, from yesteryear, next door in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, comes easily, partly because the garb and hair styles uniformly affected by such religious figures gives them a uniformity of appearance, though Ayatollah Khomeini died way back in 1989. But so far Sistani has come across as being less threatening than Khomeini, though his message may well be the same. Sistani is very judicious in his use of language, so careful and subtle, in fact, that it always requires close study to get an inkling of exactly what he is saying, through the barriers of translation and the constant religious references. Or maybe that difficulty in understanding is just my personal shortcoming.

Sistani, by the way, has an unusually interesting website. It can be read in five languages. Click the title of this post.

In thinking about what we can expect from Sistani, it might be good to go back to Saddam and Khomeini and to recall that they were bitter enemies. During the Shah's time, long before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Khomeini took refuge in Saddam's Iraq and stayed there for years, until Saddam expelled him in 1978 -- in time for the Iranian revolution.

As inconvenient as it is for those who are still constantly trying to justify the invasion of Iraq by linking Saddam, however tenuously, with 9/11, it has to be noted that Saddam incurred a similarly bitter enmity with another man of deep religious convictions, Osama Bin Laden, and for the same reason -- Saddam's secular policies and his refusal to let Iraq get anywhere near being a theocracy.

Ironically, the clearest path ahead that I can see for Iraq is one leading toward a theocracy much like Iran's, with Grand Ayatollah Sistani being, if not the nominal leader, still the background figure occasionally tapping the wheel of the vehicle as it careens across the desert sands, to keep it from hitting the worst of the myriad rocks and fissures.

Is this, then, what Bush and his advisors intended when they invaded Iraq, unbidden? The creation of another theocratic Iran, a country that is firmly on GWBush's "Axis of Evil" list?

I don't think so.

As the religious leader of the Shi'a, who are 60 percent of Iraq's population, Grand Ayatollah Sistani is GWBush's best hope of keeping things relatively quiet during the transition period beginning in a few days, on 30 June 2004, in which Bush can hope to make a quiet general withdrawal from Iraq -- if that is his plan -- though very likely it isn't his plan, given the extensive installations that he is having placed in Iraq, including six military bases. In fact, I can't guess what Bush's plan might be -- that is, one leading to something better than just another Iranian-style theocracy. But then it really isn't his right to have such a plan.

So what is happening here? Is it possible that Bush has struck a secret deal with Sistani and others, all for only one purpose and that is to keep the oil flowing smoothly out of Iraq and westward? Yet, one statement by Sistani has been crystal clear, and that was his unequivocal declaration that the military occupiers can't stay, and surely that must mean that all those U.S. bases must be abandoned, too, unless they're for the ultimate use of others.

As revered and respected as he is, it can't be easy being Grand Ayatollah Sistani as he prepares to head into the next months. He and the other Iraqi leaders will have to contend with many strong forces, each with their own and often opposite agendas. In addition to the bulked-up and holed-up American and other Coalition troops, there will be younger militants in his own sect, especially Muqtada al-Sadr, and there will be the Sunnis, and the Kurds, and the returned exiles, and the Turks, and the Iranians, and the unrepentant Baathists, and the jihadis from outside Iraq, and Iraqi ex-soldiers feeling disenfranchised but still certain that it is their duty, with or without Saddam, to oppose the invaders and their collaborators, and having countless hidden caches of weapons for doing that--

I wonder if even to Grand Ayatollahs sometimes it seems that God's Will isn't that comfortable a companion.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Deception and Disappointment

In my early teenage years, whenever I found myself in new surroundings, while everyone else my age was elsewhere making a big racket and carrying on, I would seek out the book shelves in the houses and I would rifle them. I tried to do this when no one was looking. It was more interesting that way, and I thought it was safer, in case I stumbled across something that I wasn't supposed to see.

No one ever was looking, and that led me to wonder why they had all these books in the first place, if they weren't reading them or even putting up safeguards against purloiners like me.

By "rifling" I don't mean I would take any books. I mean I would go through them and try to transfer to my mind any interesting bits of lore and entertainment that they had to offer. But that turned out to be a very risky business. It was, as I saw later, like going through another person's jazz albums. These people had unaccountably bought and stored away a lot of books that I wouldn't have touched, while lacking those of a sort that in my opinion needed to be there. Even worse, when I opened something promising, often I would find that I had been badly deceived and the contents were not at all what I had expected.

In my stepfather's collection I found two offenders that especially stuck in my craw -- I mean my mind. One was Jane Austen's supposed classic, "Pride and Prejudice."

I didn't know that "Pride and Prejudice" had been written in 1813 in England -- way outside my era and setting. Instead "prejudice" was a very big, current, and threatening term in that phase of my life, because it was always used to denote the attitude of much of the majority group toward people like me, my family, and our acquaintances. It referred to the widespread feeling that because of our African ancestry, we were naturally inferior and deserving of very few rights and opportunities. I was always looking for insights on that attitude, because it was so insane.

I had to delve into "Pride and Prejudice" for a good 20 or 30 pages before I saw that nothing could have been farther from Ms Austen's mind than the all-important subject of America's racial situation, in her, my, or any other day. Dumbfounded, disappointed, and even offended by her blatant misuse of that most crucial of words, I wondered if this woman had any conception at all of what "prejudice" meant. It has nothing to do with 19th Century English tea parties!

I eventually set that novel down with deep disgust, and to this day I have never given that or any other work by Ms Austen a chance. My wife, on the other hand, can't get enough of the gentle lady's stuff in books and in movies.

I don't remember the name of the other volume, and if I did remember, you would probably not have read it. It looked interesting because it had lots of pictures of human anatomy.

'Ah-ha!' I thought. I had discovered something on that great, delicious, forbidden mystery called SEX! So, after careful glances around to make sure that I was alone, I started reading this book with almost unbearable anticipation of the stolen pleasures that lay just ahead.

Alas, it was an exploration of a subject that couldn't have been of less interest to me. It was about constipation.

Every couple of years after that I would crack that book again, just to make sure that I hadn't misunderstood something. Surely no one would have been misguided enough -- or constipated enough -- to have written a whole book on it. But I could take another look all I wanted. Those pages would always be purely about that crappy subject.

But I did come away from that tome with one invaluable snippet that I, in my great generosity, will now pass on to you, in case your own lifelong studies on the topic haven't led you to reach the same conclusion. The lower your toilet seat is, the better it is for your elimination channels.

I also made some wonderful discoveries in those "rifled libraries." The best popped up in the books belonging to my cousins in New York. It was a complete set of the short stories of O. Henry. I read the entire collection, and it was great.

A large number of his stories were about grifters and con men. No deception and disappointment there!

Friday, June 25, 2004

Nicias, Chalabi, and the Prefascists

Yesterday, after posting the bit about Ahmad Chalabi, I was hit hard when I reached Chapter 18 of Thucydides' "The Peloponnesian War."

I have been getting a lot more out of reading that book now than I did in my college days, but in the late 1950's the U.S. was enjoying a break between major wars, and the history of all those conflicts in and around Greece 2,500 years ago didn't strike any sparks. Today Thucydides' book is amazingly contemporary, and it is as if things going on in Iraq and elsewhere are mainly strong reverberations of those events in nearly the same neighborhood of so long ago -- due, I guess, to the glacial change of human nature. Plus I can see half a dozen good TV miniseries in that book.

In 416 B.C., during a war that the Athenians had already been waging against the Lacedaemons or Spartans for 17 years, the Athenians contemplated starting a second war, by staging an invasion of far-off Sicily. A few years earlier they had already engaged in a fracas there and had prudently withdrawn without doing much damage to themselves or others -- to the disgust of the more pugnacious of the Athenians, the neocons of their time, or the prefacists as I less charitably call them, much as the elder George Bush and Colin Powell were castigated for stopping short at the Iraq border in 1991.

Exiles from a city-state in Sicily called Egesta begged the Athenians to come back to Sicily, this time on Egesta's behalf in a dispute with another city, and among other enticements, they said that they had plenty of money to finance an Athenian invasion of not only the offending state but also of all Sicily.

The Athenians had a lot of ambitious men who were all for embarking on what they saw as an easy way to expand their empire. Unluckily for them, they had too few a number of cooler heads who argued against going far across the waters to attack people who hadn't attacked them, and when they were still facing right next door a powerful enemy that nearly every year, like clockwork, invaded their territory in a war that was still far from resolved.

The chief of those cooler heads was a general named Nicias. He said:

Our struggle, therefore, if we are wise, will not be for the barbarous Egesteans in Sicily, but how to defend ourselves most effectually against the oligarchical machinations of Lacedaemon.

We should also remember that we are but now enjoying some respite from a great pestilence [the plague] and from war, to the no small benefit of our estates and persons, and that it is right to employ these at home on our own behalf, instead of using them on behalf of these exiles whose interest it is to lie as fairly as they can, who do nothing but talk themselves and leave the danger to others, who if they succeed will show no proper gratitude, and if they fail will drag down their friends with them.

That's the passage that so struck me, because it is so dead-on descriptive of my perception of Ahmad Chalabi.

Furthermore Nicias said:

I will, therefore, content myself with showing that your ardour is out of season, and you ambition not easy of accomplishment. I affirm, then, that you leave many enemies behind you here to go yonder and bring back more with you.

And that is exactly what happened. Despite this excellent advice, the Athenians did strain their treasury and outfit a huge fleet, which did sail far off to Sicily bringing a big army, only to find that the Egestean exiles had indeed lied, and they had little in the way of cash to contribute to the effort. And three years later the Athenian army was annihilated in Sicily with a thoroughness and a brutality that has rarely been matched. And the crowning irony was that, after weighing so heavily and sensibly against going into this disaster, Nicias was elected to be one of the Athenian generals in Sicily, and he was captured and slaughtered. (In those days generals were killed and captured with awesome frequency, unlike today's generals who can conduct wars while being not even in the same country with their troops or even on the same continent.)

And, as Nicias had prophecized, the victors, the Syracusans, having wiped out the Athenians in Sicily with the help of the Lacedaemons, reciprocated by coming to Greece and playing a big part in the eventual defeat of the Athenians at home, after which Athens lost its democratic form of government and went through several oligarchic reigns of terror.

I hardly need to point out the aptness for today of what Nicias said about "bringing back more enemies with you," of which the terrorists are just one.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

The Contestants in the Sandbox -- Ahmad Chalabi

At the moment there can be few men in Iraq who are more disappointed and frustrated than Ahmad Chalabi, yet he still smiles -- a necessity for a man whose game includes playing both ends against the middle.

Two years ago he must've been confident that, with small variations, history would repeat itself and he would become the Lenin of his times. Surely he recalled how, in 1917, Lenin made two triumphal returns to Russia to take charge of the Revolution that had gathered steam during his absences, the first having lasted for 10 years in various western European countries, while he spent his other, much shorter, enforced out -of-country sojourn in Finland in that same momentous year. Chalabi must've expected that he, too, would return to Iraq to be toasted by one and all (except Saddam's people), accompanied by the Anglo-Americans, whom he wanted to be seen as the muscle that he had brought along to liberate Iraq.

There's a saying that I like and that I first saw in a German chessbook. It goes, "Man proposes but God disposes." There has to be an Arabian equivalent. Maybe it is this: "My goat would have gotten to Mecca if it hadn't been for the wolves by the side of the road."

Maybe, however, that isn't Arabic at all, or even Muslim. I got that one also from a chessbook (chess is riddled with unintended consequences), this time written by a Russian and apparently a Jewish guy at that, David Bronstein, though I am only assuming that he was Jewish because of his name. His writings and his reputation are lacking in references to such. But, despite being the World Champion for a year or two, Bronstein was best known for being whimsical, and that ties in with his use of that saying.

--Things haven't worked out well for Chalabi. He lacked the caliber of credentials that Lenin had of having worked for so long with such focus on unseating the czardom and especially one as surefire as having had a brother hanged for taking part in the early days of the revolution. Not many Iraqis have welcomed Chalabi with open arms, and I think that was to be expected.

Despite the decades that they had endured Saddam Hussein, the Iraqis, like humans everywhere, are not generally masochistic, and they weren't happy about the thousands of deaths and the massive destruction inflicted on them by Chalabi's well-armed buddies and by the lawless Iraqis who were left free to pillage and burn in the meantime. I think they would have much preferred that Chalabi had used the great influence he claimed to have on his U. S. friends, to end the hated embargo instead.

And then there's the resentment that has to be expected on the part of people who had stayed in the country and had dealt with Saddam all along, while Chalabi and others comfortably danced through other countries, suckering Republican hawks and engaging in shady deals such as in Jordan, where Chalabi has been convicted of bank fraud.

And now Chalabi has really been brought down some drastic notches. The U.S. has stopped giving his group, the Iraqi National Congress, the cool 340,000 bucks that it had been receiving each month for doing something or another, and Coalition troops have also raided his house, taking away hordes of Chalabi's computers and documents. He is accused, among other things, of giving U.S. military secrets to Iran.

But he is undeterred, and now he is campaigning in the guise of being the truest of Iraqis, crying "Let my people go!" and hoping to claim a major spot for himself in the power vacuum that he sees coming after June 30, when Bush has promised to relinquish much of the control of Iraq.

But I think Chalabi will always be seen by the Iraqis as a confidence man, trying to use them as gulls in his latest scheme.

If you have never seen supreme contempt delivered against a political figure in the most elegant and unapologetic manner, check out the 22 May 2004 post titled "En Kint Tedri" in "Baghdad Burning," concerning an intervew that Chalabi gave on Iraqi television. Riverbend has kept an eye on him for a long time, and her view of this man is an interesting one by an Iraqi "who stayed."

Ahmad Chalabi reminds me of a tire that has suffered a blow-out and has been taken off the car and tossed into a ditch. It is only lightly biodegradable and so has the potential to stay there relatively unchanged for years, and once in a while it will look usable to people passing by -- until they flip it over and see its fatally damaged side.

For that reason maybe Chalabi should be called "Iraq's Rubber Man" -- not that I have anything against rubber.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Contestants in the Sandbox -- George W. Bush

I keep wondering why Bush supporters can't see a glaring disconnect between his behavior when he was in the part-time military and the image he tries to project now as a fulltime military leader, the "War President," as he calls himself. This disconnect is key because it shows that his whole thing is and always has been bogus. But these people are happy to wear wool over their eyes, and they resent those who won't submit to the same impairment.

Bush had such a fun time flying those nice fast noisy jet fighters down in Texas, didn't he, and his daddy didn't even have to pay for them. He enjoyed it. That was how he summed up his military service on "Meet the Press" some months ago . He enjoyed flying the jets. It was a real turn-on. Being in the Guard was like going to a theme park.

But then he found himself drifting farther up the proverbial creek than he ever intended to go with such a short paddle, what with inconvenient drill dates, missed physical exams, and missed kicks, too, having ended up in a unit that didn't even have those nice fast noisy jet airplanes.

And then I'm guessing that his daddy said that since Vietnam was winding down and, unlike John Kerry, G.W. had never intended to go there anyway because the guys serving there weren't his kind of people and also he might have had to deal with real bullets whizzing toward him, and since he hadn't been successful as a campaign worker, what with having to work that in with the inconvenient National Guard nonsense, he might as well go back to school and get some business credentials (which later on he put to typically poor use). So there went his military pledge right out the window, not one or two but seven or eight months early.

Yet years later Bush is still so shameless -- or susceptible to poor advice -- that as supposedly the U.S. President -- a civilian -- he bounds onto the deck of an aircraft carrier in military togs -- something that D. D. Eisenhower, whose military credentials were a billion times more valid, never did during his presidency, to my recollection. And when Eisenhower's immediate predecessor in the office, H. S. Truman, found himself aboard a naval vessel, a cruiser, headed home from a summit meeting with Stalin and Churchill, he made no pretense of swabbing a deck or going up on the bridge to shoot the stars. Instead he took a meal with the sailors while wearing his same old modest business suit, even though he was the commander of the mightiest military machine in history (excluding the Russians and Germans bleeding each other to death in their titanic struggle on the Eastern Front).

Even worse, on the carrier Bush declared that his ill-advised mission in Iraq had been accomplished, and thus he implied that all that remained was to start reaping the benefits.

Instead all that anyone has seen in Iraq in more than a year since then has been the whirlwind.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004


For me the concept of "sheriff" is filled with implications.

When I was a child in NE Washington, D.C., Sheriff Road was a boundary beyond which all was forbidden mystery. The first arch-villain I ran into in my reading was the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin Hood's perennial foe. So far the miniseries that has impressed me most is "Chiefs," though, because it had a rural setting, I thought it should've been called "Sheriffs" instead. Broadcast in 1983, it starred Billy Dee Williams, Brad Davis, Keith Carradine, and Charlton Heston, and it was about a succession of three very different Southern law officers in different eras whose fates nevertheless are linked to the same serial killer.

When we gave our neighbors and friends in D.C. the shocking news that we were setting up residence deep in the sticks of Virginia, we were earnestly warned to watch out for the KKK, the rednecks, and the bears, not necessarily in that order. So far I haven't heard of the KKK having any chapters around here. I'm told that there are plenty of "rednecks" around, but their code seems to be that if you don't bother them, they won't bother you (which is more than could sometimes be said for the city), and I've had no trouble at all in adhering to that code. I have had a couple of up close encounters with bears, but that resulted only in some light damage to my beehives, and in fact it gave us some unexpected prestige in the neighborhood and even newspaper coverage.

But I wasn't worried about any of those perils. I was worried about the sheriff.

That's because my faith in being treated fairly by the law is lower than it should be. One of the most obvious reasons is the heavy over-representation of people who look like me in prisons all over the land. But so far, in over 25 years, none of the three men who have been sheriffs in this county have found reason to take an interest in anything I'm doing.

The chief guiding lights of back-of-the-landers such as myself, Scott and Helen Nearing, reported that all they ever saw of local law enforcement in their Vermont rural area was when they happened to look up and notice a deputy's car passing by -- about once every five or six years.

It would be about the same here, except try once every twelve years. Actually I've seen a little more than that of the various sheriffs, because they have to run for office, and for a while my wife and I were active in the county's Democratic Party.

I got to thinking about sheriffs because recently, in her "Collective Sigh" weblog, Andante ran an extremely interesting three-part exposé about a rogue sheriff in her part of North Carolina, the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America," a man named Gerald Hege, and I highly recommend it to you.

That got me to thinking about the second sheriff that we've had during my time here in Nelson County, Virginia. He was the complete opposite of Andante's guy, and the rest of this post is a slight elaboration of a comment that I entered on her site. I hope she doesn't mind. I have always liked telling people about this man.

His name was Ron Wood. He looked just like that sheriff that was in the American Express TV ads some years ago, standing sternly by while the unlucky speeders that he had caught were calling home for money to pay their fines. Wood had all that big, bluff appearance of a sterotypical tough Southern sheriff, though in reality he was the friendliest guy imaginable.

Wherever Wood showed up, no matter what the company, he invariably shook hands with all the men he could reach, and he hugged all the women -- at length. I am confident that he spent time standing by the side of roads and waving at all the pickup trucks that went by, because I saw him do that once.

A neighbor who worked in the police department in a city nearby spoke of how Wood came to pick up a prisoner. He greeted all the police there in his usual extra friendly fashion, but the city police were taken a little aback when Wood greeted the prisoner in exactly the same way!

Wood had a reputation for being slow to make arrests, and political opponents tried to use his "poor" arrest record against him but failed badly. Instead he would try to get people to work out their differences amicably, and there was no negative correlation between his arrest record and the crime rate in his area.

Unfortunately heart trouble took Sheriff Ron Wood out of here way too early. It was a big loss for the county and the world.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Strolling Through D.C. -- Pt 2

During my first half-year in the high school cadets at Dunbar (having earlier skipped a half grade I was a midyear student) I was a lowly private, but in the next semester, being good at written tests, I made a high enough score to jump up to become the platoon sergeant of the second platoon of Dunbar's Company B. My total lack of leadership drive was soon noticed -- and not for the only time -- yet there I was with my bigtime five stripes and posted at the very rear of the formation, where I was supposed to be ensuring that everyone ahead was doing as prescribed. As in all the other phases of my life, however, I was really little more than a spectator.

We had some good officers, especially the captain, while one of the lieutenants, the commander of my platoon, went on to become the president of the first rainbow-owned S&L bank in D.C. to break into the high rolling downtown on K Street. He held the loan for my first house, and he was mildly amused but not overjoyed at how I insisted on taking advantage of the prepayment clause so that in just five and a half years my wife and I owned our house free and clear.

Anyway as that second year progressed, we drilled so well that it became a fair certainty that Dunbar not only would win the competition once again but also would make a clean sweep of it, and of our companies, mine, Company B, was by far the best. Everyone thought so, even the other companies, and I remember how great it felt, with the winter over and with all the missteps worked out, to finally head out of the confines of the drill hall inside the school and even away from Dunbar's football field and out at last onto the pavement of D.C.'s streets and to march along in perfect order for blocks and blocks in that residential area, for all the citizens who were lucky enough to see how truly we, the boys of Company B, a pretty disparate and cranky bunch, nevertheless had our thing completely together. Check this out, Armstrong, damn you, and weep!

As expected, Dunbar did make nearly a clean sweep of the competition that year, winning first, second, third, and I believe fifth, but Company B won only third, and it was with a mixture of jubilation and sadness that we marched back home. And as the last man in my company I was the one who was to be inflicted with the most vivid evidence of how badly our continued dominance was taken. Some street hoodlum from Armstrong kicked me in the rear just as we left the stadium. This is one of the few times, weblog readers, and definitely the first in over 50 years, that I've told anyone that that happened. After we had stowed our rifles back in the school's little armory, spirits were still so high all through that part of town that I wondered if, still in my uniform, I'd be able to ride the streetcar to the train station safely, but no one else seemed to hold me personally responsible for Armstrong's debacle.

After high school, I was in ROTC at Howard University for two more years and then I was in the Air Force for nearly four, both of which were cakewalks because of what I had learned in the cadets. So I saw a bit of the military, and in time I came to regard that pursuit as being at times on the questionable side. But I had no such questions in those cadet days of 1946-1948, and instead one of my fondest memories is of showing off with the rest of the company ("Ca-dence ...count! One, two, three, four!") with my emasculated rifle on my shoulder and so proud to be a part of a precision piece of military machinery, in perfect step and in exact alignment, as we "strolled" (that was what we called good marching) along Washington's beautiful tree-lined streets and past its pretty rowhouses that featured so much incredible Italian brick work, with all the traffic making way for us and people of every stripe watching and admiring us, during those cool, bright, optimistic Spring mornings in an era that now, in such an abundance of ways, is so long gone.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Strolling Through D.C. -- Pt 1

If you are determined to have a militaristic country, it is probably smart to be quick about getting the people who will be risking life and limb, the young folk, into the mood, by introducing them to the military early. And actually the discipline of the military is a good and even, I would say, essential thing -- short of falling overboard as in the Marines.

In the segregated school system that existed in the capital city of the home of the brave and the land of the free straight through the 1940's and even later, long after Harry Truman had desegregated the nation's armed forces, there were four senior high schools (grades 10 through 12) available to rainbow students. (As I try to be accurate in my use of language, I use "rainbow" for "black" and "euchil," short for "European Children, for "white.") And in those you could see the same sort of social stratification as that that was responsible for this maintenance of the two separate and unequal systems in the District of Columbia, and it existed not only between these four schools but also within them, at least in Dunbar, the one that I attended.

Dunbar occupied the top rung in prestige, and it was attended by the children who had the best junior high grades and/or the most prosperous parents. It specialized in academics, with an eye strictly set on preparing students for college, usually at Howard University, which conveniently was just a short walk away. But Dunbar students also fanned out to many other and more prestigious (meaning mostly euchil) schools throughout the nation, including the Ivy League. The other three rainbow senior high schools were more modest in their goals. Armstrong, which was right across the street from Dunbar, specialized in technical subjects. Cardozo, a few blocks across town, was the business school, while Phelps, far off in Northeast, taught vocational subjects.

I wanted to attend Armstrong, because that was where most of my friends went, and I figured that Dunbar would be far too hoity-toity for me, but my mother insisted that I go there, because that was where my father, by then early and very sadly deceased, would have wanted me to go.

All four of those schools proudly took part in a program called the High School Cadets. The U.S. Army provided advisors and real life 1902 Springfield rifles (with the firing mechanisms removed naturally!), enough for all the boys, and we were required to buy our own uniforms and take part in the drills, at least for our first couple of years there.

The cadet competition between these four schools was intense and bitter, even more so than in sports, if you can believe it (and if my memory hasn't gotten too enveloped in a golden haze of retrospect!). And in this Dunbar was king. Armstrong, Phelps, and Cardozo could win all the football and basketball crowns they wanted, but the cadets were more important, because they were teams to which every boy could belong and was equally key, even an outsider in every respect like me. And the height of achievement was winning the drill competition, which was held each year just before summer vacation, at Griffith Stadium, the same now long demolished baseball park a few blocks away in which Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Bob Feller in one league and Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Satchel Paige in a different league spent the summers doing their thing. Through the many years before me, the Dunbar smartasses had won the great majority of those competitions, and we thought it preordained that things would forever stay that way.

The D.C. rainbow community then as now was so large and self-contained that it was possible for us to be totally unaware of whether or not the same thing was going on in the euchil community. But I have a vague memory of having seen one or two fair-skinned guys in cadet uniform, and they looked odd, like pale imitations in more ways than one. In our persecuted frame of mind caused by the limits imposed on us by racial discrimination, they even suggested some sort of jibe being poked at us, since it was easy to think of the high school cadets as being purely a rainbow institution. Because it wasn't one of their traditions, surely those more privileged folk couldn't possibly have invested drilling with as much pride and flair, could they?

One of those fair-skinned near contemporaries was Pat Buchanan, the conservative columnist. (For what it's worth I entered the world and D.C. seven years in advance of him.) Though he lived in another, more prestigious part of D.C., Georgetown, for some reason he crossed town to be educated in high school close to Dunbar and Armstrong, at Gonzaga, which was run by Jesuits. I walked past that school quite often, on my way to and from Union Station, but I had no reason to take special note of Gonzaga, and so the impression I retain is just of a very grim-looking and strangely silent, high-walled place, like a Knights Templar fortress set in the middle of Jerusalem. (Yes, reader, as one of the strange results of Jim Crow -- and at my mother's expense -- I didn't ride anything as pedestrian as a bus or trolley to school. For much the greater part of that distance I caught a train. Not a subway train either -- that was still years from existing -- but a train train -- an unusual story that awaits another day.) But Gonzaga was a Catholic school, and they didn't have cadets. How sad for Buchanan -- because if he had gone through that essentially democratic experience, he might not have been so happy to expose himself to the colossal degradation later of becoming a speechwriter for R. Reagan.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this thrilling story. Surely you want to know how it all came out!

Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Draft Again

GWBush cannot even think about instituting a draft. He has a Secretary of Defense who, around the time that they were about to invade Iraq, bragged that the U.S. could easily fight several wars at once-- in Iraq, in North Korea, and possibly in a third place as well.

Events have not been kind to the Bush Leaguers, though how could they have known? Their decisions were not attended by something called "good sense" or by another factor that hasn't ceased to exist simply because they scorn and ignore it -- a quality or principle called "right."

If they had been in the habit of reading, a crack of the history books would have revealed that Afghanistan never has been a Haiti, a Grenada, or a Panama -- a dumpy, befuddled little place where they could simply send in a few troops and control matters. The British had already been badly burned in Afghanistan -- and more than once -- in the past 150 years, and they should've been able to tell the Bushes. Ditto for the Russians. And ditto for the British again in Iraq. You have to go into such places with something serious, though the only sensible plan is not to go in there at all, especially with nothing backing you except pretext.

So now, quietly, the Bush people have had to up the number of fighting men to 20,000 in Afghanistan, and it is going to quietly up the number in Iraq from about 138,000 to 150,000 even with the supposed transfer of power on June 30, and it is going to quietly shift 10,000 men out of South Korea and swing them around, too -- a few sprigs of seasoning to drop into the cauldron of southwest Asia..

A draft would be an outright concession by the Bush people of the failure of their military policies, and it has often been observed that they are not into admitting failure of any sort. So they will just keep shuffling troops from one place to another while trying to force veterans to stay in and inducing more volunteers to sign up.

Eventually we will all have to face one fact, and it is this: countries simply grow too large to wage wars of aggression with any efficiency or success.

I await the refutation of this statement.

Armies of any size become too expensive to maintain, much less to move for any distance. A huge population develops needs and creates numerous cracks and potholes that make it too necessary to spend assets elsewhere.

In other words, countries, like people, become obese. China, India, and Russia are examples. They can no longer flex their components, their arms and legs, easily. The United States has now achieved that same condition, and any sort of a draft will be like a flimsy truss that provides no relief.

Friday, June 18, 2004

The Draft

We hear talk that a draft is very likely in the offing, due to events in Iraq. That always disturbs me, on several accounts.

One is that if you're truly serious in considering the invasion of Iraq to have been a mistake, then it would seem that the most logical answer is to acknowledge that mistake and get back out quickly, without bringing in more troops.

If a person wants a draft, it means that they want instead to go on with things as they are but at a higher force level, in the hope of achieving some kind of a victory that they can recognize. But that doesn't help all those who will suffer and die needlessly meanwhile.

Another uncomfortable aspect of mentions of a draft is that they aren't usually accompanied by indications of what form it will or should take, and that matters enormously.

So far I have seen only two forms, and I have heard of a third. I don't know if others are possible, short of slight variations of these three.

The first was the universal one followed in WW2 and during Korea. The second was the lottery that was tried during Vietnam.

The third was the Conscription Act that was tried by Lincoln during the Civil War. This draft brought on widespread strife rivalling that of the war itself. and it led directly to a fearful slaughter of people of African descent by people of Irish descent, in the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. As their excuse for those atrocities, the latter argued that by being drafted and leaving for the battles, the former would be given their jobs. This draft raised only a small portion of the number of men that the North needed, and it was deeply flawed by the fact that exemptions could be bought, and that option was available only to the well-off.

Naturally the lessons of that draft weren't lost on later draft architects.

For modern purposes I don't see how the universal draft could fly, because of the tremendous number of people who would be inducted and the huge expenses.

A draft is not the same as signing up people to be reservists and such. People who are drafted actually enter the military service on full-time active duty. There are now close to three hundred million people in this country. Think of the scores of millions who would be eligible for the draft. It would be a logistical nightmare, and for what? Merely to take a whack at first one small country and then another?

The big requirement that is always asked of a draft is that it be fair, and the only fair draft is when EVERYbody goes, with exemptions being almost non-existent.

In that light the second, Vietnam-era lottery draft wasn't fair, as it was purely the spin of some wheel that determined whether a person served with the risk of meeting injury or death while just past the stage of childhood ...or whether he got to stay safely at home and lived to be a great-grandfather. Everyone has a right to expect that his destiny will be determined on a level considerably higher than that of a TV game show.

The Vietnam lottery draft didn't avoid the eventual loss of that war, and with so many specters hovering around it, I don't think that draft will fly in today's America either.

Actually, I am certain that all the talk of a draft means nothing, and there won't be another one any time soon, unless the U.S. becomes involved in something on the scale of a land war with Russia or China, or a fair amount of the rest of the world gangs up on the U.S. and prepares to invade -- fantasies that are the province purely of hungry wargamers.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Hadrian's Grief

In one of the most stylishly written works that I have seen, Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987), a French writer, brought to life Hadrian (76-138), one of the "good" Roman emperors. It is called "Hadrian's Memoirs," as expertly translated by Grace Frick with Yourcenar's help. It is a mixture of fiction with some very deeply researched biography. The book has all the air of having been narrated to Yourcenar in the 20th century by Hadrian himself in the 2nd, and I find it impossible to regard the work in any other way. Yourcenar called it a "meditation on history."

Because of the unbelievable dexterity with which the words are fitted together, I re-read this book every few years -- or parts of it. I skip past the stuff that obviously most interested the emperor, having to do with his obsession with a youth named Antinous, who mysteriously drowned in the Nile River at only 20. Instead, at first my favorite parts were Hadrian's musings on the gradual approach of his death. But once I had reached and then passed his age at the moment of his departure (62), I turned my focus instead to Hadrian's reflections on the Jews.

I know a Jewish lady who isn't nearly as taken with Hadrian as Yourcenar was, to say the least. That's because -- though it didn't start with him, Hadrian was the one who put into high gear and made final the Jewish Diaspora -- the expulsion of the Jews from their traditional home in Judaea and their dispersal to many farflung climes.

As a product of a diaspora myself, a much more recent one that was fully as involuntary for my ancestors as it was for the Jews, I am intensely interested in how and why the Jewish one took place. Also I can hear many reverberations between the Roman/Jewish relationship and the relationship of the Israelis with their Arab neighbors and with Americans and Europeans today. The Pantheon in Rome, that beautiful building with the big circular hole in its roof, designed by Hadrian, is unique among ancient structures because, despite its size and the depredations of the centuries, it still stands in close to the same condition that it was in when his workmen put the finishing touches to it nearly 2,000 years ago. Similarly a lot of the issues in and around the Jerusalem of that time are still flourishing, as improbable as that might be.

As Hadrian tells it here through Yourcenar's words, he was not at all happy with the Jews. For a Roman and especially an emperor he was extremely enlightened and cultivated, and he put most of his predecessors in the office to shame. In spite of all that, however, when it comes to matters in Judaea he comes across as something approaching a bigot, though he didn't even begin to glimpse that. Instead he saw himself as being the most pacifist and benevolent of rulers, and he was baffled by the Jews' unbending refusal, almost alone among all the conquered peoples, to bow to Roman rule and to accept what he saw as the many benefits of the Roman Peace. To him this resistance wasn't admirable or valiant. Instead it was senseless.

Knowing what we know now of the sensibilities that have prevailed there through the ages, we cringe and smile to hear Hadrian say, quite casually, that he not only gave Jerusalem a new name, Aelia Capitolina, but also that he started replacing its old structures with a standard, brand new Roman capital city. But--

These projects roused indignation in the Jewish masses: the wretched creatures actually preferred their ruins to a great city which would afford them the chance of gain, of knowledge, and of pleasure. The first workmen to touch those crumbling walls with pickaxes were attacked by the mob. I went ahead anyhow.

GWBush and his crew could never be confused with Hadrian and his people, but I wonder if they ever look back at Hadrian and see themselves in exactly the same situation with the Iraqis?

They should, because Hadrian's difficuties with getting the Jews to accept his rebuilding schemes were small compared to what that and other matters blew up into: another full-fledged revolt that resulted in numerous atrocities and massacres on both sides. Chief among those other matters was Hadrian's forbidding the practice of circumcision, and that is thought to have been the tree trunk that broke the camel's back. The Jews fought with every ounce of their strength and their resolve, but the Roman legions were somewhat different from today's Arab platoons, and once again the Romans finally prevailed.

Going by what happened there, especially before Hadrian's time, I can't help thinking that all those religions -- Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- have it wrong about the Holy Land. The ground there is soaked with so much blood and misery, especially Jewish blood and misery, that I don't see how it can possibly be considered sacred, even if much of the blood soaked down into the sand so long ago. Instead that whole region looks cursed to me -- as do so many other spots on the globe, due to repeated criminal acts.

Three of the emperors that preceded Hadrian -- Trajan and the father-son team of Vespasian and Titus -- had already fought exceptionally brutal wars in Judaea that each time had ended with so many Jews being slaughtered that I wonder how they survived as a people then and there. This was only after their fighters had brought the normally unbeatable Romans nearly to their knees, first in the case of Vespasian & Son and later with Hadrian. Hadrian had to go to Judaea personally to stiffen up his generals.

After Hadrian's work, not for another 18 centuries -- till the one just passed -- was there another effective, organized Jewish fighting force. They remained truly people of peace for that incredibly long period of time, though at what they saw as a price that they were finally unwilling to pay.

According to Yourcenar, Hadrian especially resented finding it necessary to spend the last two active years of his life putting down this revolt in distant, violent, unappreciative Judaea, when he could have been enjoying the comforts and amenities of more civilized places like Athens, or Alexandria, or Rome. And when his army finally starved out the last remaining resistance fighters and had executed all the revolt's leaders, and in a body the still surviving Jews were dispersed to hither and yon, he returned to Rome outwardly as a victor, but in his mind and in his heart he felt that he had, in fact, lost, and lost big. So many Roman soldiers were killed that history might agree that, on certain grounds, his campaign did indeed amount to a Roman loss. And crushing the Jews -- again! -- and at such a cost was in no respect the way that Hadrian had wanted his reign to end.

This disappointment went far beyond the Jews. His opinion of his own subjects was similarly low, and all the other parts of humanity weren't any better. Hadrian saw his failure in Judaea as a sure sign of what was to happen with all mankind to come, in spite of the best efforts of the always rare, enlightened people like himself. It can't be helped. Yourcenar has him saying this:

Our feeble efforts to ameliorate Man's estate would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in the good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless to them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave.

Marguerite Yourcenar may have been treating herself to a touch of hindsight when she put these words in Hadrian's mouth. Nevertheless it's certain that there has been little letup in the long series of those descents ever since.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

A Good Year

Only the most deluded and egotistic of us can claim to have had any control over the year in which we were born. The rest of us have to content ourselves with nailing down the significance of that year that earned it the distinction of seeing us into this life. I am certain that for all of us, that is easily done.

At first sight 1931 would seem to be among the very worst years, because it was at the outset of the Great Depression and it was right before Hitler and his thugs took power. Yet, it was still a great year in which to be born (since I wasn't expected to make a living). It was just in time for the Golden Age of Radio and too early to have my brains permanently scrambled by TV -- which all by itself is more than enough to sing high hosannas for 1931!

I was born too late to take part in WWII (except stuff like scavenging tinfoil from discarded cigarette packs alongside the road to fashion into neat-looking, heavy cubes to contribute to the war effort) and way too early to take part in the Vietnam mess. But betwixt and between I did serve in the military during the Korean "Police Action" -- there've been so many wars that I couldn't possibly have missed them all. I arrived in time and a place to be subjected to a mild form of Jim Crow but not lynch law, and just in time for the great outbreak of Civil Rights and to be exactly the right age, 30, for the onset of the best decade of a great many centuries, the Glorious 1960's!

My military experience in particular illustrated how my date of birth placed me right in the midst of some big transitions.

I was drafted, and after playing with the idea of seeing whether I could deal with the rigors of being a Marine or jumping out of a plane in the paratroopers, I decided that the less hysterical Air Force was more my speed. I was inducted in 1952, shortly after two big changes that had been wrought in the U.S. military.

A little earlier, in 1947, the Air Force had been detached from the Army and was now on an equal footing with the Army and the Navy, though for me, as a mere enlisted man, that was mainly manifested in the peculiar mix of leftover khaki and olive drab and new blue uniforms that we were issued.

Much more importantly, in that same year, 1947, Harry Truman had desegregated the military, which, among other things, meant that for the first time someone my color wouldn't be automatically relegated to certain jobs regardless of aptitude. I had a chance to become a flight officer of some kind, but I chose to stay in training as a ground radio crewman.

(I have always had a lot of strange notions, as shown by that paratrooper idea earlier.)

Aside from the desegregation order, the significance of my birth year as it applied to the military was best demonstrated by the historical transitions of the planes that I climbed in and out of so often during my nearly four years as a hotshot radioman. By being assigned to the Air Defense Command in California and later to the Strategic Air Command in Okinawa and Nebraska, I worked on the Air Force's last prop-driven fighters and bombers in active service -- F-51's and B-29's -- and on some of the first jet fighters and bombers -- F-94C's and B-47's.

(One of my Bomb Wing's B-29's, at Kadena AB, in Okinawa, exactly 50 years ago.)

Since then I have seen many other endings and beginnings, as we all have, but those shifts in some interesting warplanes first highlighted for me the good fortune involved in the timing of my birth.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Men With Guns (and Tanks)

"Got a knife, gotta cut something."
--A line I remember from something written long ago by Bob Dylan. I think it was "East Orange, New Jersey"

One of the Netzero news links on 5 June 2004 read: "Man Dead After Bulldozer Rampage, Authorities Say."

Just a few days previous to that, on the Sundance Channel, I had seen a chilling documentary called "Cul De Sac: A Suburban War Story." Dating from 2002, it was about a troubled man who snapped and got hold of an Army tank and drove it through streets and highways near San Diego, California for slightly less than half an hour, causing some property damage but no injuries, before the police -- though he wasn't shooting at them and was just trying to get the finally halted tank going again -- fired down into the tank as if he were a hog in a pen and killed him.

As I clicked on the link I figured that this man in Granby, Colorado likewise had been shot and killed by the police without being given much of a chance to leave his vehicle alive.

He had been shot and killed all right, but the authorities said it had been by his own hand, after a Swat team had used a blowtorch to cut into the bulldozer -- which he had fashioned into a sort of tank by dropping a homemade covering of steel plates and concrete over the bulldozer. If the police had failed in being the ones to kill him, it hadn't been for lack of trying. They had fired more than 200 rounds at the "tank," plus several explosive devices, and they had dropped something called a "flashbang" down the exhaust pipe.

The man had done considerable damage with his contraption, running into several buildings, and also mashing some vehicles, including some patrol cars. But the report said he had seemed to be intentionally avoiding hitting anyone. He was angry because of a zoning problem.

It must not have been safe to be anywhere near there, not because of the homemade tank but because of all those police bullets flying around and bounding off things. Bullets are not known to be effective against armor-plated vehicles. But some people who are legally sanctioned to do so greatly appreciate the chance to use guns, as do others who don't have such permission.

I wish that Swat teams were only another invention of the movies. There they are often seen, nearly as much as funerals, strip joints, and anywhere in and above New York City. And in their bulky, black getups and brandishing fearsome weapons with a palpable readiness to fire, they are indistinguishable in appearance from the faceless, remorseless squads of killers that are shown in every cinematic depiction of an apocalyptic future.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Why I Picked Truman

Recently on several weblogs there have been speculations about the greatest U.S. Presidents. I guess this was prompted by the so-called death recently of R. Reagan. I don't know why that should be, because surely R. Reagan doesn't merit a place on such a list. This is a man who, in the words of someone long ago, "nearly bankrupted the country preparing for nuclear war" -- a double-barrelled shot that hardly supports the idea of greatness.

To my amazement my choice, Harry S. Truman, barely got any mentions.

Actually I had forgotten Lincoln, who should always be first on my list because of his Emancipation Proclamation, though some say that he didn't actually free the slaves, and that instead he just set them loose. But Lincoln was too far out of my time, and I was just thinking of those that I personally remembered, and they started with FDR, though I was born during Hoover's term.

Roosevelt was fine, but he left the scene and involuntarily dropped into Truman's lap a matter whose fatefulness during WW2 was equalled only by Hitler's decision to invade the U.S.S.R.

Actually, just as I don't excuse the Vietnam policies of another of our otherwise greatest Presidents, LBJ, I question Truman's dropping of the atom bombs on two of Japan's cities (both of which I visited 14 years later) without first having demonstrated the incredible destructiveness of those never-before-seen weapons, for instance on some island near Tokyo. But Truman had only been in office for a short while, and it was a tremendously difficult decision for him to have to face right at the start. The pressures were overwhelming, and he decided, and that was that.

The atom bombings were just two of a unusually large number of highly dramatic and momentous events that happened on Truman's watch -- more, in fact, than during any other Presidency, I am bold enough to say, and half a century later we are still dealing with the issues raised by a number of them, for better or for worse. I don't think it has been posterity's verdict so far that he was to blame for their quantity or that he dealt with them badly. Most popped up as a result of the enormous amount of shakeout following history's greatest conflagration, World War 2.

The high drama started with the death in 1945 of Roosevelt, which thrust Truman willynilly into the highest U.S. office just as the War was reaching its climax. The other events included his implementation of the Marshall Plan, his dealing with the Russian blockade of Berlin and carrying out the airlift, and his vigorous "Give'em hell, Harry!" campaign in 1948, which seemed to end nevertheless with his defeat, but he turned out to have won, and in such a manner as to deeply embarrass all those who had publicly declared him to be a goner. And meanwhile the world's most populous country was "lost," survivors of the Holocaust arrived in the Holy Land, and the North Koreans invaded South Korea, forcing Truman to enter another terrible fracas.

Prior to Korea, in 1947, Truman had already greatly improved the American soul by racially integrating the U.S. military. That is less than significant to most, but for me it was all-important, especially when I entered the Air Force just five years later. As Steve Bates recently pointed out in his "Yellow Doggerel Democrat," that integration led directly to the Civil Rights advances in education, voting, and other respects a few years later -- another absolutely crucial consideration for me.

During the Korean War Truman continued to leave his mark by reaffirming the supremacy of the civilian over the military authority, when he fired the very popular but go-his-own-way General Douglas MacArthur. I believe that that principle goes farther toward preserving our political stability than does anything else, including our system of checks and balances.

Finally Truman did one seemingly insignificant little thing -- some might even say it was low class and tasteless -- that, on the contrary, in my eyes put the clincher on placing him above any other President of my time, and even any time.

Early in December of 1950, his daughter Margaret, a woman who to my observation took her status as only child\princess far too seriously, gave a solo singing performance. The music critic for the Washington Post, Paul Hume, panned her work -- and probably rightly so. But Harry S. Truman's love for his daughter was such that he became absolutely infuriated.

In that year the little guy from Missouri was without doubt the most powerful man in the world. He commanded the strongest and most farflung military machine that history had ever seen. He had the enormous influence that would be at the disposal of a President who had emerged victoriously from a great war with his nation firmly in the position of being the world's most prosperous country.

But in defense of his daughter's honor, Harry S. Truman didn't pick up a phone and order out troops to arrest Paul Hume and flog him to within an inch of his life. He didn't even call the Washington Post publisher and editors and request that they fire Paul Hume or at least ask him how he would like to grab a brush and clean out a few toilets.

Harry S. Truman didn't order or ask anybody to do anything, because by God he was going to take care of this business himself! (He was known to keep a little placard on his desk that read "The buck stops here.") Instead this most powerful man in the world simply sat down and wrote a simple little note to Paul Hume and mailed it off. Truman didn't do this as any sort of political move. I don't think that, short of his secretary, anyone knew about it till Hume himself showed the letter around.

In some era, to tell someone that he is an "eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay" must've been among the very worst of insults. As to which era that was, I'm unable to say. But Hume couldn't have missed the low opinion of his musical judgment or the meaning of the supporter he was going to need, should Truman ever catch up with him in person. And if you'll allow me to use the probably by now totally passe language of the block boys, Truman wasn't just a-shucking and a-jiving. He MEANT that sh-t! (Click the title of this post.)

I don't know of any other act by any U.S. President that so wonderfully demonstrated the American ideal of democracy, and the notion that no man, not even a U.S. President, is set so high above his fellow citizens.

It's a principle that ought to be remembered in the present era, when at least two Presidents, both of them Republicans, one living and the other dead, have been placed on a pantheon sitting just to the right of the elbow of any god that can be imagined.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Answers and Questions

The Sunday morning services at the large Baptist church in D.C. that for a time I attended as a child always ended with one of the church elders, a tall and very dignified gentleman, sonorously intoning the following words, which are the concluding lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Though they had heard these lines many times before, the congregation always listened intently, as if the words were thundering down from the sky and slicing straight through the roof in a shower of splinters and shingles:

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

At first, at age 11 or so, I didn't know what to make of it, the way that all the grown-ups stopped being "happy" and what-not and sat still for this, especially when I noticed that that part of the program happened every Sunday with absolutely no variation. A little later I thought that it was pretentious, though that word hadn't yet entered my vocabulary -- I was aware of the concept but would have had trouble expressing it. Then, taking into account the fact that that little observance took only a moment, and that it meant that the services were finally over, and that it had to be really meaningful since it happened at such an important point in the proceedings and no one ever stopped the distinguished deacon from doing it, I decided that, all in all, it was pretty cool.

Not much more time passed, however, before the meaning of those words became an important part of my anatomy.

I think my dabbling in organized religion for the short time in my early years that it lasted was in the simplistic belief and a hope that there were simple answers to the huge number of complex questions that I could see existence offering. And that little sub-ritual every Sunday morning reinforced that belief and that hope.

Is it likely that King Solomon, who I presume was the author of those lines, harbored the same yearning for simple, easily expressed and easily understood answers and a belief that they were obtainable?

Ecclesiastes strikes me as being the work of a weary old man who was trying to put an end to the "making of many books," at least as far as he was concerned. He appears to be presenting the chief answers that he had been able to come up with, in response to the questions that so many of his subjects and he himself had been posing through his many years.

Compared to many other books in the Bible, Ecclesiastes is brief, and it is heavily concentrated. Nearly every verse is quotable, and at the book's end King Solomon summed up everything in just those three verses, and never mind that he had already summed them up once before, and still more concisely, as early as the second verse of the first chapter, when he said, simply: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

This late in the afternoon I can still hear questions being hurled at me every day, though I lead a very simple life with hardly anyone in it, in person daily, except my wife. No one but me asks these questions of me. I come up with some answers now and then, and I keep thinking that the answers to everything are all quite simple -- or should be.

One of these days I may stop wondering if that's a delusion.

On the other hand, maybe the later stages of life involve gradually reclaiming a precious object that has been lost since childhood -- a transparent orb that the events of adulthood cover with so much grime and muck that it becomes unrecognizable and loses all its powers, and not till years later does all that gradually wash off again -- not a crystal ball in which events are foretold but one in which the facts of life can be seen better than ever before, and all the Answers consist of that clarity itself.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Bullets or Beds? You Decide!

The other day in a chatroom I was unchivalrous enough to ask a woman if she actually reads or whether she just scans the material that she likes to email me and several others, all of them liberals and progressives. This stuff that she likes to throw in our faces is in full support of GWBush's policies.

She answered by asking if I thought she was a fool, and that of course she reads it.

I didn't take advantage of that obvious opening, because everything else in that room is always cordial. She knew that that was as far as I would take it, and that irked me some more.

She has a son-in-law in Iraq, as she is always quick to mention. But my thinking is that that obligates her to be more responsible in speaking of things connected with that country, not less.

I had in mind a message that she had sent a few days earlier. It consisted of a long recital of Saddam Hussein's perfidies in bloodshed, couched in some especially hysterical language. One statement especially attached itself to my attention like a starving lamprey.

It went, "Saddam Hussein killed millions of Iraqis on a daily basis."

If my understanding of the English language is still reasonably intact, and noting that the number given is in the plural, this means that at some point Saddam Hussein regularly killed at least two million Iraqis a day. And we must assume that that is what the writer meant, because surely these people write as carefully as they think!

My 1978 edition of the World Book gives the estimated population of Iraq in that year as a little over 12 and a half million. Saddam officially became Iraq's ruler the next year. So it should have only taken him a week of "good days" to depopulate Iraq totally, and by the time Bush ordered the shooting to start, there should've been no one left there to shoot!

But in fact the CIA World Fact Book says that last year, in 2003, the population of Iraq had risen to nearly 25 million. That is exactly double the number of Iraqis that were around when Saddam took power -- quite a jump I would say.

In that same time span, the population of its neighbor, Iran, rose from an estimated 36 million to 68 million. Thus Iran's population didn't increase quite as much, even without a Saddam Hussein in charge and notwithstanding its war with Iraq in the 1980's that approached the taking of a million lives between them, though eight years were needed to do so, even with the use of poison gas.

This suggests that Saddam Hussein actually missed quite a few days while "killing millions on a daily basis," and surely at this very moment his interrogators are demanding an explanation for this and many other discrepancies between the Believed and the Actual.

On receiving that missive from that lady, I wrote a return email in which I said much of the above, and I used the same title as that of this post.

But I didn't send that response either. ...She may be disappointed!

Friday, June 11, 2004

Martha Stewart

I am completely baffled by the importance and newsworthiness of the Martha Stewart case, and she will be glad to hear that I think she is being thoroughly persecuted.

I don't know anything about Martha Stewart. Because I don't spend much time in kitchens or pantries or broom closets, I have never seen any of her stints or performances. I have a vague idea that she is famous for doing cooking shows and even more for conveying all sorts of household ideas, some of them on the far out side.

Long before her trial I saw internet funnies satirizing her, but the points were lost on me, and it was at that moment that my first shreds of sympathy for her were born. What was wrong with a little ingenuity and going over the top in the cupboard and on the buffet?

I think of her as being a Julia Childs with gimmicks, and who in their right mind would've hauled Julia Childs up in front of a judge?

What was Martha Stewart's trial about? What was the charge against her?

As near as I can make out, she got a hot tip that had some bearing on some of her stocks, and before the hammer could come down, she quickly sold what she had so as to minimize whatever loss she might otherwise have incurred.

I thought that was normal. I thought that was what everybody did. I thought that was what the smart money is supposed to do. I thought that everybody is forever looking for that inside edge, and that they seek it without much regard for others who might be holding the same stocks yet not be aware of the threat. I thought it was the duty of all stockholders to keep their eyes open and to look out for that little cloud on the horizon no bigger than a hand. Was she just supposed to sit there and lose half a mil? What true-blue red-blooded American acquisionist is going to do that?

I tried, but I failed to see where anything that M. Stewart is charged with doing hurt anybody else, and I thought that that was what justice is all about.

Her prosecutors intimate that she should be put under the jail because she lied during the investigation. But those "lies" look suspiciously like the sort of responses that any person of character would make in answering in kind to ridiculous questions and charges. Prosecutors and police often seem to think that the accused have a Constitutional duty to give answers to the wildest and most reckless accusations that will guarantee that they will be found guilty. Too often, justice comes in a poor second to racking up a good boxscore.

It does my understanding of this case no good to click on things in the Internet about Martha Stewart. Even a lot of what I would expect to be unbiased, straight news accounts carry a definite air of resentment toward this strong-minded and well-preserved and kind of cute woman of about 63, and that leads me to think that her main and only crime is that an unfathomable something caused her to be tried and found guilty in the public mind, and so that's it. Rhyme and reason don't enter into the matter. Apparently she is not generally liked. The news accounts paint her as being arrogant, and the public verdict, far beyond any court of law, is that an example should be made of her, though if arrogance were a crime, 93 percent of the population would be behind bars.

People suffer that kind of fate. Some public figures are loved and revered beyond all reason, long after the original reason -- if any -- has faded. The golfer Arnold Palmer comes to mind. And others are hated far beyond any possibility of redemption, though no good explanation can be given for this hatred, and that seems to be the knife edge on which Martha Stewart's fate is teetering.

It looks, however, as if at least a glimmer of fairness and reality is gnawing at the verdict that was rendered against her. A man who gave testimony harmful to her has been charged with perjury. Yet, like prosecutors everywhere who suffer the embarrassment of being caught bare-rumped by subsequent developments, hers are being quick to try to quash any notion of nullifying her guilty verdict and giving her another trial.

I don't think she should get another trial either. Instead I think the one that she already allegedly received should be declared null and void, and they should allow Martha Stewart to return to whatever in the world it is that she does.

Thursday, June 10, 2004


Patriotism, along with a person's sexuality and religion, should always be taken for granted. When a man waves his flag or his organ or his holy book, and especially any combination of those, loud alarms should immediately go off!

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Comments on Comments

I find it a daunting experience to read down through the threads on big weblogs like "Daily Kos" or "Atrios" or "Political Animal" when they have up to a hundred or more comments each. Often the word "thread" turns out to be a serious misnomer, as the thread of thought is soon lost, sometimes permanently, and the comments veer off now here, now there, taking so many different turns -- some entirely reasonable and others having no relationship to reason or to the original topic -- that they make my head swim.

It reminds me of a classic line by the great Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) : "He jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions."

I used to brave thrashing through those big threads anyway, more than I do now, because I was interested in the topic that they were supposed to have, even though that could be dumped overboard as early as the very first remark. But then I discovered what I call the "Dohiyi Mir" family -- Guy Andrew, Andante, Steve Bates, WoofWoof, and others -- and I go first to their more modest threads.

And at the bottom of that scale, now I have my own weblog, with few readers and comments at all.

These much calmer waters are not all bad. Many would call that lack of comments a deficiency. I don't really know how to correct it, and even if I knew, I doubt that I have it in me to do so . In fact, the condition might not be correctable, and I'm not even certain that it IS a deficiency.

I didn't seriously think of starting a weblog until I saw one called "Inanis et vacua." That, too, has a noticeable scarcity of comments, yet the guy there has been posting his very interesting thoughts for over a year without his brain having split apart with his lobes flying out of his skull in all directions. It is also only loosely "timely," and that's one of my things, too!

I suppose that someone could say that in my choice of posts here, I'm as inconsistent as those big threads. I can't talk politics every day, so I end up going wherever fancy takes me. But almost everyone does that -- except those people with a mission, like Juan Cole, Josh Marshall, and Riverbend. They don't have comments systems and thus commentors who might mess with their focus.

But if one's weblog is public, then it's good to have comments, because in that case it's all a matter of communicating.

Expressing is something else, and a tree that falls in the forest DOES make a sound. You can hear it best when you find the tree lying on the ground.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Between Believing and Knowing

When my wife and I moved from the city to the country years ago, a grizzled, salty, and (usually) very meritorious life-long resident of this area and his wife befriended us. He appreciated having new people around who would lend him an ear. Whenever he got to the end of one of his numerous stories and expositions, a twinkle would appear in his eye and he would say with great emphasis, "Now I'm not telling you what I think. I'm telling you what I know." And that was always the end of it.

One of the things that he knew was that the blue-tailed skinks (not skunks) that you see scurrying around here in the summer are extremely poisonous and can kill a person with one bite. He didn't have any evidence of that. He was just going on what one of his forebears had told him in ancient times, and so he would without hesitation smash every one of those harmless, beautiful, and ecologically handy little lizards that he saw. (They help to keep the wood roaches from becoming too ambitious.)

...In perhaps the most dramatic and eloquent chapter in his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides tells of how the Athenians landed on the neutral little island of Melos and demanded that they join the Athenian side. If they didn't, they could expect to receive the most extreme punishment.

The Melians must've been a proud, brave, and reckless bunch, because they answered that they recognized that the Athenians had become a superpower, but they preferred to keep their options open, and they would depend on the protection of the gods.

The Athenians responded with an expression of bluntness that in its eloquence has rung down to us through the ages:

"You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. ...In the gods we believe, but of men we know, that by a necessary law of nature they rule wherever they can."

Through the next three years the Melians put up a stout resistance, but in the end they were all but completely wiped out by the Athenians.

...How cruel and nonsensical it is that people dance on both sides of the difference between believing something and knowing it. When they decide on some aggressive, hurting action to get their way, any distinction between the two that they might've made previously disappears in the heat of their action, and thereafter there is no belief involved anymore, and everything is known. Through the millennia, millions have been put to the sword not on the basis of the sure knowledge of something but because of beliefs that rested on the flimsiest of grounds.

It ought to be a key part of the American Way that if we are considering attacking someone, we ought to do so only after putting the utmost effort into marshalling all the facts that we can, instead of shooting and killing first and then hoping to find the truth as we go along, or, more usually, letting the truth find us. Surely it is much better to expect young people to fight and risk death for things that are known rather than for things that are merely believed. It is even worse when they are ordered to do so, as in Iraq, for things that an aggressor U.S. President knows to be false, yet he demands that the public stow them away among its beliefs as unvarnished truths.

Monday, June 07, 2004

The Contestants in the Sandbox -- Yasser Arafat

GW Bush is not the leader of the U.S., and similarly Yasser Arafat is not the leader of Palestine. GWBush is just the figurehead of a coterie of mean-spirited people who were able to gain control of the apparatus of government due to the installation beforehand of like-minded men and women in several strategic places. And meanwhile, because it's not on the map, I define "Palestine" as being the West Bank, Gaza, various parts of Lebanon and Jordan, and in general any spot on which a Palestinian happens to be standing.

Neither Bush nor Arafat is a leader, period, that is, if traces of the atavistic concept of a "leader" still hold, when we think of what it means to be one.

By atavistic I mean harkening back to the hunters and warriors of pre-Sumerian times, as they proceeded through the forest or the desert, the steppe, the savannah. A leader was the warrior who decided who or what they would hunt that day. He picked the paths they would take, and he accepted the biggest risk by being the first in the file as he and his cohorts ventured through the known and the unknown. He hurled the first spear at both the charging buffalo and the enemy chieftain, and, as the battle raged, the others looked to him for guidance, and he received the biggest share of the spoils.

Yasser Arafat doesn't fit this definition in any respect, except for being the first man in the file. He loves that position but could do without the responsibilities and perils that it involves. Instead the best that can be said of him is that he's an opportunist. But what can you expect of a man who, alone among "world leaders," seems to have cultivated an image of intentional sloppiness?

It's true that the headware that so many Arab men wear looks like cloths that they have just snatched off an uncleared table in an aluminum diner, especially the red and white checked jobs, but Yasser Arafat swathes his noggin with a studied recklessness that goes above and beyond that sort of sartorial disarray, and his face perfectly matches, with those folds of flesh that appear to be in a state of near collapse, and the grin... Yasser Arafat has the smile of a man who is in a room in which everyone else is speaking Chinese, and he can't understand a word of it, yet he senses that they're having the time of their lives and he smiles, too, though just a shade less heartily, while praying that no one expects him to crack the next joke.

The Israelis are fond of referring to Arafat as an arch-terrorist.

The absurdity of that charge shoots holes in the rest of their contentions, because how can such an epitome of sloppiness with such an empty grin possibly be a terrorist, especially this late in the day? It is hard to imagine that there is an ounce of that hardness, that single-mindedness, that readiness to sacrifice one's self, and that craziness left in this man, if he ever had it in the first place.

What IS very believable is that Yasser Arafat does know quite well how to tell which way the wind is blowing and how to adjust his sails (but not his headdress) accordingly.

Thus he is merely going along for the ride on which the radical groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are taking him. They do certain things. He reacts in the way that the outside world expects of him, but internally he goes along with those groups because he has no control over them and because they have much more pull with the rest of the Palestinians than he does. His main asset is that he is a symbol. So if the Israelis want to call him a terrorist, it has to be okay with him. If it induces fear of him in the mind of one adversary, that's a gain in his mind, because otherwise he might only be regarded with pity.

Every time there is a suicide bombing in Israel, it would be easy as pie to sit down and write what will be reported in the news for the next week or so, before the world and the media once more lose interest in it. It is automatic and unvarying, to the point that I wonder why the Sharons themselves aren't by now supremely bored with the whole routine. They will barely mention the people who actually did the deed, and instead they will immediately direct all their ire at Arafat, first by condemning him for not doing anything to prevent the bombing, and following that by demanding that he prevent any other such acts that may be in the offing.

There is a grand cynicism at work there, the utility of which is hard to understand, unless it is that big bane of human beings -- laziness. How can Sharon et al expect Arafat to comply, when they know full well that he doesn't have that power, thanks in large part to them? It is the equivalent of screaming that a man is killing you, though in actuality he's lying flat on his back with both legs broken and you're standing over him with your foot crushing his neck.

The Sharons have killed off a number of Arafat's police after accusing them of being terrorists, too, and they are the only group that he could use to exercise a restraining hand on the militants. Meanwhile A. Sharon keeps Arafat personally bottled up, so that he has no freedom to move around and easily exert his supposed influence. And a third singularly cruel and effective method that Sharon and his helpers use to constrain Arafat is to keep reminding him, the Palestinians, and the world that they retain the option to kill him whenever they please, as they already have so many other well-known Palestinians.

Even if he could manage to sling on his kaffiyeh neater and demonstrate any ability to lead that he might have after all, Arafat can't, because for years he has been preempted on the one hand by the radical Palestinian groups and on the other by the Israelis. But he's been the most prominent Palestinian figure almost from the beginning, and he has to be congratulated for surviving this long -- including a near fatal plane crash in the Libyan desert -- and for having played a part in the miracle of the Camp David agreement, and for always being willing to wear the mantle and to take the risk of being seen as the leader of the Palestinians, in lieu of anyone else who might be better or at least as courageous or, if you will, foolhardy.

In that semi-strangled world in which somehow he continues to exist -- "function" wouldn't be the proper word -- Yasser Arafat keeps smiling and tries, unsuccessfully, to hide his apprehensions while waiting for what will come next, which in all likelihood will be a further humiliation and a further hard blow that he can't ward off, at the hands of those supposedly on his side and those who despise him. It is a world in which -- on the Israeli side as well -- while Arafat has endured, so many others have come, suffered their hard knocks and endless frustrations, and have departed.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Two Moments of Horror

It is relatively easy for tellers of big stories to supply good beginnings and middles. Effective endings are a very different matter. That's because human affairs are shaped like a sink from which the stopper is missing -- wide at the top but narrowing down at the bottom to the same inevitable conclusion for everyone. But sometimes the manner of that exit from life may be so striking that it's a struggle to depict all the preceding parts with equal effect. Anyone telling a story about Wild Bill Hickok faces that problem, and so did a French composer named Francois Poulenc when, in the middle 1950's, he wrote an opera called "Dialogues of the Carmelites," based on a true event from the French Revolution.

This opera focuses on a young woman named Blanche, who decides to renounce all her worldly states of mind to become a nun, and she applies to a group belonging to the order of the Carmelites. She draws close to the members of that group, but meanwhile those nuns have already run afoul of the Revolutionary government. Their group had been disbanded by the Revolutionaries four years earlier, but now they are accused of what was apparently considered to be among the worst of crimes, "living in a religious community." For that they are imprisoned in a convent. When they stubbornly insist on continuing to pursue their faith nevertheless, they are sentenced to death -- 16 of them in all.

Meanwhile Blanche has found that becoming a nun is not as easy as she had expected. She doubts the strength of her faith, and she leaves the cloister. But at the last minute, she discovers that her faith is indeed quite strong enough, and she rejoins the sisters -- in time for the executions.

In the final scene of "Dialogues of the Carmelites," the nuns are led offstage one by one, and you hear the sounds of their immediate beheadings. The nuns, unafraid and instead rejoicing in their martyrdom, leave this life singing, and you can hear the sound of the guillotine's blade dropping, and with the chopping off of each head, one more voice suddenly ceases, the volume of the singing drops slightly, and the orchestral background hesitates. But only for a moment. Then each time the singing surges forth once more, in powerful reaffirmation of their undying faith.

Finally only one small voice is left, that of Blanche, and then she, too, is dispatched, and we are left with just a few more bars of Poulenc's powerful orchestral comment.

I am not a sentimental or religious person, but of all the operas I have ever heard, the ending of this one alone brings tears to my eyes every time. It is the combination of the haunting music, the eerie singing of the doomed nuns as the totality of their voices gradually diminishes, the offstage sounds of the heads of the women being summarily lopped off, and just the thought that a group of nuns would be executed for ANY reason whatsoever.

If you will allow me a brief interlude of totally inappropriate levity between two moments of sheer horror that frankly are pretty heavy for me, the worst I have ever heard about nuns is that, if you go to a Catholic school, they will rap your knuckles with a ruler. From all that you hear (at least in the movies), you get the impression that that's the main thing that nuns do.

...Though his official trial hasn't begun yet, Saddam Hussein stands convicted of many crimes committed during his dictatorship, which lasted for a quarter of a century. But perhaps the climactic moment of his tenure as Iraq's ruler occurred not at its end but at its beginning.

It is recorded that around the time that he became the official leader of Iraq, in 1979 or thereabouts, 185 years after the events in Compiegne, France, he held a big meeting of the higher-ups in his ruling Ba'ath Party. At this meeting he said that a new day had begun and that he was determined to carry matters through with all the resolution at his command. To this end it was necessary to weed out all those in the party who hadn't been supportive of him. And while all the party members sat there in stunned silence and suspense, he read out the names of each one of those errant persons, and one by one they were escorted out of the hall and shot...immediately.

I don't know if Saddam Hussein and the lucky survivors could hear the rifle shots, or how many died.

I doubt that there was any singing, and Iraq has not yet produced a Francois Poulenc.